Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dangerous Visions from Poul Anderson, R. A. Lafferty, and Roger Zelazny

My copy, front
This weekend I read three stories from 1967's Dangerous Visions, Poul Anderson's "Eutopia," R. A. Lafferty's "Land of the Great Horses," and Roger Zelazny's "Auto-da-fé."  Casting a wide net, Harlan Ellison included in Dangerous Visions and its sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions, a lot of authors I've never read and some who ended up not having very big careers in SF, but here we have three prolific and important award-winning writers about whom I've already typetty typed quite a bit on this here blog.  I haven't read these stories before, though. Let's see if they are any good, and if they are "dangerous."

"Eutopia" by Poul Anderson

This is one of those stories with alternate universes with alternate histories.  Iason Phillipou is a 20th century Greek from a version of Earth in which Alexander the Great lived longer and consolidated his conquests.  (As all you history buffs know, in our world Alexander died young and his empire immediately broke up into many squabbling principalities.)  Iason's job is to travel between various versions of Earth conducting research; during the course of this story he travels around a North America consisting of many small states, some populated by Europeans and others by native Americans.  Having accidentally insulted a potentate of one state, Iason is chased by aircraft while driving a stolen car, then by dogs and horsemen while he runs through a forest.  Eventually he finds sanctuary in another principality and gets transported back to his own universe.

Through Iason's homesick musings and conversations with other people, Anderson compares and contrasts three different Earths: our own universe, where the Romans and Christians molded European civilization and whites conquered the New World, leading to Indian civilization being almost entirely wiped out; Iason's Alexandrine world, known as "Eutopia," which is rational, scientific and tolerant (there is no war and in the 20th century the moon and Venus have been terraformed); and the world Iason is exploring, where Christianity collapsed under the weight of Muslim and Viking attacks and European and native societies both thrive in 20th century North America.

"Eutopia" feels "dangerous" early on because Iason blames the Romans and Christians for slowing down scientific progress and creating the culture of intolerance which lead to pollution, totalitarianism, and nuclear warfare in our own world.  Iason is positive that his own rational, peaceful, superscientific world is far superior to ours, and to the world he is exploring.  But Anderson cleverly pulls a swircheroo on us in the end of the story.  One of Iason's colleagues suggests that their world, Eutopia, is spiritually dead because nobody believes anything and because there are no challenges; perhaps to reach his full potential, to really live, man needs the irrational romance of religion and nationalism, the challenges of politics and war.  And then in the last line, when Iason has been teleported back to Eutopia, we learn that the "Niki" he has been pining for is "Nikias Demosthenou, most beautiful and enchanting of boys"-- Iason is a pederast!  Should this change our view of his society, and his assessment of our own?

"Eutopia" is an entertaining and thought-provoking story.  I think its ambiguity (it questions our own Roman/Christian civilization, but is also skeptical of a more rational alternative) is actually more challenging to the reader and "dangerous" than something like Chad Oliver's contribution to Again, Dangerous Visions which I talked about in my last blog post.  Oliver's story is one-sided and histrionic, the kind of story hardcore environmentalists might embrace, while Anderson's story has the potential to challenge or even offend almost anybody.

In my post about Oliver I pointed out that I am not the audience for utopian stories or anti-pollution stories.  Here I will admit that I absolutely am the audience for a story like "Eutopia" which not only challenges our society, but the very idea of utopia. I also thought "Eutopia" included some memorable images.  Iason's homesick memory of a moon that glitters at night with the light of cities reminded me of one of my favorite images from Gene Wolfe's 1980s tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, in which the moon in the far future has been terraformed and is green because it is covered in forests.

So, bravo to Anderson and to editor Ellison for this one.

...and back
"Land of the Great Horses" by R. A. Lafferty

This is a pleasant little story.  Why do the Roma people, the Gypsies, travel all over the Earth?  Because in ancient times space aliens carried away the piece of the Earth that was their homeland, ten thousand square miles of less than a mile deep, to study, the way a doctor might take a slice from a patient or a geologist a chip off a rock to look at under a microscope.  The aliens implanted in the minds of the Gypsies an inability to settle down until their land was returned.

In this story the aliens bring back the slice, and people with Roma blood all around the world abandon their businesses and homes and rush to return to their ancestral homeland in Northern India.  Then the aliens take another Earth sample, this one including Los Angeles, giving rise to a new Gypsy culture, the Angelenos, also known as the "Automobile Gypsies."

I like this story, it is fun and clever, but I can't see how it is "dangerous."  I guess it includes a gentle criticism of car culture and automobile pollution.

Well, dangerous or not, a good story.

“Auto-da-fé” by Roger Zelazny

This is a humorous tale, perhaps a satire, in which a man battles cars in the arena in exactly the way a matador fights a bull.  Set in a future in which people are riding horses again, the cars are robots and perhaps sentient.  The story is narrated by a spectator at a particularly dramatic fight.

I've read several Zelazny stories about robot cars; maybe automobiles were one of his interests?

I liked this story, and it succeeded in making me laugh, but it feels a little slight and not very "dangerous."  Maybe we are supposed to see it as a criticism of blood sports, or a jocular reminder of the dangers of automobiles?  An auto-da-fé was a religious ceremony, an act of penance associated with the punishment of heretics, and perhaps Zelazny is satirizing car culture as a debased religion, and/or suggesting that human beings should be punished for foisting upon the world the automobile, which causes so much pollution and kills however many thousands of people every year in accidents.

"Auto-da-fé" reminded me of Primo Levi's 1976 short story "Gladiators," which I read a few years ago and also is about a spectator at an arena in which a man fights cars, but that story, if memory serves, was very serious.

A good story, probably more "dangerous" than the Lafferty, but not particularly dangerous.

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Three good stories from three good writers; you probably know this already, but Dangerous Visions certainly seems like a worthwhile purchase, an anthology full of good stories.  All three stories are entertaining, but, perhaps surprisingly, the most "dangerous" one was by that titan of old-school SF, the most conventional writer of the bunch, Poul Anderson.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Three stories by Chad Oliver

Flipping through the science fiction anthologies I own, I found Chad Oliver's name popping up.  I'd never read anything by Oliver, so out of curiosity this weekend I read three of his stories from anthologies I purchased this year.


"Rite of Passage" (1954)

I read "Rite of Passage" in the 1966 collection Seven Come Infinity, edited by Groff Conklin.  The story first appeared in Astounding.

Martin Ashley is a veteran anthropologist in the year 2067.  The galaxy is full of planets with indigenous human civilizations, and Ashley is on the crew of a survey ship, travelling around, investigating them.  When a plague strikes the survey ship, killing fifty-one out of the fifty-four member crew, Ashley and the two other survivors are marooned on a planet where the people live in huts and live off the produce of small farms and by hunting with bows.

These natives, the Nern, seem primitive, but Ashley eventually figures out that they are in fact the most advanced society in the galaxy.  They could have a complex modern society, and once did, but they have decided to live the simple life instead, abandoning books, computers, electricity, the wheel, and all that jazz. Oliver, to my mind, with the Nern tries to have his cake and eat it, too.  The Nern crops are easy to cultivate, needing no fertilizer, insecticide, or weeding.  The Nern, by using psychosomatic techniques and herbs, have all the benefits of modern medicine without X-ray machines, pharmaceutical companies, scalpels or syringes.  They don't need any kind of police apparatus or defense establishment because they can just use hypnotism to make people behave.  (This story reminded me of Sturgeon's "Skills of Xanadu," which also depicts a utopian story that felt too perfect.)

The three Earthmen fall ill from the plague they brought from the ship, and one dies when he rejects the Nern psychosomatic treatment.  Ashley lives and decides to join the Nern.  The third Earthling returns to Earth, but the Nern have implanted in his brain a hypnotic suggestion that will somehow spread to the rest of the Earth population and make sure we all behave in the future.      

I am not the audience for this story; for one thing, I never like utopian stories.  "Rite of Passage" depicts a utopia that to me sounds like an absolute drag.  I love books, oil paintings, skyscrapers, photographs, cathedrals, imported food, the whole experience of modern urban life, and I've never found that whole Rousseau noble savage bit at all attractive.  Oliver makes a feeble attempt to convince you that living in a hut and eating the same food every day with no books to read is awesome: "...when you ate a [Nern] meal you knew where it came from... who could be pressed for time, when it was all the same day, repeating itself forever?...the Nern had substituted philosophy and songs and dance for books...."

Besides finding the whole point of the story unconvincing, I think the story is too long (49 pages), and there is a lot of people just jawing away, blah blah blah, very little emotion or action or excitement.  The style is alright, so it wasn't a painful read, but it wasn't a profitable one, either.  Thumbs down, but more bemused than bitter.

"North Wind" (1956)

I read "North Wind" in the 1971 anthology edited by Robert Hoskins, The Far-Out People.  It was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Like "Rite of Passage" this story takes place in a universe in which many planets have indigenous human life, and as in "Rite of Passage" one character is a survey anthropologist.  But our main character is a United Nations official named Mevor.  Mevor's job is to assess all these human-inhabited planets that get discovered, based on the reports of the anthropologists, and then, working with the "Colonial Development Committee," help decide how much of each planet to seize for colonization by Earthlings.  Mevor is unpopular among the cognoscenti (his subordinates and The New York Times among them) because they think he is stealing the natives' land.

One of Mevor's anthropologists, Simpson, falsifies information about a planet in hopes of getting the planet ruled off limits to colonization; Simpson has become friendly with the natives, and wants to protect them from modern civilization.  But Mevor is smart; he figures out Simpson is lying and goes to the planet himself.  The point of the story turns out to be that Simpson is less moral than Mevor, because the anthropologist is choosing sides and playing favorites, while Mevor treats everybody, Earthman and ET alike, equally.  Mevor is also wiser than Simpson; lying and making biased assessments would be bad for the natives in the long run, because it would destroy the credibility of the UN and weaken the ability of the UN to limit the abuse the colonists inflict on the natives.  Mevor is a hero for taking a job which earns him public opprobrium and for trying to give everybody a fair shake.

"North Wind" is a better story than "Rite of Passage" because it is more concise and because it has at its center a character.  I wouldn't call it a good story, though.  Besides being a little boring, it would have been improved by Oliver including more characters and scenes to indicate that Mevor was moderating the colonists, and perhaps that colonization was necessary. No characters voicing the Earthling colonists' point of view appear "on screen," and Mevor just says or implies that he is protecting the natives from the colonists, and that colonization is inevitable; these things are not clearly demonstrated.  Of course, scenes like that might have made the entire story seem nonsensical--if Mevor is strenuously defending the natives, why don't his own staff and the reporters at the Times know it?--and I guess the fact that Mevor has the interests of the natives at heart is supposed to be a surprise to the reader.

An acceptable story, but I'm not enthusiastic about it.

"King of the Hill" (1972)

"King of the Hill" appears in Harlan Ellison's anthology Again Dangerous Visions, sequel to what is probably the most famous SF anthology of all time, Dangerous Visions.  In his introduction to the story, Ellison says the "impossibly high quality level of his stories" renders Oliver "almost a legendary name."  Then Ellison goes on to brag about various fights and dangerous rescues he has been involved in; burning cars, giant Puerto Rican drunks, Greenwich Village street gangs, Ellison has braved them all.

The story: It is the second half of the 21st century.  Overpopulation has ruined the Earth; the seas and air are polluted, food shortages have resulted in pets being outlawed, etc.  Oliver lays it on pretty thick: mankind is "a monster" who has "raped a world until he could not live with it," the Earth is "so strangled by countless tons of human meat that land per capita was measured in square feet," that kind of thing.

Our main character is nonagenarian Sam Gregg, the richest man in the world.  He has a sexy and vapid young wife who believes in astrology and seances.  Under a force field dome he owns the last nature trail in the world.  He also owns the sole space station.  Sam loves animals, and so strives to save them (humans are beyond saving.)  Sam puts robots and animal sperm and ova (genetically modified for life out in Saturn's orbit) and some kind of air generating apparatus in a spaceship and sends it to Titan.  There, under a force field dome, raccoon and dogs are midwifed by the robots.  Thanks to space radiation, in a few dozen generations, after the human race is extinct, intelligent raccoon people are building a civilization on Titan.

(Presumably these are the raccoon people who appear on the cover of the 2003 collection of Oliver stories, Far From this Earth.)

This is one of those snarky stories that directly addresses the reader sarcastically ("Don't like the ending?  A trifle stark?") and is full of lame colloquial jokes ("Ain't science wunnerful?")  It is also one of those stories that is more like a fable than a modern piece of fiction.  And it is one of those misanthropic sledgehammer polemic stories. These are all kinds of stories I don't find particularly congenial.  Still, "King of the Hill" is so wacky, so over the top, that it is amusing in a "so bad it is good" way, and it can also be seen as a sort of time capsule of 1972.  "King of the Hill" is also perhaps a good representative story of what Ellison was going for with the Dangerous Visions anthologies, stories that are supposed to shock the reader, address important topics, and/or use different literary techniques.  The story doesn't feel long, either-- the sentences are short and punchy, and the story is the right length.  So this one gets a passing grade, even if I appreciate it in a way different from that which Oliver intended.

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There is (or was) a market for utopian stories and anti-pollution polemics, and stories demonstrating anthropological theories, but I'm not keen on such stories, so don't expect to see further discussion of Chad Oliver on this here blog any time soon.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Wicked and the Witless by Hugh Cook

"Towards noon, Sarazin passed a gross grey skull, so huge that half a dozen trees sprouted from holes in its dome.  It gave him such a shock that he thereafter suspected the forest of evil intent, and scanned each thicket for ambush by werewolf or worse."

My copy, front and back covers

As a kid I borrowed Wizard War (1986) by Hugh Cook from the library.  It's a pretty long book (447 pages) and I didn't finish it, but a few aspects of the book stuck with me. Particularly, I never forgot the disgusting worms in the novel; in one scene a worm actually crawls into a guy's urethra!  Another worm, the size of an anaconda, bursts from the carcass of a dead dragon.

As an adult I purchased a used copy of Wizard War, and then it sat on shelves and in storage for years.  I finally read it last year.  I loved it, and quickly ordered several more books from Cook's ten volume series, Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, of which Wizard War (British title, The Wizards and the Warriors) is the first.  I read volumes two, three and four, and then took a long break.  This week I read volume five, The Wicked and the Witless (1989).

In general, these novels are long adventure stories, in which people travel around, encountering monsters and wizards and exploring ruins in the wilderness, and in towns getting involved in wars, court intrigues, feuds, love affairs, etc.  The setting is a fantasy world, with magic spells, dragons, demons, and plenty of sword fighting, but thousands of years in the past this was a world of high technology, and ancient science-fiction style artifacts will turn up and play a role in the plot.  This post-apocalyptic setting also allows Cook, and the characters, to use words and concepts like "democracy," "anarchism" and "terrorism" without it feeling jarringly anachronistic.  Wicked and the Witless even includes a minor character who is a gentle parody of Ayn Rand; she engages in a spirited debate on laissez-faire economics with a loyal adherent of King Tor, an ogre.

For my taste, Cook includes in the books just the right amount of sex, violence, suspense, and humor, and strikes a perfect balance between plot and description; the places and characters are always well-defined in my mind, but the story is always moving, something is always happening.  The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness are some of the most entertaining books I have ever read, all of them quite long, but never feeling long; I am always eager to find out what will happen on the next page.

One of the clever things about Chronicles of an Age of Darkness is that most of the books take place during the same time period, and include many of the same characters.  In different books we see the same events from different points of view, or follow a character we recognize from earlier books during a different period of his life.  The Wicked and the Witless stars Watashi, who was a minor character in earlier volumes, a bloodthirsty 25 year old cavalry commander.  Watashi has just turned 22 when we meet him in The Wicked and the Witless, and he is more interested in a poetry career than a military career.  He is still going by the his birth name, Sarazin.

Inside cover and first page
Sarazin's mother, Farfalla, is the chief executive of a powerful country, The Harvest Plains, and Sarazin has spent his youth as a hostage at the court of a neighboring nation, the Rice Empire.  At 22 Serazin returns home, and we follow several years of his madcap military and political career, which takes place during a time of upheaval in the world; as we have seen in the earlier volumes of the series, the nations surrounding The Harvest Plains and Rice Empire are wracked by invasions and revolutions, and then the sorcerous defenses to the south which have kept the monstrous Swarm at bay for centuries collapse, leading to a cataclysm.  Amidst this chaos Serazin strives to achieve greatness, wins the name Watashi, and receives an education from various relatives, tutors, and mentors, and from innumerable horrible experiences.

A theme of Wicked and the Witless is free will and fate.  Serazin has been taught that people are responsible for their own lives, that successful people deserve their success and that failures and the poor equally deserve whatever happens to them.  At the same time, Serazin is obsessed with prophecies and the fates, visiting soothsayers and poring over a prophetic book, and the events of his own life, which is rife with political manipulations and secret conspiracies, strongly suggest that people are at the mercy of powers beyond their control, perhaps beyond comprehension.

I thought The Wicked and the Witless was a lot of fun, but I'm sure it is not for everybody.  It goes on and on, 457 pages of incident after incident, and doesn't really follow a traditional adventure story structure; there isn't a big action climax or a sharp resolution, the novel ending in the middle of a war at the point at which all of Sarazin's teachers have been incapacitated or killed or have abandoned him, and for the first time he has to stand on his own two feet. The novel is also, as the kids say, "politically incorrect;" topics like rape, incest, torture, and child abuse are prevalent and often played for laughs.  Numerous jokes revolve around the fact that Serazin is tricked into having sex with obese and/or old women.  Cook expresses considerable cynicism about lawyers, politicians, and religion.

So, not for everybody, but I found it a solid piece of entertainment.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Space Prison by Tom Godwin

"They were on Ragnarok, the hell-world of 1.5 gravity and fierce beasts and raging fevers where men could not survive."
My copy of the 1962 printing, front and back
In 1958 Gnome Press published Tom Godwin's The Survivors in hardcover.  Renamed Space Prison, the novel appeared in paperback in 1960.  In May I purchased a copy of Pyramid's second printing, which came out in 1962 and has a more arty and less sexy cover than the first printing.  This edition has an ad for John Gunther's Inside Russia Today on its final page; it was, apparently, your go-to book for understanding the post-Stalin USSR.

Space Prison is your go-to book for understanding the Gern Empire and the planet Ragnarok.  The Gerns have Earth, which is running low on natural resources, under blockade.  The human race's plan to escape this trap is to fill the colonization ship Constellation with 8,000 men, women and children and race it through the blockade.  The Constellation will colonize the resource-rich planet of Athena, which the Earthers think the Gerns don't know about, and there build a space navy that can challenge the Gern Empire.

The Gerns are more clever than we humans realized, however.  They know all about Athena, and as the novel opens the Gern navy captures the Constellation, kidnaps all the people aboard with technical training, and drops the rest of the passengers off on Ragnarok, the famously inhospitable hell-world.

isfdb image of 1960 printing
This is a good set up for an adventure novel, but Space Prison (whose original name, Survivors, is actually more appropriate) doesn't follow a single protagonist or a small party as they overcome obstacles and make discoveries and fight enemies or whatever.  Instead, it is like those epic sagas by Edward Rutherford that my wife reads that cover a thousand years of English or Russian history, following not individuals but families and societies.  Mr. Jones meets Samuel Johnson in the tavern, his son fights alongside Wellington at Waterloo, his grandson shows Queen Victoria around the Crystal Palace, his great grandson helps bury Rupert Brooke, his great great grandson helps Alan Turing crack the German code, blah blah blah. I don't care to read a book like that; I had hoped to be spending 158 pages with the rifle-toting he-man and the blondtastic chick on the cover of the 1960 edition. You can imagine how disappointed I was during the first 40 or so pages of Space Prison, as Godwin again and again introduced a woman or man whom I thought was going to be a major character, only to kill that person off a few pages later.    

Four thousand humans are dropped off on Ragnarok, and they immediately start dying by the hundreds, felled by vicious beasts that attack in packs, the "Hell-fever," or simple vitamin deficiency.  Fifteen years later the colony consists of fewer than 100 people, but these are the hardiest people Earth has to offer, and as they have children the colony begins to grow.  Generations pass, the colonists build a transmitter, domesticate native animals, develop a magazine-fed rapid fire crossbow, etc.  (This is one of those SF books that romanticizes engineering and science; besides hearing all about the stuff they build, we get lots of info on Ragnarok's climate, orbit, axial tilt, weather, relationship to other bodies in its system, and how all these things tie together.)

Finally, 200 years after their ancestors were marooned on Ragnarok, the people of Ragnarok use their transmitter to trick a Gern ship into landing.  Now 6000 strong, they capture the ship, and use it to capture still more Gern ships.  Because they are native to 1.5 gravities, and the Gerns to only 1, a Ragnarok crewed ship can outmaneuver a Gern ship, so the humans can win all the space naval battles.  The Gerns of two centuries ago unwittingly bred the nemesis of their own race; in a decade the Gern Empire is shattered.

Space Prison is a story about manly men making hard choices, struggles for leadership, the way different people respond to life and death situations, and perhaps most importantly, the primacy of the group over the individual.  A main theme of the book is how a real man sacrifices himself for the good of the community, and we get exemplary stories that reminded me of Horatius at the bridge or the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, who stoically accepted the execution of his own sons, who were royalist conspirators.

For example, while away from the camp two men are attacked by monsters.  If they flee to the camp, the monsters will follow, find the camp and kill every human on the planet.  One man accepts this, and bravely faces certain death.  The other runs for the camp, and so the first saves the colony by shooting his comrade in the back before he can expose the camp to the monsters.

All three of the covers I am reproducing here
include Ragnorok's two suns; it's like the
artists actually read the book!
We also have a negative example, a fat guy who slacks and takes more than his fair share of food while everybody around him is starving, reminding me of the guy in the Broadway and Hollywood adaptations of Anne Frank's diary.  This hoarder and wrecker gets hanged when his cache of food is discovered, as immortalized on the cover of the Italian edition.

The theme of the importance of the community and need to sacrifice individuals for the good of the group echoes the theme of Tom Godwin's famous short story, "The Cold Equations."  (Important SF critic and writer Barry Malzberg, in the preface to a Baen collection of Godwin's work, tells us "The Cold Equations" is "perhaps the most famous and controversial of all science fiction short stories.")

Godwin's style is bland, sometimes poor; I found myself rewriting some of the sentences in my head, like when I'm copy editing student papers.  Because the style was not arresting, there were no individual characters to care about, and the plot held no surprises, Space Prison felt long.  I'm going to have to give this one a marginally negative review, just a few ticks below acceptable.  It is not offensively bad, just a little limp, flat, and long-winded.  

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I paid a dollar for my copy of Space Prison, but all you cheapos out there can read it for free online at Baen (the free sample chapters of their collection Cold Equations include the entire novel under its original title, The Survivors) or at Gutenberg, which reproduces the edition I own, even the ad for Inside Russia Today! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Four stories by Ed(ward) Bryant from Clarion and Orbit 12

It's our old pal Clarion!

Flipping through my books this weekend it came to my attention that I own at least four short stories by Ed Bryant.  I knew nothing about Ed Bryant, and figured I might as well learn something.

"Sending the Very Best" (1970)

This story first appeared in New Worlds in January 1970, which at that time was edited by Charles Platt. I read it in my copy of Clarion.  The little intro from Robin Scott Wilson includes the phrase "Right on" and asserts that "Sending the Very Best" is both a love letter and an example of nonobjective art.

This is a two page (joke?) story.  A man in the future buys a Hallmark card.  In the future Hallmark cards project a holographic film, and we get a description of the film, which reads like a parody of a student film or some kind of art house short. Sample lines:
"She'll not be back?"

"No, not unless we try to prevent her returning."
Not good.

"The Soft Blue Bunny Rabbit Story" (1971)

This 9 page story, also in Clarion, feels like 90 pages.  Bryant tells us in the intro that it reflects his impressions of California in 1970.

The story takes place on a college campus in the grim but groovy future of 1981.  Violent revolution is taking place all over the world, and our narrator, a Vietnam vet, has drug experiences, gets hassled by the Man, witnesses student unrest, has sex with "Shana, slim black fox from my romantic poetry seminar."  Maybe it is supposed to be funny?  It is surreal, that is for sure.  Sample lines:
"The language of the dialectic has become so fucking confused, man."

FLASHflashFLASHflash--the strobe-light and strobe-sound of machinegun fire. 
Not good.

"Shark" (1973)

"Shark" appears in Orbit 12.  I purchased a hardcover copy of this anthology of all new stories, edited by Damon Knight and published in 1973, at an antique mall while driving back to Iowa from New Jersey after a visit with my family and the Greek vases at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  My copy is from the collection of Chester Grabowski.  Mr. Grabowski not only stamped his name on the first page, but left his business card in the book, which I think is adorable.  Mr. Grabowski kept the book in very good condition, for which I thank him.

By 1973 Bryant was using "Edward" instead of "Ed," creating extra work for the people who run isfdb.

Unlike the two Clarion stories, "Shark" has characters, a plot, good pacing, and a degree of tension and suspense, all the things we squares like to see in stories.  "Shark" still may count as a "literary" or "New Wave" story because it is anti-war, anti-establishment and is told largely out of chronological order through flashbacks and italicized paragraphs, but these attitudes and techniques don't get in the way of the tale.

In a future war control of the ocean depths is deemed essential, and so the military figures out how to implant the brains of human beings in the bodies of sharks and dolphins.  An oceanographer's girlfriend loves sharks, wants to be a shark, and so volunteers to have her brain implanted into a Great White!  Once she has achieved her dream of becoming a shark she ignores her orders and goes AWOL.  The oceanographer, our main character, pursues her, but when he finds her she bites his arm off!

Years later, the war long over, the oceanographer is approached by government agents. They want to silence him, because the whole brain transplant story is coming to light and is bad PR for the current government.  Luckily the oceanographer's former girlfriend comes on the scene to help him out.

Thumbs up for this quite good story; I enjoyed it a lot.

"Pinup" (1973)    

This one also first appeared in Orbit 12.  It is a horror story, I guess, maybe a feminist story.  It is only four pages.

An assistant editor at Playboy is accosted on the street by a beautiful blue-eyed blonde.  She convinces him to accompany her to her apartment, taking a confusing and roundabout route.  There she imprisons him in a room full of posters of the kind of celebrities sophisticated people are expected to admire, like Bob Dylan, Greta Garbo, the Kennedys.  She applies plaster to his genitals, perhaps making a cast, and for a period shackles him to the ceiling, from which he hangs helplessly and painfully.  It is not clear what she is ultimately going to do to him, and why she is doing what she is doing.  Repeated references to eyes suggest she is doing to him what some would say pornography does to women, reducing him to a helpless sexualized object that exists merely to be viewed.  Her name, Lucia, and references to Saint Lucia, perhaps provide another clue to the point of the story.  The martyr Saint Lucia had her eyes gouged out, while the island of Saint Lucia, sometimes called "The Helen of the West Indies," changed hands over a dozen times during the many Anglo-French wars that took place from 1664 to 1815.

This story is marginally, maybe moderately, good.  Perhaps it is remarkable for being a story by a male author which addresses the issue of "the male gaze."

**************

The Clarion stories are the kind of stories I find pointless and irritating, but the Orbit 12 stories are the kind of stories I like: both are well-written and include physical and emotional drama and some kind of philosophical/intellectual content.  I should root around in my anthologies and see if I can dig up any more Bryant stories.

If my little descriptions here have generated interest in these stories or Bryant's wider body of work, you will be pleased to learn that all four tales appear in the collection Among the Dead and Other Events Leading to the Apocalypse published last year by ReAnimus Press, and that ReAnimus Press has made available about a dozen volumes of his work, including his collaboration with Harlan Ellison.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Master of Life and Death by Robert Silverberg

On August 8 of this year I received from SF blogger extraordinaire Joachim Boaz three books from his "SF Wall of Shame," nine science fiction novels he feels are "some of the worst SF ever written."  Joachim and I have different tastes, and I'd give at least four of these books (Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Heinlein's Beyond this Horizon, Knight's Beyond the Barrier, and Platt's Planet of the Voles) passing, though not high, marks.  Today I finished another of Joachim's Wall of Shame books, Robert Silverberg's 1957 Master of Life and Death.

Joachim traded to me (more details of the trade here and here) a severely worn copy of the 1986 Tor paperback edition of the novel. The cover proclaims Master of Life and Death a classic, and upon the first page is inscribed the mysterious code "MAB."  Is there a science fiction collector out there calling herself "Queen Mab?"  I hope so!

Master of Life and Death has been printed again and again since it first appeared as half of an Ace Double, so somebody must like it.  Joachim is not one of those people.  Am I one of those people? 

Queen Mab, your legend lives on!
It looks like I am not one of those people. Master of Life and Death has lots of crippling problems, perhaps more than I can enumerate here. 

Master of Life and Death is one of those books with an unsympathetic protagonist. Roy Walton is the head of the Bureau of Population Equalization, a new agency founded just a few months ago to deal with the population problem that is plaguing the 23rd century.  To deal with the population problem (the Earth's population in the novel's 2232 is at seven billion...just like in real life's 2014) the Bureau puts to death babies with defects (examples provided include blindness, a propensity to suffer tuberculosis, and being "spastic") and old people who are unproductive.  Even if you are healthy you might not be safe from the Bureau.  If you own a large piece of property the Bureau can seize it to settle people on, and if you live in an overcrowded place, like Belgium, the Bureau can compel you, and your entire town, to move to a place that isn't overcrowded yet, like Patagonia.

(That's right, our main character Roy Walton thinks the world would be a better place if Stevie Wonder had been killed at birth.  Hey Roy, I just called to say I hate you.)

If this sounds elitist and anti-democratic, don't worry, it gets worse.  Roy Walton isn't just some cold bureaucrat, he has serious opinions about architecture and poetry.  And he is corrupt.  When his favorite living poet's son is born, and is identified as tubercular, the little boy is slated for the gas chamber.  So Roy goes into the computer files and falsifies the records so the poet's kid will not be killed.

The Bureau's powers are vast, and it is not, as we say nowadays, transparent.  The Bureau, in a way I didn't quite understand, is in charge of the top secret effort led by a famous scientist to terraform Venus, and of man's first interstellar space flight, a top secret one-year mission that started like 10 months before the Bureau was founded.  When somebody comes up with a way to prevent aging, Roy tries to hide this breakthrough from the people.

And then there is Roy's attitude towards free speech and the freedom of the press.  When a guy gives an anti-Bureau speech Walton inspires a mob to riot and kill him with their bare hands!  Roy uses Bureau funds to purchase the leading anti-Bureau newspaper and turn it into a pro-government rag.  Best of all, Roy puts subliminal advertising on TV to win everybody over to Bureau policy.

I kept thinking Roy was going to realize what he was doing was wrong, and dismantle the Bureau and/or introduce the sorts of checks and balances that make government bearable. But I was wrong; the book justifies all of the killing and torturing Roy does, and the favoritism he showed to the poet, and when Roy kills somebody who had information Roy needs (oops!), space aliens take the info out of the dead body deus ex machina style on the 217th page of the 219 page book!

A lot of things in the book ring false.  How is the Bureau, which is only six weeks old, in charge of all the outer space stuff, including a space flight which began almost a year ago? Shouldn't a research agency or the military be running something like that?   And how does the Bureau keep such things secret from the public?  There are sixteen people on the starship, and there are the scientists, technicians, and ground crew who must have worked on it. And why did all all the elected officials of all the powerful wealthy countries, and all the tax payers who voted for them and are footing the bill, meekly surrender all their power to the Bureau, whose leader hasn't faced election?

Then there are the Herschelites, a political faction opposed to the Bureau because they think the Bureau should be even more ruthless.  Roy Walton, who kills your baby and your grandma, steals your land and forces you to move three thousand miles at gunpoint, considers himself a moderate and deplores the Herschelites as radicals because they advocate sterilizing defectives.  Silverberg, I guess, just includes the Herschelites to try to make Roy look more moderate; they don't figure very much in the plot and aren't mentioned in the second half of the book at all.  Most of our villains are people who object to the Bureau stealing their stuff.

Another issue is the fact that we are repeatedly told that a world-wide referendum gave the Bureau all its powers, and that the UN supports the Bureau, but that the most popular newspaper is anti-Bureau (until Roy buys it with the taxpayers' money, I mean.)  Roy spies on a community meeting, and everybody hates the Bureau.  It feels like Silverberg is trying to have it both ways, telling us that the Bureau has an irrefutable public mandate but is also the underdog.  (I know real-life politicians do this, but it is annoying when they do it and it is annoying when an author does it.)

Master of Life and Death is dripping with elitist contempt for the ordinary man; we are told numerous times that the "unwashed masses" spend all their time watching kaleidoscope videos on TV, and that the best-selling newspaper is written in an "illiterate style."  The populace is such a flock of sheep that it only takes 24 hours for them to go from 90 percent against the Bureau to 90 in favor of it. Not that Silverberg doesn't also try to go populist on us, attacking wealthy land owners.    

It's time for your mind-picking!
So I don't like the book's politics or general attitude, some elements feel manipulative and others half-assed.  What about the characters?  Bad.  High points of Silverberg's characterizations of villains in the book include making one guy Roy has killed short, and telling us one of the wealthy landowners he has "mind picked" is fat.  And the plot and pacing?  Weak.  Almost the whole book is a guy sitting in an office having meetings or talking on the videophone! There is no tension or drama and nothing interesting happens.  

If this novel is one big joke, a satire of intrusive and unaccountable government, it is not funny and is incredibly subtle.  If it is a piece of advocacy that argues in favor of extreme government measures during an emergency it is a total failure because Silverberg spends no time or energy convincing us intellectually or emotionally that there really is an emergency.  If you want me to cheer on murdering or torturing a guy you are going to have to do better than just telling me that he's short and fat!

Thumbs down!

****************

After finishing the novel and drafting the above blog post I checked out Joachim's June 2011 review of Master of Life and Death.  Joachim and I may have different taste, but we agree on this one: it's a stinker.

Joachim includes in his review a list of three Silverbergs he has liked.  Silverberg has produced quite a few good novels, and so here's my list of Silverberg novels I am happy to recommend, three different ones than on Joachim's list: Kingdoms of the Wall, Dying Inside, and The Second Trip.  So you've got at least six Silverbergs to read before this one.

Thanks again to Joachim for making such a generous trade; even though this book was pretty weak, it is interesting to be more familiar with Silverberg's long and productive career.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Technos by E. C. Tubb

Here is another of the Dumarest novels by E. C. Tubb which I purchased from SF Gateway via the iTunes store and read on my battered iPhone 4.  Technos first appeared in 1972 as half of an Ace Double and is the seventh volume of the Dumarest saga.

Like Nabokov novels, these Dumarest books are often named after their lead female character.  So I had been wondering if Technos was the name of one of the gorgeous women with psychic powers that our man Dumarest is always saving from certain death in the first half of these books.  (The Grim Reaper always catches up with them in the second half of these books.)  In fact, Technos is the name of a planet, a planet of imperialistic technocrats who use biological warfare to extract tribute from other planets.  (The sexy girl in this episode is named Elaine, and she isn't a psychic; she just has an eidetic memory.  My spell check thinks she has a deistic memory, but trust me on this one.)

The planet Loame is one of Technos's tributaries.  Loame has a feudal political and economic structure; the lords (called "Growers") own vast estates and employ hundreds of subordinates who are more or less tied to the land.  An early scene suggests that these serfs have to ask permission of their Grower if they want to get married, and the grower can veto their choice of mate.

Roundup's latest ad campaign
Loame is in a hell of a spot because the Technos people recently sowed on the planet some super strong, super fecund weeds, and these weeds are spreading, reducing the amount of arable land.  The Technos creeps threaten to drop a much larger payload of these weed seeds if the Loame Growers don't provide tribute.  Technos demands of Loame the same thing Gurman the Gay and Morold the Strong demanded of Cornwall in the Gottfried von Strassburg version of Tristan and Isolde, and what King Minos demanded of Athens: shipments of young people!

After arriving on Loame and getting the lay of the land, Dumarest is told that Elaine of the Marilu Henner memory (a Loamean now on Technos) may know a clue to the whereabouts of Earth.  (You'll remember that Dumarest is searching the galaxy for Earth, and that nearly all of the few people of this vast galactic civilization who have heard of Earth consider it a myth.)  Like James Bond in Dr. No, Dumarest darkens his skin as a disguise; this way he can pass as a Loamean.  Then he takes the place of another man, one who has been selected for the next tribute shipment.  (It is a far, far better thing that he does.)

Dumarest is confident in his detective abilities; he does not doubt that he can find a woman he's never met who might be anywhere on a fascistic planet he's never been to. I can't find my own wife when we split up in a grocery store I go to twice a week.

Death maze!
Besides Dumarest's story of sneaking around Technos in various disguises, Technos presents us the tale of Vargas, the paranoid chief executive of Technos, and his struggle against the Supreme Council.  We had a similar story in Derai, the second Dumarest book, and in Toyman, the third.  Vargas wants more power, and some members of the Council are reluctant to give it to him.  The leader of the anti-Vargas faction in the Council is Mada Grist, a beautiful woman.  Many years ago I read a complaint from a female SF critic; her gripe was that when men try to write women characters they often include a scene in which the woman looks at herself in the mirror and admires her own boobs.  Tubb's first scene with Mada is just such a scene.  Maybe this scene is more acceptable because she has had her 87-year-old head implanted on a sexy young Loamean body?

You won't be surprised to hear that Dumarest also gets an opportunity to admire these boobs after meeting Mada while she is slumming.  Or that Mada enlists Dumarest in her struggle against Vargas. (The big surprise in Technos is that both Elaine and Mada are alive at the end of the book.) 

Vargas has more than one iron in the fire.  Like Mada he is getting along in years, and so he's trying to find a healthy young man to transplant his head onto.  The job interview for the position of body donor to the would-be dictator of Technos consists of being thrown into a death maze full of traps like moving barbed walls, spiked pits, and genetically engineered monsters.  You won't be surprised to hear that our man Dumarest ends up in this death maze, especially if you remember the labyrinths featured in Derai and Toyman.  (The aforementioned Dr. No also includes a death maze, as I remember.)
First edition

This is another fun Dumarest caper.  When they are well-written, I enjoy adventure stories in which a guy has to escape the tyrannical authorities and fight his way out of a death maze, and I find Tubb's writing style quite congenial.  Tubb elevates this swashbuckling material by providing all the characters believable inner lives and by indulging in a little sociology and political economy, comparing the modern technocratic urban society on Technos with the feudalistic agrarian society on Loame.

Another thumbs up for E. C. Tubb and Dumarest.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lallia by E. C. Tubb

For Christmas my brother got me an iTunes gift card.  I don't listen to a lot of new music, and when I do, its on YouTube (I guess I am vulnerable to the charge of stealing the food right out of poor Hope Sandoval's mouth.)  So I recently used the credit to purchase from Gateway e-books of some of E. C. Tubb's Dumarest novels.  Today I finished Lallia, the sixth Dumarest adventure, reading it on my iPhone.

I won't deny that I would rather have a paperback copy of Lallia (in particular I am always curious about the interior illustrations you find in Ace Doubles), but I've not seen one in a used bookstore, and for price and convenience, the Gateway digital edition beat out Amazon and Abebooks' used copies.

The Gateway edition of Lallia has a blurb on its cover from Michael Moorcock.  As those of you who follow my every move are aware, it is just such a Moorcock comment about Tubb that led me to start reading the Dumarest books in the first place.  I certainly agree that the Dumarest books are "fast-moving and colourful."  Another reason Moorcock, who describes himself as an "anarchist," has famously attacked more conservative writers like J. R. R. Tolkein, Robert Heinlein, and C. S. Lewis, and has engaged in what you might call feminist literary activism (revising his own work to be more sensitive to womens' issues, and trying to stigmatize and marginalize John Norman's Gor books), might appreciate the Dumarest series is that Tubb populates them with callous aristocrats, greedy businessmen, and manipulative intellectuals, as well as the legions of poor desperate people who suffer from their indifference and exploitation.

The other four Dumarest books I have read have included secondary plots about competing elites who enlist Dumarest in their struggles, but in Lallia it's all Dumarest; I think he appears in every scene. Dumarest, as part of his quest across the galaxy in search of Earth, a planet most people see as a fiction, joins the crew of a small space ship.  This ship, the Moray, is bad news. The ship's captain tries to make a profit by carrying cargo and passengers between planets, but they are just barely getting by, and don't even have the money to keep the ship clean and properly maintain its systems.  Tubb pithily characterizes each member of the doomed Moray's crew; the captain, who is horrified of space and indulges in the use of an alien symbiote that provides him vivid dreams, the dipsomaniac engineer who puts everyone at risk by getting drunk when he should be carefully tending to the sensitive hyperspace drive, the naive young steward who doesn't know what he has gotten himself into by signing up.

One of the themes of the Dumarest books which I haven't mentioned in earlier blog posts is religion.  In every book the bizarre Cyclan, a galaxy-wide organization of scarlet-robe-clad geniuses who have had brain surgery to disable all emotion, appear.  The members of the Cyclan use their fantastic mathematical ability and ice cold logic to manipulate others and increase their influence.  The foil of the Cyclan is the Church of Universal Brotherhood; they have also appeared in all the Dumarest books I have read.  The members of the Church try to help the poor and wretched, giving them food, helping them negotiate with the middle class for jobs and medical care, that sort of thing.  Tubb (at least in the books I have read) has always portrayed the Church monks as selfless and sincere, but there is a Clockwork Orange aspect to the Church; those who accept food from the monks are expected to kneel before the "benediction light," which conditions them hypnotically with the command "thou shalt not kill."  (You can believe that Dumarest, who regularly finds himself fighting for his life against assassins, gladiators, and monsters, has never knelt before the benediction light.)

Religion takes center stage in Lallia.  The most responsible and sympathetic of the crew of the Moray is the navigator, who is a student of ancient religions and a committed believer.  One of the planets the Moray lands on is home to a primitivist "back-to-nature" sect that considers metal "a thing of the Evil One" and uses only wooden and stone implements.  In the end of the novel the ship crashes on a planet called Shrine, the destination of scores of sick or deformed pilgrims.  These people seek a miraculous cure, and sometimes receive it, for on Shrine is an ancient alien artifact which nobody understands, but which truly has healing properties.  Tubb's view of religion is nuanced, and each character, through his words and actions, evinces a different attitude towards religion, and we see religion employed as a tool to dominate others, as a comfort to those in trouble, and as an inspiration to perform good works.

This may be a book in which the author presents views about religion, but primarily Lallia is still an adventure story.  As in earlier volumes, Dumarest ends up fighting for his life as a gladiator and rescuing a beautiful woman who has psychic powers.  He also has to contend with a Cyclan assassin; the Cyclan is still trying to retrieve the ring that book 4's beautiful psychic woman, Kalin, gave him, a ring which has encoded within it a priceless technological secret.  Lallia also moves the plot of Dumarest's saga forward; when he touches the artifact on Shrine Dumarest receives a vision of the galaxy, with the region where Earth lies highlighted.  

Another solid Dumarest adventure; interesting characters, strange creatures and technology, plenty of violence and tragedy.  Next up on my iPhone, Technos, the seventh Dumarest caper.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin

Five or six years ago I read some of the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the 1931-34 volume of the expurgated diaries published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and one of the unexpurgated volumes, I can't recall if it was Incest or Fire.  I remember enjoying them, but I can recall only very little of what went on in them. The only clear image left is of Nin at the psychoanalyst's office; having lived for years in New York apartments where you could always hear the televisions, arguments, and sexual escapades of other tenants, I admired the thick curtains in the head shrinker's office, which were said to be able to block out any outside sounds.

Anyway, while dusting my wife's bookshelves last week I came upon the 1994 paperback edition of Nin's 1959 novel, A Spy in the House of Love.  If the advertisements in the back are any indication, the book was marketed exclusively to women, but, I am, you know, open-minded like, and early this week I read the 166 page novel.

Sabina lives in New York City with her loving husband, Alan.  Sabina leads Alan to believe she is an actress, that she is with a theatre company that performs in New England.  In fact, during these absences, as well as at other times, Sabina is with one or another of her lovers, in Manhattan, up in Provincetown, or over in Long Island.  These lovers include Phillip, an opera singer, Mambo, an Afro-Caribbean mathematician and drummer, and John, an RAF war veteran who suffers from survivors' guilt.

Sabina is unable to find satisfaction with one man; she is driven by a desire to experience all the world has to offer, she aches to live more than one life, be more than one Sabina.  With each of her lovers, Sabina plays a different role, leads a different life, is a different Sabina.

Sabina is fundamentally restless; she can't settle for one life, but the lies and betrayals required to pursue many lives create terrible anxieties, make her feel like a spy in an enemy country. When she is with Alan in their apartment and hears the fog horn of a ship on the Hudson she wishes she could be on the ship; when they play records the music conjures in her mind visions of Paris, Germany, Haiti, all the many places she would rather be.  But when she is away from Alan, she often wishes she was back with him, and after enjoying a tryst with one of her lovers she often feels guilt over betraying Alan, and shame over arousing in her lovers a devotion she cannot reciprocate.  Sabina believes men (her philandering father, for example) have a freedom women lack, that they can enjoy sex without love, without guilt, and she aspires to achieve this freedom herself.

A Spy in the House of Love is more of a character study than a story; there isn't much plot. I sort of expected the ending to show Sabina either achieving her freedom, abandoning guilt and learning to enjoy her promiscuity, or, giving up the life of a "spy" and learning to love the man who loved her the most sincerely and generously, Alan. Instead, the ending of the book is surreal and I didn't quite get it; Sabina gets long-winded advice from two mysterious mentor characters, then she listens to Beethoven and then, apparently, keels over.  Maybe this is just a symbolic death?

I expected the novel to include explicit sex scenes, like, say, Henry Miller's Sexus.  There are in fact no such scenes.      

The book is full of metaphors; presumably some readers will embrace them while others find them ridiculous. Here is a sample, from pages 50-51, describing the aphrodisiac qualities of what Nin calls "Debussy's Ile Joyeuse" (apparently this is an unconventional spelling):
The model notes arrived charged like a caravan of spices, gold mitres, ciboriums and chalices bearing messages of delight setting the honey flowing between the thighs, erecting sensual minarets on men's bodies as they lay flat on the sand. 
There are lots of odd, clever bits that I liked.  Sabina's guilt drives her to talk, to confess, so she sits in bars and tells exotic stories to people for hours, leaving vague whether they are tales from her own life, or from the lives of friends, or just things she read.  She so needs to unburden herself that she will telephone random numbers late at night and talk to absolute strangers.  One of Phillip's hobbies is making his own telescope, even grinding his own lenses.  He hangs an open umbrella from the ceiling of his apartment over his half-finished telescope, because the running of the children who live upstairs rains plaster dust on his delicate lenses.  Sabina suspects the source of her behavior lies in her youth, when she eschewed sunbathing and instead "moon-bathed," laying naked in bed before open windows at night, letting the rays of the moon wash over her.  It seems that some people back then thought exposure to moon beams could have strange effects on the body and mind.  Sixteen-year old Sabina believed her moon-baths gave her skin a "different glow," and her friends asked what it was that had changed about her; was she using drugs?  Mom complained she looked like a consumptive.

Nin's peers according to Pocket Books' marketing people: Jackie Collins, Judy Blume, & Joan Collins
A Spy in the House of Live is an entertaining, interesting novel if you are willing to dispense with a traditional plot.  You academic types can get some additional mileage out of it by using it as a lens to examine womens' attitudes towards and perceptions of men, and whites' view of non-whites.  On page 54 we find Sabina, having taken off her wedding ring on the way to Phillip's, is walking "with her whole foot on the ground as the latins and the negroes do."  Mambo, on pages 67 and 74, bitterly complains that white women pursue him not for himself, but because of the "sensual power" of the black race.  "He felt that she embraced in him, kissed on his lips the music, the legends, the trees, the drums of the island he came from...."

A worthwhile read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Planet of the Voles by Charles Platt

Here we have another inmate from Joachim Boaz's Wall of Shame.  As you may recall, Joachim and I traded some SF paperbacks recently, he sending me some SF books he thought among "the worst ever written."  (More details of the trade, and discussion of one of the other Wall of Shame titles, which I actually liked, here.)  Since Joachim and I have somewhat different tastes, I was not reluctant to give Charles Platt's Planet of the Voles a spin.

Planet of the Voles first appeared in hard cover, adorned with a cool Paul Lehr cover, in 1971, the year of my birth.  Joachim sent me the 1972 Berkeley paperback; the painting is the same, but the cover text obscures the image a bit.  Some kind of color ad was bound between pages 96 and 97 originally (these old paperbacks often have ads for the Science Fiction Book Club or cigarettes) but a previous owner tore out the ad, leaving mere fragments behind. 

Planet of the Voles is an action adventure in which people shoot ray guns at each other and machete their way through jungles inhabited by giant reptiles and predatory birds, but it also takes a stab at being philosophical.  Unfortunately, Platt doesn't quite make the thing work; the two elements (space opera and philosophy) actually undermine each other, and he also makes irritating mistakes that diminish the entire effort.

It is the future, and man has colonized many planets.  Centuries of peace have led man to forget the arts of war and have bred out of him many of his aggressive instincts.  So, when the mysterious Volvanians start conquering human planets, the Earth has to genetically engineer fighting men and mass produce them in huge vats!

Tomas and Jan are just such men, crewmen of a space battleship on its way to liberate a planet the Volvanians have occupied.  Tomas and Jan are on the support staff, and don't fight on the front line.  Tomas was genetically engineered to be an artist; his job is to decorate the ship with murals and photographs, design insignia and medals, that sort of thing.  Jan was created to clean the narrow tube that runs the length of the ship and is essential to the hyperdrive; he's only five feet tall, and can't reach the controls of a suit of battle armor.

A Volvanian ship sneaks up on Tomas and Jan's ship during transit through hyperspace and attacks with a sort of poison gas weapon.  The ship itself suffers little damage, but the gas drives the servicemen insane so that they fight among themselves and open the airlocks, jettisoning all air and fuel.  Apparently by chance, T & J are the only survivors of the entire thousand man crew.  Now T & J, the least war-like of the ship's complement, have to get the ship, which comes out of hyperspace in orbit over the planet they came to liberate, working again.

T & J take a troop carrier to the surface, and have various adventures, rescuing the humans on the planet, infiltrating a Volvanian fortification, that sort of thing.  Then they lead the attack on the alien base, defeating the aliens and learning their strange secret!

During the attack in hyperspace that killed all of his comrades, Tomas got a glimpse of the commander of the Volvanian ship, a beautiful woman he later learned is known as Galvina.  He became obsessed with her, irrationally certain he had met her before and that somehow Galvina could reveal secrets about himself.  In the climax of the book Tomas confronts her, and learns about the Volvanians' psychic powers.  Using these powers, over twenty years ago Galvina tinkered with the vat in which Tomas was created, trying to make of him a Volvanian spy.  She made sure he survived the attack in hyperspace, hoping to meet him face to face and recruit him for behind-the-lines missions.

Tomas refuses to betray humankind, and Galvina escapes.  Tomas, feeling he doesn't really fit in with the humans, decides to strike out on his own rather than return to Earth.  In the last three pages of the book Tomas, no doubt to the chagrin of the taxpayers of Earth, steals the 500 meter long space battleship and he and Jon set out to explore the universe and maybe confront Galvina a second time.

isfdb image of hardcover edition
There are some interesting ideas and passable action scenes in Planet of the Voles that reminded me of space operas like E. E. Smith's Spacehounds of IPC or A. E. van Vogt's Rull stories.  The Volvanians enslave the humans on the planet by destroying all their food and then planting a bush which bears fruit that is nutritious, but turns people into almost mindless zombies.  The Volvanians then use the zombies' empty minds as amplifiers for their psychic powers.  In those Smith and Van Vogt stories the key to human victory is often scientific ingenuity, and that is true on the Volvanian-occupied planet; one of the humans on the planet is a biochemist, and is able to synthesize yeast to provide food for the resistance movement that links up with Tomas and Jon.

Another cool space opera gadget Platt includes in the novel is a small device that the Earth servicemen employ to control animals.  A little black box with prongs, you imbed it in the skull of a beast and then you are able to direct the beast.  T & J use these boxes to ride around on giant birds.

Unfortunately, for every fun idea like those, Platt commits a distracting error.  Sometimes he uses metric measurements, sometimes English measurements (the battleship is 500 meters long, the troop carrier is 30 feet long.)  The space battleship and the planet are never given names; the omniscient third-person narrator and the characters all just call them "the mother ship" and "the planet."  This feels sloppy.  The style is also bland, Platt failing to convey the kind of urgency, or fear, or thrill we hope to feel when guys are in firefights, or chases, or hacking their way through a jungle on an alien planet.

Another disappointment is the relationship between Tomas and Jon.  You get the feeling that Platt wanted to portray these two men developing a deep friendship based on the fact that they are outsiders, but in the end he just tells you they have developed a bond rather than demonstrating it.  I also expected more to happen between Tomas and Galvina, that they would fall in love and end the war, or fight to the death, or something.     

Then we have the philosophical aspects of the book.  The idea Platt is peddling is a sort of yin-yang thing, that a person and a society need to embrace both strength and beauty, aggression and reflection, muscle and mind, male and female, etc and etc, to flourish.  Tomas, our hero, is such a success because he is a well-rounded person, part human and part Volvanian, both artist and fighting man.  (Maybe Platt could have used the relationship between Tomas and Jon to demonstrate his yin-yang idea, by having each possess skills which complemented the others', but in fact Jon and Tomas have few scenes alone together and Jon mostly tags along while Tomas does almost everything that matters.)

The humans in the book are all male, and represent power and aggression; the Volvanians (the people of the vulva?) are ruled by females, and represent beauty and (I guess) the intellect, including subtlety, deception, and manipulation.  The Earth people have better force fields and energy guns, and the Volvanians compete by launching sneak attacks, using a surface fortress to act as a decoy when their real base is underground, and by using chemicals and psionics to mess with the Earthlings' minds.  

The way the two races represent the two sexes leads to what is probably the most memorable scene in the book, the embarrassing assault on the secret Volvanian base.  The Earth battleship, a long cylinder, penetrates the oval-shaped hanger doors of the alien base, which lies in a valley, and then from the nose of the battleship spew forth the Earth troops.  Platt leaves no doubt that this is supposed to represent the sex act when he tells us the interior of the Volvanian base has red walls that are moist!

It was a wide, deep shaft, almost as wide as the mother ship that had pushed into it.  The shaft led into the earth, curving slightly.  Its walls were moist with condensation, and a gentle red color.            

Besides causing embarrassing scenes like that, the philosophy of the book weakens the adventure story aspects of the book.  Over the course of the story the Volvanians kill hundreds of humans and enslave hundreds more by turning them into zombies.  We are also explicitly told that the Volvanians are the aggressors in the war and that for centuries humans have not made war on each other.  So it makes sense that the reader feel that the Volvanians are the villains.  But, because the ideology of the book requires some level of moral equivalency between the humans and aliens, we get disconcerting scenes in which we are expected to deplore how bloodthirsty the humans are.  We are also supposed to consider that the human buildings on the planet are more beautiful after the Volvanians' ray guns have melted their dull-colored vertical walls into brightly colored curves.  This undermines the gung ho fun often provided by military action adventures, and prevents the catharsis you find in stories in which, at the end, the villains are brought to justice.  And since Platt does not go as far as a book like The Forever War, in which the humans are the villains and the aliens innocent victims, Planet of the Voles ends up provoking mixed and muted feelings in the reader.

Planet of the Voles has many problems.  While it was disappointing and at times embarrassing, I didn't find reading it a painful experience, and I don't regret reading it.  The beginning is an OK adventure story, the end interesting in a bizarre way.  So, a sort of borderline case.

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After finishing Planet of the Voles and drafting the above blog post, I read Joachim's review, from July 2012.  Joachim proclaims the book terrible, awarding it one out of five stars.

Besides the fact that I am more forgiving to adventure stories and pulp than Joachim, I think the big difference between our views is our assessments of what Platt's "point" is.  I think the book is more or less sincere as an adventure story and as advocacy of a well-rounded individual and society.  Joachim suggests that Platt is claiming conflict between the sexes is inevitable and perhaps criticizing feminism, and/or that the book is a satire of space opera, a weak version of something Norman Spinrad might do.

The case for Planet of the Voles being a spoof space opera is pretty strong, but it is something that did not occur to me; the adventure elements felt totally sincere to me for some 170 of the book's 192 pages, and even the final attack on the base felt, to me, like overblown symbolism rather than a spoof of the space battles one finds in E. E. Smith.  Well, maybe the joke's on me this time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lesser known 1950s stories: W. Guin, G. C. Edmondson, & Lion Miller

Like some kind of genre fiction Schliemann, yesterday I dug into Groff Conklin's 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction in hopes of uncovering lost treasures, reading stories by three authors I had never even heard of.  I will allow the reader to judge whether the fact that I was unfamiliar with Wyman Guin, G. C. Edmondson, and Lion Miller reflects these writers' obscurity or my own lamentable ignorance.

"Volpla" by Wyman Guin (1952)

This is a first-person narrative with an unsympathetic narrator.  Our protagonist is what we would now call a genetic engineer, living in sight of the Pacific Ocean with his family.  His wife and kids have little idea what he is doing in his lab, which he keeps locked at all times.  At the start of the story he has just created a new life form, two foot tall people with pterosaur-like wings.

How unsympathetic is this guy?  Well, he's not a murderer or anything, but he's a callous self-absorbed prankster who is always making jokes at others' expense.  His generous wife calls him "eccentric," and at one point his son requests "Can it, will you?  You're always gagging around." The things that will likely leap out at your 21st century eyes are how the scientist calls his little girl "wench" the way guys on old TV shows call their daughters "pumpkin" or "princess," and how he pinches the maid's ass in front of his wife and the wife treats it like a joke. Maybe these things would seem innocuous in 1952?  Maybe "wench" was not as eroticized as it is nowadays?

The scientist pulls some other stunts that show his anti-social nature.  Most importantly, his big idea of what to do with the little flying people (he calls them "volplas") he has created is to fool them into thinking their race came to Earth from outer space centuries ago and then secretly set them loose in the wild.  Then he will follow their discovery by humankind in the newspapers.  The narrator thinks it will be hilarious watching journalists, scientists and the government trying to figure out the origin of the volplas and what to do about them.  He figures that, once linguists have learned the artificial language he will make up and teach the volplas, that some of the goofier of his fellow Californians will build a cult around volpla wisdom.

The joke goes awry, and at the end of the story the volplas, over one hundred strong, hijack the first unmanned rocket probe to Venus and leave Earth behind.  Our narrator has, perhaps, learned a little humility and sympathy for others.

This story is pretty good; a little different, never boring or irritating.  I was genuinely curious about what would happen next, and about the odd main character.  "Volpla" first appeared in Galaxy and has been anthologized several times.

While I had never heard of him, the SFE praises Guin's work as "brilliant" and "powerful," and in 2013 the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, which aims to bring attention to SF writers whom the judges feel are unjustly forgotten, went to Guin.

"Technological Retreat" by G. C. Edmondson

This story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; this is its only book publication.

Two aliens that look like fish land in the woods in the United States, where they encounter a businessman who is fishing.  They set up a trade deal with the businessman; they provide him a supply of pen-like devices that can project two rays.  One ray softens metal so it can be safely shaped like clay, while the second ray hardens the metal up again.  With this device an ordinary person can quickly repair an automobile fender or engine or any other metal item.  In return the aliens accept sea food from a deli, which they consider a delicacy and believe they can sell back home.

The businessman expects to get rich selling the "plasticizers" for a thousand bucks each, but within two days the feds seize all his stock, and then it becomes clear that the aliens are trading plasticizers to people all over the world, flooding the market and reducing prices to less than a dollar.  Like the silencing device in the Arthur C. Clarke story we talked about in our last episode, the plasticizer is soon used for mischief; kids dissolve train tracks and limousines, for example.  Over in Russia the Communist Party, we learn, is losing its ability to maintain its power because people can just melt down their firearms.

The fish aliens have lifespans of thousands of years, and assume humans do as well, and return to Earth a century later, expecting to drop off another shipment of platicizers and pick up a shipment of caviar and anchovy paste.  They are surprised to find that not only are their business contacts dead, but that human civilization has collapsed to the level of the stone age, due to the destabilizing nature of the plasticizer.

I guess this is a satire of businesspeople, government, and the way technology can change society, but it is neither funny nor insightful.  For my taste it is too broad, too exaggerated; obviously a device like the plasticizer would change society, like the wheel, steel, the telephone, the computer, etc., but throw us back to the stone age?  I am disappointed that Edmondson spent so much time on long-winded jokes about the Elks Lodge and government bureaucracy, and on one liners ("'I'll have to call Washington,' Simpson said....'Don't tell me he slept here too...'"), and so little exploring the idea of how the plasticizer would change society; he doesn't describe the societal collapse, just presents us with it as a punchline.        

It wouldn't be fair of me to fail a story because the author intended it to be a light series of jokes, while I wish it was a serious story that speculated about technology and society (like, say, Gene Wolfe's "The Doctor of Death Island.")  So I guess this one gets a borderline passing grade.


"The Available Data on the Worp Reaction" by Lion Miller (1953)

This dude's first name is "Lion;" that's pretty cool, right?  King of the jungle and all that!

Lion Miller only has one credit on isfdb, for this story, which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was anthologized numerous times, including in an anthology of "Science Fiction Humor," Laughing Space.

Is there any chance this is a pen name for a more famous author? "Lion" does sound like "lyin'," after all.

This story is only 4 pages long, and it is not funny.  Perhaps it would be considered a "shaggy dog" story.  A retarded young man, Aldous Worp, from age six to age 26, collects rusty old junk from the city dump.  At age 27 (with no training or tools) he builds it into a vehicle that can levitate.  The world is amazed, and scientists and military men hope to discover the secret of the device.  But Worp never learned to talk, and when people start snooping around his machine he dismantles it.  The End.

What can I say about such a story?  It did remind me of the "Tower Power" episode of Sanford & Son, which, as a kid, fascinated me.

This is one of those stories for whom I am not the target audience.   I only rarely find science fiction humor stories to be amusing, and would never crack open a volume like Laughing Space.  (In my opinion even the great Gene Wolfe stumbled, painfully, with his humor piece, "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.") I certainly didn't foresee 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction including a high proportion of humor pieces; the epithet "great" led me to expect "serious" stories with some kind of emotional power or technological or sociological speculation.

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The Guin was a worthwhile read, the Edmondson wasn't painful, and the Miller was brief. And it is always good to explore new authors and titles, I suppose.

There are still stories in Conklin's 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction by big name authors like Poul Anderson and John Wyndham, as well as by authors with whom I am not familiar, so I will be back.