Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Big Night" and "Don't Look Now": The Finale of Best of Kuttner Volume 1

It is time to finish off my bedraggled copy of The Best of Kuttner 1, published by Mayflower in Great Britain in 1965.  Perhaps appropriately, isfdb credits these last two stories solely to Henry Kuttner, unlike many of the tales in the book, which Kuttner wrote in collaboration with C. L. Moore.

"The Big Night" (1947)

This one appeared under the Hudson Hastings pseudonym in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  "The Big Night" is an entertaining space opera, complete with a risky mission in a decrepit space ship, alien civilizations, an unscrupulous space captain who exploits impressed crewmen and contemplates running drugs and participating in the slave trade, and a second in command who considers mutiny.

The "Big Night" of the title is a euphemism for interstellar space, but also for Fate or entropy, the fact that everything eventually decays and is forgotten. One of the alien characters is among the last of his race, a race which once ruled a hundred systems.  The aforementioned space captain is taking desperate measures because he is one of the last hyper ship captains and his rusty old ship, the unfortunately named La Cucaracha, is one of the last of the hyper ships--the new teleportation network has rendered interstellar space ships obsolete and it is almost impossible for him to find jobs carrying legal cargo.

The end of the story, while admitting that we and all our works will be forgotten, affirms the value of endeavor and of friendship.

A fun piece of work.

"Don't Look Now" (1948)

I wish "The Big Night" had been the last story in this book, because then I could have put it back on the shelf after hitting a high note.  "Don't Look Now," which was first published in Startling Stories, is one of those joke stories I find so dreadful.

Two men, one called Lyman and one who is not named but whom we learn works at a newspaper, are sitting in a bar.  Lyman, who seems like a drunk paranoid, explains to the journalist at great length that Martians have "owned the world" for centuries, that they walk among us in disguise, that they hate cats (cats ruled the world before them), that our lives are so difficult--plagued with wars, uncomfortable bathtubs and irritating radio shows--because this serves the Martians' inscrutable purposes.      

For a while the reporter resists, but eventually admits he has had his own suspicions about aliens, and shows Lyman two infra red photographs he has taken which hint at an alien presence.  Lyman takes one of the photos, and, after the journalist departs, comes the punchline twist--Lyman is an alien!


The jokes didn't make me laugh, and the twist made me groan.  Despite my reservations abut the story, "Don't Look Now" has been widely anthologized in books with titles like The 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories and even My Best Science Fiction Story--Kuttner himself thought "Don't Look Now" was his best work!  I guess this makes me some kind of science fiction dissident!

Maybe people like this story because they see it as a satire of the kind of people who think that Jewish bankers (or The Bilderberg Group or The Trilateral Commission, though they were founded long after this story was published) are running the world, or of fears of communist infiltration.  But I think since, in the story, aliens really have infiltrated and really are manipulating humanity (and since Kuttner and Moore use a similar theme in "Juke-Box") it is either not meant that way, or is a weak example of such a satire.

Too bad to end the volume on a boring trifle like this.

***********

To sum up. let's rank the fifteen stories in Best of Kuttner 1 from best to worst, and split them into three categories, good, passable, and a waste of time.


-----Good-----
Piper's Son
Housing Problem
The Big Night
Shock 
Absalom 

-----Passable-----
Juke-Box
Year Day
Proud Robot
A Gnome There Was

-----Bad-----
Call Him Demon
Ego Machine
Don't Look Now
Or Else
Cold War
See You Later

Not a stellar collection, but a worthwhile one.

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

The last two pages of The Best of Kuttner 1 consist of advertising for other Mayflower titles.  It is an odd selection.  Only one of the eleven books is a science fiction book, Judith Merril's Best of Sci-Fi No. 2.  According to isfdb this is properly known as The Best of Sci-Fi—Two and is a British edition of the American title The 7th Annual of the Year's Best S-F.  It has a disturbing cover and includes several writers I've never heard of, and a few whom I don't think of as SF writers, like Lawrence Durrell, Muriel Spark, and John Dos Passos.  The cover is so riveting I would be sorely tempted to purchase it if I ran into it in a store, but a quick survey of Abebooks, Amazon and ebay suggests this book is not easily found here in the good ol' USA.

The rest of the list consists of two important books about the First World War, a book of literary short stories, and seven titles which, we are led to believe, will appeal to the prurient.  These include "the story of a man beyond innocence [and] of a woman aching for experience," one about "a reckless love affair between a beautiful worldly woman and a sixteen year old boy" that has been reprinted fourteen times, and a novel about young lovers that "may astound some readers."  I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that most of these books would seem astoundingly tame to us jaded 21st century readers. 


Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

"It may not be possible to do away with government--sometimes I think government is an inescapable disease of human beings.  But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive...."


Whenever I find myself at the West Des Moines Library I check out the book sale. Earlier this month I found they had a Berkley 1983 paperback copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of Heinlein's most famous novels.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of those books I feel like I see on the shelf of every library I wander into, so it wasn't really necessary to buy it, but it cost me less than 10% of the cover price and I was charmed by the embossed stamp on the first page, informing me that this volume was once part of the Library of Bruce A. Wedeking.  You may recall I was fascinated by a similar stamp in a copy of Gallery of Horror.  When I buy and read these books I feel like I am part of a SF tradition and community (without the hassle of actually meeting or talking to people in the flesh.)

Last week, as I bragged on Twitter, I scored a pile of Heinlein paperbacks at the local Goodwill.  This windfall, and the subsequent discussion with other SF fans on Twitter, brought Heinlein back to the forefront of my mind.  I thought, before reading any of those Goodwill paperbacks, I'd reread The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I read 25 or so years ago, in my early teens.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was serialized over five issues of Worlds of If in 1965 and '66.  You can check out fifteen interior illustrations for the novel by Gray Morrow at Heinlein scholar Rafeeq O. McGiveron's website.

In his long career Heinlein wrote quite a bit about revolutions and wars of independence, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about the three million inhabitants of the moon, most of them transported convicts or the descendants of such convicts, achieving independence from Earth in 2076.  The 300 page novel is split into three sections; the first section, over half the book's length, is about overthrowing the government on Luna, which is known as "the Authority," and is led by "the Warden," an appointee of the late 21st century version of the UN.  The second section covers diplomacy between Luna and the nations of Earth, while the third describes the war between Luna and Earth.

All three sections are narrated by Manuel O'Kelly, a freelance technician who, many years later, is recounting his pivotal role in the revolution (and correcting the history books, which he claims have many things wrong.)  Among his jobs is repairing the super computer that handles all the infrastructure on the moon.  One day he discovers that this machine has somehow gained consciousness and a personality.  Manuel becomes best friends with the computer, christened Mike, and when Manuel gets recruited into a revolutionary conspiracy by sexy redhead Wyoming Knott and genius philosopher Professor Bernardo de la Paz, it is the fact that Mike runs all communications, transportation and media to, from and on Luna that makes the revolution possible.  These four individuals manage the entire revolution. 

Gray Morrow's conception of Manuel O'Kelly
In some ways The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an archetypal "speculative fiction" novel.  Heinlein does lots of speculating about future technology.  Manuel has a versatile prosthetic arm with a wide array of tools and attachments, Mike the supercomputer produces computer-generated audio and video of fictional people which is indistinguishable from audio and video of real people, and there is lots of talk about gravity wells and the technical issues of transporting things and people between the Earth and the moon.  Scientists and engineers are glorified and romanticized in the way we so often see in older SF literature.

But Heinlein is probably more interested in social speculation: what kind of society might arise on the moon with its population of rebels and criminals whose sex ratio is two men for every woman, a population which is completely divorced from the Earth because the low lunar gravity renders people who stay on the moon more than a few months unfit to live on Earth?

The society that Heinlein comes up with could perhaps be described as an anarchist utopia.  There is little or no violent crime, little or no racism, no taxes and practically no government, even before the 2076 coup-- the Warden commanded an armed force of less than 100 members.  The gender imbalance is resolved by alternative family structures; most people are in group marriages of one kind or another.  These large families are also presented by Heinlein as a more efficient and less coercive means of providing the social needs that 20th century welfare states attempt to provide via taxation, bureaucracy, redistribution and regulation.  Similarly, police and court functions are dealt with through private and voluntary institutions.  There is also a Darwinian factor which helps this anarchic society work: life on the moon is dangerous, and people who are incompetent and anti-social, the kind of people likely to end up on the dole if they were on Earth, are killed when they fail to seal their vacuum suits correctly or commit some other fatal blunder.

It might also be important to note that many of the "criminals" who populate Luna are not thieves or murderers, but political undesirables exiled by the despotic governments of Earth, like the Soviet Union and China, which by 2076 has conquered much of the Pacific Rim, including Australia and New Zealand. 

An interesting twist to Heinlein's utopia, if we choose to describe the book as one, is that it is doomed.  The first lines of the novel indicate that, by the time Manuel pens these memoirs, all that anarchism business has gone by the wayside, and the successor governments to the revolutionary Party have started taxing and regulating everything just like on Earth.  The novel could as easily be seen as a tragedy about human fallibility.

Heinlein is a good writer with a smooth and easy style, and all the philosophical stuff and science stuff is interesting.  So the book is readable and doesn't feel long.  What The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is missing for much of its length is human drama and excitement.  Manuel and Wyoming are not particularly interesting characters.  The Prof is another of Heinlein's mentor characters who has vast knowledge and wisdom.  Mike the computer is interesting, but there are long stretches when he is not around.  The revolution goes according to plan, with few bumps in the road or surprises for the rebels or the reader.  This is not an adventure story with ups and downs, suspense, and a cathartic victory at the end; instead it moves forward with a sense of inevitability, like a history book about a conflict whose course and outcome you are already familiar with. 

One of Heinlein's interesting choices in constructing the book is that he doesn't give us a heinous villain; Manuel even admits that the Warden "was not a bad egg, nothing to hate about him other than fact he was symbol of Authority...."  (As the prof explains, the real reason a change in government is imperative is that the moon is being depleted of natural resources--Luna grows grain that is shipped to Earth by economical catapult, but because it is so expensive to launch anything out of Earth's gravity no fertilizer or water is sent to the moon from Terra to replenish Luna's resources--and lunar society will collapse in seven years.  This reminded me of leftist critiques of Western trade with Third World nations, the idea that the metropole just strips the periphery of its natural resources.)  Because the lunar government is not particularly oppressive, the vast majority of the lunar populace is not particularly keen to overthrow it, and our protagonists, the vanguard of the revolution, have to work hard to inspire revolutionary fervor among the masses.  Their efforts include blatant lies about Authority policy, and egging the Warden's men on into creating a "Boston Massacre" moment.  Lies, PR stunts, and antagonizing the Earthers into committing some sort of atrocity are also essential parts of their diplomacy with Terra.

Portraying the revolution as based on trickery and manipulation by a small elite Party that is no more democratic or transparent than the government it is deposing may be realistic, but doesn't necessarily make for a rousing drama.  When the Warden met his bleak fate I sort of felt bad for him.

In the last fifty pages of the book things heat up a little bit.  We get fewer debates and lectures and some tension and danger as Earth's warships drop bombs and land assault troops on the moon, and the rebels bombard Earth using their catapults.  We also get some pathos as the Prof dies and Mike reverts back to being a lifeless machine.  

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress fits comfortably in Heinlein's body of work.  Hazel from The Rolling Stones, a grandmother in that book, appears as a teen in this one, and one of the interesting philosophical aspects of Podkayne of Mars, the assertion that nothing that is immoral for an individual to do is moral for a group to do, gets an airing.  Even though this is a book about resisting authority, Heinlein's common theme that one must obey one's captain is also present: the Prof manipulates meetings of the moon's brandy new legislature so that votes are only cast after he has guaranteed an outcome he likes, and the matriarch of Manuel's group marriage treats family meetings the same way.


I enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress more than I expected to.  In college (some years after I had read the novel) I read Alexei Panshin's criticism of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in his book Heinlein in Dimension (you can read the book, and lots of other interesting SF criticism, online at his website), and this had a major impact on my mind.  (Perhaps like Marcel in his attitude about La Berma, I am a little too easily swayed by tastemakers like Panshin.)  After rereading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I still share some of Panshin's complaints, but others seem off base--is it possible that Panshin's criticisms apply to the original serialized version in Worlds of If  and not the version later published in book form? 

It has its weaknesses, but I certainly recommend The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and it is obviously essential for Heinlein fans and libertarian types.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Best of Kuttner 1: Part 4: "Absalom," "Housing Problem" & "A Gnome There Was"

Early this week I read three more stories from Best of Kuttner 1.  Only two stories to go!  As we have come to expect, all three of these stories, according to isfdb, were collaborations with Kuttner's wife C. L. Moore.   

"Absalom" (1946)

"Absalom" was first published in Startling Stories, under Kuttner's own name.  A story about a college professor and about psychology, it has appeared in an anthology titled Transformations: Understanding World History Through Science Fiction and another called Hallucination Orbit: Psychology in Science Fiction.


Coming soon to a syllabus near you?

"Absalom" is about the relationship between a father and son several generations after a nuclear war and covers Psych 101 topics like a father's envy of a son's success, the need for a son to rebel against his father, and how a father might live vicariously through his son.  (Psychology actually figures in quite a few of these Kuttner/Moore stories, like "The Ego Machine" and "Call Him Demon."  Long before the New Wave the soft sciences were getting attention from SF authors!) Joel Locke is a genius, head of the university's "psychonamics" department.  His eight-year-old son Absalom has an even more powerful intellect--mutations are leading to an increase in the proportion of geniuses in the human population, and to ever higher levels of mental ability.  Absalom is so much smarter than his dad, he doesn't even consider himself a member of the same race as his father!

Locke tries to keep Absalom from studying "entropic logic," ostensibly because he fears it will somehow damage his son's mind.  Absalom, however, knows that his father is just stifling him out of fear of being surpassed--Dad is too dim to comprehend entropic logic!  With the help of other child geniuses and the household's doting maid, Absalom tinkers with his father's brain, liberating himself from Locke's authority and leaving home to live with his intellectual equals.  Even with his hobbled mind, Locke resents Absalom, and looks forward to the day when Absalom's own son overthrows his father!

Covering a bunch of interesting topics in a relatively small number of pages, while still carrying a human drama narrative, "Absalom" is pretty good.

"Housing Problem" (1944)

This story first appeared in Charm, a magazine aimed at fashionable professional women. If you are interested in 1940s and '50s fashions and fashion photography, the cover galleries at places like condenaststore.com and pinterest are worth a look.  "Housing Problem" appeared under Kuttner's own name.
  
Young marrieds Eddie and Jackie work in a munitions factory during the war.  They own a house, but their finances are not so hot, so they take on a boarder, Mr. Henchard. Henchard is somewhat odd.  For one thing, he is terrifically lucky.  For another, he has a birdcage that he always keeps covered, and admonishes E & J to never touch.  When Henchard is called away on business for a few days the young couple investigates the bird cage, to find that it contains a neat suburban house inhabited by tidy middle-class pixies!  In lieu of rent, the fairies bring Henchard the good luck his landlords have noticed.  (Kuttner and Moore wisely never let E & J, or the reader, see the fairies; this makes it easier for us to suspend our disbelief.)

E & J's meddling drives away the little people, and Henchard storms out, leaving the cage behind.  In a few days new fairies move in, but E & J's interference has given the house a bad reputation, and the new tenants are dirty, smelly, and loud.  E & J lament that they have become slumlords, that "the tenement type" has moved in!  

"Housing Problem" is well-written and well-structured, and has been reprinted in numerous anthologies.  The most interesting thing about it, perhaps, is its social class-based humor.  Did Kuttner and Moore include this element in order to specifically appeal to Charm's bourgeois audience?  Did Charm's editor choose the story because of the class angle?  Or was it just a coincidence?

"A Gnome There Was" (1941)

This tale appeared in Unknown Worlds (tagline: "Fantasy Fiction"), which, like Astounding, was edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.  Kuttner and Moore used their pseudonym "Lewis Padgett" on this one.

"A Gnome There Was" is, in part, a satire of middle-class left-wing activists who have no real sympathy with or knowledge of the proletarians they claim to be championing.  Tim Crockett of Southern California, we are told, "was junketing through the country, on his father's money, investigating labor conditions, to the profound annoyance of such laborers as he encountered."  He stupidly gets lost in a Pennsylvania coal mine, and then is transformed into a gnome, a grotesque creature four feet tall, three feet wide, with huge feet and no neck.  Gnomes, we learn, do not have sex, so to maintain their population a "tithe" of humans lost underground are transformed into gnomes. Crockett organizes the thousands of gnome workers, and leads a general strike against the gnome Emperor.  The strike is an absolute disaster for all the gnomes and for Crockett himself.

While it might be a comment on labor unions, for the most part "A Gnome There Was" is a silly humor piece full of childish jokes.  The gnomes love to be dirty and take mud baths, they eat coal, they love to fight and can fight endlessly because they are essentially immortal and invulnerable, etc.

The gnomes don't really mind working for the Emperor, so to get them to unionize, Crockett lies to them, telling them their Emperor is going to outlaw fighting.  Crockett is organizing the gnomes not out of concern for their well-being, but in his own selfish interest; he hopes to pressure the Emperor into using his magic to transform him back into a human being.  The punchline of the story is that in the ensuing magical battle, Crockett is transformed, but not back into a human being.

Martin H. Greenberg may be "A Gnome There Was"'s biggest fan!
This story seems to be popular; it was selected by Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov for "Hall of Fame" and "Great SF Stories" anthologies.  To me it seems like a trifle, quite inferior to the interesting "Absalom" and the clever "Housing Problem," but I suppose it is inoffensive, and I can give it a (barely) passing grade.

*********

Only two more stories left in Best of Kuttner 1!   I will probably get to them later in the week; hopefully they will be as good as "Absalom" and "Housing Problem."    

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Veruchia by E. C. Tubb

"What is your planet of origin?"
"Earth."
"A strange name for a world. There is no record of it in our files, but no matter, there are so many worlds."

It's time to check in on our old pal Dumarest and see how his galaxy-spanning quest to return to Earth is going!

Veruchia is the eighth of British SF author E.C. Tubb's Dumarest adventures.  It was published in 1973 by Ace, and in the Seventies and Eighties was republished with various interesting covers showcasing the arena, girls' boobs, or both.  I read the electronic version published by Gateway which I purchased from the iTunes store.  Don't let those cracks fool you--75% of the buttons on my iPhone 4 still work and it is equal to the task of reading old SF novels!

(Gateway is doing good work making these books available to us at a low price, but I can't ignore the fact that there is a real issue with the punctuation in this one: lots of quotation marks and periods are simply missing.  Presumably this is some kind of scanning issue.)

Veruchia is an aristocratic woman on the planet Dradea.  She has a lovely body, but suffers an odd skin condition--her white skin is covered in fine black lines, like an artist's abstract representation of a spider's web.  This repels Dradean men, but Dumarest, who has been to countless planets and seen innumerable strange mutations, is not put off by these marks.  Dumarest comes to Veruchia's attention when he defeats a giant predatory bird in the arena, and one of Veruchia's friends plays matchmaker and hooks her up with our favorite galaxy-trotting gladiator.

Dradea is a society in a state of transition.  Its ruler, believing the Dradean people have fallen into decadence, has been promoting blood sports in the arena as a means of revitalizing society.  (You, Veruchia, Dumarest, and I all agree this doesn't make a lot of sense.)  When this ruler dies with no direct heir a legalistic succession struggle ensues between Veruchia and Montarg, a guy who thinks the blood sports are a great idea.  Montarg is totally ruthless, and he has one of the bald-headed and scarlet-robed members of the Cyclan, that interstellar cabal of manipulative human computers, at his elbow. 

Veruchia thinks her claim to the throne can be validated if she can find the centuries-old remains of the first spaceship to ever land on Dradea (both she and Montarg claim descent from a member of its crew, but there is a dispute over which of the first settlers' lines takes precedence.)  Dumarest has his own reasons for hoping to find the ship: it may be old enough that its charts include a reference to now-forgotten Earth.   

Veruchia and Dumarest hire a large team of scientists, technicians, sailors and divers, and find the legendary starship sunken in coastal ocean waters.  In a scene which took me by surprise, Dumarest employs medical technology stolen from the Cyclan to achieve a telepathic link with a decapod, a marine beast that resembles a 600 foot long octopus!  This Kraken-like creature, under Dumarest's control, brings the ship to the surface, and, sure enough, its log proves that Veruchia, not Montarg, is the legitimate heir to the throne of Dradea.  After this climax we get a denouement in which Montarg and the Cyclan launch a coup which Dumarest foils.

I've enjoyed all the Dumarest books I have read, and I liked this one, too.  Veruchia is obviously open to the criticism that Tubb has yet again put Dumarest in the gladiatorial arena, yet again furnished him with a strange but gorgeous girlfriend, and yet again has him saving the bacon of the less reprehensible faction in a struggle for control of a planet.  However, I liked all the stuff underwater and the arena scene was well done.  This volume also is a good example of the grim and cynical tone of the Dumarest books, and perhaps Tubb's own dim view of human nature.  Even though Tubb encourages you to think the arena bloodsports are an atrocity, he makes it clear that the thirty thousand spectators, even the fundamentally decent Veruchia, are captivated by the violence.  Veruchia and Dumarest risk not only their own lives in the quest for the ancient space ship, but those of others, and several of their hirelings die in horrible ways.  Perhaps most remarkably, the decapod is torn to pieces by giant eels while Dumarest inhabits its mind, and so Dumarest experiences a painful death at firsthand.

Another thing I like about the Dumarest books is how the Cyclan, a bunch of cold-hearted geniuses who use math to predict and manipulate history, mimics Isaac Asimov's Foundation, but instead of glorifying them portrays them as villains.      

I also think this volume moves the Dumarest saga forward in an interesting way.  Dumarest destroys the ring the Cyclan has been trying to get from him for the last few books (after memorizing the coded message within), he gets some clues about the location of Earth and about the Cyclan's possible relationship with Earth, and, to my surprise, not only does Veruchia survive the novel, but it looks like Dumarest is going to stay with her a while and serve as First Man of Dradea!  Is Dumarest putting down roots?  Becoming a family man?  What will drive him off Dradea and set him off again on his 33 book quest?  I'm genuinely curious about how the next volume, Mayenne, starts!    

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stories from 1973 by C. S. Claremont, Geo. Alec Effinger and David Drake

In the past I have mentioned that I often am not sure what to read, and will allow myself to be guided by the Fates.  Recently, in an Iowa antique mall, I came upon a copy of the April 1973 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I was charmed when I saw that a previous owner of the periodical had read and graded each piece of fiction therein.  I willingly parted with two bucks and brought the issue home with me.  This artifact provided me not only the chance to pass judgement on the work of science fiction writers, but the opportunity to pass judgement on the judgement of an unnamed stranger!

This week I read this individual's favorite story from the issue, "Psimed" by C. S. Claremont, his or her least favorite tale, Geo. Alec Effinger's "The City on the Sand," and a story which received the modal grade (look, I'm using math words), David Drake's "Arclight."   Of the eight novelets and short stories in the issue, five, including the Drake piece, received "g"s.  Let's see if MPorcius Fiction Log is on the same page with the SF fan we can know only as "Previous Owner."

"Psimed" by C. S. Claremont


If you look at Previous Owner's handwritten note, I believe we can gain an insight into his or her thought process.  It looks like Previous Owner was going to give "Psimed" a score of "VG," but then realized he/she was shortchanging Claremont, and upgraded "Psimed" to "Excellent."  (I am disregarding the possibility that Previous Owner's grade is the neologism "vexcellent," meaning "having the ability to cause a high degree of vexation.")            

I've never read anything by Claremont before--in fact, I had to do some research to find out if Claremont was a man or a woman.  As people reading this probably already know, Claremont usually goes by "Chris Claremont," and is staggeringly famous for writing about Marvel's X-Men and collaborating with George Lucas on some fantasy novels.  I'm learning every day!

My man tarbandu has written a little about Claremont's comic book work and I think it is fair to say that tarbandu would not use words like "excellent" to describe it.  Torn between the disparate opinions of tarbandu and Previous Owner, I tried to go into "Psimed" with an open mind.

"Psimed" is the story of Petra Hamlyn, a female doctor in a future high tech New York.  I get the impression that Claremont often writes female protagonists.  Hamlyn is a showy individualist, wearing jewelry and short skirts in a society in which fashions are androgynous and conservative.  Male characters stare at her legs, female characters think she looks like a prostitute.  When a new colleague calls her "Doctor," she corrects him: "My name's Petra.  I'm afraid I despise formality...."

The child of a wealthy man collapses of a rare disease, and Hamlyn's team of doctors try to save the kid.  Hamlyn and the kid are both psychics, and, in this universe of Claremont's, psychics tend to lose their powers and get all angsty and then commit suicide.  There is some melodrama as the kid goes berserk upon learning he has lost his psi powers and when Hamlyn has a painful flashback to when she lost her powers while terrorists tortured and murdered her husband.  Hamlyn also has sex with the new colleague.  The story ends when the kid dies, and another one of Hamlyn's colleagues, a psychic who has melded his mind with the kid in an effort to save him, also dies.

I'm no expert on the X-Men, but it seems like the themes of this long, boring, and histrionic story about a small elite of angst-ridden people with special powers who are expected to use those powers to help society, have something in common with the themes of those X-Men comics.

So, what did Previous Owner like about this story?  I guess lots of people are into medical dramas, and into stories about people with special powers who suffer angst and alienation.  I don't find medical stuff interesting, and while I sometimes like the whole alienated mutant thing (I just gave Kuttner and Moore's "The Piper's Son" a positive review), I didn't think this was a good example.

Previous Owner Grade: Excellent

MPorcius Fiction Log Grade: Not good

"The City on the Sand" by Geo. Alec Effinger


I've already encountered Effinger and his short stories during the course of this blog's life.  My feelings have been mixed.  Let's see if "The City on the Sand" tips the scales one way or the other.  SF blogger extraordinaire Joachim Boaz thinks highly of Effinger, so again we see a blogger I admire at odds with the mysterious Previous Owner, who was at a loss for words to describe his or her unhappiness with "The City on the Sand."  Who will I side with?

"The City on the Sand" is a consciously literary and subtly amusing story about decadence and a life wasted.  It takes place in an alternate early 20th century world (they have electric lights and radios) in which Western Europe is so decadent that its people have not bothered to conquer or even explore the New World or Sub-Saharan Africa.  The main character, Ernst Weinraub, is a would be poet and novelist who has traveled Europe, but found no place truly congenial.  So he has settled in the one city of North Africa, where he sits at an outdoor cafe all day, drinking and watching people walk by.  He has an outline for a trilogy of novels but has made no progress on the novels in years.  When it rains he doesn't even have the energy to move inside or lower the awning.

Weinraub has done nothing with his life, he has no friends, no wife or children.  He doesn't make an effort to get his poetry published; he just hopes some tastemaker will spot him sitting in the cafe and "discover" him.  When people try to develop a relationship with Weinraub or enlist him in their projects (a Polish political activist is trying to raise a volunteer army to free slaves or something like that) he just waves them away.

I have to disagree with Previous Owner again.  Effinger's style here is good, and the setting and tone of the story are good.  I can see why someone wouldn't care for "The City on the Sand," though-- there's not much plot and certainly no action or sex.  This is a literary mood piece, but it is a good one and I quite like it.  My opinion of Effinger has just gone up.

Previous Owner Grade: ugh

MPorcius Fiction Log Grade: Good

"Arclight" by David Drake


In my youth I read and enjoyed Killer, which is about a space alien murdering people in ancient Rome, and was written by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner.  I read a couple of Drake's Hammer's Slammers stories, and they just made me shrug.  I quite liked Drake's short story "The Barrow Troll," and in late 2010 I read his novel The Voyage and wrote a three star review of it on Amazon in which I focused on the fact that the protagonists are a bunch of amoral jerks.

So, that is a brief history of my relationship with David Drake, who seems like a competent writer but whose isn't always ideally suited to my temperament.  I was curious to see how I would respond to "Arclight."

Well, for once I am on the same page as Previous Owner; this is a good story.

Drake served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and Cambodia, and this story draws on his experiences.  A cavalry unit (the main characters operate ACAVs, M113 armored personnel carriers equipped with additional machine guns and armor) accidentally uncovers an ancient Cambodian temple.  There is a hideous idol in the temple which the troops damage in the course of investigating the ruin.  Over the succeeding nights the soldiers dream of this monstrous statue, and some of them are mysteriously killed, their bodies horribly mangled.  Was it communist guerrillas who killed them?  A ravenous tiger?  We readers know it was an invisible demon!  The demon's campaign of vengeance ends when the U. S. Air Force bombs the temple into oblivion, demolishing the idol.

This is a solid entertaining horror story.  We've all probably read lots of stories about monsters from ruins terrorizing people, but Drake's story really benefits from its setting among American soldiers in South East Asia.  For example, I found the military stuff interesting (I was not familiar with the terms "ACAV" and "arclight" before.)  So, thumbs up for this one.

Previous Owner Grade: g

MPorcius Fiction Log Grade: Good.

**********

Even if Previous Owner and I have different tastes, I enjoyed my exploration of his or her old magazine, which gave me an opportunity to learn more about three authors I have only had a limited exposure to.

The April 1973 F&SF also has a bunch of interesting ads.  On the first page of my copy (which I suspect is in fact the third page--I think the first sheet of my copy was lost) we have an ad for an anthology of SF stories about sex.  Hubba hubba!  Also, an ad for a novel about what would happen if some guy figured out astrology was real.  I'd be curious to read some of the sex stories (despite the embarrassingly dumb font they use in the ad for the title), but the astrology book sounds horrible.

In the back of the mag (we cool people call magazines "mags," you know, to save time) we have the "Market Place," which is full of fun classifieds.  I had no idea there was a town in California called "Brubank."  Not only is there such a town, but the people there love dinosaurs!  There's an ad for Dianetics; these were the days before the Elronners had that John Travolta and Kirstie Alley money and could afford those TV ads we all remember.  A guy in Hawaii is willing to teach you telepathy.  You can mail three questions to a psychic in Illinois and for only ten bucks he will use his powers to answer them.  And if you don't have ten dollars and live in South West Canada, a guy will teach you how to pan for gold right in your own neighborhood!  Awesome!  

Click to read about all the bargains I missed in 1973 when I was two years old

Friday, September 19, 2014

Best of Kuttner 1: Part 3: "Juke-Box," "The Ego Machine," "Call Him Demon," & "The Piper's Son"

Let's return to my 1965 British copy of The Best of Kuttner 1 and read four more tales by Henry Kuttner.  Bring the packing tape; this book is falling to pieces.

"Juke-Box" (1947)

This story was first published under the pseudonym Woodrow Wilson Smith in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  The isfdb lists C. L. Moore, Kuttner's wife, as a coauthor.

Jerry Foster is one of those irresponsible guys who dates a different woman every day, spends his money at the race track and spends his time hanging around bars getting drunk and moaning about his problems to the bartender.  One particularly difficult day he leans against the jukebox, half drunk, and tells the machine that it is his new girlfriend, his true love.  The juke-box reciprocates by spitting out the money Foster needs to pay his bookie and then playing a song that includes the phrase "helping hand."  Foster bets on a horse called "Helping Hand" and makes a bundle.

The juke-box continues to give Foster career advice, and he achieves success.  But when he starts dating his secretary the juke-box gets jealous and stops helping him.  Financial ruin is staring him in the face, and things only get worse when Foster discovers that the juke-box is an alien surveillance device.  The aliens can't have Foster alerting the other Earthlings, and resolve to eliminate him.

"Juke-Box" is a sort of "Twilight Zone"-ish story, with its bizarre premise and macabre and jocular twist ending.  This one gets a passing grade; it is entertaining and just the right length (12 pages.)

"The Ego Machine" (1952)

This story first appeared in the May issue of Space Science Fiction under Kuttner's own name.  ISFDB credits C. L. Moore with co-authorship of the story.

This is a story about a robot who time travels from the future to the Twentieth Century to solve some problems.  (Don't tell Harlan Ellison's lawyer.)  Nicholas Martin is a successful Broadway playwright who has been trapped in a long term contract by a Hollywood director.  Martin's other problem is that he is too shy to declare his love for Erika Ashby, his agent.  Except for the robot, this sounds like P. G. Wodehouse stuff.

The robot from the future puts a helmet on Martin that temporarily rearranges Martin's brain cells so that they more closely follow the pattern of the ultimate man of Martin's type.  The model man of Martin's type is Benjamin Disraeli, the famous 19th century intellectual, politician and clotheshorse. With Disraeli's invincible self-confidence and heroic eloquence, Martin makes progress in solving his problems, but then has to deal with a violent foreigner who is immune to Disraeli's charm and logic.  Martin has the robot configure his brain to follow the matrix of a cave man known as Mammoth-Slayer. As Mammoth-Slayer, Martin is able to outfight the foreigner, and, in a commentary on women all you feminists will appreciate, not only Ashby but a second woman fall deeply in love with Martin after he grabs them up King Kong style, bites them on the ear (!), and declares them "Mine!"

This story isn't very good.  It is too long, 37 pages, for a story about such trifles, and the jokes are weak (guys, including the robot, get drunk; a guy spills his drink on another guy; the sex goddess of the silver screen is a narcissistic imbecile, etc.)  I've got to give this one a thumbs down.

"Call Him Demon" (1946)

"Call Him Demon" appeared under the pen name Keith Hammond in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  On the cover it is hailed as a "Fantastic Novelet."  As with the other stories we're looking at today, isfdb lists it as a collaboration between Kuttner and Moore.

"Call Him Demon" is in part an homage to L. Frank Baum's Oz books and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. I haven't read the Oz books, which are revered by important SF authors--Robert A. Heinlein and Philip Jose Farmer come to mind immediately, and I guess we can add Kuttner and Moore to the list.  I've read and enjoyed some Kipling (Kim, The Light That Failed, and some stories, including "The Man Who Would Be King") but not the Jungle Book.  Heinlein and Poul Anderson, among other SF greats, were big Kipling fans.

(Sometimes when these SF stories reference great writers like Kipling a nagging part of my mind wonders why I'm spending my time reading about time-travelling robots who get drunk by putting their fingers into light sockets and lovelorn juke-boxes when I haven't read most of the work of great writers like Kipling.)

It is 1920, and nine-year-old Jane Larkin has arrived at her grandmother's big house in Los Angeles.  Living among her relatives there is a stranger, an alien monster who has taken the form of a human being, and hypnotized the adults of the house into thinking he is a relative they have known all their lives.  But the resident children are immune to its mental powers, and know it has just moved in, three weeks before Jane's arrival.

While an extension of the monster's physical form sits in a chair along with Jane's other adult relatives, the remainder of the alien, including its soul, resides in a nether world, a sort of space-time warp. Telepathically, the monster commands the children to feed it; the only food it accepts is raw meat, and to reach the "little, horrible nest he made by warping space" the kids have to climb up into the attic and fix a particular image in their minds as they cross the portal between the dimensions.  

This story reminded me of Ray Bradbury stories about children who encounter alien or supernatural dangers, like "Zero Hour" and "The Man Upstairs," but it is not nearly as good as those Bradbury classics.  I feel like I should like this story, as the premise is good.  But the style doesn't work for me; the story is too long-winded and fails to convey any kind of fear.  "Call Me Demon" also lacks mystery; Kuttner and Moore employ an omniscient narrator and tell you exactly what is going on in the first five pages of the 20 page story.  Also, there are too many characters, like seven adults and five or six kids, and few of them stand out from the mass.  Because the characters are so dimly realized the horrific climax of the story lacks the power it could have had.

"Call Him Demon" is also one of those stories that romanticizes childhood, again and again talking about how children have different perceptions and psychologies than adults.  ("But Charles, who made the first discoveries, was only six, still young enough so that the process of going insane in that particular way wasn't possible for him.  A six-year-old is in a congenitally psychotic state; it is normal to him.")  Often in books and on TV they pull this on you--children can see fairies or whatever that adults can't--and I have never found it convincing or even interesting, and having encountered this conceit so many times I now find it annoying.

You've probably already guessed that I'm casting a negative vote on this one.  

"The Piper's Son" (1945)

This one was the cover story of Astounding, with Kuttner and Moore's pseudonym Lewis Padgett getting top billing.

I had high hopes for "The Piper's Son." Astounding has a higher reputation than Thrilling Wonder Stories, and it was in Astounding that the most critically acclaimed Kuttner/Moore stories, "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" and "Vintage Season," appeared.  The cover illustration is also promising; fully clothed men fighting with knives or short swords in a futuristic city. (The bikini girls in outer space covers you so often see are fun, but rarely correlate closely with the contents of a story.)

It is some decades after a nuclear war.  The United States now consists of small independent towns; if any town gets too big for its britches, it gets nuked.  Similarly, men all wear daggers and duels are commonplace.  (These means of keeping the peace are somewhat reminiscent of ideas in Robert Heinlein's 1940s work, like Beyond This Horizon and Space Cadet.)  Thanks to radiation from the war, a proportion of the population are "Baldies," telepaths recognizable by the fact that they have no hair whatsoever.  Baldies who want to assimilate wear wigs, fake eyebrows and fake eyelashes.  Ordinary people often view Baldies with suspicion, and the fact that some Baldies, generally those who don't wear fake hair, use their powers to take advantage of ordinary people doesn't help matters.

The plot of the story concerns Burkhalter, a Baldy with a wife and a young son. Burkhalter, in his private life and professional life, has to navigate difficult relationships with non-Baldies who are scared or resentful of the telepathic mutants.  In the climax of the story, it is discovered that one Baldy in town is trying to stir up hatred of non-Baldies among the young Baldies, including Burkhalter's own son.  In an explicit reference to the Japanese and German ideologies that led to World War Two, this racist Baldy thinks that since Baldies are superior to ordinary people they should band together to rule or exterminate the normal people.  The assimilationist Baldies, led by Burkhalter, gather together to nip this problem in the bud.

In "The Piper's Son" Kuttner and Moore come up with an interesting milieu in which to discuss topics like prejudice, racism, relationships between parents and children, and means to maintain social and international peace.  As I had hoped, Astounding comes through with a serious, thoughtful piece that is engaging and entertaining without resorting to lame jokes.  Thumbs up!

(Under the Padgett name Kuttner and Moore wrote a whole series of Baldy stories for Astounding; later collected in a volume entitled Mutant.  Probably worth looking into.)

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

So, four stories, two weak, one acceptable, one good.  A decent record.  There is a lot more Henry Kuttner in my future.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

"Papa Iason isn't a good man.  I told Naala that already, and it's true.  He's a bad one trying to be good, like a lot of us."
I feel like I have been away from this blog for a long time.  This absence is due to several factors, some good (spending more time with the wife; additional work coming in; going through the closet and the basement preparing my old wargames to sell on ebay; seeing a nephew who is on leave from the USMC) and some not so good (mopping out the flooded basement of the house we rent.)  Another big reason I have not been blogging about the fiction I have read is that for over a week I have been reading Gene Wolfe's 2013 novel The Land Across.  I read it once, and then, in hopes of comprehending it better, I read it a second time.

The Land Across is the story of Grafton, an American travel writer who goes to some unnamed post-communist country in south east Europe, where he gets mixed up with the secret police (the JAKA) and their struggle against a coven of devil-worshiping magicians (the Unholy Way.)  To keep things complicated, also involved in Grafton's saga are a subversive religious group that is neither satanic nor magical (the Legion of Light), some magicians who are rivals of the Unholy Way, and the church.

The Land Across is about the struggle between good and evil, but it is as much (or more) about the struggle between good and evil within ourselves as it is about a fight between a bunch of establishment good guys and a bunch of renegade villains.  Almost all the characters are morally ambiguous, and it is not clear how far we are supposed to sympathize with Grafton, who is our narrator, or most of the other characters.  Grafton, and his closest associate in the JAKA, a female operative named Naala, do some things which are pretty terrible, and are not really in pursuance of their witch-fighting duties.  Wolfe subverts our expectations, trying to surprise us by having characters who at first seem to be villains turn out to be "good guys," and vice versa, and by showing the utility of institutions we are presupposed to have a bad opinion of (like a dictatorship and its secret police) and suggesting that institutions we tend to revere, like Western democracy, can fall into decadence and fail.  Several times characters voice the belief that human beings are made up of both good and evil, and most of the characters demonstrate this assessment, acting foully at some points in the book and nobly at other points.   

Structurally, the book is a kind of police detective-centered mystery.  People break into places looking for clues, search the city for fugitives, get imprisoned and escape, interrogate prisoners, and sit around in cafes, explaining to each other how they pieced together one facet of the mystery and then planning their next step in cracking the case.  There are fistfights with thugs and a climactic gun battle that reminded me of the memorable climax of Mickey Spillane's One Lonely NightThe Land Across also reminded me of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, which I found quite difficult to follow.  The second time I read The Land Across I kept notes to make it easier to remember who is who, how they are related, and why they are doing what they are doing, and I realized that if you can focus and have a good memory (skills I don't really have), Wolfe gives you all the clues you need to follow what is going on.  Maybe that is true of The Big Sleep (which I read only once) as well.

Wolfe includes lots of horror and ghost story elements, including a haunted house wherein lies hidden treasure, a mummified hand that sneaks around and tries to strangle people, a lonely castle sitting on an island in the middle of a lake, voodoo dolls, and references to werewolves and Dracula.

Related to the horror elements, and central to the book, are its Christian elements.  Three characters are clerics, and of course there is the Unholy Way, who in the action climax try to sacrifice one of Grafton's love interests to the Devil.  Several times over the course of the book, particularly when Grafton is in a difficult situation, a character appears who reminds Grafton strongly of his father.  Grafton first sees this man in chapter one, and believes he is a member of a trio of border guards; this man takes custody of Grafton's passport.  This figure never speaks, and other characters don't seem to see him, but he offers Grafton moral support and, via gestures, provides our narrator with guidance that helps defeat the Unholy Way.  At the end of the book this man (or one who looks exactly like him) turns out to be the charismatic dictator of the country.  The dictator gives Grafton back his passport, calling it "a little gift."  All the clues (he is one of a trinity, he is like a father, and he provides salvation at the end of the adventure) indicate this character is a symbolic representation of God.

Similarly, there is a man in black who sometimes appears to Grafton.  This figure also never speaks, is not noticed by other characters, and guides Grafton via gestures, but he scares Grafton rather than buoying him.  The man in black also appears after one of the wizards who is not a member of the Unholy Way casts a spell.  Presumably, the man in black is the Devil.

There are several motifs that pop up in the novel repeatedly.  Hands are an important image in the book; not only is there the animated dead hand (which is much more than a monster; it is actually a character with a personality and motives), but people often shake hands and hold hands in significant ways.  Another motif is the decline of the United States; Wolfe really seems pessimistic about the current condition of the USA. One character laments the end of the gold standard, Naala tells Grafton, "We do not seek the destruction of Amerika, which you yourselves have too much destroyed already....", and Grafton at one point wonders if the country he is in, which is ruled by a dictator and his ruthless secret police, and where only members of the government have access to telephones, automobiles or computers, is really any crazier than the US.

Of course, Wolfe is writing in the voice of Grafton, who at times seems like a shallow sort (he is always talking about clubs and clubbing, for example) and Wolfe is famous for employing unreliable and not quite sympathetic narrators.  (Hopefully women will keep this in mind when Grafton spends half a page complaining that women talk too much and are always telling you extraneous and distracting details instead of getting to the point.)

Wolfe writes The Land Across in a spare and economical style; dialogue makes up the lion's share of the text, and there aren't many fancy descriptions or clever turns of phrase.  (We do get at least one groan-inducing pun: the chapter in which some guy gets decapitated is titled "Getting Ahead.")  I liked the book, but I have to admit I didn't think the characters were particularly interesting, there were few exciting images, and I wasn't affected emotionally.  As an intellectual puzzle The Land Across excels, but I didn't really care whether this person got killed, or whether that person got back to America, or who fell in love with who, etc.  This is a marked contrast to Wolfe's monumental masterpieces, like the four volume Book of the New Sun or the three volume Book of the Short Sun, which are chock full of awe-inspiring visions, fascinating people, and heartbreaking tragedies, as well as puzzles that had me breaking my brain.

It falls short of the lofty heights Wolfe has achieved with his finest work, but by any normal standard The Land Across is a major success, with an intricate and surprising plot and a generous sprinkling of thought-provoking passages.  Worth your time, even if you are a dolt like me and have to read it twice.          

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lovecraftian Horror from Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley

Cover of the 1996 edition
Prolific British horror writers Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley each have two stories in Robert Price's 1996 collection The New Lovecraft Circle. Could any of them be as good as Thomas Ligotti's masterpiece "Vastarien?"  Let's hope so!

"The Plain of Sound" by Ramsey Campbell (1964)

In the early 1950s, three students from Brichester University are hiking across the English countryside.  They come to a flat valley nestled between four ridges.  There is a small house on the plain, and from some indeterminate place comes a loud irritating sound.  One of the characters thinks it sounds like machines are building a mine underneath the plain.

The students investigate the house, which is abandoned, but, as you expect in these sorts of stories, includes a diary, ancient forbidden books and a strange apparatus.  It turns out that the valley is a point where our universe intersects another universe, "S'glhuo," and the apparatus can be used to contact S'glhuo.  The college kids test the device, get a glimpse of the other universe, and one of them goes insane.

For the most part this is a traditional Lovecraft pastiche, with aliens communicating with humans via dreams and a guy going mad and all that, but there is an interesting weird element.  The alien world in this case is made up entirely of sound, and sounds in our world that reach S'glhuo can create objects there.  If the aliens get aggressive, as aliens are wont to do, humans can play particular notes on a specially constructed stringed instrument that will create an indescribable monster in S'glhuo; this monster will massacre the aliens in some mind-wrendingly gruesome fashion.

This story is OK, a step above the Glasby pastiches I read in my last foray into The New Lovecraft Circle.  

"The Stone on the Island" by Ramsey Campbell (1964)  

Back cover of 2004 edition
This is better than "The Plain of Sound," straying as it does from the Lovecraftian template a bit.

An island in the river Severn has been a site of pagan worship for thousands of years.  There is a Roman temple on the island, and a still older artifact, a white sphere on a short pillar.  People who touch this white stone are cursed and die soon after, horribly mutilated.

Michael Nash works in an office in Brichester.  His father, a medical doctor and amateur investigator of the creepy island, commits suicide, apparently to escape having to live through the mutilation process, he having touched that stone.  Young Nash investigates the island, and even though he knows that he shouldn't touch the stone, he can't resist.  The curse is upon him, and he starts seeing disembodied faces, staring at him through windows at home and at work. His coworkers cannot see these haunting faces.

In a scene that surprised me and pushes the story to a higher level than many of these Lovecraft-inspired things, young Nash is in a dark storage room at his office building, on a ladder, and sees one of the faces below him.  Nash viciously kicks the face, and too late realizes he has killed an innocent man, a new employee.

A solid horror story, just the right length and with some surprises.

"The Statement of One John Gibson" by Brian Lumley (1984)

This is an odd piece of work, largely a sort of literary game.  H. P. Lovecraft is a character in this story, and H. P. Lovecraft's work is depicted as nonfiction disguised as fiction.  The text of this story is a recording made by a man, John Gibson, who has come to realize he is not quite human after going through the effects of his father, an investigator of the occult who recently died.  Among these effects are old issues of Weird Tales, copies of books by and about Lovecraft, and a medallion depicting Cthulhu and other alien gods.

A large proportion of the story is taken up with a sort of history lesson about Cthulhu's career and methods, and by Gibson's analysis of a story by William Lumley and Lovecraft, "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" (1935).  Gibson believes that a character in that story is a real person, a great uncle of his.  To me, all this seems like a waste of time.  Perhaps I would appreciate it more if I had read "The Diary of Alonzo Typer."  Still, something about a Lovecraftian universe in which Lovecraft appears as a character (a stunt that authors besides Lumley have attempted) offends my ability to suspend disbelief.

The actual plot of the story is how Gibson comes to realize his own paternity.  He learns that his father's side of the family has some small proportion of alien blood in their ancestry.  We readers are led to believe that our narrator must also have some trace element of alien blood in his make up, but then comes the shocker: our narrator Gibson is not really the son of investigator Gibson!  In fact, while investigator Gibson and his wife were exploring the setting of the story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer," they were attacked by some extra-dimensional creature, and this monster raped the narrator's mother!  Our narrator is 50% alien monster!  In the climactic scene, John Gibson visits his mother in the mental hospital (bringing his tape recorder with him), transforms into a hideous tentacled creature, kills his mother with a corrosive ooze he secretes, and then flies or teleports away before the hospital staff can burst into Mom's room.

I'm going to have to give this one a negative vote.  The father-exploring, mother-raping, son-discovering, and matricide stuff is fine, but it is weighed down by too much extraneous material that is boring and distracting.  Lumley even includes a long end note about his own family, telling us he is not closely related to William Lumley. 

"The Kiss of Bugg-shash" by Brian Lumley (1978)

I'm not sure how seriously to take this one; at times it feels like a joke.

Two college students, while getting high and listening to prog rock (an LP by the band Fried Spiders) summon a demon that manifests itself as a theoretically limitless volume of slime, liberally sprinkled with grotesque eyes and mouths.  Bugg-shash can only appear in the dark, so the two students are safe as long as they are in the light, but in the event of a nighttime power outage they are vulnerable to being drowned in slime.

The students enlist the aid of an expert in the occult, and in the process the occultist also falls under the curse of Bugg-shash.  The occultist, thanks to his private collection of sorcerous books and access to still more at the British Library, figures out a spell that will lift the curse.  But the spell has some fine print: it only lifts the curse temporarily--once you die Bugg-shash has access to your corpse.  The spell is also reversible.  And don't forget that Bugg-shash also has the power to animate the dead.  That's a lot of fine print.

A week after the ceremony which liberates the three of them from the curse, the occultist dies in an automobile accident. Bugg-shash animates his corpse, the corpse ambushes the two students and reverses the spell, and so its glug glug time for two students who won't be graduating with their class, or any class.

Am I supposed to be scared by this story, or laugh at it?  There is also the problem of Bugg-Shash; the demon's characteristics don't seem to follow any theme.  He's a blob of slime who can't stand the light and also can animate the dead.  It's a little like if you wrote a story in which your werewolf could breathe fire and your vampire was scared of elephants; it feels a little arbitrary.

I guess this one gets a passing grade, but it's a close call.

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

"Vastarien" is quite safe on its lofty perch.

I've had a good experience dipping into Robert Price's The New Lovecraft Circle.  However, I should probably take a break from reading these kinds of stories; since they all have the same elements (contact via dreams, alien dimensions, forbidden books, people landing in insane asylums) they lose their power if you overdo it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"See You Later," "Cold War," & "The Proud Robot": Best of Kuttner 1: Part 2

I'm rereading the British anthology of Henry Kuttner stories printed in 1965 entitled The Best of Kuttner 1In our first episode we had alien scolds, time travel, and an attack on advertising.  In this installment we look at stories which were meant to be amusing.  

isfdb image of 1970 edition
"See You Later" (1949)

This is a joke story about the Hogbens, immortal mutants from Atlantis living as hillbillies in 20th century America.  They can turn themselves invisible, move objects with telekinesis, predict the future, just about anything that comes to Kuttner's mind.  The story feels long, largely because it is written entirely in what is supposed to be a funny hillbilly dialect, reminiscent of Ernest T. Bass.  "Our Perfesser feller told us oncet the baby emitted a subsonic.  Imagine!"  There are five Hogben stories, two of which appear in The Best of Kuttner 1.  The Hogben stories have prominent fans, like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and in 2013 a hardcover collection of the stories was published.

The plot of "See You Later" is absurd.  A mean hillbilly, Yancey, has a grudge against the world.  The Hogbens suddenly owe him a favor because they accidentally killed his eight sons with their powers.  Yancey convinces the Hogbens to build a machine that will duplicate him, and teleport one duplicate next to every single human being on Earth.  These duplicates will endure for five seconds, and enabling Yancey to strike every person in the world with a wrench simultaneously and achieve vengeance on all of mankind.

In order to prevent this atrocity without breaking their word to Yancey, one of the Hogbens tests the duplicator/teleporter before Yancey uses it.  He appears before every person in the world, provides each with a defensive weapon, and inspires each to strike Yancey first.  Instead of assaulting every person in the world, Yancey finds that he has been clobbered by every person in the world.

Some people will find this extravagant and ridiculous flight of fancy appealing; I thought it a waste of my time.  



"Cold War" (1949)

This is the other Hogben story in The Best of Kuttner 1.  The isfdb gives C. L. Moore primary author credit, with Kuttner listed as the second author.  (The isfdb entry for "See You Later" has Kuttner first and Moore second.)

Like "See You Later," "Cold War" is a convoluted and farcical story in which a cruel hillbilly tries to use the miraculous powers of the Hogbens for malicious purposes, but is outwitted by the Hogbens and receives his comeuppance.

Lily Lou Mutz was so ugly that when people saw her they were inspired to throw stones at her.  Taking pity on her, one of the Hogbens used his mental powers to alter Lily Lou's genes and provide her a mental power, the ability to make people ill.  Lily Lou used this power only for self defense.  A man as ugly as she was, Ed Pugh (whom we are told looks like a gorilla), married Lily Lou, and when they had a child the baby boy inherited Lily Lou's power to afflict people with everything from a headache to the bubonic plague.

Our story takes place some years after Lily Lou's death.  Ed Pugh is proving himself a total jackass, using his son's power to abuse the community.  (For example, giving everyone a headache so they will buy Pugh's snake oil headache cure.)  Pugh threatens to make one of the Hogbens sick, so that the authorities will take the afflicted Hogben to the hospital.  Any medical examination will reveal that the Hogbens are not ordinary humans, and so Pugh has the Hogbens over a barrel, and demands that they do something that will "make sure the Pugh line will never die out." (The Pugh son is so ugly it is impossible that he will ever attract a woman, and Ed Pugh dreams of his descendents one day conquering the world with their power to inflict diseases on people.)

Grandpa Hogben, oldest and wisest of the Hogbens, has the Pughs get into the Hogbens' time machine (made out of an old sled and pieces of wire) and transports them back to caveman times.  In a way I did not understand, apparently due to "heterochromatinic activity," the Pugh line shrinks as it evolves, eventually evolving into the common cold virus.

I'm not into these "whimsical" kind of stories; to me this seems like total nonsense.

"The Proud Robot" (1943)

A recent edition of the complete Gallagher stories
This is one of the Gallagher stories.  Gallagher is a genius inventor and a drunk living in Manhattan a few centuries in the future.  The gag of the these stories is that Gallagher invents things while he is inebriated, falls asleep, and when he wakes up he has forgotten all about his invention, and then has to figure out how it works.  (This is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde scenario, but instead of being a terrible creep, the Jekyll facet of Gallagher, representing his subconscious mind, is a man of abilities superior to the sober, conscious, Gallagher.)

The isfdb credits the Gallagher stories to Kuttner and Moore, but also reminds us that in print Moore has claimed she did not contribute anything to the Gallagher stories.  (The matter of who deserves credit for what in the Kuttner/Moore body of work is a little confusing, and I am too lazy to do a lot of research figuring it all out.)  

In "The Proud Robot," Gallagher comes to his senses to find he has built a robot, and that he was hired by the owner of the Vox View TV network.  The robot is arrogant and self-important, endlessly bragging about its beauty and its singing voice.  It has sensitive detectors and sensors, the ability to hypnotize people, and even considerable precognitive powers, based on its ability to employ exacting logic.

The Vox View network is losing business because a rival network is pirating its content, and has bribed the courts so that Vox View can't sue the pirates.  Gallagher has been hired to devise some technical means of saving Vox View.  In his efforts to figure out how to solve the TV network's problem, and remember why he built the narcissistic robot, Gallegher travels around New York City and Long Island, meeting TV executives and a famous actress as well as landing in court.  Finally he realizes the singing robot can emit a subsonic tone which can be used to render the pirated content unwatchable.

The most interesting thing about this story is Kuttner's 1943 depictions of what TV will be like.  The TV networks lease television sets for a nominal fee, and people who rent TVs from a network can only use the set to watch the shows transmitted by that network.  The networks make their money by charging you for how many minutes the TV set is on; a reader visits your home every month to check the meter. 

Also interesting is Kuttner's depiction of the police and the courts as absolutely corrupt.  Perhaps also noteworthy is evidence of Kuttner's interest in "subsonics," which also came up in "See You Later," and his idea that ordinary people easily fall victim to conditioning by the media and advertising.

"The Proud Robot" is a far better story than either of the Hogben tales.  The plot is kind of lame, mostly serving as a structure upon which Kuttner can hang his speculations and his jokes.  I like that the story is set in the future, that Kuttner speculates about life in the New York of the future; there are air cars, men shave by spreading a depilatory goop on their faces, and there is the whole thing about TV.  I didn't laugh out loud at the jokes, but they are better than the jokes in the Hogben stories---the narcissistic robot's condescending dialogue is kind of funny ("You may treasure the sound and sight of me till your dying day.")

"The Proud Robot" deserves a mild recommendation.

*********

I don't get the Hogben stories, but many critics and readers seem to love them, and they have been published again and again.  "The Proud Robot" is alright, largely because, as he did in "Year Day," Kuttner makes interesting extrapolations about what the mass media will be like in the future. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Four Stories from 1996's The New Lovecraft Circle

Finding myself in Des Moines this week, I visited the Central Branch of the Public Library and put a pile of anthologies in the trunk of the old Toyota Corolla.  Feeling in the mood for some sincere and serious Lovecraftian horror, yesterday I scrutinized the table of contents of the 2004 edition of Robert M. Price's The New Lovecraft Circle, hoping to weed out any juvenile pastiches or parodies and identify the gems of cosmic horror via my spider sense.   

"I've Come to Talk to You Again" by Karl Edward Wagner (1996)

I think Wagner's 1974 "Sticks" is terrific.  It won the British Fantasy Award and has been anthologized all over the place, with good reason, because it is great, one of my favorite horror stories.  So I eagerly started "I've Come to Talk to You Again," Wagner's last published story.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed in this five page story; it is good, but it is no "Sticks."  American writer of Lovercraftian tales Holsten travels to London every year to hang out with fellow horror writers, and has done so for some twenty years.  The Yank is a healthy 60 or so, his friends are mostly younger, but in poor shape.  (This story is largely about the horror of growing old, and Wagner goes on and on about each of the half dozen British writers' medical issues: diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, drug addiction, etc.  We also get some of the complaining old people do about young people's tastes in music and literature.)

It becomes clear that Holsten, years ago in New York, discovered an ancient text that put him into contact with some kind of supernatural being or alien god, and that creature drains the life of Holsten's friends and invigorates Holsten.  Holsten's old friends are dying off, so on this trip he is not only meeting them, but cultivating a new younger set of cronies from whom to feed for the next twenty years.

There are references to Oscar Wilde, the Beatles, and to Robert W. Chambers.  I haven't read The King in Yellow, though I have been intending to for years, and I suspect I may have missed some nuances of this story as a result.

The more I think about this story the more I like it; my expectations were set very high, unfairly high, by my attachment to "Sticks," so I was initially judging this one too harshly.

"Vastarien" by Thomas Ligotti (1987)

This is the kind of story I was hoping to find when I picked up The New Lovecraft Circle.  It doesn't directly refer to Lovecraft in any way I can see, but it achieves a tone and conjures images that inspire a powerful feeling not unlike that of some of Lovecraft's work.  I enjoyed this 14-page story so much I read it on Thursday and again on Friday.

"Vastarien" first appeared in
Crypt of Cthulhu # 48
All his life Victor Keirion has been dissatisfied with the real world, and wished to examine and inhabit an unreal world that exists at the edge of reality and the limits of time, a sort of ruin which hinted at all possibilities, "where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world."  After a lifetime of searching book shops and libraries for clues about this unreal world, Keirion encounters a strange little man (he reminds those who see him of a crow) in a queer bookshop who puts into Keirion's hands a volume for whom Keirion is the only possible reader.  To others, the pages of the book appear blank, but to Keirion the book is a guide to the unreal world he has so long sought; in a strange way the book actually is that world, called Vastarien.  During the days Keirion studies the book, and through the nights, in his dreams, he explores the horrible but fascinating depository of the ruins of reality that is Vastarien, a "paradise of exhaustion, confusion and debris...."

Keirion is the sole person who can read the book of Vastarien, but it turns out he is not the only man who has pursued Vastarien.  Once Keirion has mastered the geography of Vastarien (which Ligotti vividly describes as a huge dark city of winding streets and teetering towers) the crow man begins invading his mind and stealing his dreams.  Each night Vastarien grows smaller while a colossal apparition of the crow man grows larger, until Keirion tracks down and murders the crow man, a crime which lands him in an insane asylum.

I love everything about this story, the plot, the style, the tone, the images.  Five of five stars!

"The Keeper of Dark Point" by John Glasby (1967)

I'd never heard of John Glasby before; apparently he was a British scientist who wrote tons of genre fiction under numerous pseudonyms, including westerns and romance novels.  "The Keeper of Dark Point" first appeared in issue 107 of the magazine Supernatural Stories; the isfdb record for the issue indicates that Glasby wrote every story in the entire 160 page magazine!

"The Keeper of Dark Point" is a mediocre, pedestrian, by-the-numbers Lovecraftian pastiche.  I'd have to say it is a just barely acceptable entertainment; there is nothing original about it, and it lacks an admirable style, arresting images and any sort of deep feeling.  The plot consists of a bunch of Lovecraftian elements jammed together like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together.

Stephen Delmore Ashton (his name presumably an homage to writer and artist Clark Ashton Smith, one of H. P. Lovecraft's friends) is an Englishman who can trace his maternal family's line back almost 2000 years.  This family, the Trewallens, have always been held in suspicion by the villagers who live near their manor on the coast of Cornwall, and in the 1920s the villagers attack the place, burning it down and killing most of the family.  Young Ashton is (apparently) the only survivor.

Our story takes place in 1936, and is narrated by one of Ashton's friends.  By exploring smelly tunnels under the ruins of the burnt manor and deciphering ancient books found there, as well as a note from Ashton's mother, it becomes apparent that the Trewallen family has had, since the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, the duty of keeping an eye on a gate between universes located in a lighthouse nearby.  In three days the stars will be aligned and monsters can come through the gate and wreak havoc on the Earth.  Ashton memorizes an incantation and at the appointed hour he is at the weird lighthouse, where he meets his mother, who is not dead after all, but is now a scaly green piscine ogrish creature (but with a recognizably human face.)  Our narrator, at a safe distance, watches through a pair of binoculars as the climax unfolds.  A darkness in the sky blots out the stars, a bolt of lightning strikes the lighthouse, Ashton recites the spell, and the portal is closed and the Earth is saved, but as the portal closes Ashton and his mother, the last of the Trewallen line, are sucked up into the sky and out of our universe.

The plot is serviceable, and with some polishing this might have been a good story, but when you are regularly writing entire magazines I guess you don't have time to smooth out the plot holes, generate atmosphere, make sure all the sentences are clear, and that sort of thing.

"The Black Mirror" by John Glasby (1967)

Two issues of Supernatural Stories were offered to the British consumer in 1967, 107 and 109 (108 never appeared, it seems) and John Glasby penned the entire contents of both of them.  "The Black Mirror" was included in issue 109.

Phillip Ashmore Smith (another evocative and/or derivative name; we all know what the P. in H. P. Lovecraft stands for!) is a young Englishman interested in the occult.  His world travels, including visits to Tibetan and Indian gurus and the exploration of a Transylvannian castle, have yielded to him knowledge of Cthugha, the evil firegod.  Cthugha has been imprisoned in the star Korvaz, visible in the southern sky near Fomalhaut, for millions of years, but the time of his liberation is nigh!  Through the medium of the Black Mirror, Cthugha can be brought to Earth on the night that Korvaz waxes brilliant.  And what will Cthugha do when he reaches the Earth?  Burn up the entire globe, exterminating all terrestrial life!  You remember the Great Fire of London in 1666?  That was the year the necromancer Zegrembi used the Black Mirror to summon to Earth one of Cthugha's lowliest servants!

If you are like me, or like Alexander Morton, the country doctor, you are thinking that you'll be sleeping a little easier when you know that this Black Mirror has been thrown down an abandoned mine shaft and smashed into little bits.  But if you are like Phillip Ashmore Smith your mind has already been infiltrated by Cthugha's agents and you will be spending the year 1937 moving into Zegrembi's old farmhouse in the English countryside, where you will watch the star Korvaz through a telescope all night and decipher manuscripts all day, trying to find out where that sweet Black Mirror is!

Luckily for all of us, after P. A. Smith finds the mirror and gets killed by a fire creature that emerges from it, the intrepid Dr. Morton snatches up the mirror and heaves it down the aforementioned mine shaft before Zegrembi, who is still alive and leading the Cthugha sympathizer movement in England, can get his hands on it.

Like "The Keeper of Dark Point," this story would have benefited from some editing and polishing to make the plot hang together better and to tidy up some confusing and ugly sentences.  It is not clear in "The Keeper of Dark Point" how or why Ashton's mother became a monster, and in "The Black Mirror" it is not clear why Zegrembi doesn't just get the mirror himself.  Zegrembi knows where the mirror is because he put it there.  Also, why go through the rigmarole of giving Smith hints that help him translate old manuscripts (that Zegrembi himself wrote in the 17th century) so Smith can figure out where the mirror is?  Just tell him!

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

I'm in love with Thomas Ligotti's "Vastarien," and Karl Edward Wagner's "I've Come to Talk to You Again" is good enough.  As for the Glasby stories, they deserve a barely passing grade.  I can't recommend them, but they are not offensively bad, and it is interesting to read a new author and explore a corner of the genre fiction universe, Badger Books, which I was unfamiliar with.  So my experience with Robert Price's The New Lovecraft Circle has been a good one, and this week I plan to read more from it.