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.


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