Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson

He studied the skyline around his house, looking hard at everything: Were things where and how he had left them?  Or had he introduced some small, slight change, 130 million years ago, a change that had made a different world?
I purchased Robert Chilson's 1976 novel Shores of Kansas because of its creepy waterbound dinosaur and axe man cover, the work of Mark Mariano.  (When I see a painting in which the feet are hidden I always wonder if it is because feet are so hard to draw--it's not every dauber who can grace the world with depictions of feet as convincing and charming as those of Edward Burne-Jones or William-Adolphe Bouguereau.)  Then I read Chilson's short story "People Reviews" and was impressed by how original and clever it was, which gave me high hopes for this novel.

It is the late 20th century.  It has been discovered that a tiny minority of people (about sixty in the whole world, we are told) have the ability to travel back in time!  Grant Ryal is the only one of these people who can travel back to pre-human times, and he has become rich and famous by bringing back film and specimens from the Mesozoic Era.  Instead of moving to New York and enjoying a life of lavish leisure (that is how I would play this scenario), Missouri country boy Grant has sunk all his wealth into starting the Chronographic Institute, an entity devoted to educating the public about life in the Age of the Dinosaurs.

Years ago I read Algis Budrys' famous Rogue Moon, and was disappointed that very little of the book focused on exploring the alien death labyrinth on Luna--most of the text was a lot of psychological relationship drama revolving around a guy trying to prove he was a real man or whatever.  Somewhat similarly, after that first thrilling battle scene, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers is mostly philosophical discussion (though I found Heinlein's philosophical talk far more interesting than Budrys' soap opera.)  Like those celebrated SF classics, The Shores of Kansas spends more time on relatively mundane dialogue and human relationship scenes than the life and death struggles on distant landscapes which attract most readers to these books in the first place.  Of the book's 13 chapters, only three and a half, that is, about 60 of its 220 pages, are spent in the Mesozoic.  Fortunately for us adventure-fiction-loving types, as with Starship Troopers, the adventure sequences are very good.

The bulk The Shores of Kansas is concerned with Grant's relationships with the management and employees at the Institute.  Chilson really harps on the fact that Grant is an honest country boy who sees things differently from the self-serving and manipulative executives and scientists whom he has had to hire to operate the Institute; they are obsessed with PR and office politics, while all Grant wants to do is educate the public about the past.  Much of Shores of Kansas reads like a mainstream novel about a self-made tycoon or a talented artist trying to maintain control of the enterprise he built with his own sweat, blood and genius, hounded by people riding his coattails.  There are lots of scenes about how, while Grant was in the prehistoric past collecting specimens and shooting film, Business Manager Martin, Institute Director Dr. Shackelford, and Director Dr. Adrian have been ignoring his orders, allocating more resources to PR than research, and doing elitist stuff like reserving parking spaces for the executive staff (Grant orders the names painted over but then has to do it himself) and moving the copy machine out of the conference room because it looked "vulgar" in there (Grant has it moved back.)  And lots of scenes about how the Institute needs money, and so pure research has to take a backseat to schemes to raise revenue.

There are also scenes with Grant's family--fiercely independent Missouri hillbillies--that give us an idea of where he came from, and lots of discussion of his relationships with women.  Now that he is famous women are always throwing themselves at him ("Before he became famous, he had never been popular; now even the wives of his best friends propositioned him...."); Grant is not comfortable with the "legend of the ax-wielding superstud" which has grown up around him.  He also resents an up and coming female time traveller, Marian Gilmore, whom Shackelford and Adrian are grooming with the hope that she will become the second person capable of traveling back to the Mesozoic and, as Grant's partner, double the Institute's production.

The main theme of the book is that Grant is an outsider; the only human being ever to have seen the Mesozoic, a hillbilly among college graduates, a rural MidWesterner forced to attend parties in New York and Washington and hobnob with the idle rich and the politically powerful.  In one chapter he finds himself the only white person among a community of blacks when he rematerializes in an African-American neighborhood after one of his trips back in time.  (The blacks prove more eager to help and more competent than any of the whites in the novel.)  This theme is most starkly reflected in Grant's fears that his expeditions are changing history (like in Ray Bradbury's immortal classic of dino-lit, "The Sound of Thunder"), that the 20th century he returns to is not the one he left. Upon returning he carefully scrutinizes the stars, road signs, the hills on the horizon, searching for little differences that might indicate he has returned to an altered future, a similar but alien world.  This is probably my favorite element of the book, Grant's feeling that he perhaps is in a world where he doesn't belong, not merely due accidents of birth, but because of his own choices.  This is a feeling I can identify with; I have paid but little attention to current pop culture for over a decade, and when I have to spend time in doctor's offices or grocery stores, or with my family or inlaws, and see 21st century TV shows or hear 21st century music and talk about sports or politics, I feel like I am an alien in a strange and unpleasant world.

(Early in the novel Chilson gives us a clue that indicates that Grant's world is not our own: he suggests that Theodore Roosevelt was assassinated.  In real life, Teddy survived an assassination attempt and died years later in his sleep.  This brief passage added a sense of unease to the whole novel, as, in the same way Grant scanned the landscape for clues he was in the wrong 20th century, I kept expecting to discover a second clue indicating what was different between my real world and Grant's.  A cool move by Chilson.)  

British hardcover edition
I was sort of expecting a sad or defiant ending, in which Grant died or elected to remain in the Mesozoic because he hated the 20th century.  Instead, in the last 35 pages of the book we learn all about Grant's secret sorrow (a failed relationship with a woman, Nona Schiereck) and he has a psychological breakthrough after getting seriously wounded.  He makes his peace with the 20th century, and starts an intimate relationship with Marian Gilmore, taking her back with him to share with her the pure natural life of the Mesozoic; we are lead to believe that they will live happily ever after, shuttling between both time periods.

I liked Shores of Kansas; it is probably about as good as we can expect a book about a dude fighting dinosaurs with an axe to be.  All the Mesozoic stuff (though I guess nowadays all the science would be considered wrong) is entertaining and the 20th century human drama isn't bad.  However, as they say, your mileage may vary: I perhaps need to include some trigger warnings for anyone considering reading this novel.  The novel's depiction of women (I guess based on crude Freudianism) is not exactly complimentary--they all want to have sex with Grant because he is famous, and are fascinated by the axe he carries with him because it is a phallic symbol.  There is also Grant's exasperated complaint about the way the news media covers women--our hero reads a newspaper article about Marian Gilmore and finds:
...a lengthy parenthesis here about how this would advance the attitudes of women towards themselves, etc., etc., the obligatory refrain over any woman who did anything.
If women's sexual desires are portrayed as shallow and simple, so are Grant's: it feels like he fell in love with Nona Schiereck and then Marian Gilmore simply because they have red hair.  (If I was Chilson's editor I would have suggested focusing a little less on the Institute's finances and a little more on Grant's love life.)  Also noteworthy is how Grant's standoffish attitude towards women leads to rumors he is gay--in a New York lavatory a homosexual wearing makeup and perfume makes aggressive advances, and Grant uses force to dissuade this ardent fan.

All in all, an enjoyable addition to the dino SF canon.  Seven out of ten pilfered sauropod eggs.  If I didn't already own way way too many books I haven't read yet, I would be interested in reading more of Chilson's work.


The page after the last page of text in my copy of Popular Library's The Shores of Kansas was torn out by a previous owner--jagged little remnants of it peek out at me from the gutter.  Though I would certainly like to see what sort of advertising was on this page, I think this vandalism is a sign of a life well-lived.  Maybe some SF fan ordered more books, using the page as a handy coupon.  Perhaps he or she tore it out to use as a shopping list on his or her next expedition to the local bookstore.  Or maybe the page was called into service as a makeshift notepad, and bore an address or phone number that opened the door to a new career or relationship for the book's owner.  Let's look on the bright side for once!    

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Yngling by John Dalmas

"You're a scoundrel, barbarian....But allowances must be made for barbarians, at least for those who are giants and great swordsmen who can look into the minds of others and speak across half a world and heal dirty wounds in three days."
Kelly Freas' interpretations of the Yngling character
In April I purchased a 1971 Pyramid printing of The Yngling by John Dalmas at a West Virginia flea market because I loved the Jeff Jones cover--the lithe limbs of the combatants and the moody colors spoke to me.  I even got into a conversation with the seller about Jones and Frank Frazetta.

The Yngling, a look at isfdb revealed, was first unleashed on the public as a serial, spread over two issues of Analog in 1969.  I have to admit I groaned when I saw the Kelly Freas covers for the novel's Analog and 1992 Baen appearances--is this novel some kind of a joke?  Based on Jones' painting I had signed up for a tragic tale of eldritch magic and brooding swordsmen driven by a black fate, not the playful romp promised by Freas' covers!  Well, let's see what The Yngling is really all about.

My copy, cover by Jeff Jones
It is several centuries in the future, and a plague ("the Great Death of 2105") has reduced humankind to a medieval culture and technology.  (I hate when that happens!  And if the fiction I talk about on this blog is any guide, this kind of thing happens all the time!)  Nils, a young man, is a member of a tribe of "neovikings" in Sweden, a trained warrior who has yet to see real combat. When he kills a man with his bare hands in a brawl he is exiled from Sweden and takes up a life of wandering.  Down in Denmark, where Nils finds they have a feudal aristocracy, our hero get arrested for poaching, but in recognition of his martial prowess (war is brewing), instead of being summarily executed Nils is mustered into the local lord's army.

The Yngling is a more or less traditional sword and sorcery story, but, perhaps to fit in at the hard-SF-focused Analog, and/or to appeal to editor John W. Campbell, who was famously obsessed with psychic phenomena, psionic powers stand in for the sorcery elements you'd find in a Conan story.  Nils turns out to not only be the strongest man and best swordsman in the land, but to have superior psychic powers; he is the first specimen of homo superior.  His powers first manifest themselves as prophetic dreams and a unique resistance to the mental attack of a marauding monster, and draw the attention of the secret network of "psis" who, like in a classic SF story by Van Vogt or Asimov, constitute a clandestine intellectual elite who pull strings from behind the scenes, manipulating European society so it evolves in what they consider the right direction.

The local lord's telepathic advisor trains Nils in how to use his mind powers, and then sends him on a mission: to kill the evil wizard--I mean the imperialistic psychic dictator--whose army and psi agents are expanding his power from his home base in the Middle East across Europe by the sword and by subterfuge.

Two of the 26 chapters of The Yngling are encyclopedia entries written long after the adventure story we are reading; one describes the neovikings and the other is a brief biography of the psionic dictator, Kazi the Undying, who was born in 2064 and is still around making trouble in Nils' own 29th century.  A genius scientist with no conscience, back in the 21st century Kazi invented a method to move his consciousness (Dalmas uses the word "ego") from one body to another, and then in the 22nd century he developed a means to put himself in a state of suspended animation.  For the last few centuries Kazi has been breeding people to provide perfect bodies for his ego to inhabit, as well as breeding an army of people he calls "orcs," a name he lifted from J. R. R. Tolkien.  (Meta!)

(Dalmas' mentioning of Tolkien's name led me to wonder if other elements of his novel were influenced by Lord of the Rings.  Nils, like Gandalf, is a guy with special abilities who travels around the West, trying to drum up resistance to a threat from the South and East, in the process confronting an important ruler's evil counsellor vaguely similar to Grima Wormtongue.  There is also the novel's structure; instead of wrapping things up fast after the climactic scenes that resolve the main plot, both The Yngling and Lord of the Rings have long denouements.)

Back cover of my copy
Nils makes his way into Kazi's court, where he witnesses the genius's extravagant cruelties, which include throwing people into the arena.  (If you are going to be an SF fan you have to accept that people are regularly going to get thrown into the arena, just as a matter of course.)  Instead of executing Nils out of hand, Kazi keeps the Swedish hero around, fascinated by his unique psychic powers and hoping to make use of his exemplary genes in his breeding programs.

Nils escapes, and helps unite the people of the snowy North and the steppes of Eastern Europe against the army of Kazi; the Scandinavians have a King Arthur-style prophecy about a "young one" ("The Yngling") from the past who will return in time of need and who must be obeyed, and Nils fits the bill.  Dalmas' 20-page description of the war between the Europeans and Kazi's orcs and Middle Eastern mercenaries is boring, little more than repetitive orders of battle ("The Danes and Frisians together had already started out with seventeen hundred knights....The next day Kuusta Suomalainen arrived with four hundred volunteers") and casualty figures.  The fighting is described in a distant, antiseptic way, totally devoid of drama; it's like a Wikipedia article about some war you never heard of and don't care about.  

After the Europeans have defeated the invading army the book has some 40 pages to go (my copy of The Yngling is 224 pages); this anticlimactic section chronicles Nils' rescue of his girlfriend from Turkish stragglers.  Feminists will be happy to hear that said girlfriend, herself a member of the psychic friends network, participates in her own rescue, hypnotizing a guard and decapitating him while he sleeps.  In the last paragraph of the novel she tells Nils of her premonition that humans who left the Earth on starships before the Great Death will return and wage war on the neovikings. Bummer!      

As I think my little summary makes clear, The Yngling is composed of all kinds of elements--post-apocalyptic world, the barbarian who is superior to the civilized man, psychic homo superior, secret elite societies, the arena, a prophecy--we have seen before.  A bigger problem is that the story lacks character, spirit, and style; it isn't full of broad jokes like Freas made me fear, but neither is it moody and grim like Jones lead me to hope.  It is pedestrian and bland; the villain, with his big ideas and abominable crimes, is the only thing in the book that pulses with life, but he has little screen time.  The Yngling isn't bad, but it is merely acceptable.  I don't regret the time I spent reading about Nils and Kazi, but neither do I have much interest in reading any of The Yngling's three sequels.

My copy of The Yngling has bound within it a green advertisement for the Science Fiction Book Club.  In 1971 new members would receive A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher, for only a dime.  Readers with eidetic memories may recall that I myself purchased the two volumes at a library book sale in April of 2015 for a dollar a piece.  (Inflation!)  From the pages of A Treasury of Great Science Fiction I have read over half a dozen short stories, including two by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, as well as John Wyndham's Re-Birth (alternate title: The Chrysalids.)  A bargain even at the painful $6.00 publisher's price!


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Six more from The Best of Barry N. Malzberg

Back cover of my copy
After a short break it is back to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, published in 1976 and containing 38 stories, all published in the 1970s, as well as lots of fascinating discussion of SF and the (genre) literary life.

Intro to "Revolution"

Back in 2011 Joachim Boaz and I both read "Revolution" in Future City so I am skipping it today.  You can read our efforts to figure it out at the link; much of the discussion is in the comments.

In the intro to "Revolution" in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg the author talks about and engages in SF criticism.  He praises Damon Knight, James Blish and Algis Budrys for their criticism, and laments that most SF readers don't take the genre seriously and don't care about criticism.  (It is not just SF readers who think criticism is a load of crap; flipping through T. S. Eliot's letters recently I found a 1922 quote from George Santayana in the footnotes to a letter from Eliot to Norbert Wiener dated 6 January 1915: "Criticism is something purely incidental--talk about talk--and to my mind has no serious value, except perhaps as an expression of the philosophy of the critic.")  Contra Santayana, Malzberg thinks that SF will stagnate without serious criticism.

Malzberg then lists whom he thinks are the best "modern" SF writers, splitting them into two categories.  Category 1 is "modern SF," and he crowns Robert Silverberg as the absolute best "modern writer of modern S-F."  "Running close behind" Silverberg are Thomas Disch, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and Fred Pohl.  Category 2 is "non-modern" SF, which he assures us is "not necessarily an inferior form."  The best "modern writer of non-modern S-F" is James H. Schmitz, with Poul Anderson a "close second."  What Malzberg means by "modern" in the two contexts in which he uses the word is not exactly clear.

I, and most readers of this blog, could probably spend hours disputing or defending these lists and puzzling over how Malzberg arrived at these rankings; readers should feel free to voice their opinions in the comments, but I don't have the energy to attack this thorny issue in this blog post today.

"Ups and Downs" (1973)

"Ups and Downs" was first published in Eros in Orbit, an anthology of SF stories about sex.  Malzberg jocularly mentions that there were two anthologies of science fiction stories about sex published in 1973; maybe he means Strange Bedfellows, which was published in late 1972?  (There is an ad for Strange Bedfellows in my copy of the April 1973 issue of F&SF.)

The year is 1996 and Jules Fishman is the sole astronaut on the first manned (or, as the feminists say, staffed) flight to Mars!  (Always down on the space program, Malzberg hints that the trip is an election year stunt meant to protect the incumbent.  Maybe in 2020 we'll be seeing a rocket of deplorables lifting off for the red planet.)  Jules unexpectedly finds a beautiful young woman is also aboard the rocket; this chick is incredibly horny and they have sex several times a day.  Jules begins neglecting his important duties, he is so busy engaging in what we like to call "horizontal refreshment."

Jules figures some kindly bureaucrat secretly requisitioned a woman for inclusion on the flight, to make the month-long (and that's just one way!) journey to Mars more comfortable.  Of course, we readers just assume Jules is going bonkers and hallucinating this woman.  Jules is sex-obsessed; in a funny flashback when he learns the trip will last two-and-a-half months total he worries that he won't be able to handle such a long period of abstinence--he is accustomed to having sex four or five times a week!
"What about masturbation?" I wanted to ask.  "Is this a plausible activity, or will the sensors pick up the notations of energy, the raised heartbeat, the flutterings of eyelids, the sudden congestion of my organ and beam all of it back to Earth to be decoded to a stain of guilt." 
I was a little disappointed that this one petered out at the end; Jules doesn't crash the rocket into Mars or Chicago or even Deimos or Phobos, which he thinks are artificial satellites built by a lost high-tech Martian civilization.  The real climax of the story is when he tries to develop a real human relationship with the woman on the ship, asking her her name, what her childhood was like and about her dreams and so forth, and she refuses to tell him anything.  Is Malzberg doing that Proust thing (you can never really know another person) or that feminist thing (men only care about women as sex objects and treat them as mere commodities)?  Maybe both?  Either way, "Ups and Downs" is pretty good.

"Bearing Witness" (1973)

In his intro Malzberg compares "Bearing Witness," first published in Flame Tree Planet and Other Stories, to "Track Two," which appears later in this volume and which I read and blogged about in February of 2015.

A man, not a Catholic himself, thinks he has detected signs that Judgment Day and the Second Coming are imminent, so he tries to get an audience with Catholic authorities, hoping for advice.  The priesthood and Catholic administrative apparatus, whom Malzberg depicts as more interested in bread and butter politics than the spiritual world, try to ignore and avoid the narrator.  On the last page of this three-page story the narrator climbs atop an automobile and addresses a crowd of people in the street, believing himself to be the risen Christ.

I'm bored with stories that offer shallow criticisms of Christianity, and this story felt like a trifle to me.  (I am an atheist, and as a youth I took the line that religion was a menace because it filled people's minds with a lot of nonsense.  Then I went to college and realized that people eagerly fill their minds with any kind of nonsense that comes to hand, and of all the nonsense available in the 20th and 21st centuries, Christianity and Judaism are among the most benign.  As I get older and older I find myself more and more in the position of what you might call a Christian sympathizer.)  Acceptable, but perhaps the weakest yet story in this collection.

Intro to "At the Institute"

I'm skipping "At the Institute" because I read it in 2015 (the same day I read "Track Two," it appears.  Reading that old blog post is fun because in it I express my fervent hope of owning a copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, and now, over a year later, I do.  Dreams can come true, kids!) 

In his intro to "At the Institute" Malzberg talks a little about these stories of his in which people get therapy by having a machine facilitate the experience of vivid and crazy dreams, and how such devices are very plausible, considering recent scientific developments.  He cites SF writer Peter Phillips as being one of the first people (in the 1948 Astounding story "Dreams are Sacred") to use this literary conceit.

"Making it Through" (1972)

In the intro to this one Malzberg commends his friend, editor Roger Elwood, and his uncle, Dr. Benjamin Malzberg, author of such works as Mental Disease among Jews in Canada and The Mental Health of the Negro.  For decades Dr. Malzberg was Director of Research and Statistics at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.

In case you were wondering, I have an uncle who worked in a machine shop.  I worked in machine shop myself for a little while; I didn't find all that noise and all those dangerous blades and drills very congenial.

"Making it Through" appeared in Elwood's And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire and Other Science Fiction Stories and brought to mind Malzberg's "Out of Ganymede," which I should probably reread.  Our narrator is the second-in-command of the crew of a two-man mission to Jupiter.  Jupiter is inhabited by arthropods who emit a ray which drives humans insane; they have already driven batty the crews of three ships.  The Earth wants to take over Jupiter, and so the narrator and his Captain are flying a specially shielded ship loaded with atomic bombs--their mission is to exterminate the arthropods.  The Captain goes insane and wants to turn back and use the nuclear weapons on his fellow humans; when the narrator ties him up, the Captain claims they are on a mission to merely study the arthropods, that the weapons are just a last ditch self-defense measure; the Captain insists it is not he but our narrator who is insane!

The narrator nukes Jupiter, and then wonders if perhaps the entire human race might be insane, and the ray of the Jovian arthropods their charitable effort to cure us!  

I like it.
"Tapping Out" (1973)

"Tapping Out" first appeared in Future Quest, an anthology aimed at kids.  In his intro to the story Barry muses that "juvenile" SF may actually have a bigger audience and influence than "adult" SF, and, citing "the phenomenal works by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s," considers the possibility that the best SF has been written in the juvenile category.

This story has almost the same plot as "On Ice," but with less rape and incest.  (Nota bene: "Less" does not mean "zero.")  A 17-year old boy has a mental problem, so his parents pay a packet of money to get their kid hypnodream therapy.  In the therapy sessions he murders his father and his therapist and "has his way" with a girl.  The therapist says that, since he is using the sessions as recreation rather than therapy, that hypnotherapy treatment will be ceased and the narrator sent to a conventional hospital.

This story is alright, but lacks the layers of meaning and the extreme sex and violence that make "On Ice" so remarkable.  It's like "On Ice" with training wheels!

"Closed Sicilian" (1973)

Whoa, Barry got the cover illo!
In his intro to this story, which first appeared in F&SF, Malzberg talks about fiction about chess.  He praises Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense (the edition I read was just called The Defense) as a "great work of literature."  He also admits that he'd rather be a professional chess player or symphony violinist than a writer, reminding me of the section on Malzberg in Charles Platt's Dream Makers, in which Platt experiences Malzberg's poor chess playing and painful violin scraping.

(Jokes about violins always make me think of Jack Benny, of course, and the portion of Casanova's memoirs in which Casanova is a violinist--Volume 2, Chapters VI and VII, in the Trask translation covers this period, I think late 1745.  This is also the period of Casanova's life in which he suffers and perpetrates many outrageous practical jokes; in Chapter X, in 1747, Casanova even digs up a corpse as part of a joke.)

I read "Closed Sicilian" in my copy of The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg back in 2011 and wrote two lines about it in my Amazon review of that collection.  I thought it was one of the better pieces in that collection, and in his intro Barry suggests it is one of his most successful stories, so I decided to reread it today.  

It really is one of Malzberg's better stories, tight and with real human feeling. Professional chess players, former childhood friends, are engaged in an important match before a large audience.  Through flashbacks we learn of the narrator's life, his relationship with his opponent and how, over the years, his obsession with chess lost him his humanity and apparently his sanity--he believes that this big match will determine the outcome of a war between the human race and evil aliens, and that his friend is a traitor to Earth, playing for the aliens.

"Closed Sicilian" would be expanded into the novel Tactics of Conquest.

"Linkage" (1973)

In his intro to "Linkage" Malzberg discusses the fact that (he says) literary critics dismiss science fiction as merely the "grandiose versions of the fantasies of disturbed juveniles;" while SF claims to be investigating possible human futures it is in fact childish "power fantasies."  Barry offers a very tepid defense of SF, admitting that (in his opinion) most SF is severely lacking in "literacy and technique," even if much SF does present valid ideas.

"Linkage," first presented to the public in the anthology Demonkind, is four pages long and feels like a response to such stories as Jerome Bixby's famous "It's a Good Life" and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore stories like "Absalom" and "When the Bough Breaks," stories about children with super powers who represent the next stage of human development and may very well be a menace to us poor homo sapiens.  The narrator of "Linkage" is an 8-year-old kid who has been put into an insane asylum because he claims to have psychic abilities that allow him to do anything (like the kid in "It's a Good Life") and to have been visited by people from the future who tell him he is the first of a new human species, homo superior, (like in "When the Bough Breaks.")  Of course, this being a Malzberg story, the narrator is obviously insane and obviously has no superpowers.

"Linkage" has what I am considering a shock twist ending--I think it is one of the very few Malzberg stories which may actually have a happy ending!  In the last paragraph we receive hints that the narrator is going to start cooperating with his therapist and abandon his delusions about future aliens and mental powers!  Of course, the waters are a little muddy, with Malzberg leaving open the possibility that the kid is going to pretend he is cured simply to escape the asylum and have sex and start propagating the superior race of whom he is the first, but I think I am going with the happy ending interpretation, because it is such a surprising departure for Malzberg.

Not bad, but not as fun and exciting as the apparent source material, the three stories I cited by Bixby and Kuttner and Moore.  So much of the culture of my lifetime is mockingly or dismissively derivative--South Park and The Simpsons lift memorable elements or entire plots from other works in order to goof on them, classic legends and iconic pop culture stories are retold with a diversity reshuffling of the main characters--but the new work rarely matches the power of the original, and often feels petulant or lazy.


I respect Malzberg and enjoy his work, but there is a limit to how many stories narrated by insane people I can take in a short period of time, especially since Malzberg isn't the kind of writer who writes in different voices or tones; there is a sameness to his work that can become monotonous.  So, time for an extended break. The next few episodes of MPorcius Fiction Log will cover adventure capers which (I hope) feature dinosaurs and people fighting with swords.  But don't worry, Malzberg fans, barring sudden death on the road we'll get back to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.   

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Three stories from Far-Out People: Kris Neville, William F. Nolan & Michael Fayette

The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which I started talking about in my last blog post, contains page after page of very interesting SF criticism from Malzberg, an expert on SF history.  In the book he recommends Kris Neville's 1971 version of "The Price of Simeryl," which was printed in the anthology The Far-Out People.  I decided to read "The Price of Simeryl," and, while I was at it, two other stories from The Far-Out People, one by William F. Nolan and one by Michael Fayette.

"The Price of Simeryl" by Kris Neville (original publication date 1966, this revision 1971)

I've read (I think) seven Neville stories in the past, and generally have had a positive reaction.  Let's see how I feel about this one, which first appeared in Analog.  According to The Far-Out People's publication page, the version I am reading is a revision.

Planet Elanth was colonized by humans less than 100 years ago, and they got problems!  A "Third Secretary in State," Raleigh, is sent from the administrative center of the vast space Federation to Elanth to investigate.  We follow his investigation, as well as the efforts of the human leadership of Elanth to convince Raleigh to approve a loan and arms sale to Elanth, and to keep certain facts a secret from Raleigh.

Most of this 41-page story consists of conversations during which politicians and bureaucrats all are trying to put something over on each other and the public.  I guess the story is largely an attack on imperialism and colonialism and racism as well as government callousness and ineptitude; the fact that the human colonists on Elanth call the native Elanthians "gooks" is presumably supposed to make you think of the Vietnam War, while the plot element mentioned in the title, the drug Simeryl, I guess is meant to remind you of the Opium Wars.  The native Elanthians are mysterious; they have a stone age culture and technology, and "live in harmony with the environment," as so many natives in SF stories do.  Their religion or philosophy or whatever compels them to help others, and so they have become an indispensible part of the human colonists' economy, volunteering to do heavy labor on farms and building roads.  Decades of human influence has messed up the Elanthian ecology, leading to fewer volunteers, and efforts to repair the environment and keep the Elanthians on the farm by addicting them to Simeryl have only made things worse. When Raleigh arrives things have reached the point where the human colonials are suffering painful price rises due to inflation and seeking weapons to defend themselves from an expected native revolt.

When Raleigh gets back to the administrative center of the Federation of Star Systems he tells the First Secretary in State to send neither money nor weapons to Elanth, to just let the human colonists all die.  The colonists, he says, have been driven insane by contact with the superior culture of the Elanth natives.  The taxpayers' money should be used instead to help the natives recover from the malign effect of contact with the human race!

Neville structures the story like a whodunit, so we get 40 pages of chatter with vague clues and then on the last page Raleigh issues his harsh verdict and diagnosis, that the human colonists "...bumped into a superior culture in the Elanthians and this gave them a horrible inferiority complex...."  The text doesn't really make it that all that clear that the colonists are insane or that the natives are so superior.  I'm not sure whether we are supposed to see Raleigh as a kind of Sherlock Holmes genius who perfectly reads all the clues and agree with his opinions and policies, or suspect he and the First Secretary are just as callous and insane as the thousands of colonists they are consigning to death.

I find these noble savage stories, and stories in which we are supposed to side with the aliens against the humans, a little hard to take.  In this one we barely even get to see the natives and assess how great they are; Raleigh only has a single brief interview with one of them.  (It is hinted that the Elanthians once had an urban technological civilization and abandoned it; maybe that is our signal that they are awesome. I must to say, I had to abandon the urban civilization called Manhattan for the Middle West and I don't feel very awesome about it.)  After some thought, I'm deciding that "The Price of Simeryl"'s ambiguity and mysteriousness make it better than the more straightforward pro-alien/anti-human stories you get from a guy like Chad Oliver, king of the anthropologist-goes-native-among-primitive-tribes story.  I am judging "The Price of Simeryl" acceptable, but I think it is worse, and less thought-provoking, than other Neville stories I have read.

"Papa's Planet" by William F. Nolan (1968)

In early 2015 I read four stories by Nolan and didn't think they were a very big deal. Maybe this one, first printed in Playboy, will put me firmly in the pro- (or anti-?) Nolan camp.

Or maybe not.  This is a four page gimmick story.  A pair of newlyweds goes to a planet dedicated to memorializing the life of Ernest Hemingway.  All the famous sites of Hemingway's adventures, Paris and Pamplona and all that, are reproduced and inhabited by robots.  The wife falls in love with an F. Scott Fitzgerald robot and abandons her husband.

This is exactly the sort of story a cynical person would expect to see in Playboy, the kind of story which tells the reader "You're not just a creep who bought this magazine to look at girls' boobs, you are an educated sophisticate who recognizes the names 'Ernest Hemingway' and 'F. Scott Fitzgerald' and bought this magazine to look at girls' boobs."   Acceptable, I guess.

"Savior Sole" by Michael Fayette (original publication date 1970, this revision 1971)

Fayette has only three credits on isfdb.  This story first appeared in Robert Hoskins' anthology Infinity One.  A year later Hoskins included it (in a revised version) in The Far-Out People.  Reduce, reuse, recycle.

I am totally loving this Steranko cover.
This is one of those stories in which half the stuff that happens is probably just the main character's hallucinations.  (Am I crazy, or do I read lots of stories like this?) It is also one of those New Agey stories which includes lots of poetry-like repetition and a dictionary definition (of  "lonely") in the text.

What I think happens is this: in order to preserve the human race against a catastrophe the U. S. government puts three hundred and fifty people in suspended animation in an underground bunker.  Also in the bunker is an Air Force chaplain; he is to reanimate everybody if he sees a red alarm light come on.  This will only happen if the entire human race on the surface is exterminated.

After living five years alone in the bunker the chaplain goes insane.  He starts thinking the corpsicles are up and about, having parties.  He falls in love with a young woman and deactivates her suspended animation equipment so he can grope her naked body.  This tampering with the equipment causes her to die (Fayette graphically describes how she bloats up and decays and so forth.)  In the end of the story the red light turns on...or does it?

This story just kind of sits there, neither offensively bad nor memorable or interesting, mere filler.  At least it is short, nine pages.  Barely acceptable.


Three lukewarm stories: the fully formed but mediocre Neville and then two pointless, half-baked, gimmicky pieces.  It is more fun to read stories that are really good (obviously), and more fun to write about stories that are truly bad that give me a chance to enumerate problems and vent my frustration than to deal with these kinds of blah stories.  Well, that's life, I guess.

In our next episode we'll tackle more material from The Best of Barry N. Malzberg; no doubt Barry will inspire more excitement than did today's three writers.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Six 1970s stories from Barry Malzberg

I recently was thrilled to discover, at Karen Wickliff Books here in Columbus, Ohio, a copy of Pocket Books' 1976 paperback, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  This book is huge, over 400 pages, and I love the nude idealized Everyman cover.  It's time to crack open this baby and try to grok the first third or so!

The introduction to the volume, dated "February 1974 : New Jersey" (MPorcius's home state!) is full of interesting info on the publishing industry and the life of the professional literary man in the 1960s and '70s.  Some will find Malzberg's bragging that he is the most prolific (70 novels written in 9 years, over 200 short stories in seven years) and best ("there are a few contemporaries in my field who are better novelists than I....but none to whom I will defer as a short-story writer") living writer and editor ("I set records that old-timers still talk about...twenty-two short stories rejected in a morning!") off-putting, but I find this kind of extravagance amusing, and Malzberg leavens his boasting with a big dollop of self-deprecation and a heavy sauce of tragedy.  The most important thing to take from the intro, I believe, is that Malzberg thinks of himself as a literary writer (he hints that Philip Roth was a kind of model for his young self) but, as the literary market had dried up and literary people are envious jerks, his only way of realizing a career as a working writer was to cater to the genre market, especially the science fiction market.  (Don't forget the sleaze market, though!)

"A Reckoning" (1973)

Malzberg writes an intro to each of the 38 stories in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  In the intro to "A Reckoning" he gushes about how much he loves Cyril Kornbluth's work.  (Malzberg says in the introduction to this volume that "ninety percent" of science fiction writers are "hacks" and that few SF writers can "write at all;" nevertheless I often find him extravagantly praising individual SF writers, including ones like Mack Reynolds whom I think are pretty mediocre.)  Malzberg picks out "The Marching Morons" for praise.  I am a Kornbluth skeptic, and in particular thought "Marching Morons" was bad, and I'm not the only one!  Well let's see what "A Reckoning," which Malzberg tells us is "a pastiche" of the work of Kornbluth, whom he calls "a brother," is all about.

"A Reckoning"'s seven pages are a preliminary report, a sort of summary or prospectus of a much larger report, from a researcher who is finishing up a study of an astronaut, Antonio Smith, who has been lost while penetrating the atmosphere of Jupiter.  The researcher declares that Smith was insane, but it is clear to the reader that the researcher himself is also likely insane.  He claims that he has documents that rival investigators have no access to, has put an explosive booby trap on the documents to dissuade other researchers from getting them, and, furthermore, is in psychic contact with the lost spaceman.  I liked how, like one of the Samuel Johnson's numerous early biographers, the narrator is rushing to get his work published before that of his rivals, whom he calls a bunch of liars.

Malzberg writes again and again about astronauts who are insane, and much of his work takes up the theme that the space program is somehow doomed, either a total waste or literally a threat to humanity.  "A Reckoning" is in this vein; we learn (should the researcher and/or Smith be believed) that Jupiter is inhabited and the visit from Antonio Smith is going to trigger the conquest of Earth by these Jovians.

"A Reckoning" is exactly what we expect from Malzberg; I haven't read The Falling Astronauts or "Out From Ganymede" in years, but "A Reckoning" feels like a condensed version of elements from both of them.  (I'm going to admit I have no idea how this story has anything more in common with a Kornbluth story than does any other Malzberg story.)  It would be easy to criticize Malzberg for doing the same thing again, but I liked seeing its various classic Malzbergian ideas in this concentrated form, so "A Reckoning" gets a thumbs up from me.

("A Reckoning" first appeared in New Dimensions 3 under the title "Notes Leading Down to the Conquest."  Tricky!)

"Letting It All Hang Out" (1974)

In his intro to "Letting It All Hang Out" our man Barry describes how much trouble he had getting this one sold.  It finally appeared in an issue of Fantastic as "Hanging," and, Barry tells us, appears in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg slightly revised.  He also tells us it could have been written by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is one of those important literary writers I know nothing about.

"Letting It All Hang Out," six pages, is a satirical fantasy that suggests that contemporary cliches like "freak out" and "give me five" are actually composed by a guy sitting in an office somewhere.  Every day a messenger comes by to collect the "eight to ten typewritten pages" of new cliches, reminding me of the messenger boys who would come to whatever tavern or rich guy's house at which Samuel Johnson was hanging out to collect copy for the latest issue of The Rambler just before deadline.  The plot of the story concerns the messenger telling the cliche writer that he is being laid off.

I like it.

Introduction to "The Man in the Pocket"

I'm skipping the next story, the sixty page "The Man in the Pocket," because it was integrated into the novel, The Men Inside, which I read and wrote about in 2011. Malzberg's introduction to the story is interesting; he considers that The Men Inside is one of the least read of his novels because it is "not precisely upbeat."  Well, Joachim Boaz and I read it with some care, so, Barry, consider that all your labor on it was worth it!

"Pater Familias" (1972)

This is a collaboration with Kris Neville, and in his intro to the story Malzberg gushes about how great Neville is.  He recommends in particular Neville's "Ballenger's People," which I read in February of 2015, "Cold War," which I read in January of 2015, and "The Price of Simeryl," which I own (in The Far-Out People) but haven't read yet.  "Pater Familias," which Barry informs us is a failed story of his which Neville heavily revised, first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In the late 1990s a machine will be available for sale that lets you summon your parents from the past for just a few minutes. Why just your parents? Why just a few minutes? This story feels pretty contrived, but is self aware of how contrived it is.

Anyway, the story's narrator, who had a very bad relationship with his father, buys one of these devices and summons his dead father a few times for a chat. Their conversations go so poorly that the narrator's father whips out a knife (he carries it with him to protect himself from the draft rioters endemic to 1988) and kills himself. The next time the narrator summons his father, his rotting corpse appears.  Soon after, the government outlaws the machine.  (I was instantly reminded of that Carter Scholz story I just read--is 1970s SF chockablock with calls for greater government regulation of time travel?)

When I read it I thought this four-page story a little slight, but now that I am reliving "Pater Familias," so to speak, as I write about it, I am laughing, so, thumbs up.

"Going Down" (1975)

Years ago Joachim Boaz and I both read the Malzberg stories from Future City, including the dystopian "Culture Lock," in which the government forces everybody to participate in homosexual orgies.  (At the link is Joachim's blog post on Future City, where we both air our opinions and theories about "Culture Lock," as well as a good Lafferty story, "The World as Will and Wallpaper;" my contributions appear in the comments.)  Well, here is another dystopian Malzberg piece with homosexuality as a theme.  "Going Down" first appeared in the anthology Dystopian Visions, and would later be included in the 1984 anthology Kindred Spirits: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction. 

You might call "Going Down" a character study. Our narrator (who suffers from dissociative disorder and sometimes talks about himself in the third person) was born on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was murdered, and strongly identifies with the young monarch of America's Camelot, even indulging in the fantasy that Kennedy's soul passed into his infant body on that fateful day.  As he grows older the narrator is disappointed in his life; he sees JFK as a man who fulfilled all of his desires, while he himself is a failure, a stifled man who works at a government welfare agency where he deals with violent and grasping public assistance cases who browbeat him.

The 1980s and '90s depicted in the story include some crazy elements; for example, the Kennedy clan is worshipped by the masses--on "Kennedy Day" government employees are required to attend a weird ceremony in which dancers reenact the Dallas assassination and a giant image of JFK's face ("sixteen feet high") is hoisted into the air.  (I thought Malzberg was trying to construct parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and the JFK assassination, with JFK as a Julius Caesar figure; it is implied that JFK's brothers and/or son become president, forming a dynasty, or at least that American presidents take the name of "Kennedy" the way the Roman emperors took the name "Caesar.")

In hopes of becoming the man he would like to be, the narrator pays a considerable sum of money for therapy at an "Institute."  Several of the short chapters of this at times fragmented and oblique 22-page story are internal correspondence penned by Institute personnel.  The narrator receives a sort of hypnotic dream therapy which allows him to experience, as if they really happened, his desires to have anal sex with young boys, adult men, and animals.  The good people at the Institute also throw murder and incest into the mix; this story is full of violent gay sex.  There are also characters who may be real, may merely by products of the therapy or the narrator's insanity, or metaphorical representations of portions of the narrator's psyche, or some combination thereof.  Does the therapy work?  I guess that depends on your perspective; the narrator does not achieve his dreams of being "satisfied in every orifice," like his hero JFK, but the therapy does seem to calm him down ("He feels nothing.")  Something like a lobotomy or a neutering, perhaps?

Crazy and potentially offensive in any number of ways (it seems to both render conventional and to pathologize homosexuality), "Going Down" is absorbing, and I think better than most of the Kennedy-related Malzberg stories I have read.  I also appreciated how it had a recognizable plot arc, actual characters, and memorable images, things we don't always get from our wild and crazy buddy Barry.
"Those Wonderful Years" (1973)

This is a pretty mainstream literary story on the theme of how the past can serve as a stable foundation but also as an albatross that can hold you back if you become too attached to it.  The narrator is an insurance claims investigator who is not only obsessed with old pop music ("golden oldies"), but actually lives his life with a deliberate effort to create memories for which he can be nostalgic in the future.  His relationship with his girlfriend, who thinks the nostalgia craze is a government plot to distract people from the problems of the present, collapses when she insists he make a serious commitment to her and start "living in the now."  Malzberg suggests that the girlfriend is like one of the accident victims whose claims he has been able to deny by scrupulous investigation of the facts and following of the rules, that the narrator's commitment to his values has lead him to lack compassion and charity and fail to support others when he might have.  Is it possible that this man who is obsessed with happy memories is actually piling up a bunch of regrets?

Not bad.  "Those Wonderful Years" was first published in Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives, the cover of which depicts a naked girl in an egg with a giant frog.  (You may recall that I own a copy of Frontiers 2: The New Mind, the cover of which depicts a naked man with his arm chopped off.)   

"On Ice" (1973)

In his intro to the story Malzberg says "On Ice" is probably the most controversial story ever published in Amazing.  "Letters were violent for months afterward," he relates, and admits that it "pains" even him to reread it!

"On Ice" uses the same conceit as "Going Down," which would appear two years later. (Maybe I should have read these stories in chronological order?  Well, in the intro to the volume Malzberg warns us that some took years to sell, so publication order doesn't match the order in which they were composed, so probably it doesn't matter.)  There is an Institute where you can get hypnotherapy which gives you the experience of having sex with whoever you want, including your parents.  The first paragraph of the six-page tale is a graphic depiction of a guy having sex with his mother! (You have to retch or laugh, or both, at lines like "'Give it to me, son!' she shrieks....")

The use of the therapy in this story parallels the issue of drugs in real life, and seems also to be some kind of lament about money and how it (according to Malzberg) corrupts people and society.  The therapy, of course, is supposed to be used sparingly to cure the patient of psychological problems, but the narrator uses it as recreation.  A doctor warns him that he may become addicted, but the narrator, accurately, asserts that the Institute will keep giving him his fix as long as he pays, that they care more about money than actually helping people.  I detected a possible caricature of libertarian ideology in the story, as the narrator repeatedly talks about how he is "free," thanks to his wealth and society's technological developments, to do whatever he wants as long as he isn't hurting anyone.  In the last therapy session in the story the narrator eagerly indulges in a scenario in which he rapes and tortures the ineffectual doctor who tried to get between him and his pleasure.

This is a graphic, shocking piece of work, and it is easy to see why it would be controversial.  But I don't think it is gratuitous; it is economical, has a provocative point of view, and is effective.


I don't want to sound like a fanboy, but I have to admit that all six of these stories, and all the introductory material, are good.  I'm even more pleased than before to have got my hands on a copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg; this is a must for all Malzberg fans and for those interested in literary SF from the '60s and '70s.  And I still have over 250 pages to go!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

1977 stories by George Alec Effinger, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Carter Scholz

Fellow SF fan R. R. Nurmi,
we salute you!
It's Part Two of our look at Terry Carr's Universe 7, an all original anthology from 1977.  I own a hardcover copy of the book club edition which was formerly in the library of Des Moines resident R. R. Nurmi.  I own several volumes from the Nurmi library, including Anthony Boucher's A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

"Ibid." by George Alec Effinger

I know there are Effinger fans out there.  Well, here is where I tell you people that you have to buy a copy of Universe 7 because it is the one and only place where "Ibid." has appeared.

This is a decent Twilight Zone-style story that touches on Cartesian philosophical issues (can we trust any of our sense impressions?) and the question of whether life has any meaning if we cannot be confident of our knowledge of the outside world (if we can't tell if friends and family really like us or if our work is truly valuable, why not just become a slacker, a drunk or a suicide?)

Cathy Schumacher is an academic who suddenly finds messages directly addressed to her in academic journals, students' papers, supermarket celebrity magazines, even the local TV news!  Is she going insane?  Are mysterious eldritch forces aiding her? Tormenting her?  These bizarre problems are piled on top of more ordinary problems Schumacher is facing, the kinds of problems faced by many (most?) ordinary people: her work (teaching uninterested students about English literature) seems pointless and her daughter and husband are distant--he in fact may be having an affair.  Her response to these problems, revealed on the final page of the story?  Taking up alcoholism!

I like "Ibid."'s structure and themes, and the style is fine.  For a while I thought it should be more scary--the story doesn't transmit to the reader a sense of horror, it is a bit cold and clinical.  (If I opened up a supermarket tabloid and saw a headline that read "Hey, MPorcius, look out!") I'd probably just die right there on top of my cart full of Count Chocula and Ovaltine.)  But thinking further on the story, I have decided that it is less about the heavy kind of cosmic horror represented by the impossible messages, the kind of horror that drives people in H. P. Lovecraft stories insane, and more about one of the quotidian sadnesses of life, that we cannot have any confidence that those whom we love love us in return, the kind of sadness represented by Schumacher's relationships with her daughter and husband, the kind of sadness we see in Proust.  Because this sadness is so common, is experienced by so many of us, a low key tone makes sense, and keeps the story from descending into soap opera melodrama.  


"The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" by Gene Wolfe

I don't have to tell you that Wolfe is widely regarded as the best SF writer of all time and all that.  I read "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" in my copy of Storeys from the Old Hotel years ago, and here I go again.  This story must be highly regarded, it having been included in the Tor 2009 collection Best of Gene Wolfe.

It is centuries in the future!  The human race is reduced to a kind of Early Modern technological and political level, though educated people have knowledge of the computers of the past and can identify weather satellites in the night sky.  Perhaps to evoke thoughts of the Thirty Years War as well as Cold War fears of a NATO vs Warsaw Pact ground war, the story is set in Germany and people fling around references to Burgermeisters and have names like Hans and Gretchen and Karl.  A war with the Russians is underway, and has been for a long time; soldiers and deserters are everywhere, and in the distance can be heard the thunder of siege guns.  

A man comes to the village of Oder Spree who claims to own the sole surviving operable computer, a computer devoted to playing chess!  After the machine is demonstrated, an academic purchases it for the University, only to find the machine is a scam (much like the late 18th-century "Turk" automaton which captured the imagination of Europe and played such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte); a skinny mutant, a genius chess player with an oversized brain, hides inside the machine to make the moves.  The mutant falls in love with a local blue-eyed blonde and decides he wants to stay in Oder Spree; to this end he conspires with the academic to get his money back from the con artist, but a terrible tragedy results from their desperate plan.

Very good.  You've heard me praise Wolfe before, so you won't be surprised to hear me say the story is economical, full of memorable images, pulls at the heart strings, has clever foreshadowing, interesting premises, and a puzzling mystery.  Shall I voice my theory regarding the mystery?  Of course I will!  The mystery is that the chess-playing machine, to the surprise of the double-crossing scam artists, seems to start working on its own.  Now, Wolfe is a Christian who believes in the supernatural, so it is not impossible that we are to suspect that the machine is animated by ghost or deity as a means of punishing the sinful cheaters who callously put the blonde woman's life at risk.  A related possibility (one the unnamed narrator puts forward, but remember that Wolfe is famed for his use of unreliable narrators) is that the mutant has telekinetic abilities even he doesn't understand--it is his own guilty conscience that brings the antiquated machine to life.  But my favored theory (reflecting my cold-hearted materialism, perhaps) is that the machine is being used in strong sunlight for the first time in a long time (Wolfe mentions the sun and bright sky more than once) and the sunlight has recharged the computer's batteries via unremarked upon solar cells, allowing it to operate as it did a hundred or more years ago.

Like I often do with Wolfe stories, I read it twice in one day, enjoying it both times. Highly recommended.          
"Brain Fever Season" by R. A. Lafferty

This story is, according to isfdb, the final installment of a series of stories called "Men Who Knew Everything."  The story is a little opaque; maybe I would have had an easier time "getting" it if I had read some of the previous stories in the series.

The story's characters are immortal and eccentric geniuses who manipulate the world from behind the scenes.  Significantly, they "set up" the equator and the four seasons. The idea behind this story is that there are additional "seasons" which affect not the weather and length of the day, but the human mind.  There are, for example, seasons during which there is a flurry of large scale construction (the Great Pyramid of Giza was built during such a period, we are told) or a sudden flowering of artistic production.  In this story there is a sudden explosion in interest and publication of high brow scientific and philosophical writing, "an information-and-invention sort of fever," across the Northern Hemisphere.

Of course, all this stuff I'm just telling you in a few sentences is revealed gradually through clues over  story's 17 pages, accompanied by lots of jokes and farcical explorations of the ramifications of the abrupt elevation of intellectual prowess of the average man.  This isn't a "realistic" look at what might happen if everybody all of a sudden got smarter (like Poul Anderson's Brain Wave), but a funny, silly story in which geniuses feverishly write books in 18 hours and publishers get them printed and into the stores in five hours, a response to the public's fervid demand for material like "Emanuel Visconti's Costive Cosmologies Freed," the widespread demand for which actually predates the completion of the book's first draft.

A recurring motif of the story is likening the desire for knowledge to sexual desire; people "howl" that they are "hot" for a book and "have to have it right now," and the brain fever season is compared to the rutting season or oestrous period of animals. The explosion in human brainpower first becomes evident when publishers and sellers of pornography (famed for being able to produce and distribute material quickly) start selling mass quantities of books like a Tibetan grammar and a volume on plate tectonics.

"Brain Fever Season" is alright, not great.  I didn't laugh at the jokes (many are just lists, like of funny names) and I didn't feel like my work figuring it out had a commensurate payoff.  Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had been already familiar with Barnaby Sheen and his troupe of weird geniuses.  Besides in Universe 7, you can read it in the 1984 collection Ringing Changes, in English or Italian!

"The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" by Carter Scholz

I've never read anything by Scholz before, but on isfdb I see he has worked with Barry Malzberg and Kathe Koja, writers whose short stories I like, and has some kind of collaborative relationship with critical darling Jonathan Lethem.  A good omen.

The intro to "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" contains what I like to think of as "mysteries," even if you skeptical types out there would probably call them "typos."  Carr tells us that Scholz has a story in Alternities--I just read Alternities and there is no Scholz story in there!  He also tells us Scholz has a story in Clarion IV--there is no Clarion IV listed on isfdb, though probably Carr is referring to Clarion SF, the fourth Clarion anthology.  Finally, we are told Scholz has contributed a story to Output, but what exactly Output is, my five-minute Google search does not reveal.

Enough with the mysteries, on with the story.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" takes place in 2016.  A means of sending a person's consciousness back in time to inhabit the brain of another person has been developed; you can't influence your host, but you can see through his eyes and share his thoughts.  The main character of the tale, Charles Largens, is a musicologist, and he has his mind sent back in time to ride as a passenger in Beethoven's head.

A large proportion of the story concerns academic angst and office politics: the grantmaker will pull the grant if they find out how the money is being spent, guys compete over a promotion to head of a department, Largens has sex with another academic's wife, composers suffer writer's block, Largens worries that he shouldn't have abandoned his creative career as a composer to become a mere critic and historian of music, he realizes that his academic career has been manipulated by his mentor, etc.

The science fiction elements of the story revolve around the fact that, while your host won't be influenced by a single or a handful of visiting psyches from the future, so many scholars enter the head of a fascinating cultural giant like Beethoven that ol' Ludwig Van begins to pick up the "crosstalk" and it has a terrible negative effect on him.  Beethoven's output is diminished as he loses sanity (the famous Ninth symphony ceases to exist!) and Largens begins to notice differences between the 2016 he leaves for the 1800s and the one he returns to after each transfer.  In the end of the story Largens acts to shut down the dangerous time travel program and abandons scholarly life to return to his true calling, creating new music.

This story is well-written and constructed.  The idea that scholarly research work is sterile and stifling, and can render a creative person impotent (one character literally gets too caught up in his Beethoven research to be able to achieve an erection and have sex with his wife) is provocative, reminiscent of the way (one suspects) that actual soldiers and politicians look down on military and political historians, athletes look down on sports journalists, novelists look down on critics, etc.  (Scholz's story also reminded me of Proust's idea that things like friendship are a waste of time for the true artist, distractions from his real work, his art.) Sterility, like impotence, is a theme of the story--2016 is called a " barren year" and we learn in an aside that New York City has been reduced to a population of only two million, so that instead of new buildings going up, buildings are actually being torn down!  Sounds even worse than the real 2016!

Worth checking out.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" would later appear in British and German anthologies.


A good anthology, with seven stories that I can definitely recommend and only one clunker.  Universe 7 earns the MPorcius Seal of Approval.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

1977 stories from Fritz Leiber, Brian Aldiss, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson

Inside jacket flap of my copy
We all love these anthologies of original SF stories, don't we?  So let's read my copy of the hardcover book club edition of 1977's Universe 7, edited by Terry Carr.  We are told it is "acclaimed" and "an eagerly awaited event in science fiction."  Let's see if the acclaimers and eager waiters of that world of long ago in which I was a mere six years old were well-served by Carr and the "famous authors" and "stars of tomorrow" who appeared between Universe 7's covers. Today we've got two titans of speculative fiction, Fritz Leiber and Brian Aldiss, and two people whose work I have never before read, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson.

"A Rite of Spring" by Fritz Leiber

Like a lot of us who played 1st edition AD&D in the 1980s, I have a special place in my heart for Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.  (Fave F&GM stories: "Seven Black Priests," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," "Bazaar of the Bizarre" and "Stardock.")  I also really liked Leiber's hard sf Hugo-winner "Ship of Shadows."  Hopefully "A Rite of Spring," which Terry Carr also included in Best Science Fiction of the Year 7, will join this list of solidly entertaining stories.

At the very start of the novelette (40 pages) Fritz hints that "A Rite of Spring" might be some kind of feminist switcheroo piece; the very first line is "This is the story of the knight in shining armor and the princess in a high tower, only with the roles reversed." I guess that is a fair description, but, equally justly, we can see the tale as a male wish-fulfillment fantasy in which some egghead who is ineffectual with women suddenly has his dream girl tossed in his lap.  It is also akin to those stories like Tom Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy in which a young person with an unhappy life suddenly learns he is the heir to a fortune or the son of a nobleman or whatever and is whisked away to a finer existence.

Matthew Fortree is a mathematical genius, a resident at a luxurious secret U. S. government campus where the finest of pure scientists are collected to pursue their research in hopes that they will produce breakthroughs which will aid our nation militarily or economically.  Matthew is eccentric and antisocial, a friendless virgin. During an electrical storm he (though an arrogant atheist) prays to the "Great Mathematician" and at his door appears a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl.  The girl, Severeign Saxon, is ostensibly at the secret installation to look for her brother.  She and Matthew play an intellectual party game, each in turn naming a famous thing associated with the number seven (e. g., Seven Sisters, Seven Against Thebes, Seven Samurai, etc.)  This game goes on for pages and pages, Leiber unleashing on the reader much erudite trivia from history, literature and religion, including references to Poul Anderson and to his own Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.  The game also has integrated into it a somewhat elaborate sex scene between Matthew and Severeign.

At the end of the story it becomes evident that Severeign is from another dimension, one Matthew glimpsed in trances as a child, "a realm where he was in direct contact with the stuff of mathematics" and where the mathematical genius can live a happier, more fulfilling life.  The authorities suspect Severeign is some kind of foreign spy, and when Matthew carelessly reveals classified information to her they come gunning for the pair of them.  Luckily Severeign has a magical artifact that allows them to escape to her better world.

The story may be a bit too long, and some sections exhibit a sort of folksy colloquial style that is (I guess) supposed to remind you of fairy tales or sitting by the campfire hearing some oldster spin a yarn ("For it was a Gothic night, too, you see") which might be a little hard to take.  Some might find some elements of the story a little pervy; not only is Severeign 17 years old, but she says that in the "other realm" that she and Matthew are siblings--he is the brother she is looking for!  But "A Rite of Spring" is cleverly constructed and for the most part smoothly executed.  If you can take the barrage of trivia, it is worth your time.

"My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" by Brian Aldiss

This is an effective sketch of a setting and characters; there isn't much plot here.

A decade or so (?) ago an energy-starved Earth sent aloft satellites (they call them "planetoids") that collected solar energy and beamed it down to the surface.  These satellites were like flying cities, full of fashionable stores and comfortable hotels and so forth for the benefit of crew and visitors.  But then six years ago some capital-C "Catastrophe" struck (a plague is mentioned) and the satellites drifted off into the sun or deep space or crashed on the Earth's surface.

Our characters are the Goddard family.  When the Earth was reduced to a medieval level of existence, Goddard, a designer of sportswear, and his father embraced the change and totally got into growing their own crops by hand and spending half the year leading a nomadic life, following a herd of reindeer.  Goddard's wife acted much more like I would--she was psychologically crushed by the collapse of our wealthy technological and capitalist society and became a hermit, moving into a crashed planetoid to take up residence in the ruined hotel therein and read books.  Periodically the four male Goddards--her husband, father-in-law, and her two young boys--go visit her.  On the visit covered in this story, Goddard tries to convince his wife to abandon her books ("Books are where you get your sick notions from") and join the family.  She dismisses them, saying they are living like mere peasants!  "I resent being kicked back to the Dark Ages, if you don't."  Amen, lady!

The story's title suggests, I guess, that we are to see these visits as similar to pilgrimages to a sacred site of a Marian apparition, like Lourdes or Guadaloupe.  Or maybe we are to consider that the fallen planetoid will be an incomprehensible artifact to future generations of Stone Age-level people, a place surrounded by outlandish legends vaguely based on the reality of our own high-tech society, the Catastrophe, and Mrs. Goddard's (tragic and heroic!) refusal to abandon the cultural heritage of our sophisticated modern society.

Not bad.  Terry Carr would also include "My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" in his 1980 anthology Dream's Edge, published by the Sierra Club.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!

"Probability Storm" by Julian Reid

This is Reid's only published story, if isfdb is to be believed.  Carr tells us Reid attended the first Clarion West workshop, where Harlan Ellison was very critical of one of Reid's stories; the enfant terrible of speculative fiction is said to have "literally" torn it to pieces.

"Probability Storm" is a tedious 35-page sleeping draught about an alternate dimension New York City where ordinary people coexist with dryads and gremlins and ghosts and mad scientists.  Most of the story takes place in a bar called Rafferty's (could this be a reference to R. A. Lafferty?)  Our narrator is a ghost who can enter people's minds as well as visit some parallel plane to observe probability storms, which he can warn the regulars at the bar about.  A villainous businessman called "The Fat Man" comes into the bar, hoping to buy the place (or something), but the ghost narrator and the gremlins, empowered by one of those probability storms, invade his psyche and turn him into a thin man who doesn't want to make business deals, I guess.  The whole thing is very very verbose but at the same time very very vague; Reid willfully provides a very very low signal to noise ratio, even admitting to the reader that he is doing it (the narrator says things like, "as you may already have gathered, my attention has a tendency to wander at times.")  "Probability Storm" is supposed to be funny, but the jokes consist of comparing the fat guy to a pig again and again and again and describing how the gremlins spill drinks on him.

Very, very bad.  As far as I am concerned, Ellison could have ripped this one up as well; by excoriating his work Ellison was doing Reid a better service than Carr did him by encouraging him.  I really don't know what Carr was thinking when he elected to inflict this mess on readers of Universe 7.

"People Reviews" by Robert Chilson

I recently bought Chilson's novel Shores of Kansas for three whole bucks because it has a cool dinosaur cover.  Hopefully "People Reviews" won't make me regret the investment!  (Yes, "Probability Storm" has turned me cynical!)

My mind is grasping for a quote by, I think, editor John W. Campbell, in which he exhorted Astounding's writers to give him stories that felt like "newspaper articles of the future."  Chilson does just that in "People Reviews."  In the future, people will be able to wear headsets which record their thoughts; these recordings can be "listened" to by others, and a whole commercial industry, like the book publishing and record industries, has sprung up that produces and sells these thought recordings.  Chilson's nine-page story is a critical review like you'd find in a highbrow magazine like The New York Review of Books, a discussion of recent thought recordings and a series of musings on this art form's potential and current state.

Engaging and original, highly recommended to all you New Wave kids!  Cynicism storm abated!


The Reid was astonishingly bad, but the Leiber, Aldiss and Chilson are all good; each is idiosyncratic and fresh, is well-executed when it comes to style and structure, and rests on a foundation of one or two interesting ideas.  Let's hope the second half of Universe 7 is as enjoyable.