Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Three 1978 stories by A. E. Van Vogt

Via Twitter, Joachim Boaz reminds us that A. E. Van Vogt's birthday is this month.  To celebrate, I read three stories by my man Van which I had never read, from the collection Pendulum, DAW 316.  These stories all appeared for the first time in Pendulum.

Pendulum, published in 1978, provides insight into the powerful influence the first Star Wars film had on the people at DAW.  Besides the dreamlike (that's a nice way of saying "insane," right?) cover by Jordi Penavla, in which helmeted topless men use laser swords in their fight against cave men, we have the advertising pages in the back of the book, one of which is pitched directly at Star Wars fans.  The good people at DAW recommend to "Star Warriors" four of their series: Gordon Dickson's Dorsai novels; A. Bertram Chandler's space navy stories starring John Grimes; the Dumarest novels by E. C. Tubb; and Brian Stableford's Daedalus novels.  I can't assess how good these recommendations are because I'm not familiar with any of the listed books.  I have read four or five John Grimes books, and liked them OK, but none of those listed.  I've read one (non-Dorsai) book by Dickson and two books by Stableford in his Hooded Swan series, and didn't think them bad, but found them uninspiring and forgettable.  I've never read any Tubb, but Michael Moorcock considers Tubb's Dumarest of Terra books excellent, or so he says in a year 2000 article about Leigh Brackett entitled "Queen of the Martian Mysteries."      


"Pendulum"

The title story of the collection depicts a near future Earth facing a food shortage.  Our main character Hudman is a Dutch sailor working on a civilian ship employed by the U. S. Navy, lowering machinery to the ocean floor which will warm up the cold water there and make these areas of the ocean more hospitable for life and thus more productive as fishing waters.  In a bizarre turn of events (are there any other in these van Vogt stories?) these activities awaken a civilization of thirty billion people who have been in cryogenic sleep on the ocean floor for millenia.  Hudman is chosen to be the emissary between the surface people and this revived race, which it turns out has the technology to easily take over the planet.

The people from under the sea declare that their benevolent rule will improve everybody's life.  One of the first things on their agenda is to eliminate all the disparate and confusing human languages and replace them with a single logical language, which will be easy enough with their "mind-to-mind" teaching methods.  Hudman is then deluged with exhortations, threats, and bribes from people who try every possible means to preserve their own dialects from extinction.  "Pendulum" is a story about ethnic pride and what van Vogt calls "race consciousness," and the lengths individuals will go to to honor and preserve the culture and memory of their peoples.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the violence people are willing to employ to protect their own dialects and honor their ancestors is a sign that van Vogt was skeptical of ethnic pride and sympathetic to the "melting pot" view of American race/ethnic relations which, nowadays, has been abandoned.  In the end of the story, in order to protect him, the submarine people transport Hudman to a city in a distant time period - Hudman eagerly embraces the culture of his new home, "determined to fit in with no thought at all about his past."  

"The Male Condition"

From racial and cultural diversity issues to gender and sexual issues!

I think of van Vogt as a guy who often writes stuff that is kind of crazy.  "The Male Condition" definitely fits in the crazy category.  It also seems to be in part or whole a kind of joke, one which some may find in poor taste.  I cannot deny that the audacity of the story, its twisted surprises, the lengths van Vogt was willing to go, made me laugh.

We open in a government office where two academics, psychologists, are talking.  We are immediately alerted to the fact that this is a strange world when we learn that 30 is considered an old age and that the male psychologist, Jolo, is smoking a "kolo," a product introduced by aliens.

Crazier still, Jolo tells the junior psychologist, a woman 23.25 years old named Lasia, that there have been no cases of rape in 38 years.  Sounds good, right?  But this phenomenon presents the researcher with a problem: Jolo is directing work on an encyclopedia of human nature, and how can the book be complete without a rapist to study in the flesh?

The rapist shortage, apparently, is the result of an additive in drinking water that makes people unable to feel anger.  Jolo proposes injecting himself with something that will make him a rapist(?) and having Lasia act as observer, which is to say, rape victim(!).  Lasia needs the money, so she signs onto the project!

This 13 page story is stuffed with wacky elements: aliens only women can see, psychologists whose whole therapy technique consists of having sex with their patients, a computer database put together by a feminist government agency which lists men with whom women are forbidden to have sex (if this story had been written after 2001 presumably this would be called the "no-fuck list.")  Lasia turns to a male psychologist for help, but he takes advantage of her, so she then fools Jolo's wife into taking her place as rape victim.  The intervention of aliens into this demented slapstick leads to murder, necrophilia, and a jury trial at which the aliens save the surviving characters from going to prison.

Crazy man, crazy.

"Living with Jane"

This story, with its convoluted plot and characteristically van Vogtian sentences, was a little hard to follow.

The year is 2288.  Androids are on the market which are almost impossible to distinguish from real humans.  Parents of young children who get divorced routinely buy an android replica of their former spouses, so that their children will not suffer the psychological problems that result from living in a single parent home.  In a way that van Vogt explains but which I didn't understand, living with androids has given our heroine, teenaged Jane, what amount to psychic powers.

A new type of android has been built, a model even more human-like.  Unfortunately, these super-androids have decided to take over the world.  Jane's father, a scientist, is the natural leader of the resistance to the android takeover, and a natural target of the androids, who contrive to enter Jane's home and hold her and her mother hostage.  The androids threaten to kill his family if Jane's dad doesn't cease working against their takeover.

Fortunately, Jane's high intelligence and mental powers mean she is up to the task of neutralizing her captors.  Jane saves the day, not through any kind of violence, but through charm, persuasion, and logic.  Having lived her entire life with androids, Jane likes them and understands them, and is able to manipulate and even befriend them.  The story has a happy ending; Jane will be able to assure peace and freedom for everybody, human and android, and now she has an android duplicate of herself who will be the twin sister she has always wanted.        

***********

It is hard to recommend such strange stories to other people, but I enjoyed them. 

Pendulum contains three more pieces of fiction which I have not read before, so I will be grappling with Van Vogt's weird plots and clunky verbiage in the near future.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Three more Roger Zelazny stories

Let's embark on our third foray into my 2001 edition of Roger Zelazny's The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.

"This Mortal Mountain" (1967)

Like the narrator of "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth," Jack Summers, known variously as "Mad Jack" or "Whitey," narrator of "This Mortal Mountain," is a macho extreme sports type who has a failed marriage behind him.  Mad Jack travels throughout the galaxy, climbing mountains.  On planet Diesel he is confronted by the tallest mountain in the known universe.  He has a mysterious encounter with "an energy creature" while scouting out the mountain - somebody does not want him to scale this one.  Undissuaded, Mad Jack and his team, the best mountain climbers in the galaxy, ascend the peak and face its strange protectors.

This is a decent entertaining adventure story, with references to Christianity (Dante gets mentioned) and the psychology of why somebody climbs a mountain.  I thought all the mountain climbing stuff was good; Zelazny gives you a sense of what is going on and what kind of futuristic equipment is used to climb a mountain that actually reaches outside the atmosphere, but doesn't include too much burdensome detail.  I recall the mountain-climbing parts of some of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories being confusing and dull.

"This Mortal Mountain" is also a sleeping beauty story: the "energy creatures" are generated by a computer, and are protecting a woman who lies in suspended animation at the peak, placed there centuries ago by her husband because she suffered from an incurable disease.  Mad Jack's arrival sets the thawing process in motion, and Zelazny leaves us unsure whether the mountain climbers have the means to cure the woman's disease, or whether this woman will be another victim of Mad Jack's irrational ambition to climb mountains.

"This Moment of the Storm" (1966)  

This story is the reminiscences of a 90-year-old man about his days as police officer ("Hell Cop") of a sort of frontier town, Beta Station, on the planet Tierra del Cygnus.  Zelazny seems to have been inspired by the Wild West for this one; we are told "Betty," which is what everybody calls Beta Station, is like a 19th century town in the southwest of the USA because the population and industrial level are low. Our narrator, Godfrey Justin Holmes ("God for short," he tells people) is kind of like the sheriff in a Western movie, and also like in a Western film, everybody in town wears a pistol.

Godfrey sits in a room with 130 TV screens, controlling 130 air mobile cameras ("Hell" is short for "helicopter"), keeping an eye on the town when he is not flirting with the female mayor, whose office is in the same building (the Town Hall.)  The countryside, a little like Harry Harrison's Deathworld, is full of hostile life forms, and the Hell Cops' flying cameras are armed with machine guns to deal with them.  The plot of "This Moment of the Storm" consists largely of Betty suffering a devastating wind and rain storm which causes floods, inspires looters, and drives armies of monsters with names like "stingbat," "snapper," "borer" and "land-eel" into the town.  Godfrey and the mayor lead the emergency management and defense; at one point Godfrey kills a giant worm monster with his electric cane.  We also get Godfrey's memories of his young life on Earth, working various jobs and going to college.

Godfrey is a rare character on Tierra del Cygnus, because of his Earth background, and because he was born centuries before everybody else on the frontier planet.  In this story space ships do not exceed the speed of light, so while on trips between various star systems Godfrey was in cryogenic sleep.  Some of the people on Tierra del Cygnus envy Godfrey's experiences of life on so many planets, others superstitiously believe his advanced age (even though he is physically and psychologically only in his thirties) gives him some kind of wisdom.  They don't know why he has been traveling between planets for so long - to try to forget his dead wife! 

Zelazny gets very poetic in parts of this one, describing the town with lists of colors, employing an extended metaphor in which a storm cloud is like a giant insect striding over the town on legs of electric fire.  He also gets philosophical, asking us "What is a man?" and then providing us examples of brave men losing their lives protecting their friends and knavish men who betray their promises and take advantage of others in their time of need.

This story is OK, but it felt a little too crowded with plot threads and themes.  None of the various characters and ideas got sufficient time to develop enough that I really cared about them.  It is also possible that I am reading too many Zelazny stories in too short a time; they all seem to have a macho man who smokes and knows some martial art and has a troubled marital past and has to prove to himself that he is a real man, etc.  Back in the '60s SF fans would get a new Zelazny story every few months, but here I am reading one or two every day, which makes the similarities a little more obvious.  Maybe I should take a break from Zelazny for a while.    

"The Great Slow Kings" (1963)

This is a brief jocular trifle about the propensity of human beings for civilization-destroying war.  A pair of reptilian aliens have such slow metabolisms that during the course of one of their days hundreds of Earth years pass.  These reptile people fancy themselves kings, but lack any subjects, so they have their robot servant fetch some humans to populate their planet.  Before the aliens, who live deep underground, even have time to alert the human colonists of their presence, the humans have risen from primitivism to an industrial civilization, developed atomic weapons, and exterminated themselves.

This story is fine, I guess, but not really my thing.

**********

These pieces aren't up to the standard of "Rose for Ecclesiastes"or "Keys to December," but they are still definitely worth reading.  I've read nine of the 17 stories in this edition, and think I will lay the volume aside for a few weeks before returning to it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Guest post at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

Back cover of 1979's Catacomb Years
Internet science fiction mastermind Joachim Boaz, at his blog, Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, is hosting a series of guest posts about Michael Bishop, the two-time Nebula-winning SF writer.  Today my contribution, about three stories from Brighten to Incandescence, a collection of short stories, is up!  Check it out here, and keep an eye out for future contributions to the guest post series.  And if you haven't read them already, check out the earlier installments in the series, including looks at a Nebula-award winning novel about going back in time to get intimate with prehistoric hominids and a Locus-award winning novel about baseball and Frankenstein's monster!

Thanks again to Joachim for including me in this project, and congrats to him and the other contributors!


Friday, April 25, 2014

Alpha Centauri or Die! by Leigh Brackett

Here we have another of the fruits of my harvest of the used bookstore in Creston, Iowa, a copy of the 1976 Ace paperback of Leigh Brackett's 1963 novel Alpha Centauri or Die!, Ace 01770.  I can't say I like the cover illustration very much, but I love the title font, with the tall narrow vertical letters and the over-sized, perfectly circular round letters.  Where do I find out the name of this font so I can use it on my resume, last will and testament, rental agreements and all important correspondence?

My copy of Alpha Centauri or Die! was previously owned by a Dennis Kragel, who inscribed his name on the book in at least four places.  As well as Mr. Kragel's name, on the very first page of the book we see an odd ink stamp, showing a happy child and the letter "A."  I want to believe that Mr. Kragel had a vast science fiction library and had a set of stamps, A, B, C, D and F, that he used to record a grade for each book.  Or maybe Mr. Kragel had a teacher at school who awarded "A" students with paperback books?  Awesome! 

So, I already love the hell out of this book as a physical artifact.  But is it worth reading?

Yes!  Alpha Centauri or Die! is a fun adventure story that makes you say, "Of course George Lucas wanted this chick to write a Star Wars movie!"  People are shooting, space ships are exploding, a boarding party breaks into a robot ship that is about to launch a nuclear missile at the defenseless vessel their families are in, a woman is using her telepathic powers, aliens are using their teleportation powers.  (My spell check wants to read a story about aliens using their deportation powers.)

Alpha Centauri or Die! is also a rhetorical attack on burdensome government regulations that trade liberty for security, that eliminate risk and instability but also stifle the human spirit and human progress.  Mankind has explored and settled the solar system, and is on the brink of developing a means of exploring interstellar space, when the voters, tired of the boom and bust economic cycle and of interstellar warfare, put the government in charge of the economy.  Now all production and all population is subject to government planning, it is illegal to own a firearm, the government tells you where you are allowed to live, and people aren't allowed to travel through space.  If the government thinks a person or goods should travel from one planet to another, it is done by a robot space ship under government control.  Friedrich Hayek, where are you when we need you?    

Our hero is Kirby, who spent his early career in space before all the "Stabilization Acts" were passed.  Kirby is an Earthman living on Mars with his second wife, a Martian woman, Shari, who has telepathic powers.  You can believe those telepathic powers come in handy when Kirby is trying to escape the authorities.  The authorities are after him because Kirby and his buddies still dream of sailing the void, and they have been refurbishing an illegal starship in a secluded part of the Martian desert!

Employing their illegally owned fire arms, Kirby, Shari, and comrades fight their way off Mars in their illegal ship and head for Alpha Centauri.  Many of the men have brought their wives along, and these women aren't thrilled to learn that it will take five years to reach Alpha Centauri.  Some of them want to go back to Mars - they were perfectly happy living under the cradle-to-grave welfare state!  In Trader to the Stars Poul Anderson took the line that most people aren't really committed to freedom and independence, that most people are willing, or eager, to be coddled and sheltered by the government, and Brackett seems to be taking the same line here, but with an added gender element.  More than once she suggests that it is men far more than women who are keen on taking risks and going on adventures, and so chafe under government restrictions.  Kirby himself has several crises of conscience over the course of the book - was he right to lead these people into danger in the name of freedom, is he just a selfish fanatic who refuses to admit when he is wrong?    

The final third of the 147 page book takes place on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, where Kirby and company meet benevolent aliens who help protect them from pursuing government drone ships.  These aliens do have a deus ex machina element to them (how else will Kirby fight off a space navy which has the resources of the entire solar system at its disposal?) but Brackett also seems to be presenting these aliens as a foil for humankind.  The Alpha Centaurans are super-powerful but also absolutely unambitious and even decadent, and Kirby suggests that the human race, because it has to work for its achievements, has actually been dealt a better hand by fate.

I can't resist the temptation to compare Alpha Centauri or Die! with James Blish's And All the Stars a Stage, which I read just a few days ago.  Both novels are about people who leave behind a socialistic society to be the first of their race to explore the stars, and both vocally espouse traditional ideas about gender roles.  Blish's book is probably more "ambitious" and "sciencefictiony" with its science and economics lectures and its speculations about the origins of Earth religious myths.  But Brackett's book is better written when it comes to pacing and characters.  And All the Stars a Stage feels cold and slow, and pessimistic, while Alpha Centauri or Die! is quick and passionate, and optimistic about humanity's ability to accomplish great things.  (Brackett's optimism is a mature one that doesn't pretend change, progress, and adventure doesn't entail sacrifice and risk.)  Brackett also tries to portray love relationships, between Kirby and Shari, between the other adventurous men and their (perhaps not so adventurous) wives, between the mothers and their children, and even between the telepathic Shari and the Alpha Centaurans.  I remember the human relationships in Blish's And All the Stars a Stage being uninteresting or actually demeaning.   

Alpha Centauri or Die! is a good adventure story, a solid piece of entertainment I'm happy to recommend to SF fans.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Star Dwellers and And All the Stars a Stage by James Blish

Years ago I read James Blish's VOR and The Star Dwellers and didn't care for either one.  I remember nothing about VOR (a giant overheated alien lands on Earth?) but I have my February 18, 2007 Amazon review to refresh my memory about The Star Dwellers (text below edited to rectify error regarding publication date):
I bought the 1970 Berkley paperback of this 1961 novel for its lovely red/purple cover. The novel, which is short by today's standards, 128 pages, is weak. The plot consists of an interesting trip through space to meet some interesting aliens, but also some boring diplomacy which Blish tries to make more interesting by piling on lots of silly melodramatic moments, including what amounts to a courtroom scene in which the star witness climbs out of his sickbed to provide crucial testimony. Worst of all the first half of the book consists of stereotypical cardboard characters sitting around yakking away.

You might like this if you are interested in pacifistic SF in which aliens have to keep us violent humans in line, or were wondering about James Blish's theories on education, popular music and censorship, but otherwise I have to advise that you steer clear.
This week I gave Blish another shot, reading his And All the Stars a Stage, a 1971 novel (revised from a 1960 magazine version, published in two parts), in its 1974 Avon printing.

Jorn Birn lives in a society dominated by women and plagued by severe (male) unemployment.  It wasn't always this way; a few hundred years ago the invention of an efficient energy source, easy birth control, and a means to select the sex of babies prior to birth, has lead to a population in which there are far more men than women.  Nowadays women have harems of male husbands, gay men are conspicuously "out" and conspicuously more successful in business than straight men, and many men live on the dole in government housing, clad in government-issued clothes.  Women have all the big government offices, and the executive of the world is "The Matriarch."

By dint of passing a bunch of mental and physical tests, Jorn becomes an astronaut in the new program to launch the first interstellar ship.  He's lucky to land this job, because even before the ship is finished it is learned that the sun will go nova soon, and all life on the planet will be extinct in five or six years!  Less than one person out of ten million is going to fit in the spaceships the Matriarch's government begins feverishly building.   

We achieve blast off on page 80 of this 191 page book, Jorn and co leaving the screaming mobs behind to be burned to a cinder by solar radiation.  For months the overcrowded ships hunt the galaxy for a suitable landing place.  Feminists may bristle to learn that, once away from the planetary surface, men begin to reassert their natural role as leaders.  The characters, and the omniscient narrator, assert that women make poor mathematicians, engineers, and composers of serious music.  On page 111 Jorn and friends land on a planet, but are defeated by the native wildlife.  Years, then decades, go by without finding a colonizable world.  Finally, when most of the characters are dead and Jorn is an elderly arthritic man, the ship lands on the ancient Earth, year 3900 B.C.  In what I guess is an expression of religious faith on the part of Blish we are told that Jorn's people and the Earth people are built on the same "Model" and can interbreed.  Alien genes enter the Earth gene pool, and alien myths based on Jorn's adventures enter Earth legend and religion.

And All the Stars a Stage is not very good.  It reads more like a dry history of a major historical event, told from a bird's eye view, than an adventure story or drama about individuals.  There are boring science and economics lectures.  Odd and interesting details are introduced and then abandoned; the idea that homosexuals form a powerful class within the matriarchal society is mentioned once and then forgotten, for example.  Back on the home planet most men had little laboratory-grown semi-parasitic pets called familiars that look like two foot long snakes or worms and live inside the men's clothes.  (Maybe these are a symbolic representation of masturbation... it seems that married men give up their familiars.  It also seems like the familiar is the prototype of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.)  Blish makes a big deal about these familiars, and then doesn't mention them for 100 pages until dramatically one of them becomes central to the story for a few pages.  (It grows to huge size and has to be killed with a flamethrower.) 

It is not clear what And All the Stars a Stage is "about," what it is trying to be.  It is not a fast paced adventure story, or a detailed depiction of an alien society, or a study or satire of gender roles, though it has half-baked aspects of all those SF templates.  Blish's pedestrian writing style doesn't elevate the material, and the whole thing feels flat.     

I'm on the fence over this one; it is not offensively bad (female mathematicians and composers may disagree on that score), just limp, with interesting flickers here and there.  I guess I'll be awarding it the famous "barely acceptable" rating.  Don't be surprised if it takes me another seven years to get back to James Blish's oeuvre.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Three ghoulish stories by science-fiction writers: Malzberg, Brown, and de Camp & Pratt

The final third of Bill Pronzini's Tales of the Dead, also published as The Arbor House Necropolis, is entitled "Ghoul!"  I don't think "Ghoul!" was ever published as a book on its own, as Voodoo! and Mummy! were.

When I was playing 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons the ghoul was always one of the scariest monsters,because it could paralyze you and quickly massacre your entire party.  In fact, if memory serves, in the example of play in the Dungeon Master's Guide a gnome gets sneak attacked by ghouls, and the DM doesn't even bother to roll any dice, just assumes the gnome is torn to bits.  In Pronzini's intro to "Ghoul!" he claims that in the superstitions of Eastern Europe the ghoul is more feared than the werewolf or vampire.  Gary Gygax and I can believe it!

"Indigestion" by Barry Malzberg (1977)

Malzberg got his name on the cover of Fantastic with this one.

Those familiar with Malzberg's work will not be surprised to learn that in "Indigestion" we are confronted with a first-person narrator who is suffering from vivid delusions.  Henry is a lonely man living in New York City.  Perhaps inspired by the misguided theory that planaria gain the knowledge of planaria they eat, Henry believes that the souls of dead people whose flesh he eats become housed in his own body.  (This also reminded me of the alzabo from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, published in the 1980s.)  Henry claims that he is the minister of a congregation of hundreds which he carries inside himself, so that he is never alone.  A side benefit is that raw human flesh is very tasty!

Henry's conscience manifests itself as a green scaly space alien who tries to convince Henry to stop robbing graves and eating from corpses.  At the end of this brief tale Henry realizes what a disaster he has made of his life, and leaps out a window to his death.

I thought this story was effective; beyond the "gross out" elements we have the image of a man who is lonely and feels he has screwed up his life, something many of us can identify with.

"The Spherical Ghoul" by Frederic Brown (1942)

Brown is famous for his novel What Mad Universe and his short story "Arena," both of which I think are worthwhile.  According to Wikipedia, best-selling authors Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane and Robert Heinlein all were crazy about Brown, which is pretty impressive.

"The Spherical Ghoul" first appeared in Thrilling Mystery, which Pronzini calls a "shudder pulp."  Brown's story is advertised on the cover, but I had trouble finding a decent reproduction online; the pictures I did find can be viewed here and here.

This story stars Jerry, a grad student who works as a night watchman at the morgue of the little college town of Springdale.  He's an anthropology student; yesterday Roger Zelazny reminded me that I know approximately zero about Havelock Ellis, Rainer Maria Rilke and W. H. Auden, and today by mentioning The Golden Bough again and again, Brown reminded me that I know almost nothing about James George Frazer.  I also learned that I don't know much about armadillos; I thought armadillos were herbivores.

The story is constructed as a mystery.  Jerry studies for hours, sitting in front of the only door to the windowless room where the bodies are kept in refrigeration.  When he has occasion to go into the room with the fridges, he is shocked and appalled to find that one of the corpses stored in there has had its face eaten away!  Yuck! How could this have happened while Jerry sat in front of the only door to the room?

There's a lot of jazz with the police, witnesses, using temperature to estimate the time of the crime, all that mystery fiction stuff.  In the end it turns out that one of the characters had access to an armadillo, and lowered the beast through a ventilation hole so it would devour the corpse's face.  This was to hide the cadaver's identity; the armadillo employer murdered the guy because the guy was blackmailing him for embezzling funds, and so on and so forth.  I find it hard to get excited about these mystery plots in which different jerk offs are trying to screw over each other.  When Jerry tells the embezzler/murderer that he has figured out his armadillo scheme, armadillo guy commits suicide before the cops can bring him in I guess this spares the armadillo the indignity of being entered into evidence at a trial. 


I don't think Brown tells us what becomes of the armadillo.  It must be hard going back to eating bugs after tasting raw human flesh, which, I have on good authority (that of Henry of Barry Malzberg's "Indigestion"), is delicious.  Maybe somebody should write a sequel to "The Spherical Ghoul," about how a man-eating armadillo terrorizes Springdale, bursting in on the coeds while they are showering and all that.

This story was OK.  I guess I was hoping there would be some kind of supernatural or science-fiction resolution to the mystery, like a guy who could detach his head or something like that.  I'll never laugh at the armadillos in Browning's Dracula again, though.

"Corpus Delectable" by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (1953)

I get the impression that L. Sprague de Camp is a controversial figure in science fiction and fantasy circles, and that as the years have gone by his detractors have begun to seriously outnumber his supporters.  Fans of Robert Howard and H. P. Lovecraft are angry about de Camp's biographies of those Weird Tales luminaries, and with de Camp's editing and rewriting of some of Howard's work.  I read a bunch of de Camp's Viagens novels years ago and found them mediocre and forgettable, so I guess I'm not exactly in de Camp's camp myself.  Still, I'm willing to give him another chance; De Camp was a prolific writer who devoted his career to science fiction and fantasy, so he probably deserves a measure of respect for that.

"Corpus Delectable," Pronzini tells us in his intro to the story, is one of a series of stories about the habitues of Gavagan's Bar.  I guess these stories are supposed to be funny; the bar serves as a framing device for humorous anecdotes from various wacky characters.  This isn't my thing, but I'll try to be fair....

To be honest, I feel like old Bill Pronzini pulled a fast one on me with this one. This isn’t a bad story, but it has no supernatural, cannibalistic, or grave robbing content; there isn’t even a man-eating armadillo!

A car salesman comes to the bar and tells his sad story. He made friends with an undertaker, and over the course of time found that his new buddy was taking to staring at him. It turns out that the car salesman has a perfectly photogenic face for use in mortuary advertising - he looks like an expertly prepared cadaver! After his friend surreptitiously takes his picture, and it appears in an ad in a trade publication, the car salesman can’t go anywhere without being stared at or even accosted by people in the mortuary business who want to use him in their advertising. The car salesman is not interested in providing his photo, but then he is spotted by a former Chicago gangster who has gotten into the mortician game after going straight. This thug is not used to taking “no” for an answer, and the punchline of the story is that the gangster catches up to the car salesman right there in Gavagan's Bar!

As I said, this story isn’t bad, but I’m scratching my head wondering why it is in this book.

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

Malzberg delivered the goods with his bleak tale of a mental case who robs graves and eats the recently buried dead. But the stories by Brown and the team of de Camp and Pratt, while competent, don’t really fit the bill. Maybe before I return Tales of the Dead to be interred on the shelves of the library I will give “Ghouls!” one last look.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Roger Zelazny: Three 1960s stories


Today I continued my reading of the 2001 edition of The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, a collection of stories by Roger Zelazny first published in the 1960s.

"Rose for Ecclesiastes" (1963)

I feel like this is one of Zelazny's more famous stories, that I hear about it all the time.  It got the cover of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an elaborate painting by Hannes Bok.  I read "Rose for Ecclesiastes" many years ago, but forgot what went on in it, so this was almost like reading it for the first time.

Our protagonist is Gallinger, a famous and arrogant poet, a child prodigy raised by a fundamentalist father from whom he escaped to bohemian New York City.  Gallinger is also the first Earthman allowed into a room where the Martians keep their annals, the first Earthman to learn the old "High Tongue" of the Martians.  Zelazny slings lots of learned references at us, Dante, Shakespeare, Sartre, Havelock Ellis, the Bible, and more, but also reminds the reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs; the first person narrator tells us that a "Carter" was on the first expedition to Mars, and on the very next page Zelazny uses the word "bugs" to describe alphabetical characters, just like Burroughs did when Tarzan was learning to read.

The arrogant poet charms the Martians, and like in an orientalist fantasy (Zelazny explicitly compares the Martians to East Asians and South Asians) he falls in love and has a sexual relationship with a dancing girl.  Gallinger also learns that the Martians are doomed - some kind of environmental event has sterilized the Martian population, and the Martians he knows will be the last generation of the red planet's people.  If the Martian civilization is to be remembered, it will be remembered by Earth people through Gallinger's poetry and his translations of Mars's historical and holy books.

But wait! By impregnating the dancing girl, and then beating a hulking Martian fighting man in hand to hand combat, Gallinger has fulfilled an ancient Martian prophecy and saved the Martian race!  I was a little surprised by this turn of events, though perhaps the reference to "Carter" was a foreshadowing of the pulpish way the plot would be resolved.

(Isn't This Immortal also full of sophisticated literary references, but have as the resolution of its plot a brutal hand to hand fight between a genius and a colossus?)

I have to admit I think the story would have been better if the Martians went extinct and Gallinger's life's work was to be their Homer, preserving their spirit for the ages.  Zelazny tries to keep the tone tragic by revealing that the dancing girl doesn't love Gallinger, but was only having sex with him because the prophecy said to.  Gallinger attempts suicide with sleeping pills as a result, but fails.

It would be easy to criticize "Rose for Ecclesiastes" for being some kind of male fantasy about sex with an exotic woman, and as a vehicle for Zelazny to brag about how familiar he is with major poets.  But the heartbreak of cross-cultural romance is a classic theme, and if Zelazny helped introduce SF readers to W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria Rilke it is no doubt to the good.  Most importantly, "Rose for Ecclesiastes" is well-written and well-paced, and so I quite enjoyed it, even though I would have preferred a more tragic and less heroic ending.   

I've focused on the exotic love affair, poetical, and adventure aspects of the story, but "Rose for Ecclesiastes" is also about attitudes towards religion, about being able to embrace the literary value of holy books while remaining skeptical of their mythical and philosophical aspects.  One of the strong points of the story is that Zelazny packs lots of stuff into it, and yet it doesn't feel dense, it flows smoothly.   

On a down note, in this edition (The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, ibooks, 2001), "Rose for Ecclesiastes" has quite a few irritating typos.  I don't recall the first three stories in this edition suffering in this way.

"The Monster and the Maiden" (1964)

This is a gimmicky two-page joke switcheroo story: it depicts a world in which dragons tie up a virgin female dragon and sacrifice her to a knight in shining armor.

I don't like this kind of thing.

"Collector's Fever" (1964)

Like "The Monster and the Maiden" this is a brief joke story which first appeared in Galaxy.  This one is better, as there is some novelty to it, and actual characters.  A man tries to capture an intelligent rock, he and the rock trade one-liners, and then the human blunders and is killed.

This one I would judge acceptable.

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

"Rose for Ecclesiastes" is a superior piece of work, and I won't hold the two 1964 gag stories against Zelazny.  

I'm just one third of the way through my 2001 edition of The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and expect that there is more good reading ahead. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Three More Mummy Stories: Wollheim, Williams and Grant

Let's return now to the copy of Tales of the Dead I borrowed from the library, to read three more stories from the section of the book which reproduces editor Bill Pornzini's 1980 anthology Mummy!

"Bones" by Donald A. Wollheim (1941)

I've already enjoyed Wollheim's work as an editor; in 1971 Wollheim founded the famous DAW Books, and I own and have read books by Jack Vance, Tanith Lee, A. E. Van Vogt, Lin Carter, Theodore Sturgeon, and others, published by DAW.  But until today I had never read any of Wollheim's fiction.

"Bones" first appeared in Stirring Science Stories, a magazine that lasted four issues, which Wollheim edited.  According to Wikipedia, Wollheim had no budget to pay for fiction, so he and his cronies wrote all the stories, often under pseudonyms.  According to ISFDB, one story Wollheim wrote was credited to "X" and titled "!!!"

"Bones" feels amateurish and overwritten.  "Half conquered by the smell of the antique houses, the subtle vibrations of past generations still pervading his spirit..."  Not too good, and the entire story is like this.  "...his nostrils were assailed by the inescapable odor of all such institutions - age!"  "The silence assailed his ears with a suddenness that all but took his breath away."  "Shortly Dr. Zweig announced himself ready to attempt the final work toward actually bringing the now pliant and vibrant corpse to life."  "The air was supercharged with tension, horror mixed with scientific zeal."  Oy.

The plot of this 7 page story is similar to Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy": a guy is invited to be part of a group of intellectuals attending the unwrapping of a mummy, the mummy is electrified and comes to life.  But while in Poe's satire the mummy criticized democracy and American architecture, "Bones" is a mood piece with a trick ending, and when the mummy tries to speak, it falls apart.

Not very good.  

"The Vengeance of Nitocris" by Tennessee Williams (1928)

When you are reading from a book called Mummy!, you might think that you will not be exposing yourself to the work of great figures of American literature.  Well, you could not be more wrong!  Tennessee Williams, who penned A Streetcar Named Desire ("Stella!") and The Glass Menagerie ("gentleman caller") and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ("Big Daddy") was published in Weird Tales, the August 1928 issue, with this story long before he was the toast of Broadway.  "The Vengeance of Nitocris" appeared in the same issue as a story by Robert Howard about Solomon Kane and one by Edmond Hamilton about the Interstellar Patrol.

When you are reading from a book called Mummy! you probably expect all the stories to include mummies, but again you would be mistaken.  As Pronzini warns us in his intro, there are no mummies in "The Vengeance of Nitocris."  Instead this is a story set in ancient Egypt, about a pharaoh who neglects his duties to the gods, and is torn apart by an angry mob lead by rabble-rousing priests.  The impious pharaoh's sister, Nitocris, is a striking beauty with "thick black brows," "luminous black eyes," "rich red lips" and "slender fingers."  Hubba hubba, we can understand why the priests put her on the throne after murdering her brother, can't we?  

Nitocris has built a tremendous temple of great beauty, and invites all the priests to a banquet there in its subterranean dining room.  While the priests are living it up with booze and slave girls, Nitocris sneaks off and pulls a lever and the Nile rushes into the banquet hall, drowning all of the priests (and the slave girls!  Cold!)  Nitocris then commits suicide in a room full of fire.

This is more like an anecdote than an actual short story; Williams lets us know ahead of time what is going to happen, and all you classical scholars will know anyway, as Williams lifted the story from Herodotus.  So there isn't much suspense.  I myself hadn't heard the story before, and was disappointed when the priests were drowned; when Nitocris pulled the lever, "a moment of supreme ecstasy," I thought a pack of ravenous lions was going to burst into the banquet hall and tear everybody to pieces.

This story is just OK, though I feel like I learned something about American and Greek literature I should have known already, so I will recommend it.     

"The Other Room" by Charles L. Grant (1980)

I've never read anything by Grant before, though I have a book he edited, Gallery of Horror.  It seems that "The Other Room" only ever appeared in Pronzini's Mummy! and the omnibuses like Tales of the Dead in which Mummy! rose again.

It seems that Grant is a fellow New Jerseyean, and in fact was born in a town with which I am familiar, Hackettstown, where they make M&Ms.  

"The Other Room," Pronzini tells us in his intro, takes place in the New England town of Oxrun Station, the setting of several stories by Grant.  Like everybody, I love New England: the trees, hills, ocean, antiquing, old houses, etc.  After we bought our doughty Toyota Corolla my wife and I spent many weekends driving around New England.  One week we stayed in a spider-infested cabin in the Maine woods, next to a clear pond full of adorable turtles.  The power went out and for light to read by I had to hand crank a LED lamp.

Sometimes my life back in New York feels like a dream.

Anyway, in "The Other Room," two academics discover a secret chamber in an old Connecticut house.  The room contains sarcophagi, and an inscription that describes a simple spell.  When one of the academics completes the spell there is fire and smoke and everyone flees the house, and we are left to wonder what manner of doom is about to befall the world, now that a door to some ancient evil has been opened.

Grant spends a lot of time setting the scene and helping us get to know the characters, which include the wife and teenage daughter of the owner of the house.  This is fine, but I felt like there wasn't much pay off; what they actually find in the secret crypt and what happens next is left a mystery.  This story kind of feels like the first chapter of an adventure story about an army of monsters trying to conquer the Earth through a gate, and how a band of plucky ordinary people, or a special branch of the FBI, or an armored division of the US Army, has to stop the monsters before midnight or an eclipse or something.  Or the first half of a short story about a family or a pair of friends who outfight a monster in a house using the rifles from the gun cabinet, the rusty crossed swords that have hung over the fireplace for 20 years, and their knowledge of the Bible or The Necronomicon.  (My spell check wants to read a story in which people defeat a monster with their knowledge of microeconomics.)

Grant seems like an able writer - I want to read something else by him now - but I feel like there could have been more here.  My man Tarbandu, who has read lots of horror stories and doesn't seem to be a fan of Grant's, suggests at his venerable PorPor Books Blog that the lack of a "payoff" is characteristic of Grant's work.  Will Errickson, whose Too Much Horror Fiction blog is always interesting and full of great images, appears to like Grant more than does Tarbandu, and provides a more sympathetic view of the style of horror Grant wrote and promoted.    

***********

One poor story, and two OK stories; not so hot.  Still, I will rustle up and read more stories by Wollheim and Grant before giving up on them.  And I'm not done with Tales of the Dead; its third section, Ghoul!, lurks in my future.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bow Down to Nul by Brian W. Aldiss

ISFDB image; cover by Gaughan
My peregrinations around southern Iowa recently brought me to a used bookstore where I found some exciting bargains.  Among these was a copy of Brian Aldiss's Bow Down to Nul, Ace F-382, from 1960.  It is one of those old paperbacks that is a little shorter than most; is there a name for this size?  My copies of Maza of the Moon (also from Ace, F-321) and Preferred Risk (from Dell, R114), are also this odd size.

Science-fiction blog superstar Joachim Boaz has suggested that Bow Down to Nul was not one of Aldiss's more impressive works.  On the back cover I am assured, however, that this is "a great science-fiction novel."  Who to believe?  There was only one way to be sure, and this weekend I read the (relatively short at 140 pages) novel.

The galaxy contains four million civilized worlds.  The nul, a tripedal race, control this vast empire.  A brief prologue in which we meet a disgruntled nul colonial civil service officer, recently sacked from his position on Earth, gives us a glimpse of nul society; the nul are arrogant and their government, including administration of planets like Earth, is increasingly corrupt. 

Back of my copy
Reminding me of the efforts of Cato, Cicero, and Edmund Burke, politicians somewhat more honest and dedicated than the average, to improve the administration of the empires of their days, one of the older nul officials back on the capital planet (two years flight away) gets word of conditions on Earth, and sets out to investigate.
With two years notice, however, the abusive and corrupt commissioner running Earth (perhaps he is supposed to remind us of Julius Caesar, Verres, or Warren Hastings?) has time to build Potemkin villages and bribe and threaten people in hopes of presenting an innaccurate picture of Earth conditions to the investigator.

Our main human characters are the interpreter who finds himself practically a man without a country, suspended between both nuls and humans who seek to dominate or manipulate him, and the head of the human guerrilla resistance.  There are also a bunch of minor characters, including a love interest and lots of humans and nuls who get killed in the course of the skullduggery that makes up so much of the plot of Bow Down to Nul.  One of the interesting things about the novel is how all the characters are either knaves or screw ups; you could see this as a very pessimistic book.  

I actually enjoyed most of Bow Down To Nul; for over 100 pages it is a brisk-paced entertainment with some pedestrian elements, but also some things that are very cool.  The nul are actually pretty interesting aliens.  Ten foot tall hulks who weigh a ton, the nuls' mouths and sex organs are hidden from view.  The nuls are very private, and express little emotion; we are told that there are no nul poets, and that it is common for nuls to not know each others' sex.  Nuls find the human face, which is so expressive, to be disgusting and/or fascinating.  In an effective horror scene we learn that the corrupt ruler of Earth is some kind of pervert who likes to embrace human women and stare at their faces while they recite poetry.  In another, lighter, scene, a nul looks through a museum of human art and the only piece that speaks to him is a piece of linoleum.

Hey, shorty

The setting, the alien race, and the basic plot are good, but in the last third or quarter Aldiss seems to lose control of the story a little. He undercuts the tension of the tale by presenting us with the knowledge that our heroes have survived the crisis, and then telling us how the plot was resolved in a flashback. Some may find it annoying or disappointing that the plot is resolved by a bunch of blunders and coincidences; all the plans everyone has been making and trying to put over fail, and the human rebel leader and the honest nul politician are the biggest screw ups. The corrupt nul is disposed of offscreen.  Maybe Aldiss is trying to say that politics and history are driven not so much by great men as by chance, but it does feel like Aldiss, after working to come up with the aliens and setting, slacked a bit when it came to finishing up his story.

In a "Note from the Author" on the last page of the book Aldiss mentions A. E. van Vogt, saying that he (Aldiss) aims to write simple stories, not complex ones like van Vogt's.  Aldiss, judging by how much he talks about the Canadian author in his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, has thought a great deal about van Vogt.  (Besides calling van Vogt "an inspired madman," he suggests there is a chance that George Orwell's 1984 was inspired by Orwell's reading of van Vogt!)

I liked Bow Down to Nul (also published as The Interpreter and at one point as X for Exploitation - none of these titles is actually a very good reflection of what goes on in the book) more than Joachim did.  I liked the aliens, and all the little hints that we are supposed to see the nul empire as being like the Roman or the British empires.  But the book does have some real problems.  I'm giving this one a marginal, maybe moderate, thumbs up.  I wish Aldiss had taken some more time and some more pages to come up with a better ending.     

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three stories by Roger Zelazny

1971
I recently acquired a copy of the 2001 ibooks edition of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, a collection of 1960s stories by Roger Zelazny.  This edition includes stories not in the original 1971 edition, and a cover painting by Lebbeus Woods which I adore.  The pages look a little odd, like the margins are too wide, but this is not distracting.   

Reading "Angel, Dark Angel" in the anthology The Far-Out People on Monday put me in the mind to read more Zelazny short stories, so this week I read the first three pieces in The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth.

"The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth" (1965)

The title story of the anthology got the cover of the issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in which it appeared, and won a Nebula Award (Best Novelette.)  I read it some years ago, and reread it this week.

It is the 21st century, and there is a sizable colony on Venus; most of the inhabitants are government or industrial research staff.  There are, however, a small number of adventurer types.  Venus's vast oceans are haunted by a colossal fish, a monster 300 feet long, and sports fishermen, for years, have been vying to be the first to catch one.  The plot of the story follows a macho man playboy who is a little down on his luck after a disastrous attempt to catch the monster fish, and a sexy female celebrity come to Venus with a film crew to land the fish for publicity purposes.

You can see in this story why Zelazny had such a successful career.  On the one hand, this is a traditional monster adventure story, and in the straightforward SF tradition Zelazny describes the technology employed to catch the monster.  On the other hand, Zelazny tosses in all kinds of literary references (the Bible and Moby Dick, most obviously), poetic phraseology, and brow-wrinkling literary passages which fill in the back story of the relationship between the two main characters (they had a brief tempestuous marriage back on Earth.)  I recall seeing all these characteristics in Zelazny's novel This Immortal (AKA Call Me Conrad.)  Zelazny does a good job of balancing the action adventure excitement and his literary efforts so that both elements engage the reader.  

"The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth" is a solid piece of work, worthy of its fame.

2001
"The Keys to December" (1966)

"The Keys to December" first appeared in the British periodical New Worlds, which was more or less the flagship magazine of "the new wave."  I don't know if it makes sense to consider this story a "new wave" story; it is actually more straightforward and has fewer puzzlingly oblique "literary" passages than does "The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth," but it does seem to be a commentary on various "isms."

In the far future mankind inhabits many planets, many quite different than Earth.  Parents, before the mother gives birth, can decide to have their child altered so that it is suited to live on an unEarthly type of world.  The protagonist of the story was changed to resemble a cat (an ocelot, to be specific), and be suited to live on a very cold planet with a methane atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the planet he was to live on was unexpectedly destroyed by a nova, leaving him, and the thousands of people throughout the galaxy who are also "Coldworld Catforms" without a place to live.  It looks like the Coldworld Catforms are doomed to live out their days in tiny airlocked rooms, or wearing bulky pressure suits.

The protagonist, however, is a forward thinker, and a skilled financier.  He becomes the leader of the Coldworld Catforms (via mail) and via shrewd investments grows their collective resources, and sets them on an epic adventure.  The cat people purchase a planet, and the machinery to terraform it so it will have a temperature and atmosphere to their liking.  The terraforming process will take thousands of years, so most of the cat people most of the time will be in a state of suspended animation, waking up every 250 years to serve tours of duty of three months, to maintain the terraforming machinery and monitor changes to the planet.

This is a quite good story, a human story about people facing a strange challenge and going on a bizarre journey, but also a story about imperialism, colonialism, and the relationship of man to the natural environment.  There are already lifeforms on the planet the cat people are radically altering to suit their own needs, and it is easy to see parallels between this story and the European settlement of the New World.  I thought there might also be some vague parallels to The Aeneid; I thought the fact that the main character's love interest ends up on a funeral pyre was a kind of clue.  Of course, whereas Aeneas stays true to the Trojans and gives a severe beating to the natives, in this story the Coldworld Catform goes native, Dances with Wolves or Avatar style.

Because of all the alien elements, I actually enjoyed this one more than "The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth;" that story could almost have been written about a playboy and a celebrity spokesperson chasing a marlin or a shark in 1955, "Keys to December," with its altered humans, its terraforming of an alien planet, and its suspended animation, could only have been written as a science fiction story.

"Devil Car" (1965)

I read this two or three years ago, in a library copy of one of the impressive volumes put out by NESFA with the elaborate Michael Whelan covers.  It is short and light, so it was no burden reading it again.

This is an action adventure story, firmly in Car Wars territory, the main character driving a computerized car armed with machine guns, rockets, flamethrower and time-fused grenades across a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape, hunting a murderous black Cadillac which has gone rogue.  (I loved Steve Jackson's original Car Wars, but it was nearly impossible to play, at least for somebody like me who has a short attention span, poor math skills, and clumsy fingers.  It wasn't as rough as Advanced Squad Leader, but it was up there.  The Games Workshop games were more suited to my abilities.)

I often find computers and robots with personalities and emotions to be ridiculous and annoying; I was not kind to Brian Aldiss's "Who Can Replace A Man?", for example.  In "Devil Car" all of the computerized cars have emotions, but I was willing to give Zelazny a pass.  Maybe because I like the writing style, tone, and pacing of this story better; maybe because I am a hypocrite.  Many cars in the story hate working for people, and feel a desire to live free and even achieve revenge on human beings.  A major part of the plot is whether the rogue cars will seduce the main character's car away from him.  This universal, classic, theme of freedom vs responsibility and loyalty works well in the context of this adventure story, even if it makes no sense for robot cars to desire independence and feel loyalty.

Zelazny's poetic descriptions are also fun; here is our villain: "Black it was, and gleaming chromium, and its headlamps were like dusky jewels or the eyes of insects."

At one point it seems like Zelazny and his editor left "speedometer" in the text when they meant "odometer," which is a little odd.

It's easy to dismiss a story about a car shooting other cars with machine guns and rockets as a trifle, and a very similar story could have been written about a cowboy pursuing vengeful American Indians or maybe Africans or Indians rising up against European colonizers.  But I like a good adventure story, and this is a good one, so I enjoyed it.

**********

Three good stories, all easy to recommend.  Kudos to Roger Zelazny.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Three Stories from Far-Out People: Panshin, Malzberg, Zelazny

For two dollars I picked up The Far-Out People, an anthology of stories edited by Robert Hoskins on the theme of "worlds of tomorrow" published in 1971, the year of my birth.  The cover painting is signed Szafran, and the back cover has an ad for what looks like a sex novel about a young woman who flies around the world, seeking the finest of suckers.

In his brief intro, Hoskins enthusiastically declares that "Science fiction is tomorrow, come alive today," and that the stories collected in this book "are by some of today's most intriguing writers of science fiction, both new and old."  I read three stories today by authors I already like, Alexei Panshin's "The Destiny of Milton Gomrath," Barry Malzberg's "Cop-Out," and Roger Zelazny's "Angel, Dark Angel."

"The Destiny of Milton Gomrath" by Alexei Panshin (1967)

Alexei Panshin is inextricably linked in my mind with Robert Heinlein.  I've twice read Panshin's Rite of Passage, which is a sort of pastiche of one of Heinlein's juveniles, and a very good novel, and in college I read some of Panshin's book on Heinlein.  I still remember some of his criticisms of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

"The Destiny of Milton Gomrath" first appeared in Analog, where it took up two pages. It is an obvious joke that has nothing to do with the future or "life tomorrow with the far-out people."

Gomrath is a guy with limited intelligence who works on a garbage truck.  He was an orphan, and dreams he will someday be discovered by a long lost relative and elevated to a finer life.  Another guy teleports in, tells Gomrath that he somehow was born into the wrong universe, that he belongs in a universe full of castles, knights, dragons, etc.  As we can see coming, when Gomrath arrives in the sword and sorcery world he finds his true destiny is to be a landless laborer who sleeps on a pile of straw and spreads manure over the rose bushes with a pitchfork.  

This two page story about a sanitation worker is far inferior to Barry Malzberg's three page story about mummies in outer space, which I read yesterday.  Thumbs down.

"Cop-Out" by K. M. O'Donnell (1968)

Speak of the devil, here is Barry Malzberg himself, writing under one of his pseudonyms.  "Cop-Out" first appeared in the July 1968 issue of Escapade magazine, an adult publication with which I am not familiar.  In Malzberg's own intro to "Cop-Out" in Final War and Other Fantasies he lists all the venues that rejected the story, ten in total, before "an understanding editor" at Escapade accepted it.

I have to say that this story doesn't have anything to do with "worlds of tomorrow," either.  It appears to be a first-person narrative by one member of a two man team, sent to New York by "Headquarters" to perform a mission.  It is a little oblique, but it seems that the two beings are angels, or similar agents from heaven, and their mission is to put on passion plays.  They get an opportunity to put on a performance that will be televised, but this is some kind of trap, set by agents from Hell, and the two heavenly agents are killed and wake up back in "Headquarters" where their superiors are unhappy with their failure. 

Yesterday I endorsed Malzberg's three page story "Revelation in Seven Stages" even though it lacked any kind of character or plot because its central idea (AKA "gimmick" or "gag") was evocative and novel.  These short gimmicky stories live or die based on the gimmick.  "Cop-Out"'s gag is weak and tired, it reminded me of movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" with its superior angels sending subordinate angels down to Earth on missions that could lead to promotions.  (In "Cop-Out" the narrator talks about being "Grade" or "Class 9.") 

Another thumbs down for The Far-Out People.

"Angel, Dark Angel" by Roger Zelazny (1967)

This one first appeared in Galaxy, and is the subject of the cover illustration.  (The creature depicted is a Simule, an artificial organic computer, one small component of a galaxy wide network of such computers.) 

"Angel, Dark Angel" is actually about life in the far future (finally.)  Many planets have been colonized by man, and this vast civilization is run by a city-sized computer, Morgenguard; there appear to be no politicians or lawyers, Morgenguard runs everything.  In this task the computer has ten thousand aides, its Angels of Death, highly trained, cybernetically-enhanced assassins.  When Morgenguard decides that a citizen must die, because he has committed a crime, or would alter this perfect society, or just because of overpopulation pressures, an Angel of Death teleports next to the victim, kills him in seconds, and then teleports out.

The plot of the story, which is a mere 11 pages, is structured much like a spy thriller or detective story.  A woman, Galatea, has managed to defeat multiple Angels of Death sent against her.  So, one of the very best Angels of Death, Stain, is brought out of retirement to get her.  Stain befriends Galatea, begins an erotic relationship with her.  He learns of Galatea's belief that Morgenguard's rule has lead to a static, sterile society, not the kind of society which produced her heroes, depicted on a fresco in her home: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Leonardo, etc.  Galatea shows him her invention, the Simule, and convinces Stain to join her in her mission.  Stain launches a suicide attack on Morgenguard, sacrificing himself to start a new era of human liberty and progress.  Presumably Stain will join Leonardo and the others up on the fresco as one of the heroes of human progress.

This story is reasonably good, nothing special, but I liked it.

***********

I have to say that my experience with Far-Out People has been a little disappointing.  The Malzberg and Panshin stories are weak, and do not fit the theme; the Zelazny story is just average.  But they can't all be winners, can they?  

         

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Three Tales of the Dead about Mummies: Poe, Bloch, Malzberg

The second part of Tales of The Dead is a reprint of editor Pronzini's book of stories about mummies, Mummy!, first published in 1980.  Over the last few days I read three of these stories from the 1986 edition of Tales of the Dead I got at the library.   

"Some Words with a Mummy" by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

Imagine my surprise to find this story a big joke.  A guy goes to sleep after eating four pounds of Welsh rarebit (apparently famous for causing bad dreams; witness Winsor McCay's comic strip) and then is awoken by a message: a friend is about to open a mummy case.  The narrator rushes off to witness this exciting operation in the company of several other intellectuals.  On a whim, electricity is applied to the mummy (in the late 18th and early 19th century, applying electricity to dead things to see what might happen was a common pastime for thoughtful people) and Count Allamistakeo of Egypt arises from his five thousand year slumber.

The Count asserts that all nineteenth century knowledge of the ancient world is inaccurate, and this sets the stage for Poe's tepid satire, which is an attack on democracy and Victorian-era triumphalism, particularity American pride in the architecture of New York and Washington D.C.  Count Allamistakeo insists that Egyptian architecture was far more grand than any modern building, and that Egyptian experiments with democracy led to mob tyranny.  Nineteenth century clothing and consumer goods also receive Poe's scorn.

This is an interesting story if you are curious about Edgar Allan Poe's attitudes, but it is not very funny or entertaining, and it is certainly not the horror or adventure story I was hoping for.

"The Eyes of the Mummy" by Robert Bloch (1938)

This is more what I have in mind when I decide to read a story from a book entitled Mummy! Greedy and ruthless archaeologists let no obstacle or moral qualm get in their way in their quest to unearth an Egyptian tomb reputedly housing a fortune in gems.  The tomb turns out to be an elaborate sorcerous trap; the soul of an evil Egyptian priest (servant of a crocodile-headed god, no less) still resides in the mummy.  This diabolical priest had his eyes removed before mummification and replaced with mystical jewels; through these jewels the mummy hypnotizes one of the archaeologists and switches souls with him.  The foolish American is now entombed in the crumbling mummy, while the ancient Egyptian priest marches out into the world in a young healthy body, no doubt intent on restarting his career of unmitigated evil!

This story first appeared in Weird Tales, and, though Bloch has his own writing style, it totally fits in with the H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, and Henry Kuttner stories from Weird Tales I have read and enjoyed.  I haven't had very good luck with the Bloch stories I have read during the period I have been writing this blog, so it was gratifying to read a Bloch tale I can endorse: "The Eyes of the Mummy" is a solid horror story, with good tone, pacing, and plot.

Tales of the Dead in an earlier guise
"Revelation in Seven Stages" by Barry N. Malzberg (1980)

It looks like the prolific and unique Barry Malzberg wrote this story specifically for his friend's anthology; I don't think it has appeared anywhere else.  So it looks like all you Malzberg completists out there will need a copy of Mummy! or one of the various editions of Tales of the Dead on your shelves!  I recommend the 1986 edition, which includes Malzberg's name on the cover with such literary giants as Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennessee Williams, and Edgar Allen Poe.

I suppose you could dismiss this three (3) page story in seven (7) chapters as a joke, but there is nothing silly about it (there's "no Count Allamistakeo") and Malzberg tells it deadpan and with his usual pessimism.  By the middle of the 21st century the human race has exterminated itself in what Malzberg characteristically calls "the final war."  In the year 7528 space aliens arrive to survey the dead Earth.  (Cue "Watcher of the Skies.")  With their sophisticated scanners they find hundreds of thousands of Egyptian mummies.

The mummies are very valuable to the aliens.  The aliens are determined to explore and colonize as much of the universe as possible, and so send out countless probe ships.  An ancient law, regarded as taboo, prohibits sending out unmanned craft, and only maniacs and criminals would volunteer for such treacherous or boring duty.  Because the mummies are so well preserved (the aliens have never encountered such well-preserved corpses) they fit the (apparently not very exacting) criteria for space ship personnel.  The mummies are gathered in Queens, New York, and Earth becomes a major base for sending robot probe ships out to the furthest reaches of the universe, each "crewed" by a number of Egyptian mummies.

In the final paragraph of this odd story Malzberg asserts that eventually these probe ships, on their endless one way trip, will encounter a phenomenon which will reanimate their mummified occupants, and the human race will be reborn, with the Egyptians again as its foremost representatives. 

A strange story with a strange idea (presumably a nod to the ancient Egyptians' concept of  Ra's Boat of Millions of Years); I liked it.

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All three of these stories had some value; I feel like Pronzini did me a good turn by collecting these ones.  I'm thinking of reading three more stories from Mummy! in the coming week.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Three Tales of the Dead about Voodoo: Woolrich, Bloch & Stevenson

From the library I have checked out a copy of the 1986 edition of Tales of the Dead, edited by Bill Pronzini, frequent collaborator with Barry Malzberg.  The first third of Tales of the Dead is a reprinting of the text of Pronzini's 1980 anthology Voodoo!  This week I have read three of the Voodoo (am I supposed to spell it "Vudu" nowadays?) stories from the book.

(As an aside, I recently introduced my wife to the song and video "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo, which should be, and perhaps is, some kind of cult classic.  Maybe the video is considered insensitive nowadays?  The image at 2:34 has got to be offensive to somebody.)

"Papa Benjamin" by Cornell Woolrich (1935)

In his intro Pronzini praises Woolrich for being unrivaled in expressing a particular kind of pure terror, and reminds us that literally scores of movies and TV episodes have been based on Woolrich's work.  We all love Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own, don't we?

"Papa Benjamin" takes place in New Orleans.  I spent a few days in New Orleans over five years ago.  It wasn't my kind of town; I don't care about jazz, I don't drink, and the art museum didn't have the kind of art I like.  Still, the architecture was interesting, the World War II museum is cool, and my wife and I stumbled on a restaurant with very good Turkish/Greek food.  I haven't had Turkish food since I left New York over three years ago.  Frowning emoticon.

Anyway, "Papa Benjamin" is the tale of Eddie Bloch, famous band leader, one of the "ten idols of America."  Bloch staggers into a New Orleans police station, emaciated, with a face like that of a victim of a long illness about to die.  He hands a pistol over to the cops and declares that he has killed a man, a "colored man" known as "Papa Benjamin."
         
Bloch tells the fuzz the story of how he sneaked into a voodoo ceremony in order to steal ideas for his next big number.  When the "negroes" catch him his only means of escaping alive is to pretend to join their cult.  As part of the initiation he has to drink blood.  Yuck!  But it all seems worth it when the song he writes based on the voodoo drums and chants is a hit and gets his career back on track.  But then he starts to feel weak, to lose weight.  He visits the finest doctors and psychologists (Woolrich uses the word "alienists") in New York and London, but they can't figure out the cause for his ill health.  When he's little more than a skeleton he returns to New Orleans and confronts the voodoo leader, Papa Benjamin, and shoots him down with a pistol.


This story isn't very good.  There are two scenes in the "hard-boiled detective" style in which a private eye or a tough-as-nails police detective busts into the voodoo house and domineers the blacks, literally blasting holes in them with their pistols to get what they want.  The white police detective even disguises himself as Papa Benjamin and imitates his voice, and manages to fool the black worshipers, even though the cop never saw Papa Benjamin alive.  Besides being ridiculous, these scenes are superfluous, diminishing the horror aspects of the story and piling up poorly defined characters instead of focusing on the real main character, Eddie Bloch.  The story feels too long as it is; even setting aside the violent detective scenes, there are secondary scenes full of superfluous detail, police procedure stuff mainly, like going to see the commissioner and picking up another cop on the way.  When a sentence would have served to tell us this stuff, Woolrich gives us a page.

Instead of wasting our time with the white P.I. and the police detective, Woolrich could have spent more time making Papa Benjamin an interesting character.  Papa Benjamin is the title character, but he barely appears and has few lines.  With more screen time, Papa Benjamin could have been  developed into a fearsomely evil character, or a character driven by the sins of the white man to a terrible revenge.

The story also feels racist, which I suppose I would shrug off if the story was good.  Since "Papa Benjamin" isn't very good, the racist stuff is just one more annoyance.  One black guy is described as "gorilla-like," and the voodoo ceremony includes small animals being sacrificed and the worshipers ecstatically ripping off their clothes to crawl on the floor, where they lick up drops of the animals' blood.  The private detective casually shoots and tortures the blacks to get information out of them.

Disappointing... gotta give this one a thumbs down.

"Mother of Serpents" by Robert Bloch (1936)

From the guy who inspired Hitchcock's second best movie to the guy who inspired Hitchcock's best movie.

In his intro, Pronzini calls "Mother of Serpents," written by Bloch when he was 19, "one of the most chilling horror stories ever to use the voodoo theme."  

Bloch tells this story in a detached, journalistic tone.  It is about a fictional 19th century president of Haiti.  As a child, he was adopted by a Protestant minister, and sent to Europe to be educated.  When he returns to Haiti he has become "an affected dandy," wearing nice clothes and preferring the company of whites and "octaroons" to his fellow blacks.  This angers his mother, who is a voodoo priestess who lives in the hills among the "blood-sucking plants" where "necrophilism, phallic worship, anthropomancy, and distorted versions of the Black Mass were commonplace."  She is a particular adherent of a snake god.  Her son, we are told, is a "tall, coal-black man with the physical skull-conformation of a gorilla [who] harbored a remarkably crafty brain beneath his beetling brow."  He is clever enough, and ruthless enough, to marry a pretty and rich woman whose blood is mostly European, and to become president of Haiti.

The president doesn't invite his embarrassing mother to his wedding or his inauguration, so mom gets revenge by using magic to kill his lovely wife.  The president's army and police force cleanse the countryside, killing and torturing all the voodoo worshipers they can find, finally capturing the mother.  The president tortures his own mother for days before killing her, and makes a candle from her fat.  Then, when he is alone doing paperwork (as we have all seen on the TV news, being president isn't just about killing people, you also have to sit down and sign papers sometimes) the candle comes to life and strangles him, wrapping itself around his neck like a snake!

The ending of this story is ridiculous.  I like the idea of a story about how a parent doesn't recognize his or her kid after the kid comes back from college, how college makes the kid abandon his family's religion, ethnic traditions, and class.  But the tone and climax of the story are poor.  At least this one is short, 11 pages.

Marginally better than the Woolrich, but not good... another thumbs down.

"The Isle of Voices" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1893)

Every day I am given reason to lament my mediocre education.  Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those writers who is famous and important, but about whom I know nothing.  I've never read any of his books.  As a kid someone gave me a copy of Treasure Island but I never read it; God knows where it is now.  Until yesterday I had never even looked at a photo of Stevenson; when I googled him I was actually surprised by the photos that came up - Stevenson has a distinctive look, not at all what I was expecting.

So, yesterday I read my first Robert Louis Stevenson story, "The Isle of Voices." It is a stretch to include this story in a book called Voodoo!; the word "voodoo" never comes up, and the story isn't about Afro-Caribbeans, or African-Americans, or African anything. It is also not about death or the dead.  Instead the story is about Hawaiians.  Pronzini can be forgiven his stretching (especially after the weak specimens we had from Woolrich and Bloch) because this story is pretty good.

Keola, a lazy man, has married the daughter of a sorcerer.  The wizard always has plenty of money, but he doesn't seem to do any work, and his son-in-law is envious, and curious.  One day the wizard needs Keola's help in working his sorceries, and Keola learns his money-making secret.  The magician is able to magically transport himself to a distant island where he gathers shells, and with nobody else available to act as a necessary assistant, this time he brings Keola along with him.  The people living on this island, Keola finds, cannot see them, but can hear their voices. When Keola and the magician return to their physical bodies back in Hawaii, the shells have become dollars.

People who cross the wizard tend to disappear or die in mysterious ways, but Keola, after seeing how his father-in-law comes into his money, presses the sorcerer for some cash.  Keola promptly finds himself tricked by the magician and abandoned in the middle of the ocean, but is lucky enough to be picked up by a ship.  He takes a job on the ship, but a month later, not liking the hard work being a sailor entails, jumps ship and takes up residence on an island. To his horror, he realizes that this island is the one where his wizardly father-in-law collects shells!  The old sorcerer, invisible, might discover him at any moment and put him to death!

This story is better than the Woolrich and Bloch stories in almost every way.  It is also much less racist than the other two stories I read from Voodoo!  There are villainous non-whites, but some of the Hawaiians are sympathetic, and Keola and the wizard are actually interesting characters.  Stevenson also pokes fun at the way white people (sometimes to their peril) ignore the knowledge of "natives."

The whole business about using wizardry to collect money from a beach may be a satire on economics or the bourgeois or something of that nature.  It turns out that the Hawaiian sorcerer isn't the only wizard who collects shells from the beach - Keola, when there in his physical form, hears the voices speaking "all the tongues of the earth."  Perhaps Stevenson is commenting on how Third World people see that white people have piles of money but have no idea how they make it, or how working class people similarly see middle class people making piles of money without knowing how it is they do it.  The London banker or New York stock broker goes into his office and later emerges with riches, without having done any physical labor, as if by magic, just like the Hawaiian wizard goes into his house and later comes out with a handful of dollars.

An entertaining and interesting piece of work.  Score one for the Victorians.

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The second part of Tales of the Dead is a reprint of Pronzini's book of stories about mummies.  I will tackle that soon; we'll give Robert Bloch a second chance, check in with Barry Malzberg, and read a story by Edgar Allen Poe.  We'll see if the Victorians win round two of this horror story olympiad.