Monday, December 29, 2014

Sandworld by Richard A. Lupoff

"They only two places...inside and outside.  Inside is inside a fence.... Inside any jailhouse....Outside is anyplace else...."
Years ago, back in New York, I borrowed from the library an old hardcover edition of Richard A. Lupoff's Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure and read quite a bit of it.  It was exciting to find that someone was taking Burroughs seriously, and I found the book to be very interesting and entertaining.

Besides that major work of genre literature criticism, Lupoff wrote quite a few SF and mystery novels.  (One of these novels features H. P. Lovecraft, another writer Lupoff had a scholarly interest in, as a character.)  While on my holidays travels I bought one of the less well-known of Lupoff's novels, Sandworld, a 1976 paperback from Berkley, for one dollar in a used bookstore in South Carolina.

Sandworld stars Red O'Reilly, who is serving time in San Quentin.  Shackled to two other jailbirds, a tall elderly black man and a foul-mouthed young Latino, Red is put into the back of a police car for transport to the courthouse. Behind the wheel of the car is the prison guard who is to drive the felonious trio, and beside him sits a female ACLU lawyer, there to make sure the guard doesn't abuse the "cons" during transit.

In the true tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, while driving down the highway the police vehicle is inexplicably teleported to an alien planet where the three crooks, the prison guard and the attorney have to fight for their lives against a giant snake!  They all survive the struggle with the monstrous serpent, and then trek across a strange desert, to a cyclopean city.  In the true tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, the city is abandoned, haunted by alien monsters, and filled with reliefs which tell the story of the fall of its advanced civilization.

Contra Burroughs and Lovecraft, the aliens the Earthlings meet after solving the riddle of the city are kind and generous.  (They even explain how the humans got teleported to this crazy planet in the first place.)  In fact, in classic sense of wonder fashion, the aliens provide our heroes with the technological means to explore thousands of planets! To employ this technology, the Earth exiles need only learn to "become at one with the universe" through meditation!

Then in the last 30 pages of the book, for some reason, we're back in Weird Tales territory.  On their very first exploration trip Red and company are captured by the "degenerate" descendants of a once great race and presented to these degenerates' mysterious god.

Lupoff's main focus seems to be not the book's plot, but its characters; there are many scenes of them debating what to do and squabbling with each other.  The characters, their relationships with each other, and their response to being sent to a planet full of monsters, reflect what I take to be the conventional 1970s liberal ideas held by Lupoff.  The prison guard is fat, ugly, racist, stupid and obsessed with rules and regulations.  Lupoff repeatedly uses the word "authoritarian" to describe him, and likens him to Nazis, fascists, and the alien monsters.  All the other characters enjoy multiple opportunities to humiliate him physically and verbally.  (If you want to read about an Italian-American corrections officer being beaten, shot, and insulted by a multi-ethnic crew of criminals and social justice types, this is your book!)

Our hero, Red, is a college-educated "fiery Irishman," and quickly takes command of the group.  Red somehow "parlayed a role in a campus political demonstration into an indeterminate sentence to a maximum security prison."  Red keeps the violent Hispanic, a mugger and thief who has spent eight years in prison and wants to rape the lawyer, under control.  The elderly black murderer has been in prison over 30 years, and is a "gentle giant" who plays the harmonica and, despite his bad grammar, utters pearls of wisdom.  ("God don't like us kill except we have to.")

The woman lawyer is there largely to serve as a lust interest for the Hispanic and a love interest for Red.       

Over the course of the story Lupoff denounces the harshness of prison life, questions the efficacy of imprisoning criminals, and questions the very idea of rules and authority.  (Of course, Red is always telling everybody what to do, which could muddle Lupoff's message a little, so we are shown time and again that Red is a reluctant leader who only takes the leadership position because the others beg him to do so.)  It is also suggested that criminals are not really to blame for their crimes--when the Latino tries to rape the lawyer she (after being rescued by Red) forgives her assailant, saying, "That was only natural."(!)

What is Sandworld trying to be?  What did Lupoff want to accomplish in writing it? On the back cover Burroughs' name is invoked and we are told this novel is a "rousing adventure in the SF pulp tradition," and it obviously owes some inspiration to Burroughs and Lovecraft.  But it doesn't really succeed as a "planetary romance" adventure or a piece of "cosmic horror."

For one thing, the book's politics don't mesh with the daring-do swashbuckling of a Burroughs story or the existential cosmic horror of a Lovecraft tale.  The politics of the book are very specific to its time and place, late-20th century USA, so the novel can't emulate the sort of timeless adventure of a Burroughs tale or the universal existential cosmic horror of a Lovecraft story.  The characters are not archetypes that represent us all and our hopes and fears (the man who triumphs over challenges, or the explorer who learns some dreadful truth) but stereotypes who represent very specific real people (the minorities who are oppressed by the system and react violently, the stupid ugly white guy who does the system's dirty work, and the sexy college-educated whites who work to change the system) and Lupoff's opinion of them.

Besides the distracting focus on parochial political issues, the novel's pace is slow, even in the action scenes; Lupoff is kind of long-winded and a little repetitive.  There is also no climax to the story; the last 30 pages with the degenerates and their god feel tacked on and are poorly conceived in any case.  

Seeing as Sandworld doesn't work as a pulp adventure story, I am forced to consider that it may be: a rush job done for money that Lupoff padded out with his banal political views; a half-hearted debunking or satire of pulp adventures that fails to be insightful or amusing; or, a sincere attack on criminal justice in America that Lupoff made salable to Berkley by setting it on another planet.  Or some combination of these.

Despite all my criticisms, I'm giving Sandworld a (marginally) passing grade.  I haven't talked about the original science fiction components that Lupoff brings to Sandworld, the astronomy and ecology of the planet, for example, but they are pretty good.  And I was never bored by the novel; I was always curious about what would happen next. The novel is not good, but it kept my interest.  Rather than passing "an indeterminate sentence" for "political demonstration" on Lupoff, I'll let him off with a warning this time.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Three stories by David R. Bunch from Fantastic

Not long ago I read a very short story by David Bunch that appeared in the January 1974 issue of Fantastic and pronounced it horrible.  But Joachim Boaz of the SF Ruminations blog has endorsed some of Bunch's other work, so this holiday week I read three Bunch stories I found in recent additions to my SF collection.

UK edition of the anthology
"Training Talk" (1964)

Published by Dell in 1966, Judith Merrill's 10th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F is full of stories by authors I've never heard of, and by authors I don't typically think of as SF writers, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Russell Baker, and John D. MacDonald.  (Though I have already reviewed some of MacDonald's SF right here at MPorcius Fiction Log.)  In an effort to allay the fears of the SF book buyer, on the back cover of my edition of the volume the publishers printed an assurance from The Chicago Tribune that the book is a "Jim Dandy" and "Fantasy land really comes through in this one...."

David R. Bunch's contribution to 10th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, "Training Talk," is five pages long and originally appeared in Fantastic's March 1964 issue.  I guess it is some kind of allegory or something.  A single father living in the country tries to teach his four-year-old daughter and five-year-old son something (about death?) by carving up hunks of baloney into likenesses of a deceased aunt and burying them in cigar boxes along with the little girl's paper cutouts of angels.  When they dig up one of the boxes six months later they find a snake has been making the box its home.  The end.

Maybe I'm missing some kind of deep symbolism here.  Maybe "Training Talk" is a satire of the scientific method?  (A theme of the anthology as a whole, judging by Merrill's introductions and summations, seems to be skepticism of science and technology.)

Maybe I'm supposed to enjoy the folksy style, with all its similes and metaphors ("It was one of those days when cheer came out of a rubbery sky in great splotches and globs of half-snow and eased down the windowpanes like breakups of little glaciers.")?  The story is a little like an R. A. Lafferty story, but one shorn of any laughs.

Maybe I'm supposed to look for clues as to what really happened to the aunt and the kids' mother?  What city the mother may currently be residing in is a topic of conversation among the characters.

This is a thought-provoking story, but my thoughts don't seem to get me anywhere; is the story a puzzle for which I lack a key, or just absurd nonsense without any real meaning?

"Short Time at the Pearly Gates" (1974)

This three page tale appears in my copy of Fantastic's March 1974 issue.  In his intro, editor Ted White admits that "for some Bunch is an acquired taste."  The isfdb suggests that this was "Short Time at the Pearly Gates"'s only appearance anywhere. 

A man is hit by a truck while crossing the street and awakens at the entrance to Heaven.  One of Saint Peter's subordinates plops him in a tub and scrubs away his sins with abrasive soaps and wire brushes. But just before he passes through the Pearly Gates the narrator wakes up to find himself still alive, in a hospital, confronted with his wife and children.

I guess the tension of the story is in wondering whether the man really went to Heaven or was simply dreaming, and whether we should suspect that his life on Earth, working to pay his doctor bill and feed his family, is literally or metaphorically Hell.  There are also some lame jokes (e. g., the attendant at the Pearly Gates keeps track of the oddballs who come up to Heaven, and our narrator is approximately the 485759th most absurd.)  This is some pretty thin gruel. 

"At Bugs Complete" (1974)

Like "Short Time at the Pearly Gates," "At Bugs Complete" appeared in Fantastic (the July 1974 issue in this case) and was never printed again.  Poor Bunch isn't even listed on the cover.

Bugs Complete is a large business firm in a dystopic world in which the government is spying on everybody all the time, and this story is mostly a conversation between an executive (our narrator) and his direct subordinate, a scientific type.  Bugs Complete sells surveillance devices to the government, and the scientist is presenting a new idea to the narrator, a system of bugs that will catalog a person's every experience from birth, thus allowing the government to extrapolate what he or she will do in the future.  Knowing what people will do before they do it, the scientist claims, will be the ultimate power!

This is easily the best of the three stories I'm discussing in this blog post.  Unlike in "Short Time at the Pearly Gates," in "At Bugs Complete" something actually happens, and there are actual relationships between the characters (we learn how the narrator manipulates the scientist to further his own career, for example.)  Now, in "Training Talk" there was also a plot and characters, but in that story everything was inexplicable and absurd; in "At Bugs Complete" you can actually understand the plot and characters--call me old-fashioned, but for me that is a plus.  "At Bugs Complete" also addresses philosophical debates I find interesting--nature vs nurture and determinism vs free will--and includes actual science-fiction elements, the proposed methods of government surveillance.  This is a story I can recommend.

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

So, we've got a bewildering but acceptable story, a story I thought a total waste of time, and a story that actually worked.  It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but good enough that I will read more Bunch in the future, if and when the opportunity presents itself.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Spawn of the Death Machine by Ted White

"This is the Com-Comp.  Your creator."
"I don't believe that."
"You are an artificially constructed human being, a mobile data-gathering device."

I recently praised two pieces of writing by Amazing and Fantastic editor Ted White, a short story that was apparently the first (and only) episode in an abortive series of stories about a barbarian exploring a strange world, and an autobiographical story in which Ted's buddy and fellow jazz critic Harlan Ellison abused their friendship.  I thought both items well-written, and became curious about White's work.  I still had some credit at the iTunes Store, a Christmas gift from my brother, and used it to purchase the Gateway digital edition of White's 1968 novel, The Spawn of the Death Machine.

Robert Tanner wakes up naked in a tiny metal room.  A computer voice tells him he was created to act as a data-collecting device, and now is the time for him to go gather up that data!  Tanner isn't sure how much of that to believe--he thinks he's a real human being!  A door opens into the sunlight and Tanner is sent out into what the computer calls "the world of Man;" he is to return in one year to have his memories downloaded.

Tanner has been released into New York City, but it is not the NY we know and ♥, it is a ruin grown over with vegetation, and almost completely abandoned!  Tanner wanders around Manhattan for five days, meeting no people, and starts getting a pain in his stomach.  Tanner's memory of his previous life is almost entirely gone, so much so that he has forgotten that he has to eat!  Things start to slowly come back to him, though.  (TRIGGER WARNING: Tanner's first meal is a domestic cat that he eats raw!)

It is when Tanner leaves Manhattan that his troubles truly begin.  (I know what that's like!)  All the bridges are down, so he swims to the Bronx, where he is promptly captured by cannibals!  (These guys haven't yet joined the feline cuisine craze.)

When his captors beat him Tanner gets angry, and goes Lou Ferrigno on them, killing their leader with his bare hands. Tanner, it turns out, is super strong. Accompanied by Rifka, a teenage girl whose life up to now has been characterized by rape and incest, Tanner marches on, leaving the cannibals and New York behind.  

As Tanner and Rifka cross the post apocalyptic landscape westward to California, battling rapists, dogs, and bears and making friends with various people and animals, Tanner's true identity, and his relationship to the computer that once ruled civilization, and then centuries ago destroyed it, gradually become clear.

In the first half of the book I suspected that White was trying to disgust the reader; besides all the explicit violence there are numerous references to vomit, defecation, semen, saliva, parasites, scabs, blood, etc.  We hear a lot about bad smells.  This eases up in the second half of the novel, and I now wonder if White meant this as a satire of traditional adventure fiction, in which close quarters combat, torture, the life of the "noble savage," and being shipwrecked or otherwise lost in the wilderness are romanticized, sanitized, and/or sensationalized. (As I say this I have Norman Spinrad's 1967 novel Men in the Jungle in mind.)  

Some of the towns Tanner and Rifka encounter are certainly vehicles for satire.  One has a culture based on the tiny collection of books that survived the apocalypse, most prominent among them Henry Miller's Sexus and a bound collection of Playboy magazines.  Another town, cut off from the rest of the world under a geodesic dome, is run stringently on eugenicist lines by a cadre of scientists who maintain a society of exactly 500 men and 500 women, and breed them for intelligence and other desirable genetic attributes.  The twist is that the scientists are "Negroes" and one's social status is largely determined by how dark one's skin is, the darker the better.  (The dome society's ruler is called "Mr. Black.")

Our travelers' journey ends in California, where, among the redwoods, lives a community of telepathic (more "empathic," I guess) nudist Indians who are in tune with each other and with nature.  White, who includes more than one obese villain in the book, makes sure to tell us that not one of these people is fat!  Tanner and Rifka are welcomed into this paradise, but Tanner cannot truly enter this Promised Land-- the empathic waves can't penetrate his stainless steel skull!

In the epilogue Tanner returns to New York to tell the computer that humankind will be better off without high technology, at least for a while.

I found The Spawn of the Death Machine entertaining, though I am not sure how widely I can recommend it.  In part I enjoyed it the way you might enjoy an exploitation B movie; the description of a cannibal rapist that includes the phrase "his genitals covered with the glistening slime of a rutting animal" makes me laugh, but maybe some would find such prose repellent.  The satire can be wacky (and what kind of book tries to tell you life in California is better than New York life?) but the satirical parts are not long-winded or hectoring, and, for me, the wackiness is part of the charm.  So I'm giving Spawn of the Death Machine a thumbs up, though with the caveat that it may take a particular kind of reader to appreciate it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans

No Ethsharitic had ever killed a shatra in hand-to-hand combat, Valder knew--but he resolved to try.  The sword's magic might possibly give him the edge he needed to do it.

In my teens I read Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Cyborg and the Sorcerers and enjoyed it quite a lot.  Decades later I still recall parts of it.  For whatever reason, I never read any more books by Watt-Evans, but a year ago I purchased a 1989 copy of 1985's The Misenchanted Sword, the first of several novels set in the land of Ethshar, and this week I read it.

The land of Ethshar has been at war with the Northern Empire for as long as anybody can remember, and Valder is a conscript in the army of Ethshar, one of three million such draftees.  As the novel begins Valder, a scout trapped behind enemy lines, is fleeing three Northern soldiers.  Magic is common in this world, and the people of the Northern Empire worship demons; one of Valder's pursuers is a sorcerer, and another is a shatra, a sort of demon/human hybrid.  Valder is concealed by a hermit, an Ethsharitic wizard, and narrowly escapes death.

The wizard then casts various spells on Valder's sword, but doesn't explain to Valder what they are or how they work.  Valder sets off back homewards, and along the way, besides having to deal with such threats as dragons, demons, and enemy soldiers, he has to figure out how to use his enchanted weapon.  As we often see in these fantasy stories, the magic sword will basically fight for its bearer: "Valder made no attempt to direct it; his hand went where the sword chose to go."  Even mediocre fencer Valder can now hack and slash with the best of them!  But several of the sword's wizardly attributes are inconvenient, and some amount to burdensome curses.

When he reaches the Ethsharitic lines the army's staff of magic users figures out much of the magic of the sword, and, because the sword makes Valder almost unbeatable in one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, the army's commanders send Valder off on assassination missions, deep into the northern reaches of the Northern Empire.

The Misenchanted Sword is not a traditional sword and sorcery Conan/Elric/Grey Mouser tale, nor is it a Tolkein-style epic of high fantasy.  It lacks the romance or poetry or melodrama of many fantasy stories, and instead is quite rational and realistic, almost low key.  The characters act like ordinary 20th century people, not larger than life figures of myth.  It is not nearly as gritty or cynical as something Glen Cook would write, and while you might call it light-hearted, it is not (thank heavens) full of dumb jokes.

In fact, The Misenchanted Sword reminded me quite a bit of a Heinlein juvenile, one of those in which a young person comes of age and learns about the world and life in the midst of an adventure or a period of crisis.  Watt-Evans' novel includes a surprising amount of realistic politics and economics, for example, and the second part of the story, in which Valder is acting as the army's special forces squad, focuses more on Valder's personal relationships and "down time" at HQ than his desperate missions.  The war ends (due to cataclysmic divine intervention that happens off stage) and Watt-Evans includes long scenes in which Valder witnesses the effect of peace after centuries of war on people, politics and the economy, and tries to figure out what he will do with his own life.  In the final third of the book Valder is a small businessman, an innkeeper.

One of the many spells on the sword is one that preserves Valder's life, but not his youth; like Tithonus, he risks living virtually forever as an immobile mindless vegetable.  When he begins losing his sight in his sixties, Valder sets forth from his inn to try to find a wizard who can free him from this curse. 

An entertaining story with an interesting premise and a competent, unobtrusive writing style.  I enjoyed The Misenchanted Sword and if I run into the second or third of the Ethshar paperbacks I am likely to read them.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

All the Colors of Darkness by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Their eyes met, and Darzek reached out and took the young alien's cold, dry hand.  He had never felt such compassion for a living creature.

I'd never read anything by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., and this week gave him a try, taking off my shelf the copy of All the Colors of Darkness I purchased in May of this year.  Besides SF stories and novels, Biggle wrote lots of mysteries, and this 1963 novel, my copy of which is the 1965 Paperback Library edition, is the first in a series about a private eye, Jan Darzek.  I'm not particularly keen on private eyes, and I probably wouldn't have bought the book if I had known it was part of a detective series, even if it is a detective series in which the detective is dealing with aliens.  The cover text doesn't stress the detective angle, and I guess I figured Darzek would be a scientist, or soldier, or astronaut, or just some guy upon whom adventure had been thrust.

It's the year 1986, and The Universal Transmitting Company, after several false starts, is finally having the grand opening of its teleporter business.  Soon everyone will be able to travel from L.A. to New York, from America to Europe, and numerous stations in between, in the blink of an eye, for no more than the price of a Manhattan subway ride!  The world economy and human life are about to be revolutionized!

Wait, what was that about false starts?  Why has The Universal Transmitting Company had so much trouble getting off the ground?  Well, all those government regulations haven't helped, but there's also the sabotage!  Who would want to sabotage a teleporter service?  The railroads?  The airlines?  Jan Darzek is hired to solve the case, and who turns out to be the culprit?  Aliens!

Fellow SF fan Betty Briggs, we salute you!
The first sixty pages or so of the novel contain all the trappings of detective fiction: lists of suspects, intimations of an inside job, disguises, stakeouts, people being tailed on the street, people being knocked unconscious in doorways, etc.  I was relieved when Darzek was unexpectedly teleported to the moon while chasing a suspect through one of Universal Trans's teleporter portals.  (As in Heinlein's 1955 Tunnel in the Sky, the teleporters in All the Colors of Darkness are a bunch of doorways in a Grand Central Terminal-style concourse; the big difference is that while in the Heinlein book teleportation is expensive, here costs are negligible.)

Darzek reappears in the aliens' secret base on the moon, from which a team of five of them have been interfering with Earth's development of the teleporter system.  In the initial struggle, Darzek blows up the base's power plant, dooming himself and the aliens to death by asphyxiation when their emergency supplies of oxygen run out in some weeks.

When Darzek recovers from the blast, he finds the aliens are nice guys.  They describe themselves as police, and treat Darzek decently.  If you've read any SF books or watched any SF on TV you probably won't be surprised to hear that the aliens represent the innumerable space faring races that populate the universe and they are trying to stop mankind from developing teleportation because humans are too violent, ambitious and intolerant.  Teleportation is the first step to interstellar travel, and if Earthling men and women, Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, etc., can't get along, how can humans be expected to get along with the countless far more different alien civilizations they will encounter beyond the Solar System?

Our Italian friends at Urania printed All the Colors of Darkness in
1964 and then 1975; observe the rises in both prices and hemlines.
The aliens, while friendly, are quite firm; they don't punish or take revenge on Darzek, but they also stick to their Code, which forbids them from revealing themselves to the humans, even to save their own lives.  The explosion of the alien power plant was detected by the US space agency, and before long an American rocket lands near the hidden base, but Darzek, forbidden from signalling his countrymen, can only watch them on a viewscreen as they pass mere meters from the hidden base in which he will soon die!

The chapters in the wrecked base, in which Darzek gets to know the five aliens and struggles to figure out a way to save himself and his new friends without breaking the Code, are the best part of the book.   Biggle's aliens are interesting, and their interactions with Darzek and with each other are well done; the aliens have more personality and more intriguing relationships than do any of the novel's human characters.  The detective, in a nick of time, does save the day, not only preserving his own skin and that of his five extra-terrestrial buddies, but even convincing the galactic civilization to permit humanity to retain its newly developed teleporter technology.

The style of All the Colors of Darkness is bland and the human characters are boring, but I liked all the SF elements: the teleporters, the aliens, the scenes on the lunar surface in vacuum suits.  (I'm a sucker for that old school stuff.)  I was a bit disappointed in the ending; Darzek returns to his own kind with his memory of his time on Luna erased, his new friendships and his adventure entirely forgotten.  I had been hoping the aliens would insist that he leave the Solar System with them, becoming a sort of goodwill ambassador or embarking on a lecture tour or something.  It's not like Biggle gave Darzek a family or a love interest back on Earth to return to, and to me a memory wipe seems like a terrible violation.

Despite my reservations, I would judge All the Colors of Darkness moderately good.  I own the fourth Darzek novel, and if I spot the second and third I will buy them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

January 1974 stories by Ted White, Janet Fox, J. J. Russ, and "Susan Doenim"

Let's tackle the rest of the fiction from my copy of January 1974's Fantastic.

"...And Another World Above" by Ted White

White, editor of the magazine, includes a longish story by himself; on the Table of Contents it is called a "novelete."  In its introduction White tells us it is the first in a series of stories about his character, "Long Hand," but I'm not finding any evidence online of further stories about the character.

Which is too bad, because "...And Another World Above" is a pretty good piece of work, a good start for a novel or a series of closely connected stories.  It doesn't really work as a stand alone tale, as it spends all its pages setting the scene and introducing the characters, so there is no conflict or climax or resolution.

Long Hand (is this name some kind of writerly in-joke?), a teenage boy, is a member of a nomadic tribe of only 22 people.  They can only barely eke out an existence in the barren desert they inhabit, and have virtually no technology--Long Hand has never even seen a wheel!  One day the band is visited by wise men who have magical (or high tech) healing abilities.  These wise men do some good deeds for the tribe, and then leave.  Long Hand, curious, follows them, and witnesses them teleporting away. Imitating their actions, the boy himself is teleported.

He reappears in a much more fertile land, one of towns, farms and rivers, and a population that wears clothes and uses wagons.  The sky is also different; White seems to be hinting that this world is on the interior of a globe or cylinder with a sun in its center, like in the generation ship in Gene Wolfe's 1990s Book of the Long Sun or Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1914-1963 Pellucidar books.  Long Hand meets an older woman who is a mind reader, and becomes her assistant.  He also meets a friendly teenage girl in a town, and loses his virginity with her.  Then the story is over.

I liked White's writing style, and the way he handled the characters was pleasant.  I think I would have enjoyed following Long Hand as he explored his new world and did whatever the plot would end up consisting of, going on a quest or fighting in a war or whatever.  Is there any chance one of White's novels is a continuation of this story?

NOTE:  There's a fun story autobiographical story by White about his relationship with Harlan Ellison available online here; check it out, it is like something Harvey Pekar would write, and even includes charming cartoons!

Mike Kaluta's illo for "She-Bear"; I
don't get the Asian style; this is a Northern
European story (Arcana invokes Odin)

"She-Bear" by Janet Fox

I'd never even heard of Janet Fox before reading this story; apparently she is most well-known for a series of novels about an alien called Scorpio who travels through time.  Those novels appeared under the pseudonym Alex McDonough.

"She-Bear" is a competent, if ordinary, sword and sorcery adventure.  Maybe I'm supposed to praise it because it's about a woman who kills people with a magic sword instead of about a man who kills people with a magic sword?  Be that as it may, I liked "She-Bear,"--the plot is solid, and Fox's style and pacing are good.

Arcana is a "tall, sturdily-built girl" climbing snow-covered mountains on a quest to find a magic sword and kill a troll.  The sword is imbued with the bloodthirsty soul of the great king of a forgotten people, and when Arcana has to fight rapists, the sword basically fights for her, guiding her hand in intricate fencing moves.  Besides her magic sword, Arcana (who is a witch) is accompanied by a daemon trapped in the body of a blind horse, and a handsome man who is in her thrall, she having used the magic sword to outfight him and win his obedience.  A romance seems to be brewing between the two, but is not consummated within the period of the story.

While a complete story, "She-Bear" feels like an episode in a series, and I'd certainly be interested to read more about Arcana, the captive daemon, and the thrall and their Conan/Elric/Grey Mouser-style adventures.  Fox published something like 50 stories in anthologies and periodicals, so with luck I will encounter some more of her work in my usual course of scrutinizing tables of contents in libraries and used book stores. 

An entertaining fantasy caper with some effective horror elements; thumbs up. 

"The Interview" by J. J. Russ

J. J. Russ only has six entries, all short stories, on the isfdb.  White tells us this is a Kafkaesque story, and that Russ is a published poet.

This is a first person narrative in which the protagonist endures a job interview in a dystopian world in which there is only one company to work for and the unemployed are "disappeared" soon after losing their positions.  Our narrator is presented with impossible challenges at the interview, like being asked to recall something from the day of his birth, or define words that the interviewer has just made up.  The story is mildly amusing, though it feels a little long and I spotted the twist ending early.

Acceptable.

"Heartburn in Heaven" by Susan Doenim

When I looked up Doenim at the isfdb I was surprised to find that this was a pseudonym used by George Alec Effinger.  In his intro to the story Ted White reports that "Miss Doenim" recently graduated high school--in 1974 Effinger, born in 1947, was 27 years old!  Was White in on the joke, or was he the victim of an elaborate charade on Effinger's part?  Is the "affectionate dedication" to Harlan Ellison sincere, or some kind of dig?

I liked Effinger's 1973 story, "City in the Sand," but was not impressed by several of his earlier stories. "Heartburn in Heaven" isn't terrible, but I can't quite say I enjoyed it; it is a sterile literary exercise.

A man awakes naked in a long steel corridor.  He can only vaguely remember his earlier life; he doesn't even recall his own name.  On the floor are a scrubber and a can of polish.  He eventually learns that if he polishes the walls of his prison, food will appear.  Exploring, he meets other prisoners; none know any more about how they got here than he does.  The inmates cannot live communally, because their food only appears in the place where they awoke.   The female prisoners have a little more mobility, because they will have sex with men who trade them half a ration of food for the privilege. 

And that's all folks, we never learn anything about how or why he is in this environment, or who put him there.  I guess this is just a (tepid) allegory of life.

Barely acceptable.

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

All in all, this issue of Fantastic is pretty good.  White, Malzberg and Fox provide stories I can confidently recommend.  The Meyers, Russ and Effinger stories, all of them odd in one way or another, get (perhaps grudgingly) passing grades.  That leaves us only one truly bad story, the anemic Bunch piece.  And the ancillary matter--editorial, letters, the whole business of Effinger impersonating a young woman--are fun.  So, reading this magazine has been a positive experience, and opened my eyes to two authors, White and Fox, worth a further look.

Monday, December 15, 2014

January 1974 stories from Fantastic: Myers, Bunch & Malzberg

Let's take a look at one of the magazines I got at the Des Moines Flea Market!

The January 1974 issue of Fantastic has a weak cover painting; the dripping knife in the brutish woman's hand actually reminded me of the knife StrongBad likes to include in his own art work.  And is that water coming out of her sleeve?

Editor Ted White's editorial is full of minutia that might interest the SF fan obsessed with 1970s inside baseball stuff, like how the number of stories in a SF magazine compares to that of a mystery mag, and whether SF and the mystery are genres better suited to the novel or the short story.  White tells us that a traditional (puzzle whodunit) mystery story drawn out to novel length is a drag, while the "most memorable and outstanding" SF stories are long stories or novels.  He and other SF editors find that there have been quite few really good SF short stories lately.

At the back of the magazine we have eleven pages of letters.  Alexei Panshin praises Ted White to the skies, and White returns the favor.  Other correspondents call Alexei and Cory Panshin's novel The Son of Black Morca "brilliantly creative" and "sheer greatness."  My man tarbandu read the paperback edition of this novel (retitled Earth Magic for book publication) and called it "one of the worst fantasy novels I've ever read."  There is also a lot of discussion of Gene Rodenberry's failed TV pilot Genesis II and a rumor of a Star Trek movie!

I read three pieces of fiction from the issue early this week: a short novel by Howard L. Meyers, a very short story by David R. Bunch, and a story by Barry N. Malzberg.

"The Earth of Nenkunal" by Howard L. Myers

I'm not familiar with Howard L. Myers, who wrote few novels but a substantial number of short stories.  Baen has published two collections of Myers' stories recently, and "The Earth of Nenkunal," as I write this, can be read for free as part of the free e-book, the Creatures of Man.  "The Earth of Nenkunal" is the first story in what the people at isfdb call the "Econo-War" series, which the people at Baen tell us is part of the "Chalice Cycle."  The version of the story in Fantastic is graced with an evocative illustration by Jeff Jones.

The world is changing!  The Age of Magic is giving way to a period of religion.  This revolution is the doing of spirit creatures called "necromancers" from outer space; they are coming down to the Earth and taking over people's bodies and stealing people's souls and that kind of thing.  The necromancers have the ability to lay a geas on people that causes them to worship the necromancers as gods.  Among the worshipers, sex is considered dirty, which is a big change from the Age of Magic.  Among those still devoted to magic, it is normal for people to have group sex in the middle of a tavern while the other patrons watch and cheer.

Basdon is a swordsman newly arrived in Nenkunal, where magic is still holding on. Basdon is a recovering worshiper, and so he is a little reluctant to climb onto the tavern table and bang a chick while all the farmers watch and wait their own turns with the young lady.  But he manages to get into the swing of things.

After pulling up his trousers Basdon is pulled aside by a magician, Jonker.  The magic-user tells Basdon that the coming era of religion will only last twenty thousand years, so no biggie, but when the next magical era begins it may be stunted.  The magicians of the future will have an easier time of it if Jonker can find a particular magical talisman and preserve it for them in a place safe from the religious.  Jonker asks Basdon to accompany him on this quest; the talisman is currently in territory ruled by religious people, and Jonker could really use the help of a fighting man with knowledge of the ways of the religious.

In Nenkunal the croplands are lush and the people friendly; in the lands of god-worshipers there is famine and everybody is a jerk who loves money.  Basdon and Jonker have to fight in hand to hand combat with "weredogs" and their master, an evil wizard, and in the ruin where the talisman lies buried kill the musclebound body occupied by one of the necromancer "gods."  Basdon also rapes a six-year-old girl.  Hey, don't worry!  You see, she has a curse on her, and for the last two weeks her body has been growing at the rate of a year a day, so she's legal!  And, after Jonker applies a little more magic, the girl isn't calling up Rolling Stone for an interview, she's asking Basdon for more! 

"The Earth of Nenkunal" is an ordinary quest adventure with a few crazy pro-sex and anti-religion elements stapled on.  Barely acceptable.

"Alien" by David R. Bunch

This story was translated into French and included in Univers 10.  Univers 10 has one of those covers that makes us Anglo-Saxons say "Sacre bleu!" or "ooh la la."  Bunch is another author I have never read before; I guess it's education time for your humble blogger!

"Alien" is one of those stories that makes us 21st century people say "WTF?"  Two pages long, it stars a "little man-not-around" with a "pumpkin-yellow-face" who wants to love everybody and serve as people's "umbrella." But everybody, particularly a millionaire and a woman in high heels with lots of cosmetics on her face, is in too much of a hurry and they push the guy out of the way.  So pumpkin-face decides to become a man in a hurry also, and becomes the fastest and hurryingest of all.  The moral of the story: we are all trying to get away from something, and we don't spare enough time for love.

Awwwwwwww......

In his intro to the story Ted White tells us "Alien" is "a parable" and "a unique offering," but I suspect White included it to serve as evidence of what he says in his editorial: "I have talked with several of these editors and I've noted a common complaint: all are very discouraged by the general state of the sf short story."  Editor dudes, I feel your pain!

"Network" by Barry N. Malzberg

This story appears in the 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, and it is pretty good. It includes images, characters, an adventure plot, and traditional SF ideas, things our man Barry doesn't always feel the need to include in his work.  Somehow, of the three stories we are talking about today, Malzberg's is the least crazy!

In the future a crumbling big city, I'm guessing New York, has been closed off by the authorities, so the inhabitants can't get out and only tourists and students of the Institute can get in.  (Yes, this sounds kinda like Ben Bova's 1976 novel City of Darkness and his 1973 short story, "The Sightseers.")  Our story follows two students from the Institute who drive into the city, which is called "Network," to collect information.  They act foolishly, get in trouble, and have to fight for their lives.

A decent story, I suppose about urban decay and the callousness of the authorities and intellectual elites in their dealings with the common people.  The tense action and danger stuff actually works, so, kudos to Malzberg.

***********

When the wife and I are on some road trip in the Toyota Corolla, and I inevitably get us lost with my incompetent driving or incompetent map-reading, I say things like "hey, this is an adventure!" and "we're explorers!" and "it's always worthwhile to see things you've never seen before!"  The January '74 issue of Fantastic is a little like that.  Am I going to be seeking out more stories by Myers and Bunch?  No, not really. Am I glad I got to experience their 1974 wackiness?  That's what I'm telling myself!

(Luckily the Jeff Jones illustration makes the issue worth far more to me than what I paid, and I liked the Malzberg.)

In our next episode I'll explore more fiction from this issue, including Ted White's own story about "a new kind of sword and sorcery hero," Janet Fox's story about a "witch-girl," and the mysterious Susan Doenim's story, which she dedicates to Harlan Ellison!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Three Barry Malzberg stories from the early 1980s

Followers of my twitter feed will know that I recently purchased a pile of old SF magazines at the Des Moines Flea Market.  (They will also be aware that I drink a lot of Rich Chocolate Ovaltine, which is perhaps even more exciting.)  For my first foray into these digest-sized volumes I decided to read some stories by Barry N. Malzberg that I hadn't read before.  These three all appeared in 1980 or 1981, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

"Fascination" by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg (1980)

This story also appears in the collection of Pronzini-Malzberg collaborations entitled On Account of Darkness.  Readers may remember my merciless reviews of three Pronzini solo stories of the "short-short" variety.

"Fascination" is a game played in a Times Square gaming parlor, in which you try to roll balls into pockets; sinking a ball in a pocket illuminates one of a number of light bulbs above the gaming table, and your goal is to activate five bulbs that lay in a straight line. Our narrator thinks the game is absolutely random, and/or fixed.  He also thinks that the New York area is suffering an epidemically high number of alien abductions.  He accosts another player of Fascination, an old man who insists that the game is winnable (if a goofball who believes in aliens is not distracting you) and that there are no aliens.  By the end of the story the aliens have abducted the narrator... or at least that is what he thinks; the old man cannot see the alien.

This story covers territory our man Barry has covered elsewhere: the (probably insane) protagonist who sees aliens that are (probably) not really there, games, New York, etc. There is even mention of the Oval Office.  Presumably the game is an allegory for life, and our conflicting beliefs that we are masters of our own fates and suspicions that life is determined by random forces or controlled by mysterious figures behind the scenes.

An acceptable entertainment, but nothing special.      

"The Twentieth Century Murder Case" by Barry N. Malzberg (1980)

This is where I exhort all you Malzberg completists to hunt down the December 1980 issue of F&SF on ebay and abebooks because "The Twentieth Century Murder Case"'s only appearance in our dear English language, the language of Samuel Clemens and Samuel Johnson, of Danielle Steel and Dan Brown, is within its moldering pages.  Of course, if you can sling the italiano you can just pick up a copy of Urania #903.

This story is a lame allegory.  The Twentieth Century has been killed, and our narrator is the gumshoe trying to solve the case.  He uncovers the conspiracy to murder the century: it twas advertising agencies, fast food restaurants, and TV networks that done the deed!

You have to wonder what a guy is thinking when he suggests the worst things that happened in the century of the Somme, Auschwitz, and the Rape of Nanking are the Big Mac and I Love Lucy, and that the worst people of the century of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao are Ray Kroc and Alan Wagner.  I get that sophisticated people are supposed to hate TV and fast food and advertising, but this seems a little over the top.

The story's half-baked ideology is only part of its problem.  The metaphor doesn't make much sense-- what happens when the century dies?  You just move the calendar forward?  That is what it seems like.  The metaphor is also mixed; sometimes you think "killing the century" with TV commercials and preservatives is a symbol about the populace's physical and psychological health, other times the story is very literal, with "sniper fire" and "a bear trap" employed to "murder the century" like the century is a guy just walking down the street.  The story also lacks any plot, characters, or laughs.

Maybe it sounds better in a romance language?

"There the Lovelies Bleeding" by Barry N. Malzberg (1981)

Add the September 1981 F&SF to your shopping list!  "There the Lovelies Bleeding" appears here, and nowhere else, in any language!  Your italiano isn't going to help you this time, bucko!

This story is short, less than three pages, and I immediately recognized the interesting elements of it.  Who could forget a couple sitting in a restaurant with robot waiters who witness one waiter explode, an insane person sucked away through a trap door, and people in the outside corridors being herded off to some horrible fate?  But where had I read this stuff before, if this is the tale's only appearance?

A little research reveals that this story was adapted for inclusion in Malzberg's 1982 novel The Cross of Fire.  I even described the relevant scene on this here blog back in May of this year.  Weird!

Anyway, "There the Lovelies Bleeding" depicts a dystopic future of terrorism, mass insanity, cannibalism, and cold loveless promiscuity.  Still, the female component of the couple is sure things have been improving over the last few decades, while the male narrator begins to believe he may have finally found love in this, his 54th relationship.  Sometimes Malzberg does give you a happy ending!

Not bad.

***********

Malzberg also has the"Books" column in the September '81 issue of F&SF.  He looks at Charles Platt's Dream Makers, a collection of interviews and observations about SF writers, and declares that SF writers are all "suffering" because writing SF is a "terribly painful and enervating pursuit," and, as a result, SF writers all employ various "defense mechanisms" and wear "masks of self-delusion." He lists a bunch of SF authors and what appear to be their "personae": Asimov wants to be seen as a "working man," Farmer as a "proletarian," Disch as a "litterateur," and so forth.  Malzberg isn't brave enough to slot Harlan Ellison's self-delusions into a single category, he says Ellison wants to be seen as "many things."  Malzberg tells us Dream Makers, for him, is "fearfully upsetting and unsettling."

Malzberg also talks about Fantastic Lives, a collection of autobiographical essays by SF writers, which sounds very interesting (R. A. Lafferty's contribution is said to be very bitter) but which Malzberg seems to think is not very good. Finally, he praises Jack Dann as a top rank writer who will produce much great work in the future.  (I enjoyed Dann's 1981 collaboration with Malzberg, "Parables of Art," and his 1982 collaboration with Gardner Dozois, "Down Among the Dead Men.")

Am I a jerk if I say I enjoyed this "Books" column more than I did the three short stories?

***********

I'm going to call this an interesting excursion into the career of an intriguing SF writer and critic.  And promise more Malzberg and more of my flea market haul in our next episode.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

"Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!  I am the son in the Jewish joke--only it ain't no joke!"
No, this is not a book
on public relations
I first read Portnoy's Complaint during my freshman year of college; not for a class, mind you, but out of my own curiosity.  (On July 14 of 1763 Johnson told Boswell that "a plan of study" was a waste of time, because you won't get any good out of what you read "as a task," and I have certainly felt this to be true in my own life.)  I can still recall puzzling over Portnoy's Complaint's last few pages, in which the narrator's ranting includes a reference to his model Hawker Hurricane, a symbol of his youthful patriotism and decency, as I sat in a huge auditorium where I was one of the multitude taking an intro course on psychology.  I spent most of these sessions looking out the window at the squirrels gamboling about the Rutgers campus.

Late last week I borrowed a copy of the 1967 novel from a nearby university library. This copy was previously read by (I presume) an Asian student, and is full of marginalia in what I take to be Chinese or Japanese script.  It is interesting to consider that there may be some businessman or government official over in Beijing or Yokohama whose view of the United States and/or the Jewish people is strongly colored by his or her close reading of this novel that chronicles a young man's use of masturbation aids vegetable, animal and mineral.

Portnoy's Complaint is written in the form of thirty-something Alexander Portnoy's confessions to a psychologist, and rather than a straightforward narrative, consists of a series of vignettes.  In fact it is quite like a stand up comedy routine: jokes about constipation and jerking off; jokes about Jewish guilt and stifling nagging parents (the ignorant bigoted father who works himself to the bone and resents his employers, the self-important mother who brags about how clean her house is) who always ask why you don't call, don't visit, don't give them grand kids; jokes about trouble with the opposite sex. There's even a joke about how it is (allegedly) illegal to tear that tag off your mattress.

Roth invites you to compare the novel to a comedy monologue, titling the last chapter "Punch Line" and referring in the text to Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle.  Young Alex Portnoy, in fact, cracks up his friends and family with his imitations of characters from the Allen and Benny radio shows, and, when as an adult he is unhappy about his life as a childless bachelor, Portnoy imagines the ideal life to be sitting around with his kids, listening to Allen and Benny on the radio.

Fortunately for the reader, Roth is really quite funny, and the quasi-comic routine format works like a charm.  I smiled and laughed again and again at the stories and jokes Portnoy tells his head shrinker.
 
The not-quite linear plot of the novel follows Portnoy, a highly intelligent (first in his class year after year after year) Jewish boy who grows up in urban Northern New Jersey and becomes a lawyer who dedicates his career to helping "the people."  He moves to New York City and works for the city as the Assistant Commissioner for the Commission on Human Opportunity.  Our narrator's relationships with his parents, his relationships with women, and especially his sex life take center stage.  Perhaps due to psychological problems resulting from his relationships with is mother and father, Portnoy is obsessed with "cunt," especially that of "shikses." As a youth he masturbates furiously, employing all sorts of weird complements to this activity, and conducting this self-abuse in some of the riskiest places (on a bus going over the Pulaski Skyway sitting next to a shikse in a tartan skirt).  As an adult he is totally unable to settle down with one woman, no matter how intelligent, charming or beautiful, and instead moves from one woman to the next, boldly propositioning women he sees on the street.

One of the women he picks up on the streets of Manhattan is a beautiful ignoramus from West Virginia, a twenty-nine-year-old fashion model nicknamed "the Monkey" because she once indulged the urge to eat a banana during an odd erotic encounter. The Monkey wants to settle down, marry and make a family with Portnoy, and, on a trip to Vermont, Portnoy feels he may be falling in love with her.  But can a Jewish leftist genius really marry a gentile who can only barely read, even if they share a fascination with sexual perversion?

Portnoy's Complaint is a lot of fun.  Of course, part of the appeal of the novel for me is its milieu: Northern New Jersey, where I grew up (the town I lived in as a child even merits a mention!), and New York, where I lived the interesting part of my life.  I hadn't thought about the Pulaski Skyway in months, and I was pleased to be reminded of this tremendous edifice, one of the "monuments to man's ingenuity and ambition" I was always telling skeptical in-laws and rural and suburban naysayers abounded in the New York area.  But the novel has a broad appeal; most of us have parents or parental figures we have complicated feelings about, don't we?  Most of us have complex and mixed feelings about sex, yes?  The position of Jews in American society, the feelings of Jews towards gentiles and vice versa, are a major theme of the book, but, in this multicultural society, don't all of us belong to some ethnic or cultural, regional or class group, that looks at (and is looked upon by) the other components of American society with a mixture of curiosity, envy, fear, and/or disdain?

The novel is also full of clever observations and cunning depictions; here is one from early in the book:
This is a man who somewhere along the line got the idea that the basic unit of meaning in the English language is the syllable.  So no word he pronounces has less than three of them, not even the word God.  You should hear the song and dance he makes out of Israel.  For him it's as long as refrigerator!  And do you remember him at my bar mitzvah, what a field day he had with Alexander Portnoy?  Why, Mother, did he keep calling me by my whole name?  Why, except to impress all you idiots in the audience with all those syllables!  And it worked!  
Do I need to catalog the myriad ways people might be offended by this novel?  Point out that it is worthy of a blizzard of trigger warnings?  Portnoy wonders if the sleeping blonde sitting next to him on the bus is merely faking, hoping he will grope her; more than once he tries to physically pressure women into surrendering to his desires. Portnoy promulgates the theory that a stifling mother is what turns a boy into a homosexual.  We won't get into what Portnoy's parents think of "schvartzes," but here is what Portnoy senior has to say about my own people (well, on my paternal grandfather's side):
A Polack's day, my father has suggested to me, isn't complete until he has dragged his big dumb feet across the bones of a Jew.
Ouch!

Of course I am recommending that you read Portnoy's Complaint.  Roth is one of those American literary masters with a Pulitzer Prize, multiple volumes in the Library of America, and all that, one of those guys you are supposed to read.  But nobody would consider this book a bore or a difficult challenge, like we can expect some to find Nabokov or Bellow or Melville or (parts of) Henry Miller; Portnoy's Complaint moves along quickly and is full of laughs.  The novel also offers some kind of insight into mid-century Jewish-American life, and laughing and learning about how other people have lived are two of the big reasons we read books, aren't they?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Avatar by Poul Anderson

"The single definition of government I've ever seen that makes sense is that it's the organization which claims the right to kill people who won't do what it wants."

When the doors opened at Half-Price Books on "Black Friday" the wife and I, and a few of the in-laws, were among the one hundred early birds who received five dollar gift cards.  I didn't actually buy anything at Half-Price that day, but later on, at the Salvation Army (the in-laws accompanying us love to shop at thrift stores) I picked up a 1979 Berkley paperback edition of Poul Anderson's The Avatar.  The breathless cover text and the illustration (which is giving me a kind of Star Wars vibe, despite the blue jeans) are at the same time silly and intriguing.  My fifty cents was leaping out of my pocket to buy this thing and see what it was all about.

It is the 22nd century, and mankind has colonized the planet Demeter in the Phoebus system, using an alien star gate device discovered orbiting Sol.  The people of Earth call the mysterious and apparently benevolent aliens who built the device "the Others." There is a second star gate orbiting Phoebus, and a multinational squad in the space ship Emissary went into it five months ago.  As the novel begins, the Emissary returns with exciting news of first contact with a friendly alien civilization (the "Betans") and opportunities for humankind of explore the galaxy.  But a ruthless faction of the government, the Action Party, which opposes further exploration of space, doesn't want the people to know about the universe beyond the star gates, and quarantines the Emissary.  The Emissary's crew is imprisoned in an abandoned space station back in the Solar System.  The richest man on Demeter, Dan Broderson, has friends on the Emissary and access to the highest human technology, and realizes what is going on. The Demeter branch of the government puts him under house arrest, but he escapes to the Solar System with a team of like-minded individuals in his own ship, the Chinook, and tries to rescue the Emissary's crew.

Around page 225 the Chinook escapes the Solar System through the star gate, but due to haste (they are pursued by government ships ordered by the Action Party to destroy them) Broderson and friends reappear in uncharted territory, and begin a desperate exploration of the universe, travelling through space and time from one star gate to another, facing challenges and meeting various alien civilizations along the way.    

1978 hardcover edition
The Avatar is long, 404 pages of quite small type in this edition, and there is a lot going on.  Most importantly, all the hard SF stuff--the spaceships, the astronomy, the aliens, the human-computer interface business, and the fights with government agents and hostile aliens--works; it is all interesting, believable and entertaining.

Free market/small government politics often goes hand in hand with hard SF, and a veneration of freedom and a disdain for government interference are the underlying themes of Anderson's novel.  Broderson, the wealthy businessman, is contrasted with Ira Quick, lawyer and politician, the bigwig of the Action Party who leads the effort to neutralize the troublemakers from the Emissary and Chinook.  Broderson's passion is for man to expand throughout the galaxy; out there among the stars are boundless opportunities to enrich mankind's material and cultural life.  A mere two planets are too cramped an environment for humanity, he believes; if the human race doesn't have room to grow it will explode and destroy itself. Broderson sees plenty of signs on Earth of the need for greater elbow room: terrorism, wacky religions and the revival of long discredited Keynesian financial policies.

The Action Party, in contrast, ostensibly opposes space exploration because the resources spent on it could be better used financing welfare spending and a new government agency tasked with preparing Earth's population for climate change. Quick also complains that it is unfair that the products of space exploration disproportionately benefit the middle classes and the aristocracy.  Why should the bravest and smartest humans be allowed to leave Earth and Demeter and enjoy themselves on adventures; shouldn't their talents be put to use by the government to achieve social justice?  The reality, of course, is that the leaders of the Action Party are largely motivated by a desire to maintain their own power and satisfy their lust to control others.  In an interior monologue Quick admits that he enjoys being cheered by a crowd as much as having sex.

A 1981 British cover that is
boggling my mind
There are many characters in the novel, and most of them have elaborate back stories and psychological issues revealed in long flashbacks and inner monologues.  Anderson spends quite a bit of time on their relationships with each other, especially their sexual relationships.  There is a lot of what you might call soap opera drama, much of it revolving around Broderson, who has a loving wife and kids on Demeter, but also quite a few mistresses, two of whom end up in the Chinook: Caitlin Margaret Mulryan the Irish bard (yes, in Avatar we witness more American romanticism of Ireland, as we have recently in Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner stories) and Joelle Ky, a computer expert who can plug herself into a computer to expand her mental abilities a thousandfold.

Broderson and his wife Elisabet Leino, a successful businesswoman, have what amounts to an open marriage, and alternatives to traditional marriage and traditional attitudes about love and sex are another theme of this lengthy novel.  We are expected to believe that Broderson loves Caitlin as much as he loves Elisabet, and that the wife and bard love each other.  Anderson also portrays sex as a kind of therapy for people who are depressed because their friends just got killed by government thugs or alien barbarians, and Broderson and Caitlin both have sex with numerous people on the ship in order to comfort them or raise their morale. This all reminded me a little of the alternative marriage schemes we see in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  However, while in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the narrator (and/or Heinlein himself) portrays the Lunar group marriages as flawlessly happy, essentially propagandizing for such arrangements, Anderson, more believably, depicts the frictions we expect to see in any sexual relationship.  Some individuals express envy, or jealousy or distaste over other people's sexual relationships, and Broderson's brother-in-law Martii Leino (a traditional Christian who's also on the Chinook) is offended by what he sees as Broderson's flagrant infidelities and insensitivity to his sister.

I wouldn't say I actually enjoyed all this relationship stuff (the way characters are always complimenting each others' performances in bed and saying gushy romance goop like "You are my heart" or "my life" is actually kind of goofy) but it is not that distracting or irritating.       

One of the remarkable thing about the characters is how cultured they all are.  These people don't watch sitcoms on TV, or follow sports, or listen to pop music.  They listen to classical music (one character asserts that Beethoven's First Symphony is "excellent background for fucking"), they quote Kipling and Swinburne and pepper their conversation with allusions to the works of Rupert Brooke and William Shakespeare, and if they activate a TV screen during off hours it is to look at Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji or a video of views of York Minster.  I guess this is wishful thinking on Anderson's part, the idea that in 200 years, when society is different in almost every way, that people will still like the art, literature and music that he himself likes; even in 1978 the number of people passionate about Hokusai, Swinburne, and Sibelius must have been pretty small.  Perhaps Anderson included all these references to Kipling, Bach, et al, in hopes of inspiring a similar appreciation in his own readers, a small blow towards creating the future he hoped would unfold.

Behold!  The TV of the Future!

As I have noted, The Avatar is long, and it does feel long.  Anderson is long winded, and many scenes include more or less extraneous description of rooms and scenery and weather.  Some of the characters smoke, so in dialogue scenes we have to hear all about their exhaling, inhaling, lighting pipes and cigarettes, etc.  Similarly, Ira Quick likes to touch his own beard, a van dyke, during his internal monologues.  Anderson also displays some odd tics; he uses the word "yonder" numerous times--I almost never encounter this word being used unironically.  He also mentions people's body odors quite a lot.

One of the strengths of the novel is its ability to surprise; I honestly didn't know for sure if Broderson and crew would meet the Others and return to Earth to discredit the Action Party and open the universe to mankind; there really seemed a possibility of a bittersweet or even tragic ending.  (You could still argue the book is bittersweet, owing to the fact that several people get killed and some members of the crew who survive are disappointed in what they find out there in the depths of the galaxy.)

The biggest surprise for me was why the novel is called The Avatar, which I was wondering about the entire time I read the book.  In the last 40 or so pages it is revealed that the Others observe life on other planets by implanting in plants and animals microscopic cells that can record their lives.  The hosts of these cells, called "avatars" in English, can then be Summoned so the aliens can "become One" with them and experience life on a planet such as Earth first hand. Caitlin, it turns out, is one of these avatars.  Anderson foreshadows this on page 1 of the novel, and several times later, but I was too obtuse to pick up on it.

The Avatar is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it for all the traditional outer space/rocket ship/aliens elements, and as a personal statement of Anderson's own interests and beliefs.  I'd judge it moderately good, though readers committed to "social justice" or marital fidelity be forewarned: you will probably be groaning at 202 of its 404 pages.

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

I recently thought it odd that Ace's The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein would include many advertisements for crossword puzzles and books relating "true" stories about ghosts and sexy witches, but Berkley's The Avatar takes the cake, with an ad for everyone's favorite epic about an evil stepmother's war to the death with wire hangers, Mommie Dearest!

Would the same people who read The Avatar be inspired by this ad to pick up Mommie Dearest?  I doubt it!  But, on reflection, The Avatar and Mommie Dearest have much in common.  Each is about the corruption, the abuse of power, and the stifling control people suffer from an institution it is all too common to hear mindlessly put on a pedestal, the government on one hand, parenthood on the other.  

Mommie Dearest also enjoys the over the top promotion that The Avatar was graced with--"the most shocking heartbreaking love story ever!" is about as silly as "that surge of greatness that comes when a writer's vision is expanded to the full, his powers gathered, his masterwork ready for creation."  The people at Berkley in 1979 were clearly of the "go big or go home" school!

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert Heinlein

A 1966 edition 
Today I finished the fiction in my 1972 Ace printing of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. The subtitle of my copy is "The Greatest Stories by the Most Honored Writer in Science Fiction;" let's see if "Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory" qualify as some of RAH's "greatest."

"Life-Line" (1939)

This is Heinlein's first published story; it appeared in Astounding.  We often hear that the Golden Age of Science Fiction began in 1939, and this story, along with A. E.Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" and Isaac Asimov's first published stories, are sometimes touted as markers for the beginning of this period of SF history.  It is actually easy to see why readers would feel this way; "Life-Line" is a well-written, and adult, story that is about how society and individual people respond to a major scientific breakthrough.  "Life-Line" is also a good example of what Heinlein is all about: we see in this, his first SF story, such common RAH themes as the dynamic superior individual embattled by the boring hidebound masses; the sympathetic and sensitive businessman; and the skepticism of government which has made Heinlein the archetypal libertarian SF writer.

Doctor Pinero has invented a machine that can predict when you will die, even if your death will be the result of some freak accident.  Heinlein succeeds in making this invention, which is far more fantastic and incredible than the rockets, ray guns and robots which fill up so much science fiction, seem almost plausible.  Academics, whom Heinlein portrays as a sterile, sclerotic elite, assert that such an invention is impossible.  When evidence begins to accumulate that Pinero's apparatus truly works, life insurance companies, whom Heinlein depicts as corrupt rent-seekers, try to use government regulation to put an end to his business, and, when the government does not comply, turn to murder.

I read "Life-Line" in my teens and have always remembered one striking scene, in which Pinero learns that a young couple will be killed the very day on which they have come to be assessed by his machine.  Like the story as a whole, this scene is brief but powerful, provoking in the reader both human emotion and thought about the ramifications of new types of knowledge.

Like a lot of people, I enjoy SF adventures full of violence, terror, and sex.  But SF can be more than that, and "Life-Line" is a good example of SF that is about people and society as well as science, is economical (25 pages in this edition), and emotionally and intellectually affecting.

Top notch, deserving of the "greatest" label.

"Solution Unsatisfactory" (1941)

Written over half a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, "Solution Unsatisfactory" is a sort of alternate history or speculative prediction of the course of World War II, the development of nuclear weapons, and the post-WWII conflict between the US and USSR.  Under the pseudonym "Anson MacDonald," the story was published in the same issue of Astounding as Heinlein's "Universe."

While the British Empire battles the Axis powers in Europe and Africa, the US develops an atomic weapon against which there is no defense.  Instead of predicting a super bomb, Heinlein's story posits the use of a radioactive dust which kills all life it touches and renders wide swathes of territory totally uninhabitable.  The US tries to pressure the Germans to make peace with the British, but when they refuse the US provides some of the dust to the RAF and it is used to exterminate all life in Berlin, ending the war.

Knowing that development of the dust is within reach of many nations, including tyrannies like the Soviet Union, the US tries to use its temporary monopoly on the dust to become dictator of the world,  outlawing war and demanding that all aircraft be turned over to the US.  The Soviets, it turns out, completed development of the dust shortly after the destruction of Berlin, and a dust war between the US and USSR erupts that sees many cities, including New York, exterminated.  After four days the Americans win the war and set up a system of world domination.  When the US public, President and Congress object to this system, the Army overthrows the President, Congress and the Constitution and installs a dictator who rules the world.

The story is told as a first-person narrative by the assistant to Clyde Manning, the Army officer and politician who manages the nuclear weapon project and masterminds the coup that makes him dictator of the world.  The story is an apologia for Manning; sure, Manning, as the driving force behind developing the super weapon and current global dictator is hated the world over, but our narrator assures us that all his moves were absolutely necessary to protect the human race from extinction. Manning is portrayed as having all the attributes of an ideal leader; he is self-sacrificing, skilled at selecting and managing subordinates, thoughtful or decisive when appropriate.    

I think of Heinlein as a basically optimistic writer, but this story is pretty pessimistic in its assumptions that atomic weapons will threaten the extinction of the human race, render America's traditions of individual rights and representative government defunct, and usher in a world dictatorship.  Still, the story is characteristic Heinlein, taking ideas we have seen again and again to their limits, like the importance of a ship having a single captain who is obeyed unquestioningly, and of the justice of one superior person (or an elite of superior people) lording it over lesser men who cling to outmoded traditions.    Maybe I need to rethink my view of Heinlein as an optimist?

This is a good story, but it is a little too much like a history book to have the human appeal of a story like "Life-Line" or "Menace from Earth" or "--We Also Walk Dogs." In fact, "Solution Unsatisfactory" reminds me of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; both are somewhat pessimistic works about ideas in which character takes a back seat, both purportedly the narrative of a participant in a societal upheaval.  To be fair, Heinlein does include some decent human interest stuff in "Solution Unsatisfactory," most prominently Estelle Karst, a female scientist who is essential to the development of the dust.  Karst got into the nuclear research business to develop medical uses for radioactivity, and when she realizes that her work has led to a super weapon that has massacred millions of people in Germany, she commits suicide.  But we spend most of our time with Manning and the narrator.

I'm on the fence over whether this story belongs among Heinlein's "greatest."  It is certainly interesting seeing somebody extrapolate how the world would react to the development of a nuclear weapon and make predictions about the course of the Second World War and the Cold War from the vantage point of early 1941.  It doesn't necessarily feel like one of Heinlein's best to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if other Heinlein fans put it in the top five or ten of their own favorites.

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

The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein is a good selection of early Heinlein stories, definitely worth the time of an SF fan.  I think this would actually be a good collection for people who have never read Heinlein but are curious as to what Heinlein is all about, because none of the stories is bad, and none suffer from the problems of Heinlein's later novels, which can be too long, too chatty, and/or devolve into plotlessness.

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

My Ace edition of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein has five pages of advertising in the back, but none of them are for science fiction books.  Two are for collections of puzzles (and doodle analysis!)



A page is given over to John Macklin, of whom I have never heard.  Apparently he is a guy who relates "true" stories about psychic phenomena.

Hans Holzer, another guy I never heard of, also has a page to himself.  Holzer seems to have been on the haunted house and ghost beat, and to have talked to great Americans who have passed to the other side, like Thomas Jefferson and Elvis Presley.  Maybe I'm crazy, but to me Holzer looks a little like the guy on Rising Damp and in those Kubrick movies, Leonard Rossiter.


These pages are pretty light on the advertising text (these products sell themselves, I guess) and the final page of the book is the sparest of all, headed by the single word "OCCULT."  Like the Holzer and Macklin books, these volumes appear to be "true" accounts of weird events.  Charles Fort is of course famous, and the Ace edition of Book of the Damned includes a preface by fabled SF editor Donald Wollheim.  (This preface actually qualifies as a piece of SF in its own right, and you will have little trouble finding it if you google around a little.)   The others I never heard of.  Lefebure seems to specialize in sexy witches (and if you could, why wouldn't you?)