Friday, June 20, 2014

Quark/3 (Part 2): Sallis, Dorman, Wilhelm, Hill, Saxton and Kidd

For some reason (dementia?) I decided to forgo my usual practice of reading one or two stories from an anthology and then consigning the book to the inaccessible recesses of my overstuffed bookcase; instead I am reading every page of Quark Slash Three, the early 1971 issue of a quarterly devoted to experimental SF edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.  Unsurprisingly, R. A. Lafferty was the star of the first leg of my journey into Quark/3, though editor Samuel Delany put in a creditable performance as well. I thought Gordon Eklund's contribution was conventionally bad, while college professor Joanna Russ managed to find a special way to inflict a bad story on me.  Who will be today's standouts as I read the second third of Quark/3?

"Field" by James Sallis

James Sallis mostly seems to write crime stories, as well as books about American music (his bio at the end of Quark Stroke Three indicates he was working on a book on country and western music.) I've never read anything by Sallis before.

"Field" is, I guess, a series of prose poems.  First off we get a bunch of bizarre images and sentence fragments in both first and second person.  On the first page we get "Where this morning the charred bodies of all the women I've loved come floating down the stream outside our window," a line I heard in my mind in the voice of poet Jason Irwin.  This flight of fancy made me laugh, but most of the sections aren't that funny, alas.

One paragraph is a "to do" list with most of the items crossed out, another is the instructions of how to convert your snowmobile into a lawnmower ("Tighten bolts 1-8. (See Diagram 3.)")  There are vignettes about sophisticated writers who live in cramped apartments and can't pay their bills and can't stay true to their lovers.

Not good.

"Vanishing Points" by Sonya Dorman

This is a two page poem about the world being destroyed in a nuclear war: "the world winds up into a cloud...into one massive atom / O man of fire."  At least that is what I think it is about.  There's also a lot about fish and animals, the stars, etc.
This poem is listed as "Vanishing Point" on the table of contents, but the title is plural in the actual text. 

"Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" by Kate Wilhelm 

Years ago I read Kate Wilhelm's The Killer Thing, one of those books in which aliens who share the author's politics force evil humanity to behave, putting an end to our racism, imperialism and strip mining.  I haven't exactly been champing at the bit to read more Wilhelm; this must be the first short story I have ever read by her.

"Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" is a series of brief scenes from a dystopic future, with Wilhelm covering all the typical boring complaints like overpopulation, pollution, TV, consumerism, urban terrorism, international war, etc.  The plot is presented to us out of chronological order, and is a little ambiguous, but I think I have pieced it together.

The world is in turmoil, and little Billy's father, a scientist, testifies to Congress that because of overpopulation, humanity will go extinct unless the government kills half the population ASAP.  His plan is rejected by an influential Southern senator, so Billy's dad conspires to poison the water supply (or something of that nature) to prune the population without the government's OK.  Dad gets caught and imprisoned and lobotomized (or something; Wilhelm keeps everything vague.)  Billy grows up and gets a job at a consumer products firm, while things gets worse around the world, with increasing violent crime, war, and overcrowding.  Billy's father is released from prison and moves in with his son, and, before long, hangs himself.  There is also a subplot I didn't quite get about how Bill is hallucinating that he can shift himself to a world without other people.  I'm also not sure if the sections about Billy as a kid caught up in a riot and the parts about Bill leading a pop band are depicting alternate realities or just different periods of Bill's life. 

Not very good, but better than the Eklund, the Sallis and the Russ.

"Brave Salt" by Richard Hill

I've never even heard of Richard Hill before.  A gander at Hill's file at isfdb suggests that he retired from writing SF after he had a story accepted by Harlan Ellison for Again, Dangerous Visions.

This story is a surrealistic farce in twelve chapters (that's right, 12 chapters in ten pages) about a low-IQ hotel pool lifeguard who participates in a sort of Bay of Pigs style attack on Haiti.  It almost reads like Hill made it up as he went along, or perhaps used the surrealist technique of "automatic writing."  "Brave Salt" is full of references to pop culture figures like Jim Backus, Charlton Heston, and Merv Griffin, and feeble jokes about sex and drugs.  The most memorable joke: members of a band are having anal sex on stage while singing "I've Got You Babe," and then somebody bumps into their amplification equipment and the band is electrocuted to death.

Craziest of all, in the intro to his story in Again, Dangerous Visions, Hill floats the idea of expanding "Brave Salt" into a full length novel!

Suddenly Joanna Russ's story isn't looking so bad.

"Nature Boy" by Josephine Saxton

I've read Saxton's odd contribution to The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but this is the first fiction I have read by her.

This is a story about a mentally ill 40-year-old man who lives with his wealthy mother on a country estate.  He suffers delusions and unbidden, obsessive "daydreams," and feels driven to make "sacrifices" to woodland deities. We learn that he murdered a little girl some years ago in the woods; the tension in the story comes when he takes a walk into these very woods and meets another little girl--will he murder her as well?  The theme of the story seems to be human callousness and cruelty; the little girl and the mental case both kill small animals.

This is a moderately good mainstream crime or realistic horror story; the fact that the murderer believes in spirits, including the spirit of the girl he murdered, perhaps counts as SF content.     

Advertisement for The Science Fiction Book Club

Bound in the center of the book is an ad for the Science Fiction Book Club, highlighting the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg, but also offering a dozen other books at low low prices.  One wonders how many of these books would pass the Delany/Hacker test of "meaningfully addressing crises" and "being politically dangerous."  (I have a feeling my man ERB wouldn't be passing this test.)

"Balls: A Meditation at the Graveside" by Virginia Kidd

Kidd is a very important literary agent, but I never have read any of her fiction.   

"Balls" is the biography of a successful Hollywood screenwriter who is obsessed with Walt Disney and Disney productions.  I guess this is a satire of American culture and society, perhaps in particular of Hollywood; at one point the protagonist declares, "I'm a real American success."  It feels tired and tedious, long and boring.  As you expect in a story about a Hollywood habitue the screenwriter has numerous divorces and sees a shrink.  Maybe Kidd is trying to tell us that Americans live in a fantasy world and are disconnected from the real world, that they care more about TV and celebrities than flesh and blood people they know.  Also maybe Americans are obsessed with success and happiness, but work too hard to really enjoy success and achieve happiness.

The SF content consists of the writer having the delusion that the universe is sending him (essentially useless) messages or signals via everyday sounds or hallucinatory images.  For example, the writer tells himself he should be happy, as he has "got it made," and then he sees a vision of a topless girl; this is a "tit maid."  A phone rings unexpectedly in the therapist's office and the doctor answers it, "Hello." Our hero figures this is a message in reverse, that the universe is saying to him, "Oh, Hell."



Cripes, doesn't look so hot, does it?  The Saxton story is marginally good, the Wilhelm is OK, the rest are poor or bad.

Well, there are several more selections in Quark/3, maybe in the third and final leg of my journey the anthology will make a comeback.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of "New Wave" SF (I'll use quotes so the New Wave scholars won't argue with me) stories were about experimentation with the forms and constraints of narrative writing. While this eventually helped gain some recognition of SF as potentially "Serious Literature" (you can just hear the capital letters, can't you), as always Sturgeon's Law applies.