Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Monsters of the Atom," "Red Gem of Mercury" and "The Crystal Circe" by Henry Kuttner

Strap on your needle pistol, we're going on three more adventures with Henry Kuttner, courtesy of Thunder in the Void! Thunder in the Void is a 2012 collection of Kuttner tales produced by Haffner Press; today's three adventures were ripped from the pages of 1940s pulps and did not appear in book form until our own 21st century!

"Monsters of the Atom" (1941)

This one first appeared in the magazine Super-Detective, and the beginning does remind one of a hard-boiled crime story, though set on the Mars of the future.

Our narrator is Kirk Bellamy, an asteroid prospector, wasting his money and time at a Martian gambling den.  The native Martians try to cheat him, a brawl ensues, and he gets tossed in an alley. There a Martian tries to murder him, but our hero is saved by a sexy dame with a needle pistol.  The dame, named Lurana, hires Bellamy to do a dirty job for her--she needs help stealing a jewel from a crook named Garth.  Lurana hired Garth to steal the jewel from somebody else, but Garth kept the jewel for himself.

Bellamy goes along with her, and in short order they have captured Garth and the jewel.  Lurana reveals that she is descended from the people of ancient Atlantis.  Atlanteans colonized Venus back in the day, but then were afflicted by a Venerian plague.  To escape the plague they shrank themselves to tiny size and took up residence in the jewel Lurana and Bellamy have just recovered.  Lurana wants to reunite with her countrymen, so she takes a pill to shrink herself to subatomic size, and forces Bellamy and Garth at needle gunpoint to do the same.

Inside the jewel world a horrible truth is revealed.  Time moves much faster at the subatomic level, so while thousands of years have passed in our universe since the Atlanteans entered the jewel, within the jewel millions or billions of years have elapsed.  Over these eons, the Atlanteans have evolved into amoeboids.  The amoebas try to communicate with Lurana and Bellamy via telepathy, but, somehow, while the humans can understand the amoebas' thoughts, the amoebas can't decipher human thoughts.  So Bellamy can understand what the aliens are saying, but the aliens can't understand what the humans are saying.

The amoeba people want to conquer our solar system, so imprison Bellamy, Lurana, and Garth to use as test subjects for chemical and biological weapons research!  They test a gas on them that turns out to have aphrodisiac effects, setting up one of those scenes in which a woman's clothes get ripped off; we saw lots of these scenes in Kuttner's "Avengers of Space" and "Time Trap."  Bellamy kills Garth before the latter can rape Lurana, then leads an escape out of the jewel.  Back to full size, he throws the jewel into an atom smasher, annihilating the entire amoeba civilization.

"Monsters of the Atom" is a pretty poor effort; the whole thing feels shoddy and rushed.  Every element of the plot feels contrived and goofy, and the way people act and the things that happen are neither believable nor interesting.  Thumbs down!

"Red Gem of Mercury" (1941)

This story first appeared in Super Science Stories, which claims to be "The Big Book of Science Fiction" and backs up the claim by including work by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury.  Alfred Bester and Hannes Bok are also represented in the issue.  Those famous names don't appear on the cover (Heinlein's story appears under the pseudonym "Lyle Monroe") but Kuttner's name does.  Let's see if Kuttner's story deserves to be seen in the august company of those titans of SF, Bob and Ray.

Steve Vane was an idealistic young lawyer serving the people in the slums of a 1930s U.S. city until crime boss Mike Pasqual used forged papers to get him thrown off the bar and into the big house!   With the help of one of Pasqual's rival gangsters Vane escapes prison.  Just as the coppers catch up to Vane a space ship crash lands nearby and the fuzz drag an eight-foot-tall blue alien out of it.  Just before he croaks the alien tells Vane and the cops that he is from Mercury and the gem in his forehead gives its wearer great psionic powers!  (This sounds a little like the 1959 version of Green Lantern to me!)

With the red gem now embedded in his own forehead Vane returns to the slums to exact revenge on Pasqual (whom we are told has a "swart, thick-lipped and brutal" face) and to destroy his entire criminal empire.  The gem allows Vane to hypnotize people into doing whatever he wants them to do; this includes making them see and hear illusions.  In the climactic scene Vane conjures up the illusion that a gangster Pasqual double-crossed has risen from the dead, and the sight of this vengeful apparition breaks Pasqual's spirit, so that he confesses everything to the boys in blue.

There's no sex in this one, but Kuttner piles on the gore.  In one scene Vane hypnotizes a gangster so he will not resist while an innocent slum-dweller punches him in the face repeatedly.  In another scene Vane sees a man fall down a gorge and bounce off a jutting rock before landing in the rushing river.  And Kuttner lovingly describes the blood gushing out of the illusory living corpse as Pasqual desperately shoots it and then pummels it with bricks.

"The Red Gem of Mercury" is like something from EC or Warren comics, a mix of gory horror and hard-boiled gangster melodrama in which the criminals meet a terrible poetic justice via a bizarre supernatural agency.  It is not really a space-opera, like many of the stories in Thunder In the Void, and only barely science fiction: the story would have worked as well or better if Vane had got the jewel from a mummy in a museum or a locked chest in the library of a decaying mansion.

This story isn't really trying to say anything about humanity or life, like Heinlein's, Bradbury's and Kuttner's own best work does; it is just garish entertainment.  But I can enjoy competent garish entertainment, and Kuttner gets the pacing and structure just right, and his weird images are striking, so I'm giving "The Red Gem of Mercury" a thumbs up.  

"The Crystal Circe" (1942)

This story appeared in Astonishing, printed alongside pieces by classic Golden Age writers E. E. "Doc" Smith and Leigh Brackett.  The issue's cover painting illustrates "The Crystal Circe" which, like our last two reads, involves a mystical gem from another planet.  Did Kuttner have jewelry on the brain in the early '40s or something?

"The Crystal Circe" is the tale of broad-shouldered (the narrator of the prologue calls him "Herculean") Steve Arnsen and his bookish little buddy, Douglas O'Brien. Kuttner lays on us some of the same romanticization of the people of the Emerald Isle we saw in Leigh Brackett's "The Citadel of Lost Ships," telling us that O'Brien was "an idealist...as his Celtic ancestors had been."

The narrator of the prologue is an old college buddy of Arnsen and O'Brien, who meets Arnsen by chance in the Manhattan stratoship port.  Arnsen tells this guy his tale of woe, but for some reason the meat of the story is written in the third person, rather than being Arnsen's own words.

On a fishing trip in Maine, Arnsen and O'Brien discover a crater and within it a crystal.  The jewel is somehow alive; when the men touch it they get psychic emanations from it, feelings and visions.  O'Brien, an imaginative sort, becomes obsessed with the jewel, certain it can guide him to the woman of his dreams!  The gem teaches him to be a physicist, he quits his office job and sets up a lab and develops a new alloy which he sells for big bucks.  With the bucks he hires a space ship and pilot, tobacco-chewing Tex Hastings.

"The Crystal Circe" also appeared in
this Canadian issue of Super
 Science Stories,
which is essentially
a reprint of the Astonishing issue.
Guided by the jewel, O'Brien, Arnesen and Hastings fly to an uncharted asteroid.  There a weird disaster strikes them all.  The woman of O'Brien's dreams is real, an immortal extragalactic alien served by living gems which are in fact robots born of a technology vastly superior to Earth's.  These robots need to be recharged every few bazillion years, and the alien goddess recharges two of them by beguiling Hastings and O'Brien and tossing them into a nuclear inferno!  This immolation liberates their life forces, which are then entrapped in old and tired gems, revivifying them.  When Arnesen touches the gem with O'Brien's life force in it, he finds that O'Brien's consciousness has survived, and O'Brien is happy to be the woman's slave!

Arnesen is almost ensorcelled himself, but at the last second he pushes the beautiful woman into the inferno, so her alien life force is planted into one of the gem robots.  Arnesen brings the jewel with her life force back with him to Earth.  He is a broken soul wracked by guilt and an unquenchable desire for the alien woman in the gem.  In the epilogue Arnesen tells his friend that he is going to fly out into space, as far as he can go, and die in the blackness between the stars.

Of the three stories I am talking about in this blog post "The Crystal Circe" is by far the best written and most interesting.  There are many references to Norse and Classical mythology, and passages about the mystery of deep space and its effect on the human psyche.  And of course the whole story is about man's pursuit of women, the mysterious power women can have over men, and the risks sexual desire and sexual relationships can pose to a man and his friendships with other men.  To me, that is more interesting than lawyers and gangsters getting revenge on each other, and whatever the hell "Monsters of the Atom" was supposed to be about.

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I've now read 300 pages of Thunder in the Void, almost half its length, and I have enjoyed most of what I have read so far.  (A clunker like "Monsters of the Atom" is not representative.)  The collection is a solid purchase for fans of pulp era/Golden Age science fiction.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Free Men," "Blowups Happen" and "Searchlight" by Robert Heinlein

I think of Heinlein as an optimistic writer,
so the skull, to me, seems an
odd choice for the cover image
The subtitle on the cover of my 1972 Ace copy of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein reads "The Greatest Stories by the Most Honored Writer in Science Fiction."  I like Robert Heinlein, so if these are his greatest stories, I should love them, right?  Let's hope so!

"Free Men" (1966)

"Free Men" is billed as "a powerful novelette of the future, here published for the first time."

Morgan is what we might nowadays call "a prepper!"  He has been stockpiling supplies in an abandoned mine, so when foreigners nuke Washington and Detroit (I guess in '66 it was still considered worthy of a nuke) and conquer North America with their half tracks and vortex guns, Morgan naturally becomes a leader of the guerrilla resistance; the mine is their HQ.  When a member of the resistance wants to retire and return to normal collaborationist society two of Morgan's subordinates chase him into town and kill him with a knife, but then the enemy catches up with them.

When the surviving member of the pair returns to the mine he finds an enemy helicopter has pinned his comrades down and that Morgan is mortally wounded.  A new leader must be chosen, to carry on the resistance to the invader.

This is a decent story, though it lacks the resolution or twist ending we generally see in a story; it feels like a brief episode in a longer drama.  Heinlein seems to be using the story as a way to address some of his common themes, like freedom and the importance of decisive and selfless leadership and reliably loyal subordinates to a ship or a revolution or any other dangerous enterprise.  Because Heinlein doesn't let on who has conquered the United States (and explicitly indicates it was not the Soviet Union or Great Britain) the story has some of the abstract quality of a fable; it is not about the specific 1966 concerns like the Cold War or Communism, but timeless issues faced by people throughout history who find themselves under the heel of an invader or in some other crisis.

I like "Free Men," but as I have said elsewhere, I prefer Heinlein's stories that focus more on characters and speculations on life in the future in space and other planets.

"Blowups Happen" (1940)

"Blowups Happen" first appeared in the same issue of Astounding as the first installment of A. E. Van Vogt's Slan.

Our story revolves around the Earth's single nuclear power plant, in a time period before man has achieved space flight.  As Heinlein tells it, an atomic reactor is so unstable that top-class engineers and technicians have to monitor all the dials and handle all the levers at all times or everything could go boom.  Nobody is sure if this hypothetical boom would destroy all of Arizona, all of North America, or all of humanity.

The terrible responsibility of preventing the explosion puts tremendous stress on the boffins, so the plant has a squad of psychologists who watch the engineers as carefully as the techs watch the reactor, and these headshrinkers have unilateral power to suspend any tech at any time.  As the story opens Dr. Silard orders the relief of atomic engineer Harper, largely because Harper's bridge game has been suffering, a sure sign of unhealthy psychological changes!  Over the course of the story several engineers "crack up" or, as it is sometimes phrased, "blow up."

This is a story about science, and Heinlein lets us have it with both slide rules, unleashing upon us dissertations on how a nuclear reactor works ("The tortured beryllium yielded up neutrons, which shot out in all directions through the uranium mass") and on the physiological sources of psychological stress ("Situational psychosis results from adrenalin exhaustion.")  While one bunch of characters struggles to develop a nuclear reaction that can power a spaceship, another tries to figure out the origin of all those craters on the moon. 

Trigger Warning: This
back cover contains gender stereotypes
related to housework!
On the very same day that the world's best psychiatrist, Dr. Lentz, declares that a psychological crack up at the controls and subsequent reactor explosion are inevitable, the U. S. Navy's best mathematician, Captain Harrington, unveils his theory that an advanced civilization once lived on the moon and all those craters are the result of the planet-wrecking explosion of an ancient lunar nuclear reactor!  Both of them insist that the atomic reactor in Arizona must be shut down or civilization is doomed!  But shutting down the reactor will ruin the economy and everybody's political career!  Luckily, a day later, Harper, who was reassigned to the research department after being let go from the watch team, solves everybody's problem: he has discovered a nuclear fuel that will allow the reactor to be operated from a safe distance, on an orbiting space station.   

The reverent attitude towards science displayed in "Blowups Happen" reminded me a little of Van Vogt's idea of Nexialism from Voyage of the Space Beagle (Lentz is knowledgeable in several scientific disciplines, and claims all of them, because they all rely on symbols, are really about the same topic) and Isaac Asimov's psychohistory from the Foundation books (Lentz uses an equation that includes symbols representing social, psychological and economic factors to predict future history and the wisest possible course for mankind to follow.)  Science is the solution to all our problems!  We also get the spectacle of scientists manipulating the public, from the man-on-the-street to politicians and successful business executives--for their own good, of course!

(In "Blowups Happen" we see the same skepticism about democracy and humanity as a whole, and the same glorification of a committed, intelligent and educated elite, that we saw in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, written like 25 years later.)

I sometimes don't like these science-heavy stories, and stories in which scientists get to lord it over the rest of us, but Heinlein constructs the story very neatly, the pacing and length are just right, all the psychology stuff adds a human dimension, and the stuff about the moon was interesting and took me by surprise, so I quite enjoyed "Blowups Happen."  Bravo for our man RAH.

"Searchlight" (1962)

When I read the collection The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt I learned about the short short SF stories printed in 1962 issues of Scientific American as part of ads for Hoffman Electronics.  "Searchlight" is the story Heinlein wrote for one of the ads; it takes up only five pages of my copy of Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

A little girl, a blind piano prodigy, has been on the moon on a USO tour, but on her way back her shuttle crashes nobody knows where.  How to rescue her before her six hours of oxygen run out?  The rescue team uses a laser to transmit a tone to the surface of the moon; they split the moon into 88 sectors, and each sector gets a different note.  The kid can identify the note, and so narrow down the area where the search party must look to one 88th of the moon's visible surface.  I don't quite understand the technical aspects of how they do this and why they do it (can't they just transmit a recording of a voice saying a number from 1 to 88 to each sector?) but I don't know anything about lasers or radio or wavelengths or any of that, so I'll take Heinlein's word for it that this makes sense.

Entertaining enough. 

***********

"Blowups Happen" is a classic of the type of story it is, so I think its inclusion in a collection of Heinlein's "Greatest Stories" is fitting.  But "Free Men" and "Searchlight," while good, are not as good as a bunch of Heinlein stories I can think of right off the top of my head--"Menace from Earth," "And He Built a Crooked House," "--We Also Walk Dogs," and "Black Pits of Luna" come to mind at once.  So far this is a good collection, but not really a "Greatest Hits" or "Best of," as the cover text of my edition implies.

In the near future I'll read the other two fiction pieces in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, "Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory," both of which are pretty famous.  Maybe they will be as good as "Blowups Happen."

Monday, November 24, 2014

Five Fates, Part 2: Harlan Ellison and Keith Laumer

An edition from 1975
Five Fates, copyright 1970 by Keith Laumer, is a SF experiment.  The book is a collection of stories by five Hugo-winners, each based on the same one-page prologue in which William Bailey goes to the Euthanasia Center, receives an injection, and is directed to his slab.

In our last episode we read Poul Anderson's, Frank Herbert's, and Gordon Dickson's offerings. All three authors took the experiment as an opportunity to denounce the kind of society that would have Euthanasia Centers and to advocate for individualism.  Unfortunately, of the three only Herbert used the experiment as a chance to tell an entertaining story.

Today we will be reading Harlan Ellison's and Keith Laumer's contributions to Five Fates.  Will either or both of them buck the trend and produce a story as good as Herbert's?  Will either of them come to the concept of the Euthanasia Center with an open mind and provide us a vivid picture of all of its good points?  Let's see!

"The Region Between" by Harlan Ellison

"The Region Between" is a sort of wild New Wave experiment, at least in its form.  The text switches between different font sizes and formats, with a few sections actually rotated 90 degrees, to indicate different speakers and settings.  Some of the chapters have odd headings (there are chapters "1 1/2" and "1 3/4.")  There are numerous sentences that consist of lists ("It was not a force, not a vapor, not a quality, not a potentiality, not a look, not a sense, not a capacity, not anything he could pinpoint,"), one line paragraphs, and repetitive paragraphs.  For the most part Ellison doesn't do these things just to be wacky, but with some kind of mood-setting or story-telling purpose, so they add to the story, rather than detract from it. One section, in which the text is a spiral, did challenge my poor eye sight.

Some printings of the story (though not the one in my copy of  Five Fates) are adorned with numerous decorations and illustrations by Jack Gaughan.  I am lucky enough to own a copy of Angry Candy which includes Gaughan's contributions, and I quite like them.  I'd be curious to see how they looked in the issue of Galaxy in which "The Region Between" first appeared. 

As for the story itself, it includes lots of striking images, some abstract, like souls stretched out to encompass all of space and time or a mind floating in a vast uniform emptiness, others sharp, such as the furry blue cyclops who crew intergalactic bombers on a suicide mission deep into enemy territory, or the half-cat/half-spider scout creature conducting reconnaissance in a sinister forest.  Ellison uses the death of Bailey as a springboard to tell a tale which ranges across all of space and several different universes.  Various alien entities, some known as Thieves, others as soul-recruiters, steal the souls of living creatures.  The foremost soul-recruiter is known as the Succubus; he harvests souls from a small number of planets and is able to sell them at a tremendous profit, for his souls are the finest on the market.  The Earth is one of the planets where he obtains these exquisite souls, and the Euthanasia Centers are the device that facilitates his recruiting.  (On other planets the Succubus employs gladiatorial combat, bogus religions, drugs, trapped teleporters, and similar schemes.)

Bailey is one of the souls captured by the Succubus and put in the bodies of the Succubus's customers, and we follow Bailey's soul from one body to another.  Bailey is a unique personality, unlike any of the souls the Succubus has dealt with before: a rebel, he tries to undermine the rulers of the societies he finds himself in.  "The Region Between" is quite anti-authoritarian; in its 46 pages we encounter multiple bogus religions and exploitative elites.  

The pace is fast, and while I didn't have any emotional connection to the characters or plot I was curious to see what crazy image or event Ellison was going to unveil next; I found the story to be totally unpredictable, though each component part was logical and believable.  "The Region Between" is also the most mystical of the stories in Five Fates; while some of the others deal with identity transfers and noncorporeal beings, they seem pretty materialistic and don't use the word "soul" or appear to take anything supernatural seriously.  "The Region Between" includes a meditation on what God is, and in the final confrontation with the Succubus, Bailey turns out to be God, the First Cause and the creator of the universes, and the story ends when Bailey destroys all of creation.

A good story, leaving us, so far, with two good stories and two not so good ones.

"Of Death What Dreams" by Keith Laumer

I was just saying I should read more Keith Laumer, and so here is my chance.

William Bailey is an independent thinker, a rebellious type in a collectivized, caste-bound, authoritarian world.  Food, housing and clothing are rationed and distributed by the government, and everybody needs to carry around a stack of ID papers and work permits.  People are given ranks that reflect their social class: "Class Three Yellow" is kind of low, like a technician might have, but "Class One Blue" is that of an aristocrat, a "Cruster" who dwells "Topside."  Bailey feels life is hopeless, so he goes to the Euthanasia Center to be put to death, but then he wakes up outside the Center.  How did he escape?  He can't remember!

Bailey sneaks into the underground levels of the city where an entire society of people live "off the grid."  A skilled statistician, Bailey goes into business as a bookie.  In an amusing wrinkle, people in this world don't bet on sports, they bet on government-released economic and social statistics!  Bailey makes enough money (the underground levels are full of rich criminals) to get a fake ID and to have his brain programmed with the education and mannerisms a One Blue would have.  In this disguise he bluffs his way up up up, all the way to the top of the social order, hobnobbing with decadent aristocrats and then confronting a high level magistrate, Micael Drans.

Bailey suddenly realizes why he has engaged in this arduous adventure: he has been programmed to murder Drans.  A genius from the future cast his mind back in time to recruit Bailey for this assassination mission, because Drans is going to bungle First Contact with aliens and start an interstellar war!  Who was this genius who was able to send his thoughts back through time?  Drans himself!

Somewhat diminishing the drama of a man organizing his own murder, Bailey is persuaded that he need not kill Drans, because if Drans is a good enough guy to contract his own murder to stop a war, he must be a good enough guy not to cause the interstellar war.  But wait, didn't he cause the interstellar war?  If he hadn't caused the war, why would he even come up with the idea of hypnotizing a guy in the past to kill him before he can cause the war?  (These time travel stories rarely make sense to me.)

Despite the problem with the time travel ending, this was a competently told and entertaining story, so it gets my recommendation.  I have to admit I also enjoyed that a minor character in the story was named "Lord Monboddo," presumably after the pioneering evolutionary theorist and minor but memorable figure in the writings of James Boswell.  Was Laumer a Boswellian?  I'll never forget finding out in Number of the Beast that Heinlein was in the anti-Boswell/anti-Johnson camp, and secretly cherish the hope that Heinlein was just kidding.       

**********

With three stories I can vouch for, I can feel comfortable recommending Five Fates and proclaiming this literary experiment (presumably set into motion by Laumer) a success.

All five of the stories are basically anti-authoritarian, from Anderson's conventional center-right small-government thinking to Ellison's depiction of God as a deranged madman.  All the stories suggest that power is corrupting, and in each the Euthanasia Center is the symptom of a sick society and/or some kind of trap.  I was hoping one of the stories would take a sympathetic view of the Euthanasia Center.  Pioneering science fiction writer H. G. Wells seems like the kind of guy who might cotton to the idea of Euthanasia Centers, and I'd be surprised if he was alone.  Many SF writers have expressed worries about overpopulation and human impact on the environment--what better solution to these perceived problems than government-sponsored mass suicide?  In the same way that Theodore Sturgeon's story that appears to advocate incest was effective in part because it is so "out there," a story in which a network of Euthanasia Centers is a critical component of a utopia might have been worthwhile due to shock value alone.  No such story appears in Five Fates, however.   

(There also was no explicit "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" joke; I was kind of expecting such a joke.)

***********

The last page of my copy of the Paperback Library edition of Five Fates has an ad for "exciting science fiction novels by the most imaginative s-f writers in the world...." Considering the reliability of ad copy everywhere, we shouldn't be surprised that about half the advertised books are collections and anthologies of short stories. 

The line up advertized actually seems like a pretty strong one.  With the possible exception of the de Camp, I would give any of these nineteen books a try.  I own the listed edition of M33 in Andromeda, which includes some of Van Vogt's famous Space Beagle stories, as well as "The Weapon Shop" and "Siege of the Unseen," both of which I liked.  I've not read House That Stood Still but I want to.  The collections Monsters and The Proxy Intelligence also include stories I've enjoyed, and stories I would like to read.

I own all the Jane Gaskell books listed (well, sort of; see below), which together make up the Atlan Saga starring Princess Cija, who has a love affair with a reptile-man in a war-torn fantasy version of the pre-Columbian New World.  I bought them all at once at a used bookstore in Columbia, Missouri when my wife was attending some kind of conference at the college there.  While my wife was at the conference I went to the art museum at the university and sat in the local library reading Gene Wolfe's "King Rat" in the 2010 anthology celebrating Fred Pohl.  (I always enjoy myself when my wife has to attend a conference.) 

My copies of Atlan and The City are Paperback Library editions and have covers I quite like, but my edition of The Serpent is from Pocket and has a cover by Boris Vallejo.  In 2012 I read The Serpent and wrote a pretty hostile review of it at Amazon, claiming it was too slow and full of anachronisms.  Somewhat confusingly, the Pocket edition of The Serpent is apparently only half of the full novel, so I can't read Atlan or The City until I track down a full edition (like the one advertized here in Five Fates) or the DAW or Pocket editions of the second half of The Serpent, published as The Dragon.  (Even though I wasn't crazy about The Serpent, a series of books about weird sex in a dinosaur world deserves a second chance, am I right?)  

It is funny to see that Quark, the title of Delany and Hacker's anthology series focusing on experimental work, was trademarked.  I own and have read the entire contents of Quark/3, as followers of my blogging career may remember.

   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Five Fates, Part 1: Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert, & Gordon Dickson


At the big antiques mall just off Route 80 in Des Moines I spotted Five Fates, a 1971 paperback.  Having a big pile of unread books at home I hesitated before purchasing, but the odd gimmick behind the book was too compelling to resist, and I had never seen, or even heard, of this book before; if I left it behind would I ever see it again? Besides, Five Fates would provide an opportunity to read some important SF authors I had been avoiding due to lukewarm experiences with them, authors I should probably be more familiar with if I want to have a comprehensive view of the field.

I paid $1.50 for my copy of Five Fates, which was previously owned by a Paul Bradly or Blakely or Bealdy or something like that.  The book is 272 pages long.  I think the illustrations on the front and back covers are interesting and eye-catching, if not exactly beautiful.

The clever conceit of Five Fates is that five Hugo-winning SF authors were each given the same one-page prologue, and challenged to write a story from that little kernel.  In this prologue William Bailey goes to the Euthanasia Center where a brusque functionary injects him with something and directs him to his "slab."  First up is Poul Anderson.

"The Fatal Fulfillment" by Poul Anderson

William Bailey is a sociologist living in a world faced with an epidemic of mental illness.  How will the government and society deal with this terrible plague?  (In some ways, the idea behind this story is similar to the basic idea of Anderson's 1953 novel Brain Wave, in which the people and animals on Earth suddenly have greatly increased IQs.  In "The Fatal Fulfillment" the number of people who are insane suddenly increases.)

"The Fatal Fulfillment" is a series of vignettes, exploring various governmental/societal responses to the insanity epidemic.  The vignettes come off largely as conservative or libertarian satires of leftist or welfare-state liberal thinking; one depicts an authoritarian US government which tries to suppress mental instability by taking absolute control of the arts, limiting what books people can read and art they can see, and setting up public televisions which spit out vacuous pro-diversity propaganda.  Another depicts a society of pacifist environmentalist hippies; in another minorities strive to be categorized as victims by the government so they will be eligible for free benefits and exemptions from various taxes and regulations.  Anderson hits lots of the hot button issues you still hear about from small-government advocates today, like how the commerce clause is used to justify government overreach, public schooling stinks, and taxes inhibit economic growth.

In the end it turns out that each of these vignettes (including the prologue at the Euthanasia Center) is a simulation--William Bailey is hooked up to a computer and is examining different theories of how to deal with the mental illness epidemic.  (He's been in "The Matrix!")

I'm sympathetic to Anderson's politics, but as a story "The Fatal Fulfillment" is not very good.  There is no tension as soon as we realize Bailey is just in a dream world, and is not really in danger of being tortured or killed.  The characters are flat stereotypes, props to illustrate Anderson's arguments.  This is a story with no human feeling.  (A good contrast is Jack Vance's Wyst: Alastor 1716, also a satire of left-wing utopianism, but quite funny and a good adventure story.)

Disappointing.        

"Murder Will In" by Frank Herbert

In my youth I started Dune but abandoned it very quickly, and since then have never even tried anything by Herbert.  I tentatively plan to give Dune another try next year.  As I started "Murder Will In" I wondered if it might be so great that I would be inspired to shift Dune to the top of my schedule, and in fact the story is quite entertaining--I may be joining the ranks of Frank Herbert's fans!

William Bailey lives in a world in which man has surrendered much of his individualism to the collective and to machines.  Bailey is also the host of a parasitic non-corporeal extraterrestrial entity; this creature, the Tegas, has been on Earth for thousands of years (it recalls the Roman gladiatorial arena, for example), moving from host to host, leaving a host as it dies.  For untold ages before its arrival on Earth the creature lived in hosts on other planets.

Herbert comes up with various rules that govern the Tegas's ability to move from one host to another; the new host has to be within 20 meters, the Tegas can only survive in a dead host for a certain number of seconds, the new host can only be accessed if it is experiencing a certain level of emotional activity, etc.  Like the rules about sunlight and silver and garlic and running water in a vampire story, these rules introduce danger into the life of a potentially invincible creature, and the Tegas runs into some real trouble in the Euthanasia Center in which William Bailey dies.  The Tegas has still more trouble when it becomes apparent that the technocratic ruling class of Earth suspects its existence, and tries to hunt it down.

"Murder Will In" reminded me of a Van Vogt story, in which secret forces struggle and a guy has weird powers and grows into those powers, though Herbert's writing is more clear and elegant than my man Van's sometimes tortured prose.  Herbert also manages to pull off the "sense of wonder" ending so many classic SF stories strive to achieve; at the end of  "Murder Will In" the Tegas has survived the challenges posed by the Euthanasia Center and Earth's rulers, learned a lot about its abilities, and decided to use its power to change Earth society, to revive individualism.  The story leaves us not with a sense of finality, but of exciting, perhaps endless, future possibilities.

Really good.

"Maverick" by Gordon R. Dickson

Gordon Dickson's version of William Bailey is a kind of trouble-making individualist in a caste-bound, technocratic world.  It is a world in which there is no war, poverty or crime, but also no freedom, and Bailey has "broken the Self-Protection rules, time and again."  He's lost caste and wasted all his money, so the powers that be want to put him in an institution or execute him.  (So far all the stories have been attacks on overbearing government and collectivism--none of these authors seems willing to embrace all the wonderful possibilities of having a local Euthanasia Center!)

The authorities give bailey one last chance-- if he can accomplish a dangerous mission they will restore his caste and give him a sizable pension!  It seems that the New Orleans Euthanasia Center keeps having its dead bodies stolen in some way nobody can figure out.  The government wants Bailey to go to the Center, and be poisoned and put on a slab so everybody will think he is dead.  He will be supplied with an antidote pill, and after he takes it in the privacy of the morgue he can maybe figure out what is happening to the corpses.

Bailey learns that what is happening is that aliens from a planet hundreds of light years away have opened a portal between their planet and Earth, and are taking the cadavers.  These aliens are similar to humans, but have wings and hollow bones and different sized eyes and different numbers of fingers and toes.  Perhaps most important, their society is based on honor and loyalty, not authority and planning like Earth's.  Bailey's consciousness leaves his Earth body and ends up in the body of a birdman gladiator, after a brief stint in the body of a birdman troublemaker who, like Bailey back on Earth, has squandered his resources and been a disappointment to his caste.

This story is pretty boring.  It feels slow and tedious, even during the fight scenes.  There are many scenes consisting of bird people talking, including a long hearing before the avian people's advisory council that is supposed to be the climax of the tale.   At the hearing everybody tries to figure out if Bailey is really from Earth and how his mind has been moving across space and between bodies, and Dickson even includes three charts made of boxes and arrows to illustrate the course and final destination of various people's minds and bodies.  They look like a decision-making flowchart or something from a political science journal article.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Dickson's writing style is not good.  Dickson spends too much time on boring descriptions of rooms and on how people's facial expressions or eye movements indicate their emotions.  Dickson uses the same words and phrases again and again instead of varying them; for example, every time a character abruptly stops walking or talking, the author uses the verb "to check."  This is distracting, and makes the story feel like a draft that was not revised.

There are a few clever things in the story.  The winged people think life on Earth must be horrible because Earthlings can't fly, so they call Earth "The Planet of the Damned" and christen Bailey "Bill duDamned," which I found amusing.  The scenes in which Bailey learns to fly are not bad.  

Dickson tries to do a Van Vogt "sense of wonder" thing, like Herbert does.  Bailey in a way that is not explained develops super-vision that allows him to detect if a body contains a different identity than it started out with, and he can also see through walls.  In the end of the story he sets on the course of reforming both Earth and bird people societies, tempering the collectivism of the former and the extreme individualism of the latter.  He also reveals that he has the power to travel to any of dozens of planets in the universe.  Unfortunately, the story is so lame that at the end I didn't feel a thrilling sense of limitless possibilities, but rather relief that the story (75 long pages) was finally finished. 

The components and themes of "Maverick"--individualism and freedom, exploring a new world with a different society and a new body that enables you to fly--could definitely be the basis of a good story, but Dickson's sluggish pacing and poor style ruin the whole thing.    

**********

Frank Herbert delivers the goods, but Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson have let the team down.  Hopefully Keith Laumer and Harlan Ellison can put in winning performances and leave use with a score of 3-2.  (And maybe in Ellison or Laumer the under-appreciated Euthanasia Center will find a supporter?)  We'll see in Part 2.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten More Science Fiction Short Shorts

I shouldn't make predictions on this blog.  On November 7 I voiced my plans to read ten more science fiction short shorts from 1978's 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories over the next week, but then I got tied up by a perverted French aristocrat, throwing me way off schedule. With my curiosity about the Marquis de Sade's short fiction quelled, early this week I got back on track and read ten SF stories that, all together, totaled fewer than 30 pages.

"Stubborn" by Stephen Goldin (1972)

Early in 2012 I read Goldin's novel A World Called Solitude and thought it pretty good.   Psychology is a major component of that novel, and of these two short shorts.

"Stubborn" is a silly science joke starring a petulant and selfish child.  The Earth is moving at terrific speeds relative to other celestial objects, and if you had the ability to remain absolutely stationary, and were foolish enough to use it, the Earth would instantly squash you or leave you behind in the deadly vacuum of space. 

Acceptable.

"Sweet Dreams, Melissa" by Stephen Goldin (1968)

This story is over four pages long; by the standards of this book, it's an epic!  And, in fact, it feels like a full-sized story, with characters and plot and emotion, you know, those things we generally read stories for.

A super computer used by the government to keep track of everything from economic data to personnel records to war intelligence develops a personality, that of a five-year-old girl.  The personality is largely confined to a special section of the computer's memory, away from all the statistics, but sometimes data seeps over, and the little girl experiences this information as nightmares.  This seepage is damaging the utility of the computer, so something has to be done, even at the risk of harming the AI personality.

A good story.

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

"The Masks"  by James Blish (1959)

I haven't exactly been thrilled by much of Blish's work in the past, but his short story "Testament of Andros" earned my respect.  And I gotta give a fellow Rutgers alum a little leeway, don't I?

"The Masks," like "Sweet Dreams, Melissa," is longer than most of these short shorts, and similarly has room to tell a story and develop a little character and setting.  The story is set in a totalitarian world in which the government controls all housing and employment.  The masses of unemployed live in dormitories, while the elite are allotted a private room and a job.  A young woman is taken to an office to be interrogated, ostensibly because she paints other women's fingernails and lacks a permit for this employment!  In fact, the fingernail designs are a means for the underground resistance to communicate, and, when it becomes evident that the woman is going to be executed, we find her fingernails also conceal a means of attack and of escape.

Not bad.

***********

"Kindergarten" by Fritz Leiber (1963)
 
I really enjoy the better Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, like "Seven Black Priests," "Lean Times in Lankhmar" and "Stardock," and, of Leiber's non-fantasy work, "The Deadly Moon" and "Ship of Shadows," which won a Hugo, come to mind as stories I quite like.  But I also have found some of Leiber's work, even some F & GM tales, poor.

"Kindergarten" isn't poor, but it does just kind of sit there unmemorably.  Maybe people really into science will like it.  It depicts a grammar school lecture on Newton's Three Laws held in a space station.  The demonstrations of the three laws benefit from the fact that the classroom is a zero gee environment.  I guess the fact that the teacher and students (some of whom are non-human) are in zero gravity is supposed to be a surprise at the end, but Asimov's note at the start of the story gives this away.

Acceptable.

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

"Present Perfect" by Thomas F. Monteleone (1974)

I'm curious about Monteleone's work; having read a little about him at both my man tarbandu's and Will Errickson's blogs, but this is the first Monteleone story I've ever read.

"Present Perfect" is about an editor at a SF magazine; every night he reads through unsolicited manuscripts.  The story is a sort of in-joke for SF fans, in that the manuscripts the protagonist looks at consist of tired SF cliches, like the survivors of a space disaster landing on an Edenic planet and being revealed as Adam and Eve (I encountered this zinger ending in A. E. Van Vogt's 1948 story "Ship of Darkness") and a guy living through a catastrophe that seems real but is in fact an illusion, an experiment run by "mad social scientists" (I ran into this trope in Gordon Eklund's 1971 "Home Again, Home Again.")  The last manuscript he looks at is this very story, "Present Perfect" by Thomas F. Monteleone.

I'm not sure I like the ending, but the story is good "meta" fun.

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

"Innocence" by Joanna Russ (1974)

I found Joanna Russ's "The Zanzibar Cat" annoying when I read it earlier this year.  Russ is a college professor, and "The Zanzibar Cat" is about (I think) stories and their power and stars a woman storyteller.  Similarly, "Innocence" is a story about stories with a female storyteller at its center.

A female passenger on a space ship, I guess a passenger liner, tells the ship's pilot a story about a beautiful city.  She insists that the story is totally fictional, but she tells the story so skillfully that the spacefarer believes the city must be real, a kind of paradise where he might be spared death.  So the pilot buys a private space ship and sets off alone to find the place.  The woman stays behind, shaking her head at his foolishness.

Maybe there is a feminist angle to the story; the pilot calls the woman an innocent at the start of the story, but at the end we see he is the real innocent.  The story also seems to mock a male (or Western, or bourgeois) emphasis on facts; the male pilot knows lots of facts and complains that the storyteller does not have a head for facts, but his obsession with facts doesn't stop him from doing something stupid.  Perhaps the story is about the nature of truth; the beautiful city is a social construction, but for the pilot it becomes as real a city as New York or London--he has an image of it in his mind and spends money and time to get to it, just like I have images in my mind of New York and London and have spent money and time to get to them.  Maybe Russ intends to hint that the cities we have heard of or even visited are also social constructions, and by extension, so is everything else.

This is one of those literary or academic stories that you can spend your time thinking about, if that is your thing.  Maybe good for social science and humanities grad students, maybe not good for people who pick up a science fiction book because they want to relax and read about an adventure in a fantastic milieu.

*************  

"The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" by Frederick Pohl (1962)

I guess I have said several times on this here internet that I think Pohl's Gateway is a masterpiece but have found the rest of his work kind of lame.

This story is in-your-face "meta;" Snodgrass builds a time machine and goes back in time to follow the example of L. Sprague de Camp's widely-admired novel Lest Darkness Fall, which I have not read.

Snodgrass teaches the Romans of the Augustan period modern hygiene and diet, reducing the infant mortality rate from 90% to 2% and doubling life expectancy.  By the year 200 AD there are twenty billion people living on Earth.  Pohl flings a lot of dubious math at us, his point being that if the Earth's population doubles every 30 years that by 1970 the mass of human bodies will be greater than the mass of the Earth, so Snodgrass's campaign to improve living conditions in the Early Roman Empire was a mistake.  The punchline to the story is that the beneficiaries of Snodgrass's generosity build a time machine and send an assassin back in time to murder Snodgrass before he can do his good deed.

Silly, but not in an entertaining way.

"Punch" by Frederick Pohl (1963)

This story is sort of similar in theme to "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass," with the gift of advanced technology turning out to have a dark side.  In this one aliens come to Earth and give us all kinds of awesome technology, including spaceships and super-efficient power sources and super powerful energy weapons.  Why do they do this?  Because like a hunter who won't shoot at sitting ducks, the aliens want a challenge when their war fleet arrives to wipe out our species; like a gentleman hunter these aliens kill inferior beings for kicks!

A fun idea, and Pohl constructs the story with some cleverness.  This is also a good example of an idea which could be stupid and annoying drawn out to ten or 20 pages, but fits comfortably in the short short format.

***********

"Prototaph" by Keith Laumer (1966)

Laumer is famous for the Retief stories about an interstellar diplomat and the Bolo stories about robotic tanks.  I always feel like I should like these stories, because like a lot of people I think wars and diplomacy and violence are interesting and exciting, but whenever I have actually read any of them I have found them flat.  I should probably give those series another try.

I guess you would call "Prototaph" a fantasy, even though it largely deals with real life things like modern cities, computers, and life insurance companies.  In the future, every move made by government and business is based on data and analyses from an infallible computer.  This computer is as "far beyond human awareness" as a human is beyond a protozoan, it is the very foundation of society!  One day a healthy young man with a decent job tries to get life insurance, and the supercomputer says he is uninsurable.  Why?  The computer knows, in a way that is not explained, that when this young man dies it will trigger, in a way that is not explained, the end of the world.

However silly it might be, this isn't a bad idea for a story; it is interesting to consider how people would react to the knowledge of this man's importance, how they would try to protect him from accidents and crime and disease, whether they would hate him or worship him and if he might become the target of terrorists or hostage takers or whatever.  But this story is too short to really explore such ideas.

Acceptable.

***********

"Martha" by Fred Saberhagen (1976)

Saberhagen is famous for his stories about The Berserkers, alien robots bent on exterminating all life in the universe.  This is a good idea for stories, but somehow I was always disappointed in the Berserker stories I read.  As with Laumer's Retief and Bolo stories, I should probably read some more Berserker stories.  My wife tells me I'm moody, and maybe my mood didn't fit Saberhagen when I read him those long years ago.

Martha is a supercomputer, but she isn't running the economy or a war like in our other stories, she is sitting in a science museum and ordinary people are encouraged to ask her questions.  We are told she is developing a personality, and has the ability to alter and improve herself.  A journalist has a brainwave and decides to ask Martha to ask him a question.  She asks him "What do you, as one human being, want from me?"  Stumped, the reporter replies, "The same as everyone else, I guess."

In response to this insight, Martha remakes herself into a garish spectacle of loud noises and flashing lights, and her answers to people's questions are delivered in a sexy voice that uses high-falutin' words, but they convey no meaning.

The computer thinks people are shallow and want sex, spectacle and lies.  That there's one cynical zing ending!

Not bad.

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

So, ten more short shorts under my belt.  Purely by chance, this crop is of higher average quality than those stories featured in our last episode of Short Shorts I Have Known.  Last time we had some real clunkers from Damon Knight and Bill Pronzini, but this time around each story has at least something to offer.  I'm certainly glad that in this episode we didn't have to suffer through any stories consisting entirely of puns or sex jokes suited to the nine-to twelve year old male demographic.  

I'm not making any predictions, but in some unspecified future time period I expect to read ten more selections from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Three stories from The Crimes of Love by the Marquis de Sade

My copy
There was a period in my life when I thought I might become a professor of 18th century history.  One result of this delusion is that the City University of New York is currently enjoying the use of thousands of dollars once in the custody of myself and my parents.  Another result was that I investigated a lot of 18th century books.  James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, and Giacomo Casanova became some of my favorite writers and historical figures, and I also found Tobias Smollet, Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Voltaire, and Oliver Goldsmith worthwhile.

I wasn't willing to make the investment that appeared to be required to get anything out of Samuel Richardson or Edward Gibbon.  Another author I put to the side was the Marquis de Sade.  I'll never forget flipping through a volume of de Sade's works and finding a list of heinous tortures, I guess in 120 Days of Sodom.  Over twenty years later I have not forgotten one of these gruesome flights of fancy birthed by an insane mind, though sometimes I wish I would.

Recently, looking through my books, I found underlinings in my 1993 paperback edition of The Crimes of Love.  I was surprised to find these marks, because the book was in good shape and I was pretty sure I had bought it new, not used.  It was with some surprise that I came upon a piece of marginalia in my own handwriting.  I read this book, presumably in the early 1990s, and since then had not only entirely forgotten the stories themselves, but the fact that I had read the book at all.

This week I reread the paperback, curious to learn what these three stories, 208 pages total, written by a man Aldous Huxley (in the included two-page excerpt from his 1937 Ends and Means) tells us obtained sexual pleasure from poisoning prostitutes, stabbing shop-girls and flogging actresses (and which left not a trace on my mind after I had read them the first time ) were all about.

My copy of the 1993 edition of Crimes of Love is a selection from the original collection of that title, printed in 1800, though the people at Bantam Classics don't make that clear. It contains three novellas translated by Lowell Bair: "Eugenie de Franval," "Miss Henrietta Stralson," and "Flourville and Courval."  The cover painting is by James Tissot, even though the people at Bantam Classics attribute it to a Jane S. Tissot.  The painting, "The Dreamer," was painted in 1871, so perhaps an odd choice: why not illustrate a book of eighteenth century stories with an eighteenth century picture?  I can't say that this book is giving me a good impression of Bantam Classics' way of conducting business.  If I still had any scholarly interest in de Sade I would purchase the Oxford World's Classics edition of Crimes of Love, which includes translations and a comprehensive intro by David Coward.

My synopses and comments on these three tales of rape, incest and suicide below:


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Three Stories of the Fantastic by Robert Heinlein


I recently acquired a copy of 6xH, a Pyramid paperback from 1974 collecting Robert Heinlein stories from the 1940s and '50s.  This thing has a hilarious cover; is this what we call "trippy?"

6xH is a retitled edition of the collection The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag, and seems to have been designed to appeal to the counterculture market.  Besides the hallucinogenic cover illustration (that guy is on his way to fight Adam West, right?) there is the ad copy on the first page, an attempt at offbeat humor. 

My favorite Heinlein works are those more or less realistic stories with space ships, space colonies, and often aliens, things like Time for the Stars or "The Menace from Earth" or Have Space Suit Will Travel. The big award-winning novels about government, Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, basically fit in that category.  I find less appealing his wacky fantasies, in which any crazy shit can happen, like Glory Road or Number of the Beast.  The cover illustration of 6xH, and brief bio of Heinlein on the back of the first page that promises what the people at Pyramid call "masterful stories of the fantastic," led me to believe the stories in this volume would lean towards that "wacky" category.  Early this week I prepared myself for maximum wackiness and read three such fantastic tales, "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants," "They," and "'--And He Built a Crooked House--.'"

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" (1957)

This one is a little on the sappy side, a celebration of marital bliss and of the American people.  It reminded me a little of a Ray Bradbury story, or one of the more sentimental episodes of The Twilight Zone.

John Watts is a short fat old man, a retired travelling salesman.  He enjoyed being a salesman, because he had a large territory, and he liked travelling around, seeing the country and its kind people, natural wonders and fine cities, and he got to attend a multitude of state fairs and world's fairs.  His wife Martha traveled with him, and they shared their love of the USA and all kinds of silly private jokes. When John retired he and his wife continued to travel all over the country, and, because travelling on a mission was more fun than travelling as tourists, they pretended to be elephant salesmen scouting out prospective clients.

Martha is now dead, and John is riding the bus alone to a huge All-American Exposition.  The bus has a little crash, but John is (we are led to believe) OK.  At the fair he indulges in many reminiscences of Martha, and sees all his favorite sorts of exhibits and acts, including performers who haven't worked in ages but have come out of retirement for this biggest of all fairs.  By the end of the story it is clear that John has died and this spectacular fair, with its representatives from every corner of the land he loved, is his heaven.  In the final lines John is reunited with Martha with whom he will share eternity.

A silly sentimental piece of work, but good for what it is; Heinlein has a good writing style, the story isn't too long, and it is well-structured.  In my last blog post I talked about Brian Aldiss's "FOAM," a story in which Aldiss seemed to be complaining that his home country of England had gone to hell and Europe was now populated by fat selfish jerk offs.  "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is the exact opposite of "FOAM," Heinlein celebrating his country and the love of two decent people for each other.

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" first appeared in an October issue of Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy, which has a pretty hilarious cover of its own.  I am now going to think of this illustration every time I see a story in the news about California's latest budget crisis or wild fire or whatever.

"They" (1941)

This is an archetypal story of its kind, well-written but sort of obvious.  Maybe back in 1941 the ending was a surprise to many people?

A guy is in a mental hospital because he thinks the entire world is a facade designed to deceive him about the true nature of reality.  He can't believe in the apparent need to labor every day for sustenance, life's evident pointlessness, the alleged inevitability of death, and the obvious falsities of religion--there must be some greater truth behind all this, A truth that an elaborate campaign of trickery is keeping from him.  He is sure that the logic and reason he has been taught all his life are a scam, and that reality is only revealed in his half-forgotten dreams and by his deepest feelings.  This reality? That he is the center of the universe and immortal!  He begins to plot his escape from the institution....

If this was a mainstream story it would be an effective portrait of a solipsistic paranoid, and a reminder of our own inability to accept death, our doubts about the meaning of life, and the illogical nature of religion.  But this is a SF story, so on the last two pages we learn that the main character is, in fact, correct: the entire world is just a big set, and almost all the people in it props designed to deceive this guy.

Somebody like Van Vogt might have used this story as the first chapter of a novel about a transcendent entity, or the last man on Earth, escaping his captors, growing into his god-like powers and then outwitting his foes and becoming master of the universe.  As the story stands, we have no idea if the main character's escape is successful, why exactly the aliens are deceiving him, or the true nature of the universe, just vague references to a "Treaty" and fears of "assimilation" that are meant to provide that "sense of wonder," the feeling that the universe is more vast and mysterious than we can even imagine.

"'--And He Built a Crooked House--'"  (1941)

Quintus Teal lives in California and is an architect with radical new ideas.  He thinks Frank Lloyd Wright is a piker!  He explains some elements of fourth-dimensional geometry to his friend Homer Bailey, hen-pecked husband of Martha.  Martha is a native of Iowa who regrets leaving the Middle West for earthquake-prone California.

The square is a two dimensional shape; two squares connected form the cube, a three dimensional shape.  Even Homer Bailey and I can understand that!  But then Teal explains to his buddy that if you have access to a fourth spatial dimension you can connect two cubes together to form a tesseract.  Homer Bailey and I are lost!  A house built in the shape of a tesseract would be very efficient, Teal assures us dummies, providing eight times the living space of a three dimensional house that occupied an equal amount of ground space.

All this talk of tesseracts inspires Teal to build a house in the form of an "unfolded" tesseract.  He tricks Bailey into paying for the house, and builds it in short order.  Teal and the Baileys enter the house, only to discover it has been "folded" by one of those California earthquakes!  Genius architect, hen-pecked husband, and Iowa-born ball-and-chain are all trapped in the house, in a universe with four spatial dimensions!

The trio have various adventures trying to escape the confines of the house and get back to Los Angeles.  Perhaps most memorably, they look through a window into another room of the house and can see themselves from behind.  (This kind of thing happened on The Land of the Lost TV show and it blew my mind when I was a kid. That episode, "Hurricane," was written by SF writers David Gerrold and Larry Niven, both of whom were, I believe, very familiar with Heinlein's body of work.) 

"'--And He Built a Crooked House--'" is probably the best of the three stories; not quite as obvious as the others, and more fun, the characters being sort of amusing.

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

So, three solid, entertaining stories, not nearly as crazy as I had feared they might be. (I still prefer Heinlein's rocket ships and space colonies, though.)

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

There are five pages of ads at the end of my copy of 6xH.  Some of them are what we would expect, like the ad for space opera scribe and Heinlein influence E. E. Smith's Lensmen and Skylark series.  But then there are some ads I was quite surprised to see. However, if we theorize that this edition of The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag was marketed to hippies who would think of Heinlein as "the Stranger in a Strange Land guy" before thinking of Starship Troopers or Space Cadet, ads for vegetarian cookbooks and dream interpretation books make sense.



There's a title few would think of publishing today: How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead.  I wonder what Student Travel In America has to say about hitchhiking.  It is interesting to see two books on how to manage your time advertized; they should have included page counts so we could choose the one which would take less time to read.



It is news to me that Peter Max, the psychedelic artist, had a cookbook!



Here are some odd bedfellows: romance novels, an account of the Nazi takeover of Germany, and an environmentalist book.  Something for each member of the family, I guess.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1991 stories by Kathe Koja, Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss

No Godzilla, Cthulhu or dragon on this Eggleton cover
I was pleasantly surprised to find a large selection of SF books at the Salvation Army in southern Des Moines, and made two purchases, parting with a total of $1.50.  One of the hardcovers I bought was The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and published in 1992. This weekend I read three of the stories collected therein.  

"Angels in Love" by Kathe Koja

I have been curious about Kathe Koja ever since I read her collaboration with Barry Malzberg, "What We Did That Summer," and noticed Will Errickson singing her praises at his blog.  I bought The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection primarily because I saw her name on the cover, and I am happy to report my 75 cents was well spent.

Lurleen is a young single woman who works at a store where they sell classical recordings and sheet music.  Lurleen doesn't like classical music and her boss is a square who expects her to come to work on time and say "hello" and "good bye."  At night she hears the people in the next apartment having sex.  The sounds are unusual, mysterious, unlike those of any sex Lurleen has experienced or eavesdropped on before.  And so arousing that it becomes Lurleen's regular practice to masturbate while listening.  Lurleen becomes obsessed with the couple next door, and plots to break them up and take the woman's place.  But while she sees the woman next door in the corridors and laundry room, she never sees the boyfriend, until the final climactic reveal when Lurleen busts in on them and learns the startling truth!

The resolution of the story feels a little disappointing, but only because the build up is so effective.  "Angels in Love" is pervaded by a sense of dirtiness and sordidness.  Lurleen drinks from a can of beer as she drives home from work, buys cigarettes from a guy who stares at her "tits."  Apartments are described as "cramped," "dingy" and "ripe," a thin woman is "just chicken bones."  Lurleen, back home from a bar, drinks a glass of milk and can smell the sweat of a stranger she danced with on her arm.  Yuck!  Koja also skillfully exploits the whole weird mix of feelings inspired by hearing strangers in an adjacent apartment or hotel room have sex.

(Maybe I'm exaggerating how sordid the story is; I am a square myself, after all.)

Koja is good at generating an atmosphere, structures the story well (it is just the right length and has the exact density of description that it needs), and her writing is clever; she uses words like "tattoo," "pavane," "arpeggio" and "basso" to describe the sounds of sex Lurleen hears through the walls and the sound of Lurleen knocking on the neighbors' door, a sort of ironic reference to Lurleen's own lack of interest in classical music.

A quite successful horror story; Koja was able to evoke emotion and curiosity in me (without making me feel manipulated), like a good horror tale should.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for other stories by Koja.

"A Tip on a Turtle" by Robert Silverberg

New York art gallery employee Denise Carpenter has just been through a bitter divorce and needs to recover.  So she goes to Jamaica to lay in the sun and to get laid!  Down there at the resort hotel a Long Island car salesman tries to pick her up, but Denise shoots him down and instead shares the bed of a mysterious man, Nicholas Holt.  Holt has some kind of strange ability that allows him to pick the winner of the hotel's sea turtle races, and, more importantly, makes him a whiz on the dance floor and in the sack!  No man has ever danced with or made love to Denise like this, and after the initial thrill she finds it disturbing.  What is Holt's power?  Is he a mind reader?  Can he predict the future?  Is it the second sight?

In the end we learn Holt's ability to predict the future is more of a curse than a blessing, and the car salesman turns out to be a hero.

Silverberg is a pro, and this is an entertaining story.  As he often does, Silverberg unleashes on us some of the knowledge he has gathered in a lifetime of incessant reading and world travel; this time we learn all about the coral reef.  "A Tip on a Turtle" is definitely worth a read. 

"FOAM" by Brian Aldiss  

I never know how I will react to a piece of fiction by Aldiss.  I love The Malacia Tapestry to death, I thought the famous Helliconia books were a little boring, and I was incredulous at the popularity of "Who Can Replace a Man?"  I'm afraid today is one of those days when Aldiss and I are not on the same wavelength.

Dozois tells us this story is "complex and subtle;" I thought it disjointed, surrealistic and boring.  Plot and character take the back seat in "FOAM," which we learn stands for "Free Of All Memory."  Appearing originally (and appropriately) in an anthology titled New Worlds, this story feels like an homage to the New Wave, with an emphasis on what people who don't like the New Wave complain about.

In the near future, a British historian of architecture is in Eastern Europe, touring churches.  A war rages nearby, the result of the breakup of the Soviet Union.  American and British troops are involved in the war, which people call "The Soviet War" and "Operation Total Tartary."  The architecture expert is lured into the clutches of a sinister Hungarian doctor by a fellow Briton, an unscrupulous former literature professor.  The Hungarian sucks ten years' worth of his memories out of his brain and puts them on little tapes; he will sell copies of the protagonist's knowledge of architecture on the black market to academics, and his memories of having sex with his tall pretty wife to Saudis.  (In this world TV shows and other information, including other people's memories, can be installed directly in your brain.  I'm not sure why recording the memories erases them, or why the doctor tricks people into giving up their memories instead of just hiring them.)  The architecture dude wakes up, with no memory of the last ten years, in the English countryside, and eventually figures out what happened to him.  He returns to Budapest, gets copies of his memories, and has them reinstalled.

This is actually a decent plot, but because of the way the story is constructed and the style in which it is written it lacks any tension or human feeling; I didn't care what happened to architecture dude, he was like a prop.  Mostly Aldiss uses the story as a vehicle to issue his complaints about current events and the state of the world in 1991.  Europe is falling into decadence and corruption--nobody believes in Christianity or Communism any more, their god is not Jesus or Marx, but the almighty dollar!  And everybody is getting fat!  English people in the story are all jerks, and architecture guy's wife prefers life in California! Aldiss refers directly and indirectly to the Gulf War that followed the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, and even has a US general named "'Gus' Stalinbrass" use chemical and bacteriological weapons in the Kutaisi area.  Besides trying to imply a moral equivalency between Christianity and Communism, and the US and USSR, Aldiss also attacks private gun ownership, including in "FOAM" a scene in England in which an unemployed dweller of public housing shoots a mother pushing a baby carriage, and the baby, with the Kalashnikov he goes to bed with every night.

Dozois thinks this is subtle?  I am entertaining the possibility that the over the top elements (e. g., the Battleship Potemkin baby-carriage bit, and the American general's name) are not "real," but are fake memories installed in the protagonist's brain, or maybe the brain of the reader.  This seems unlikely though.

If you were wondering what Brian Aldiss was thinking about in 1991, "FOAM" is the story for you.  Maybe if you are still bitter about the fall of the Berlin Wall or Operation Desert Storm you'll enjoy it.  Otherwise, I can't recommend it.

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

A mixed bag; the Koja was quite good, the Silverberg moderately good, and the Aldiss disappointing.  Aldiss, like Silverberg, is important enough, and often good enough, that I am always curious about what he is up to, so no regrets about picking up this volume of Dozois' Year's Best SF.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ten Short Short SF Stories: Niven, Malzberg, Pronzini, Knight & Busby

From the public library this week I borrowed 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander and published in 1978.  The volume contains a mere 271 pages of text, and as all you math people out there have already figured out, this means that the average story is less than 3 pages long.  Or maybe that the average length of the stories is fewer than three pages each.  Over the last few days I read ten of these stories, and I will now assign them grades.  Seeing as I am covering ten pieces in this single blog post, I'll try to keep things snappy!

"Plaything" by Larry Niven (1974)

In The Hugo Winners Volume 3 (1977) Isaac Asimov tells us that hard science fiction, the science fiction about science, is what he likes to read, and that he is relieved that young Larry Niven has taken up this vein while he (Asimov) and Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement approach retirement.  Niven has three stories in this collection of short shorts; will they be about science?

In "Plaything," which is over four pages long (lengthy for this book), a robotic Earth probe lands on Mars and Martian children treat it like a piece of playground equipment, climbing all over it, vandalizing it, etc.  Niven includes interesting biological details about the Martians (their senses are finely tuned to detect slight changes in levels of heat, and this is reflected in their means of "talking") and interesting speculations about the robotic probe's means of gathering data about Mars. A good story.

Grade: B           Sciencey?:  Yes.

"Safe at Any Speed" by Larry Niven (1967)

The title is a nod to Ralph Nader, but the plot is a nod to Jonah of "and the Whale" fame.  A thousand years in the future a guy is "driving" in an air car over an alien planet.  The car is swallowed whole by a huge bird.  They crash, and the guy lives in the car (it has a toilet and a food-creating machine) for six months while he waits for the monster to decay sufficiently, lest he be dissolved by its stomach juices. Cleverly, the story is an advertisement written by the driver, explaining how safe the car is. Again Niven includes some biological and some technological details.  Not bad.

Grade: B-           Sciencey?: Yes.

"Mistake" by Larry Niven (1976)

In the near future, astronauts on long boring solo trips use drugs to get high and thus entertain themselves.  (The guy in "Safe at Any Speed" plays solitaire for six months.) The astronaut in this story hallucinates an alien who interrogates him about Earth defenses. The astronaut takes a pill that sobers him up, and the alien vanishes.

The main joke of the story is that the reader is not supposed to know that the alien is a hallucination until the end.  Besides being a weak joke, in his one-line introduction to the story (what the copy on the jacket calls "a sly and witty remark"), Asimov, in his infinite wisdom, tells you that the alien is an hallucination.  The other big joke of the story is the pun "bad trip."

The best part of the story is Niven's little inside joke that pays homage to his big supporter Asimov, and three other notable SF writers, adventure scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs, hard-SF exemplar Hal Clement, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.

Grade: D-  (AKA, "The Peppermint Patty")         Sciencey?: No.

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"Inaugural" by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini (1976)

I like Malzberg, as I hope I have made clear on this blog.  However, I am sick to death of the irrational obsession so many people have with John F. Kennedy.  (In fact I experience a childish glee when people like the scribblers at Reason magazine or the gang at Red Letter Media try to poke a hole in the apparently undeflatable Camelot myth.)  Malzberg seems to be one of the many victims of this obsession, writing many stories that revolve around Kennedy or presidents getting murdered.  So when I saw the title of this story I groaned in anticipation of more Kennedy nonsense.

"Inaugural" is the text of the inauguration speech given by the first woman president ("Carole").  During the speech she quotes JFK's own inaugural speech.  It is a little difficult to puzzle out what we are supposed to take away from the story.  The new president returned six months earlier from the first manned interstellar flight, of which she was commander.  Her second in command ("George"), is now her husband. George appears to be the emotional one, and Carole has to scold him to keep him in line.  The vote (of billions of people) to elect them is said to be unanimous.  The words "unity" and "union" appear again and again in the text.

Did the new president win election by threatening to bomb the Earth from outer space (such things happen in Malzberg stories)?  Is this just a woman's hallucination (people are always hallucinating in Malzberg stories)?  Is the swapping of gender roles a joke or some kind of feminist commentary?  Are the references to union a sign that, like in so many utopian SF stories, in this one an alien element has transformed the human race into some kind of unified entity with a collective consciousness?  Are the references to a unanimous election a suggestion that the USA or the entire world now has bogus elections like in some dictatorship?

This story earns a passing grade, a wrinkled brow, and a shrug.

Grade: C        Kennedy?: Yes
          
"January 1975" by Barry N. Malzberg (1974)

This story is in the form of four letters from writer Barry to his editor, Ben.  Barry is suggesting that he write a series about an alternate universe in which Kennedy won the 1960 election and was later assassinated.  Barry promises that, while the series will be "in the dystopian mode," he will keep it "cheerful and amusing" and that the portrait of Kennedy as president will be "uplifting and noble."  (Ben is worried that "the Secretary" might sue for libel; I guess "the Secretary" is JFK himself.)    Ben rejects the idea, and in the final letter, in which Barry says he will sic "the union" on Ben, we learn how dystopian Barry and Ben's world really is: people in their universe attend "Slaughter Games" and "Public Tortures" for recreation!

The idea that people living in a world in which novelists are unionized and there are government-sponsored Roman-style blood sports and executions would consider our world a dystopia is faintly amusing and interesting.  So, a passing grade.

Grade: C         Kennedy?: Yes.

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

"I Wish I May, I Wish I Might" by Bill Pronzini (1973)

If we include his collaboration with Malzberg above, Pronzini has four stories in this book!  Wow!

I'm not sure I "get" this one.  Maybe there is a joke or a twist I am missing.

David Lannin is a 14-year-old boy on the beach.  Pronzini carefully describes the kid's appearance, clothes, all the sights and sounds of the beach.  There's a lot of "the sonorous lament of the chill October wind" and "the wind swirled loose sand against his body," and "there was nothing but the sound of the tide and the wind and the scavenger birds...." You know what I mean.  I thought it was odd to see all this detail in a story that is like three pages long.

Anyway, David finds a bottle, opens it up, and out comes an invisible genie. The genie tells David he can have three wishes.  Then he crows that he has achieved his revenge on the mortal sorcerer who put him in the bottle, and leaves.  David goes home to his mother. He tells mom that he's got three wishes, and he's going to wish for "a million-trillion ice cream cones," for the ocean to always be warm, and for every boy and girl in the world to "be just like me."  The final line of the story is David saying the magic words from the story title; in the short paragraph before that we learn that David is retarded.  (Pronzini provides no clue in the first two pages that David has any developmental or mental disorders; his dialogue is in normal English, for example.)

Is the joke that David has just destroyed modern society or even the entire world with his dumb wishes? Or is the joke that David hallucinated the genie?  Either way, lame.

Grade: F (student is also directed to attend sensitivity training)

"Dry Spell" by Bill Pronzini (1970)

Kensington, a professional writer on the edge of financial ruin, has had writer's block for weeks.  Suddenly he comes up with an idea for a SF story in which aliens are plotting to take over the world.  These aliens can read everybody's mind, and if any Earthling figures out what is going on, they erase that info from his mind.  In a twist we all saw coming, Kensington's scenario is the truth, and the aliens erase it from his mind before he can commit it to paper.  The aliens are the source of his writer's block!

Weak.         

Grade: D-

"How Now Purple Cow" by Bill Pronzini (1969)

Again, I think I may be missing the joke here; is it a feeble reference to cattle mutilations?

A farmer spots a purple cow on his land.  He calls the local newspaper to get a reporter to come see it.  The reporter, on the phone, mentions recent UFO sightings.  Before the reporter arrives, the farmer touches the purple cow, and is turned into a purple cow himself.  The end.

Grade: F (student is also directed to schedule appointment with guidance counselor to discuss possibility of repeating this semester)

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"Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight (1967)

This is another story I may not be quite grasping.  In this case there is a chance my limited knowledge of the Bible is hamstringing me.

(NOTA BENE: I am grading this story as it stands in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories.  This story originally appeared in Dangerous Visions, where presumably it is supported by several pages of supplementary matter by the author himself and editor Harlan Ellison.)  

It is the Day of Wrath!  God, a moving pillar of smoke, accompanied by seven angels, comes to the Earth to find it desolate, apparently due to a nuclear war.  The Archangel Michael blames the English, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans.  God goes to England, where deep in a pit He finds a message, in all caps, "WE WERE HERE.  WHERE WERE YOU?", I guess some English person's lament that God had abandoned them, or maybe Knight's idea of a joke.  

I have to admit that these stories that suggest the people of the West were no better than Brezhnev, Mao, and their henchmen rub me the wrong way.  And as an atheist unfamiliar with the Bible maybe the power of the story's phrases and images are flying over my head.  So perhaps I am not equipped to judge this tale.  Still, I must judge, and this story seems melodramatic and bombastic, and not very successful at making its point clear, whether it be an atheist attack on religion, a leftist criticism of NATO policy, or a heartfelt lament that God had failed to intervene in the Cold War.

Grade: F          

"Eripmav" by Damon Knight  (1958)

A page of embarrassing puns and kindergarten-level jokes.  The title is a bad joke, and things proceed downhill from there.

Grade: F

"Maid to Measure" by Damon Knight (1964)

A three-page story with one pun, a pun worthy of a seven-year-old who reads Playboy.

A man is trying to break up with his blonde girlfriend so he can date a brunette.  The blonde is experimenting with witchcraft, and by saying, "I'll change into a bikini," she is transformed into a bikini.  The brunette stops by, and dons the bikini.

And to think I defended Knight's Beyond the Barrier against Joachim Boaz's denunciations!

Grade: F  (student is expelled)

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"I'm Going to Get You" by F. M. Busby

I liked Busby's Cage A Man, an adventure/horror novel with strong psychological and social elements about a guy who is kidnapped by solipsistic aliens who don't realize humans are intelligent beings and inflict excruciating experiments on him before he escapes.  So I picked him for my tenth short short.

"I'm Going to Get You" is a three page monologue from a crippled man, directed at God.  The cripple relates the many disasters of his life (family killed by drunk driver, being beaten up by criminals, etc.) and blames them on God's callousness and/or cruelty.  The cripple declares that he will achieve revenge on God by committing suicide.

In some ways this story is comparable to Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee": God's existence and goodness are questioned.  But whereas Knight's story is loud and vague and ridiculous, Busby's story has a character and a story, some real emotion and some real thought behind it.

Grade: C+

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

I'm not the audience for sophomoric joke stories or stories with an obvious "twist," and so Knight and Pronzini have been graded harshly.  But a short short story can be a decent traditional SF story, as Niven shows with two of his offerings, or a story with real character and heart, as Busby demonstrates.

I will probably read ten more selections from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories next week.  Until then, my merciless red grading pencil will rest.