Monday, December 16, 2019

The Rebel Worlds by Poul Anderson

"A hundred thousand planets, gentlemen, more or less...each with its millions or billions of inhabitants, its complexities and mysteries...its own complicated, ever-changing, unique set of relationships to the Imperium. We can't control that, can we? We can't even hope to comprehend it. At most we can try to maintain the Pax. At most, gentlemen."
Here it is, the fourteenth title from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library to be discussed here at the blog.  As you know, in summer 2018, Joachim, one of the leading lights of the internet vintage SF community, made a generous donation of books to my collection, and I have slowly been working my way through them.  Below find a list of my first thirteen reads from this donation, with handy links to my blog posts about each.

Slave Planet by Laurence M. Janifer
Three Novels by Damon Knight
Dark Dominion by David Duncan
New Writings in SF6 edited by John Carnell
Tama of the Light Country by Ray Cummings
Tama, Princess of Mercury by Ray Cummings
A Brand New World by Ray Cummings
Ultimatum in 2050 A.D. by Jack Sharkey
The Power of X by Arthur Sellings
The Enemy of My Enemy by Avram Davidson
The Bright Phoenix by Harold Mead
The Stone God Awakens by Philip Jose Farmer
Garbage World by Charles Platt

Today's topic of discussion is Poul Anderson's 1969 The Rebel Worlds, a Signet paperback with what looks like a monkey and that bird from Captain Harlock riding a rhino on the front and an ad for a novel about a plot to murder the pope by New York fixture Pete Hamill on the back.  (Growing up in Northern New Jersey in the '70s and '80s, where most of channels on our TV were broadcast from New York, and then living in New York in the '90s and aughts, Pete Hamill's name was one I heard bandied about all the time, but I never expended any of the precious minutes of my all-too-brief life actually reading anything he wrote.)  The Rebel Worlds stars Dominc Flandry; there are a multitude of Flandry stories and novels, but so far I have only read one Flandry short story, 1951's "Honorable Enemies."  I liked "Honorable Enemies," so hopefully I'll like this 135-page novel.  The Flandry stories are set in the same universe as the van Rijn and Falkayn stories, of which I have read quite a few (the planet Satan, the main object of contention in Anderson's 1968 novel about van Rijn and Falkayn, Satan's World, plays a minor role in this novel), but while those stories are set in the period of the human race's exploration and growth across our arm of the Milky Way, the Flandry tales are set in a later era of big government, decadence and the threat of decline.

The Terran Empire of 100,000 planets is in trouble: its borders are threatened by fleets of barbarians and by the Merseian empire, its Emperor and his court are corrupt and the imperial bureaucracy is unable to keep tabs on every one of those 100K worlds.  After a brief and mysterious prologue in the voice of aliens with a sort of collective consciousness thing going, in Chapter I we meet Admiral Hugh McCormac, commander of the naval forces in the Alpha Crucis sector, one of the more impressive men charged with keeping the peace in the Terran Empire.  We find that this dude is in pickle--interned in a prison cell on a satellite orbiting planet Llynathawr, seat of the governor of the sector!  It appears that the governor, Aaron Snelund, the son of a whore who was made governor of Alpha Crucis after (allegedly) serving as the Emperor's catamite, is an absolutely corrupt pervert and has arrested McCormac so he could seize and rape the Admiral's beautiful wife, Lady Kathryn!

In Chapter II we are on Terra where ladies' man and 25-year old naval intelligence officer Dominic Flandry travels to Intelligence HQ via air car taxi and grav tube; the head of Intelligence has heard from Snelund that he has arrested McCormac, and the Intelligence chief wants Flandry to investigate what the hell is going on in Alpha Crucis sector--after all, everybody knows McCormac is an honorable man and Snelund is a nauseous rotter.  Flandry is given command of an escort destroyer and heads off to Alpha Crucis on this fact-finding mission.

In the Alpha Crucis sector Flandry and his multi-species crew (the second-in-command of the escort destroyer is a six-limbed sabre-toothed tiger man named Rovian) recognize the extent of Snelund's crimes, which include mass-crucifixion of the green-skinned natives of one planet when they refuse to serve as slavers--Snelund is apparently selling to barbarians living outside the Empire's borders innocent people who have every right to Imperial protection.  It looks like Snelund seized Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn in order to conceal these sorts of atrocities.  Flandry and crew also learn that McCormac's men have liberated him from prison and the popular Admiral has declared himself Emperor and is massing a rebel fleet and receiving pledges of allegiance from a number of planets--civil war is in the offing!

Flandry has an interview with the feminine Snelund on Llynathawr, and then Rovian leads a raid that frees Lady McCormac--before Snelund knows what is up, Flandry's ship is in hyperspace with Lady McCormac aboard.  From the Lady, Flandry learns more about Snelund's crimes and plans--the clever creep is trying to amass enough money to return to Terra and become the eminence grise behind the dim-witted Emperor, and actually hopes for a local war in Alpha Crucis sector that will provide an opportunity to nuke planets and thus destroy evidence of his abuses and atrocities.

The Rebel Worlds has appeared in numerous
omnibus editions of multiple Flandry novels, like
this one....
Flandry steers his ship towards the McCormacs' home system (star Virgil, its planets named after characters from The Aeneid), hoping to open negotiations with the rebel admiral, whom he expects will be there with the rebel fleet.  But, before he can talk to anybody, Flandry's ship is wrecked in a naval battle with mercenary barbarians hired by Admiral McCormac.  The surviving half of Flandry's crew crashlands in a disabled space boat on planet Dido, which Kathryn McCormac knows pretty well--she is a scientist who conducted research there.  With Rovian dead, Lady McCormac, who is smart and resourceful and kind, becomes Flandry's confidant and support; she guides the survivors as they march hundreds of kilometers across the planet.  Flandry, already attracted to her on the ship, falls deeply in love with the pretender to the throne's wife during this adventure; Kathryn herself has feelings for Flandry, but she is loyal to her husband and to his cause--overthrowing not only the decadent and perverted Snelund but the perhaps equally reprehensible Emperor and putting in place a more just Terran administration.

One of the many critical roles Lady McCormac plays on the long march is negotiating with the Stone Age natives of Dido, those aliens depicted on the cover, whose oral history is quoted in the prologue.  The Dido natives are the most remarkable part of Anderson's novel, and it is fully appropriate that they are depicted on the cover instead of the more conventional choice of a space warship or a bunch of human space marines.  A tribe of Didonians is made up of a bunch of creatures of three types--one much like a rhino, one much like a monkey, and one much like a bird.  When these creatures act as individuals they conduct themselves much like animals, following their instincts, but they can connect their brains via tentacles, and when individuals from three different species are connected they have high intelligence and can speak and use tools and so forth.  Different combinations of the creatures have unique personalities and skill sets and are thus more appropriate for different conditions and challenges that the tribe might face; a single rhino might sometimes be part of the collective entity called "Cave Explorer" but when combined with a different monkey and bird be part of the entity called "Master of Songs," or yet another known as "Raft Farer."  I was impressed by Anderson's concoction of aliens for his adventure story that are actually novel and alien and not just obvious analogs of Earth ethnic or political groups as we see so often in SF.  The native Didonians play an important role in facilitating the march across Dido and in the way Flandry resolves the plot.

Flandry, in the hoary tradition of classic SF, figures out a way to trick and manipulate everybody else in the novel so that the evil Snelund is deposed and Lady McCormac achieves her revenge on him and the civil war is ended with a minimum of death and destruction, with Hugh and Kathryn McCormac and their followers permitted to escape the Terran Empire without being punished for trying to launch a revolution.  When Flandry negotiates with McCormac, Anderson has him express the attitude towards revolution of conservatives who have a tragic view of history and human nature: sure the Empire sucks, but violent revolution will only make things worse by killing lots of people and setting a precedent in favor of violent change that other ambitious people, people much less decent and less capable than the McCormacs, will follow, leading to total chaos and mass misery.

...and this one.
The Rebel Worlds is not difficult or challenging (though some readers may find the implied homosexual relationship between Snelund and the Emperor and Snelund's offscreen rape of Lady Kathryn McCormac to be what the kids call "problematic") but it works like a charm, each individual component at least adequate and many better than adequate (I've already praised the Didonians, and all the standard SF stuff we love--the rays guns and star ships and spacesuits and space naval battle--are also good) and all of them working smoothly together; The Rebel Worlds is always entertaining or interesting, never boring or irritating.  One might see The Rebel Worlds as a more sophisticated version of classic space operas like Edmond Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol stories, in which various starfaring species ally with humans to battle evil aliens (Kathryn McCormac's abuse at the hands of Snelund has an analog in the scenes of torture and horror Hamilton included in his Patrol tales) or Jack Williamson's Legion stories, which have a strong element of human vs human political intrigue as well as space battles and monstrous aliens.  Anderson classes up his tale here with references to Mozart, Virgil, and The Tale of Genji, and soberly explores how empires and revolutions actually work--not very well, we must sadly admit.

I'm looking forward to reading more Flandry stories in the future.

Monday, December 9, 2019

"The Epiphany of Death," "A Vintage from Atlantis" and "The Abominations of Yondo" by Clark Ashton Smith

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are sparking joy by reading the magazine versions of stories included in the 1960 Clark Ashton Smith collection The Abominations of Yondo.  Scans of these magazines are available to all fans of fantasy, science fiction and the weird at the internet archive, an exemplar of the many ways the internet has improved our cultural lives.  Today the fourth, fifth and sixth stories from The Abominations of Yondo come under our leery gaze.

"The Epiphany of Death" (AKA "Who Are the Living?") (1934)

This one was first published in an issue of a fanzine, The Fantasy Fan, which I am not seeing at the internet archive.  Luckily, in 1942 Weird Tales reprinted the piece under the title "Who Are the Living?" 

This brief (little more than three pages in Weird Tales) story is a sort of mood piece with little plot.  It takes place on Earth, but feels like it is in some prehistoric fantasy setting, like Conan's Hyborian Age, after the fall of Atlantis but before the rise of the civilizations that we know of.

Theolus, our narrator, and his acquaintance Tomeron live in the vast bustling city of Ptolemides.  Tomeron is kind of a weirdo who makes Theolus uneasy; Tomeron spends his time reading old books from Hyperborea and Mu and Atlantis, wears clothes that recall the fashions of centuries before, and refers to events of long ago which others have forgotten...this eccentric has pale skin and even his posture suggests that he bears the weight of many centuries of memories.  Though Theolus is wary of him, Tomeron has a strong affection for Theolus, and one day, in melodramatic fashion, reveals to the younger man his unbelievable secret.  Tomeron leads Theolus outside the city walls to the crumbling tombs which have gone unused for many years.  Deep in the catacombs they come to the sepulchre of Tomeron's family, where there is an empty sarcophagus.  Tomeron asks Theolus to leave for a moment and return; when Theolus returns, Tomeron is laying in the sarcophagus, apparently dead, worms crawling in his face.

This is one of those pieces that has a striking idea but doesn't really have a story to tell.  Smith does a good job setting the mood and offering us strong images, so I am giving this trifle a passing grade, but there really isn't any plot or character development so it feels a little empty.  I love stories about immortality, but I like ones that look into the personality of the immortals and retail the sacrifices they make and the lengths they go to to achieve immortality (remember how much I enjoyed Edmond Hamilton's "Avenger from Atlantis.")  Smith doesn't touch on how or why Tomeron has staved off death for so long, or why he suddenly stops prolonging his life and embraces death.  I also have to question the gruesome shock ending of "The Epiphany of Death"; one minute Tomeron is walking around and talking like the rest of us, and a minute later he's already got worms eating him from the inside out?  Were those worms inside him already when he passed through the city gates with Theolus at his side?  I don't get it.

"A Vintage from Atlantis" (1933)

"A Vintage from Atlantis" made its debut in another issue of Weird Tales that we have already talked about here at MPorcius Fiction Log, the one that features Robert Howard's "The Slithering Shadow" AKA "Xuthal of the Dusk" and Edmond Hamilton's "The Horror on the Asteroid," and reprints Frank Belknap Long's "Death-Waters."  And don't get me started about that Margaret Brundage cover!

"A Vintage from Atlantis" is another of these mood pieces with very little plot.  I prefer stories in which a person with an interesting psychology has some kind of motive, pursues an objective and faces obstacles, and so these kinds of plot-lite tales generally leave me a little disappointed.  In this story, narrated by a pirate who avoids alcohol, a pirate ship's crew is on their secret island where they stash their loot when a powerful storm hits, and a strange jar, I guess kind of like a very large amphora, washes ashore.  This thing is incredibly old, and covered in barnacles and shells.  The pirates all drink the wine it contains, though our narrator drinks only a little.  The booze gives them a vision of an ancient glowing city, complete with evocative music, and the pirates march off to the illusory spires, into the waters of the harbor where they, presumably, drown.  The narrator, having drunk less, comes to his senses before drowning himself.  But maybe there is a chance that the other pirates have gone off to a better world and the narrator should be sad to be left behind, like the sad lame kid in The Pied Piper of Hamelin?

This story is OK.  As I have suggested, I prefer it when Smith uses his powers of description to enhance a tale that has some kind of plot, as he did in the great horror story, "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," which I read back in August.

Besides various Smith collections, "A Vintage from Atlantis" has appeared in anthologies of horror stories about pirates and the sea.

The cover of the French edition of Abominations of Yondo bears a faithful
illustration of an undead monarch encountered by the narrator of "The Abominations of Yondo"

Contents page of the April 1926 issue
of Overland Monthly
"The Abominations of Yondo" (1926)

The title story of the 1960 collection, "The Abominations of Yondo," first saw print in Overland Monthly, a long-lived magazine published from 1868 to 1935; you can read the issue with the story, one of Smith's earliest, at the internet archive, but its cover is not available there, and my brief search for it online left me empty-handed.

Yondo is a grey desert, a region "nearest of all to the world's rim," and thus undefended by Earthly gods and subject to influence from outer space--half its mountains are fallen asteroids, its sand is the dust and ash of dead stars and corroded alien planets, its inhabitants include "genii" and "demons" whose worlds have decayed.  Our narrator was left on the border of this desert by the wizard-priests of Ong after they had tortured him, and as he seeks to cross it Smith describes its bizarre landscape, its ruined cities and mausoleums, its weird flora and fauna.  The beings living in the Yondo desert and ruins are so horrifying that the narrator abandons all hope of getting across the desert and flees back the way he came, even though he expects the wicked priests of Ong to recapture him.

Like the other stories we are talking about today, "The Abominations of Yondo" is well-written and gets a passing grade, but there isn't much actual story there.  Of today's three pieces, however, it is the best, as it has the coolest monsters and the most striking images and doesn't have the kind of nagging loose ends that left me scratching my head when I read "The Epiphany of Death."

Besides the expected Smith collections, "The Abominations of Yondo" was included in a 1979 French anthology and a 2017 anthology of old mummy stories (one of the creatures in the story is a living dead king.)


**********

We'll be taking a break from fantasy and horror for our next episode and reading something a little closer to "hard" SF by a Grandmaster who has won a pile of Hugos and Nebulas, so make sure to check the seals on your trusty suit of vacuum armor before I see you again.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

"The Nameless Offspring," "The Witchcraft of Ulua," and "The Devotee of Evil" by Clark Ashton Smith

A 1974 British paperback edition of The Abominations of Yondo
I recently enjoyed Tanith Lee's 1995 "These Beasts," a story which reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith and brought that poet, sculptor, and storyteller of the weird to the forefront of my mind.  So, let's read some stories by Smith from the early 1930s; today's tales are the first three presented in the 1960 Arkham House hardcover collection The Abominations of Yondo, which you can get at ebay for like two hundred bucks.  Lacking two hundred bucks, I'm reading the stories in scans at the internet archive of the old magazines in which they appeared, and you can, too!

"The Nameless Offspring" (1932)

"The Nameless Offspring" made its debut in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, a magazine that endured for seven issues from 1931 to 1933.  (Robert M. Price revived the magazine for three issues in our own 21st century.)  The issue with "The Nameless Offspring" also carries "The People of the Dark" by Robert E. Howard, which I hope to get around to reading someday.

"The Nameless Offspring" starts with an epigraph from The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazered; the main text is the memoir of Henry Chaldane, a Canadian beekeeper who was born in England and came to the New World as a child.  As an adult he goes back to England; riding a motorcycle around the countryside he gets lost in the fog and by chance comes to Tremoth Hall, the manor house of Sir John Tremoth, who was a good friend of the narrator's father when they were young men.

Henry Chaldane is not exactly thrilled to have stumbled upon the Tremoth estate, because he recalls crazy stories about John Tremoth's wife: she was buried alive in the family tomb and when rescued claimed she had encountered a monster in there!  Nine months after leaving the tomb she died giving birth to a monstrously deformed baby!  This monster child, which is obviously the product of rape by a ghoul, even if Smith doesn't come out and use those words, was kept locked in a heavily barred room; its birth and his wife's death marked the end of John Tremoth's social life, he becoming a recluse attended to be only one servant, the others fleeing after seeing the monster baby.  (Smith isn't shy about alluding to some pretty disgusting sex in his stories--you'll remember that in "The Empire of the Necromancers" the magic-users of the title took as lovers some of the corpses they had animated.)

Chaldane quickly finds evidence that all those crazy stories he heard as a kid in Canada are true!  When feeble Sir John Tremoth, suffering from heart disease, shows Chaldane to his room, they pass a heavily barred door and from within comes a hideous howl!  That night, in the room next to Chaldane's, Tremoth dies.  Tremoth's lone servant was instructed by his master to burn his corpse on a pyre immediately after his death, but it rains that day and the pyre will not light!  The servant asks Chaldane to take a revolver and sit with him that second night--they must guard the corpse of Tremoth because it sounds like the ghoul is trying to break out of its room to devour its foster father's body!

The build up in this one is pretty good, but I found the climax and denouement a little underwhelming.  The ghoul attacks, knocking out Chaldane and the servant.  When Chaldane wakes up a few moments later the monster has left, because during the attack a candle was overturned and the room is on fire.  Chaldane gets a brief glimpse of Tremoth's body before carrying out the servant, and sees that the ghoul started eating Tremoth before fleeing the flames.  Smith specifically indicates that Tremoth's hands and "features" have been destroyed, and then hints at something else:
Of the last horror that had overtaken him, I must forbear explicit mention, and I would that I could likewise avoid the remembrance.
Are readers supposed to think that the ghoul, Tremoth's wife's child by rape, ate Tremoth's genitals?  Or am I the sicko because that is my guess?  (I think this makes thematic sense, because the elder ghoul "unmanned" Tremoth by cuckolding him, and by castrating Tremoth the younger ghoul would be "unmanning" him a different way--don't think of me as a sicko, but a literary critic!)

Chaldane and the revived servant follow the monster's inhuman tracks out of the burning manor-house.  The ghoul has gone to ground in the family tomb, where there are "countless coffins" but no sign of the creature.  I guess readers are supposed to find it eerie and mysterious that the monster vanished inside the mausoleum, but personally I find it a little annoying.  I would have preferred if Smith had implied it was hiding in one of the coffins, or had just melted into the countryside, and might start attacking unsuspecting people or robbing graves at any moment. 

"The Nameless Offspring" was reprinted in 1946 in the British magazine Strange Tales, and by Robert A. W. Lowndes in 1970 in his Magazine of Horror.  This is actually the second time I have read "The Nameless Offspring," as I read it over ten years ago in the 2002 collection Emperor of Dreams which I bought while I lived in New York and which now is someplace in my brother's apartment in New Jersey, unless he has sold it or traded it to somebody.


"The Witchcraft of Ulua" (1934)

"The Witchcraft of Ulua" was first published in Weird Tales, in an issue with two stories I have already read and praised here at my little website, Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Returned" and Robert E. Howard's "Valley of the Worm."  Let's hope Smith's piece here is as good as those by Hamilton and Howard.

Ninety-three-year-old Sabmon lives in a house made of bones on the edge of a desert.  This taciturn recluse is an expert on astronomy and sorcery and often acts as a sort of sage for visitors seeking advice.  When his great-nephew Amalzain comes by, en route to the city of Miraab, the capital of Tasuun, to join the king's court, Sabmon gives him an amulet and warns him to stay clear of the evil women of Miraab, who are all "witches and harlots."

The king's court is luxurious and corrupt, and the king's daughter, princess Ulua, employs her strange beauty and the vast arsenal of spells and drugs at her disposal to try to seduce Amalzain, an innocent country boy who likes to do math problems and read old books in his free time.  Thanks to the amulet, Amalzain is the first man to ever resist Ulua's charms.  Enraged, Ulua punishes Amalzain by sending horrific visions and ghosts to haunt him.  Smith describes all these hauntings, which consist of such frights as dead bodies creeping into Amalzain's bed to kiss and caress him.  Amalzain flees to Sabmon's house of bones.  Sabmon not only exorcizes all these haunts, but shows Amalzain, via a magic mirror, that Miraab is doomed, about to be destroyed by an earthquake.  Amalzain stays with Sabmon, becoming his apprentice.

"The Witchcraft of Ulua," six and a half pages in Weird Tales, is plot-lite and mood- and image-heavy.  I found the mood diverting and the images fascinating, and so I'm giving "The Witchcraft of Ulua" a hearty thumbs up.  Of note is Smith's use of words you don't see every day, words I had to look up, like "anchorite," "besom," "gymnosophic" and "migniard."  Did people in 1934 have these words in their vocabularies, or did they read Weird Tales with a dictionary close at hand?  

Set in Zothique, "The Witchcraft of Ulua" would be included in the 1970 paperback collection of that title, which I saw in the flesh in New Jersey in 2018 along with three other gorgeous Smith paperbacks I was too cheap to buy.


"The Devotee of Evil" (1933)

isfdb indicates that this story first appeared in a small press book of 30 pages titled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies that collected six tales by Smith.  I read the version of "The Devotee of Evil" that appeared in 1941 in Donald A. Wollheim's magazine Stirring Science Stories.

The narrator of "The Devotee of Evil" is a novelist, Philip Hastane, who is living in Auburn, a little town in (I think) California.  Hastane meets a wealthy Creole who has just moved to Auburn, Jean Averaud.  Averaud has moved into an old mansion reputed to be haunted, the site of various murders and accidental deaths, along with his housekeeper, Fifine; Fifine, who is apparently also his lover, is a mute biracial woman (or as Smith puts it, a "dumb mulatress") with a perfect body and a face characterized by "semi-negroid irregularity."  Despite her inability to speak, Averaud assures Hastane that Fifine is "highly intelligent."

Averaud strikes up a friendship with Hastane, to whom he explains his weird theory: Averaud thinks that evil is a force, a radiation or vibration, like light or electricity, and that somewhere in the universe is a "black sun" that emits the evil that is the source of all decay, death, illness, insanity, etc. Some places on Earth are more receptive to this malign radiation than others--Averaud thinks the mansion must be one such place, and he has hatched the wild scheme of building a device to concentrate the evil force and distill a physical manifestation of absolute evil!

When he has made some progress in the construction of his device, Averaud shows it to the novelist.  In his 1932 story "The Monster of the Prophecy" Smith described a device that projected people across interstellar space, a device that had much in common with a musical instrument, and Averaud's receptor of evil device also has many of the characteristics of a musical instrument. A test run of the machine summons a sort of black light or shadow emanation, and contact with this force throws Hastane into a depression.

As with "The Nameless Offspring," Smith's build up in "The Devotee of Evil" is good but the payoff is a little disappointing. When the device is finished Averaud activates it and is subjected to the full power of that black sun, wherever it is. Averaud is hardened into a black statue, breaking the heart of poor Fifine, who loved him. As the woman clasps the knees of her petrified lover, Hastane staggers away from the mansion, psychologically scarred for life.  I guess Smith is trying to say something about the ultimate sterility of evil and disorder, but somehow the guy becoming a statue is just not that scary or exciting.  I also was hoping more would be done with Fifine; when Smith made sure to let us know she was intelligent and had deep feelings for Averaud, I thought maybe she was going to be revealed to be an evil manipulator who was in control of Averaud, or, that somehow she was going to try to save Averaud, maybe sacrificing her life to redeem him.  I even thought maybe there would be some kind of love triangle thing, with her (if she was evil) trying to seduce Hastane, or (if she was good) convincing Hastane to help her try to save Averaud, exciting feelings between them and/or inspiring jealousy on the part of Averaud.  In the event Fifine does very little in the story.  Too bad.   

**********

These stories are all good, but only "The Witchcraft of Ulua," in my opinion, lives up to its potential, feels like a finished package without loose ends or missed opportunities.  Maybe its setting in Zothique, a far future dying Earth, and its exotic, dark fairy tale tone give the reader more latitude to accept fantastical elements that strain credulity and require explanation when set in the 20th century.

More stories from The Abominations of Yondo in our next episode!          

Thursday, December 5, 2019

"Wish Upon a Star" by Judith Merril

Judith Merril has powerful friends and it is dangerous to cross her.  Case in point: Damon Knight famously stopped writing SF reviews when F&SF refused to print his hostile review of Merril's novel The Tomorrow People, which, like Knight, I thought was pretty damned lame.  When Joachim Boaz announced that the third subject of his series of reviews of generation ship stories would be Merril's "Wish Upon a Star," I wondered what risk I might be running if I participated.  If I thought Merril's story terrible, and fessed up, would the monstrous regimen of internet feminists descend on my insignificant and typo-ridden twitter and google accounts, limiting my ability to tweet photos of the Christmas tree I cut down for my wife or the Warhammer 40,000 models my brother sent me?  I reflected that a coward dies a thousand times and all that and decided to risk reading and writing about "Wish Upon a Star,"--hey, maybe it would be good and my anxiety about crossing the powers that be would turn out to be unfounded.

You can read the magazine version of "Wish Upon a Star" here, in a scan at the internet archive of the 1958 issue of F&SF in which it first appeared.  Joachim Boaz loves to inspire and engage in conversation about vintage SF, so if you read it don't hesitate to drop by his website and take part in the discussion

Joachim's review of Chad Oliver's 1957 generation ship story "Wind Blows Free," the first subject of his series, is here (my 2018 take is here.)  His review of the second, "Spacebred Generations" by Clifford Simak, is here, and my post on that story is here.

Toshiko (nickname "Sheik") is a thirteen-year-old boy on a space ship sent from Earth twenty or so years ago to find a planet suitable for colonization.  At the beginning of the story Sheik, who we see is very clever, a master at cultivating the plants that make up a large part of the space travellers' diet, wishes he was a girl, because all the officers on the ship and holders of intellectual jobs are female, while males are subordinate--Sheik, for example, works in the garden, but cannot attend the classes or read the books that the girls his age do, and he will never control the garden, he will always have a woman over him, almost certainly a woman with less hands-on knowledge of plants than he has.  It also seems like the men do most of the child rearing.  Over the course of the story (13 pages of text in F&SF) we learn how and why the ship's little society is run the way it is.  When it left Earth the women on the vessel numbered twenty and the men four (a more even sex distribution has prevailed in Sheik's own generation) to enhance production of the next generation, and women were put in charge because it was felt they were more patient and able to "manage the psychological problems of an ingrown group."  The adults on the ship have been hypno-indoctrinated to accept the ship's topsy turvy gender roles and a collectivist life style in which there are no two-parent families but instead communes in which kids are raised collectively.  Sheik is warned not to question the social order, for such talk could lead to trouble.

While perhaps she expects us to believe that this regime is necessary to keep the ship operating smoothly over a period of decades, Merril doesn't paint this tiny matriarchal society in very positive colors.  It is implied that the one woman on the ship who wasn't hypno-indoctrinated couldn't stand the collectivist life style and committed suicide.  People of Sheik's generation, who were born on the ship, have access to books all about life on Earth, and Sheik longs not only for such planetary phenomena as shadows (most lighting within the ship is very diffuse so shadows are a rarity confined to the garden) but for the possibility of a monogamous sexual relationship--one element of "Wish Upon a Star"'s plot is the blossoming of love between Sheik and a girl, Sarah.  When evidence appears that the ship is approaching an Earth-like planet suitable for colonization, some of the men fear the women in charge of the ship will refuse to land because they don't want to surrender their authority.  But these fears appear to be unfounded; in the last paragraphs of the story it looks like the ship is going to land soon, and the gender roles, family organization and individualistic culture we are all familiar with here in the English-speaking world are going to reassert themselves.  Sheik no longer wishes he was a girl, and instead looks forward to a happy life of freedom and monogamy with Sarah on the planet.

This story is successful--entertaining and interesting enough--but no big deal.  I have to admit I was expecting a more hardcore feminist or leftist story which trumpeted the benign rule of women and/or argued that gender roles are socially constructed and could easily be changed for the better by an enlightened elite.  Instead the story portrays rule by women (on this ship at least) as unnatural and unhealthy and the measures taken to maintain it as intrusive and tyrannical.  Maybe we should consider the possibility that "Wish Upon a Star" is a switcheroo or role reversal story.  You probably know about those EC comics in which a fisherman himself gets hooked and killed or a guy who is mean to spiders finds himself trapped in the web of a kaiju-sized spider, and those Twilight Zone episodes about a U-boat commander being punished in Hell by being placed on an Allied freighter about to be torpedoed or a Nazi being a prisoner in a death camp.  Could "Wish Upon a Star" be a somewhat more subtle version of those types of stories?  Could Merril have written it hoping that male readers, seeing how living in a matriarchal world in which men aren't allowed to be scientists or members of the ruling class crushed a young man's spirit, would consider that their own real world, in which it was difficult for women to become scientists or senators or generals, might be crushing the spirits of young women?

The understated indication that the ship's crew is very multiethnic--along with names like Sarah and Johnson we get names like Toshiko, Abdur, and Harendra--may be noteworthy.

"Wish Upon a Star" has appeared in several Merril collections, including The Best of Judith Merril, the contents of which the author apparently selected herself.

Nightmare Stories by Brian Lumley, Tanith Lee, and Ramsey Campbell

I hate living in the suburbs, and yet I reside in the suburban no man's land between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  I hate driving, and yet every day I find myself behind the wheel weaving between the yawning potholes and the suicidal deer, the reckless pedestrians and insouciant cyclists.  I hate going to the mall and yet...well, you get the picture.

At a mall bookstore where they play hideous music and apparently make all their money selling Hogwarts paraphernalia and tricking people into joining their 10% discount club (annual membership fee, $25), among the thirty-five telephone-directory-sized copies of It on the horror shelves, I spotted a newish anthology by Stephen Jones, The Mammoth Book of Nightmare Stories.  Seeing quite a few familiar names on the contents page, I resolved to read those tales from the anthology by those writers who interest me that I could find at the indispensable internet archive.  By chance, all three of the suitable stories are by Britons; sadly the Denis Etchison and Poppy Z. Brite stories from the volume are not available at the internet archive, while I have already read the included story by Harlan Ellison, "In the Fourth Year of the War," which I blogged about when we read DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series VIII, edited by Karl Edward Wagner.)

"The Viaduct" by Brian Lumley (1976)

I have mixed feelings about Lumley, and over the years this blog has seen me praise some of his work and slag other specimens of his writing.  Here I am rolling the dice again; call it research into the legacy of Lovecraft and Arkham House if any explanation is necessary.  "The Viaduct" first appeared in Ramsey Campbell's anthology Superhorror, which is kind of a funny name, and was later included in the 1993 Lumley collection Fruiting Bodies and Other Fungi; I am reading it in a scan of the Tor hardcover edition of that collection.  (Fruiting Bodies and Other Fungi also includes the long story "Born of the Winds," which I declared "an acceptable Lovecraft pastiche" when I read it back in 2016.)  "The Viaduct" was chosen by David Drake and Martin H. Greenberg for the 1996 volume A Century of Horror: 1970-79: The Greatest Stories of the Decade, so how bad can it be?

Two boys are messing around at the beach near a massive viaduct, a bridge that carries trains one hundred and fifty feet above a river.  The boys have been practicing at the playground at their school, carrying themselves hand over hand on the overhead bars of a "climbing-frame," what we in America call "monkey bars" or a "jungle gym"--their object is to swing hand over hand across the viaduct via the one hundred and sixty rungs under the viaduct's walkway.  (These are brave kids!)

The boys spot the "village idiot," Wiley Smiley, a mentally retarded nineteen-year-old, fishing on the other side of the river.  They throw stones in the water next to him, the splashes getting him wet and enraging him.  Their victim being on the other side of the river, the boys think they are safe.

These boys may be brave, but they are also stupid, because they decide that today is the day to swing Tarzan-style across the river on those metal rungs far above the river.  Most of Lumley's story (like 21 pages total here) is a tense adventure/chase sequence, as the boys hang under the railway and Wiley Smiley takes advantage of this period of vulnerability to exact his revenge.

isfdb categorizes "The Viaduct" as "non-genre," and there are no speculative elements to it; it is a mainstream story about the psychologies of three not very likable characters who are under terrible stress and do things that no decent or sensible person would do--"The Viaduct" is also a quite effective tale of terror and gore.  Thumbs up!

"These Beasts" by Tanith Lee (1995)

"These Beasts" made its debut in F&SF, in an issue in which Charles de Lint uses his book review column to promote an anthology of stories about child abuse that includes a story of his own (he explains that he is donating any money he makes from the book to charity and that the book is really really important to the cause of dealing with the problem of child abuse.)  In the intro to the story in F&SF editor Kristine Kathyrn Rusch quotes Lee's explanation that the idea for the piece came from her husband John Kaiine.  "These Beasts" would reappear, ten years before the publication of The Mammoth Book of Nightmare Stories, in the 2009 Lee collection Tempting the Gods.

"These Beasts" is a clever entertainment, a jewel-like exercise in mood and style that reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith. Carem, the son of a whore in a sort of Arabic setting, has made his fortune robbing tombs.  He learns the location of a desert tomb more closely guarded and more richly appointed than any other, and leaves his two wives behind to undertake the perilous operation of looting it.  Lee fills her story with intriguing sorceries and magic devices as well as sharp images, but as in Lumley's story, there are also some pretty foul crimes and some pretty gruesome bloodshed.  While Lumley's "The Viaduct" is disturbing thanks to its realism, Lee's story, set in a kind of never never land and written in the style of a dark fairy tale or "Oriental" fable, is more lighthearted and fun, but equally absorbing.   A sober assessment might consider it a trifle, but "These Beasts" is a well-crafted and satisfying story I really enjoyed.  Thumbs up!

"Needing Ghosts" by Ramsey Campbell (1990)

I was a little dismayed when I realized how long this story was--"Needing Ghosts" first appeared as an 80-page chap book in 1990, and it is like 90 pages in the scan of  the 1993 Campbell collection Strange Things and Stranger Places in which I was to read it.  This volume has a dumb cover illustration, an off center image of a kitchen knife penetrating the spine of a book.  (This image is based on an image from "Needing Ghosts," but in the story the book is pinned open by a knife, face up so it can be read.)  I'm skeptical of Campbell's work, and 90 god-damned pages would be a slog if "Needing Ghosts" was tedious, as I have found several of Campbell's stories to be.  I was rolling the dice again...and this time they came up snake eyes!

In keeping with the title of Jones's anthology, "Needing Ghosts" is like one of those bad dreams in which every single thing you try to do, no matter how simple, is a complete disaster.  You forget your name, you forget where your big meeting is, you have trouble opening a door, you lose a piece of paper with info you needed, you go into a store to buy something and the clerk ignores you, you have a bill for which a cabbie can't make change, your credit card breaks in half, etc.  All these things, and more, happen to the protagonist of "Needing Ghosts," Simon Mottershead.

"Needing Ghosts" begins with middle-aged Mottershead, who suffers some pretty severe memory loss, waking up in the predawn, slowly becoming aware of his surroundings, and the story consists of Campbell describing in voluminous detail his every move over the course of a day.  We learn more and more about this guy's character and life as the day proceeds, as Mottershead remembers things about himself.  At the same time the story becomes increasingly surreal and absurd.  I enjoyed the first 25 or so pages of "Needing Ghosts," all the detailed descriptions of this guy's looking around his house as if he'd never been there before, riding a ferry and then riding a bus full of disabled people, his confused memories and poor vision and all that, and Campbell's many weird metaphors and similes:
Shoving his copy of the voucher into his pocket together with the pointed blades which are the halves of the [broken credit] card, he pokes his arms through the straps of the rucksack and flounces out, his book bumping his s;pine as if it's trying to climb the bony ladder and reinsert its tale into his brain.
But after the protagonist got off the bus the story became more and more dreamlike and surreal and ridiculous, with one striking but nonsensical image (an army of half-assembled mannequins on the street beckoning to him) after another (a table with a single chair set for a speaker, on the table a glass and a carafe--the carafe contains not water, but a film of dust), all of them piling up one on the other but adding up to nothing significant.  The more we learn about the mysterious protagonist the less interesting he is--Mottershead is a novelist who has abandoned his writing career and wants to open his own used bookstore and is scheduled to speak at a library today, where, unable to remember the titles or plots of his own books, he offers banal anecdotes and self-indulgent observations about being a writer ("Writing's a compulsion.  By the time you're any good at it you no longer have the choice of giving it up.")  Campbell fails to inspire any emotion in the reader--Mottershead is totally boring and you don't care about his unbelievable interactions with the bizarre characters he meets.  Much of the middle third of the story consists of the protagonist getting into arguments and fights and chases with the staff of the library and various bookstores as he tries, and fails, to find his own books on their shelves.  This gets repetitive and irritating.

In the last third of this interminable story the protagonist remembers he has a family, and spends page after page trudging through a forest amid thorn bushes and trees with whole sentences and paragraphs carved into them, trying to get to his family's house.  When he gets to the house he finds it is now the "Wild Rest Home," inhabited by senile pensioners and burly nurses.  The nurses want to admit him, but after a chase through the countryside, Mottershead gets on a bus that takes him back to the ferry, which takes him back home.  We long-suffering readers finally learn that Mottershead has either murdered his wife and kids and suffers delusions they are still alive, or that they are still alive and he has delusions that he has murdered them--the former seems more likely.  Presumably most or all of the 60- or 70-page long story of his trip from the island to the library and bookstores and rest home was also a delusion.       

I guess "Needing Home" is about the burdens of being a writer, how your mind can be taken over by your fictional creations and how frustrating and sad it is to know how few people admire or even know about the work you have poured your heart into and all that.  A realistic story on this theme could be effective, but a surreal dream-story about a disappointed writer just comes across as tedious--all the weird images of libraries as big as shopping malls and bookstore clerks dressed as frogs put distance between the reader and the character, making it harder rather than easier to identify with his feelings.  Campbell absolutely fails to move the reader--who cares if this boring guy is nuts or a murderer or whatever?--and no part of this long story is sad or scary or exciting.  The long passages and many scenes about being a writer frustrated that nobody knows his work have no connection to the plot element of being a murderer--Campbell gives only the barest hints that Mottershead might be a killer until the very end, and the protagonist's family receives almost no attention until like 60 pages in.  Rather than being a natural conclusion to the rest of the story, a satisfying climax that grows organically out of the first 60 or 70 pages, the "this guy murdered his family" part of "Needing Ghosts" comes out of nowhere, like it was just tacked on to an unrelated story that was lacking an ending.

Thumbs down!

**********

After the Lumley and the Lee, which were well-paced and well-proportioned and written in styles suited to the material they presented and atmospheres they sought to generate, the Campbell felt like an unwieldy leviathan, blundering ponderously in no clear direction before finally beaching itself in an inappropriate place where it unceremoniously expired.  Sad!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Gamesman by Barry Malzberg

Block, twenty-seven, will beat the Game.  He will emerge from its difficult network into triumph; he will pull from this dark lottery the one gleaming prize of connection.
On Sunday, November 10, the wife and I ventured into Washington, D.C.--the belly of the beast!--and I escaped back to the suburbs with my life, sanity and three new books, among them Barry Malzberg's The Gamesman, a 1975 paperback from Pocket Books.  We at MPorcius Fiction Log love Malzberg, and Joachim Boaz considers The Gamesman a favorite, so this was a welcome find.  Without further ado, let's delve into this novel of 22 chapters, 188 pages, large print and large margins that is dedicated to "Phillip K. Dick."

Compare page 13 of The Gamesman to page 13 of Garbage World by Charles Platt.
(Click to enlarge.)
The Gamesman starts with a bang and a whimper as the masked "Gamesman" (no "the" in the first chapter, interestingly), chronometer in hand, observes our narrator, Papa Joe Block, straddling a woman, endeavoring to penetrate her sexually.  Block seems to be alienated from his own body, telling us in the very first sentence of the book that he sometimes thinks of himself in the first person and sometimes in the third, which we readers soon find is reflected throughout the novel by irregular switches back and forth between first- and third-person narration.  The woman in question, and Gamesman, criticize Papa Joe Block severely when, unable to maintain rigidity, our hero ejaculates prematurely in the woman's hand as she is trying to guide him into her vagina.  This episode of sexual dysfunction is punctuated by asides in which the narrator laments that he will never make any friendly emotional connection with either Gamesman or with the woman--will never know them--and by references to T. S. Eliot, a poet whose early work is all about alienation and sexual dysfunction.  (Papa Joe Block may be a scrub in the sack, but at least he's well-read!)

T. S. Eliot, sexual dysfunction and alienation are three of my favorite things to read about, so Malzberg had me hooked from the start this time.  After that first attention-grabbing and laugh-inducing chapter we learn a little more about the crazy future world of the 23rd century in which the story is set, its oppressive government and the Game that is at this tale's center.  It seems that life is so unhappy in a high-tech world in which the government controls everything that fifty percent of people commit suicide before the age of twenty-five!  Once you have passed your twenty-fifth birthday you are forbidden to commit suicide, and those who despair, instead of killing themselves, throw themselves into the very risky Game.   

There is a very amusing chapter in which we see Papa Joe Block's interview with the local Games Master, the bitter and passive-aggressive man who decides who will be permitted to participate in the Game.  This sad sack tells Papa Joe right out that the Game is a scam, that nobody has ever won, that nobody can win, that the Game is just a "safety valve" that provides people an illusion of hope--"Without belief in them as a means out of the trap of their lives, social tensions and psychic pressures in the populace would build to a point where the entire system would implode."  Despite being told this, Papa Joe remains confident that he will be the first player to win the Game.

The individual tests that make up the Game take many forms--in fact, the Players themselves have a large share in the responsibility of what their own Game will be like.  Papa Joe Block decided that his own Level 1 objective would be to successfully ejaculate inside a woman; he is given ten tries to accomplish this feat, a feat which billions of men have accomplished over the course of human history but which is a challenge for our poor narrator.  This reminded me of Malzberg's The Day of the Burning, in which a guy who is probably hallucinating is told by an alien that he is on a quest to save the world and that the form of this quest is to simply do his government welfare office job correctly for once.

One of the clever and surprising things about the Game is that the Gamesmen who referee and judge the Players are not disinterested professionals but Players themselves!  (It is implied that the Game is financed on a shoestring.)  Papa Joe Block serves as Gamesman to a couple competing in the Game as a team, a bold and worn woman and her weak and wan male partner, and we watch as, from behind the anonymizing mask worn by all Gamesmen, Block judges their performance answering a battery of trivia questions (e. g., "When was John F. Kennedy assassinated?") Block assesses their answers quite arbitrarily, cluing us readers in to the possibility that the Game is somehow bogus, as perhaps is Papa Joe's own professed commitment to the Game's traditions and rules.

Papa Joe receives a visitor to his tiny flat on the 57th floor of a skyscraper--it is his Gamesman!  Gamesman removes his mask, a flouting of the Game rules, and tells our narrator that they should work together to undermine the Game because it is rigged so as to be unwinnable.  Papa Joe refuses, but he has been corrupted, his faith in the Game shaken, and he starts approaching other Players, telling them what he has learned in hopes that they will resolve his dilemma for him, help him decidedwhether or not his dedication to the Game has been a terrible mistake.  But our hero achieves no satisfaction--there is no way out of his Catch-22, no-win situation.  Papa Joe desperately wants to advance in the Game, but he also wants to maintain his faith in the Game's fairness, and there is no way he can do both: on his eighth attempt to consummate the conventional sex act, Gamesman judges Papa Joe to have succeeded, even though our narrator has ejaculated on the woman's stomach as usual.

After advancing to Level 2 (however illegitimately), Papa Joe continues to overcome Game challenges (challenges which Malzberg does not bother to describe) until he approaches the allegedly impossible final test.  This unconventional challenge puts Papa Joe once again in a dilemma--he is given the job not merely of one of many Gamesmen, but of Games Master for his region, and he must decide if he should pass that couple he has been Gamesman to, whom he is well aware should be rejected--will Papa Joe defend the integrity of the Game (even though he has already benefited from breaking the Game's rules) or help out a fellow Player?  Which course will the true Masters of the Game judge to be the correct one?  Have the Masters posed him a challenge in which either decision he could make will be judged wrong, making the Game as unwinnable as he has been told?

In the final scenes of the novel the themes of sexual dysfunction and alienation from the first chapter are replayed--Papa Joe and the nameless woman Player have sex after dismissing her male partner, and our hero succeeds in ejaculating inside her--success!  But Block fails utterly to make any human connection with her--as had Gamesman before her, she quixotically seeks to form an alliance with him to try to stop the horrible Game and change society for the better, but he rejects her entreaties and does nothing to help her when the real Games Master returns and physically drags her off to be thrown in the Pit where all losers (i.e., all Players) end up--we must expect that Papa Joe Block himself will soon join her in oblivion.
"You'll be thrown into the Pit and it will be as if you never existed, as if none of this ever happened."
Malzberg takes as his subject in The Gamesman competitive sport, and we might see the novel as a sort of satire of the obsession of so many people with sports, which it is common for lefties to categorize as an "opiate of the masses" that keeps the people from rising up in revolution.  (George Orwell makes this point in numerous places, including in 1984 and The Road to Wigan Pier, and in both he links sports fandom to gambling; note that Malzberg compares the Game to a lottery.)  You and I know people whose mood is determined by how well "their team" is doing in some contest or other, people who know all kinds of sports statistics and history, and Papa Joe is like one of those people--he repeatedly tells us that his whole life, his entire psychological being, has been centered on the Game:
If he questions the assumptions of the Game wholly then he is denying his life, everything toward which his life has been focused. 
(As you may know, the winds of fate cast me ashore in the Baltimore-D.C. area, and so recently I had to endure the general excitement over the local team wining a big contest.  I didn't tell this to anybody, because I have no balls, but I thought it regrettable that the Washington team should win the world championship, because "the Beltway" is already inhabited by arrogant people who think they should run the lives of everybody else in the country, and I feared the victory of their team would only feed their inflated egos.)

Anyway, Malzberg here in The Gamesman suggests that sports obsession is a reflection of how psychologically difficult life is in modern industrial society; the Game is the surface topic of his book, but the Game is only a symptom of his real basic concern, that life in a technologically advanced society is meaningless.  (In his 1980 essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," which I think is valuable for helping us understand both Campbell and Malzberg, Malzberg relates that he told the editor of Astounding in 1969 that "it's not machinery, it's people, people being consumed at the heart of these machines, onrushing technology, the loss of individuality, the loss of control, these are the issues that are going to matter in science fiction for the next fifty years.")

Two thirds of the way into The Gamesman, Malzberg directly addresses the failure of technology to improve connections between people when he introduces the idea of a matter transmitter, another of the government's devices to distract the populace from the pointlessness of their lives.  The matter transmitter allows people to travel all over the world for a nominal fee, and Malzberg says:
Some to Tripoli, others to the Plains area, several to the Arabic Republic cluster in small groups whispering confidences of the voyage, but the majority are singles going to destinations apart from the others and the only thing which binds them together, it would seem, is their desperate need to get away from one another.  This would not build community.
Illustrating this, when Papa Joe, in the crowd of people waiting to be transmitted, tries to make friends with someone, his inept effort results in the crowd and an authority figure turning on him in anger.  I thought maybe this matter transmitter business was a satire of TV, a technological marvel that has been heralded as bringing the world together as a "global village" by exposing people to far off cultures, but also denounced as destroying real community by giving everybody an incentive to never leave the house to meet real people in the flesh.  

If you've spent time among Democrats and other pinkos, as I have, you may be familiar with the concept of "false consciousness," the idea that the common people don't know their own interests and need the guidance of the "vanguard" to convince them to join the revolution or of left-wing journalists and college professors to convince them to vote for the correct candidates.  The Gamesman may be a sort of dramatization or satire of this concept, as throughout the novel we see Papa Joe vacillate between holding on to his childlike faith in the Game's fairness despite the claims presented by his betters that the Game is a scam and should be undermined from within, and embracing this "truth" and trying to convince others (with limited success) of this terrible reality.

The Gamesman is also a sort of spoof or commentary on books and writing.  In conventional fiction about a game or sport or other competition (fighting a war or managing a business, say) the game or conflict would be used as a metaphor for life.  Here in The Gamesman, Malzberg/Papa Joe Block insists, repeatedly, that the Game is not a metaphor.  Malzberg also makes a joke about his own inability as a writer to describe memorable characters (he similarly incorporated criticisms of his own style into the narrative of The Day of the Burning.)

Is The Gamesman any good--can I recommend it to people?  Well, it is not the adventure story of a guy fighting in an arena or racing through a death maze or something ("He was quick enough to survive") or a vivid depiction of future society ("A staggering vision of Earth in the not-so-distant future") the text on the book's cover implies it is.  Quite a few chapters are good--the sex scenes and the first interview with the Games Master are funny, and the matter transmitter business is good--but a number of scenes feel repetitive; there are multiple interviews with the Games Master (including a dream sequence) and the renegade Gamesman and some of these don't feel strictly necessary or as individually well-crafted as others.  The Gamesman might have been more successful as a work of art if it was shorter, though probably Malzberg needed to reach a certain word count to sell it as a novel.  Malzberg theoretically might have padded the thing with discussions of how life is lived in the 23rd century, government and economy stuff, or more examples of Game tests, but Malzberg does very little to describe the setting or to present memorable images--it is not Malzberg's practice to do the "world building" that so many SF readers look for, or to pen thrilling action scenes.  As a Malzberg fan, I of course enjoyed The Gamesman, but God knows if others will.

Maybe The Gamesman is for Malzberg fans only...and perhaps Philip K. Dick fans.  I got a lot of mileage out of comparing the work of Michael Moorcock to The Garbage World in my blog post about that novel by Charles Platt, who dedicated The Garbage World to Moorcock, and maybe if I was familiar with Dick's oeuvre I could have done a similar thing here, but Dick resides in one of the many lacunae in my reading.

**********

Having drafted my own blog post on The Gamesman, now comes the time here at MPorcius Fiction Log when we reread Joachim Boaz's blog post on it and see to what extent he and I agree or disagree about the topic at hand.  But I am kind of at a loss, because I can't disagree with anything substantive Joachim said in his review.  If there is disagreement, I think it is that Joachim finds The Gamesman to be above average Malzberg, and I find it to be just average Malzberg.  My readings of Underlay, Everything Happened to Susan, Herovit's WorldScreen, and The Horizontal Woman are leading me to believe that Malzberg's best work is his least science-fictiony, his stories about people in New York struggling with sexual frustration, unfulfilling government jobs and dismal writing careers.    

Monday, November 25, 2019

"Spacebred Generations" (AKA "Target Generation") by Clifford N. Simak

Internet vintage SF hero and supporter of the white elephant known as MPorcius Fiction Log, Joachim Boaz of Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, is doing a series of reviews of short stories about that beloved science fiction theme, the generation ship.  His first review in the series was of my candidate for the title of anthropologist Chad Oliver's best SF story, 1957's "The Wind Blows Free," which I blogged about in February of 2018.  Joachim announced that the second story he would be dealing with in the series would be Clifford Simak's "Target Generation," originally published under the title "Spacebred Generations" in 1953 in Science Fiction Plus, a magazine edited by Hugo Gernsback, the cismale for whom the Hugo award was named.  A scanned version of that issue of Science Fiction Plus is readily available to one and all at the internet archive, and I read "Spacebred Generations" there last week and am now ready to reveal my assessment to the world.  I encourage you to click on the link to the scan of the magazine yourself before reading my spoiler-rich description and dissection below, read the story and then join the conversation at Joachim's blog--he loves inspiring and participating in discussion of vintage SF!

**********

I have strong disagreements with Simak's political and economic attitudes, and have panned quite a few of his productions, but I still think he is an able writer and I have enjoyed a number of his stories and novels (check out my blog posts on "The Fence", "Dusty Zebra", "To Walk a City's Streets" and A Heritage of Stars) and so I am looking forward to reading "Spacebred Generations."  Gernsback prefaces the story with a long and extravagant blurb ("Here at last is a different science-fiction story") that makes it sound totally awesome.  Let's hope Gernsback's not trying to pull the wool over our glazzies!

Hardcover 1956 edition of Strangers in the
Universe
, which included "Spacebred Generations"
under the title "Target Generation"
Jon Hoff and his wife Mary live on a huge Ship which is run on strict authoritarian lines to ensure that the vessel's supplies don't run out--for example, they are forbidden to have a child until Jon's elderly friend, Joshua, dies.  People aboard the Ship don't even really know what "ship" means, or what stars are, though they know the word "star" and through the observation blisters can see the stars circling their home--the "Folk" believe that the Ship is sitting still and the stars are endlessly rotating around them.  Only a small proportion of the Folk perform any productive work (Joshua, who runs a hydroponics garden, is one of the few who has a job) and so people like Jon and Mary spend all their time just killing time, playing chess or poker or pointlessly gossiping. 

Reading is forbidden among the Folk, but Jon was secretly taught how to read by his now-deceased father, who was taught to read by his father before him.  Hidden in an unused level of the giant Ship is the dictionary handed down to him by his father, and with it is a sealed letter, written by a long-forgotten ancestor, only to be opened and read in the event of an emergency.  One day, the Ship suddenly lurches, the stars cease circling the Ship and the surface that was once the floor is now a wall, sending furniture throughout the ship crashing.  Jon decides this seems like an emergency and that the time has come to read that sealed letter!

There are traditions that these generation ship stories tend to follow, traditions seen in Robert Heinlein's 1941 "Universe" and seen again in Brian Aldiss's 1958 Non-Stop AKA Starship and Gene Wolfe's 1990s The Book of the Long Sun: the inhabitants of the ship do not understand the true nature of the ship and the universe, but over the course of the story that true nature is revealed, which results in a paradigm shift marked by a revolutionary war; Simak faithfully hews to these traditions.

The letter guides Jon to a secret room where there is a machine that puts knowledge into your head--by hooking himself up to the machine Jon learns the truth about space and Earth and the stars and the history and mission of the Ship.  The Ship has ceased rotating because it is close to the planet it was sent, a thousand years and dozens of generations ago, to colonize.  Jon has to take control of the ship and guide it into orbit around the planet to be colonized; in the process he will be overturning the static culture and bogus religion that has grown up on the Ship over the centuries, but luckily hidden along with the knowledge machine is a firearm so Jon has the means to work his revolution (remember what Chairman Mao said!)  Tragically, the leader of the religion and defender of the status quo that must be destroyed is Jon's best friend Joe!  Joe becomes one of those eggs that one must break in order to make the omelette! 

In the end, when Jon has landed the Ship on an Earth-like planet against the will of the masses of the Folk, Jon realizes that everything that has happened for the last thousand years--including the fake religion and his ancestors' maintenance of a tradition of reading samizdat style and his own revolution--was planned out by the people who built the Ship back on Earth.

1957 paperback edition
This is a good story, and I enjoyed it and recommend it, but Gernsback was exaggerating when he talked abut how "different" it was: it is a standard SF story that does standard stuff.  Simak romanticizes science--the search for knowledge--and the written word, even including multiple footnotes about hydroponics and advanced sleep-learning techniques and computers and research into the oral and written transmission of history that refer to real life experiments and theories.  As in so many SF stories, in "Spacebred Generations" religion is a scam or a mistake that holds back progress.  And like in so many SF stories there is an elite with special knowledge and skills that uses those advantages to push the common people around--for their own good, of course! 

If we want to give the benefit of the doubt to Gernsback and Simak (and I do--I like those guys!), we can say that Simak's story is perhaps a little different because Simak goes into the philosophy of when laws are good and should be followed and when they are bad and should be broken, and because Simak doesn't shy away from depicting the costs individuals and communities pay when making a change, even a change for the better.  The religion that Jon explodes really did comfort people, however bogus it may have been, and Jon really does suffer psychologically from having to gun down his unarmed best friend Joe.

A solid traditional SF story--thumbs up!