Saturday, May 31, 2014

Three 1950s Novelets: De Camp, Anderson, & Lesser

Those who follow my twitter account will already know of the new love in my life, the cover painting of the 1967 printing of Novelets of Science Fiction, edited by Ivan Howard.  Who gifted our undeserving world with this Platonic ideal of all our dreams of green winged women, heavily armed astronauts, colossal eggs which give birth to stars (?), and teeming flocks of Pteranodons?  Nobody seems to know!  Our benefactor chooses to remain anonymous!

This collection of early 1950s stories was first published in 1963.  (The fact that the stories were over a dozen years old when my edition was printed didn't stop the publisher, Belmont, from trumpeting this volume as "THE BOOK OF THE YEAR."  This is a self-confidence I can admire!)

I could go on all day about the cover of Novelets of Science Fiction, but as the careers of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor have shown us, it's not looks, but what's on the inside that counts!  So let's take a gander at three "superlative" 1950s SF tales by "modern masters of science fiction," L. Sprague de Camp, Poul Anderson, and Milton Lesser.

"Ultrasonic God" by L. Sprague de Camp (1951)

When I was living back East I read a bunch of L. Sprague de Camp stories, mostly the Viagens Interplanetarias tales about guys going on sword-swinging adventures on an alien planet.  These stories were the product of De Camp setting himself the difficult task of writing John Carter style "planetary romance" or "sword and planet" stories that were more realistic than the Burroughs archetype.  The books (most of them have a capital "Z" in the title) were not bad, but were also not memorable.

"Ultrasonic God" is set in the Viagens universe, and is a pretty straightforward adventure story.  I suspect years ago I read a different version of it with a different title.

Adrian Frome is a blonde Englishman (he says stuff like "Cheerio!" and "Righto!" and "Delighted to meet you, old thing!") and an engineer working as a surveyor for the Earth-based government on an alien planet.  He gets captured by primitive natives, and is taken to another Earthman, a Thai, whom the alien tribesmen see as a god.  This ambitious human is trying to make himself emperor of all the disparate local tribes, and to that end is training this tribe in modern military discipline and making them simple firearms.  He forces Frome to work in his little gunsmithy. He has also captured an Earthwoman, a pretty missionary, and expects to found his dynasty with her.

In the grand tradition of pro-science and pro-engineering SF, our hero saves the day by doing some engineering.  The would be emperor issues commands to the natives, who have dog-like hearing, by blowing notes on a Galton whistle (what I would call a dog whistle.)  Frome attaches a dog whistle to a kettle and puts the full kettle on the fire; when the water boils it blows the whistle so loud that it distracts the natives, and they cannot hear the Thai's signals.  Frome rescues the missionary from being raped by the aspiring emperor, kills the Thai in hand to hand combat with medieval weapons, and then he and the missionary escape the natives.  Frome falls in love with the missionary, proposes marriage, but then runs out on her to a different planet when he realizes she takes her kooky religion, which she talks about unceasingly, seriously and their marriage will be a celibate one.   

This is an inoffensive but unimpressive story.  Maybe the numerous sly references to sex are daring by 1951 standards?  I guess one could also see the story as a kind of spoof of John Carter's career (remember, Carter became Emperor of Mars; in this story a man with such imperial ambitions is the villain, not the hero.  In "Ultrasonic God" our hero is a humble civil servant...who turns out to be an expert at fighting with machine guns, spears and swords.  So maybe not that different from John Carter after all.)  Feminists might want to study the story because most of the jokes are at the expense of women.  (Example: Frome says that Englishmen don't let their women walk all over them like the Americans do.)

I grade this one "acceptable;" presumably I will soon forget all about it.  


"The Chapter Ends" by Poul Anderson (1954)  

The beautiful front and back covers of Novelets of Science Fiction both proudly claim that the eight stories it contains have not appeared in paperback before.  Yet, according to isfdb, "The Chapter Ends" appeared in an Ace Double, Adventures in the Far Future / Tales of Outer Space, the same year it appeared in an American magazine and a British magazine Never trust a pretty face! 



It is many thousands of years in the future.  Mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, and the human race has been genetically engineered into a multitude of different races, each suited to a particular environment.  People now normally live to be over a thousand years old, and many people can simply fly through space without a space ship by tapping into "cosmic energy" with their GMO brains!

There is another powerful race of people in the galaxy, the Hulduvians, who can also tap into the cosmic energies with their brains.  Unfortunately, human and Hulduvian brains are different, so they cannot use their brain powers in each others' vicinity.  So the two space empires sign a treaty and divide up the galaxy; the humans get the galactic center, and the Hulduvians get the rim.  All humans must evacuate the rim systems.

One such system is that of Sol and the Earth.  Fifty thousand years ago Earth was the capitol of the human space empire, but nowadays Earth is a backwater and has almost no contact with Galactic civilization.  The few people who currently reside on Earth and are of primitive stock that only live 200 years and have no mental powers.  These people are living the environmentalist dream, using only 19th century technology, growing food with their hands, eating only what their own communities produce, engaging in no international trade.  Members of the Galactic civilization have to come to tell them they have to leave, and then spend years building space ships to take them away because their puny all-natural and organic brains can't carry them off the planet.

This is a mood piece with more sentiment than plot.  We see the different ways various people from the Galactic civilization respond to seeing the Earth, home of their ancestors, and how various Earthlings react to being forced to leave their homes.  Perhaps most entertaing are Anderson's descriptions of the vast ruins of Sol City, once capitol of the human part of the galaxy.  Also worth remarking upon is Anderson's vision of the lifestyle of the Galactics-- in contrast to the tightly-knit Earth villages, which almost seem like European peasant villages of a pre-industrial period, the Galactics have abandoned community entirely, living like hermits, with no marriages, no families, and, as one disgruntled Earthling says, "No tradition...I pity you Galactics!"

This is a good story that makes you think about tradition, community, and how people respond to change.  The more I think about it, the more I like it.    

"'A' as in Android" by Milton Lesser (1951)

Back in January of 2012 I read Milton Lesser's fix-up novel Secret of the Black Planet and wrote a mildly negative review of it on Amazon.  I think that is my only previous exposure to Lesser.  Here I am giving him a second chance--don't believe all those people who say I'm not open-minded!

"'A' as in Android" first appeared in a magazine, and in 2013 served as title story of a collection of Lesser tales published by Armchair Fiction as one of their Masters of Science Fiction series.

"'A' as in Android" is written like one of those hard-boiled detective stories, a first person narrative from a tough guy on an investigation.  Our narrator, Carmody, works for the government's Android Service, and he just got to Hyperion, one of Saturn's moons.  A club owner on Hyperion has a squad of dancing girls so beautiful, so graceful, that they can't be human; they must be androids.  The club owner hasn't paid the android tax, and Carmody has come to Hyperion to collect.

As it turns out, the girls are not androids, but infiltrators from another dimension in disguise.  There's a fist fight, and Carmody is overpowered (the extradimensional girls are super strong and don't even need to wear a space suit when exposed to hard vacuum, as the story's illustration shows) and the girls put him in one of their machines.  This machine transfers his mind from his body to an android body; his original body is then tossed in an alley!  After some more hand to hand combat Carmody escapes and tries to warn the authorities, but since he's in an android body, no one believes him.  Poor Carmody, trapped in an android body, has to watch as more and more clubs, throughout the Solar System, employ impossibly graceful dancing girls, alone in the knowledge that this is a sign of mankind's impending slavery to aliens from another dimension!

I don't think this story holds together if you look at it too closely, so I'm not going to look at it too closely.  Instead I'll just judge it "acceptable" as a piece of fast-paced and brief entertainment and move on with my life.  The whole thing is crazy enough that I am willing to read more lesser stories to see how crazy they are. 

**********

"THE BOOK OF THE YEAR" is probably a stretch, but so far I'm liking Novelets of Science Fiction.  I will read all the stories and crown a winner; so far Poul Anderson is in the lead.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Nets of Space by Emil Petaja

The front of my shopworn copy
In the nigh-forgotten past, back in the period known to historians as "January 2014," I read Emil Petaja's The Stolen Sun.  Examination of the records covering this dimly recalled epoch will lead the careful scholar to admit that there is a possibility that this blog did not merely express dislike for The Stolen Sun, but denounced DAW Books for unleashing it upon an unsuspecting public.

As the politicians tell us, America is the land of second chances.  In that spirit, I read The Nets of Space, Mr. Petaja's 1969 paperback from Berkley Medallion (X1692), which is adorned with an irresistibly awesome cover painting.  The Stolen Sun, the cognoscenti will recall, was inspired by the Kalevala, the national saga of Finland; as I cracked open The Nets of Space I pondered the possibility that this time around Mr. Petaja was inspired by the menu at Red Lobster.

The first chapter of this 20 chapter (128 page) book is a dream sequence.  Our hero, Donald Quick (his father named him after The Knight of the Woeful Countenance), is naked, in a huge bowl along with dozens of other naked people.  Above the bowl are Brobdingnagian crab people who are reaching into the bowl to seize the squirming humans and then devour them like appetizers!  The crabs discuss this new delicacy, one of them assuring another that he should eat a black person--the blacks have the most meat, while the Asians are too small and the whites are too fat!  Somebody should tell these outer space crab people that race is just a social construct!

Don wakes up and we find ourselves in the middle of what threatens to become a mainstream novel.  Vietnam vet Don is a victim of mental illness who loves the booze, and is holed up in a mountain cabin all alone with a nice bottle of vodka.  He quotes Amy Lowell and thinks back to his psychiatrist's advice (this advice was to stay away from the booze.)  He looks around his cabin (it's full of dust).  A pretty nurse shows up at the cabin at four in the morning so the two can reminisce about Don's psychiatry treatment and his abortive astronaut career.  Don and the nurse, whose name is Donna, begin a beautiful romance. 
 
And the back
Don received training to go on man's first trip to interstellar space, but failed a physical and so ended up on the ground crew.  In an accident he breathed some of the time-space ship's "time gas" fuel, which put him in the hospital for months.  Eventually scientists at the space agency realize that Don's vivid dreams about the giant alien crabs are not dreams at all--Don is tuning in telepathically on the Earth astronauts, witnessing their horrible fate at the hands (er, claws) of invincible extraterrestrials!

As the kids might say, I totally dig the gargantuan crab aliens.  Petaja has come up with a whole culture, history and religion for them, and the crab peoples' leaders are more interesting than Don's shrink and the head of the Earth space agency, a Scandinavian scientist who says "ja" all the time. So why does Petaja spend so many pages giving us descriptions of the California mountains and flora, snatches of Don Quixote, conversations about Don and Donna's families, and Psych 101 lectures from Don's headshrinker?  Maybe to pad out the page count?

Petaja's writing style isn't the best, either.  Here are three passages that had me laughing or scratching my head:

"To face the enemy of night alone with this on his mind was something that shriveled his viscera, no matter how hard he tried to laugh it off." (43)   

"Whatever was in the Doc's new drugs seemed to be pinpointing one small section of his mind, thesaurus-like." (60)

A later edition
"Panic was all-inclusive.  Yet Don thought he heard parts of names.  Names.  The crew members sought refuge in withness." (86)

Believe me, I spent a long time trying to figure out that thesaurus simile. 

The Nets of Space has lots of problems, including the science, which doesn't seem to make any sense and is not applied consistently.  But I still enjoyed the book.  The crabs are great, and the scenes in which Don negotiates with a different alien race, tiny insect people, are good.  The Lilliputian race has developed a gas that can save the Earth from the crabs (the hungry crabs are on their way to Earth with their nets, seeking to add all of mankind to their larder), but the insect people have to be persuaded to take sides in the crab vs human war.  Only one race can survive; if they don't conquer Earth, the crabs will starve.  Why should the insect people choose the humans over the crabs?  Showing a commendable respect for the arts, Petaja has Don trade the insect people, who are literary connoisseurs as well as great scientists, a copy of Don Quixote for the war gas the Earth needs.  Petaja seems to be saying that, despite the manifold sins of mankind, the human race deserves to survive because it has numbered amongst its members great artists like Cervantes.  This is a message I can endorse!

So, thumbs up for The Nets of Space.  The aliens are great, its heart is in the right place, and many of its numerous problems have their own weird charm.  (Shriveled his viscera?)

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

Gossipy side note:  The Nets of Space is dedicated to Harold Taves.  I had never heard of Taves before, and a google search revealed him to be a Seattle bookstore owner and one of Hannes Bok's boyfriends.  Anybody interested in early SF fandom, or gay figures in the SF community, should check out Jessica Amanda Salmonson's reminiscences of Taves; Taves sounds like an odd and interesting character.   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Three Tanith Lee stories: "Monkey's Stagger," "Qatt-Sup," & "Draco, Draco"

It's time to return to Tanith Lee's 1985 hardcover collection from DAW, The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales!  This week I read three more stories from the book, "Monkey's Stagger," "Qatt-Sup," and "Draco, Draco."  I have been loving the stories in The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales; let's hope the love continues!

"Monkey's Stagger" (1979)

"Monkey's Stagger" appeared originally in the fourth issue of Sorcerer's Apprentice, a short-lived quarterly aimed at the RPG market.  In the issue's Letter from the Editor (called "Troll Talk") editor Ken St. Andre praises Lee to the skies (I'm with you Ken!) and warns readers that the story contains sexual content.  (You can read St. Andre's column and learn more about Sorcerer's Apprentice here.)

This 11-page story revolves around a pun, and is full of other jokes that did not make me laugh.  

Centuries ago a space ship crewed by white people known as the "Inglish" crashed on Darzilla, a planet inhabited by blue people with a medieval level of technology.  With their superior technology and will to dominate, the Inglish set themselves up as lords of the planet, building mansions and coercing the natives to be their servants.  The native Darzillans are an easy-going sort and do not rebel, but are able to temper their masters' rule because they know the spells that prevent attack from the planet's demons, spells which none of the Inglish know; the Inglish need to maintain a decent relationship with the natives or the demons will be able to prey on them.

The jokes are largely about the English character; the Inglish are imperialistic, the Inglish love animals, etc.  These jokes are not bad, but they didn't make me laugh, either.

The plot of the story involves Edmund, a young Inglishman who, as the second son of his family, cannot inherit the family mansion and instead is sent out to live the life of a knight errant, fighting demons and protecting the weak.  He encounters an attractive demon and after some homosexual sex with the demon is given one hour to figure out the riddle which will allow him to escape being torn to pieces by the demon.  By luck Edmund figures out the riddle, which would have been easy to figure out if he spoke Darzillan.  So, after his escape, Edmund travels the countryside, convincing the Inglish to learn the Darzillan tongue, which improves life for both the Inglish and Darzillans.

This story is just OK, a competent trifle.  I'm generally not into jokey stories.  I think maybe Lee was going for a Jack Vance vibe, here.     

"Qatt-Sup" (1985)

Another pun?  Another jocular story?  This story is less than four pages long, and as far as I can tell, only ever appeared in this collection.  It seems that in some printings it appears as "Quatt-Sup."  It includes a joke for all you Star Trek fans.

This is one of those switcheroo stories.  A guy is irritated when a cat who lives in his neighborhood steals from his refrigerator instead of keeping down the mice, as he had hoped it would.  Then he gets captured by a giant space alien who is travelling the galaxy, collecting specimens.  In the same way that the cat on Earth figured out how to get into his fridge, giant space cats who are supposed to be keeping down the giant space mice population figure out how to get into the Earthman's quarters.  They kill him.

I don't really like gimmicky switcheroo stories.


"Draco, Draco" (1984)

"Draco, Draco" first saw publication in an anthology of fantasy stories edited by Maxim Jakubowski.  This story is much closer to what I hope for when I start a Tanith Lee tale, and I really enjoyed it.

It is northern Europe, maybe Britain, in the later days of the Roman Empire.  The story takes place in territories which only in the last generation or so were within the Pax Romana, but now are beyond the borders of Roman control.  A traveling apothecary meets a soldier (perhaps a deserter?) who hasn't a horse; the two travel together to a village which is plagued by a dragon.  (I guess this is an alternate universe version of our world.)

The villagers regularly tie a virgin to a post in front of the dragon's cave as a sacrifice to the monster, in hopes of appeasing it.  Such a sacrifice is scheduled for the day after our travelers arrive, and the apothecary and soldier accompany the procession to the dragon's cave, and deal with the dragon.

This is a sort of revisionist, cynical, slightly feminist retelling of the traditional dragon story.  The virgin begs that the apothecary drug her so she will be able to go to her doom without becoming hysterical.  The dragon is "realistic;" it isn't much bigger than a crocodile and it doesn't breathe fire.  While the villagers and apothecary watch, the soldier confronts the dragon and gets knocked to the ground, and then the dragon rips the girl to bits and eats her.  When the dragon retreats to its cave the soldier follows it into the darkness; when the soldier comes out, he reports that the dragon has been killed, and is feted as a hero.  He is rewarded with a horse and many of the local girls show their appreciation in private, if you know what I mean.

The soldier realizes that the apothecary gave the sacrificial girl poison, enough poison that it killed the dragon; his sword couldn't even penetrate the dragon's scales, and it died in the cave without him having struck it.  The soldier wants to maintain his reputation as a hero, and threatens the apothecary, lest he reveal the secret.  Then our dragon slayers part ways.

An above average fantasy adventure story, well-written, with good images and a solid plot.

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

The course of true love never did run smooth!  "Monkey's Stagger" is just OK, and I have to give a thumbs down to "Qatt-Supp." Fortunately, I quite liked "Draco, Draco."  So I put aside The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales on a positive note.   

I'm sure I'll get to the two remaining stories in The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales eventually, but my next Tanith Lee encounter will be with the 1982 DAW paperback of her Cyrion stories.  I have high hopes!            


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On A Planet Alien by Barry Malzberg

My copy's front cover
Recently, up in Mankato, Minnesota, at a used bookstore decorated with hand-scrawled signs demanding that you not use your cell phone on the premises, I purchased a 1974 paperback edition of New Jersey-based author and critic Barry Malzberg's On a Planet Alien.  Perhaps even more remarkable than the cover illustration, with its panoply of girls' boobs and phallic symbols, are the extravagant blurbs praising Malzberg.  Harlan Ellison claims that Malzberg's work is so good that the work of other SF writers looks like a crime by comparison.  Somebody at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction proclaims Malzberg "a true hero!"  A note from the publisher calmly reports that Malzberg's sales now total over 5 million.  (This lead me to mental calculations beginning, "If Malzberg got one penny/nickel/dime for each sale....")  

The praise from FSF and Ellison is expanded upon on the first page, and Robert Silverberg joins the mix.  Silverberg is quoted as saying, "One of the most terrifying visions ever to come out of science fiction."  Not only is this a fragment, but it is not clear if old Silverbob was referring to On a Planet Alien or some other Malzberg work or Malzberg's entire body of work.  The accolades from Ellison and FSF are even more cryptic: FSF calls Malzberg "a big frog in the biggest pond" and Ellison says the effect on him of reading The Destruction of the Temple "can only be described in terms of the Rape of the Sabine Women...."

It is appropriate that the advertising blurbs be mysterious, as On a Planet Alien is a pretty mysterious novel.  In the 25th century all the space faring races have joined together in a Federation.  This Federation searches the universe for habitable planets with pre-technological societies; when such civilizations are discovered representatives of the Federation are sent to contact them, to provide them with science and technology and guide their development in a peaceful direction, so they can one day join the Federation themselves.

My copy's back cover
On a Planet Alien is the story of one such team, which consists of two couples, Hans Folsom, the commander, and his "mate," Nina, a linguist, and a pair of homosexual lovers, Stark, a sociologist, and Closter, a geologist.  The four travel to a planet 3712 light years from Earth and there meet primitive aliens with an unusually advanced religion.  They capture one of the aliens' "Elders" and teach him English (or whatever language people speak in the 25th century.)  A strange artifact with runes on it, suggesting that the planet has either been visited by spacefaring aliens or once was home to a now vanished technological civilization, is also found.  Before any more of the natives can be taught English, Folsom goes insane and murders his crew, and in a series of flashbacks we get clues as to why he lost his mind.  Folsom gives the Anglophone alien a ray pistol and a pile of documents that should jump start the rise of a technological civilization on the planet, and then commits suicide by blowing up the ship.   

The novel is full of unresolved mysteries and discrepancies in the text.  Some of the characters doubt that the Federation's missions are benevolent, and suspect the Federation wants to make slaves of the primitives.  The very existence of a Federation is doubted by some.  The runes on the artifact are never deciphered.  It is suggested that Folsom's ship may have actually flown through a time warp, and landed not on an alien planet, but the Earth at the dawn of mankind.

A German edition
Much of the novel is a first person narrative in Folsom's voice, but other parts are written in the third person.  The narrative at least once switches from third to first person inside a single paragraph (page 71.)  Scenes late in the novel suggest that scenes earlier in the novel were in fact delusions.  For example, at the very start of the book we are told that the gay couple, Stark and Closter, slept "disgustingly intertwined" (as Folsom puts it) in the same suspended animation vat during the space voyage.  At the very end of the book we are told that each crew member had his or her own suspended animation tank on the ship.  There are scenes in which Folsom shows the rune-inscribed artifact to the other humans, and his feelings are hurt when they dismiss his discovery as unimportant.  In a later scene Folsom shows thre artifact to Nina and both act like she never saw it before.  It is not impossible that some of these discrepancies are errors on the part of Malzberg, who is known to have written some of his books in a mad rush.  

A British edition
As in much of his other writing, Malzberg questions whether human beings have the psychological capacity to travel through space and/or confront alien worlds.  The focus of the novel is Folsom's mental state, and almost every paragraph, whether it is in the first or third person, is about his erratically changing feelings, shifting beliefs, or unstable sanity.  Folsom questions his own sanity, and soon after arriving on the planet Nina, the other crew members, and even HQ (called "the Bureau") all suspect Folsom is crazy.  (In the book's best joke Folsom sends a text message to the Bureau, asking them to clarify an earlier message he does not understand, and, instead of clarifying, the Bureau responds "IS SOMETHING SERIOUSLY WRONG WITH YOU?") 

Malzberg is skeptical not only of the ability of people to explore other worlds, but of the value of doing so. Folsom claims that, despite having travelled billions and billions of miles to meet an alien culture, he feels like he has lived his whole life in a series of small rooms.  Exploring space has not improved his life, and he doesn't see how meeting Federation members and joining the Federation can possibly improve the aliens' lives.   Folsom even doubts that any technology, even the most rudimentary, has improved human life; when the alien Elder is reluctant to take custody of the papers which bear the secrets of the wheel, electricity, steam power, gunpowder and the rest, Folsom says, "...we didn't want it either, did we?...We would have been just as well without it...." 

Malzberg's pessimistic attitude is, of course, a radical contrast to some of the science fiction novels I have read recently, like Heinlein's The Rolling Stones and Brackett's Alpha Centauri or Die!  In those novels space exploration is an heroic expression of mankind's love of freedom and ability to overcome obstacles, and space is full of opportunities to make friends and secure valuable resources.  In Malzberg's universe space travel drives you crazy, and the only opportunity it provides is the opportunity to expand the scope of human depravity.  In On a Planet Alien Malzberg also seems to be satirizing Heinlein's oft addressed theme of the need to respect the captain of a ship.  Even though I am more sympathetic to Heinlein's and Brackett's points of view, I find Malzberg's attitude amusing and a fun change of pace.

I enjoyed this one more than I did Mazlberg's Cross of Fire and The Men Inside, though perhaps not as much as The Falling Astronauts.  Malzberg fans should really appreciate it, and I think it may be a good example of what Malzberg is all about, and so a good place to start for SF fans who haven't yet experienced Malzberg's brand of extreme pessimism and literary experimentation.     

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The New Mind and new (to me) authors: Bauer, Effinger, and Sohl

Today we are exploring new frontiers at this here blog.  New to me, at least.  I'd read four stories from Roger Elwood's 1973 collection of original science fiction stories, Frontier 2: The New Mind and liked them all, so I decided yesterday to press my luck and read three more, all of them by writers I had never read before.

"From All of Us" by Gerard M. Bauer

In his intro to the book, editor Roger Elwood informs us (warns us?) that Bauer is 19 years old and that "From All of Us" is his first sale.  The story is full of odd word choices that I think an editor should have done something about.  The very first lines of the story are, "I was born insane.  Mad.  Or to use the erudite term, 'mentally retarded.'"  Do educated people ever use "mentally retarded" as a synonym or euphemism for "insane?"  On the second page the word "acknowledge" is used in an unusual and off-putting way, and the third page "repulsively."  This story had me itching for my red pen. 

Jim, our first person narrator, is from the Twin Cities, which, in real life, is home to perhaps the finest SF bookstore in the world, Uncle Hugo's, which I have visited once and highly recommend.  Jim and his parents are on a road trip through Montana; I don't think I've ever been to Montana. 

Jim is twelve years old, and a genius, but, because he is mute and his arms are too weak to write, he is considered mentally retarded.  He receives a telepathic call, and escapes his dreadful and pathetic parents to join a secret community of people with physical birth defects and astounding mental abilities.  Their leader is a biracial ("mulatto" is the word used) scientist who has built a machine that can cure Jim's physical problems, a second machine that can telepathically teach him a library's worth of knowledge in a few week's time, and a third machine that can teleport everybody to another planet.  In no time Jim has the body of a healthy 25-year old and is having marathon sex sessions with a beautiful 20-year-old woman whom the mulatto assigns to him as his "mate."  

The National Guard detects the nuclear reactor the mulatto secretly built and, along with some local ranchers, attacks the fortress of the mute geniuses.  The mute geniuses teleport to a planet with perfect weather and live happily ever after.  The last lines of the story express Jim's contempt for those of us stuck on our "dead and stagnant" Earth.

This is a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy, silly enough to be interesting and amusing, though perhaps not in the way the author intended.  Perhaps it has value as a kind of window into the 1973 zeitgeist, or into the mind of an alienated teenager.

I didn't look up Bauer on isfdb until after I had read the story; when I did, I found this was his only published SF story.  In 2003 he signed a letter from the SFWA urging the powers that be to continue exploring space despite the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, so I guess he was still an active part of the professional SF community 30 years after his single sale.      

"New New York New Orleans" by George Alec Effinger

Every day I find a new reason to miss New York.  I recently learned that the institution that owns the house we are renting expects us to mow the lawn.  I haven't mowed (or mown) a lawn in like 25 years!

I've been to New Orleans.  I wasn't crazy about it.

"New New York New Orleans" is a well-written example of what I call "a Twilight-Zone-style" story.  Two guys living in New York City notice that characteristic elements of New Orleans are popping up in the Big Apple; Louisiana cooking, a huge paddleboat in the Hudson, tourists carrying New Orleans souvenirs who actually think they are in New Orleans, etc.  There has been a wrinkle or warp in the fabric of reality, and it is getting worse all the time.  Eventually it becomes clear that the entire country, or maybe the entire world or universe, is descending into chaos, with people and things appearing and disappearing.  There is no explanation for this, or resolution of the plot; the characters can only accept this strange new state of affairs.

The tone of the story is basically humorous, though with an undercurrent of fear and alienation (of millions of people in New York, only three of them seem to notice what is happening; the changes seem to be affecting most peoples' brains or psychologies.) 

This story is sort of "meta"--one of the two characters reads SF novels--and includes pop culture references--the other character watches lots of TV.   People familiar with Manhattan and/or The Big Easy may appreciate all the references to streets and landmarks from those towns. 

This sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea (there was nothing to make me intellectually or emotionally engaged, and the jokes didn't make me laugh), but I can see it is a good specimen of its type and the style is good.  I'm not averse to reading more Effinger stories, should I encounter any in other anthologies I buy for other reasons.


This story was expanded into a short novel that I do not plan on reading.
"I Am Aleppo" by Jerry Sohl

I haven't been to Syria, so no personal reminiscences this time. 

"I Am Aleppo" is a confusing and ridiculous story.  I also thought some of the sentences were poorly structured.  As I was reading it I kept checking to see how many pages I had left, I was so eager to put it behind me.

Scientists get the idea from some primitive and peaceful natives that crime, war, and mental illness occur because people don't process their dreams correctly.  So they figure out a way to hook people together with wires so a person who is awake can watch a sleeping person's dreams.

It turns out that when we dream, our souls or minds or whatever travel to another dimension, or maybe that when we dream people from another dimension who share a collective consciousness can enter our minds.  Anyway, somehow, these people from another dimension are in our dreams, and can kill us.  In the story, two different scientists die in real life when a weightlifter, in their dreams, strangles them.

Somehow, the scientists rig up a tank attached by wires to the dreaming sleeper, and capture the murderous weightlifter in the tank.  They shut the power to the tank off, so the muscleman from the dream dimension dies.  All the other people in the dream dimension feel their fellow member of the collective conscious die, so one of the dream people who looks like a hooded Arab with a scimitar and calls himself Aleppo vows revenge.  A third scientist gets hooked up and dreams, and he is attacked by Aleppo and fights him hand to hand.  The waking scientists capture the Arab in the tank and unhook their colleague in time to save his life, or so they think.  Somehow, their colleague's soul is in the tank and Aleppo's soul is in the scientist's body-- the dream Arab, animating the scientist's body, massacres everybody in the lab with a butcher knife he found someplace.  The end.

I didn't like the style of the writing, and as for the plot, there was just too much going on that made no sense and was not explained satisfactorily for the story to be at all convincing or enjoyable.  The waking person hooked up to the dreamer doesn't see the same images as the dreamer, he sees a third person perspective on the dream, like he is another person in the dream, but one the dreamer is not aware of.  I didn't understand how the people from the dream world got into the tank either.  It also seems like most of our dreams come from our own minds, that only some of the components of our dreams come from the dream dimension, and somehow the scientists could tell with their instruments when a dream world person had invaded an Earth human's dreams.  There is also a hint that the dream people are the souls of Earth people who have died, and that they can return to the Earth as the souls of newborns.  Maybe all this stuff is better explained in the novel I, Aleppo, published three years after The New Mind.

Anyway, I didn't like "I Am Aleppo."

*********

Exploring new frontiers is not always profitable. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein

My copy - I paid double cover price!
As a child, I always thought it odd that one of the most famous rock bands, the most famous music magazine, and the most famous song by the musician sophisticated people were supposed to like, were all variants on "Rolling Stone."  I also didn't understand the cliche "A rolling stone gathers no moss."  Is moss good or bad?  The world was a mystifying place when I was a kid.

Like everybody, I love the Heinlein juveniles.  I read Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones when I was a child, and for the last year or so have wanted to reread it, but for some reason I never saw it in a library or used bookstore.  Finally I discovered it at a store in Mankato, Minnesota, where I paid $3.50 for a Ballantine 1978 paperback; it was by far the most expensive of the fifteen paperbacks I bought that day.  (Philip Jose Farmer's The Green Odyssey was runner up at $2.50; all the others were less than 2 bucks.) 

The Stones, who live on the moon, are a family of geniuses.  The grandmother, Hazel, is an engineer who was among the first moon colonists and helped write the lunar constitution.  The father, Roger, is an engineer who served as mayor and now writes a TV show.*  The mother, Edith, is a doctor and a sculptor.  The fifteen-year-old twin boys, Castor and Pollux, got rich designing a valve and the four year old son, Lowell, is a chess master and some kind of psychic.  (There's also a teenaged daughter, Meade, who feels a little underwritten and seems like a mere mortal; I'm afraid she is just there to fulfill the plot's need for another person to look after the baby while everybody else is on adventures.)

A British edition
The twins' plan to engage in interplanetary trade evolves into a pleasure cruise for the entire family when Roger decides to buy a rocket ship to serve as the family's private space yacht.  Then it is off to Mars and then the asteroid belt.  The Stones don't get involved in any wars, revolutions, or violent crimes--in fact, some of the episodes in the book are more reminiscent of a TV sit-com than a traditional adventure novel, revolving as they do around the twins' get-rich-quick schemes and little Lowell's precocity.  One of these capers appears to be the inspiration for the famous Tribbles episode of Star Trek, written by Heinlein fan David Gerrold.

On the more serious side, Edith risks her own life curing a plague, and Hazel and Lowell get lost in the asteroid belt while low on oxygen due to the twins' negligence.  (You could say that the overarching plot of the book is the maturation of the twins, their education not only in math but in the need to act responsibly.)

This book has tons of science, or perhaps I should say, math and engineering.  There's lots of talk about orbits, reaction mass, parabolas, etc.  In some ways the book is a love letter to mathematics.  ("...the complex logics of matrix algebra, frozen in beautiful arrays...the wild and wonderful field equations that make Man king of the universe....")   The science stuff all seems pretty realistic; there's no hyperspace or artificial gravity, for example, so the trip from Luna to Mars takes like six months, and is carefully timed to coincide with an optimum point in the planets' orbits. 

Heinlein gets flak for the anti-feminist sentiments in Podkayne of Mars, in which the title character expresses a fascination with babies and the wise mentor character opines that a woman's true responsibility is raising children, so it is interesting to see a more feminist-friendly point of view in The Rolling Stones.  Not only are Hazel and Edith talented professionals, self-sacrificing heroes, and mouthpieces for some of Heinlein's social/political beliefs (Hazel is a strong supporter of the right to bear arms): Hazel complains about the sexism in the workplace that slowed down her career and threatens Meade's.

Besides the right to bear arms, Heinlein includes some of his other hobbyhorses in the book.  A naval officer himself, Heinlein, stresses the importance of always obeying the captain of the ship.  We also can detect Heinlein's admiration for rugged individualists and business people; the twins and their grandmother are avid and unashamed pursuers of the almighty dollar.

Spoilerific back cover of my copy
One of the interesting things about The Rolling Stones is the TV scripts* which Roger, and then Hazel (in fact all the family members play a role in shaping the scripts), write.  Their show is an adventure serial, and it seems to be a sort of foil for The Rolling Stones itself.  Whereas The Rolling Stones is based on real science, stars an upper-middle class family, and is full of life lessons about the importance of knowledge and ethical behavior, the TV serial is a frivolous and ridiculous piece of low common denominator entertainment for children, full of invincible heroes, despicable villains, and incredible cliffhangers.  Roger himself seems to hate the serial, and looks forward to killing off the hero in the final episode.  In some of his other books, perhaps most prominently in the lamentable Number of the Beast, Heinlein engages in literary criticism and writes homages to his favorite SF writers; it is hard not to see the SF story within The Rolling Stones as a spoof of some of the pulp adventures which appeared at the same time, perhaps even the same magazines, as Heinlein's own stories in the 1930s and 1940s.  Whether this is a loving spoof or a condemnatory one, I am not sure.

A few days ago I suggested that, to enjoy the work of R. A. Lafferty, Barry N. Malzberg and A. E. Van Vogt, you can't judge their work by the standards appropriate for more conventional SF.  I think the Heinlein juveniles fit comfortably in the nominal category of "conventional SF," and I think if we judge The Rolling Stones by those standards, the novel achieves a high score.  There are likable characters, an escapist but believable plot, lots of realistic science, interesting aliens, and speculations on what life will be like in the future.  The book is a "juvenile," but it doesn't talk down to the reader; you are expected to know who Dante, Homer, George Eliot and Sir Walter Scott are, to know what happened in 1861, and to know what "Carcassone" signifies.  (I confess to failing the test; I had no idea what Carcassone was all about until I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

A good example of classic (and family-friendly) SF by a skilled writer. 

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

*I think this 1978 edition I just read is revised; I swear on Cthulhu's grave that when I read The Rolling Stones as a kid Roger and Hazel were writing a radio serial.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Three Tales of The New Mind: Lafferty, Malzberg, and Green

ISFDB image
On the weekend I read a story by Charles L. Grant from Frontiers 2: The New Mind; it was pretty good.  So, what else does The New Mind, a paperback from 1973 of original stories edited by Roger Elwood, have to offer? 

The New Mind includes an introduction by Frederick Pohl that perhaps provides an interesting snapshot of early 1970s attitudes.  Pohl argues that technology has ruined the world, and also suggests that the two parent family is "rigid" and may very well have driven us all insane.  Pohl thinks maybe things would be better if we all grew up in communes; if communes don't work, hopefully some other unspecified changes will save us: "...there are changes coming.  They are coming because we need them...."

On a less apocalyptic note, and perhaps more in keeping with the "new mind" theme, Pohl also pokes fun at people who believe in psychic powers or UFOs, but suggests that these beliefs are no more irrational than a belief in God.  He tells us that many intelligent and well-educated people, including "famous men in the hard sciences" whom he has met, believe in ESP.  Pohl himself does not believe such things, but admits that he wishes he could: ESP and similar phenomena might provide a means to solve all our problems, and the arrival of aliens would be fun and exciting!

Back cover of my copy
Besides Pohl's amusing intro, over the last few days I read three stories from The New Mind, R. A. Lafferty's "Four Sides of Infinity," Barry N. Malzberg's "Opening Fire," and Joseph Green's "Space to Move."

The back cover of Frontiers 2: The New Mind advertises Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives and assures us that further volumes in this series are in preparation.  However, as far as I can tell no Frontiers 3 ever appeared.

"Four Sides of Infinity" by R. A. Lafferty

R. A. Lafferty, because he writes in an unusual style and has a range of interests and attitudes quite different from most SF writers, is always worth checking out.  When I first read Lafferty I didn't quite appreciate what he was trying to do, but he quickly grew on me.  As with Barry Malzberg or A. E. Van Vogt, you have to embark on a story or novel by Lafferty with a different set of expectations than you do when you read a more conventional piece of work.

"Four Sides of Infinity" (about 40 pages) consists of four separate stories about the same odd collection of characters living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which Lafferty tells us is "the Athens of mid-America."  Some of these four tales would later appear on their own in collections of Lafferty's stories.  In these four stories we see Lafferty's Christian faith and wacky sense of humor, .

The first ("The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos") is about a scientist whom we are invited to think of as the Devil (his name is "Drakos," after all) who creates artificial life in the form of mice.  The other characters, which include a literature professor, a political manipulator, a seismologist, an Australopithecine houseboy, a female ghost, a life-sized animate doll, and Lafferty himself (whom the other characters call "Laff"), object to Drakos playing God, and the mice are destroyed in a fierce lightning storm.

The second story ("The Two-Headed Lion of Cris Benedetti") is about how a literary professor claims to be a fan of an Irish writer who does not, in fact, exist, even forging books to put over this fraud.  His friends and students are fooled, and, fired by the prof's false enthusiasm, go so far as to organize a visit from the fictional writer.  The professor is flabbergasted when the students send money to Ireland and two imposters answer the summons; these two old Irishmen come to blows and the American professor who "created" them is grievously wounded in the fracas.

The third story ("The Hellaceous Rocket of Harry O'Donovan") follows the political manipulator's efforts to create and own a senator.  He gets together a used car salesman to be "the mask," a skilled writer to be "the pitchman," and an able manager to be "the brain."  The used car salesman does poorly in the primary race until the fourth man, without whom no politician can succeed, comes on the scene and joins the campaign--the fourth man is the Devil!  The used car salesman becomes candidate for his party, but then the lit professor and the Australopithecine houseboy perform an exorcism, driving out the Devil.  The used car salesman loses the election and the manipulator is frustrated in his designs.

The final story ("The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen") is about the seismologist.  He builds a scale model of a section of the Earth's crust upon which to perform experiments in tectonics.  The female ghost uses her unearthly powers to bring this tiny world to life, but disaster occurs when a volcano erupts on the little world, setting the seismologist's house on fire.

These four crazy stories are full of satire, wacky jokes, and bad puns.  One of their uniting themes is the folly of counterfeiting and fraud.  Four of the characters try to take on God's job of creation, and all four suffer for it.  Another theme is the vague, or "contested" as they might say in academe, definition of who is alive, and who is human.  The two female characters are undead, a ghost and a doll animated by the spirit of a dead girl, and then there is the houseboy, an Australopithicus. 

A fun read.

"Opening Fire" by Barry Malzberg

This story is six pages long, and is split into six chapters.

Humans have met a peaceful alien race, and an elite team goes out to negotiate with them.  One member of the team, our narrator, a mathematician, has failed all the psychological tests designed to weed out bigots and xenophobes--he finds the aliens disgusting and repellent, and his gut tells him they will try to outwit and dominate humanity.  The authorities decide to let him on the team anyway; humanity's instinctive suspicion and fear are probably a valuable evolutionary trait which has protected mankind from extinction in the past, and the authorities figure this aspect of human life deserves a seat at the table.

Malzberg leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether the bigoted mathematician is justified in his fear or not.  The aliens are pretty mysterious (all the meetings are on the Earth ship, no human gets to see the inside of the alien ship) and they aren't really all that peaceful (they say they are in a war with another alien race the humans have never met, and they want to buy Earth weapons from the humans.)  The captain of the Earth ship, after negotiations are concluded, hands our narrator over to the aliens, who kill him with a ray gun, saying that, for there to be peace between them and the Earth people, all such bigots must be eliminated.    

Not bad; if you care to, you can spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out if the narrator deserves to be killed for being a xenophobe, or if his death proves that the humans really should be suspicious of the aliens, or if the point of the story is that life is horrible and makes monsters of us all.

"Space to Move" by Joseph Green

In his preface to The New Mind, editor Roger Elwood says, "Barry Malzberg, Joseph Green, and Frederick Pohl need no introduction."  I must beg to differ; I'd never heard of Green before.

Compared to the Lafferty and Malzberg, "Space to Move" is an ordinary, traditional story, but it is not bad.

Ken is a graduate student, flying around in space in a university FTL scout ship, gathering data for his dissertation.  The ship's computer consists of a disembodied human brain, that of a young woman killed in an accident, Flo.  They discover a crashed alien space ship; it turns out these aliens had the technology to transfer minds from one brain to another.  Flo misses the physical sensations of having a body, and convinces Ken to use the alien machinery to shift her mind from her brain into the brain of an alien bird.  Flo then flies away to a life of freedom.

I have been reading so many downbeat and pessimistic stories that I thought Flo was going to figure out some way to steal Ken's body or something like that, but this is actually a story with a happy ending.

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

Three enjoyable, interesting stories; The New Mind is a good anthology, and I am glad I bought it.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Three Stories by Charles L. Grant: "Crowd of Shadows," "Quietly Now," and "The Magic Child"

Charles L. Grant, my fellow Jersey boy, is a big deal in horror publishing.  People who care about horror, like Tarbandu and Will Errickson, have read his stories and his anthologies, and have educated opinions about him.  Three books currently in my possession contain stories by Grant, so this weekend I read them and made progress constructing my own opinion about his work.

ISFDB image of cover and spine
"A Crowd of Shadows" (1976)

I recently took custody of a hardcover copy of Nebula Winners Twelve, edited by Gordon R. Dickson.  The cover illustration of this volume is almost incomprehensible, at least on my withdrawn library copy.  The first story in the book is Grant's "A Crowd of Shadows," which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and won Grant the Nebula for Short Story.

This is a well-written story about racism/bigotry/intolerance with an effective trick ending, so I'm not surprised it won the Nebula, which is awarded by professional SF writers.  In the future, androids who are almost indistinguishable from humans are common, but are afforded no legal rights and are widely looked down upon.  The narrator of the story goes to a what I guess you would call a small seaside tourist town, where he encounters a teen age boy with a number printed on his arm (yes, like a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.)  These numbers indicate he is an android, and he is apparently owned by human couple who like to pretend he is their real son.  An old man calls the boy a "robie," an anti-android slur, and soon the old man turns up dead.  There is another murder, and the town is in an uproar.  A mob kills the boy, and it is revealed that, in fact, the boy is human and the parents are androids: the boy was a rich orphan who wanted the experience of having real parents, and pretended to be an android to show his solidarity with the oppressed artificial people.

It is not clear (to me at least) who really committed the murders; maybe the kid ordered one of his parents to commit them?  I think Grant often leaves these kinds of mysteries hanging in his stories.  The real point of the story is that people, even people who think themselves liberal, like the narrator, can be prejudiced and tribal, and feel a need to look down on somebody.  "A Crowd of Shadows" pushes the idea of what constitutes bigotry to the limit, because it is pretty clear the androids are no more alive and have no more feelings than a microwave or an automobile.  The androids are just machines, and the fact that people respond to them with friendship, sympathy, love or hatred says something about human nature.

A pretty good story; I liked the style and the surprise ending, which actually did surprise me.   

"Quietly Now" (1981)

"Quietly Now" appears in Tales of the Dead by Bill Pronzini, a copy of which I still have not returned to the library.  (The Iowa Library Association's SWAT team is probably studying my house on Google Maps as we speak.)  As Pronzini tells us in his intro to the tale, this is a story of "quiet horror," the type of story Grant has written and advocated his entire career.  "Quietly Now" is in the thick anthology's third section, which is entitled "Ghoul!"

This story takes place in suburban northwestern New Jersey, where a writer who has been divorced three times lives in an apartment complex near a school.  This part of New Jersey is almost rural, with lots of hills and woods, the setting of newspaper stories and rumors about tourists and hikers getting lost in the wilderness and dying of exposure, their bodies then partially eaten by animals.

This story feels long and slow; there are some passages consisting of description that made my eyes glaze over: "He stood in front, just below the once-belled steeple, and directly ahead the ground sloped gently toward the highway; beyond, a steeper incline, and behind a row of thick-boled elms the apartments began, rising and falling on the gentle swells of the old farm until the woodland reasserted itself, dark with noon shadows."  Oy!

Teaching at the school is a tall creepy woman whom the kids consider a vampire and who has arguments with the school janitor, who is a friend of the writer.  When a student and then the janitor turn up dead and mutilated, the writer investigates the creepy teacher.  But it turns out that a different character altogether, a mother of two who is attracted to the writer, is the murderous ghoul.  This woman had only appeared briefly in the story, and I had forgotten about her and never suspected she was the killer.    

Grant's idea of having the ghoul be a jealous woman who murders the writer's on-again-off-again girlfriend and then turns the writer into a ghoul so he can be a father to her kids is a good one, as it ties into the everyday anxieties men have about their relationships with women and children.  But the execution of the story was weak, with too many red herrings and not enough attention paid to the woman who turned out to be the monster.  There is also a scene which I didn't even understand, with the writer coming home to find evidence of a break in: his door is ajar, there are deep scratches around the lock, and inside he finds his drapes closed.  Then all of a sudden the drapes are open and there are no scratches on the door.  Was this an hallucination?  Or evidence of the ghoul's magic powers?

"Quietly Now" didn't hold my attention, and was confusing--thumbs down.

 "The Magic Child" (1973)

This is one of Grant's earlier stories, and appears under the name "C. L. Grant" in the anthology Frontiers 2: The New Mind.  Roger Elwood edited this collection of all-new stories.  I believe this is "The Magic Child"'s only appearance in English.

ISFDB image of cover of edition I own
This is a slightly experimental story--maybe we should categorize it as "New Wave."  It consists entirely of dialogue, and has no quotation marks.  The speakers are a government agent, whose speech is in italics, and a teenaged boy of below average intelligence, William Peter 777M1, "Billy" to his friends.  The government worker is interrogating Billy, and drugs him to ensure he is telling all. Thus we hear his sad story.

"The Magic Child" takes place in a future totalitarian world, in which the "scientific" government, ostensibly due to overpopulation, controls everyone's life.  People are only allowed to have a certain number of children, determined by their assigned social class; retarded or antisocial children are euthanized; and most people are given drugs to suppress their imaginations!     

Billy, apparently, was born normal, but an illness damaged his brain, lowering his intelligence.  Billy's parents somehow convince the government (which is represented at the local level by robot police called "Monitors") that Billy is dead, and hide Billy in their tiny apartment.  (Billy's father is one of the creative class allowed to retain their imaginations, and has access to the government records; he plans to forge necessary documents for Billy when his son reaches adulthood.)  When Billy accidentally kills his parents he is discovered by the authorities.  After his interrogation Billy is put to death.

This is an effective story: the experimental structure actually improves the story by making it more economical and more direct.  I quite like it.

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

Perhaps unexpectedly, of the three stories I read by Charles L. Grant this weekend I liked the two science-fiction stories and didn't like the horror story.  This may be partly because a future of androids or a merciless totalitarian government is more interesting to me than a guy with women trouble in 1970s New Jersey.  The important differences, however, lie in the structure, clarity, and leanness of the stories; the SF stories are well-paced and economical, while the horror story is slow, confusing, and bloated.

I enjoyed "Crowd of Shadows" and "The Magic Child" enough that I hope to come across more of Grant's SF in the future.  As for the horror...well, the jury is still out.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Outlaw World by Edmond Hamilton

Front and back of my copy
In 1939, Mort Weinsberger concocted the character of Captain Future, and over the next twelve years 27 stories about Captain Future appeared in science fiction magazines.  Most of these stories were written by Edmond Hamilton, prolific SF author and husband of Leigh Brackett.  The Captain Future stories were reprinted in paperback in the 1960s and 1970s, and I recently purchased a few of these.  This week I read Outlaw World, choosing it essentially at random; it is the 19th Captain Future adventure.

My 1969 printing of this 1945 tale has a cool Frazetta cover (albino King Kongs chasing people up a cliff!) and, on its last page, an advertisement for a book on astrology aimed at women. All the women who paid 60 cents for a paperback about an evil scientist who is stealing radium are enjoined to spend ten bucks for a hard cover book ("truly a collector's item") that will tell them when to make "major purchases."  Hopefully someone was there to warn these ladies that the best time to make the major purchase of a ten dollar book of nonsense is never.

The universe of Captain Future is one in which the planets of the solar system, and some of the moons and asteroids, have atmospheres and ecosystems that can support human life. All the planets, or most of them, seem to be home to humanoid civilizations (late in the book it is suggested that thousands of years ago people from Deneb colonized the planets of the solar system, and we are their descendents.) The interplanetary trade in radium is critical to the livelihood of the system’s populace, and a mysterious band of space pirates has been severely disrupting this trade. The government’s space navy (the Planet Patrol, HQ in New York) has no luck deterring or catching the pirates, so Captain Future (Curt Newton, HQ on Luna) takes up the case!

Curt Newton is a genius scientist, but in this book he spends most of his time acting like a naval officer or a CIA operative.  Which is just as well; I don't want to read a book about a guy sitting at a desk taking notes and attending boring conferences.  Newton travels incognito on a radium hauling merchant ship, looking for clues, and gets captured by the leader of the space pirates, an obese Uranian scientist who uses his genius for evil!  (There are three genius scientists in this novel.)  There are gun fights with energy pistols, space naval battles, encounters with monsters, tense moments in a pirate stronghold.  Newton does take some time out from piloting space ships and shooting people to prove his science bona fides by building a detection device in his lab.

Starring a guy with a name like "Captain Future," I was afraid that this short novel (126 pages) would be annoyingly silly and childish; fortunately, it didn't sink to that low a level, though it is quite simple.  There is essentially no style other than a fast pace, and Captain Future and his milieu are not particularly memorable, unlike, say, the protagonist and setting of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom books or Tarzan of the Apes.  Hamilton doesn't seem to be trying to convey any ideology or ethic (unlike, say, Leigh Brackett with her anti-government theme in Alpha Centauri or Die! or M. John Harrison with the anti-business and anti-industry attitude he gives Pastel City).  Outlaw World is nearly all action and cliffhangers, but, Hamilton succeeded in keeping my interest as Newton and friends journeyed from one planet, asteroid or space ship to another, overcoming some challenge at each one.

There are lots of characters, and each has only one or two personality traits--Simon the Brain is a genius scientist who consists of a disembodied brain in a hovering robotic box, Grag is a hulking robot who loves his alien pet, Bork King is a loyal and brave Martian.  These aren't deep characters, but they are likable.  All the good characters have an opportunity to display their positive qualities and contribute to the victory over the evil Uranian scientist.  There are also comic relief moments--in order to sneak among 18-foot tall white apes Grag, who is like seven feet tall, is painted white, and his disguise is such a success that he is adopted by a female ape who thinks he is an ape baby.

Outlaw World is a simple trifle, but it is pleasant and inoffensive.  It is not ambitious, but it seems to accomplish its aims, and I was never bored or irritated.  Fans of old-fashioned space opera like "Doc" Smith's Lensmen books or Jack Williamson's Legion of Space stories may like it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Pastel City by M. John Harrison

My man Tarbandu praised the Viriconium books by M. John Harrison, so when I saw one at a used bookstore I bought it.  Tarbandu is not Harrison's only big league fan; the back of the copy I purchased, Avon 19711, printed in 1974 (copyright 1971) has praise from Michael Moorcock, and on the first page are quotes from Ursula K. LeGuin (comparing Harrison to Fritz Leiber) and Philip Jose Farmer (comparing Harrison to Jack Vance and William Hopes Hodgson.)

This copy also has a fun ad on its last page for an anthology of stories from New Worlds. Interestingly, the words "science fiction" do not appear on this ad, a black and white reproduction of the book's cover.

The Pastel City is one of those stories, like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories (1950-1984), or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), or Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness (1986-1992), about a far future society with a quasi-medieval technology and social structure, but which is able to take advantage of old technology left over from earlier more advanced civilizations, technology that is only dimly understood. (This way, as on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, you can have guys sword fighting in one scene, flying aircraft in the next scene, and shooting off guns in the scene after that.)  The Pastel City, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books and Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Corum stories, also is about a formerly high civilization in a period of change and/or decline, and those of its members who sadly recall a superior past.

The city of Viriconium is in trouble. Not only has the city been sliding into decadence, its people more concerned with trade and wealth than fighting in wars (the book is full of leftist Harrison's hostility to the bourgeoisie): now Canna Moidart, a cruel foreign woman with a claim to the throne of Viriconium (she married the previous king’s brother and then murdered him) is leading an army on the city, hoping to overthrow the current queen, the beautiful teenage girl Methvet, AKA Jane. The aristocratic heroes who led the armies of Jane’s dad come out of retirement and gather together to save Jane and Viriconium.

The Pastel City reminded me a lot of some of Moorcock’s Eternal Champions books, those ones in which the best swordsman in the world gets a message from a higher power and is sent on a quest in order to thwart some other higher power's world-threatening designs. Our main character, Cromis, is the best swordsman in the world as well as a talented poet and musician. After he kills an evil merchant he gets a message from a higher power and goes on a quest. Canna Moidart has unearthed an army of robots (“robots” is not very poetic, so Harrison calls them “automata”) but after she defeats Jane, the robots cease to obey Canna Moidart and start killing people at random. It seems the robots were programmed to destroy all human life. (This kind of Ludism goes hand in hand with hostility to the merchant class.) So Cromis and the other aristocrats must travel through a desert created by the industrialism of past civilizations to find and destroy the one huge computer (Harrison calls it “the artificial brain”) that controls all the genocidal robots.

The book is, or tries to be, moody.  On almost every page Harrison describes the wind, or how some person place or thing has been eroded by time. We get samples of Cromis’s T.S. Eliot-style poetry (“…we are nothing but eroded men…”). There is tragedy, with lots of Cromis’s old buddies getting killed. Harrison is also into images; we get detailed descriptions of everybody’s clothes, of various landscapes, and of architecture, with an emphasis on colors.

The book works, and I’m comfortable recommending it to people who like these sword fighting science fantasy things, but I didn’t think it stood out from its genre.  All the other authors I have mentioned in this blog post have done better work of this general type. 

The plot and the characters in The Pastel City are just kind of average; I didn’t really care who won the war and who lived or died.  It could be that the book is too short, that there wasn't enough time to develop any feelings for Cromis and Jane and Viriconium and the rest so that when they got betrayed or killed or whatever I was invested in them.  Canna Moidart, who sets the whole adventure in motion, never appears "on screen."  The high points of the book are things like the eight foot tall power armor a dwarf engineer refurbishes and wears into battle, the killer robots (who collect the brains of the dead), and the truth about the huge "artificial brain." 

I’ll probably give Harrison another shot, but, as I brood and the wind ruffles my black garb, I do not hear any insistent voices beckoning me to stalk this bitter land, a land ravaged by time and the industry of forgotten generations, in search of the sequels to The Pastel City.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Cross of Fire by Barry Malzberg

Gregory Benford "enjoyed the hell out of" Barry Malzberg's The Cross of Fire, a novel published in 1982. The Boston Phoenix claimed that Malzberg had the finest prose in science fiction and that The Cross of Fire promised to be the science fiction novel of the year!*  High praise!  I recently purchased the 1982 Ace paperback edition of the novel for a price somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 copper coins, and this week I read it.

In Thomas Disch's "Everyday Life in the Roman Empire" (1972) a middle class woman living in a near future technocratic society undergoes therapy which consists of indulging in elaborate drug-induced fantasies of being an aristocrat in the Roman Empire.  Malzberg uses a similar plot but pushes it to extremes - the protagonist of The Cross of Fire lives 200 years in the future in a even more technocratic and cold society, and in his drug- and hypnosis-driven fantasies he lives the life of Jesus Christ!

Harold (not his real name) is our narrator.  At first, playing the role of  Christ is difficult, and Harold often becomes "depersonalized" or "disassociated."  The therapy is ostensibly a study of religion, and Harold plays other roles, these more comfortably: Job, a rabbi in Brooklyn (spelled "Bruck Linn" in the 2200s), a 21st century Muslim martyr, Moses, even the Almighty Himself.  Most of the book's text is taken up with these dreams.  There are also scenes in which Harold has conversations and sexual encounters with Edna (not her real name), a woman he hooked up with through the government's computer dating service.

Halfway through the novel it becomes clear (it was foreshadowed earlier) that Harold has become obsessed with his religious dreaming, that even outside of the treatment facility he thinks he is in one of his prophet/martyr roles.  The government ceases the treatment, and confines him; poor Harold integrates this real life event into his dreams, thinking himself a Jew being persecuted during a pogrom or a 21st century Muslim prophet being arrested by the authorities.

In true literary/New Wave style the novel has no chapter divisions or headings, and is not told in strict chronological order.

At first, the view of 23rd century life is a little ambigious.  On the one hand characters commonly bemoan the fact that they live in "an unspeakable age" that is "madly technocratic" and where there is no freedom.  The very same characters also admit that the all-embracing state is "benign," and that people in the 23rd century "have more personal freedom than any citizenry in the history of the world."  Sometimes Edna speaks up for the state, saying things have improved, but she discourages Harold's therapy, saying that the treatments are not really to help him, but to "make him more stupid" so he won't threaten the status quo.

The hard evidence about quality of life and government benignity we get includes a scene in a state-run cafe with robot waiters.  An old man who starts throwing fits is immediately sucked down a trap door--the man was a "decompensate," and we learn that such people are common and are "herded to re-education" multiple times each day.  The screams of the "late afternoon detail" can be heard from outside the cafe.  (It is implied that the "decompensates" are killed and turned into food or some other valuable commodity.)  One of the mechanical waiters explodes.  Because of these disturbances, their robowaiter tells Harold and Edna that their meal is "on the state."  This scene, and a brief flashback to Harold's youth late in the book, leave little doubt as to how horrible things really are.

If there is any point to the book it seems to be that religion is a distraction, a delusion.  The sections about Job and Jonah have God breaking his promises, while the sections with Satan stress that God Himself created Satan, that Satan is a part of God's plan.  Malzberg seems to be saying that it is a waste of time worshiping or believing in God, because God will lie to you and when you are in trouble he won't help you; if anything, he has caused your trouble.  Perhaps Malzberg is drawing a parallel between the government and the God of the Bible: both are ostensibly benign and omnipotent, but neither deals with people justly or selflessly.

The Cross of Fire has many interesting elements, but it is too long.  The parts in which Harold plays the role of Biblical figures are good, because it is fun to see famous stories like Jesus raising Lazarus, or Moses parting the Red Sea, told from a different and strange angle.  (Peter, for example, comes across as a PR man trying to manage Jesus and control his public image.)  The stuff about Edna and the oppressive 23rd century state is good as well.  The dreams about fictional religious characters, however, drag; the Muslim one in particular feels repetitious, with Malzberg twice telling us a story of how the prophet's mosque is invaded and his service interrupted.  Why did Malzberg include Muslims anyway, if he wasn't going to include Mohammed?  Compared to the Jewish and Christian parts, the Islamic parts come off as half-assed; better to have left them out altogether.

I'm going to give The Cross of Fire a marginal thumbs up.  I enjoyed it, but I suspect I just liked it because I am curious about Malzberg and his work.  I would only really reccomend the novel to people who are already Malzberg fans, or who are really really interested in the Bible from a secular point of view.  The science fiction reader who is looking for an adventure story, or likable characters, or a vivid and strange world, or an extrapolation of technological or societal trends, you know, the stuff SF readers are usually looking for, is not going to find them here.

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* Despite the Boston Phoenix's bold advocacy, somehow the Hugos and Nebulas for 1983 went to Isaac Asimov and Michael Bishop, while people like Robert Heinlein, Gene Wolfe, Arthur C. Clarke, and Brian Aldiss hogged all the losing nominations.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Three more 1980s stories by Tanith Lee

ISFDB image of cover of the paperback
Early this week I read three more stories from Tanith Lee's DAW collection, The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales, which I own in hardcover. 

"The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" (1984)

"The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" first appeared in Alan Ryan's anthology Night Visions 1, later republished in paperback as Night Visions: In the Blood.  We can see that Lee got a promotion when the book was published in paperback, a few years a later.  Another remarkable thing about the later edition's cover is that it shows three skulls emerging from a single coffin: evidence of a housing shortage?

Despite the title of the book in which it was originally published, this isn't really a horror story, but a fantasy that touches on religious ideas.  "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" begins with an interesting reflection.  Anyone who has tried to do anything creative, draw or paint or write or whatever, knows the frustration and disappointment of being unable to produce a work that corresponds to his or her vision.  Lauro, an itinerant musician in some unnamed medieval European country, reflects that perhaps our world is just such a disappointment to God, an unfinished shadow of what He intended to create.  Perhaps there is a second, perfect, world out there somewhere that better corresponds to God's hopes of what this world could have been. 

Lauro, in a wood, sees a unicorn, and feels that the unicorn must have come here to our world from the second perfect world.  Perhaps if he touches it, he will be able to make the music he dreams of making?

The unicorn is a Christ symbol; Lauro eventually helps a nobleman hunt down the unicorn, for which he is paid 30 silver coins.  Lauro frees the unicorn, more or less accidentally, and then the unicorn kills him!

In the second part of the story we are told that Lauro's soul returns in the body of a beautiful young girl, Sephaina.  Sephaina is groomed to be a sort of sacrifice to the unicorn; mankind's offering in a bid for forgiveness for the sins of the noble hunter who captured and abused it a century (or longer) ago.  Those who look after her, and then the ghost of Lauro (or is it some kind of demon, or just a racial memory?) all lie to Sephaina about what the nature of this sacrifice is to be.

Finally, in the third part of the story, the soul that was Lauro's and Sephaina's is reincarnated in a, or the, unicorn.  A young woman sees the unicorn, and feels it is an omen, a promise of a happy marriage.  Indeed, soon after she meets and weds.  When her husband dies the unicorn appears to her again, comforting her in her time of bereavement.

What are we to make of this story?  On the one hand, it seems to be about the futility of life, how we are all at the mercy of fate, with little ability to control our own destinies.  Again and again people are lied to; people try to do one thing and find the results of their actions are different than, even the opposite of, their intentions; people expect one thing to happen and are then surprised by or disappointed in what eventuates.  On the other hand, the story seems to be endorsing the idea of eternal life, and the possibility of finding comfort in the Christian religion.  Maybe the suffering of Lauro and Sephania is recompensed by their reincarnation as a unicorn, a creature which can bring comfort to people, and serves as a good omen that comes true?  Perhaps the story proposes that our suffering, though very real, in this life is not in vain, but will eventually be rewarded.      

Some may be frustrated by the mysteries presented by the story, and some will feel that Lee overdoes the lush descriptions of the blue sky, verdant forest, shimmering pools, etc.  Personally I liked the story; trying to figure out what the "point" was, the images Lee conjures up, and the various surprises, which did take me by surprise.  

"Sirriamnis" (1981)

"Sirriamnis" was written especially for Unsilent Night, a slim book of two stories and some of Lee's poetry, a special edition printed by NESFA for Lee's appearance at their Boskone convention in 1981.

Our narrator for this tale is Tohmet, an old, educated slave in a Greek port city (I guess Corinth, which Lee is spelling "Crenthe") during the period of the Roman Empire.  Tohmet is owned by a noble family, and acts as a clerk/accountant and a tutor.  He is particularly fond of Lysisas, the son of the family patriarch, a handsome, intelligent, and personable young man, the very picture of nobility.

Lysisas buys a slave girl, Sirriamnis, a beautiful and mysterious creature from North Africa; most of the household thinks she is an Egyptian, but Tohmet can tell she is a Phoenician, a Carthaginian.  The Carthaginians, of course, were the Romans' most fearsome enemies, and worshipers of sinister deities who demanded human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of babies.  His relationship with Sirriamnis works changes on Lysisas, and not changes for the better.

Hunches, and a little detective work, reveal to Tohmet that Sirriamnis is some kind of witch.  For one thing Tohmet discovers magical symbols written by Sirriamnis on a stone in a disused shrine.  There are sometimes strange sexual elements in Tanith Lee stories - in "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn" there was the idea that maybe unicorns rape women with their horns.  In this story, Tohmet figures out that Sirriamnis has written the magic characters on the stone with the blood shed when Lysisas took her virginity.  Later, Tohmet is witness to perhaps the strangest erotic encounter I have ever read about!  

After her bizarre deed of sexual vampirism, the witch, in a strange form, flees, and Tohmet pursues her out of the household, all the way out of the town, where she uses her magic to escape him.  Of course, as a slave, Tohmet isn't permitted such freedom, so, for the acts he did out of love for his master's family, he receives a whipping at the hands of his master!

This story brings up some class and gender issues.  Why does Tohmet, a slave, identify with his owners, who beat him, instead of with Sirriamnis, his fellow slave?  Tohmet talks about the generative power of semen, but dismisses "those fluids expended from the womb of the female" as "negative and waste," and expresses fear and loathing for women, seeing them as sneaky, malicious, dangerous.  I've encountered these sorts of issues in numerous stories by Lee, but Lee is skillful enough that such ideas add depth and interest to her stories, instead of turning them into propaganda pieces which try to browbeat you.  (Contrast this with Brian Lumley's lunk-headed and ham-fisted use of environmental issues in the lame and irritating stories of his I read last week.) 

"Sirriamnis" is an effective horror story.  As I have said many times on this blog, I am very fond of Lee's writing style.  Besides that virtue, the story benefits from Lee's pacing; we learn creepy things about Sirriamnis at just the right speed, creating a satisfying mood of impending but unidentifiable doom.  The climactic horror scenes are surprising and disturbing.  The characters-- the witch, the wise elderly slave, the young aristocrat, his body slave -- all feel real, and they all have relationships with each other that feel real, and, as befits a horror story, feel sad.  Tohmet's fondness for Lysias is a reflection of his childlessness, the body slave's affection for Lysisas is characterized by envy and unrealized desire, and of course all of Lysias's relationships with the slaves have an element of exploitation.

Another hit from Lee.

"Magritte's Secret Agent" (1981)

"Magritte's Secret Agent" first appeared in the Twilight Zone Magazine, and was the issue's cover story.

I’m not crazy about Magritte, or modern art in general. My tastes would probably be considered conventional or conservative 100 years ago: I like Greek and Roman sculpture, Greek vases and Wedgwood and Rookwood, Raphael and Michelangelo, Fragonard and Chardin, Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Beardsley and Mucha, Augustus St. Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, Albert Moore and Lord Leighton, that kind of thing. In short, before I read this story, I not only had to do some googling to find a reproduction of Magritte’s “Secret Agent,” I had to do some googling to find out if it was a real picture or just one Lee made up for her story. There is such a picture, but apparently it is a minor and rarely reproduced work of Magritte’s. I found the answer to this mystery at a website devoted to Lee; a black and white reproduction of the painting can be seen there.

Our narrator is a young woman in late 20th century England, living in a town on the coast.  Having attained an art degree, she is working at the lingerie counter at a department store (I feel your pain, narrator!  With my history degree, I worked for minimum wage at a bookstore for some three years.)  One day a stern woman in her fifties comes to the counter, pushing in a wheelchair an invalided, mentally retarded, young man of striking beauty.  Our narrator becomes obsessed with this unusual pair, insinuates herself into their lives, learns their sad history.

The woman, a Mrs. Besmouth, was raped by a stranger 20 years ago; the wheelchair-bound, silent, almost mindless, young man, Daniel, is the product of that rape.  Besmouth hates the ocean, she having been raped on the beach, and has boarded up those of her windows that face the sea and plans all her movements throughout town so that she and Daniel need never see the water.  Daniel has, apparently, never seen the ocean.  Our narrator, bizarrely, becomes convinced that Daniel might like to see the ocean, and, one black night after having downed a few drinks, seizes his wheelchair and rushes to the beach with him.  Besmouth follows, then holds back our narrator, who is much smaller and weaker than the middle-aged woman, and the two women watch as Daniel slides out of his chair and is carried away by the tide, never to be seen again.

As with "The Gorgon," there really is no supernatural or science fiction element to this story; it appears to be a story about women and their lives in a world made by men.  Several times we are reminded of the way society and the men who have made it constrain women's opportunities and take advantage of them.  The numerous sexual and family relationships mentioned in the story are all demeaning or disastrous - examples include one of the narrator's coworkers openly cheating on her husband, and an unattractive guy who keeps trying to seduce the narrator and is even accused of trying to drug her so he can date rape her.

It is hard not to see this story as somehow about abortion.  Daniel is repeatedly described in such a way as to remind the reader of a baby; for example, because he sleeps upstairs, every day for some 20 years Besmouth has had to literally "carry" him.  Daniel's death frees Besmouth of a heavy responsibility, the way a woman ending an unwanted pregnancy might feel freed of a weighty responsibility.  At the same time there is the idea that Daniel, upon seeing the ocean, suddenly comes to life, and that his death constitutes for him an escape to freedom as much as it does his mother, but there is the chance that this is simply our narrator rationalizing her participation in what the law and many people would consider murder or at least criminally negligent homicide.

A strange and unsettling story that, like other Lee stories, surprised me without relying on any kind of gimmick or trickery.  "Magritte's Secret Agent" is definitely weird and disturbing, but also internally consistent and logical.

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What can I say?  Three more unique and effective stories from Tanith Lee; The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales appears to be a top notch collection of weird stories.