Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Return of SF Hall of Fame 2A: Heinlein, Anderson, & Kornbluth

Cover of a later edition
Monday I decided to reread three of the novellas in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume 2A. 

Universe by Robert Heinlein

I can still remember reading Universe for the first time. I was standing on the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, waiting for my wife (then just my girlfriend, as in those days I was righteously declaring that our love need not be ratified by any god or government.) We were going to eat at the Tick Tock Diner. (Google maps suggests that the Tick Tock Diner has managed to stay in business despite being bereft of my patronage for some years.) I had a battered paperback of Orphans of the Sky, a fixup of which Universe makes the first part. Not only was this paperback in parlous condition, but it had an inexplicably terrible cover (a photo of tracer bullets or street lights taken from a shaky camera by a Sidney Kramer), and a hilarious ad on the back for some kind of steamy bestseller (The King by Morton Cooper.) The back cover description of Orphans of the Sky sounds like it is for a different novel altogether.  I still own this bizarre artifact.
My copy of Orphans of the Sky

Anyway, I was immediately hooked by Universe. I can still remember thinking, "Wow, this is a good one!"  It must have been the first Heinlein I had read in years.  Rereading it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame yesterday I again enjoyed it. It is a straightforward, old-fashioned SF tale about people on a generation ship who don't know they are on a space ship.  Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958), which I read recently, seems to be a response to this story, and includes some minor details which felt like subtle references to this Heinlein work. 

Universe first appeared in 1941.  The main character, Hugh, is a member of a tribe of normal humans; smarter than average, he has the opportunity to learn to read and become a scientist.  The "scientists" of the tribe are more like priests than scientists, and think the explanations of things like gravity in their science books are in fact allegories for, for example, human sexual relationships.

Living elsewhere in the ship is a tribe of mutants.  (Any mutants born in Hugh's tribe are thrown down the "Converter" and recycled into electric power.)  The mutant tribe and Hugh's tribe are in a sort of low level war, and while out scouting Hugh gets captured by the mutants and enslaved.  Fortunately he becomes the servant of the mutants' leader, an intellectual who shows Hugh the control room of the ship and explains to Hugh that the ship is not in fact the extent of reality, but merely a vehicle traveling though a universe of astonishing and beautiful extent.  Hugh becomes a leader of the effort to make peace between the mutants and his own tribe and take control of the ship and bring it to a planet.

I like Heinlein's brisk economical style, and he does a good job describing the strange milieu of the ship, with the fight scenes, and with all the stuff describing the control room and the excitement of Hugh when he realizes the true nature of his world.  This is solid classic SF.

The characterization in Universe could have been a little better; several people show up in the end of the story that perhaps should have been described in more detail earlier.  Nowadays I suppose we would expect one of the three or four "good guys" to be a woman.  But maybe the story deserves a few points from the politically correct crowd because of Heinlein's advocacy of equality for mutants?  Universe is also one of the many SF stories to lampoon religion and show religious belief and the religious hierarchy standing in the way of a recognition of reality and of progress.    

Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson

I am sympathetic to Anderson's attitude and ideas, and often think he has good plots, but I also often find his characters and writing style to be weak.  Luckily, with 1957's Call Me Joe, which I reread today after some years, Anderson managed to marry a decent character and emotion story to his cool SF idea; this is one of the best of Anderson's many stories. 

To explore Jupiter's surface, where the pressure, temperature and atmosphere are so harsh space ships don't last long enough to make a return trip, scientists build a centaur-like creature in a lab.  They send the creature, Joe, to the Jovian surface, and from a satellite thousands of miles away a psychic, Edward Angsley, controls Joe.  Connected to various apparatus that magnify the psychic connection he has with Joe, Angsley sees, feels, and hears everything Joe does, and controls Joe's body as he does his own; essentially, when he is hooked up, he is Joe.

Angsley, once an active man, is a cripple confined to a robotic wheelchair, having lost most of his body below his chest in a terrible accident.  His time controlling Joe -- hunting, fighting, and taming native beasts and struggling to build tools and shelter on the unforgiving Jovian surface -- is for him a fulfilling life of freedom and purpose, a far better experience than sitting in his wheel chair, a head, two arms, and little else.  Eventually he migrates his entire consciousness from his wasted human body to the powerful Jovian body.  The denouement of the story indicates that Angsley is only the first of such mental transfers; other disabled people, as well as old people, will in the future be able to shift their minds from their weak bodies to strong ones and live longer, more exciting and fulfilling lives. 

Anderson does a good job with all the sciency stuff, the adventure stuff on Jupiter works, and perhaps most importantly Anderson succeeds in making Angsley a believable and sympathetic character.  Like Universe, Call Me Joe is solid classic SF, technophilac, optimistic, and telling the tale of a new and better world being discovered.  (Oh, if you are keeping track, there's no women characters in this one either.) 

(Cool illustrations by Kelly Freas for the first appearance of Call Me Joe are viewable at the SFFAudio site.)           

The Marching Morons by Cyril Kornbluth

I generally avoid Kornbluth's work.  I've spent most of my adult life in and around academia and bookstores, where everybody is some kind of left winger and wants to talk your ear off about how they hate SUVs and the taxpayers should pay their tuition, medical bills, and rent for them and how it would be so great to live in Canada where everybody is so civilized and sophisticated.  I've heard enough of that sort of thing to last me a lifetime. I always figure the fiction of Kornbluth, the member of the Futurians who had green teeth, will constitute an effort to convince me that I should be in the streets with a torch, setting fire to every Rolls Royce, Cadillac, ad agency, and Armed Services recruiting station I can find, and so it has been my practice to give it a wide berth.

Despite this, I read The Marching Morons years ago.  I then forgot the whole thing beyond the "time traveler finds future is inhabited by dolts" premise.  With the idea that I should probably be familiar with every story in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, today I reread The Marching Morons, which was first published in 1951.

The Marching Morons is a farcical satire meant to be funny.  Jokes include a man accidentally put in suspended animation in a 20th century dental accident; his alive but inert body is used as a mascot at football games. The story is also "meta;" when awoken from suspended animation after hundreds of years the man expects the future to be like the science fiction stories he has read.  He is surprised to find that there are still "dollars" and not "credits," for example.

The future world population consists almost entirely of stupid people, 5 billion of them.  A small elite of people of normal intelligence works manically to keep everything running, and to fool the idiotic populace into being content.  For example, because the average person ( IQ 45) is a horrible driver, cars are built which can only achieve 60 mph, but the cars are rigged so that the drivers believe they are going 150.  When the protagonist talks to one of the elite he is upbraided, told that the reason society is in such a mess is because middle class people like him back in the day did not have as many children as the stupid "migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers" - The Marching Morons is a eugenicist tract!

It is also an attack on real estate agents or I guess businesspeople in general; the protagonist, besides being a racist, was a real estate agent in the 20th century and he immediately tries to bamboozle the future elites and make himself dictator of the world.  Kornbluth tells us he is directly emulating Hitler!  The 20th century businessman helps the future elites trick the millions of morons into a death trap, and then the elites trick him in turn, sending him to his doom. 

What can you say about such an insane story?  How much of all this stuff did Kornbluth in 1951 believe?  And how much of it did the members of the SFWA, who chose it for their Hall of Fame in the late 1960s, believe?  Were the members of the SFWA a bunch of eugenicists who thought business people were lying Nazis?  Or did they just think all this stuff was hilarious?         

Even putting aside its eugenic and anti-business politics, I don't think the story is so hot.  It does include those in-jokes for members of the SF community, but I didn't think that they were particularly funny.  It includes several venerable SF devices and themes, like time travel, a small secret elite running the world, people (like the people in Heinlein's Universe) who have a radically inaccurate view of their world, and overpopulation.  But, being a big farce, the story has zero human feeling.  Also, I felt like Kornbluth was playing a trick on the reader, leading the reader to identify with the 20th century man early on, and then suddenly revealing him to be a racist Nazi.  Is the reader then expected to identify with the future elite, even though they put the extermination program into effect?

I'm a little bewildered about the popularity of this story and its inclusion in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  (Oh yeah, there's no women in this one, either, but since all the characters are either morons or mass murderers, I don't know if women will want to complain.)  

(The 1951 issue of Galaxy which includes The Marching Morons is available at the Internet Archive; the illustrations are unspectacular, but not bad.)

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Well, there is probably no need for me to reiterate it, but I think the Heinlein and Anderson stories are pretty good, and the Kornbluth story pretty weak.

I plan to read and reread more novellas from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume 2A in the near future; I'm hoping the Korbluth entry is some kind of aberration.    

4 comments:

  1. So, I just read The Marching Morons. Perhaps Kornbluth is engaging more with the type of SF where modern man goes into the future and is amazed by how wonderful it all is -- in those stories, modern man still has something to offer. In this case, all of that is somewhat subverted. Horrible modern man goes into the horrible future where the same horrible things happen. If you think of SF up to 1951 I would see this as rather radical, but more as a commentary on SF that existed (as your point out in your review) at the time...

    I sort of liked it! 4/5ish range...

    Thoughts?

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    1. I guess your suggestion that "Marching Morons" is a satire of SF cliches is more charitable to Kornbluth and the story's fans than my suggestion it is a leftist eugenicist tract that appeals to snobbish elitists.

      But how radical was it in 1951 to portray the future as crummy? Wells in The Time Machine has a crummy future and Orwell in 1984 also has a crummy future, and both are lefties who use their depictions of the future to deplore something going on when they were alive. On the more conservative side we have Heinlein in 1940 in "Solution Unsatisfactory" portraying a bad future, and Hubbard in the same year doing so in Final Blackout; like Wells and Orwell, they were extrapolating from current events.

      Then there's Huxley and Brave New World.

      More on the fantasy/horror side we have Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson, who don't necessarily use their fiction to criticize current social or political problems, but who certainly suggest the future may be pretty horrible.

      Obviously there is a lot of technophilic SF, progressive SF, and utopian SF that suggests the future is going to be awesome, but I think even before 1951 there was a lot of SF, from varying perspectives, warning us that the future might suck, as well as SF that just had a crummy future because it was entertaining.

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    2. I find it hard to believe that someone coming out of WWII as a vet would advocate a eugenist track. That cannot have been one of his aims.... If it unintentionally is then perhaps that's a product of poor writing. I'm not sure. Still mulling over the story before I write my review.

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    3. The point of the story seems to be that if lower class people outbreed middle class people, then society is doomed, and elites are justified in acting to prevent this from occurring. I wouldn't be that surprised if Kornbluth believed this; intellectuals we are supposed to respect like Keynes and Shaw held such beliefs.

      I'm looking forward to your review.

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