Monday, May 19, 2014

Three Tales of The New Mind: Lafferty, Malzberg, and Green

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On the weekend I read a story by Charles L. Grant from Frontiers 2: The New Mind; it was pretty good.  So, what else does The New Mind, a paperback from 1973 of original stories edited by Roger Elwood, have to offer? 

The New Mind includes an introduction by Frederick Pohl that perhaps provides an interesting snapshot of early 1970s attitudes.  Pohl argues that technology has ruined the world, and also suggests that the two parent family is "rigid" and may very well have driven us all insane.  Pohl thinks maybe things would be better if we all grew up in communes; if communes don't work, hopefully some other unspecified changes will save us: "...there are changes coming.  They are coming because we need them...."

On a less apocalyptic note, and perhaps more in keeping with the "new mind" theme, Pohl also pokes fun at people who believe in psychic powers or UFOs, but suggests that these beliefs are no more irrational than a belief in God.  He tells us that many intelligent and well-educated people, including "famous men in the hard sciences" whom he has met, believe in ESP.  Pohl himself does not believe such things, but admits that he wishes he could: ESP and similar phenomena might provide a means to solve all our problems, and the arrival of aliens would be fun and exciting!

Back cover of my copy
Besides Pohl's amusing intro, over the last few days I read three stories from The New Mind, R. A. Lafferty's "Four Sides of Infinity," Barry N. Malzberg's "Opening Fire," and Joseph Green's "Space to Move."

The back cover of Frontiers 2: The New Mind advertises Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives and assures us that further volumes in this series are in preparation.  However, as far as I can tell no Frontiers 3 ever appeared.

"Four Sides of Infinity" by R. A. Lafferty

R. A. Lafferty, because he writes in an unusual style and has a range of interests and attitudes quite different from most SF writers, is always worth checking out.  When I first read Lafferty I didn't quite appreciate what he was trying to do, but he quickly grew on me.  As with Barry Malzberg or A. E. Van Vogt, you have to embark on a story or novel by Lafferty with a different set of expectations than you do when you read a more conventional piece of work.

"Four Sides of Infinity" (about 40 pages) consists of four separate stories about the same odd collection of characters living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which Lafferty tells us is "the Athens of mid-America."  Some of these four tales would later appear on their own in collections of Lafferty's stories.  In these four stories we see Lafferty's Christian faith and wacky sense of humor, .

The first ("The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos") is about a scientist whom we are invited to think of as the Devil (his name is "Drakos," after all) who creates artificial life in the form of mice.  The other characters, which include a literature professor, a political manipulator, a seismologist, an Australopithecine houseboy, a female ghost, a life-sized animate doll, and Lafferty himself (whom the other characters call "Laff"), object to Drakos playing God, and the mice are destroyed in a fierce lightning storm.

The second story ("The Two-Headed Lion of Cris Benedetti") is about how a literary professor claims to be a fan of an Irish writer who does not, in fact, exist, even forging books to put over this fraud.  His friends and students are fooled, and, fired by the prof's false enthusiasm, go so far as to organize a visit from the fictional writer.  The professor is flabbergasted when the students send money to Ireland and two imposters answer the summons; these two old Irishmen come to blows and the American professor who "created" them is grievously wounded in the fracas.

The third story ("The Hellaceous Rocket of Harry O'Donovan") follows the political manipulator's efforts to create and own a senator.  He gets together a used car salesman to be "the mask," a skilled writer to be "the pitchman," and an able manager to be "the brain."  The used car salesman does poorly in the primary race until the fourth man, without whom no politician can succeed, comes on the scene and joins the campaign--the fourth man is the Devil!  The used car salesman becomes candidate for his party, but then the lit professor and the Australopithecine houseboy perform an exorcism, driving out the Devil.  The used car salesman loses the election and the manipulator is frustrated in his designs.

The final story ("The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen") is about the seismologist.  He builds a scale model of a section of the Earth's crust upon which to perform experiments in tectonics.  The female ghost uses her unearthly powers to bring this tiny world to life, but disaster occurs when a volcano erupts on the little world, setting the seismologist's house on fire.

These four crazy stories are full of satire, wacky jokes, and bad puns.  One of their uniting themes is the folly of counterfeiting and fraud.  Four of the characters try to take on God's job of creation, and all four suffer for it.  Another theme is the vague, or "contested" as they might say in academe, definition of who is alive, and who is human.  The two female characters are undead, a ghost and a doll animated by the spirit of a dead girl, and then there is the houseboy, an Australopithicus. 

A fun read.

"Opening Fire" by Barry Malzberg

This story is six pages long, and is split into six chapters.

Humans have met a peaceful alien race, and an elite team goes out to negotiate with them.  One member of the team, our narrator, a mathematician, has failed all the psychological tests designed to weed out bigots and xenophobes--he finds the aliens disgusting and repellent, and his gut tells him they will try to outwit and dominate humanity.  The authorities decide to let him on the team anyway; humanity's instinctive suspicion and fear are probably a valuable evolutionary trait which has protected mankind from extinction in the past, and the authorities figure this aspect of human life deserves a seat at the table.

Malzberg leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether the bigoted mathematician is justified in his fear or not.  The aliens are pretty mysterious (all the meetings are on the Earth ship, no human gets to see the inside of the alien ship) and they aren't really all that peaceful (they say they are in a war with another alien race the humans have never met, and they want to buy Earth weapons from the humans.)  The captain of the Earth ship, after negotiations are concluded, hands our narrator over to the aliens, who kill him with a ray gun, saying that, for there to be peace between them and the Earth people, all such bigots must be eliminated.    

Not bad; if you care to, you can spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out if the narrator deserves to be killed for being a xenophobe, or if his death proves that the humans really should be suspicious of the aliens, or if the point of the story is that life is horrible and makes monsters of us all.

"Space to Move" by Joseph Green

In his preface to The New Mind, editor Roger Elwood says, "Barry Malzberg, Joseph Green, and Frederick Pohl need no introduction."  I must beg to differ; I'd never heard of Green before.

Compared to the Lafferty and Malzberg, "Space to Move" is an ordinary, traditional story, but it is not bad.

Ken is a graduate student, flying around in space in a university FTL scout ship, gathering data for his dissertation.  The ship's computer consists of a disembodied human brain, that of a young woman killed in an accident, Flo.  They discover a crashed alien space ship; it turns out these aliens had the technology to transfer minds from one brain to another.  Flo misses the physical sensations of having a body, and convinces Ken to use the alien machinery to shift her mind from her brain into the brain of an alien bird.  Flo then flies away to a life of freedom.

I have been reading so many downbeat and pessimistic stories that I thought Flo was going to figure out some way to steal Ken's body or something like that, but this is actually a story with a happy ending.

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Three enjoyable, interesting stories; The New Mind is a good anthology, and I am glad I bought it.  

3 comments:

  1. I always enjoy your reviews. Thank you for posting them, and please continue!

    I've never encountered this particular bundling of the Lafferty stories, though I have read each separately. Looking at them together, I think you're right about the overarching theme of rebuke for the hubris of playing God. Mild rebuke, really, and God seems to get a chuckle out it. I also love the wicked fun he pokes at politics and politicians.

    Your last comment about "Space to Move" reminded me of something I've often ruminated over. It seem that in the 70s, a lot of SF turned dark and nihilistic. The stylistic explorations of the New Wave led to experimentation with greater emotional impact and darker themes. I also wonder if the zeitgeist of the country at that time was tired and a bit wobbly, with the wind-down of the Viet Nam war and Watergate, etc. Of course I remember the mid '70s as a joyful time, but I was an elementary school student at the time, and I had a fairly cheerful family. Nonetheless, it's often a joy when reading through the anthologies of the era, Alpha, Universe, New Dimensions, Orbit, etc, to stumble across a story written with joy and optimism.

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  2. I'm curious about what you think of the Effinger story in the collection. I have yet to read any of his short work but I found his novel What Entropy Means to Me (1972) transfixing...

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    1. I've never read anything by Effinger; maybe I will give it a try.

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