Monday, March 31, 2014

Two stories by Theodore Sturgeon: "Occam's Scalpel" and "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

Today I read two stories by Theodore Sturgeon of "Killdozer" fame, the shortish "Occam's Scalpel" (14 pages) and the longish "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (44 pages.)  I'm inclined to think Sturgeon is overrated, but his writing style is good and he has a large body of work, much of which I have not yet read, and so I still have hopes of encountering something I will enjoy as much as my favorite Sturgeon stories.

"Occam's Scalpel" (1971)

I don't think of Sturgeon as a hard SF writer, but I read this story in David Hartwell and Kathyrn Cramer's The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction.  In the introduction to the story, Hartwell and/or Cramer admit that many members of the SF community wouldn't consider "Occam's Scalpel" a hard SF tale, or even SF at all.  We are also told that Sturgeon was regarded by his peers with "something akin to worship," that he was considered "the finest literary craftsman of his day in the genre," and that no writer in SF "has yet produced a body of short fiction superior to Sturgeon's."  It is this sort of talk that I have in mind when I suggest Sturgeon is overrated.

NB: Ted's story does not include an elf riding a dragon
Like the Hugo-winning "Slow Sculpture," "Occam's Scalpel" is about a genius inventor who lacks social skills and who is abused by society.  He starts successful businesses but his associates steal him blind and destroy his firms.  He has the bad luck to have his first wife leave him, his second wife die in a car crash, and then to be wounded by a stray round during a bank robbery, leading to a five month hospital stay.  Have all these disasters turned the inventor from a paragon of decency (he was inventing stuff like a way to preserve organic baby food and a plastic that can be burned without polluting) into something worse?  Let's hope not, because as the story opens he is about to become the head of a huge conglomerate, rendering him the most powerful man on Earth!  (I always think the most powerful man in the world is some politician, but in fiction the most powerful man in the world is often some business guy.)

One of the themes of Sturgeon's work is the importance of brotherly love and the tragic lack of intimacy between people in our world (in The Cosmic Rape he seems to be applauding an alien invasion of Earth that leads to all human beings joining a collective consciousness.)  This theme manifests itself in "Occam's Scalpel" in its frame; much of the tale of the genius inventor is told by a man to his brother during an affectionate reunion.  Then the brothers work together to trick the genius inventor into using his skills and power to clean up the environment.  Like "Slow Sculpture" this story is about how it would be great if intellectual elites would manipulate the rest of us because we are all too stupid and greedy to do the right thing.

This story is better than "Slow Sculpture" in areas like tone, style, and character, and it has some surprises, so I'd give it a marginal or moderate thumbs up.

Back cover of DV 35th Anniversary ed - sorry Ted!
"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967)

I read this one in the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions.  In democratic fashion, the original edition of Dangerous Visions, with the cover by the Dillons, listed all 33 authors in the same size type.  The 35th anniversary edition instead lists only 13 "luminaries," and Sturgeon is not among them.  Surely Sturgeon is a bigger draw than Damon Knight!  Oh, well.

Editor Harlan Ellison's intro to "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is about how Sturgeon once wrote Ellison a letter in which he [Sturgeon] tells him [Ellison] that he [Ellison] is one of the few good people in the world.  Adorable.

The story takes place centuries in the future, when the Earth has long been destroyed by Sol going nova and humankind has colonized hundreds of planets.  Travel between these planets is a breeze, but there is one planet the powers-that-be are trying to keep people away from, Vexvelt.  And it is not just the elites, even the common people who encounter them detest the Vexveltians.  Our hero, through detective work, persistence, bravery and luck, makes his way to Vexvelt and befriends the people there.  These people are all super strong, beautiful, run around naked, and are eager to have sex with strangers.  Their planet is a paradise, their society a utopia.  (As in "Slow Sculpture," a big deal is made out of the fact that they can cure cancer, but the rest of humanity is resistant to learning their methods.)

So, why is it hard to get to Vexvelt?  Why isn't the rest of humanity eager to buy their superior products at lower prices, eager to embrace their cancer cure?  Because Vexvelt is the planet of incest!  The Vexveltians are so healthy and rich because they are the only sane people in the galaxy; the incest taboo has made the rest of humanity insane and held them back.  The Vexveltians (and perhaps Sturgeon himself) claim that incest isn't really bad or unhealthy, and that the incest taboo is the cause of all the wars, revolutions, and various unhappinesses the human race has inflicted on itself and the environment for millennia.  Sturgeon doesn't just nibble at the edges of the issue or hint at it obliquely, he goes all the way with this unconventional (to say the least!) line of thought.

In some ways "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" reminded me of those Heinlein novels in which there is an adventure but Heinlein is largely trying to lay his (liberal?  libertarian?) social ideas on us.  (Heinlein, I recall, also seemed to think the incest taboo silly.)

"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is well-written, and it is certainly "dangerous," and while it is didactic and even sententious, the pro-incest speech only takes up a few pages, so it isn't burdensome.  Part of the story's appeal is its unusual subject matter and point of view; we've all heard environmentalist rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, Marxist chicanery, a thousand times, but how many times have we heard someone arguing in favor of incest, or blaming the incest taboo for all our social and political problems?  This material is still challenging, and isn't one reason we read SF to get exposed to new, different, crazy, wild, ideas?  Partly because it is so "out there," this is one of the better stories by Sturgeon, and I recommend it.

Sturgeon's Afterword to "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is also worth reading, shedding a little light on Sturgeon's life, his work process, and on the construction of Dangerous Visions itself; it is suggested that Ellison was "bitterly disappointed" with some of the submissions he received.  Presumably he wasn't disappointed in Sturgeon's story, which is both good and "dangerous."

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I was more impressed with these two stories than I was with "Killdozer" and especially "Slow Sculpture," so today Sturgeon's stock is a little higher in my book, which is a good feeling; I open the books I write about on this here blog with the hope of liking them, not execrating them. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hard Science Fiction Flashback: Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity and Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night

My copy looked like this.  I sold it.
There's a fun review of Hal Clement's 1953 Hard SF classic Mission of Gravity at the science fiction and fantasy book review blog From Couch to Moon.  Check it out!

I read Mission of Gravity in 2007, and while I can't disagree with any of the criticisms the reviewer at From Couch to Moon levels at the book, I think I enjoyed it more than she did.   On August 30 of 2007 I posted the following review (in which I fall into the its or it's trap) at amazon.com:
I read a 1950s hard cover of this Hal Clement novel, a sort of hard SF archetype well worth reading.

"Mission of Gravity" is suffused with what some might call a naive optimism about science and technology-- its like a love letter to physics and mechanical engineering. Lacking any literary pretensions, it is a straightforward account of how explorers deal with a series of technical challenges on a planet with a very unusual environment. Clement's fascination with science is infectious, and the book charmingly succeeds in accomplishing exactly what it set out to do; unlike some later hard SF novels which get loaded down with incompetent character development or boring philosophical digressions, Clement keeps his book lean and focused, and never tries to do something he isn't good at. A classic.
Someone who liked Mission of Gravity much more than I did is Thomas Disch.  I have been reading bits and pieces of Disch's 1998 book Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of over the last few weeks.  Much to my surprise, in the middle of this book, a book which seems to have been devised to offend every possible type of SF fan, I find Disch praising Mission of Gravity to the skies.  "When I first read Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, which ran as an Astounding serial in 1953, I thought it the best account of alien life on another planet that I'd ever read.  Forty-three years later my opinion has not changed."  Wow! Disch is full of surprises.       

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I think mine looked like this.  Also sold.
Hal Clement set out to write a SF book about science, and did just that, and I praised him for it.  I wrote my positive review of Mission of Gravity still smarting from my encounter with Gregory Benford's 1977 In the Ocean of Night.  I had read In the Ocean of Night in February of 2007, and in my opinion Benford's effort to include a lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in his hard SF tale was a total disaster.  I bitterly assaulted the book on February 18, 2007, on amazon.com thusly:

Entombed in this 420 page novel is a decent hard sf short story about Earth's first contact with robotic aliens. Unfortunately, Benford takes on the ambitious task of marrying his traditional space alien story with a literary story about human relationships and the meaning of life, a worthy project he is not equipped to bring to a successful conclusion. So, the interesting alien encounter plot is buried under hundreds of pages of tedious domestic drama (the main character, a British-born astronaut, has a menage a trois marriage, and one of the women is terminally ill) and political infighting (the astronaut is a Bob Dylan- and John Lennon-loving rebel who refuses to play the dishonest games of the warmongering bureaucrats and religious fanatics in the U.S. government.) Benford gets an "A" for effort as he unleashes literary allusions, unconventional prose techniques, and scads of metaphors and similies, and piles on chapter after chapter about the sex lives, religious beliefs, cocktail parties, drug use, day trips to the beach and vacations of the astronaut and his circle, but the characters are uninteresting and the only parts of the book that really work are those two or three dozen pages in which a character is in the cockpit of a space ship or Lunar craft. Too bad.
Gregory Benford was, from a literary point of view, more ambitious than Clement, but it seemed to me all the sex and other soap opera stuff just got in the way, and I was disappointed.

(For those scoring at home, my hostile review of Benford has netted 26 helpful votes out of 31 total votes, while my kind review of the Clement got 4 "helpfuls" out of 6 votes.)

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It was fun to think about these books again - thanks to From Couch to Moon for inspiring this little space trip down memory lane.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Three stories by Larry Niven: "Inconstant Moon," "The Hole Man," and "The Jigsaw Man"

The copy of Hugo Winners Volume 3 I bought for 10 cents at a public library book sale includes two stories by Larry Niven.  This week I read those two Hugo-winning stories and a third story, "The Jigsaw Man," which first appeared in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology, Dangerous Visions.


"Inconstant Moon" (1971)

In his introduction to "Inconstant Moon" Isaac Asimov talks about Niven's facial hair, and his own facial hair, as well as referring to Niven's famous speculations about Kal-El of Krypton's sex life.  Because Hugo winners are chosen by a vote of science fiction readers, and not Asimov himself, Asimov says he is not comfortable talking about the actual stories.  One has to assume he doesn't like some of the Hugo-winning stories; for example, it seems possible that Asimov would dismiss "Ill Met in Lankhmar," a Hugo Winner in 1971, as a story about criminals sword-fighting in a fairy land.  (That's not me talking; I love Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser.) 

"Inconstant Moon" is set in the "present day" and on its first page the protagonist, a science writer living in California, puts Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on the TV.  (I like Johnny Carson, and I like a lot of the comics of that older generation, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Danny Thomas, etc.  Even when they are not particularly funny, they all seem likable and mellow.  The comedians of my lifetime all seem to be bitter, angry, edgy, etc., so even when they are funny they are not endearing and watching them is not relaxing.)

The science writer notices that the moon is especially bright, brighter than he has ever seen.  When the moon continues to get brighter, he realizes that there must be some kind of solar catastrophe taking place; people on the other side of the Earth are no doubt being killed in the millions, and Americans will soon suffer the same fate.  He calls up a girlfriend, a computer programmer and astronomy buff, and they have to decide how to spend their last night on the Earth they have known all their lives.

This is a good story, and it is easy to see why it won the Hugo.  It is full of science and massages the sense of superiority of the science nerds who make up a sizable proportion of the SF crowd (most people in the story have no idea that the bright moon presages a holocaust, but the writer and programmer do and thus have several hours to prepare that the average Californian, due to his ignorance, lacks.)

People also love these cataclysmic stories and love being invited to place themselves in the story and wonder "how would I react to the end of the world as we know it?"  (Some of the earliest SF stories, like Wells' War of the Worlds and Shiel's The Purple Cloud, are about cataclysms and invite people to consider how they would act in like circumstances.  I haven't read it, but apparently Mary Shelly's 1826 The Last Man is also about life after an apocalypse.  It seems that the TV is full of post-apocalyptic programs; whenever my wife turns on the TV nowadays I see grey people in ragged grey clothes surrounded by grey rubble arguing or fighting.)

"The Hole Man" (1973)

Asimov in his introduction to this one says that "hard science fiction" is the kind of SF he likes best, and laments that it is mostly old timers like himself, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hal Clement who write it.  Asimov's definition of Hard SF is an SF story about science which includes a description of some scientific point.  He expresses relief that a young writer like Niven is continuing the Hard SF tradition.

"The Hole Man" is about astronauts discovering on Mars the abandoned base of alien astronauts.  The alien base includes a large machine, one of the components of which is a microscopic black hole.  (Our science lecture is on black holes today, class.)

Two of the astronauts don't get along, a genius physicist, Lear, who is absent-minded and out of shape, and the commander of the mission, Childney, an athletic type who meticulously follows the rules and tries to keep everything organized and efficient.  Childney is always poking fun at Lear's ideas, and punishes Lear when Lear's negligence almost leads to his own death.  Lear figures out how to murder Childney with the black hole and get away with it.

Like "Inconstant Moon" this is a good story which flatters the science nerd cadre within the SF community - it's a wish fulfillment fantasy in which the nerd kills the jock who laughed at him and is able to escape punishment because nobody is smart enough to convict him.  Also like "Inconstant Moon," "The Hole Man" includes some serious world shattering - not only is the discovery of the alien equipment and bodies going to shatter mankind's view of the universe (that's good world shattering), but the microscopic black hole is very likely to devour all of Mars within a few years (not so good.)  The fact that the nerd has not only killed the jock but committed a crime against science (even if you don't care about Mars the planet, the alien base and many of its valuable artifacts are going to get destroyed) increases the moral ambiguity of the story.  The typical SF reader is much more like Lear than Childney, and it is clever of Niven to sort of dare us to stand in solidarity with Lear who commits murder and the biggest act of vandalism in history.

"The Jigsaw Man" (1967)

I read "The Jigsaw Man" in a library copy of the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions.  (The Des Moines Public Library has the version with the Michael Whelan cover.)  Like so many recent books, the 2002 portions contain embarrassing typos; Asimov's name is spelled incorrectly on page xvi, and on one of the unnumbered pages before the title page Fritz Leiber's story is called "Gonna Roll Them Bones" instead of "Gonna Roll the Bones."  I've been noticing lots of similar errors in Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: Gene Wolfe, Edmond Hamilton, and Stephen King all have their names misspelled in the course of that book.  Are recent books really as poorly edited as I think, or have books always been this way?  Well, I guess this is just a pet peeve of mine which signifies little.

Ellison and Niven seem to have a great relationship; not only does Ellison have nice things to say about Niven in his introduction to "The Jigsaw Man," but on a page devoted to expressing gratitude to those who have helped him make Dangerous Visions a reality, Niven receives "very special thanks for service way above and beyond...."  What did Niven do to support Dangerous Visions?  I do not know.

(UPDATE APRIL 1 2014: In the comments ukjarry points out how Niven helped out Ellison and Dangerous Visions.)

"Jigsaw Man" is just an average story, not as good (in my opinion) as "Inconstant Moon" or "The Hole Man."  Its premise is that when transplanting body parts becomes routine there will be a strong incentive for the voters to support extending the death penalty to even the most minor crimes, in order to provide opportunities to harvest the organs of relatively young people.  There is a gory action-adventure plot, but the story is too didactic for my tastes.  The astronomy lectures in "Inconstant Moon" and "The Hole Man"are brief and well-integrated into the story; in "Jigsaw Man" the sociology/political science lecture is the main point and the work of fiction about the guy who gets the death sentence for running red lights and tries to escape from the skyscraper prison feels sort of tacked on.

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I enjoyed the Hugo-wining stories, which combine planet wrecking with some human drama, but the Dangerous Visions story was just OK.  I just bought a paperback copy of N-Space, a 1990 collection of Niven stories and SF gossip, so I have more Niven shorts in my future.        

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three Stories by Cordwainer Smith: "Game of Rat and Dragon," "Scanners Live in Vain," & "No, No, Not Rogov!"

My recent reading of "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A turned me on to Cordwainer Smith.  So I investigated SFFAudio's PDF page and dug through my books and found three Smith stories, "Game of Rat and Dragon," "Scanners Live in Vain," and "No, No, Not Rogov!"

"Game of Rat and Dragon" (1955)

This story first appeared in the October '55 issue of Galaxy, and I read that original magazine version, available at SFFAudio, complete with the illustrations by Hunter, which are not bad.

"Game of Rat and Dragon" is about space travel, and I wonder if this story was the inspiration for some of the space travel stuff in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000  universe.  Interstellar travel is achieved by a series of "jumps" or "skips."  Unfortunately, "underneath space itself" live malicious and voracious psychic entities who will devour people's minds whenever they have a chance.  These creatures can kill people or drive them insane right through the hull of a space ship, but they cannot abide bright light - for this reason they are never encountered within the solar system; the sun's rays, within that range, are too much for them.  Ships are vulnerable to attack during the middle stages of a space voyage, in the blackness of deep space.

The story is a description of mankind's response to these monsters.  Telepaths connected to an apparatus can detect the creatures and detonate explosives that generate a flash of light powerful enough to destroy them, but the monsters move rapidly, and can often exterminate a space ship's crew before the telepath can kill them.  So human telepaths work in concert with cat telepaths, cats being natural predators with quicker reflexes than humans.  The twist or "zing" of the story is that the human telepaths can develop a close relationship with their feline partners, which can become an obstacle to developing relationships with other humans - the main character of the 19-page story laments that he won't be likely to find a human woman who has the good qualities exhibited by one of the cat psychics he has worked, while women he meets openly, jealously, resent his abilities and relationships with cats. (This is the second Cordwainer Smith story I've read in which a human has a sort of love relationship with a feline.)

"Game of Rat and Dragon" is a fun entertaining tale, a little above average with a very cool premise.

"Scanners Live in Vain" (1950)   

"Scanners Live in Vain" was first published in the sixth issue of Fantasy Book, a "semi-pro zine," but would achieve wider exposure when it appeared in an anthology edited by Frederick Pohl and then the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

The story certainly deserved to be included in the Hall of Fame; it is a great story.  I can't believe I read it at Rutgers in 1990 and was not impressed by it.  Maybe I didn't actually read it, just heard it discussed in class.  Or maybe I'm a different person than I was then.

"Scanners Live in Vain" depicts a crazy world full of crazy people, but despite how crazy everything is, you care about the people in the story and what happens to them.

In the universe Smith depicts, travel in space inflicts on people a terrible pain and a desire to die.  If you stay asleep, in a special chamber, you can escape this pain and death wish, but of course if you are asleep you can't manage the ship.  To crew space ships criminals are given an operation which separates their brains from their body parts, eliminating every sense but sight, and diminishing the pain and death wish so they can do work on the ship.  This is called the Haberman process, named after its inventor, and the space sailors are called habermen.  The habermen's bodily functions are managed by implanted mechanical parts with exposed controls; at one point in the story a haberman is hyperventilating and a friend reaches over and turns a knob to slow his respiration.  Severed from their bodies, these space crewmen don't feel or hear or taste; they move about clumsily, only able to speak haltingly and communicating by reading lips and through an elaborate sign language of bold gestures.

Habermen who are severely wounded might not even notice, so somebody has to be around to take care of them.  These are the Scanners, volunteers who go through the Haberman process but are also provided with additional scanning equipment.  Scanners accompany the habermen on the space ships and use their devices to keep an eye on the ordinary habermen and repair them if they get damaged.  Scanners when off duty are permitted to periodically use a device that reconnects their brains with their bodies, so they can for short periods enjoy food, music, smells, and sex.

The plot of the story shows what happens when an inventor discovers a way to protect humans from the horrible pain of space.  All of a sudden the habermen and scanners are out of a job.  Rather than face the fact that their sacrifice of bodily feeling was pointless, the scanners try to murder the inventor before his invention can be presented to the rulers of mankind.  But one scanner betrays his comrades and maintains a greater loyalty, a loyalty to mankind and to the law, and tries to prevent the murder.

"Scanners Live in Vain" is a terrific story, a real SF classic.  It does expertly so many of the things that we often want science fiction to do, like depicting a strange world with advanced technology that is going through a revolutionary change, and also has emotional human elements and action/adventure suspense elements.  Very fine.

"No, No, Not Rogov!" (1959)

This one appeared first in If.  I read it in my copy of Hartwell and Cramer's Ascent of Wonder.

Most of "No, No, Not Rogov!" does not take place in the far future.  Instead, it is about Soviet scientists in the 1940s.  Rogov, one of the greatest minds in the Communist world, and his wife, another genius scientist, are allocated vast resources by Stalin to develop technologies to help defeat Nazi Germany and later the capitalist West.  They come up with a device which can receive brain waves.  In theory, one can hook up to the machine (by having an electric needle inserted through the skull into the brain, ouch) and then see and hear what another person, even thousands of miles away, sees and hears.  Experiments on unwilling prisoners who are well aware they will be executed to maintain security are not working out satisfactorily, so Rogov goes under the needle himself.

Somehow, the device tunes in on a person from 12,000 years in the future, and Rogov witnesses a musical and dance performance of the future.  The performance, the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution and influence from many sophisticated alien cultures, is so beautiful, so transcendent, it blows Rogov's mind and renders him useless to his Soviet masters.

Like "Game of Rat and Dragon," "No, No, Not Rogov!" is a fun entertaining tale with a neat premise; a little above average, but not spectacular.

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Three worthwhile stories, one in the top rank.  I will definitely keep my eyes open for opportunities to read more Cordwainer Smith stories.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Science Fiction Hall of Fame 2A Strikes Again: Campbell, Del Rey, and C. Smith

Having decided that I should be familiar with every story in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A, over the last few days I read three of the included novellas, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., "Nerves" by Lester Del Rey, and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainer Smith.  I had never read these stories before.

"Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

I've known about this famous 1938 story, the basis of several films, almost all my life, but I've never read it.  I was relieved to find it more sophisticated than the two space operas I read by Campbell, The Ultimate Weapon and Invaders from the Infinite (links lead to my 2011 Amazon reviews of these epics of space naval warfare, reviews which are not exactly brimming over with love.)  The story includes some level of suspense and human feeling, and doesn't feel long and repetitive.

"Who Goes There?" is a pretty traditional hard science fiction story.  It stars a bunch of scientists and a hostile alien with telepathy and other powers, contains lots of science lectures and experiments, includes a puzzle the scientists have to figure out using logic and their lab equipment, and in the end the human race is not only saved from extermination, but technology captured from the alien (including anti-gravity) will change human life forever, opening up to us a brilliant new future.  There is some brutal fighting, both with guns and hand to hand (hand to tentacle?), but the emphasis of the story is on the suspenseful puzzle: some of the scientists are in fact aliens in disguise, so the real humans have to figure out a way to identify each other and the monsters, and they have to do it fast, before the aliens outnumber the humans.

I like the Heinlein, Anderson and Kuttner & Moore inclusions better, but this is a solid piece of work and I don't begrudge its presence in the Hall of Fame.

1976 edition of Nerves
"Nerves" by Lester Del Rey

I started "Nerves"with some trepidation.  For weeks or months there was a copy of the 1976 paperback of the novel Nerves on the collectible paperbacks spinner rack at the Half Price Books I frequent, and I became pretty familiar with the cover.  The cover illustration makes Nerves look like a medical drama, and medical dramas do not interest me.  When I hear somebody say "50 ccs" or "STAT" I fall asleep. 

The version of "Nerves" in Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A is the 1942 version, and is over 60 pages long.  It tells the story of middle-aged Dr. Ferrel, who was once the finest surgeon in the world and is now getting a little fat, and the young new doctor, Dr. Jenkins.  Ferrel and Jenkins work at an atomic factory whose products include atomic insecticide (the boll weevil doesn't stand a chance!) and fuel for atomic vehicles.  There is an accident at one of the converters, an uncontrolled reaction that continually sprays magma and radioactive debris everywhere and threatens to blow up everything in a fifty mile radius.  Ferrel, Jenkins, and the nurses, who include Jenkins's wife, fueled by tobacco, booze, and caffeine tablets, work for untold hours on the scores of casualties, injecting curare, salving radiation burns, stitching up wounds, extracting radioactive fragments, etc.  When the genius Japanese scientist who is managing the accident scene gets appendicitis, Ferrel has to put on armor and hop into a tank and drive into the radioactive inferno to help rescue Jorgenson, the only other scientist in the country who can figure out what has gone wrong and how to fix it.

Ferrell hacks open Jorgenson's chest and then he and the Jenkins couple spend page after page massaging Jorgenson's heart.  When Jorgenson is revived he only has enough energy to provide a brief clue...luckily Jenkins is a sort of amateur expert on atomics because his father ran his own atomics factory.  Jenkins deciphers the clue and saves the factory, the atomics industry, and the U S economy.

This story feels long and slow, and failed to excite any feeling in me for the doctors, scientists or factory workers.  In many ways it is like those Campbell space operas I mentioned above, the best scientists in the field figuring out how to solve a complex problem in a race against the clock.  The big difference (for me) is that I find space war inherently interesting, and being a surgeon in a factory inherently boring.

"Nerves" is just an average melodrama, which is one reason why I wonder how it got into the Hall of Fame.  The other reason I don't understand why "Nerves" is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame is that its science fiction content is pretty light.  One hears complaints that many "science fiction" stories are just war stories or westerns or detective stories set in space or on another planet.  I think "Nerves" is vulnerable to the charge that it is just a medical drama set in an atomic factory.  Couldn't a very similar medical drama have been set in a munitions plant or an automobile factory? 

"Nerves" is an OK story, but I don't think it really belongs in Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A.

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainer Smith  

I'm not at all familiar with Cordwainer Smith's work.  I know I read "Scanners Live in Vain" in college for the class I took on science fiction (Spring 1990), but it made little impression on me.

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" takes place on Earth in a building 25 kilometers tall, far far in the future.  Mankind has colonized the universe, and created a society so affluent that crime, war, and poverty, among humans, are virtually unknown.  But living on Earth are also the "underpeople," people much like humans, but derived from animals.  The underpeople must work to make money to pay for food, shelter and so forth, like people of "ancient" times, and are subject to summary, arbitrary justice and oppression at the hands of humans.

C'Mell is a beautiful woman whose ancestors were derived from cats, who works as a sort of hostess or geisha, making visitors to Earth comfortable and welcome.  The plot of this 18 page story from 1962 concerns C'Mell's relationship with one of the rulers of the universe, Lord Jestocost.  Jestocost believes the underpeople should be on an equal legal footing with true humans.  C'Mell becomes a telepathic conduit between Jestocost and the leader of an underpeople revolutionary movement; Jentocost hopes by working with this leader that he can help reform human-underpeople relations without resort to violence.  C'Mell falls in love with Jentocost, but this is a love that cannot be consummated.

This is a good story, the setting and characters interesting and satisfying.  The story is also economical, conjuring up arresting images and feelings without superfluous verbiage.  There have been many SF stories about oppressed minorities or underclasses with special powers, but to me this one felt fresh.

It appears that most or all of Smith's SF work is set in the same universe, and that Smith (real name Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) had an exciting career in academia and in various parts of the US defense establishment.  I will definitely seek out more of his stories; hopefully they will be as good as "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell."

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As of today I have read every novella in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A.  (I read Wells' Time Machine, Williamson's With Folded Hands, and Russell's ...And Then There Were None years ago.)  I am certainly glad to have more knowledge of what the pro SF writers of the early 1970s thought were the "classics"of their field.  And I am looking forward to becoming better acquainted with Cordwainer Smith's work.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Two early 1950s short stories by C. M. Kornbluth: "The Altar at Midnight" and "The Adventurer"

On March 12 of this year I explained why I avoid Cyril Kornbluth's work and panned his famous and influential story "The Marching Morons."  But I try to keep an open mind at this here blog, so today I read two more Kornbluth stories, both available for free to all us cheapskates at gutenberg.org.  The gutenberg versions are the original magazine versions, and include the original art by Freas and Ashman.

"The Altar at Midnight" (1952)  

This is sort of a hard-boiled story set in the Skid Row of some Earth town.  The narrator meets a spaceship crew member in a strip bar and takes him to a different bar, one inhabited by crippled drunks who enjoy telling the stories of how they were crippled working for the railroad.  The spacer explains how the regular changes in air pressure and the hard radiation in space have damaged his body, how being a spacer is risky, gets you involved in trouble with women, damages relationships with your family, weakens your religious faith, coarsens your morals, etc.  It turns out that the narrator is the scientist who made space travel possible.  He feels guilty about his accomplishment, because of how rough space travel is on people and (it is hinted) because Earth's Cold War tensions have spread to the moon (where there is some kind of missile base) and maybe Mars and Venus.  

The story is short and to the point, which I appreciated.  Its pessimism about space travel reminded me of Murray Leinster's Other Side of Nowhere (1964) and Edmond Hamilton's "What's it Like Out There?", also published in 1952.  Then there is the story's bleak view of the railroad.  It is remarkable how many science fiction writers and stories express ambiguous or even hostile attitudes towards technological advances - in just the last few days I read L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (1940), in which he blamed modern war on "machinery," and of course there are many more examples, even before talk about pollution and ecology and the environment became de rigueur around 1970.  

"The Altar at Midnight" is an effective story, even if you aren't some kind of Luddite who thinks that the locomotive and rocket ship were a mistake.  It is economical, the tone is consistent, and the style is not bad.  It is no great masterpiece, but it is worth reading.

"The Adventurer" (1953)

In the future the United States (called "the Republic") is a tyrannical hereditary monarchy, wracked by coup attempts and fights among the elite over succession, perhaps reminiscent of the struggles for succession we see in the Roman Empire.  The United States is still locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union; this conflict has extended out into the solar system, including on Io, which is half Soviet and half Republican.  The story follows events in Washington among the politicians and on Io, where a shooting war breaks out and a charismatic young officer becomes a hero.  Like Caesar or Napoleon, the young man turns on the Republic and makes himself ruler.  It is revealed that his rise was engineered by patriotic conspirators who wanted to end the current political system, but instead of embracing the conspirators, the young officer, who declares himself a god, has them all executed.

This story seems pointless.  The satirical elements, the adventure elements, and the trick ending elements are all weak.  Was Kornbluth just projecting a silly romantic theory of history (that on occasion great men rise up to take over and revive moribund empires) onto the future in order to ridicule it?      

Embedded in the story is an interesting idea, a future art form whose main focus is not line or form or color or composition (as in a painting or sculpture) but texture; one doesn't appreciate these art objects primarily by looking at them but instead by touching them.  I guess this is maybe a joke, perhaps an ironic reference to money (the art objects are called "fingering pieces") but I found it the most memorable part of a weak story.

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So, one average story and one poor story.  There is a third Kornbluth piece available at gutenberg, The Syndic, but it is a full length novel and I'm not feeling up to it after the almost useless "The Adventurer."  The Syndic in 1986 received a Prometheus Award for being a "Classic Libertarian SF novel," which is intriguing, so I will probably read it someday, but not today.   

Three 1970s Hugo Winners: Leiber, Sturgeon, Lafferty

My copy, complete with limerick
In 1977 Doubleday published The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, edited by Isaac Asimov, which includes some Hugo-winning tales from 1970 to 1975.  Recently I acquired a copy of the hardcover book, and yesterday I read three of the stories contained therein, stories I had never read before by authors with whom I have some familiarity.

"Ship Of Shadows" by Fritz Leiber

"Ship of Shadows" first appeared in the July 1969 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a special issue dedicated to celebrating Fritz Leiber.  In his introduction to the novella, Isaac Asimov tells the bizarre story of how his incredible negligence led to "Ship of Shadows" being left out of The Hugo Winners: Volume 2, which was published in 1971.  Asimov treats this as a big joke, even though it seems like Leiber lost money and exposure due to Asimov's and the publisher's inexcusable lapse.  Asimov tells us he doesn't fly and dislikes travel in general, and one of the lame excuses he offers for forgetting about "Ship of Shadows" is that he didn't attend the convention at which the novella won its Hugo because it took place in Europe.

"Ship of Shadows" takes place in a huge space ship in which live hundreds of people.  It is a zero gee environment, and everybody is pulling themselves along lines, sleeping with their ankles tied to shrouds, drinking from plastic bags, etc.  The main character has no knowledge of gravity, and is puzzled by drawings he sees in which women's hair hangs straight down instead of floating in a cloud.

The main character is Spar, the helper in a bar where the less wealthy customers drink booze out of a tube, paying for each second the bar keep, Keeper, opens up the valve.  Spar has terrible eyesight, has no teeth, and has some sort of brain injury or memory loss.  In the grand science fiction tradition we see in Heinlein's Universe, Aldiss's Non-Stop, and Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, Spar doesn't realize he is on a space ship, and thinks the ship encompasses the entire universe.  Following that same tradition, over the course of the 50 page tale Spar learns the truth about the ship and about himself and becomes a leader in the effort to improve life for people on the ship.  The plot follows a sort of crime story format, with an organized crime villain, authorities incompetent to stop him, and a violent vengeful climax.

"Ship of Shadows" is a pretty good story: all the science fiction elements work, the crime story elements work, the pacing is good, and the characters and their relationships make sense and are interesting.  Hugo well deserved.      

"Slow Sculpture" by Theodore Sturgeon

"Slow Sculpture" was published in the February 1970 issue of Galaxy, which, based on its cover, appears to be a special issue dedicated to celebrating the beauty of the female form.

In his introduction to the story Asimov brags that he convinced Sturgeon's wife to quit smoking, and advertises his books of "lecherous limericks."  Then he reproduces a limerick he sang at the convention at which "Slow Sculpture" won its Hugo (this convention was in Boston, so Asimov needn't take a plane to get there.)  This limerick, about a stripper who gave birth to a child out of wedlock, "got the biggest laugh of the evening," we are told, but was not lecherous enough to be included in one of Asimov's volumes of limericks.  Note well, Asimov limerick completists, you will need a copy of The Hugo Winners: Volume 3 in your collections.


"Slow Sculpture" is one of those stories about a super genius who has figured out how to make nonpolluting cars and how to cure cancer and a dozen other super awesome things but is prevented by establishment conspiracies and the stupidity of the common people from saving the world with his inventions.  The story is full of boring lectures.

The "slow sculpture" of the title is a reference to the bonsai.  The super genius has a super sized bonsai tree, and a pretty girl whose cancer he cures uses the bonsai as an allegory for how smart people like the genius should shape society; the bonsai gardener shapes his bonsai subtly, sneakily, slowly, and the cognitive elite should learn to shape humanity the same way.

The people who like this kind of story and voted for "Slow Sculpture" to get a Hugo presumably identified with the genius who we are told should be manipulating our society the way a gardener manipulates his garden.  Those of us who are not geniuses but are clever enough to realize that we would be the garden in this scheme would not have voted for it.

Even if you think scientists should secretly run our society you should realize that this story has little plot (the plot is: genius heals girl physically then girl heals genius psychologically and they fall in love) or feeling or character development.  Hugo mistake.

"Eurema's Dam" by R. A. Lafferty

Asimov's intro for this one is about how he was surprised when he met Lafferty to find that Lafferty was already middle-aged.

"Eurema's Dam" originally appeared in a 1972 anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, New Dimensions II.

The first page of this 12 page story made me laugh, which was a relief after reading "Slow Sculpture," which, if you didn't notice, irritated me.  As fate would have it, this story, like "Slow Sculpture," is also about a genius inventor who can't deal with women and figures out how to end pollution!  And yet, "Eurema's Dam" is amusing and enjoyable.  The world is full of such mysteries!

As with a lot of his writing, Lafferty doesn't bother making "Eurema's Dam" believable; this is a ridiculous tall tale full of jokes and violence.  I laughed numerous times.  Well deserved Hugo.

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Two out of three isn't bad.  I will probably read more of the stories included in  The Hugo Winners: Volume 3 in the near future.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard

Lots of people are down on L. Ron Hubbard, and it is easy to see why.  The psychological theories and religion he made up seem like an even more transparent scam than the psychological theories and religions most people believe in.  The extravagant praise of his followers is also a little off putting, and there are probably people who find his politics objectionable (as I recall, his Mission Earth series was a broad and merciless satire of almost every aspect of modern American life.)

Still, I read the first half of Battlefield Earth and the first half of Mission Earth when they were new, when I was in my teens, and thought they were fun.  Not good enough for me to read all 1,000 pages or whatever it was of either, but good enough to read 500 pages or so of each.  And so when people say Hubbard is horrible I am apt to defend him, arguing that he is not horrible, just mediocre.

In his introduction to Angry Candy, Harlan Ellison praises Hubbard's writing and lists some books of Hubbard's he enjoyed, including Final Blackout and To The Stars.  I managed to get my hands on library copies of these two books, and first read 1940's Final Blackout in its 1989 edition, which includes an introduction by Algis Budrys.  

Published before American entry in World War II, Final Blackout is set in a Western Europe in which the war has lasted for decades and civilization has been almost totally destroyed.  Aircraft and even artillery have ceased operation because there is no longer any industrial base to maintain or supply them.  War and the resulting plagues have destabilized all governments and revolutions and coups break out regularly in London, Berlin, and Moscow; as the book starts Communists are in power in England while Czarists have thrown over the Bolsheviks and are in charge in Russia.  Disease and biological warfare agents have destroyed most agricultural crops and depopulated most of the world, and the British Isles are under a strict quarantine; the British Army units on the Continent are forbidden to return home.

The protagonist of the novel is the unnamed "Lieutenant," a British Army officer.  Casualties have been so heavy and replacements so few that he commands an entire brigade, but his brigade consists of less than 200 men, and is an amalgam of soldiers from many Allied nations: Britain, Poland, France, etc.  There is very little communication between governments and their small depleted armies, and these armies have mostly ceased pursuing large strategic objectives and now cross the ruined countryside on foot seeking enough food to survive while avoiding the most radioactive and plague-ridden spots.  The Lieutenant is skilled in tactics and a talented leader, and has managed to keep his men alive and well fed and they admire, even worship, him.

The plot of the book consists mostly of the Lieutenant and his men traveling around, meeting and outwitting one foe after another.  The Lieutenant succeeds because he is smarter and more experienced than his opponents, tricking them, out thinking them, out maneuvering them.  Hubbard's writing style isn't great, merely acceptable.  Hubbard doesn't achieve much in the way of tone and doesn't evoke much emotion.  You don't get too involved with the characters, and the story progresses pretty methodically, without much tension or excitement; because the battles are resolved via trickery there isn't much in the way of blood and guts thrills.

Cover of edition I read
The politics of the book are largely what you might expect.  The men and officers who fight on the front lines have contempt for the politicians back in England and the staff officers and rear echelon troops stationed in an impregnable fortress (General Headquarters) in the rear, close to the Channel.  The Lieutenant has no patience for Communists or Socialists, and refuses to follow political orders from Communist Party officials (like the order to set up workers' councils among his soldiers.)  When his superiors try to take away his command and disperse his brigade among their own units, the Lieutenant turns the tables on them, stealing their best troops and then returning to England to overthrow the Communist Party and make himself ruler of England's population, which is now less than one million.

It is pretty common for people to be against socialism, and to be skeptical of politicians and high level military officials.  Where Hubbard's politics are unusual and remarkable is not in what he opposes, but what he advocates.  Rather than arguing in favor of some creed or system in opposition to socialism, like democracy and/or free enterprise, Hubbard expresses opposition to all creeds and systems.  Final Blackout seems to be romanticizing personal rule based on a mutual devotion between a charismatic leader and a grateful public, as well as the simple life he envisages was led by people in pre-industrial society.  

Once in charge of England and Wales, the Lieutenant rebuilds society in a feudal form, with an honest aristocracy committed to the welfare of the common people.  There are no elections or judges or anything like that - the lieutenant resolves issues on the fly, he's a sort of benevolent dictator.  There is no money or banking, either.

After a few years of this utopian situation a super high tech submarine/aircraft carrier arrives from the United States.  The USA, which participated less and suffered less from the war, has recovered from the plagues and now its Socialist Party government is looking for some place to send its surplus population and production.  The Americans are hoping to make a colony out of England, and expect the English will welcome all their high technology.

The Lieutenant thinks that it was modern machinery and overpopulation which led to war in the first place, by causing unemployment and reliance on the welfare state, and so he has no interest in American equipment, supplies or settlers.  The English, who lack any aircraft or antiaircraft weapons, are at the mercy of the Americans, so the Lieutenant sacrifices himself in one final trick, a bid to preserve the low-population low-tech kingdom he has built and which he feels is the ideal society.

Final Blackout is an acceptable entertainment, and the setting is interesting, but there is nothing special about its style or plot or ideas to make it stand out.  (It is very strange to read the introductory matter in this edition which compares Hubbard and Final Blackout favorably to H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt and Isaac Asimov, all of whom have distinctive styles and ideas.)  Final Blackout is not offensively bad, just mediocre, like Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth, and thankfully, unlike those colossal 1980s books, Final Blackout is quite short.
       

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Three more "Extreme Visions" from Redshift: Sarrantonio, Niven, Haldeman

Calibrate the Extremometer!  It's time to check out three more stories from Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, the 2001 anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio which seeks to (according to the jacket) "revolutionize and galvanize the field of speculative fiction."  I liked the three stories I read last time I cracked open Redshift, let's hope I have another positive experience.  

"Billy the Fetus" by Al Sarrantonio

I decided to read Sarrantonio's story to get a sense of what kind of work he was hoping to receive when he sent out his call for "extreme" stories which would "expand the science fiction field."  This is the first story by Sarrantonio I have ever read.

"Billy the Fetus" is a first person narrative written from the point of view of a fetus.  Reflecting the limited educational opportunities available to fetuses, our protagonist Billy has deplorable grammar.  ("Soon as I growed ears I heered things.")  Billy's mother is promiscuous, and Billy gets the idea that the penis of one of her sex partners is a weapon that is trying to kill him.  So, Billy grabs the umbilical cord in his hands (which, he tells us, still look like flippers) and tears it, then leaps out of the womb into the outside world to do battle with his supposed enemy.  He grabs up a convenient revolver and shoots his mother's inamorato.  When "Mammy" expresses unexpected indignation, Billy decides he's not ready for the world and returns to his mother's womb.  He brings the pistol with him; he plans to use it to defend himself should anybody "come in after" him.

What can you say about such a story?  It is "extreme," I'll give it that.  I didn't actually laugh, but I guess it is kind of funny.  Joe R. Landsdale in his introduction calls the story "brave" and its prose "magnificent."  Well... OK.  It's short (between 4 and 5 pages) and it is not bad, and it is definitely original, so I guess it is worth your time.  It isn't an obvious pro- or anti-abortion story, which is what I had expected; somehow the joke on "Billy the Kid" didn't occur to me until I was almost finished with the brief tale.

"Ssoroghod's People" by Larry Niven

I don't really think of Larry Niven as the kind of guy who pens "extreme" stories.  Niven's Ringworld, Integral Trees, Smoke Ring, and Mote In God's Eye, which he co-wrote with Jerry Pournelle, all of which I have reread as an adult over a decade after reading them in my teens, are full of interesting ideas, but I thought them average or mediocre in the style and character departments.

Niven is a prolific writer, so even though I have read lots of his work (besides the novels listed above, I read Oath of Fealty, Footfall, Legacy of Heorot, and Ptaavs in my youth) I had never heard of Draco's Tavern before. "Ssoroghod's People" is a Draco's Tavern story.

This story is about as short as "Billy the Fetus," but it is giving me a very low reading on the Extremometer.  An alien who is over a million years old comes in to the tavern and tells the story of how she watched a civilization rise over the course of millenia, then destroy itself with risky manipulation of its genes.  The story seems to be Niven warning humanity to not tinker with its DNA; or, if it must, to confine such experiments to isolated labs, like on the moon.

"Ssoroghod's People" is fine, but I have the feeling I will soon forget it.    

"Road Kill" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman is the kind of guy I would expect to write an "extreme" story.  Even if I'm not keen on their collectivist politics, I think Forever War is a great novel and I also really liked Mindbridge.  Haldeman's style, in those novels at least, is "literary," and reflects thinking about life, psychology, society, etc.  Those are also good adventure stories about going into space and dealing with aliens.  Haldeman seems like the kind of guy who, in response to Sarrantonio's call, could write a story which would use surprise or shock to get me to change my way of thinking about some big issue.

"Road Kill" is a description of a movie; maybe it counts as a "treatment."  (I don't really know what constitutes a treatment.)  The movie in the story really does sound like one of those serial killer movies like "Seven," which is the only serial killer movie I think I've watched in its entirety.  A huge fat guy murders joggers and cyclists in secluded woods, a rich guy hires a Desert Storm vet to look for the killer.  The killer is a sci-fi fan and claims to be an alien shipwrecked on the Earth.  We witness him torture and mutilate numerous people before he is finally brought to justice.

This story is like 6 or 7 pages, and I think the best of the three I have read today.  But is it "extreme?"  It doesn't seem to be expressing some point of view on some big issue.  I doubt we can consider the gore extreme in the post splatterpunk era.  ("Seven" and all that Hannibal Lector business was years before Redshift.)  Writing the story as a movie treatment seems like a novel idea, but I think Barry Malzberg did something like that years ago, though I can't recall in what book.  If the story is meant to be a criticism of gruesome Hollywood movies and/or SF fans or the view of SF held by people outside the dedicated SF community, maybe that is sort of extreme(?)

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Let's rank the six stories I've read from Redshift.  The stories have fallen into three groups in each of the two categories; differences within the groups are minor and perhaps illusory.  The Wolfe, Disch and Haldeman stories are all approximately equally good and equally "extreme."

             Is It Good?                                          Is It Extreme?
Best      What We Did.... (Koja & Malz.)        What We Did... (K & M)        Extreme!
                                                                         Billy the Fetus (Sarrantonio)
             Viewpoint (Wolfe)                                                
Good    Road Kill (Haldeman)                        Viewpoint (Wolfe)                             
             In Xanadu (Disch)                              In Xanadu (Disch)      Somewhat Extreme
                                                                         Road Kill (Haldeman)                                   
Avrge  Ssoroghod's People (Niven)
            Billy the Fetus (Sarrantonio)               Ssoroghod's People (N)  Not Extreme 

If this sample is representative, Sarrantonio has done a good job; none of the stories was poor, and 5 out of 6 have recognizably extreme elements.

Redshift includes 30 stories; it is possible I will read more of them. 

 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unsafe as Houses: "Mad House" and "Slaughter House" by Richard Matheson

Like everybody, I love Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend and his short story "Drink My Blood," and Stephen Spielberg's brilliant TV movie, "Duel," for which Matheson wrote the screenplay.  My wife liked the book and film of What Dreams May Come, neither of which I have yet experienced.  Matheson is a good writer with a broad appeal who deserves his wide popularity and critical acclaim.

Today I read two Matheson stories which first appeared in magazines in 1953, "Mad House," in the Orb trade paperback edition of I Am Legend (1997), and "Slaughter House," in Volume 2 of Gauntlet Press's Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (2005).


"Mad House"

The style of this story, which appeared in Fantastic, is very good, immediate and powerful.  It is the story of Chris, a failed writer with a failed marriage, who teaches English at a small college whose students he hates.  Chris is prone to fits of rage, and we witness him become infuriated when he has problems with pencil leads breaking and typewriter keys jamming.  We learn that he has quite unfairly lashed out at his wife and his students; his behavior is in fact abusive, even villainous.

Matheson does a great job with all the realistic broken dreams, marital strife, crummy job stuff.  At the same time that we can't fail to deplore his abuse of others, it is easy to sympathize with Chris, who was so hopeful in his youth but lacks something (maybe focus, or drive, or talent) that was needed if he was to achieve his dreams.  I think we have all had at least an inkling of that in our lives, and we have all been irritated by little things like razors slipping and cabinets that are stuck and so forth.

The "fantastic" element of the story is that Chris's anger infects the house in which he lives, bringing the house and its furniture to evil life.  The aura of Chris's wife, who is a decent person, keeps the house somewhat balanced and peaceful, but, when she leaves Chris, the house and furniture attack and kill him.

In some ways this story is similar to Matheson's classic "Prey," in that it includes unhappy human relationships and then a fight between a person and an inanimate object or objects.  Maybe it is just me, but I found the supernatural part and the combat portions of "Prey" more convincing and exciting than those in "Mad House."  In "Prey" a doll in the shape of a warrior, made by some primitive tribe and filled with the spirit of some ruthless hunter, comes to life and fights a woman; in the end of the story the spirit of the hunter escapes the doll and enters the woman herself and we have every reason to believe the woman is now going to murder her mother and maybe other people.  In "Mad House" the spirit of the angry man enters furniture and he is killed in a gory fight against pencils, curtains, a bookshelf, etc.  I almost think "Mad House" could have worked better as a conventional story, without any, or maybe with much less, of the supernatural stuff, as well as less hand to hand combat with desks, dental floss, and all the rest.

"Mad House" is good, but pales beside the author's later "Prey."

"Slaughter House"

Two artistic brothers in their 20s buy and move into an old Victorian house full of Edwardian furniture which has no electricity, no TV, no radio.  Sounds like a paradise!  Is there an extra room for me, guys?

Our narrator is the older brother.  These brothers are very close, so close that when they were kids their schoolmates called them "the Siamese Twins."  The narrator talks about how his younger brother, Saul, is handsome, has beautiful eyes.  At one point Saul is sick and the narrator strokes his hair; it seems that they eat every meal together and enter each others' rooms without knocking.  Matheson really seems to be infusing the story with a homoerotic/incestuous subtext. 

All day Saul paints and the narrator writes, but then something goes wrong.  Saul is suddenly short with his brother, inattentive, starts looking a little unkempt and ill.  The narrator is heart broken that his brother doesn't seem to love him any more.

Matheson's horror stories are not just about monsters or supernatural creatures, but are about the real life fears ordinary people have.  (Robert Bloch suggests this is the key to Matheson's success in a blurb on the back of my edition of the Collected Stories: Volume 2.)  "Slaughter House" is about how a woman can interfere in the relationship between two male friends or, as in this case, brothers. This is a phenomenon with which I have personal experience; before we got involved with women, my brother and I, in our teens, would spend untold hours playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons or computer games like "Doom," and "Telengard," hanging around listening to Led Zeppelin CDs or watching Hammer movies together.  Once women entered our lives, we almost never saw each other.  My brother even referred to this issue in his toast at my wedding (you can believe this did not go over well with my bride.)

It turns out that Saul is in love, or in lust, with the ghost of Clarissa Slaughter, an earlier inhabitant of the old house whose portrait the brothers have not moved from its prominent place.  Saul dances with the ghost woman, and, apparently, has sex with her.  When the narrator interrupts Saul's dancing, Saul assaults his brother.  Saul is wounded in the fight and sent to the hospital.  Clarissa then seduces the narrator.  Clarissa only appears at night, and the narrator begins to hate the day and sunlight.  Then Saul comes home, bitter with envy, setting the stage for a climactic battle between brothers and between the living and the dead!       

The more difficult vocabulary and more convoluted sentence structure of this one made me think Matheson was emulating H. P. Lovecraft, which would make sense since it appeared in Weird Tales.  Or maybe that Matheson was just trying to write in the style of the kind of guy who loves Victoriana and would want to live in a house with no electricity.  This edition includes notes from Matheson after each story, and in the note to this one Matheson indicates that he felt a desire to write a story in the "mid-Victorian style," and wrote "Slaughter House" the way he did in order to get that desire "out of his system."

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Two solid horror stories, worth the horror fan's time.
      

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Three "Extreme" stories from Redshift: Wolfe, Disch, and Koja & Malzberg

Despite the fact that I own piles of books I have yet to read, I recently purchased seven SF books at the Des Moines Central Library book sale, where adult fiction books were 10 cents each.  Among these books was Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction edited by Al Sarrantonio, a big fat 2001 anthology of original stories.

In his introduction to the book, Sarrantonio praises Harlan Ellison and Dangerous Visions to the skies, even using the phrase "Ellison Revolution," which he shortens to ER.  (If only I had thought to shorten French Revolution and Russian Revolution to FR and RR back in my college days; it would have saved some wear and tear on my typing fingers.)  The stories in Redshift are meant to be as "dangerous" as those in Ellison's famous and influential 1967 anthology; Redshift is supposed to be the Dangerous Visions of the 21st century, pushing the envelope, influencing SF for the next 25 years, that sort of thing.

Today I read the three stories in the book by authors I already appreciate, Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, and Barry N. Malzberg, authors who are all deeply interested in the history and traditions of SF as well as "mainstream literature," and who have successfully (in my opinion, at least) brought high literary standards to their science fiction.  Let's see how "extreme" and "dangerous" these stories are.

"Viewpoint" by Gene Wolfe    

I first read "Viewpoint," a novelette of 40 pages, in my trade paper edition of the collection Starwater Strains, which appeared in 2006.  I was surprised by how forward, even blatant, it was in presenting its conservative/libertarian political arguments.  "This is like the lead story in an anthology curated by the NRA," I thought after I read it.  Everybody knows Wolfe is "on the right," as they used to say on "Crossfire," and I am basically sympathetic to what he has to say in the story, so I wasn't offended, just surprised at how "upfront" he was about portraying his political beliefs.  Now that I know Wolfe was commissioned to write an "extreme" or "dangerous" story, it makes a lot more sense.

The story starts in a big city, I suspect New York, I guess in the near future.  We find that the police (even the robot police!) are corrupt, the streets are crawling with drug dealers and violent beggars who threaten people with broom handles, and store clerks are angry jerks who act like they don't want to make a sale.  The government has seized all rifles, and frowns on the exercise of self defense.  Government agents insist that people don't really make or own money, all money is in fact the property of the government, and any you keep after taxes is just what the government has decided to let you have.  Everybody has a little screen on his forehead; the number of stars on the screen indicates your social class.

A country boy who lives off the grid in a log cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania, Jay, is in town.  He needs money, and in an office is handed a hundred thousand dollars in bills.  He is warned not to put the money in a bank, or the government will figure out a way to seize it.  What is Jay getting paid for?  To be on a reality TV show; the TV station will announce that he has the money, show a photo of him, and then the drama will be if he can survive the inevitable attacks he will suffer from desperate creeps and career criminals.  (They install something in his skull that allows them to film through his eyes.)  As it turns out, the government is a bigger threat to him than anybody else.  The story ends with Jay hiding in the woods, pursued by government soldiers.  Just as Jay is about to shoot a female soldier he sees a phantom of a Revolutionary War rifleman, and wonders if his hallucination will appear on the viewing public's TV screens.

This is a decent story, and Wolfe does all the violent parts and the espionage/crime stuff (trying to hide from surveillance and escape pursuers) well.  With its long list of complaints about the government and TV, the fact that the women in the story are sneaky and use their sex appeal to manipulate men, and that the black characters speak poor English, I think it is fair to say that the story is "extreme" or "dangerous" - it surprised me, and I can imagine it would offend or disappoint Democrats and left of center types.  On the other hand, it appeared in David G. Hartwell's Year's Best SF 7 and was voted 8th best 2002 novelette by Locus readers, so it seems like a substantial portion of the SF community embraced it.  And as far as technique is concerned, it is a traditional plot and character driven story.

"In Xanadu" by Thomas M. Disch

In this 14-page story, dead people's consciousnesses are uploaded into a virtual world constructed by the Disney company.  Unfortunately, the uploading process is not very efficient, and many memories are garbled or lost in the process.  And you are at Disney's mercy, or the mercy of computer hackers; a man is uploaded into the virtual body of a woman, for example.  In the end the main character hopes for death (as I have found Disch characters are apt to do.) 

The story isn't bad.  I laughed at some of the jokes.  But is it "dangerous" or "extreme?"  Disch dismissively criticizes religion, environmentalism, and feminism, and at greater length and perhaps more subtly, consumerism.  And, of course, Disch suggests that death is to be welcomed, even if religion is a scam.  He reminds you how cultured he is with his references to philosophers, French cinema, and high brow music.  "In Xandau" also has a sort of New Wave feel, with its many one page chapters, its barely-there plot, and the whole death and computers angle.  I guess it is about as "dangerous" and "extreme" as the Wolfe story; it is certainly more challenging when it comes to technique and literary pretension, but it is also diffuse and intangible compared to Wolfe's hard-hitting, in-your-face writing.

"What We Did That Summer" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg

I don't know anything about Kathe Koja, but Will Errickson at his cool horror blog raves about her.  (I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to admit that when I googled her name and all the photos came up I said, "Whoa, this chick is pretty good-looking.")  The premise of her novel The Cipher sounds like it could be great, and lots of people seem to think it is great.  Maybe I should keep an eye open for it when I hit the used bookstores and libraries.

I've read lots of Barry Malzberg's work, but most of it before I started this here blog.  I have several reviews of Malzberg books up at Amazon.  Malzberg's work is almost always "extreme" in one way or another, so I was curious about what he would come up with here.     

Well, "What We Did That Summer" is 10 pages long, and it scores very high on the Extremometer; in fact Koja and Malzberg may have left my buddies Tom Disch and Gene Wolfe in the dust.  For one thing, even though the story is full of dialogue, there are no quotation marks.  For another, I'm not sure what happened in the last paragraph.  But most important are all the other paragraphs, which are depressing, disgusting, and distrubing.

An impoverished prostitute who lives in a shack and lives on mac and cheese she can only afford when it is on sale is drinking cheap beer with one of her long term johns.  This guy has been her customer for ages, and they "hang out" regularly, but they barely even seem to like each other, bickering bitterly through the whole story.  You get the feeling they are stuck being friends with each other because they have totally screwed up their lives and nobody else will put up with them.     

The man had a strange adventure when he was 16 years old, thirty years ago, and he tells the woman the story, despite all her interruptions and complaints (about his poor sexual performance and the callous way he has treated her all these years, among other things.)  The man, along with a friend, those thirty years ago, came upon three girls in a field, naked girls who essentially dared them to have sex with them.  The girls are somewhat odd, with weird accents and strangely shaped bodies, and the boys later dub them "the aliens."  Several times over the course of a month they have sex with these three girls, long sessions in which the boys are permitted to do "whatever they want" with the girls. Of course, this is like a dream come true for the horny teenagers, but eventually the protagonist wonders if perhaps they are taking advantage of the girls, if they are maybe mentally ill, and what they are doing constitutes abuse or rape.

Tonight is the thirtieth anniversary of the climax of this strange adventure, when a fourth odd person or "alien," a man with a strange hat and a sort of necklace, confronted the two boys.  The alien man wore no clothes, and the boys see he has no genitalia.  The alien man explains that the boys must pay, without specifying what that payment should be, and then vanishes.  Thre boys never see him or the three girls again.

His story concluded, the man tells the woman he wants to show her something, and pulls down his pants and starts masturbating.  The woman hides her eyes, but he insists she look.  Then comes the confusing final paragraph.  It seems possible that the woman is suddenly experiencing the memories of the three alien girls.  Or, perhaps, she is just being reminded of her own life, how men have treated her so badly, like an alien, how in her life sex, instead of something joyous or life affirming or expressive of love, has been something desperate and horrible.

"What We Did That Summer" is not a fun read, but it is a strong story and I think Koja and Malzberg delivered what Sarrantonio was looking for when he was commissioning "extreme visions."  The story paints a pretty bleak picture of sexual relationships, includes what some might consider "obscene" images, and shows contempt for one of our finest literary institutions, the quotation mark. 

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So, three good stories, each of them containing elements that will likely surprise or even shock the reader: Wolfe's unapologetic condemnation of a corrupt government which infringes property rights and the right to self defense, Disch's dismissal of religious and liberal pieties and embrace of death, and Koja and Malzberg's disturbing depiction of sexual relations and men's treatment of women.

I will probably read some more stories from Redshift in the future, and also seek out some more short stories by Koja, or maybe one of her 1990s novels.          

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Beyond Thirty by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My father, who lives a thousand miles away, recently told me he was reading a free version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Lost Continent on his new Ipad.  I love Burroughs, but this was one of his many books I had not read.  I decided to read it before our next phone conversation, so we could talk about it free of spoiler fear.

Lost Continent is the title given to Burroughs' short novel entitled Beyond Thirty when it first appeared as a mass market paperback in 1963.  Beyond Thirty was written in 1915 and appeared in magazine form in 1916, and is a response to the First World War.  I read a library copy of the 2001 edition, part of Bison Book's Frontiers of the Imagination line.  This edition has additional material by David Brin, Phillip Burger and Richard Lupoff.  (The University of Nebraska Press's Bison Frontiers of Imagination series is something all classic SF fans should know about.)

Beyond Thirty takes place in the year 2137.  In order to seal itself off from the cataclysmic violence taking place in Europe and the European empires, the governments of the New World have forbidden any trade or even communication to cross the 30th and 175th meridians for 200 years.  No living person in the Americas has seen Europe, Africa or Asia, or talked to a European, African or Asian, and the government has even tried to keep books about the Old World out of people's hands, so most people in the New World have a total ignorance of the Old World.

To keep anybody from crossing the 30 or 175, the Americas have a powerful navy that patrols both meridians.  This short novel (just about 100 pages) is about Lieutenant Turck, our narrator, a naval officer who, due to mechanical failure, inclement weather, and treachery among his crew, is abandoned on a boat with three regular sailors, and ends up shipwrecked in England.  He finds that the Great War has totally obliterated British civilization, that Great Britain is a wilderness inhabited by wild beasts and people with a stone age technology and social structure.

As you would expect in a Burroughs novel, Turck fights beasts, gets captured by jerkoffs, escapes from said jerkoffs, rescues a beautiful princess, falls in love with said princess, and so forth. What’s a little different in Beyond Thirty is the anti-war theme. Writing with the World War, which the U. S. is not yet involved in, in mind, Burroughs again and again reminds us how great a city London is, and how fine a people the English are (Burroughs comes off as a serious Anglophile here), and warns of how foolish and wasteful it would be for that great civilization to be lost to war. Burroughs not only points out again and again how war has destroyed so many buildings and killed so many people, but even presents examples of the ruinous effect of war on human psychology and morality: the barbarian English of 2137, even the beautiful princess, consider that life is cheap and murder is normal.

Recognizing the enthusiasm for war felt by some virile young men (and reflected in so much of Burroughs’ own fiction) Burroughs has his protagonist admit that he and others of his class have often fantasized, longed, for war, but when Turck sees the ruin that war has led to, his view changes.

In the last quarter or so of the novel Turck goes to the Continent where he encounters more barbaric whites and is captured by civilized blacks. While the Europeans are illiterate spear-carrying hunters, these Africans have guns, swords, domesticated horses, and books – many, even among the privates, are voracious readers. The blacks are conquering Europe and enslaving all the whites who come into their hands. Making his anti-imperialist point directly, Burroughs has Turck say that the blacks have obviously been better off with black rulers than they were when whites ruled Africa in the days before the Great War.

Burroughs is broadly sympathetic to the blacks, but he still says things which wouldn’t pass muster today, like pointing out an ethnic hierarchy in the African army; the officers have Semitic features while the privates have thick lips and wide noses.

With the Europeans broken and reduced to barbarism, the civilized empires of the Africans and the Asians are fighting for dominance of Europe. Our American protagonist, enslaved and serving as an African cavalry officer’s body servant, accompanies a mighty black army to the African city that has been built on the ruins of Berlin.  The army of the Chinese Emperor takes this city, and Turck is captured.  Fortunately the Chinese believe his story of being from the Americas, and in the last few pages of the novel Turck becomes a sort of ambassador, meets the Chinese emperor, and is the trigger for renewed friendly relations between Asia and the Americas.  Perhaps undercutting the book's anti-war and anti-imperialist themes, Turck triumphantly predicts that the Chinese are going to throw the blacks out of Europe and then the Americans are going to civilize the barbaric Europeans.

The introduction by David Brin and the two essays, one by Phillip Burger and one by Richard Lupoff, are all worth reading.  Burger's interpretation of the book is very different than mine; whereas I thought the book a denunciation of war, Burger argues that what Burroughs is doing in Beyond Thirty is lampooning American isolationism, showing that Europe fell into barbarism because the U.S. failed to aid the Allies in their war with the Central Powers.  When Turck says again and again that London was the greatest city on Earth and now it is gone, I thought Burroughs wants you to think, "Damn, we have to make sure we don't have any more of these horrible wars," while Burger believes Burroughs intent was to make you think, "We'd better go help the English before Fritz eradicates their beautiful civilization," or, "Those Europeans can't seem to do anything right, we'd better get over there and sort them out."  According to Burger the anti-imperialism themes I see are anti-European imperialism; Burroughs thinks the Euros are selfish exploitative imperialists, but that the U. S. or some other power (like the Chinese in the story) could be helpful enlightened imperialists.       

Beyond Thirty is probably one of Burroughs’ lesser works, but its anti-war and/or anti-isolationism slant, and the insights it may provide into American thinking during the early part of the First World War, add a layer of interest. Fans of Burroughs should check it out if they haven’t read it, as should those interested in anti-war or anti-imperialist SF, or in portrayals of blacks in SF.