Friday, February 28, 2014

Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald

As Joachim Boaz reminded us on twitter, February 24 was famed SF artist Richard M. Powers' birthday.  By coincidence, just two days earlier, I had purchased at Half-Price Books the 1979 Fawcett paperback edition of John D. MacDonald's 1951 novel Wine of the Dreamers, largely because of the very engaging cover painting by Powers.  This piece is becoming one of my favorite things by Powers.

I'd never read anything by MacDonald, who, I guess, is primarily famous for writing mystery novels about a Florida detective who owns a boat.  Still, I try to be open to new literary experiences, and so this week I read Wine of the Dreamers.

MacDonald sets his novel some 25 years in the future, in 1975.  Society has become more permissive; female promiscuity is the norm, divorce is common, and a drugged soft drink that heightens perceptions is as popular as Coca Cola.  The radio news is full of stories of strange crimes - when the perpetrators are apprehended, they claim they have no idea why they were acting so strangely and irresponsibly.

The main characters on Earth are on the staff of a major joint military-civilian project, the construction of a star ship.  One of the most dedicated physicists on the project suddenly assaults the security personnel and smashes some delicate equipment, setting the project back four months!

The reader immediately knows, of course, that aliens or some other beings are entering Earth people's minds and causing mischief.  MacDonald's Earth characters - heroic scientists, a sexy female psychologist, and duplicitous careerist military men - are pretty boring, so it is fortunate for the reader that the chapters about the alien Watchers are pretty good.  These Watchers are human, but small in number, inbred and, for the most part, ignorant and physically feeble.  They live in a large building that robotically provides food, and which most of them think is the entire universe.  Illiterate and decadent, they kill time by laying down in booths and sending their minds across the galaxy to planets, including Earth, where they temporarily control the inhabitants.  Almost all the Watchers think the people they control and the worlds they explore are fictional "dreams" generated by a computer, and so they blithely direct the people they control to commit murder, suicide and all manner of mayhem.

A few Watchers, including a brother and sister who are more robust and brave than the rest and have gone to the unused corridors and learned to read the dusty books there, have an inkling that the people in the "dreams" are real.  When the literate Watchers try to contact the Earth scientists and to stop the Watchers from abusing Earthlings, there is trouble both on Earth and in the crazy Watcher society.  Eventually the kinds of paradigm shifts we often see in science fiction novels follow.
 
The whole "aliens taking over peoples' bodies for fun" bit is similar to Robert Silverberg's 1968 story "Passengers," which won a Nebula.  MacDonald also includes in the book the technique Silverberg had at the center of his novel The Second Trip - the government can erase the personalities of criminals or the mentally ill and install in their minds fictional memories and "healthy" personalities.      

This edition of Wine of the Dreamers includes a 1968 afterword in which MacDonald expresses contempt for science fiction and the science fiction community and brags about how prescient Wine of the Dreamers is.  He also claims that mankind's technology has been unable to improve the human condition or make life a more rewarding experience, which seems silly.  Thanks to modern sanitation, transportation, and communications technology, life in the West was obviously much better, materially and culturally, in 1968 than in 1868 or 1768.

Even though I found the afterword annoying, Wine of the Dreamers is a moderately good novel and an interesting piece of 1950s SF.  If I blunder across Ballroom of the Skies, MacDonald's other 1950s SF novel, for sale for the same price I paid for this one, I will probably buy it.      

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Back on February 14 of this year I read Brian Aldiss’s famous short story “Who Can Replace a Man?” and found it lame. As a teenager I loved Aldiss’s novel of an alternate Renaissance Italy full of dinosaurs, Malacia Tapestry, and as an adult I thought the first two Helliconia books and The Primal Urge had good ideas but forgettable characters and plots, so, while mixed, my attitude towards Aldiss was still moderately positive, even after reading “Who Can Replace a Man?” In hopes of reading something really good by Aldiss, last week I took out Non-Stop, which Joachim Boaz praised highly when he read it over three years ago, from the library, and today finished it.  It's good, so Aldiss's stock with me is a little higher today than it was a week ago.

I read a 2000 edition of this 1958 novel. A note at the beginning indicates that Aldiss made revisions to 48 of the book’s pages. Another note tells you in advance that the theme of the novel is that humanity is insignificant and weak, and that human ideas are (unlike nature’s “effects”) “unbalanced,” and we must keep in mind our insignificance and not let our ideas “gobble up our lives.” Is this note supposed to make you eager to read the rest of the book?

Like Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1941) and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), Non-Stop is about the inhabitants of a huge generation ship who come to realize the true nature of their lives and the universe. I seem to remember the Heinlein and Wolfe books being basically optimistic; the passengers in those books land on a planet and start new lives. Non-Stop, on the other hand, is pessimistic; it turns out that the generation ship long ago dropped off the colonists, and, mission accomplished, was heading home to Earth when disaster struck.  The ship's systems went haywire and the crew reverted to primitivism; when the characters in the novel find the ship's control room it is a shambles! In fact, the ship has been orbiting the Earth for generations, and the people of Earth have been keeping the ship’s denizens in quarantine and in ignorance, studying them like they would rats in a maze!

Just about everyone in the novel acts in an irrational or immoral way, believing stupid things and acting callously or carelessly. The long space mission was abusive to the space crew, the Earth people treat their descendents no better, and when the primitives get their hands on a powerful laser, they use it recklessly and destroy the ship which has been their home for centuries! In Aldiss’s novel, human science, technology, and ambition, instead of achieving something admirable, cause misery and death. One character even says that the Nazi Holocaust is a “fitting token” of the technological age!

The plot and setting of Non-Stop are good. A tribe of humans is eking out an existence in a small portion of the corridors and rooms of the ship, which is overgrown with untended hydroponics plants and inhabited by feral dogs and pigs, as well as small groups of mutant hermits and other, presumably hostile, tribes. The tribe is nomadic, slowly exploring the ship, opening new doors looking for treasure (like ray pistols and flashlights) left behind by the people who built the ship, and periodically moving their protective barriers further along the corridors. One of the more educated members of the tribe gets his hands on a map of the entire ship, and he leads a small party forward through the wild corridors, hoping to get to the control room and fly the ship to a “natural” world where men belong. These adventurers make their way to less overgrown parts of the ship and encounter various other groups of ship dwellers, including intelligent rats.  In the bow of the ship they set off the crisis which leads to their climactic exposure to reality and destroys the ship. The whole thing is pretty exciting and vivid; Aldiss does a good job of describing this creepy milieu, and the adventure elements (exploring, fighting, getting captured and escaping, etc.) are well done.

One of the themes of Non-Stop is Freudian psychoanalysis. Over the generations since the disaster that caused the modern scientific elite that crewed the ship to revert to primitivism, a religion has grown up around vague scraps of Freudian theory and therapy. Aldiss seems to be making fun of religion and perhaps Freudianism, though at times he also seems to endorse Freudian thinking. (On page 82 of this edition the omniscient narrator gives a little Psych101 lecture on the “death wish” or “death drive,” and on page 184 a character recovers from his “death wish” by following the dictates of his Freudian-derived religion.)

I thought the style of the book had some weaknesses; Aldiss takes the omniscient narrator route, so that, when the characters find a camera or an electric fan, Aldiss just comes right out and tells us what they have found, even though the characters themselves have no idea what those items are. Aldiss also uses metaphors and similes that we 20th century people get but the characters, who have no books or TV, would not get. (Examples: on page 110 of this edition Aldiss compares the path taken through the ship to the rifling inside the barrel of a firearm; this is a good analogy, but the characters don’t have such firearms. On page 179 shadows are like bats, but these people have never seen bats. On page 143 Aldiss uses the word “proslambanomenos;” I had never encountered the word before, and no doubt the people in the story would never encounter it either.) Personally, I think stories of alien worlds are more effective when told from the point of view of one of the characters, or at least from the point of view of someone living in the world depicted.

This edition also contains quite a few typos, particularly regarding quotation marks (or “inverted commas,” as British people might call them.) Perhaps these are scanning errors (on page 161 we get “alarnting” for “alarming.”) Another run through by a proofreader would have really improved the text.

These problems didn’t sink the book for me, though. This is classic science fiction adventure with a huge space ship, mutants, ray guns, and a weird future society facing a paradigm shift. I love these traditional SF elements, and I always enjoy it when somebody uses them effectively; Aldiss does a good job with them here, so I enjoyed Non-Stop, and recommend it to other classic SF fans.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

My copy of the novel

Many years ago I tried to read The Adventures of Augie March by Canadian-born Jewish-American writer Saul Bellow. In my memory, the book is 3 inches thick and stuffed with tiny tiny print. I gave up on the third or fourth page.

I didn’t quite give up on Bellow, though, and five or eight years or so after being defeated by Augie March I read and enjoyed the much shorter The Dangling Man and The Victim, and a bunch of Bellow's short stories. Early in the period of my exile from New York City I read Seize the Day, which I liked a lot, and last year I read Henderson the Rain King. Recently the Des Moines Library had a huge booksale, and I bought a hardcover edition of Mr. Sammler’s Planet for pennies. This week I read the 1970 novel.

Artur Sammler is a Polish Jew, 70 years old, a more-or-less retired journalist, living on the West Side. (I lived on the East Side when I lived in Manhattan, and, as a stupid joke, pretended to be a rabid pro-East Side, anti-West Side, partisan. Whenever we would go to the West Side I would complain that the bus was slower, the subway was dirtier, etc. In fact, of course, there are many interesting and beautiful places on the West Side.) Sammler grew up in Poland and spent the 1920s and 1930s in England, among the intellectual elite, getting particularly close to H. G. Wells. But business took him back to Poland, where he and his wife and daughter got caught up in the start of the Second World War. Sammler’s wife was murdered, and Sammler and his daughter, separately, only barely escaped being killed.

Now, in late ‘60s New York, with one blind eye and British manners (he carries an umbrella around) Sammler lives among his various neurotic relatives who come to him to confess their sexual problems. In the course of just a few days Sammler suffers several shocks: he is terrorized by a black mugger, his nephew is revealed to be terminally ill, and his daughter, who ceaselessly urges Sammler to write a book on H. G. Wells, steals from a Punjabi scholar a valuable manuscript about the possibilities of colonizing the moon. Sammler, who lacks much family feeling, long ago lost his youthful illusions about improving society through revolution or government planning, and feels out of touch with the current sex-crazed generation, begins to seriously consider the notion of colonizing the moon and other planets.

This book kept reminding me of Thomas Disch. Like 334, this is a book about New York life, and like 334 it includes a reference to the first victim of Rashkalnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In 334 a lesbian stabs her girlfriend with a fork; in Mr. Sammler’s Planet a woman says she will stab her abusive husband with a fork. Like On Wings of Song it includes a character who adapts old musical scores for modern use. Uncanny.

I was also reminded, more obliquely, of Jack Vance. A person who read this book before me underlined and inscribed question marks next to words he did not know, like “autochthon” and “dugong.” Jack Vance uses “autochthon” a lot, and I think the first time I came upon the word was in a Vance story.  Bellow also employs "tellurian," which I think I only ever have seen in books by E. E. Smith.

This novel also gave me the damndest case of déjà vu. One of Sammler’s relatives (a grand nephew, I think) had the idea of offering to rich people the service of identifying all the trees and shrubs on the lawns of their estates. Somehow, I was sure I had read about just such a scheme, just recently, but I could not remember where. I guess I must have read that passage the day I bought Mr. Sammler’s Planet, at the library booksale, when I was flipping through to make sure no pages were missing.

I enjoyed Mr. Sammler’s Planet quite a bit; it was certainly more fun than Henderson the Rain King, which I remember being too long and sometimes dragging. Mr. Sammler’s Planet does not drag, everything in it was interesting. Of course, the novel is largely about things that I find interesting -- New York, World War II and the Cold War, revolution, space exploration -- but I also found the various characters and their relationships and odd problems engaging. The ending, in which Sammler, despite all the horrible things he has endured and witnessed, asserts that we all know, instinctively, right from wrong, is powerful because it is so tragic. Either Sammler is sadly deluded, and good and evil are just opinions, or Sammler is right; we all know what is good and what is evil, and the world is full of people who do evil in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong.

So, a thumbs up for Mr. Sammler’s Planet; perhaps I have taken one small step (or maybe one giant leap) closer to tackling Augie March a second time.

UPDATE FEB 23 2014:  In the comments veteran book blogger Tarbandu points out a long and detailed, and quite good, essay on Mr. Sammler's Planet by Myron Magnet that focuses on crime and civilization in New York from the late '60s to the '80s.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Concluding 334: “Angouleme” and "334"

Today I finished my reread of Thomas M. Disch's fixup novel, 334.  

“Angouleme”

“Angouleme” appeared in New Worlds Quarterly 1 in 1971, and has been widely anthologized. Everybody seems to love it, and Samuel R. Delany, I am told, wrote a long essay about it. It’s a good story, so I am going with the crowd on this one.

In “Angouleme”, the 12-year old son of a TV executive leads a pack of kids in a conspiracy to murder a stranger. The kids are apparently inspired to take up crime by their studies, which include classes like “Modern Revolutions” and writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Andre Gide and Norman Mailer. Disch was a highly cultured man, and he often populates his stories with cultured people.

The story mostly takes place in Battery Park, and I enjoyed being reminded of landmarks I have not thought about in years, like Castle Clinton and the memorial to American servicemen lost in the Battle of the Atlantic. This story also mentions Hopatcong, New Jersey, where I spent the first four years of my life, a place I never think of and can only but dimly remember.

The boy’s friends come to their senses and decide to abandon the murder plot, but their leader steals his father’s reproduction 1790 pistol and hunts their intended victim. It is possible that Disch has made a mistake here, that Disch thought percussion cap pistols were in use in 1790; this is not the case.

This is a good story, with lots of nice touches, but it is not very plot heavy. One of the nice touches is the presence of Alexa’s (Alexa from “Everyday Life in the Late Roman Empire”) son. In an oblique reference to his mother, Disch has him get involved in an argument about history, and make a classical reference; interestingly, the boy's judgement seems to be unreliable. Another clever touch is how the murderous boy forgets his watch and looks at a public clock to find it is 2:15, just like Birdy did in “Death of Socrates,” on the day of his big test.


"334"

"334," the title story of the fixup novel, also first appeared in New Worlds Quarterly, the fourth issue.  This story, the last story in 334, consists of 43 little vignettes centering on the inhabitants of 334 East 11th Street, most of whom we have met before.  When fitted together (there is actually a map or diagram included, to help you fit them together) the little scenes describe plots, but each also works as an individual self contained story.

Even though these are science fiction stories, most of them get their power from describing situations and emotions ordinary people endure in their ordinary lives: envy for another's youth, beauty or success; the disappointment of not getting that job you really wanted; the need for privacy, to be alone, even from those you love; the pain of loving someone who doesn't love you - these are sad stories!  There are multiple suicides, and almost everybody is confused or broken-hearted about his or her life and relationships.

One of the most "science fictiony" vignettes is about a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, instead of depicting an elegant European 18th century domicile, reproduces a 20th century supermarket with shelves full of food, beverages, and household supplies.  Pervasive consumerism and a general scarcity are two of the themes of 334, and this piece drives home Disch's vision of material life in the 21st century, as the characters marvel at the abundance enjoyed by their ancestors.

"334" is sad and unsettling, especially when something happens that reminds you of your own life.

The back of my copy
**********

334 deserves the hype it gets; by turns it is amusing, depressing, and surprising.  It is a must read for people interested in literary science fiction, and science fiction that is about regular people and their lives.  I'm glad I reread it, almost ten years after my first read.

Pasted below is the Amazon review of 334 I posted in October of 2004 :

Thomas Disch's 334 has got to be the most depressing book I have ever read, an SF novel about people more than ideas or plot. The book (more a series of inter-related stories than a novel) is set in a future New York City (mis)governed by technocratic socialistic regime which enforces eugenics, attempts to radically redefine gender roles, and placates citizens with drugs and televised pornography. The focus of the book is the lives of several ordinary tenants of an overcrowded and decrepit public housing project, people whose lives range from unfulfilling to abjectly miserable, flawed people whom the soulless welfare state is incompetent to help, or people unable to meet their potential in the inhuman society that that inefficient bureaucracy has, by accident or design, created. Disch skillfully never strays into condescension or preachiness and always shows and never tells, depicting people and events that are never spectacular or maudlin, but are instead utterly quotidian and horribly believable. 334 is much better than Disch's earlier novel, Genocides, and more on a par with his impressive Camp Concentration, which shares with 334 forays into experimental (and generally successful) story structures and techniques.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

334, Part the Second: "Bodies," "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire" & "Emancipation"

Having read "The Death of Socrates," the first story in my edition of 334, I have decided to just read the entire thing.  Today I read the next three stories from my 1987 edition of this 1972 book.

"Bodies"

"Bodies" first appeared in 1971 in Quark/4, edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.  "Bodies" appears in two books I own, 334 and Fundamental Disch, and a quick glance suggests that the texts (except for typos) are the same.

Ab, a white man with an invalided wife, and Chapel, a black man with a criminal record who loves TV, work in Bellevue Hospital.  I guess you would call them orderlies; they do things like push carts around.  Ab is based in the morgue, and makes some extra money on the side by selling cadavers that he is supposed to cremate to a criminal who caters to necrophiliacs.  A disaster occurs when Ab sells a body before the required 24-hour waiting period prior to cremation has ended.  Ab received the body erroneously, the body was not supposed to be cremated, and the deceased's insurance company is expecting the body.  Ab, Chapel, and other not-quite-honest people at the hospital have to scramble to get a replacement body or there will be hell to pay.  Chapel, whom the more intelligent and ruthless Ab is able to manipulate, is persuaded to do the dirtiest deeds and take the biggest risks to bring the caper off.

You could say that this is the second story in 334 in which a black person is abused and taken advantage of by more intelligent white people.
        
In some ways the sections of "Bodies" on Ab's and Chapel's home lives are more memorable than the main body-stealing plot.  Ab has sex with his obese invalided wife who is always angry, a scene Disch means to be disturbing.  Chapel watches TV.  Chapel loves TV, and here Disch seems to be talking about the theory of fiction he describes in his essay "The Uses of Fiction," which I read recently.  Chapel learned how to read and how to respond to life by watching TV, and Disch argues that TV serves for Chapel the purpose which religion served for so many people in the past.  As in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, TV also seems to be a sort of family for Chapel.  (A favorite Ford commercial, we are told, is like an old friend to Chapel.)

Lots of interesting character stuff going on, some good images, and a solid horror/crime plot; a quite good story.

"Everyday Life in the Roman Empire"

I believe this story first appeared in 334, though less than a year later it was included in an anthology which Disch edited, Bad Moon RisingBad Moon Rising has perhaps the most disturbing book cover I have ever seen, a photo of a dead bird. 

Unlike the previous stories, which had welfare recipient and working class protagonists, this story concerns middle class professionals.  Alexa is a case worker with a humanities degree, and her husband is an engineer.  Alexa is unhappy with her life, and envies her sister, who lives a simpler life in Idaho, even though she has contempt for her sister's religious beliefs.  Alexa spends a lot of time in elaborate drug-induced fantasies in which she lives in the Roman Empire; this is a form of psychological therapy.   

The story seems like a parody of typical New York middle-class life: When Alexa is not at her therapist or undergoing therapy at home she is obsessing over what private school to send her son to. 
 
Disch includes in this story digressions from Marcus Aurelius, Oswald Spengler, and others, that indicate that the period of 334 is a period in which the elite are taking advantage of the poor, a period of cultural stagnation, and the prelude to some kind of collapse or cataclysm.  Perhaps more interesting, Disch hints that he thinks that the arts and humanities are a vain pastime (or waste of time) for the well-off, that people concerned with culture are not contributing to society the way, say, engineers are.  Or it could just be that Disch is reminding us that there are people who feel that way.     

This story is one of the weaker Disch stories I have read.  The characters are not very interesting, the plot is not funny or shocking, and the digressions distract you from the story.

"Emancipation: A Romance of the Times to Come"

This story first appeared in 1971 in the anthology of original stories, New Dimensions 1.

"Emancipation" is about sex and gender roles, and stars Boz and Milly.  Milly has been mentioned in earlier 334 stories; she was Birdie Ludd's girlfriend before Birdie joined the Marines, and she is Ab's daughter.  During the period of those tales Milly was a stewardess for PanAm; at the time of this story she works for the government, demonstrating sex in high school classrooms.  Boz is a house husband.  We are told repeatedly that Boz and Milly are very good-looking.  However, their marriage is on the rocks.

A marriage counselor tells them the solution to their problem is to have a baby.  Milly wants a baby, and the feminized Boz will not be happy until he has embraced his maternal instincts.  So Boz and Milly have a test tube baby, and Milly's breasts are removed and implanted on Boz's chest so he can nurse their baby, which comes out of its artificial womb on December 24.

This story actually has a happy ending; Boz enjoys being a mother, Milly rises in the ranks of her public sector union, and their marriage problems ease.  The final scene is a charming one in which Boz and Milly sit together on the balcony of their apartment, look out over the city, and reminisce about the early days of their marriage.

"Emancipation" makes clear something that what was hinted at in "Bodies," that in the world of 334 the Democratic Party is the party of heterosexuals and the Republican Party the party of homosexuals.  (In "Bodies" Ab expresses a hatred of Republicans, hinting that he would enjoy castrating them, and later he walks by a sort of erotic amusement park called "The Democratic National Convention" whose entrance is a 70 foot high neon vulva.)  It is hinted that the public schools are full of homophobic propaganda.  Boz, who likes to strike poses and has sex with men and women, is accused of being a Republican, and one gay character self-identifies as a Republican (even though he has to recite the government propaganda that says that "a preference for cunt is an inescapable consequence of having a cock.")   

A good story, with bizarre elements, but a sweet conclusion.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thomas M. Disch's "Problems of Creativeness" and "Death of Socrates"

My copy of 334
In 1967 Thomas M. Disch's story "Problems of Creativeness" was first published. In 1972 a revised version of the story, entitled "Death of Socrates" appeared in 334.  Yesterday I read both versions of the story, curious as to what was different about them, and why Tom Shippey, editor of the 1992 anthology The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, might chose to publish the earlier version.   

"Problems of Creativeness" (1967)

"Problems of Creativeness," published in 1967, is the story of Birdie Ludd, college student and resident of a 21st century New York City full of public housing projects.  (Could his name be a reference to Ned Lud, the mythical leader of the Luddites, Georgian artisans who turned to violence in response to the technological advances that were threatening their livelihoods?)  Birdie is a dolt and an ignoramus who claims he does badly on one test because he was nervous (it was Friday the 13th!), is proud of getting the modal score on a physical fitness test, and thinks David's Death of Socrates is a Greek painting.

Birdie's lack of intelligence and any interest in art or literature is a problem because under the current eugenicist regime he will be forbidden to marry and have children unless he can pass some kind of intelligence test or earn a BA.  He's already failed the IQ tests, so college is just about his last chance to earn the right to reproduce.  He wants to reproduce because he is in love with his girlfriend, and she will leave him for someone else if he can't marry her and father her children.

In the cradle to grave welfare state of the 21st century a college education is the right of every American citizen, so there is nothing stopping Birdie from getting into college, and college is so easy even Birdie is able to maintain a C average.  But then Birdie starts skipping classes, and even loses track of the time and misses a major test, so is expelled.  His next chance is to produce a work of art or literature or give a performance that will convince the government that he has superior talents which don't show up on IQ tests or college exams.

The government provides Birdie with a stipend to live on and three months to produce his work of art (he chooses to write).   He sits in a public library cubicle with a screen which offers access to all the books in the major libraries of the United States and Europe.  Birdie, for the first time in his life, actually does some serious reading, and he is inspired.  The world, to him, suddenly, is a beautiful fascinating place!  Ecstatically he drafts his essay, redrafts it several times, then sends it off.

The essay, entitled "Problems of Creativeness," is laugh out loud bad, being full of stupid mistakes (Birdie refers to "Wolfgang Amadeus Goethe," for example) and making no sense.  Birdie has failed another test, and now his only hope of being given permission to reproduce is to show great bravery on the battlefield.  The story ends as Birdie joins the U.S. Marines, fated to participate in a war in Southeast Asia.

Disch is a very good writer and this is a very good story; Birdie seems like a real person, and the jokes are actually pretty funny.  But what is Disch trying to say; what is his attitude towards the society he presents in "Problems of Creativeness?"  In some ways, the government in this story seems to be very generous, a sort of left wing dream, with the government guaranteeing food and shelter and access to culture and education.  On the other hand there is the eugenics program, and the war in Southeast Asia, and suggestions that the public housing, food and education are not so good.  There are hints that Disch thinks that family and love are what are really important in life, and that the intrusive and generous government depicted in the story obstructs such things, at least for people of below average intelligence.  The fact that Birdie is so stupid and so lacking in discipline and character (he cheats on the girlfriend he keeps saying he loves, and expresses an irrational hatred of old people) muddies the issues; would a person this incompetent succeed in any society?  Maybe Disch's point is that government programs that ostensibly are meant to help the more vulnerable and underprivileged fail to do so, and destroy the ancient institutions (like the family) that in the past such people have relied on? 

"Death of Socrates" (1972)        
 
I'm calling this the "Hubba Hubba edition"
In 1972 334, a collection of Disch stories, sometimes called a novel, was published, and one of its component parts was a revised version of "Problems of Creativeness," now called "Death of Socrates."  In my edition of 334, the 1987 Carrol & Graf paperback, "Death of Socrates" is the first story.  I read the story yesterday after finishing "Problems of Creativeness," curious as to what changes Disch had made.

Additional scenes added in "Death of Socrates" make Disch's point of view a little more clear.  During a classroom discussion of Dante, a minor character argues that it is wrong for people to be punished for the circumstances of their birth.  A few pages later in this version of the story we learn that Birdie passed one of his tests, but then, when it was discovered by the eugenics people that Birdie's father had diabetes, Birdie's score was lowered.  Birdie is also penalized for his father's long stretches of unemployment.  (The government in this version seems less generous.)  On the plus side of the ledger, Birdie is given a few extra points for being black (or "a Negro," as the story puts it.)

A theme evident in much of Disch's work is the idea that we do not control our own destinies, and these changes make the story of Birdie Ludd fit right in with stories like "Assassin and Son" or "Slaves."  In "Problems of Creativeness" we watch as Birdie's stupidity and irresponsibility doom him, despite the chances the government gives him.  In this new version of the story we see that Birdie's fate is largely determined by things he has no control over, like his race, genetic predisposition to diseases, and his father's behavior.

Birdie is a somewhat different character in this version.  I don't think he was black in "Problems of Creativeness;" at least there was no evidence that he was, and other characters who were black were specifically described as "Negroes."  One such Negro in "Problems of Creativeness" was a thirteen-year-old girl whose ass twenty-year-old Birdie ogled.  There is no thirteen-year-old girl in "Death of Socrates."  Birdie is more violent in "Death of Socrates," and his antisemitism is also more obvious.

The 1974 version of the story is more explicit in several ways, with the words "fuck" and "cunt" making an appearance, and scenes of Birdie masturbating.  Maybe these scenes, as well as the implicit criticism of affirmative action and implications of African-American antisemitism, are why "Problems of Creativeness" was included in the 1992 Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories instead of "Death of Socrates?"  Or maybe legal issues regarding copyright were the reason.  Or maybe Tom Shippey just preferred the earlier version; I think I may prefer the earlier version myself.  The Birdie in 1967's "Problems of Creativeness" is more sympathetic, and the jokes in the story are funnier.  Disch even took out the "Wolfgang Amadeus Goethe" joke!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Two dystopian stories from the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Harry Harrison & Gene Wolfe

Cover to a recent edition
Today I read three stories from Tom Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories which I knew ahead of time I would like, Harry Harrison's "A Criminal Act," Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back," and Thomas M. Disch's "Problems of Creativeness."  In this post I will talk about the Harrison and Wolfe stories, which I read two or three years ago; in a later post I will compare the Disch story to its revision, "Death of Socrates," which appears in 334, which I read about ten years ago.  All three of these stories were worth a reread and I strongly recommend all of them.  

"A Criminal Act" by Harry Harrison

Harrison is well known for his broad satires and humorous novels, and this story is also satirical, but I appreciated the fact that it is not too silly - the action sequences, for example, are written straight and I thought quite well, like something out of a good war or adventure story.

This story, like Ballard's and (to some extent) Aldiss's from this collection, is about overpopulation.  It could also be an indictment of democracy and mob rule, like the Kipling story.

In 1993 (over 25 years after the story was written in 1967), the government of what appears to be a socialist and/or authoritarian state where everyone lives on government rations and the people have no right to question the laws, legislates a limit to the number of children a man can father.  Bizarrely, instead of the police enforcing the law, should you father a third child and fail to take advantage of a government abortion or euthanasia clinic, a civilian volunteer is given permission to kill you. (This reminds me of the proscription lists of the Roman Civil Wars and the legal concept of outlawry and "the wolf's head" in medieval England.)

In the story Benedict (which means "blessed," perhaps a reference to such stock phrases as "blessed with a baby"), an old-fashioned man who talks about the "sanctity of life," and "the inviolability of marriage" and feels that a man's place is "out in front, defending his family" has fathered his third child, and so a volunteer, Mortimer (a pun on "mort", the Latin word for death?) comes to kill him.  The conservative father, armed with a revolver, holes up in his apartment and defends himself from the Mortimer, who has a government-supplied machine pistol.  During the siege and shootout, Mortimer, who is some kind of anti-population activist, and Benedict argue over the role of the individual in society and the justice of the population control law.  Harrison seems to side with the volunteer's arguments, but at the same time hints that Mortimer's support for the law is just as emotional and personal as is Benedict's abhorrence of the law.

This is a good story, though maybe vulnerable to attacks on feminist grounds.  The law seems to focus solely on the man's role in pregnancy (Mortimer is not allowed to kill the mother, just the father.)  Also, Benedict's wife acts stupidly, putting Benedict in terrible danger repeatedly.  The foolishness of Benedict's wife may be a sign of Harrison's own hostility to religious people and/or conservatives, and his own concern about overpopulation.  Benedict's wife may serve as an example supporting the argument that ordinary people are too stupid to do the right thing by the environment/society, and so elite experts are justified in forcing ordinary people to act as the elites know they should.

"How the Whip Came Back" by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe, my favorite writer, in this 1970 story presents a dystopian vision of a socialistic 21st century.  The Catholic Church has fewer than a million members.  The Soviet Union has won the Cold War; the United States has abandoned all pretense of supporting the free market and the U.S. government is imitating Soviet policies.  Crime is rampant in America, the national debt is high, and the economy is a wreck.

The plot of the story concerns a woman who is in Geneva for an important international conference; she does not represent a country, but apparently the charitable sector, and has only a symbolic, non-binding vote.  The international community is facing a major decision; the governments of the world, apparently led by the Soviet Union, the United States, and France, want to "lease" the many members of their prison populations to businesses and individuals - essentially this is a reintroduction of slavery.  The woman at the center of the story vocalizes the arguments against such a measure, but decides to vote for the measure because it will give her the opportunity to enslave her former husband, who broke her heart and is currently in prison.  Wolfe implies that her decision, for public relations reasons, is the decisive one that makes the legalization of slavery possible.

This is a well-written and quite good story, but you can see how it could offend people.  For one thing, Wolfe clearly argues that fewer people attending church and/or believing in God is correlated with an increase in depravity.  (Polls indicate that most people support selling prisoners into slavery, and it is argued that people love the idea of having slaves.)  More glaringly, we have the main character, a woman who apparently knows the difference between right and wrong, but dooms millions of people (not just criminals - it is clear that the Communist Party in Eastern Europe will not limit itself to criminals, and implied that the U.S. will follow suit) for selfish, jealous, emotional reasons.  This is not a flattering depiction of womankind!  

The story includes a brilliant and memorable image: a robot in the shape of an old-fashioned writing desk, a Louis XIV secretary.  When you google "Louis XIV secretary" you get zilch, but "Louis XVI secretary" yields many results.  Is this a typo?  Or is Wolfe trying to remind us of King Louis XIV, an adherent of the theory of the divine right of kings whose long reign saw the centralization of the administration of France, oppression of the Protestant French population and all kinds of aggressive wars?

Another theme of the story is how fashions change; the first three paragraphs of the story are all about how red and green are in, are "modern," this season in clothes and furniture.  (It may be significant that the protagonist dislikes the modern style and is fond of antique furniture and the work of Renaissance sculptor Cellini.)  Two characters talk about how it is possible that the Catholic Church, apparently on its lasts legs, may become fashionable again.  Wolfe seems to be implying that beliefs that we take for granted as self-evident (like the belief that everybody in 1970 would have expressed, that slavery is wrong) are in fact just fashions; for thousands of years slavery was a normal part of life, and it could come back into fashion in the 21st century just as easily as it went out of fashion in the 19th century.

An engaging and thought-provoking piece of work, entertaining and challenging.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Three more stories from the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Van Vogt, Aldiss, and Ballard

Cover of a later edition

Three more selections from Tom Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

“The Monster” by A. E. Van Vogt

This 1948 story is one of many examples of a Van Vogt story about a transcendent human with mental powers. I think this story is a little more coherent and easy to follow than much of Van Vogt’s work.

Far in the future, a race of aliens comes upon the Earth. All animal life is dead. These aliens are able to replicate living creatures from even small fragments. Curious as to how Earth life was wiped out, since they want to colonize the Earth, the aliens start revivifying humans. An Egyptian mummy, then a 20th century man, are unable to provide any clue, and the aliens vaporize them with ray guns. A human from thousands of years later, however, is not only able to explain what happened to humanity (a nucleonic storm swept the Earth with deadly radiation) but turn the tables on the aliens, as he has mental abilities which make him immune to ray guns or nuclear bombs. When the story ends the aliens are doomed, and we know that the human will use their technology to bring the human race back to life and conquer the universe.

A fun story.

“Who Can Replace A Man?” by Brian Aldiss

I suppose this 1958 story is an effort to show the absurdity of human traits like the lust for power, class distinctions, belligerence and servility by having robots exhibit these traits, but I found the whole thing to be ridiculous and boring.

Because of overpopulation, the nutrients in the ground are depleted, and the human race dies of a vitamin deficiency. The robots that have been doing all the work stop getting orders, and because this is a story and not real life, instead of just stopping, some of the robots go crazy, and some of them strike off on their own initiative. Even robot tractors and robot steam shovels get anthropomorphized in this story, and express joy at their freedom or ambitions to dominate others. The robots make alliances, argue, go to war with each other, cry out in agony and fear when abandoned, and when humans reappear immediately abandon all thoughts of independence.

This story is pretty lame. The jokes (one of the robots has a lisp) are not funny. The environmentalist, population scare, and anti-war sentiments in the story are just perfunctory; this story reminded me of a cloying children's book, like maybe one of Dr. Seuss's more irritating efforts.

Not good.

“Billenium” by J. G. Ballard

This is probably the most satisfying of the stories I have yet read in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. It is full of vivid images and human feeling, and the style is quite fine. "Billenium" first appeared in 1961.

Ballard considers how society would respond and what everyday life would be like in an overpopulated world, and depicts for us a brief period in the life of one of the denizens of such a world. The story is engrossing and believable, and I really enjoyed it.

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Even though I thought the Aldiss story poor, these three stories all constitute good representative samples of major themes and styles in science fiction and so are good selections for a book like this.  We've got homo superior and mental powers in Van Vogt's sensationalist pulp tale of wicked and hideous aliens armed with ray guns, overpopulation in Ballard's more sophisticated and literary story, which you might consider early "New Wave" in its focus on the everyday citizen, and Aldiss brings the robots and misanthropy.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Three tales from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Wells, Kipling, and Williamson

Cover of the edition I borrowed
I wanted to read “Problems of Creativeness,” an earlier version of “The Death of Socrates,” the first chapter of Thomas M. Disch’s fixup 334, and so checked out a copy of 1992’s The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. The collection, edited by Tom Shippey, seemed to have a number of interesting stories in it, so I put off Disch for a space and read several of them, today stories by H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack Williamson.

“The Land Ironclads” by H. G. Wells

Published in 1903, in this story an unnamed hardy frontier nation of hunters, cowpunchers and “negro-whackers” (Shippey in his intro compares them to the Boers or the Australians) has been invaded by the army of a similarly anonymous urban, sophisticated nation of clerks and factory hands, presumably Europeans.  The skinny city boys easily defeat the rugged country boys by using what we would today call tanks, as well as bicycles.  Wells thinks bicycles are more suited to warfare than horses.

There isn't much by way of character or plot in this one, though the descriptions of the fighting are good.  Wells spends quite a bit of time describing the complex mechanisms of the land ironclads, and those that make their rifles so accurate; there are compensators that take into account the movement of the vehicle, for example, and a device that measures range to target and raises or lowers the gun barrel accordingly.  While Wells condemns war, he celebrates the triumph of science and the brain over spunk and brawn--the city boys in the tanks are described as doing their fighting in a rational, methodical, business-like way, which Wells heartily approves, and they share Wells's contempt for emotionalism, including patriotism.

"Land Ironclads" is more effective as an essay than as a piece of fiction; while competently written, there is no feeling beyond a facile "Gee Whiz!" response to the technological stuff and a smug confidence in the superiority of the educated elite.

“As Easy as ABC” by Rudyard Kipling

In the future (2065) there is what amounts to a world government, the Aerial Board of Control.  With a fleet of highly maneuverable aircraft armed with nonlethal weapons (blinding lights and deafening sound projectors), the ABC's multinational staff is an irresistible force able to maintain order anywhere in the world. 

(The ABC reminded me of the Space Patrol in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, which prevents international war by being ready at any moment to nuke aggressors.)

Kipling describes a post-democratic world in which the average person finds a crowd a disgusting source of physical and mental disease and voting to be an absurdity.  People lack any curiosity and are obsessed with privacy; there are no newspapers and everybody plants around their homes dense stands of quick grow trees to block line of sight.

A bunch of democracy activists has amassed in Chicago, however, and are demonstrating.  The local authorities are shocked at the sight of people standing so close that they brush against each other.  These demonstrations have inspired angry counter-demonstrations, and the ABC has to rush air ships to Illinois before the democracy activists are murdered by the anti-democracy crowd.  The members of the democrat crowd (and their families and friends who aren't even there!) are whisked away without any sort of trial to London, where their bizarre antics of taking votes and gathering in crowds will amuse the theater-going public.  Meanwhile the people of Chicago beg the ABC to take direct control of the town.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this story.  Is Kipling so worried about mob violence and so hostile to meddlesome elected politicians that he is advocating rule by an invincible and unaccountable elite that can carry you off without any kind of due process?  Or is he satirizing such fears?  Maybe he is just speculating that, if those of us in democratic countries don't show restraint and exercise responsibility when enjoying such freedoms as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and when voting for our representatives, that some kind of tyranny or other will arise.

All the clues point to Kipling believing that ABC rule is benevolent, however, that this story is a utopian attack on democracy and popular government.  The crew of the lead airship (an Englishman, an Italian, a Japanese, and a Russian) are depicted in a positive way, and it is suggested that all people in the world are rich because the population is low.  Maybe the ABC airship using force to keep the two Chicago crowds from fighting is analogous to a 19th century British imperial force taking up the white man's burden and maintaining order in some unruly Indian or African village.
            
On the "Gee Whiz!" front Kipling is as good as Wells.  Besides the aircraft and the fast growing trees, Kipling has automatic maps that act like a GPS computer, electric paralysis rays, and advanced medicine (people normally live to be 100.)  

An interesting, challenging story.

“The Metal Man” by Jack Williamson

It is perhaps not fair to compare Jack Williamson to major literary and cultural figures like H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, but where "The Land Ironclads" and "Easy as ABC" try to make some point about society and human nature, "The Metal Man," published in 1928, is just a conventional piece of entertainment.

A scientist is searching the South American wilderness for radium.  For some reason he doesn't have any local guides or grad students with him.  He finds a ten mile wide crater full of a weird green heavier-than-air gas.  He blunders into the crater, and discovers that the gas in the crater turns organic matter into metal.  He finds lots of dead metal birds and even a metal prehistoric reptile.  He encounters a bizarre life form, intelligent crystals that have the power to defy gravity.  The crystals help him get out of the crater, but he is doomed to turn to metal.  He writes a letter to his best friend, and pays a guy to deliver his dead metal body to his friend with the letter.  When the friend accepts delivery he puts the metallic corpse in the museum of the college where the scientist taught.  The End.

A barely acceptable trifle.

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These three stories were more interesting than fun.  I have read more entertaining work by each of these writers in the past: Wells - Kipling - Williamson.  Still, the Wells and Kipling perhaps provide some kind of insight into the thinking of two important British writers. 

This weekend I will read some more tales from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.