Sunday, January 15, 2017

Empire of Two Worlds by Barrington J. Bayley

"Killibol's the world, the world we're going to transform.  It's like a bomb waiting to be set off.  We're going to release all the energies pent up in those cities.  We'll make a society, an empire, where almost anything will be possible...."
His fellow British SF writers Michael Moorcock and Brian Stableford have a very high opinion of Barrington J. Bayley, and when I recently read two stories by Bayley I gave them passing grades, so it seems the time is ripe to read a novel by Bayley.  Now, it is true that, via twitter, Joachim Boaz warned me away from 1972's Empire of Two Worlds, but the John Schoenherr cover of my Ace edition of the novel, and the Karel Thole cover of the Italian edition even moreso, lead me to believe it is the epic tale of a land warship crossing a desert to wage war on or liberate a futuristic city--to a kid like me who watched StarBlazers religiously back in the '80s, this is nigh irresistible!  Let's see if Empire of Two Worlds lives up to its illustrators!

Killibol!  Desert planet!  Colonized by Earthmen approximately a thousand years ago, this barren rock has no native life and cannot support any sort of agriculture, so the people of the labyrinthine cities (compared by our narrator to termite hives) eat goop grown in vats primarily from waste material.  (They call them "tanks" on Killibol, but I prefer "vats," myself.  That's right, I'm editing the "most original SF writer of his generation.")  All you stoners out there, don't worry, somebody somehow and somewhere is secretly growing marijuana on Killibol to help people take the edge off of hive living!  (Don't harsh everybody's buzz by asking why, if they can grow pot, they don't grow wheat, tomatoes and basil and eat spaghetti instead of vat goop.)

These are some serious blurbs!
The upper levels of the hive city of Klittmann* are under government control, but the lower level slums (the "Basement") are in a state of warfare, warfare between various gangs.  Our narrator, Klein, a former metalworker turned muscle for one gang leader, Klamer, finds himself in the inner circle of Becmath, another gang leader, after Becmath takes over Klamer's territory.  Becmath is ambitious and intelligent, and has read some old books, so has developed a sort of Leninist dream of taking over the entire city and, as dictator, putting the vats, I mean tanks, under full government control.  For the good of the people, of course!

*When I was thirteen my friends and I would have laughed at this name for hours, and made jokes like "I'm trying to find Klittmann, where the hell is it, its like the hardest place to find in the world...." for weeks.

The police of Klittmann have big wheeled armored fighting vehicles called sloops, and Becmath has Klein construct a sloop for their gang, one with better weapons than the government sloops.  Then Becmath begins taking over the city, first the Basement and then pieces of the next level up.  Disaster strikes when the upper level police and some Basement dwellers who don't appreciate Becmath's rule combine forces and attack in concert; in the super sloop Becmath, Klein, and a few other ruthless criminal types escape the city into the lifeless wilderness, bringing along Harmen the "alchemist," the most knowledgeable man in Klittmann.

In the desert Becmath expresses his Napoleonic or maybe Alexandrian (with Harmen as his Aristotle?) ideas of a vast empire which, under his rule, will be devoted to "progress," and Klein swears an oath of allegiance to Becmath and his, at this point, purely hypothetical "state." Demonstrating their single-minded devotion to the State, Becmath cold-bloodedly murders a woman (a desert nomad) Klein picked up and has been having sex with, and Klein just shrugs off this atrocity.

A third or so of the way through the book Harmen leads the mobsters to an ancient teleporter thing that brings the scoundrels to the Earth of like a million years in our future.  (There's some mumbo jumbo about time moving faster on Earth than Killibol which is quickly forgotten.)  The human race has evolved, and artistic green-skinned people are at war with tall belligerent grey people who have been living on a terraformed moon for millenias and are now trying to conquer the Earth.  Becmath gets himself and his buddies ensconced high up in the lunar invaders' hierarchy, and soon Klein and the other Killibolians are managing vast factories and the requisite Earthling slave labor, building enough firearms and armored vehicles for an army. Nine years after his arrival on Earth, Becmath, like some kind of Caesar, Franco or Mao, returns to his home city of Klittmann at the head of a green-skinned conquering army!  But will his rule be one that fosters peace and prosperity, or one that, like that of so many revolutionaries in Earth's distant past, is more murderous and oppressive than the corrupt elites he is replacing?  Klein, in the final pages of the book, must decide how to react when he learns of Becmath's final solution for Klitmann and all of Killibol.

Empire of Two Worlds is an entertaining science-fiction adventure story, but one which totally lacks any wish fulfillment elements, one which doesn't glorify revolution or imperialism and which does not cater to Victorian morality or liberal sensibilities.  The main characters are drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and torturers, who unlike, say, John Carter, who civilizes Mars when he takes over, murder and exploit everybody who falls under their power.  None of the women in the story are the kind of take-charge kung fu girls who apparently predominate in 21st century SF action movies--the women in Empire of Two Worlds are helpless victims of the callous and cruel empire builders.  Bayley's story is sordid and vulgar: our "heroes" side with the evil invaders of Earth against the pastoral natives, and drug addiction (and not just to the relatively innocuous pot mentioned earlier) plays a major role in the plot and in Becmath's machinations.  This is a SF adventure imbued with elements of a tragic crime drama about low lifes and a cynicism about revolutionary politics.

The mobsters have to wear goggles on
Earth because Sol is much
brighter than Killibol's sun
I found Empire of Two Worlds entertaining, but, as I pointed out before, Joachim Boaz is down on it.  In his blog post of summer 2010 about the novel (which post I put off reading until after drafting my summary and assessment above) he awards the novel only 2 of 5 stars, a "Bad" rating, and complains that the characters are boring and the battle scenes banal.  I actually thought the characters and scenes of violence were pretty good; I enjoy straightforward adventure tales more than does Joachim.  Joachim and I agree that the beginning of the book on the desert planet of hive cities was better than the Earth sequences, and that Bayley has good ideas.  I would also suggest that Bayley does a good job setting the scene--describing various sights and sounds and smells, and describing how the narrator reacts to moving from one weird environment (cramped hive city to vast lifeless waste to fertile Earth to grim Luna and then back again) to the next.  I also appreciate that Bayley seems to be trying to say something about radical politics and imperialism, that men of ambition pursue big projects out of selfish ends despite what they may say about the good of the people and progress.

Moderate recommendation from me, particularly if you like adventure stories, gangster epics and anti-heroes.  Finally, I want to note that Klittmann reminded me of the Warhammer 40,000 setting Necromunda; I also sensed some kind of connection between Bayley and WH40K last time I wrote about Bayley's work.


My copy of Empire of Two Worlds has fun stamps on its inside front cover that help chronicle its journey since its printing in 1972.  One indicates it was once in the inventory of the Book Nook of Atlanta, GA.  These is no Book Nook at 3889 Buford Highway in Atlanta today, but there is a Book Nook in nearby Decatur; perhaps the store moved there soon after acquiring Empire of Two Worlds?  Another stamp reveals that my copy of Bayley's book was sold by Chapter 1 of Ashland, OH.  Chapter 1's location now seems to be occupied by a business which caters to hipster booze enthusiasts.  ("Whether you’re new to the world of wine, craft beer or cask ale, we hope to be your friend and guide as we continue on this great adventure!")  Too bad!  I'm sure you can medicate yourself with the swill they sell at the many Kroger and Walmart locations in Ohio, but you can't find 40-year old books about a gangster on a desert planet just anywhere!  Fortunately for us scholars of crime on desert planets, Ohio is home to numerous Half Price Books locations; I bought Empire of Two Worlds at the Lewis Center location, along with five other important volumes

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Very Private Life by Michael Frayn

This is what she always wanted to know--how the outside classes live, what the world is like outside the holovision circuits.  And this is it.  She gazes about her with benevolence.  These are real people, undistorted by holovision!  This is the real world!
My copy
Remember how much I loved Paul Lehr's cover for Croyd? Well, here we have another Lehr masterpiece, the cover to the Dell 1969 edition of Michael Frayn's 1968 novel A Very Private Life.  The colors, the shadows, the tubes, the sphere, the man's face, the sharp points of the sphere's stand, the woman's nude body, the red arcs of electricity...beautiful!  (This gorgeous painting would later appear in non-English markets on the covers of other books, even though all the elements of the illustration are directly based on things in Frayn's text.)

I've never read anything by Frayn before, though he is an important playwright and my wife is a big fan of Copenhagen in particular.  Let's see what A Very Private Life is all about. 

A Very Private Life is written in the style of fairy tale--its first line is "Once upon a time there will be a little girl called Uncumber."  Its tone and its short chapters reminded me of a children's book, but this is a fairy tale for adults, written in the future tense and the present tense, about social class and familial and sexual relationships, about the vast social and psychological distances between individuals and between groups of people, distances which make satisfying connections between people so difficult to achieve.

In the future, middle-class people, known as "the inside classes," live in hermetically sealed underground houses, houses which they never leave.  All the air, food (largely pills and goop that comes out of a tap) and goods they need are brought in, and all the waste they produce sent out, via pipes and tubes.  Communication and entertainment is provided through the holovision system, a network which will strongly remind 21st-century readers of the internet.  Nobody ever comes to visit; education and socializing, including sex, are all conducted over the holovision; members of the inside classes almost never lay their eyes directly on a fellow human being--they even wear dark glasses around the house, though they leave their bodies bare, and family members living in the same house tend to communicate via the holovision with each other rather than leave their personal rooms.  Married couples even send their sperm and ova out through a tube, and later receive their baby via tube!

First edition
The inside classes control their moods via drugs; among other things, their pharmacopoeia includes "calmants" should they get anxious and "Hilarin," to be taken before a party to ensure they laugh at even the oldest and weakest jokes.  A hallucinogen, "Libidin," is taken during their long distance love making sessions, along with "Orgasmin;" lovers share visions of flying over mountains and through clouds and such romantic claptrap.

We learn all this as we follow the maturation of Uncumber. the daughter of a "decider" (a kind of government bureaucrat) who lives in one of the houses with her father, mother and a younger brother.  Uncumber is a curious, troublesome child who refuses to take her drugs and wonders what it is like outside.  When, in her late teens, she dials a wrong number on her holovision and meets a man named Noli, who lives far away and speaks a foreign language, Uncumber inexplicably falls in love with him.  She leaves the house and travels thousands of miles to meet Noli, having numerous adventures in the strange outside world of the teeming working classes, who wear clothes, breathe the air the house dwellers fear because it is full of germs and pollution, and perform the manual labor that produces the food and other goods consumed by the inside classes.

Having observed the life of ease and privacy lived by the inside classes, we experience the generally drab and monotonous, but occasionally passionate and dangerous, life of the lower orders as Uncumber moves in with Noli's family, who reside in a ruined mansion.  Noli's large family has only one holovision, one of Noli's three wives cooks their food herself on a stove, and Noli not only has physical sex with his wives, but sometimes strikes them.  To Uncumber's disappointment, when Noli finally has sex with her, instead of engaging in the intimate all-natural sex she craves, he apes the practices of the inside classes and takes Libidin pills before coupling with her:
She has corrupted him, she realizes.  The world which she represents still hangs about her, even though she has rejected it.  It has touched against Noli's world and bruised it, just as wealthier worlds have always bruised and destroyed the poorer ones they have come into contact with down the ages, however good the intentions of their representatives.
In the final third of the novel Uncumber leaves Noli's family but gets lost in a forest on her way to the rocket terminal.  Desperate for help, she knocks on the airlocks of various houses, but her fellow members of the middle-class refuse to aid her, and she almost starves to death before being captured by a band of nomadic brigands.  She briefly experiences life among the lowest of the low, accompanying them as they break into a house and murder its inhabitants.  When they catch up with the murderers Uncumber is taken into custody by the police, known as "the Kind People" in this world, an apparent reference to Aeschylus' play The Eumenides; "Eumenides," which means "Kindly Ones," is a name for the Furies, the Greek goddesses of vengeance who punish wrongdoers.

A recent British edition; I guess
this is a stock photo--it could
apply to just about any story
about a (Caucasian) teenage girl 
Uncumber is provided a house of her own by the authorities; for reasons that felt a little contrived (disappointing in a novel which otherwise is so convincing, in which everybody's feelings and actions feel so natural) she is not put back in contact with her family.  In the closing chapters of the book Frayn informs us that over the decades and centuries the inside classes will grow even more isolated and individualistic, insiders Uncumber's age deciding to forgo having children and to break contact with their elder relatives and to live out their centuries in solitude.

I take Frayn's argument to be that we are doomed to be alone because we cannot know one another, and that our relationships are bound to be disappointing or destructive.  Illustrating the unbridgeable gaps between peoples and individuals, and how these gaps distort our views of each other, Uncumber, as a young child, calls the people who live outside houses "animals," but when as an adult she meets Noli and his large family, because they live in a (albeit ruined) palace, she calls them "kings and queens."  Our views of each other are shallow and inaccurate, based more on our own desires and fears than knowledge of each other, such knowledge being almost impossible to obtain.

In our last episode we talked about Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed, so I guess you could say this is our second dystopia in a row by a British writer with major cred in the literary mainstream.  I was a little lukewarm about The Wanting Seed; it is amusing and full of challenging ideas and literary allusions, but doesn't provide emotional depth.  I can be more enthusiastic about Frayn's A Very Private Life; while not as dense and complex as the Burgess, it has the kind of sharp clear images and emotional weight that move me: despite its fairy tale tone, it feels very "real."  Frayn's depictions of human relationships and Uncumber's feelings ring true and pull at the heartstrings, while his descriptions of Uncumber's world--her home; a seaside dominated by the machinery of industrialized aquaculture; the grounds of Noli's ruined mansion; the forest where she encounters despair, hope, and then atrocity--paint vivid images in the mind.

Very good.  My wife owns a copy of Frayn's 1966 novel The Tin Men; maybe I should check it out as well.      

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess

'What I was told made me very unwell.  I don't get my promotion.  My father's philoprogenitiveness disqualifies me.  And my own heterosexuality.'
My copy, front. Focus: cannibalism, 
terror, mind control (?)
Well, we just reread Barry Malzberg's "Culture Lock," a 1973 story about an authoritarian government which promotes homosexuality, now let's take a look at Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel The Wanting Seed, which also features an overbearing government determined to limit heterosexual sex.  I own a paperback copy from Ballantine, printed in 1970.

Beatrice-Joanna Foxe is a romantic, an atavist, an Anglo-Saxon heterosexual in a multi-ethnic future London of hundred-story tall skyscrapers, capital of a socialistic Britain dominated by gay men and eunuchs.  Beatrice-Joanna has a voluptuous body, even though skinny girls are in fashion.  She wants to be a mother even though reproduction is considered declasse by most members of her (middle) class ("Leave motherhood to the lower orders," she is told by a government bureaucrat, "like nature intended.")  She believes in God even though she has never seen a Bible and religion has been largely suppressed.  And despite all the government propaganda pushing homosexuality, she has an insatiable desire for men, while such common sights as that of lesbians kissing and of perfumed men applying lipstick make her retch.

Part One of the 223-page novel chronicles a single, terrible day in the rocky marriage of Beatrice-Joanna and her husband, Tristram.  Tristram is a teacher of history, who, after completing the day's lecturing (Burgess uses the lecture to key us in to the novel's background and themes) is told that a gay man has been given a promotion Tristram himself was in line for because of Tristram's disfavored sexual orientation and because research indicated Tristram's parents had a shockingly large number of children (four.)  For ages all government policy has been aimed at discouraging reproduction, but as the level of population threatens to overwhelm the ability of the Ministry of Agriculture to produce enough food to feed everyone, even on short rations, the authorities are cracking down harder than ever.

That very same day Beatrice-Joanna learns their infant son has died--public officials assure her it is for the best: "Think of this in national terms, in global terms.  One mouth less to feed."  While Tristram takes to a bar to look for comfort for the loss of his promotion in the bottom of a glass, his wife is comforted by Tristram's brother Derek.  Derek, in reality a virile heterosexual who has been cuckolding Tristram behind his back, has for many years been putting on an extravagant and convincing imitation of a gay man in order to get ahead.  And get ahead he does!  When, as part of the crackdown, a new police force (the "Population Police") is formed, Derek is made its Commissioner!

First edition, focus: skyscrapers
 and/or bar charts (?) 
People who talk about politics often use the metaphor of a pendulum to describe how one political faction or ideology's rule is inevitably followed by rule by its opposite.  The topic of Tristram's lecture to his uncomprehending students is the similar idea that history works in a cycle of three stages, a "Pelagian Phase," an "Intermediate Phase," and then an "Augustinian Phase."  Poor Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna are living through an Intermediate Phase, when the Pelagian government, which believed in the perfectibility of man, is disappointed to find man is not as tractable as supposed, and turns to harsh measures (like the Population Police) to get the populace to behave.

(I'm not sure if we are supposed to take this cyclical theory seriously, or Burgess means it as a satire of mechanical Marxist and Whiggish theories that argue history is a kind of inevitable journey through various stages to a particular end point.)

In Part Two Beatrice-Joanna flees London for the countryside after discovering that she was impregnated (by Derek or Tristram, she is not sure) on the day her first child and Tristram's career hopes died.  At State Farm NW313 she reunites with her sister Mavis and Mavis's husband Shonny, a man of unshakeable (or so it seems!) religious faith.  For his part, Tristram gets mixed up in a street fight between striking workers (their gripe: rations have been cut again!) and the grey clad regular police and is tossed in prison.

In Part Three we briefly meet the Prime Minister, Robert Starling, and his catamite, Abdul Wahab.  Starling is under terrible stress because a worldwide famine is leading to starvation and even cannibalism, and there seems to be no solution to the problem.  Little Wahab is a Muslim and his naive (or is it cunning?) talk about the efficacy of prayer starts a chain of events in the government that leads to a lifting of prohibitions on religion.  While Beatrice-Joanna is secretly giving birth to twins in an abandoned outbuilding on State Farm NW313 and underground clergymen are emerging from obscurity, Tristram, with the help of a Nigerian murderer and cannibal, escapes from prison.

An earlier Ballantine, focus:
Part Four follows Tristram as he leaves London and heads for State Farm NW313, he having learned his wife is there.  The Starling government has collapsed (political and social changes happen with bewildering speed in this book, which is more of a satire than a realistic "what if" scenario) and rail service has ended, making Tristram's journey a slow one.  The police have been driven from the countryside by the populace, many of them killed and eaten!  The resulting anarchy is not depicted by Burgess as a dangerous chaos but as a rebirth of freedom and human decency: after centuries of anti-pregnancy and pro-homosexual propaganda and policy, the English people have fervently returned to their natural inclinations and engage in unashamed public heterosexual sex.  Private enterprise is starting up again, and, with the cessation of television broadcasts, people are creating their own entertainment--amateur theatricals, parades, music made with old-fashioned instruments.  (Where the old government TV shows glamorized gay relationships and denigrated reproduction, these new amateur productions unabashedly take heterosexual sex as their theme.)  Everyone is eager to help Tristram reach his wife and he is provided food and lifts from town to town. "When the State withers," a musician explains to Tristram, "humanity flowers."  Tristram interprets these changes as the end of the "Interphase" and start of the "Augustinian Phase."  

Another aspect of an Augustinian Phase is militarism, and before he can get to his wife, Tristram finds himself shanghaied into the newly reactivated British Army!  Part Five of The Wanting Seed is set a year into the new regime, that of George Ockham--all that anarchy only lasted a few days.  While Beatrice-Joanna and the twins live in luxury (the new capitalist economy has improved living standards) with Derek (who has cast off his old nancy boy pose with the change in regime), Tristram, a sergeant, acts as an instructor to low-I.Q. privates, and then finds himself sailing off on a campaign.  But, as the back cover blurbs of my copy warn you, the war is a sham: there is no war, and Tristram's platoon of dolts is simply murdered--this is the Augustinian government's solution to the overpopulation problem, to recruit the criminal and stupid and execute them, claiming they died defending their country.

In an epilogue, having survived the murder of his comrades, Tristram makes his way back to England and is reunited with Beatrice-Joanna.  He also theorizes that the Augustinian period will not last long; soon the inevitable historical cycle will begin again.

My copy, back
There is a lot of stuff going on in The Wanting Seed; Burgess addresses many topics.  The text on the covers of my copy proclaim the book a "NOVEL OF THE POPULATION BOMB," that is "TERRIFYING," "SHOCKING,"and "HAIR-RAISING."  I am going to have to disagree with Saturday Review and Newsweek; except for a few scenes, the tone of The Wanting Seed is jocular, and ofttimes feels broad and farcical.  As a satire rather than something realistic the book's characters and situations do not feel "real" and do not inspire deep feelings.  The potentially terrifying scenes, like the cannibalism and the massacre of Tristram's platoon, are heavily foreshadowed, so they are not "shocking," and are accompanied with absurd jokes, so they are not "hair-raising."

As for being a novel about overpopulation, I didn't feel that Burgess was putting a whole lot of effort into developing an atmosphere of claustrophobia or impending doom, of describing how horribly overcrowded London was.  It seemed to me that he was using overpopulation as an excuse to present his caricatures of Pelagian (leftist) and Augustinian (right wing) government, the former stifling people's freedom and natural inclinations and the latter indulging in gross violence and weeding society's losers out of the gene pool.

What I found more compelling than the overpopulation and strictly political themes was the novel's focus on love; as I read it, The Wanting Seed struck me as a celebration of heterosexual love, the kind of love that leads to the creation of children, the kind of love sanctioned and promoted by Christianity.  I suppose I was primed to find such a theme in The Wanting Seed by my memories of A Clockwork Orange, published the same year as The Wanting Seed.  In the final chapter of the original version of A Clockwork Orange (not the truncated American edition upon which Kubrick's film was based), Alex, after efforts of an overbearing and intrusive government have failed to reform him, is reformed by his own desire to have a child.

A recent printing, focus: comedy
The names of the The Wanting Seed's two main characters, taken from those two great medieval stories of love, the carnal tale of Tristan and Isolde and Dante's autobiographical descriptions of his chaste love for Beatrice in La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy, point us in the direction of seeing the novel as primarily about Christian heterosexual love.  The novel's plot is driven by Beatrice-Joanna's sexual lust and her desire for children, and Tristram's jealous and then forgiving love for his wife.  Children play a prominent role throughout the story.  Burgess also contrasts heterosexuals and homosexuals, exhibiting plenty of sympathy for the straight characters and their desires, and no sympathy at all for the gay characters, who are portrayed as disgusting and are repudiated, violently, by the common people.

While many of the religious characters in the book were silly or flawed, I still felt like Burgess was trying to put across a positive view of religion.  Tristram, for example, follows a sort of Christian journey, learning to forgive his wife and to resist the (initially powerful) temptation to pursue revenge against his brother.  The atheist characters in the story are not confident in their lack of faith, falling back into religiosity on slight pretexts, while, given the chance, the mass of people quickly reassert their belief in God, in the same way they enthusiastically embrace straight sex as soon as the Pelagian government falls.  Burgess seems to suggest that a belief in God is as natural and irrepressible as physical desire for the opposite sex, that both are healthy urges that centuries of propaganda cannot extirpate.    

The Wanting Seed apparently got good reviews when it first appeared, but if it was published in our 21st century I suspect the author would be at risk of being dragged before a court for the Michel Houellebecq / Mark Steyn treatment, not only for its portrayal of gays but for its attitudes about race.  In the first dozen pages, as Beatrice-Joanna looks at a multiracial crowd, she reflects thusly:
Was it, she thought in an instant almost of prophetic power, to be left to her and the few indisputable Anglo-Saxons like her to restore sanity and dignity to the mongrel world?  Her race, she seemed to remember, had done it before.
As the novel presents heterosexuality as superior to homosexuality, and the pervasiveness of "homos" in Pelagian Britain as a source of disgust or horror, so too, I think, it presents the "native" British people as superior to the Africans and Asians who now make up the lion's share of London's population, and, as with gays and lesbians, suggests that the prevalence of nonwhites is a sign of an unnatural, unhealthy, cultural deviation.  The widespread, government-sanctioned cannibalism of the Augustinian period, for example, is closely associated with non-white people--a cross-eyed "Mongol" at the labor strike voices his desire to have the police put in a stew pot, there is the aforementioned murderous Nigerian whom Tristram meets in prison, and when Tristram is in the army the soldiers' rations, he finds, are human flesh imported from China.  While white British people and the government do embrace cannibalism, Burgess seems to be trying to suggest that it is a fundamentally alien practice, a foreign perversion which has infected the people of the sceptred isle.

I would expect many people nowadays to find The Wanting Seed's points of view reprehensible, and I have already suggested that it is too satirical for my tastes, that it did not elicit an emotional response from me.  But the novel has its virtues and I am still happy to give it the old thumbs up--it is amusing and interesting.

The final page of my copy
advertises three Burgess novels, all of
which I have read and can reccomend
Burgess's style is smooth and easy to follow, and the jokes, particularly the dialogue of minor characters like school-age children and Tristram's guard at prison, are actually funny.  At the same time, Burgess rewards the educated reader (and the reader willing to educate himself by typing things into google.)  Burgess challenges you to figure out exactly what he is getting at with his cyclical theory of history, either expects you to know or to look up such esoteric words as "bathycolpous," "strabismus," and "flavicomous," and fills his text with copious literary and historical allusions of varying degrees of subtlety.  I doubtlessly missed many of them, but it is fun when you do catch such references, when Burgess's erudition overlaps your own; as a reader of Boswell and Johnson, my ears perked up when Tristram entered Lichfield, for example.  A few times I felt that Burgess was giving a shout out to science fiction readers: The Wanting Seed has many minor characters, characters who are only mentioned once, and Burgess seems to have deliberately named some of these individuals after important SF writers--an Aldiss, an Asimov, and a Heinlein all show up.
Not a great novel, and not the shocking horror show advertised, but a good novel, readable, thought-provoking and entertaining.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Six stories from 1973-74 by Barry Malzberg

You didn't think I had forgotten about Barry Malzberg and his 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, did you?  I was just taking a little breakypoo!  It's a new year, and time for some more of Malzberg's idiosyncratic fiction and keen insight into the writer's life and the history of genre literature.  This will be the fourth installment in our exploration of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which we began in October of 2016.  Here are links to the earlier episodes:

October 1, 2016

October 4, 2016

October 30, 2016

And now six more early 1970s tales from the notorious BNZ, whose Underlay was one of my favorite reads of 2016.

"City Lights, City Nights" (1973)

I find the extravagant way people talk about JFK and his murder tiresome, but all that Camelot jazz happened before I was born in 1971; Malzberg lived through it, and it seems to have had a big effect on him.  He tells us in the intro to "City Lights, City Nights" found here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg that he first heard about the assassination while at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.  (I lived in Queens myself for like three years, but far from the track; my girlfriend (now my wife) and I lived quite close to the East River, in the border zone between Astoria and Long Island City, in what the landlord called a "garden apartment."  An equally appropriate description would have been "the basement."  One year our place flooded with sewage, and another year it was overrun with swarming winged ants.)  Malzberg admits to being "obsessed" with political assassinations, and seems to think that the literary community has failed to produce a work worthy of the topic.  Specifically, Malzberg argues that J. G. Ballard's "serious body of post-assassination fiction" "does not count" because Ballard is not an American, and that "That Day" by Robie Macauley is "dismal" and Wright Morris's One Day is "cheaply melodramatic."

In the future, Manhattan's skyscrapers are falling apart and its population is limited to those our narrator calls "the lumpen," criminals and dolts who are confined to the decrepit island.  Our narrator is an "Outsider" who has come to Manhattan to direct a film reenacting the assassination of President Kennedy, using local amateur actors. The story largely consists of his bitter complaints that the lumpen actors are terrible and lamentations that the repeated rehearsals are probably a waste of time, may even be degrading the quality of their performances by rendering them more mechanical and less spontaneous.

Kennedy worship leaves me cold, so I was pleased that Malzberg in this story uses the murder of the 35th President as much as an occasion to talk about other things as a subject in its own right.  The complaints of a snobbish artiste having to deal with actors whose incompetence approaches slapstick proportions made me laugh, and I found compelling the central insight of the story: it depicts an educated intellectual (presumably a "liberal") who romanticized and sympathized with the lower classes in the abstract, but finds himself disgusted by them when he actually meets them.  The narrator quickly comes to the conclusion that if the lumpen have it hard in life, it is largely because of their own inadequacies and poor choices.  "Dogs, pigs!" he yells at them.  "You deserve to be in the city!  Once I took pity on you, but that was before I came to know what you are!"

The lumpen achieve their revenge on the liberal who claimed to feel for them but in fact had contempt for them and manipulated them for his own ends (why do I feel like this sort of thing just happened in real life?), making the director play the part of JFK in an all-too-real reenactment of that assassination in Dallas so many years ago.

"City Lights, City Nights" would go on to form part of Malzberg's 1974 novel The Destruction of the Temple, and originally appeared in Roger Elwood's anthology Future City.  I think I've told you this before, but if you are curious about Future City and early '70s SF in general, you should check out the blog posts about Future City by elite vintage SF bloggers tarbandu and Joachim Boaz.  For an alternative take on "City Lights, City Nights"/The Destruction of the Temple, check out 2theD's review of The Destruction of the Temple at Potpourri of Science Fiction; while I here focus on the short story's depiction of the tension between the lower orders and the middle-class liberals who sometimes claim to champion them, 2theD talks about the importance, in the full-scale novel version, of the idea that city life is dehumanizing and that the pressures of urban life have caused many of the social problems we associate with 1960s and 1970s America.


"Culture Lock" (1973)

Another story from Future City.  In the intro to this printing of "Culture Lock" Malzberg takes pains to tell us again and again that he sees nothing wrong with homosexuality and welcomes the growing acceptance of gays.  You see, while the theme of "Culture Lock" is the dangers of government experts interfering in the lives of the people, the substance of the story is gay anal sex, and Malzberg is certainly vulnerable to the charge of exploiting people's disgust at homosexual intercourse in an effort to give his story, one of many depictions of a tyrannical dystopia, a little extra punch that might help it stand out from the crowd.  Passing the buck, Barry says that this story resulted from a request from "the commissioning editor" (presumably Roger Elwood) for a story condemning homosexuality.

The story's six pages are the tale of Bert, a man living in a hundred-story public housing project in a city where there are absolutely no women.  Weekly group sex sessions are essentially obligatory, and the ritual before each orgy (a "statement" of "the principles") makes clear that the government prescribes these group sex sessions as a means of crushing individualism and artificially creating a collective group solidarity among the men of the city.  "Brothers all, one to one and then together for the greater good."  We learn that sociologists designed this system forty years earlier.

Reminiscent of the policies of socialist countries that ostensibly try to legislate equality and solidarity but instead lead to mass poverty and rampant corruption, the city's policy is a human disaster as well as a failure on its own terms.  None of the men in the story believe "the principles," and they still feel envy and jealousy and desire monogamous relationships, relationships which the mandatory orgies impossible to maintain.  Instead of pursuing brotherhood and working together for the good of the city, the men are violently at odds with each other, the strong preying upon the weak physically and emotionally.

With its graphic depictions of non-consensual homosexual sex and suggestion that gay sex is characteristically exploitative, as well as the story's sexist undertones, (the narrator repeatedly describes the passive participant in anal sex as having been "made the woman,") "Culture Lock" is probably going to disturb almost everybody who reads it.  An effective and unsettling piece of work about the dangers of elite intervention into the private lives of individuals that employs homosexuality as its vehicle.

Thumbs up!

"As In a Vision Apprehended" (1973)

Here's another story from Roger Elwood's anthology The Berserkers--Elwood included three stories by his pal Barry in The Berserkers, and we've already read one of them, "Trial of the Blood," back in october, and will read the third, "Form in Remission," later today.

In his introduction to "As In a Vision Apprehended" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, the author tells us it is one of the few of his stories which addresses "the Judaic theme."  This is a pretty straightforward philosophical horror story about how people (one of the characters says this specifically of the Jewish people) ignore warnings and fail to plan ahead, though maybe I am missing something.

Mottel, a Jew in Eastern Europe in 1878, is possessed by a demon (sometimes it is referred to as a "dybbuk,") and suffers feverish, agonizing visions of the next century--these prophetic visions indicate that it will be a century of mechanized mass murder! Doctors and conventional rabbis are unable to help Mottel, so a mystic is enlisted.  The mystic meets the sick man on the road; Mottel has decided to walk the 500 kilometers to the capitol to warn the authorities of the disaster that will be the 20th century.  The mystic exorcises the demon, but it enters his old and weak body, killing him.

Not a bad story, but conventional and simple when compared to most components of Malzberg's body of work--this story is actually written in the past tense in the third person!

"Form in Remission" (1973)

This story appears to be a sort of riff on Kafka's famous "Metamorphosis."  Our narrator, an anti-social and depressed office clerk in his early forties, wakes up one morning to find a man-sized insect with eyes all over its body lying in bed with him. The creature tells the clerk that it will accompany him closely, the rest of his days. The punchline of the story, which Malzberg in his intro complains was spoiled by a "blurb" written by "the editor of the anthology in which this piece first appeared," presumably Roger Elwood, comes when the narrator asks the monster "Why are you with me?  This is hell."  The monster responds "you're not in hell.  I'm in hell."  I don't know if I like the way this is worded; if they are both in the same place, aren't they both in Hell?  I guess the point (and surprise twist) of the story is that the clerk and/or his life is so dreadful that spending time with him has been chosen by the deity of some alien planet or dimension to serve as punishment.

Introduction to "Opening Fire"

I'm skipping "Opening Fire" because I wrote about it when I read some stories from Roger Elwood's The New Mind back in 2014.  In his intro to "Opening Fire" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Malzberg tells us that in traditional SF stories aliens are usually ruthless enemies out to destroy humanity or benign beings we should accept as models, and points out that these "views are the opposite sides of the child's reactions toward his parents in middle-class culture...."  Then he says that he prefers a vision of aliens as incompetent low level bureaucrats.

"Running Around" (1973)

In the intro to "Running Around" Malzberg tells us that (unspecified) studies indicate that "the turnover in commercial, genre writing among readers is close to ninety percent in four years...."  This means that, Barry laments, science fiction "has no history," that almost none of the people reading SF in a given year will have any knowledge of SF stories from ten years ago or earlier.

"Running Around" is about time travel, and Malzberg tells us he didn't really want to write a time travel story, but did it because an editor (again, one assumes the unnamed editor is Roger Elwood, as "Running Around" first appeared in Elwood's Omega) requested a time travel story.  Despite his reluctance, Malzberg produces a quite fun little piece of pessimistic humor here, the most entertaining story I'm talking about in this blog post.

A guy in 1973 is so unhappy with his government job and his marriage that he decides to commit suicide.  In fact, he wishes he had never been born!  Luckily, as a hobby, he has invented a time machine in his basement!  He goes back in time to 1903 to murder his grandfather and to 1933 to murder his father.

I laughed at many of the jokes in "Running Around," and I have a weakness for stories about difficult sexual relationships and difficult parent-child relationships, so I am all over this one.


"Overlooking" (1974)

This one doesn't provide an opportunity to praise or criticize Roger Elwood; it appeared in Amazing, at that time edited by Ted "Spawn of the Death Machine" White.

"Overlooking" is another Kennedy story, one set in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in an alternate universe, a world in which things are going considerably worse than they did in our own world.  It is strongly suggested, for example, that the current dispute over the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba will lead to nuclear war.   Things are so bad that movie theatres have been refitted into "memory palaces," where people gather to watch newsreels from the happier days of the early 1950s in hopes of forgetting the current, disastrous, state of affairs.  Our narrator, who hasn't been able to achieve an erection since the "great depression of 1955" seven years ago, blames the government, specifically the president, for all his and the world's problems.

The central mystery of the story is the question of who is president in this universe's 1962; Malzberg does not clearly state the President's name but instead presents clues that support two alternative theories: one that Richard Nixon is president, another that JFK is in the White House, as he was in real life, though perhaps a JFK less smooth and photogenic than the one my mother swoons over.  I'm going to guess that the clues pointing to Kennedy are red herrings, and the president whom the impotent narrator calls "crazy" and a derelict beggar calls "a fucker" and who is going to lead the world into atomic war against the USSR is Nixon.  



A good batch of stories that run the gamut--some funny, some potentially controversial and upsetting, some including little puzzles--and are characteristically Malzbergian, with their preoccupation with JFK and sexual frustration and dysfunction.

We're on page 322 of this 398-page volume; keep an eye on this space for the final episode in our look at The Best of Barry N. Malzberg in the coming weeks!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Agent of Vega by James H. Schmitz

Not my copy
In 1976, in ancillary matter included in his collection, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, our man Barry, New Jersey resident and expert on SF history, proclaimed that James H. Schmitz was "the best modern writer of non-modern S-F."  Mercedes Lackey, in an intro to a 2001 collection of Schmitz stories, credits Schmitz with turning her on to SF and setting her on the road to being a successful author herself.  When I read Schmitz's "Lion Loose" and "Goblin Night" back in 2013, I thought the former middling and the latter good.  All reasons enough to read Agent of Vega, a 1960 collection of four (perhaps revised?) Schmitz tales that first appeared in science fiction magazines in the period 1949-51.

My copy
I kind of wish I had the sexy 1972 paperback from Tempo which I spotted at a Half Price Books in Illinois, or the sexy (and phallus-infested--Boris does love his phallic symbols) 1982 paperback from Ace. My copy is the 1962 edition from Permabooks, which I purchased in May in Canton, Ohio.  A previous owner appears to have sliced at the cover with a razor blade and then repaired it with some mysterious black tape.  (I think he or she was trying to remove the large letter "A" from the cover for use in constructing a note demanding ransom, then thought better of embarking on a life of crime.)  This baby is still readable, so let's check out this "fantastic story" of "interstellar espionage" "on a galactic scale" "set centuries" or even "thousands of years" "in the future" which we have every reason to hope stars a gorgeous big-haired babe and some dude with a rifle.

"Agent of Vega" (1949)

The one that started it all!  "Agent of Vega" first appeared in Astounding and seven years later was included by Andre Norton in her anthology Space Police.

It is the far future and the human-led Vegan Confederacy is trying to manage "eighteen thousand individual civilizations" spread across the galaxy.  The Department of Galactic Zones is the Vegan Confederacy's secret police force, and one of its top operatives is Zone Agent Iliff.  Iliff is sent to planet Gull to help one of Vega's few non-human agents, a new recruit by the name of Pagadan, a member of the race of telepaths known as the Lannai.  The Lannai may not be human, but Pagadan looks exactly like a hot chick with a head of hair that resembles "a silver-shimmering fluffy crest of something like feathers."  (It looks like Boris actually read the book!)  

Pagadan has stumbled upon an operation by noncorporeal parasitic aliens to take over the galaxy!  These aliens, the Ceetal, can take over your body and they have already infiltrated the elites of almost one thousand star systems!  To stop this conspiracy Iliff and our girl Pag do the stuff you expect people to do in detective stories, like putting on disguises, interrogating people, getting captured, and escaping.  It turns out the Ceetal have taken over the body of the galaxy's master criminal, a genius psyker and space pirate whom Iliff has been chasing his entire career!  In a blistering final battle involving space armor, ray guns, high tech booby traps and psychic blasts, Iliff and Pagadan defeat the pirate and save the galaxy.

The first page of my copy includes an excerpt from the title story
This story has lots of fun SF elements, from robots to alien monsters to all kinds of technological and psychic jazz, and social justice types may appreciate that a "woman" (actually an alien who looks like a beautiful woman) is the hero as well as the tolerance/diversity subplot--Galactic Zones wants to include more aliens in the upper levels of the Vegan Confederacy and is opposed by the faction of "Traditionalists" until Pagadan saves the galaxy and uses her feminine and psychic wiles to win over some key conservatives.  There is also a pervasive theme of people secretly manipulating their inferiors: the Vegan Confederacy is always manipulating planetary societies, Galactic Zones manipulates the other departments of the Vegan Confederacy, Iliff's superiors manipulate him psychologically, the Ceetals and Lannai invade people's minds to control them, etc.

On the bad side, I thought Schmitz's style a little difficult to follow, and that the way he constructed the plot sapped much of its potential for suspense and excitement. Instead of following Iliff and/or Pagadan closely so the reader learns the truth of what is going on as the heroes learn it, Schmitz includes lots of scenes from the points of view of the Ceetal and from that of Iliff's supervisors, so that we readers know more than the protagonists.  Further distancing us from the action are Schmitz's practices of providing information via a recitation of government reports and having some tense scenes described in dialogue after the fact.

Not bad, but not great.

"The Illusionists" (1951)

According to Wikipedia, "The Illusionists" is a later title for the story "Space Fear," which appeared originally in Astounding.  The copyright page of my edition of Agent of Vega implies the stories appearing therein may have been rewritten by Schmitz for book publication; instead of simply listing story titles and original places of publication, readers are alerted that Agent of Vega is "based upon" earlier (unspecified) work that appeared in Astounding and Galaxy.  Though the last written of the four, "The Illusionists" appears as the second story in this book.

Padagan, now a full-fledged Zone agent herself, is in the Ulphi system, her heavily-armed and super-fast one-man ship serving as bait for Bjanta space pirates.  (The Bjanta are hideous arthropodic people who regularly prey on innocent planets.)  While in the Ulphi system Pagadan uncovers a horrible conspiracy on the human-inhabited planet that orbits Ulphi--somebody has achieved the ability to control the minds of millions of Ulphins and made himself secret dictator!  In order to keep the Ulphi system isolated he has hypnotized the planet's entire population so that they suffer "space fear," a phobia that makes it impossible for them to leave the planet.

The issue of Astounding which featured "Space Fear" and the Baen collection which
includes all four stories we're talking about today, plus the aforementioned
essay by Mercedes Lackey; dig Bob Eggleton's interpretation of Pagadan and her feathery coiffure. 
Pagadan runs a complicated scheme in which she uses a Vegan academic currently resident on the Ulphin planet as bait (without bothering to obtain affirmative consent to this exploitation!) to trick the dictator into leaving the planet.  The academic is a member of the Traditionalist faction, which is skeptical about letting non-humans have positions of influence in the Vegan Confederacy and suspicious about the Department of Galactic Zones' lack of transparency and accountability, so I guess it is poetic justice that non-human Pagadan from Galactic Zones exploits her and then rescues her. For good measure Pagadan invades her mind and shatters her Traditionalist beliefs by bringing to the surface subconscious knowledge that she is not quite full-Vegan human.  

I could voice the same criticisms of  "The Illusionists" that I did about the first story; there are plenty of good SF ideas, but the style and structure weaken the story, making it a little hard to follow and draining it of emotion; there are lots of scenes of minor characters yapping and reading government documents, and action sequences which we learn about second hand through dialogue.  The most thrilling scenes are those in which the Traditionalist woman uses her anti-grav devices and hand to hand combat skills to escape a mind-controlled mob.


"The Truth About Cushgar" (1950)

In this story, which first appeared in Astounding, we learn that the Vegan Confederacy isn't the only interstellar political unit in the galaxy; in fact there are several rival organizations with jurisdiction over hundreds or more systems.  Cushgar is one such empire, one far more exploitative than Vega.  In the first page of the story we learn that the Department of Galactic Zones has managed to subdue Cushgar and install Vegan governors over all the Cushgar planets, all without resorting to war.  How?  The other departments of the Vegan Confederacy don't even know!  But we readers learn!

"The Truth About Cushgar" is the tale of Zone Agent Zamman Tarradang-Pok, a female member of an isolated strain of humanity, the Daya-Bal, that evolved on its own for some centuries into a beautiful elfish race.  We learn her story largely through second hand accounts from other characters and from flashbacks.  Zamm (as everybody calls her) was a young mother on vacation with her husband and son on a luxury space liner when the liner was captured by space pirates.  She was left behind when her husband and son were taken captive by the escaping pirates, who left no clues to their identity or place of origin; Zamm doesn't even know if they were human or alien!

Since that terrible day seventeen years ago Zamm has been hunting the galaxy and her own mind for clues that might lead her to the culprits and her enslaved family members.  As an agent of Galactic Zones she zips hither and yon, capturing space pirates and interrogating them.  In an eldritch bit of psychological wizardry, she has had lifelike robot replicas of her son and husband made--talking to and caressing these simulacra triggers vivid memories, and as Zamm relives the traumatic attack on the luxury liner a psychology robot taps into her brain, seeking just one vital clue to the identity of the kidnappers!  These repeated brain scanning sessions threaten to drive the psychologically scarred Zamm over the edge into total insanity!

Back cover of my copy, which includes an
excerpt from "The Truth About Cushgar."
Finally, Zamm finds the clue she needs, and heads to the heart of the Cushgar empire to rescue her family. While Zamm is in suspended animation ("deep rest"), the craft of other Galactic Zones agents, among them Pagadan, join her ship, forming a flotilla of vessels disguised as "ghost ships."  The Cushgar people (like the Daya-Bal, evolved humans, but evolved to be ugly and evil, not cute and sweet) are very superstitious, and the appearance of ghost ships leads them to surrender.  When Zamm wakes up she finds her husband and son have been liberated and the Cushgar tyranny defanged!

This is the best story in Agents of Vega so far; Zamm the distaff outer space Captain Ahab is a more interesting character than Pagadan or Iliff, and the scenes of terror and violence in this one are better, much more exciting.  (When an insanely envious scientist is holding his more successful brother in shackles, Zamm rescues the good brother by blowing the head off of the evil brother with a pistol; this is the kind of activity look for in genre literature, isn't it?)  The style is also better; the story flows more smoothly and is easier to follow.  The somewhat silly ghost ship gimmick kind of comes out of left field and it is a little disappointing that Cushgar turns out to be a paper tiger, but this questionable means of resolving the plot only takes up the last fifth or so of the 38-page story, and of course is in the hard SF tradition of characters using superior knowledge and intelligence to trick their adversaries.


"The Second Night of Summer" (1950)

"Second Night of Summer" was
a Galaxy cover story
This caper stars a minor character from "The Truth About Cushgar," Zone Agent "Grandma" Elisa Wannatell of planet Noorhut.  For their own good, Grandma uses high technology and hypnotism to manipulate the people of Noorhut, who have a kind of 18th or 19th century technology--Grandma's aircar is even disguised as a beast-drawn wagon.

The plot of "The Second Night of Summer" reminds me of some kind of Warhammer 40,000 wargame scenario: malevolent extragalactic aliens, the Halpa, are about to teleport onto Noorhut and Grandma has to keep the human inhabitants of the planet ignorant of the threat and ambush the teleporting monsters.  If the Halpa start taking over the world the eight Vegan Confederacy battleships orbiting above (unbeknownst to the Noorhuttians) will use their extermination weapons to sterilize the planet.  We are informed that the Vegan government has already done this to over one thousand Halpa-infested planets over the last few millenia.

This story feels short and concise; it isn't overburdened with to many minor characters like the other three stories in Agent of Vega.  The Halpa are unusual, interesting aliens, and the details of the war between the Vegans and Halpa are also well thought out. Though it lacks the compelling emotional content of "The Truth About Cushgar," it vies with that story for title of best in the collection.

I like it!


The four stories in Agent of Vega are entertaining specimens of traditional SF in which elites who callously manipulate the hoi polloi fight space pirates and hostile aliens with starships, ray guns and psychic powers.  Schmitz is good at presenting all the SF gadgetry and concepts we love.  Maybe 21st century readers will find Agent of Vega attractive because it is women who are manipulating the commoners, crossing the galaxy in search of revenge, hanging out with robots, and mowing people down with energy weapons.  These four tales are a worthwhile read for classic SF fans and people who want to investigate the conventional assertion that SF from the past is irredeemably sexist.


The last page of my edition of Agent of Vega, Permabook M 4242, is an ad for a book, but not a science fiction book.  It's an ad for Hillel Black's Buy Now, Pay Later, a warning about the dangers of consumer debt!  For a quote from Buy Now, Pay Later check out libertarian luminary Virginia Postrel's November 2008 column in The Atlantic about consumer credit; spoiler alert--Postrel doesn't think consumer debt is anything to get too excited about.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

"You've probably never encountered honesty before.  Innocence.  Mike has never tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and we don't understand what makes him tick."
My copy, front cover
When around the turn of the century I heard they were making a series of big budget films out of The Lord of the Rings I hurried to reread Tolkien's trilogy, as well as The Hobbit, so that I could experience the story one more time with my own personal images of characters and settings in mind, images uninfluenced by the advertisements and action figures I expected to be seeing for the rest of my life.  When I learned recently that there would be a TV presentation of Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, I decided I'd better read my crumbling early '70s copy (a specimen of the twenty-seventh printing of the 1968 Berkley Medallion edition), even though it seems doubtful that the aisles of Toys "R" Us will soon be choked with action figures of newspaper columnist Bob Caxton and best-selling author Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D.

I'm fully aware that there is a later edition of Stranger in a Strange Land which restores the text to something closer to Heinlein's original vision for the book, but I think it makes sense to read this old version; for one thing, life is short, and the uncut version is like 600 pages.  More importantly, it is the 1961 version of the text that won the Hugo and struck a chord with so many people; reading this old edition will give me something closer to an authentic 1960s experience, the experience of so many people in the SF community and beyond it who read the book when it was new.

Stranger in a Strange Land (414 pages in this edition) is split into five parts.  In Part One Valentine Michael Smith is discovered on Mars.  Smith, or "Mike" as his friends call him or "The Man from Mars" as he is dubbed in the press, is the descendent of crewmembers of the first Earth ship to ever land on the red planet, a ship lost 25 years ago--the intervention of World War III prevented a second manned vessel from searching for that pioneering craft earlier.  Smith is brought back to an Earth ruled by a single planetary government based in Washington D.C.  Over the course of the novel Heinlein piles up details that give the impression that everything on this future Earth is some kind of a scam, an insincere facade; the top executive of the world government, Secretary General Douglas, provides an early example.  Douglas has a loveless marriage and is dominated by his wife; she manages the executive branch behind his back and bases many of her decisions on the advice of a fraudulent astrologer.  Characters like the Secretary General, his wife, and her astrologer are all as much victims of scams as perpetrators, deluding themselves as much as they delude others.  Additional examples include such relatively common SF tropes as the prevalence of synthetic foods and of vapid advertising.  Central to the novel is the prominent new Christian sect, Fosterism, a religion even more bogus than the ancient religions we are all familiar with; the Fosterist church is a major political force that the governmental authorities are reluctant to rein in, and often feel the need to placate.

1961 edition featuring a Rodin sculpture
that is prominently mentioned in the text
Smith, because of culture shock and because of the differences in gravity between Mars and Earth, is weak when he arrives on Terra, giving the government the excuse it needs to hide him away in a secure room in a hospital, out of the sight of the public and any pesky journalists.  They want as much control of Smith as possible: due to complicated legal reasons, Smith is the legal owner of Mars, and he is also fabulously wealthy independent of his "ownership" of the red planet--Smith's mother was a physicist and the inventor of a state of the art space drive, and Smith has inherited her vast fortune and business interests.  Away from the prying eyes of the public, Secretary General Douglas tries to trick Smith into signing away his rights to Mars, but anti-government newspaper columnist Bob Caxton, via his espionage devices, observes these shenanigans.  Caxton and nurse Jill Boardman sneak Smith out of the hospital to the estate of wealthy genius Jubal E. Harshaw.

Heinlein novels often include a venerable elder who shares his wisdom with the younger characters and serves as a sort of mouthpiece for Heinlein's own opinions.  Hershaw, who is not only a best-selling author but also a medical doctor and an attorney, plays this role in Stranger in a Strange Land. (In keeping with the book's "everything on Earth is a cynical scam" theme, Harshaw makes his money dashing off stories and poems for which he himself has little respect, publishing them under pseudonyms; presumably Heinlein knew, or knew of, SF writers who did just this sort of thing to make ends meet or to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.)  Heinlein is always interested in alternative forms of family life, and Harshaw lives with three beautiful professional women who act as his assistants.  The wise and good but curmudgeonly Harshaw, a sort of libertarian rebel against society who flings out aphorisms like "A desire not to butt into other people's business is eighty percent of all human wisdom" and "of all the nonsense that twists the world, the concept of 'altruism' is the worst....people do what they want to, every time"  becomes a father figure to Smith, and tries to educate the Man from Mars in the ways of Earth at the same time he seeks to learn all he can about Smith and about the mysterious aliens who raised him.

The Martians, whom we learn about second hand (there are really no scenes set on Mars or in space) are one of the strong elements of the novel. SF is full of aliens who are essentially just like humans; they travel in vehicles, they fight with guns and swords, they have religions and governments, etc.  Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land tries to create aliens who are actually alien: they don't have sex, or religion, or government, or fiction, or death, most of the things which occupy the time and drive the lives of us Earthlings. The radical biological and cultural differences between Martian and Earthly life make it hard for Martian-raised Smith to fully comprehend ("grok" in Martian) much of what goes on on Earth.  Smith's alien upbringing has also provided him with astonishing powers over his own body and outside matter; early in the novel we witness him shut down his life functions to the point that he can stay underwater for many hours, telepathically sense the "feelings" of plants and telekinetically move objects, and even make things--including people--simply disappear.  Smith in fact has just about every superpower you can think of--he could never star in an adventure story because he could defeat all the enemies and overcome all obstacles in seconds.  Stranger is less about Mike's psychic powers than it is his alien set of ethics and morality; he can't lie, he has no fear of death or sense of revulsion at cannibalism, and is selflessly devoted to all who have shared water with him--water is rare on Mars, and those who have drunk water together are "brothers" who must implicitly trust each other and support each other in all circumstances and at all costs.

Through legal, political and PR tactics, by the end of Part Two Harshaw has secured Smith's freedom, finances, and a high reputation before the public and among Earth's politicians.  In Part Three, Smith and we readers become intimately acquainted with Fosterism.  Heinlein's depiction of Fosterism is a broad satire of religion; Fosterism is shockingly garish and vulgar and its leaders are absolutely corrupt, promoting the religion as a crass commercial venture.  But at the same time Smith recognizes the comfort and joy that ordinary parishioners, those duped by the scam, derive from Fosterism's ritualistic and social elements.

Largely acclimated to Earth's gravity and America's culture, Smith and Jill Boardman, now lovers, leave Harshaw's estate and explore America, Smith using his superpowers to work a job as a carnival magician.  Smith fully reclaims his humanity with his experience of sex (Martians do not have sex) and by learning to laugh--we humans laugh to help ourselves forget that our lives are a tragedy; the immortal Martians, above pain, hardship, and discord, have no need to laugh.

Now fully human, in Part Four Smith, taking advantage of what he has learned about religion and about manipulating "marks" as a carnie, founds his own "church."  While there is a lot of ritual and rigamarole, Smith's group is more of a commune (where people hang around naked and enjoy sex with multiple partners, unburdened by the irrational prejudice of jealousy) than a religion; in fact it exists primarily to teach people the Martian language.  (Heinlein describes the organization and workings of Smith's cult in the same sort of detail in which he would later describe the lunar revolutionary organization in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)  As people learn the Martian tongue, they begin to think more like Martians, which not only brings people closer together but has significant health benefits and confers on the best students some of the psychic powers Smith is always using.  Ben Caxton and Harshaw's entire household join Smith, forming much of the cult's inner circle.  But the success of Mike's movement raises the fears of the powers that be!

In Part Five Harshaw himself finally joins the cult, just in time to witness Smith's martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob.  Mike, of course, could have used his superpowers to survive the attack; we readers know his martyrdom is just a step in the cult's rise, and we are given every reason to believe that over the succeeding decades or centuries the Martian way will win over humanity and our descendents will be a peaceful and happy race of promiscuous nudists who have abandoned jealousy and technology.

Heinlein has a good style and the story moves along, but make no mistake; this is a (long) book about ideas, not about adventures or interpersonal relationship drama--I found it comfortable and interesting, not thrilling or gripping.  Long sections of the novel consist of legal wrangling between Earthborn lawyers or conversations about philosophy and religion, dialogue that is full of obvious sarcastic jokes, and the entire text is larded with references to art, literature, history, and psychology.  (Among the more subtle references is an homage to Chelsey Bonestell, while a reference to Dorothy Kilgallen that would have been obvious to 1961 readers may fly over 21st century readers' heads.)

As I read Stranger in a Strange Land, over fifty years after its debut, at the front of my mind was the book's massive popularity, its enduring reputation as one of the top five or ten SF novels, and its reach beyond the SF community; what about the book appealed to so many people so strongly?

I've said that the book didn't thrill me, but my perspective is that of a middle-aged man living in permissive and licentious 2016, when things like divorce, abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography and birth control have been normalized, even celebrated, and are a ubiquitous presence in the media and public discourse, a time when Christianity is a spent force that is routinely mocked or ignored. 1961 was a different world, a world in which, perhaps, young people would have been thrilled by a book that told them religion was a racket and monogamy was a foolish and unhealthy idea that should be jettisoned tout suite.  Maybe early '60s readers got a thrill from Stranger like the thrill people of today get from TV shows, comedians and art that are "transgressive" or "politically incorrect," art which questions or ridicules accepted norms and cultural elites.

One reason I found the novel more appealing than many satires is that, even though it is telling you that the institutions of our society are a scam and our bedrock morals are in fact inimical to our happiness, it isn't bitter or condemnatory; many of the characters that at first come across as villains or knaves are later shown to have a good side, to be essentially decent people.  Douglas and the astrologer, for example, end up providing valuable support to Smith.  The novel even tells you that the most important message of religion, that your soul survives death and that you will live forever, is true--there are several scenes which take place in the afterlife, in which it is made clear that supernatural beings are looking out for the human race, guiding us to enlightenment. Stranger in a Strange Land is not angry or despairing or dismissive, it is confident and hopeful--when Mike is killed his water-brothers are not discouraged or brokenhearted because they know their friend is alive in another realm and that their movement is fated to succeed.

Heinlein's satire isn't flippant, he doesn't seek to merely shock like a comedian might, and his book isn't an absurdist farce: he tries to create a believable world and he goes beyond simply attacking our society to provide an alternative template for how you should live your life and how society should be organized.  Stranger, though sharing some characteristics with them, comes to the opposite conclusion of some of those misanthropic SF books in which honest and peaceful aliens, by contrast, make humanity, with its history of deceit and belligerence, look like a bunch of swine who should be exterminated or ruled by their extraterrestrial betters.  Heinlein celebrates the human race's potential; reminding me (oddly enough) of the end of A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Makers, Smith suggests to Harshaw that the human race is very likely unique in the universe, and uniquely superior because our species is split into two sexes and has been blessed with the ability to have sexual intercourse, an ideal means of achieving togetherness.  The human race has every reason to expect that it will surpass the very Martians whose teachings have made revolutionary advancement possible.

My copy, back cover
Another thing I kept thinking about as I read Stranger was Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, which I read recently, and Sturgeon and Heinlein's personal relationship.  Godbody and Stranger are broadly similar--in both a Christ-like being from somewhere out there appears and, for a small segment of the population, rehabilitates religion and brings to their attention the life-affirming magic of sexual intercourse.  When I read Godbody I remarked upon how it was pleasant to read Heinlein's introduction, in which he expressed his admiration and love for Sturgeon.  Sturgeon offers the same kind of gushing in a blurb on the back of my copy of Stranger, suggesting that his friend has produced a unique masterpiece of purity that leaves anything from the last 15 or more centuries or so in the dust(!)  The friendship between Heinlein and Sturgeon reflected in such extravagant praise is charming, even moving, even if you don't necessarily share the two writers' sky high opinions of each other's work.  Another important element of Stranger's appeal, I suspect, is that it inspires in the reader some of the same warm feelings that Heinlein's and Sturgeon's heartfelt writing about each other does.  While Stranger doesn't really provide the satisfaction offered by so much popular fiction, the catharsis of witnessing the protagonist overcome his enemies or some other challenge, the fulfillment of our wishes to conquer adversity and glory in triumph, what it does do is depict sincere affection and selfless love between and among the man from Mars and his friends, offering the reader a different kind of wish fulfillment, the dream of having friends we can trust to never betray or abandon us (as well as plenty of risk-free sex.)

Well, it feels good to have under my belt another of these oversized icons of speculative fiction which have impacted the wider culture.  After Lord of the Rings and Stranger in a Strange Land can it be that a reading of Dune lies in my future? Too bad they already filmed that one...twice.