Thursday, December 24, 2015

Three late 1960s stories by Philip Jose Farmer from If


It has been a long time since I've read any Philip Jose Farmer.  When I was young I read quite a few of his novels, attracted by the adventure plots and the sexual content. As I got older my interest waned, though I liked To Your Scattered Bodies Go (the first Riverworld book) when I reread it in 2011, Dare when I read it in 2007, and The Green Odyssey, which I read in 2014, well enough.

The mark of D.L.
I bought Down in the Black Gang, a 1971 collection of Farmer stories from the 1960s, on a recent visit to Half-Price Books.  On the back cover is an ad for Len Deighton's novel Bomber, which is about an RAF bombing raid on Germany.  I'm interested in World War II air combat and all that stuff, but I've never read Bomber; I read Deighton's history book about the Battle of Britain, Fighter, in 6th grade and liked it.  (I was writing a report on the Battle of Britain--are grammar school kids still allowed to write reports on wars?)  My copy of Down in the Black Gang has a sort of insignia on its first page, inscribed in red by a previous owner, whose initials must have been "D.L."

Let's take a look at the first three stories in Down in the Black Gang.  All three of these tales first appeared in If, AKA Worlds of If.

"Down in the Black Gang" (1969-revised 1971)

On the publication page of my copy of the book we are told that "'Down in the Black Gang' was rewritten for this collection."

This is one of those stories, maybe we need to file it under New Wave, in which the narrator addresses you directly, as if you are part of the story, it is unclear at first what is going on, and there are references to sex with nonhumans.  The opening paragraph reads:
I'm telling you this because I need your love.  Just as you need mine, though you don't know it--yet.  And because I can't make love to you as a human makes love to a human.
As it proceeded I began to think of "Down in the Black Gang" as one of those "modern interpretations of angels" stories, like perennial Christmas favorite It's A Wonderful Life.  But later it becomes clear it depicts an exploitative supreme power, not a benevolent one.  I guess it is kind of like Damon Knight's "Be My Guest" or John D. MacDonald's Wine of the Dreamers, a story which proposes a supernatural or extraterrestrial source of human misbehavior and unhappiness.  

Our narrator is a space alien or robot (he weighs 2000 pounds without his anti-grav belt on and sweats mercury when stressed) in disguise as a human, moving among us here on Earth.  The universe is euphemistically or allegorically described as a "Ship," and our narrator is a stoker or engineer, responsible for maintaining thrust; he is occasionally contacted by the Captain or the Ship's officers, who are in some other part of the universe, and who are always demanding more thrust.

The narrator relates to us his final of thousands of missions (he has been on Earth trying to generate thrust as far back as when humans were mere apes.)  Deployed in a Beverly Hills apartment, he spied on the neighbors; equipped with spy rays and the like he was able to see and hear them, and he also has a device which measures people's psychologies or souls; this guy is depressed, that guy is full of rage, that woman is a narcissist, etc.  (There is a lot of psychoanalyzing of people, especially frustrated cartoonists and genre writers, in this story.)  It is detected that one young neighbor has considerable "Thrust Potential."  Our narrator, through disguises and other deceits, manipulated these people so that there was a terrible murder-suicide. This would, apparently, inspire the individual with "Thrust Potential" to become a religious leader in the future, creating the thrust that powers the universe.

That was our hero's final mission.  Sick of causing so much death and unhappiness, he has mutinied, and is pursued by the Ship's police forces.  This story is his message to humans, begging for sympathy and help overthrowing the current regime and figuring out a more humane way to run the Ship.

This story is silly, of course, and needlessly complicated.  I'm still not sure what the "thrust" really is--prayers?  Religious ecstasy?  Love (of the universe?)  Why does creating thrust always involve causing murders and bloodshed?

Perhaps the most interesting part about it is its depiction of frustrated creative people. One man has published detective and western novels but can't make ends meet without working a day job at a factory, another has published cartoons in periodicals as well as a book of cartoons he goes on TV to promote, but his family lives on the dole and handouts from relatives.  Maybe Farmer knew such people?
 
This one hovers around the "acceptable" mark.

"The Shadow of Space" (1967)

Here we have a story about a space crew, with space suits, air locks, energy guns, all that traditional SF furniture we love.  It also speculates about the nature of the universe and faster-than-light travel.  If "Down in the Black Gang" counts as "New Wave," "The Shadow of Space" surely counts as "hard SF" that tries to give you that "sense of wonder."

The experimental ship Sleipnir is to be the first vessel to travel faster than light.  What unexpected effects could exceeding light speed have on matter and people?  Soon humanity will know!  But before starting the experiment the ship rescues a woman scientist, Mrs. Wellington, from a damaged craft.  Mr. Wellington was killed in the accident that wrecked their ship, and Mrs. Wellington goes insane, becoming obsessed with the Sleipnir's commander, Captain Grettir, even thinking he is her own dead husband.  She locks herself in the engine room and holds off the space marines with an energy pistol while she tinkers with the engine--soon the ship is going 300,000 times the speed of light!  The marines blast open the engine room door with a ray cannon, and she strips naked and jumps out an airlock to her death!

Under the influence of physics nobody can understand, the Sleipnir, and the nude corpse, grow to tremendous size and pass outside the universe into an area of blackness.  Behind them is a grey sphere--the universe.  Grettir and the other members of the crew come up with and try out various methods of getting back into the universe; on one attempt they break through the "skin" of the universe, but the ship is so incredibly huge that they crash into galaxies and exterminate entire civilizations, trillions of people, causing major psychological problems for the crew!

They eventually get back inside the universe and back to normal size, but they have no idea what the Milky Way and human civilization will be like when they return home.  How much time has passed inside our galaxy during the brief time they were outside?  Has our home galaxy suffered any ill effects from the Sleipnir's astounding growth or repeated rupturing of the outer surface of the universe?

Pretty good, full of weird images and crazy ideas as well as the usual rocket ship and ray gun stuff.  It's like an above-average adventure of van Vogt's Space Beagle or Roddenberry's Enterprise.  (UPDATE JANUARY 4, 2016: Check out ukjarry's comment below on the connection between "The Shadow of Space" and TV's Star Trek.)

"A Bowl Bigger than Earth" (1967)  

This is a satire of conformity, collectivism and egalitarianism, and a depiction of the afterlife. The afterlife is a topic Farmer was very interested in; his most famous work, the Riverworld series, depicts an afterlife.

Our main character, Morfiks, dies and reappears in a city made of brass.  There is no sex or gender here, everybody, including Morfiks himself, has the same sexless and hairless body and the same voice.  Everybody does the same work and lives in the same kind of house--the unseen Protectors forbid people to even have names!  It is also illegal to talk about your life back on Earth, as it might foster envy or a sense of superiority, and in order to inspire collective spirit the entire community is punished for the antisocial actions of individuals.  "If a crime is committed, the guilt is shared by all because, actually, all are responsible."  Every person is the same, every day is the same, and Morfiks is doomed to live in this brass world forever.

As Morfiks looks back on his life on Earth, we learn he was the kind of guy who always followed the rules, obeyed society's dictates, worked hard to support his church and the Democratic party, even if he didn't agree with the Democrats' positions on some issues.  He didn't act this way because he really wanted to, but because he thought it his duty to his family and to society.  Farmer strongly implies that by living such a life, Morfiks chose this tyrannical, egalitarian and nightmarishly boring afterlife, and suggests that more individualistic or independent types have a different afterlife.

This story is OK; it is more of an idea, or a statement, or a setting, than a story with a plot and characters.    

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Farmer's novels often come across as kind of half-baked, like he had an idea, developed it part way, then filled in the rest of the required pages with competent but mediocre chases and fights.  After reading them these novels often left me feeling unsatisfied, as if there should have been something more.  I liked "The Shadow of Space," but "Down in the Black Gang" and "A Bowl Bigger than Earth" left me with that feeling of incompleteness.  The former could have used some revision to make what the hell is going on more clear, the latter had what felt like unnecessary detail and set up which didn't pay off, and neither had much emotional punch, even though both were trying to say something about how we live, and how we should live, our lives.

Well, more Farmer stories in the future.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Three public domain stories by Raymond A. Palmer

In 1964 Ted Sturgeon wrote that Raymond A. Palmer was "one of the most courageous human beings who ever lived."  This caught my attention!  Palmer edited various magazines, including the famous and important Amazing Stories (from 1938 to 1949), other SF magazines, and magazines about Fortean and paranormal phenomena; several of these periodicals were put out by Palmer's own publishing house.  Palmer also has over three dozen short fiction credits at isfdb.  I clicked over to Gutenberg.org, the Internet Archive, and SFFaudio to sample Palmer's short SF.

"Diagnosis" (1953)

This one appeared in Other Worlds, in an issue that has an awesome front cover depicting a guy hunting a dinosaurian monster (the work of Robert Gibson Jones), and an awesome back cover depicting a guy conjuring up a naked woman with a computer bank (by Hannes Bok).  Are these paintings, or a representation of aggregated NSA scans of typical 13-year-old boys' dreams?


Well I should ask!  The monster hunting cover is in fact a guy's dream!  "Diagnosis" is about two scientists, Don Jenson and Mary Mason, working on a device that will read your brain and project your thoughts on a screen.  They plan to use it to help cure people of psychological problems (Mason has degrees in psychology, psychiatry and biology.)  Jenson and Mason spend a lot of time flirting, but Mason won't go out with Jenson.  

When they get the machine finally running after three years of R&D it malfunctions, and while they lay unconscious it projects both their thoughts on the screen.  In a fantasy world Jenson is a hero and Mason a High Priestess; they are in love, but the priests oppose their love.  The lovers try to escape the City, but the priests use their hypno ray to direct their giant monster after them.  Luckily the hero has invented a rifle and shoots the beast to pieces (Palmer includes lots of gore in this story, brains erupting out of shattered skulls and the like.)  Then the priests attack the couple, and during the gory battle the renegade priestess jumps in front of the hero to take a crossbow bolt in the chest and save the hero's life!  This horrible moment is actually illustrated by Harold W. McCauley--check out the illo at gutenberg.org!  

When Jenson and Mason come out from under the machine, and watch the recording of the film that exposes their subconscious desires, they realize they truly love each other (she was just playing hard to get in refusing to date him!) and decide to get married.  Awwwww....

This story is a little silly, but entertaining.  We might even suspect Palmer is going meta on us, critiquing (much of) science fiction and fantasy as childish wish fulfillment--Mason tells Jensen that his dreams are like a "comic book" and follow a tired dragon-slayer-wins-maiden template.  I don't follow the evolutions of feminism closely enough to know whether I am supposed to admire the heroism of a woman who sacrifices herself for her beloved or denounce her as a sell-out to the patriarchy, but maybe feminists will like that she has three science degrees?  (We're still pretending psychology is a science, right?)  

Marginal to moderate recommendation.

"The Hell Ship" (1952)

"The Hell Ship" was published in If, alongside stories by Theodore Sturgeon and another person Sturgeon praised in Sturgeon in Orbit, Howard Browne.  I loved the advertising blurb for the story:
The passengers rocketed through space in luxury. But they never went below decks because rumor had it that Satan himself manned the controls of The Hell Ship.
and hoped that it could somehow live up to this terrific, evocative premise.

Space travel is often depicted as something wonderful and exciting, but every so often we get a story in which space travel is a horrible nightmare with drastically negative effects on the space crew.  Murray Leinster did this in The Other Side of Nowhere, for example, and Palmer follows this tack in "The Hell Ship."

"The Hell Ship" is the story of journalist Gene O'Neil.  Even though space ships routinely fly hither and thither throughout the solar system, the details of space travel are kept from the public.  "No one in all the nation had ever talked with a spaceman," Palmer tells us.  So O'Neil's boss gives him the job of investigating a space port.  When he starts asking questions at the bar near the blasting pad, O'Neil is beaten on the head and wakes up inside a space ship already blasting its way to Io.  (We get a clue as to how good a journalist O'Neil is when he admits he hasn't even heard of Io before.)  O'Neil quickly learns that all space men are shanghaied this way, and that they never leave a ship once they board it, because the radiation from the engines of a space ship causes deformities and mutations both physical ("the man had fingernails growing on his chin where his whiskers should have been") and mental ("The radiations deadened the mind, gave one the feeling of numbness, so that nothing mattered but the next meal....")

O'Neil bonds with sexy fellow Irish-American Ann O'Donnell, who was also recently shanghaied.  (Palmer joins Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner in their romanticizing of the sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle, aye bagorah.) O'Neil's job on the ship is to lubricate the nuclear reactor that is altering all of their cells--this type of reactor is totally illegal, but the Company makes so much money they have been able to bribe all the government officials responsible for enforcing the safety regulations.  O'Donnell's job on the ship is to keep the crew contented; how she does this isn't spelled out for the reader, but when another female crew member says "Why worry? We're all sterile from the radioactivity anyway...." I think we get the picture!  O'Neil and O'Donnell resolve to try to get off the ship before the radiation screws them up too much, but nobody has ever escaped a ship before!

With the help of luck, and a huge muscular Swede (there was a huge muscular Norwegian in Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses--is this some stereotype about Scandinavians I don't know about?), O'Neil and O'Donnell lead a mutiny and head the ship back to Earth.  A meteor hits the ship, causing many fatalities, and then a Company ship pursues them, but with the help of a self-sacrificing Scottish engineer (I know about the Scottish engineer stereotype) who turns the reactor into a bomb and blows up himself and the Company ship while the rest of the crew escapes in the lifeboat, O'Neil and O'Donnell lead the mutineers back to Earth.  The horrible truth of space travel revealed, the President of the United States promises to spend the taxpayer's money to develop safer ships and makes O'Neil head of the federal agency that oversees space travel.  O'Neil marries O'Donnell and everybody (who survived that punishing space flight) lives happily ever after.

A decent space adventure with meteors, space suits, people coping with a low gravity environment, fist fights and atomic explosions, all that cool stuff.

"Test Tube Girl" (1942)

Palmer's "Test Tube Girl" (no doubt soon to be bowdlerized into "Test Tube Woman" for its second edition after this blog post sparks a Raymond A. Palmer revival) appeared in Amazing under a pseudonym, Frank Patton.  I like the magazine's cover; I guess constructing a woman to his own specifications is a common male fantasy--think of Pygmalion, Weird Science, and all those Japanese hentai games that (I've heard) are so difficult to get up and running on an American computer.  Green skin and purple hair?  Hey, why not?

"Test Tube Girl" was apparently written before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and includes an alternate history of World War II.  Hitler ordered the use of ray cannons on the British and Communist forces as they closed in, and while this didn't win the war for Germany, it had an unexpected secondary effect.  The cannons sent unusual short wave radiation all over the world that had the effect of sterilizing every woman alive--the generation that lived during the war was doomed to be the last generation of humanity!  Unable to face a world without the pitter patter of little feet, thousands of people committed suicide or went insane!  


As the story begins a team of scientists in a 90-story New York skyscraper are trying to get us out of this mess.  The city below has been reduced to 50,000 inhabitants thanks to rampant suicide and crime.  While three hero biologists experiment on the last healthy pregnant women and embryos in the world, a brutish former army sergeant by the name of Matt Welch (amusingly enough) is pacifying the town and trying to make himself dictator!  When an old munitions plant explodes and spreads a deadly poison gas through town, Welch and the biologists have to flee to Pittsburgh.  In their immobile incubator on the 70th floor they leave the human race's last hope, a female fetus whose blood has been mixed with chlorophyll. The heavier than air poison gas won't reach the incubator, and will dissipate in a few months, so the boffins plan to return then and see if their efforts to engineer a fertile woman have been successful.

When Welch and the eggheads return the fetus has grown into a healthy green 16-year-old, the chlorophyll in her makeup having accelerated her growth!  They lift her out of the incubator and spank her to get her started breathing.  At first she is as helpless as a normal baby, but in two months she speaks fluent English and is worried about the vast responsibility weighing on her slim green shoulders--she is to be the Eve of a new human race!  Another problem: in the spring and summer the sunlight gives her strength, but as fall approaches her golden hair turns red and brown, and the scientists worry she, like a flower, will expire in the winter!  

Like "Diagnosis" and "The Hell Ship," one theme of "Test Tube Girl" is self-sacrifice. One of the biologists falls in love with the green girl (named Fleurette) and, thinking they can't have a relationship while being so different, he injects himself with chlorophyll, shortening his life radically, (or so he believes) so they can be together. (Isn't this like those mermaid stories?)  When Welch, who has founded an empire in Pittsburgh, comes to kidnap Fleurette to make her his queen so he can found a dynasty, Fleurette allows herself to be taken in hopes of sparing the eggheads from Welch's wrath (which we have witnessed in scenes in which Palmer includes gory details of breaking bones.)

Two of the biologists are killed in the struggle with Welch and his minions, but the boffin who turned himself green out of love for Fleurette crosses the desolate landscape of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to find her.  She has killed Welch, stabbing him in the back by surprise after their marriage ceremony.  Fleurette and the scientist embrace as the first snow begins to fall and they realize they are not like flowers who will die in the winter, but evergreens who will endure to found a new race of plant humans.  They hope that the race of vegetation-Americans they will give birth to will be better custodians of the Earth than their predecessors, who made such a mess of things with their wars.

This story is entertaining; fans of Virgil Finlay can check out his illustrations for it at SFFaudio.

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These stories were better than I had expected them to be--I don't recall seeing Palmer's name in any of the many anthologies of SF I have purchased or borrowed from libraries, and isfdb doesn't list any collections of his stories, so it seems his work is not respected by the SF establishment and lacks a market among readers.  I enjoyed these three stories and think they are comparable to the space operas and adventure tales of people like Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton, who are quite well-respected and have been anthologized and collected many times.  It seems likely that Palmer pissed people off by pretending to believe in all kinds of paranormal nonsense like the "Shaver Mystery," and thus stunted his SF career.
  
Or maybe most people think these stories stink and I'm just a softie with a taste for these kinds of capers.  Capers full of violence, more or less sublimated sex, wacky science fiction ideas like projecting your thoughts on a screen, nuclear reactors that alter your cells, and a world of infertile women which can only be saved by turning people into plants, and melodramatic lines like:
Sometimes he would wake up screaming from a nightmare only to find reality more horrible.  --"The Hell Ship"
and
Love had gone out of the world.  The sacred institution of the family, the basis of civilization, was gone.  In its place reigned despair, hate, madness, suicide, and rampant crime.  --"Test Tube Girl"  
Whatever the case, old Ted Sturgeon didn't steer me wrong by bringing up Palmer's name in his own collection.  I suggest fans of pulp SF give Palmer a try, which is easy to do at SFFaudio, Internet Archive, and Gutenberg.org.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Finishing up Off Center by Damon Knight: "Second-Class Citizen" & "God's Nose"


Let's finish up Damon Knight's 1965 collection Off Center.  As you may recall, I own the 1973 Award paperback edition, complete with its in-need-of-copyediting back cover.

"Second-Class Citizen" (1963)

This is what I call a switcheroo story.  In the old EC comics I seem to recall there being a surfeit of stories in which a guy would swat a fly and then be killed by a giant fly, or go to a planet to catch aliens for a zoo and instead be captured and put in a zoo.  On TV's "The Twilight Zone" I seem to recall an episode in which a Nazi death camp commander, in a dream, is tortured the way he tortured Jews, and an episode in which a U-boat captain who sank an Allied passenger ship is doomed in Hell to be a passenger on just such a ship as it suffers just such a fate.  These kinds of stories are so common that professional writers must have a name for them, a better one than "switcheroo story."

Anyway, I find these kinds of stories to be too simple, too obvious, and in some cases uncomfortably self righteous or disturbingly eager to appeal to the audience's lust for revenge. And a story in which God or "the Universe" metes out "justice" or achieves revenge lacks the excitement and tension of a story in which a human being does so. If a person seeks revenge, he has to face practical obstacles (maybe the target of his vengeance will elude him, or outfight him) and moral issues (is it ever just to seek revenge? has he chosen the appropriate target for revenge? will innocent bystanders be harmed in the fracas? by seeking revenge is the avenger becoming as evil as his quarry?)  But when God or the Universe is the one seeking vengeance there are none of these interesting issues, because God doesn't make mistakes or fail in His purpose.

"Second-Class Citizen," which first saw light in Worlds of If, is about a scientist who is training dolphins to integrate into human society.  He has taught a dolphin to speak a just barely discernible English, and even built the cetacean a sort of robot body with wheels and pincer arms that the dolphin can manipulate with its flippers.  Bizarrely, he is training the dolphin to act as a lab assistant, making it use its clumsy robot arms to manipulate beakers and test tubes.  (Maybe grad students in this alternate universe have unionized?)

I wonder about the historical significance of this story; there are other SF stories that feature "uplifted" dolphins--could this be the first?  Also, would Theodore Sturgeon consider "Second-Class Citizen" to be one of those "anti-science" science fiction stories he was griping about in "The Wages of Synergy"?

Some tourists visit the lab, and a pretty girl (where would we be without the wisdom of pretty girls?) tells the scientist that it is wrong for him to try to get a dolphin to live a human's life.  Then a world war breaks out, making the surface practically unlivable. The scientist manages to escape to a domed lab on the ocean floor, where he can live out his days alone, but he'll have to catch his own food.  He realizes that--oh! the irony!--now his dolphin assistant will be teaching him how to live as a dolphin, instead of him teaching the dolphin how to live as a human.

Lame.

"God's Nose" (1964)

This one is less than three pages long, a pun story inspired by Beckett plays.  (Some of my worst New York experiences have been sitting through Off-Off-Broadway plays inspired by Beckett.)  It first appeared in Rogue, along with pictures of Sophia Loren I can't seem to find online anywhere (but check out these) and sexist cartoons by Syd Hoff you can see here.  (Rogue provided employment and exposure to many SF writers, not just Knight.)

A woman (described as a "Zen Catholic") and the narrator sit on the floor of a room with no furniture.  They await her boyfriend.  She theorizes about God's nose: It must be perfectly formed and infinite in size.  Perhaps the stars are things ejected from God's nose when He sneezed?  Then her boyfriend, whom she introduces as Godfrey, shows up, and the narrator notices that Godfrey has a nose much larger than the average. The end.

Zero divine nasal ejecta out of five.

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These feel like filler; I'll try not to give them undue weight when considering Knight's career as a whole.    

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What's that?  You're curious about what other titles were available in the Award Books science fiction line in 1973?  MPorcius Fiction Blog is at your service!  After the stories in my copy of Off Center (and before the three pages of ads for books on the paranormal) there are two pages of ads for SF paperbacks; these volumes, representing "MIND-SHATTERING SCIENCE FICTION at its very best!" feature genre literature legends Robert Bloch and Robert Silverberg, and a host of other "masters."  Check out the scan below!

   

Friday, December 18, 2015

Finishing up Sturgeon In Orbit: "Make Room for Me" & "The Heart"

Emsh cover for first ed. of
Sturgeon in Orbit; I have to admit
I find it a little disturbing.
James Gunn, in his 1975 history of science fiction Alternate Worlds (I borrowed a copy of the Prentice Hall printing from a university library), calls Theodore Sturgeon on page 31 "one of the best of science fiction writers" but concedes on page 166 that "Some of Sturgeon's explorations in personal statement...may be unsatisfying or unsuccessful as stories, but they seem typical of the attempts of Sturgeon and the times to liberate themselves, and his pioneer work has indeed been liberating.  Because of Sturgeon other writers have been freer to write what they wanted to write...."  I suppose time will tell if Sturgeon's work continues to be read and enjoyed as literature, or if it will primarily be remembered as a stepping stone to our current cultural scene, in which topics people avoided in the 1950s are openly addressed in popular culture.

Let's finish up with Sturgeon in Orbit, which I have been reading this month, a 1964 collection of 1950s stories by Sturgeon, and see if these last two tales are of historical importance, or literary interest, or both.

"Make Room for Me" (1951)

In the intro to this one, Sturgeon praises editor Howard Browne, who bought "Make Room for Me" for Fantastic Adventures, as a writer of hardboiled detective stories. Sturgeon strongly recommends the three "Halo" novels, written by Browne under the John Evans pseudonym.

The Titans are an intelligent race of merciless, even malicious, parasites; despite the name Sturgeon chose for them, they are very tiny, and invade and control the bodies of larger beings.  It seems they enjoy making their hosts hunt and kill other intelligent beings  The Titans have a problem--the race they are currently exploiting is proving inadequate as hosts, unable to reproduce as fast as the Titans, so the Titans need to colonize a new race on a new planet.  The new planet they target is Earth.

For the difficult mission of scouting out and preparing Earth the Titan leadership selects Eudiche, a Titan considered expendable because he has a flaw, a disease, in his make up.  They split his psyche up into its three component parts and inscribe it on three crystals--a single crystal cannot accommodate all the information--and launch the crystals to Earth, where they take up residence in three different humans.

Because these three people carry within themselves different aspects of a single personality they become intimate, but endlessly squabbling and radically different, friends.  One is an intellectual type, and becomes a novelist, one an artistic type--she becomes a poet-- while the third is a technical, practical sort, and becomes an engineer.  It takes Eudiche a while to fully integrate himself into them, and then to unite them telepathically, but when he does he accomplishes his mission, but with a twist.  Under Eudiche's control his three hosts build a sort of mortar and launch capsules that contain a mold Eudiche has developed into space back to Titan.

You see, Eudiche's disease was empathy.  While most of his race are callously selfish, Eudiche feels for others.  Embedded in three human bodies, he came to love the human race, and so was revolted by the idea of turning them into slaves that would be killed for sport.  But he still wanted to complete his mission, so he developed a mold that would increase the longevity and fecundity of the Titans' current hosts. Tragically, Eudiche expires, and his people back on Titan don't even realize what he has done--they think that Eudiche failed, and the civilization-saving mold arrived serendipitously!    

This story includes many elements we've been seeing in Sturgeon's work--the reclusive, psychologically odd genius scientist, nontraditional love relationships, the power of love, the alien invaders whose motives are rational and whom Sturgeon refuses to denounce as evil--but Sturgeon manages to pace the story well, present believable and interesting characters, and avoid boring scientific or irritating polemical lectures.  Sturgeon's hobby horses are well integrated in the story, and it is a good story.

Thumbs up!  

"The Heart" (1955)

Never reluctant to throw around the superlatives, in the intro to "The Heart" Sturgeon declares that Raymond Palmer, the editor of Other Worlds who purchased this story, "is one of the most courageous human beings who ever lived."  Presumably this is a reference to Palmer having overcome serious physical disabilities to build a successful (and at times controversial) career as a writer and an editor.

"The Heart" is very short (four pages) but packs a punch, a successful "Twilight Zoney" fantasy/horror tale.  A bookish, reclusive woman falls in love with a man with a diseased heart, another hermitish intellectual type.  He refuses to marry because of his medical condition.  The woman focuses an intense hate on the man's ailing heart, hoping to supernaturally expunge the disease.  But nothing good can come from hate!  Her hate misfires, destroying the entire heart and killing the man she loves, so she throws herself in front of a train!

Thumbs up!

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I feel like I often emphasize the importance of economy and human feeling in fiction on this blog, and both "Make Room for Me" and "The Heart" have these qualities, and are my favorite stories from this collection.  The other stories in Sturgeon in Orbit are convoluted, marred by characters who are unbelievable or uninteresting, or burdened by long-winded speeches and metaphors.  Today's two stories are streamlined, get to the point, show instead of tell, and are about interesting, convincing characters.  I'm happy I can put Sturgeon in Orbit back on the shelf after hitting this high note.    

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two 1950s stories by Theodore Sturgeon: "Extrapolation" & "The Wages of Synergy"

Earlier this month I read 1951's "The Incubi of Parallel X" by Theodore Sturgeon, from my copy of the 1978 edition of Sturgeon in Orbit.  Dig that crazy Fernandes cover!  (My favorite Stanislaw Fernandes covers are probably those he did for Avon for their editions of Michael Moorcock's first three Dancers at the End of Time books. I think my brother back in the great state of New Jersey still has mine...I sure hope he hasn't traded them away!  Those covers, with their soft curves and charming female figure, are very warm and human.  The cover of this Sturgeon, with its harsh straight lines and distorted and blindfolded figure, seems dreadfully cold, monstrous.)

This week I'm reading the remainder of Sturgeon in Orbit, which was first published in 1964 with new introductions by the author himself to each of the stories, all of which originally appeared in the 1950s.  Here are the first two pieces from the collection, 70 pages of reclusive eggheads and their love lives with a little space warfare and murder mixed in.

"Extrapolation" (1954)

This tale first appeared in Fantastic under the title "Behold the Fury."  In his intro to the story Sturgeon modestly tells us that, upon a reread, "Extrapolation" made him cry, and that when famous editor Groff Conklin read it, he also cried.  Get your hankies ready, kids!

Wolf Reger is a genius--he has "so many talents" that they are "past enumerating." But he has a tragic flaw, a ferocious temper which can erupt without warning and inspire Reger to murderously assault another person.  We get descriptions of two times in his youth when he lashed out in this way and sent a person to the brink of death.  Because he fears this rage, Reger chooses the lonely life of a recluse, a life with no friends and no women: "he lived to avoid others for their own protection."  Because of his aloofness, and because everybody envies Reger's tremendous superiority, he is widely disliked.

While working at a government rocket base in his early thirties Reger comes across a suicide in the desert, a beautiful woman.  While he makes his living as an engineer, on the side Reger is the world's finest doctor, and he brings this hot chick back to life with only the equipment he has in his Air Force hut.  He marries her, and she falls in love with him.  But, scared that he will lose his temper one day and kill her, when the space ship he has been working on is completed, Reger volunteers to join the crew and blast off into space.  Out there the space ship is captured by arthropodal aliens who plan to conquer the Earth.  To them humans are little better than insects; they are going to change the atmosphere of Earth to suit themselves and allow the entire human race to suffocate!

We learn the story of Reger's early life from his wife, and the story of the space flight from a recording by an heroic member of the captured ship's crew who dies getting the news of the invasion to Earth.  This recording, with its horror overtones (e.g., the aliens dissect some of the crew members) and vivid depiction of captivity on the alien vessel, is the best part of "Extrapolation."

The hero relates that Reger is helping the aliens, giving them all kinds of info about Earth and even helping them modify their ships so it will be easier for them to exterminate us!  Coming from a thin atmosphere planet, the aliens don't know how to fly in a thick atmosphere like Earth's, so Reger designs wings for their warships and provides advice on how to use them.  When the population of the Earth hears the recording, Reger graduates from "widely disliked" to the undisputed title of "Most Hated Man on Earth!"  (Mrs. Reger is "Most Hated Woman," and receives government protection from the angry mob.)

The alien fleet enters Earth's atmosphere, but Reger has tricked them; at the speed Reger told them to fly the wings Reger designed for them fall off and all the alien ships crash and explode, killing all the invaders.  Invincible genius Reger manages to survive this 16-spaceship interplanetary pileup.  When the people of Earth realize Reger still lives, they want to torture him without even the formality of a trial, but he eludes the mob and returns to his wife, the only personj who had faith that he was not a traitor.  She even has faith that he will never have a violent fit and beat her the way he has beaten multiple people in the past.

A lot of these old SF stories take the "science" in "science fiction" seriously, and "Extrapolation," besides glorifying the genius engineer/physician, provides quite a bit of talk about atmospheric densities and temperatures and their relationship to shock waves and that kind of thing.  If you read SF to learn about science this story provides you the chance to check "what is the speed of sound on Earth at an altitude of thirty kilometers?" off your list.  (I didn't double check Sturgeon's answer on Google--I have faith in Ted!)

Even while the story seems to be glorifying the extrapolator, the real main point of the story is that it is risky to extrapolate from limited facts, and sometimes you have to trust in faith or intuition.  Mrs. Reger gives an example to a military investigator: if somebody tells you, "A guy beat a woman," you'll think the guy is a maniac or an evil criminal, but if it turns out that he beat her to extinguish her burning clothes, well, that's a different story.  The aliens, and the people of Earth, were wrong to assume that Reger was helping the invasion, even though it certainly looked like he was; only Mrs. Reger, because she has faith in her husband, knew the truth.

This story is pretty over-the-top, with characters who act in somewhat unconvincing ways (the aliens don't send a reconnaissance ship into the atmosphere ahead of their battle fleet to test the wings their enemy made for them?)  Like other Sturgeon stories I have read, it is more of a fable meant to get across Sturgeon's ideas--that we people and our society are corrupt and that we should love each other more--than an effort to create believable characters who behave in believable ways.  As he did in "The Incubi of Parallel X," Sturgeon assures us the murderous invading aliens are no worse than we Earthers (the arthropods are changing the Earth in order to move in the same way we chop down a forest, destroying the ecosystem of birds and squirrels, to build a farm or apartment building), and rather than presenting the invaders as the main villains of the piece, uses the aliens to set the stage for a conflict between good and bad human beings.

"Extrapolation" is an acceptable entertainment.  It is a little hard to believe such a contrived story with such a cartoonish main character brought adult men to tears, however.

"The Wages of Synergy" (1953)

It is normal for writers to express frustration, or worse, with editors, but Sturgeon, who seems to have practiced that "love everybody" philosophy he preaches, uses much of the new 1964 material in Sturgeon in Orbit to praise his editors.  In the intro to "Extrapolation" he talked about how generous Fantastic editor Howard Browne was to him, and in the intro to "The Wages of Synergy" he tells us the editor of Startling Stories (where the tale first appeared), Samuel Mines, is such a good writer he is likely to win the Pulitzer Prize someday!

This cover is by Walter Popp;
Bergey died in 1952
As an aside, the wikipedia article on Startling Stories expends a lot of space complaining about the covers of the magazine by Earle K. Bergey, in particular that the depiction of women is "ludicrous," "unrealistic," and "implausible."  What a bunch of killjoys; does the wikipedia article on Michelangelo complain that the awe-inspiring musculature he sculpted for David and painted for Jesus doesn't make sense?  We're not talking about medical textbooks here; the artist is trying to create something beautiful and inspire a particular feeling in the viewer.  I think Bergey's work is a lot of fun.

As another aside, I've been singing Peter Gabriel's "Indigo" to myself ever since I saw the title to this story.

"The Wages of Synergy" tackles some of Sturgeon's usual topics and is structured as one of those mystery/conspiracy stories in which the characters sit around in bars and apartments and figure out what is going on by talking through the clues and giving suspects the third degree.

As we know from reading all these elitist and misanthropic SF stories, a significant proportion of the human race consists of jerk offs.  Luckily, three of the smartest and least jerky people in the United States, the brilliant scientist Pretorio, the wise philosopher Landey, and the beloved newspaper columnist Monck, have started "the Ethical Science Board" to steer us on the right course, presenting, as one secondary character, excitable scientist Egton, puts it, "the first real chance this crazy world ever had to get onto itself...."  This board's primary purpose is to defend science from the "anti-science trend."  Here's an explanation of the anti-science trend from Egton that not only will thrill all you libertarian types, but shows Sturgeon going all meta on us SF readers, doing a little literary criticism and biting the hand that feeds him!:
"Even the politicians are saying we have to turn to higher spiritual accomplishments because of what science has created.  But their way of doing it will be to stop science from creating anything.  It's a little like blaming the gunsmith every time somebody gets shot, but that's what's happening.  Hell, four-fifths of the stories in science fiction magazines are anti-scientific."
The Board will also "synthesize," make sure scientists work together "towards the same ends, with the same sense of responsibility."  Hey, I didn't say the entire story was going to please libertarians!

They say it is a small world.  These three uniquely ethical individuals aren't just living in the same town--they are all having sex with the same girl, our female lead, Prue. But not for long!  Before the Ethical Science Board can really get off the ground each of its three leaders dies while in bed with Prue, just after achieving orgasm.  Prue has a fourth boyfriend, our male lead Killelia, a reclusive genius of chemistry who has sworn off research because he stumbled onto something unspeakably dangerous. When Prue tells him about the trail of dead bodies she's been leaving, Killelia realizes that the three ethical giants were killed by their orgasms because some conspirator got a hold of, and injected into these exemplars, the very same chemical Killelia discovered while researching the chemistry of the orgasm, the very same chemical the apocalyptic nature of which lead him to abandon his career!

(In case you are wondering how Prue's numerous boyfriends feel about each other, rest assured that part of being ethical is being immune to jealousy--"The Wages of Synergy" is a free love polemic.  In fact, the first page of the story, a sort of preface set in italics, is a lament that people living in apartments feel the need to be quiet while having sex, when sex should be open and joyous.)

Killelia and Prue, via detective work, figure out what is going on and lure the conspirator into their clutches; the malefactor is killed in a fight when he accidentally pokes himself with a hypodermic full of poison he brought with him to use on our heros.  It turns out that the conspirator is Pretorio, the very head of the Ethical Science Board!  (Killelia theorizes that he "snapped.")  Pretorio faked his own death, then conspired to kill Landey, Monck and (unsuccessfully) Killelia so he could run the Ethical Science Board from behind the scenes and use it, and the threat of indiscriminately spraying the chemical that makes male orgasm fatal, to rule the world!

The story ends with Prue and Killelia getting hitched.

I don't really think I can recommend this story to anybody, though it has numerous noteworthy elements.  There are lots of extended and elaborate metaphors and analogies, like Killelia's science career being like an underground passageway full of magic that lead to something too horrible to face, the field of chemistry like intersecting roads and paths, the chemistry of the male sexual process kike "an orchestration...with more pieces in its music than any conductor ever used."  Prue gives a somewhat confusing lecture on the difference between morals and ethics.  And there is the fact that the sex scene and the talk of sex is all sort of vague and oblique, words like "orgasm" and "ejacualtion" and even "climax" being studiously avoided. Unfortunately, all of these components are noteworthy in part because they make the story feel obscure, slow it down, sap any excitement out of it.  The long analogies and philosophical discussions place obstacles between the reader and the plot and the characters instead of bringing the plot and characters to life and instilling them with feeling and meaning.

Characters and plot weak, ideas perhaps interesting, but poorly presented.  Thumbs down.

**********

Both of these stories suggest that science, knowledge and logic are powerful, but insufficient on their own to guide the individual or his society.  Science can be used for evil purposes, and people jump to wrong conclusions based on limited information all the time, so people need faith, intuition, and ethics to guide them.  Both stories also feature superlative geniuses, the finest minds of their generations, who have psychological problems that can transform them, without any warning, into dangerous killers.  How can we be optimistic about science and society if the best among us can turn on us at any moment?  Maybe Sturgeon is presenting us with a chicken-and-egg problem; he sort of leaves room for the reader to believe that Reger and Pretorio's insanity is a response to the essential insanity of our society, that in an ethical society that embraced free love they wouldn't have "snapped."

The essential optimism of the stories lies in their depiction of love based on faith and trust; each ends with the reclusive scientist embarking on a happy marriage.  Mrs. Reger has faith that Reger won't go bonkers and hurt her, even though he has a history of such behavior, and Killelia has faith in Prue's love, even though she has a history of sleeping with every ethical scientist she lays eyes on.  As Matthew Arnold might suggest, even if the world is terrible, if two people love each other, perhaps together they can live happily.

***********

Two more Sturgeon stories from the 1950s in our next episode.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Three 1950s stories by Damon Knight

It goes without saying that many science fiction writers are controversial, because of their political views, social views, writing styles, eccentric behavior, whatever.  My personal view of Damon Knight, probably unfairly, is largely defined by the controversies he was directly or indirectly involved in.  There is his famous denunciation of A. E. Van Vogt and the role Knight's name (affixed to the Grand Master title in 2002) played in the dispute over whether Van Vogt would be awarded the title of Grand Master by the SFWA.  There is the fact that he seems to have lost the job of book reviewer at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction because he wrote a review of Judith Merrill's Tomorrow People that pointed out how crummy it was.  And there was the friendly controversy between Joachim Boaz and yours truly over how crummy Knight's novel Beyond the Barrier was.  (Check out Joachim's assessments of Beyond the Barrier here and here, and mine here.)

I recently purchased a 1973 paperback edition published by Award Books of the 1965 collection of Knight stories entitled Off Center.  Let's check out three stories Knight wrote in the 1950s and see if they have the power to generate any additional Knight-related controversies.

"What Rough Beast" (1959)

The title of "What Rough Beast" comes from the 1919 poem "The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats.  The only thing I know about Yeats is that he was the subject of that Cranberries song, so it took a Google search to alert me to where Knight got the title. I then dutifully read the poem.  It turns out that this poem is also the source of the phrases "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," and "Slouches toward Bethlehem," phrases which I feel like I hear all the time in one form or another.  Like Yeats' poem, Knight's story deals with apocalyptic visions and Jesus Christ.

"What Rough Beast" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is the story of Mike Kronski, our first-person narrator.  Mike is an immigrant to New York City, has some kind of accent and a speech pattern which under uses articles, and is working as a bus boy in a crummy diner.  Before long we learn that Mike has amazing supernatural powers--in fact, it seems like he can do almost anything with his mind from curing cancer to making money appear out of thin air to vaporizing people or buildings.  Mike has come to our dimension from some dimension in which Russians colonized North America (hey, wasn't Nobokov's Ada set in just such a dimension?)

Mike is some kind of Christ-figure; he always tries to help people, curing their ailments and giving them money and so forth, but there are always people trying to betray him or take advantage of him.  One scene in which Knight/Mike brings attention to the face of the president on a dollar bill seemed, to me, to be meant to remind you of how Jesus brought attention to the face of the Roman Emperor on a coin in the gospels, a clue we are meant to compare Mike to Christ.

In contrast to Christ, Mike tries to keep his powers a secret and to keep a low profile, but when he has to interact with the authorities they see through his deceptions and begin to investigate him.  After he helps some pretty girls (and who can resist the temptation to save damsels in distress?) he exposes his astonishing abilities to some working-class brutes who try to kidnap him and exploit him to get rich.

Mike isn't fully in control of his powers; while he sleeps at night any injury or illness, even a pimple, is cured autonomically, and when he gets scared his powers can lash out to protect him, even against his will.  At the end of the story he gets so scared he disintegrates New York City (nooooooo!) and everything for miles around.  Yeats' poem seems to suggest that 2000 years after Christ (who saved or redeemed the world) was born some kind of monster (who would wreck the world?) would be born in Bethlehem.  Is Mike, however well-intentioned he may be, that monster?  A monster because we, who have filled the 20th century with materialism, revolutionary violence and war, made him one?  

At the end of the story, after he has annihilated New York City, Mike shifts himself to a world in which Jesus Christ was never born.  Maybe here is a universe where Mike won't be harried by others.  (Is Knight hinting that perhaps a world without Christ would be a better one?)

On a human level this story works.  Knight draws the characters well and succeeds in eliciting emotions from the reader with the scenes he puts his characters through.  The story is well-structured and paced.  And all that speculation about how Knight's story relates to Yeats' poem and how Mike relates to Christ is interesting.  The very cool Galactic Journey blog likes "What Rough Beast" a lot  and I can't gin up any real controversy over his opinion.  (At the same link check out GJ's examination of the lava cover of the issue of F&SF in which "What Rough Beast" appears.)

Where the story has problems is with Mike's powers, which can be a little difficult to understand, and may simply be arbitrary.  It seems like Mike's powers, for the most part, consist of the ability to flip through the multiverse, look through the infinite numbers of worlds in order to switch something over to, or take something from, a similar universe.  For example, if he is standing on the corner of 5th and 42nd and wants to give money to somebody, he looks through the infinite number of universes to find those universes that are more or less like ours but in which somebody dropped money on the sidewalk at 5th and 42nd, reaches into those universes, and picks up the money.  When a cop roughs him up he reflexively reaches into a universe in which that cop doesn't exist, was never born, but which is otherwise like ours.  (Maybe the cop appears in that other dimension where he doesn't belong; Mike says that my beloved New York City has appeared on a barren planet Earth which previously had no life on it--oh the humanity!)

Confusingly, while Mike can vaporize a cop or a town in a split second, when he is curing a young woman's scar tissue and giving her beautiful skin so she can find a husband, he has to concentrate and touch her naked body and alter each cell one at a time in a complex and tiring process (apparently trading this Anne's scarred cells for the healthy cells of dozens or hundreds of Annes from other versions of our world). When someone asks if he can cure diseases he says he can cure cancer but not a "germ disease, because is too many little germs."  Maybe this is because Mike is reluctant to simply give disease to people in other dimensions, and has to spread the bad cells around so the tiny doses are harmless?  There are other limits to his abilities--Mike can't undo changes he has made, and things in our universe that he has brought from other universes appear solid black to him, so, for example, he can't use money from other universes because he can't read the denominations.  Early in the story he sees his own reflection, and it shows solid black, so he can't even see his own face.

Maybe I am thick, but at times it seemed like Mike's powers were whatever served the plot, or seemed dramatic, at that moment.

I think this story deserves a moderate recommendation.  Rather than nitpick Knight's description and rationalization of Mike's magic powers the reader is probably expected to lament that we are all such a bunch of jerks that if Jesus Christ appeared today we would probably abuse him, to consider the heavy weight of responsibility a miracle-worker like Jesus Christ would feel, and to recognize that each of us has a responsibility for himself, and should not delegate that responsibility to others.

Off Center was first available as half of an Ace Double, both halves of which were by Knight
"Be My Guest" (1958)

This a long and tedious story with a goofy and uninteresting premise and unfunny comedy dialogue and unfunny slapsticky jokes.  It first menaced the world from its lair in Fantastic Universe, a magazine for which it is not easy to find a clear cover photo. 

Knight posits that it is common for people to be possessed by ghosts.  These "tenants" can strongly influence the thoughts, desires and actions of their hosts, and they generally inspire people to engage in interests similar to their own, so they can vicariously enjoy the pastimes they indulged in while alive.  Knight presents this as an explanation for why the human race is a bunch of stupid tasteless jerks:
It was no longer any cause for wonder that the books most normal people bought and the movies they paid to see were strictly and by definition psychoneurotic, nor that the laws made by the people for the people were an Iron Maiden, nor that a streetful of honest citizens could erupt into a roaring mob.
(The idea that, if people act like assholes perhaps it is because they are controlled by invisible outside agents, reminded me a little of John D. MacDonald's 1950 Wine of the Dreamers.)

The fact that most people are inhabited and manipulated by ghosts has remained virtually unknown for centuries; possessed people have no idea they are possessed.  That is until now, with the appearance of a miracle of modern science!

Our heroes are Kipling Morgan, a brilliant man who studied physics but then devoted his life to outdoor professions, like being a merchant sailor, a lumberjack, and currently a golf pro; Angelica MacTavish, a beautiful genius who is a player in city politics (the story is set in L. A.); and Nancy Liebert, an ugly girl with a difficult home life and many psychological issues.  Kip is in love with Angelica, whom he is dating, and Nancy is in love with Kip, whom she is (as we would say today) stalking.

Kip's old professor, a chemist and Nancy's father, just died.  The prof was working on some super vitamins, but when tested on monkeys it killed them, so he labelled the vial "POISON" and set it aside.  While vandalizing Kip's home Nancy put this liquid vitamin solution in Kip's food, and ingesting it gave him the ability to see and hear the four ghosts currently residing inside of him.  He realizes these ghosts love the outdoors (one was an Army officer, one a sea captain, etc,) and it was they who made him abandon a science career to become an outdoors type.  Much of the story's 70 pages consist of Kip's efforts to exorcise the ghosts.  For example, the four initial ghosts are anti-intellectual, so he exorcises them by reading difficult science texts.  But when those four leave, seven more move in.  He gets rid of those by sitting inside a cramped uncomfortable box, but then ghosts who love to drink and fight move in. (The exorcisms are actually much more complicated and boring than I have let on here.)

For obscure reasons, Kip, Angelica and Nancy have become invisible.  Not truly invisible, but people never see them, because, as if by coincidence, nobody ever looks their way.  This means that Angelica can spy on politicians and steal fur coats, and Kip, now a drunk, can steal booze and smash up bars, without legal repercussions. This invisibility is more of a curse than a blessing, however, and Kip, calling it a "quarantine," endeavors to end it.

After wasting a lot of time Knight wraps up the story in short order by having Kip learn in a mysterious way (the ghost of Nancy's father sends him a coded message) that a second dose of the vitamin juice will enable him to see and talk to other people's ghosts.  This allows him to find the ruling ghosts, who inhabit a rich guy's body.  He threatens these patrician ghosts with making the rich guy drink the vitamins, so they end the quarantine and shift Kip, Angelica and Nancy's ghosts around so they will all be psychologically healthy.  Then Kip drinks a third dose of the vitamins, which somehow deactivates the first two doses.  Now he realizes Angelica is not the girl for him and can marry Nancy and they can live happily ever after.

"Be My Guest"'s premise and plot feel contrived and convoluted, and everything moves slowly.  The characters are boring and you don't care what happens to them.  

Bad!  

"Catch That Martian" (1952)

More jokes!  More ghosts!  Another bizarre premise!  And more misanthropy!  The SF community first puzzled over this oddity in Galaxy.

People in New York City are being turned into ghosts!  Suddenly, in a theatre or cinema, in a restaurant or on the street, a person will be silenced!  He is still visible, but unable to interact with this universe!  The ghost can't hear us, we can't hear him, and the people and things he touches pass right through him!

A cop, through guesses and serious detective work, comes to believe that a Martian who is very easily annoyed must be to blame!  The alien is here to study our culture, but if somebody coughs during a film or jostles him on the subway, he sends the offending individual to another dimension where he can no longer be heard or felt.  In the course of trying to figure out which New Yorker is really a Martian in disguise, our hero makes an annoying noise of his own, and finds himself in the other dimension. Another victim suggests that, since every person is annoying in some way, eventually the entire human race will be sentenced to this netherworld.

Weak!

*********

The last three pages of my copy of Off Center advertize paperbacks from Award that "Probe the Unknown."  These include not only what "may well be the most thorough study on the incredible Abominable Snowmen" but two different books that can guide you in the use of magic to attain love and riches!  And if "Telecult Power" or "Kahuna Magic" don't do the trick, you can always fall back on ESP to achieve "immense personal success;" after all, "Everyone has ESP!"

Click to PROBE THE UNKNOWN

Friday, December 11, 2015

1961 stories by Avram Davidson, Jay Williams, Evelyn Smith & Jody Scott

My eyes are always open, my antennae always quivering, my feelers always...feeling?  Thrift stores, antique malls, the sale shelf of a tiny library in a tiny town I never heard of...classic SF is out there, and it is cheap!  Recently, while in a Fairmont, Minnesota shopping mall on a mission totally unrelated to old books, the wife and I stumbled upon a charity book sale presented by the Rotary.  They didn't even have a cashier or price list, just a box for goodwill donations.  I gave one dollar each for two paperbacks I bought, one of them the 1966 printing of the eleventh The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Robert P. Mills. This collection first appeared in hardcover in 1962, and all the included stories appeared in the magazine in 1961.  Let's check out four of those 15 stories!

"The Sources of the Nile" by Avram Davidson

I feel like it was just last week that I was telling you Avram Davidson was a "C" student and was scrawling a big red "F" on one of his productions.  Luckily this submission merits something in the "C+" or "B-" range.

"The Sources of the Nile" includes the kind of erudite and esoteric references and "word play" that Davidson apparently enjoys indulging in, but, unlike in "The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off Eye Street," here his schtick is clever and interesting.  I like "One of those tall, cool buildings on Lexington with the tall, cool office girls..." and the references to the Jackson Whites, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens and Kate Greenaway are intriguing or at least entertaining.

This is one of those stories about a writer who is having trouble making ends meet because the professional publishers and reading public don't appreciate (read: are not willing to pay for) his art.  After a convoluted series of encounters with various characters in the publishing biz and the advertising biz he discovers a family that, in an inexplicable fashion, can predict fads and trends; somehow, they know what clothes will be in style and what sort of books will be bestsellers in the near future.  Such information is extremely valuable, and our hero would love to capitalize on it.  But he is not the only one, and of those seeking to get rich from exploiting this uncanny family's weird ability, he is not the cleverest.

Not bad.            

"Somebody to Play With" by Jay Williams

I don't think I have ever read anything by Jay Williams as an adult, but isfdb is telling me Williams was the primary contributor to the Danny Dunn series of juveniles, and I know I owned and read some of those as a kid.  As a child (I was born in 1971) I was very strongly influenced by Star Wars, and I remember being very disappointed that Danny used the laser in Danny Dunn and the Heat Ray to dry up a puddle in the yard instead of to kill people.

As I might have expected after making the Danny Dunn connection, this is a didactic story about precocious kids!  It actually reminded me of something Heinlein might do: there is a wise teacher who is a little skeptical of the government and argues that liberty should be prioritized over security (talk about hot topics what with all the talk of gun control and Muslim immigration this week, right, kids?), and his bravest student who takes a risk and breaks the rules.

It seems humanity ruined the Earth (wise teacher gives a lecture on ecology), and only a small number of humans have survived and set up a colony under a dome on an alien planet.  The oldest of the kids born under the dome is independent minded, even rebellious, and likes to sneak out of the dome without his filtering mask!  While out exploring the kid meets an alien creature that is perhaps intelligent.  While he is trying to make friends, Dad appears and shoots down the native, explaining that just such a creature recently poisoned another colonist.  Not believing him, the son feels hatred for his father, and identifies with the now dead alien--the son is going native!

The reader is left to wonder about the future of the colony.  Will the humans make friends with the natives and live in harmony with this new planet, or wreck the place like they did the Earth?  Will there be war between settler and native or even among the humans over how to deal with this new world?

Not bad.

"Softly While You're Sleeping" by Evelyn E. Smith  

Evelyn E. Smith has a pretty long list of credits at isfdb, and the fun people at Ramble House sell a 300 page collection of her 1950s short SF stories, but I don't think I've ever read anything by her or even heard of her.

Did Nico or Andy Warhol have anything
to do with this cover?
Like the Davidson story, this one is set in New York City.  Don't get me started reminiscing! This is a real New York story, about an ethnic neighborhood full of poor immigrants, how their kids grow up and want to be more American, and how people we now might call hipsters--artists and actors, musicians and professionals--move into the neighborhood, changing its character.

Anna, who insists people call her the more "American" "Ann," is the daughter of now dead Albanian immigrants.  After returning from college she moved into her old Albanian neighborhood on the East Side, but she identifies with the aforementioned hipsters more than her co-ethnics, who nag her to marry a nice Albanian boy.  She is unhappy, unable to keep a boyfriend because she won't put out.

Then arrives the love of her life, a young man, dressed all in white, who sleeps all day and spends the nights on the street, whistling, singing, keeping Anna awake.  She is told he is a recent arrival from the old country, a Mr. Varri, but how could he be--the Iron Curtain has kept any Albanians from coming to America for years.  At first she fears Varri, but eventually she succumbs to the vampire's blandishments, and finds in his cold attentions an ecstasy she could never experience from the hot sweaty gropings of a living man!  She has never been so happy before, but everybody at the office begins wondering why she has become so thin and pale.  She worries about what will happen when she runs out of blood and becomes a parasitic monster herself, an immortal preying on the innocent and no longer the sole recipient of Varri's attentions.

When she voices these fears to Varri she realizes that he is as selfish a lover as any living man, and flees him, moving to a better apartment on the West Side.  At the end of the story it is hinted that her experience with Varri (and other men before him?) has made her selfish and corrupt--in order to afford the wide necklaces she wears to cover up the wounds on her neck she dates a jeweler who can give her a discount.

A pretty good story, and one ripe for feminist and class analysis--how do relationships with men change women?  How does life in America change immigrants' values?  Etc.

"Go for Baroque" by Jody Scott

Scott only has two novels and eight short stories listed at isfdb, but her first novel, Passing for Human, seems to have received extravagant praise, or at least superlative cover blurbs, from Barry Malzberg and the website io9.  "Go for Baroque" appears to be her first published story.

As the pun title and the fact that Malzberg called Passing for Human a "satire" in his ecstatic blurb had led me to suspect, "Go For Baroque" is a bunch of jokes.  Sample joke: "Anyway, we lived in Penury, a well-known subsection of Chicago."

The plot:  A guy visits a psychiatrist.  The patient tells the story of his life, claiming to be thousands of years old, of having lived for a time on the funny pages where he confronted Dr. Zarkov and had a love affair with Brenda Starr, etc.  The psychiatrist turns out to be as nutty as the patient, claiming he is from outer space and misses the exciting life out there. The patient, perhaps some kind of telepath and hypnotist, fast talks his way to becoming head of the office and it is implied that he has fast talked his way to becoming head of hospitals and other institutions in the past, and will soon use his power to take over the world and bring peace to the Earth.

This story reminded me of an animated cartoon, in particular "Symphony in Slang" with all its goofy puns and any number of Bug Bunny shorts with its fast talkery and slapstick antics, but not in a good way.  What works in one medium doesn't necessarily work in another.

Lame.

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The last page of my copy of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Eleventh Series is an ad for two anthologies of horror stories edited by super-editor Donald Wollheim, the hero of genre literature behind DAW books. These books sound pretty good: one includes H. P. Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep," which I love, and the other features Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," which I really enjoyed back in October when I was reading all those horror stories.  Looking them up on isfdb indicates that their covers (Emsh and Schoenherr) are absolutely gorgeous.  Is there any hope I will stumble into these one day on sale for a buck apiece?

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There are at least four more stories in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Eleventh Series I want to read, so we'll be taking a look at this one again. 
  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Briefing For a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing

Some sort of a divorce there has been somewhere along the path of this race of man between the "I" and the "We," some sort of a terrible falling-away, and I (who am not I, but part of a whole composed of other human beings as they are of me) hovering here as if between the wings of a great white bird, feel as if I am spinning (though it may be forwards, who knows?) yes, spinning back into a vortex of terror, like a birth in reverse, and it is towards a catastrophe, yes, that was when the microbes, the little broth that is humanity, was knocked senseless, hit for six, knocked out of their true understanding, so that ever since most have said, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, and cannot, save for a few, say We.

Like Stalin Peace Prize winner Paul Robeson, Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, and Academy Award winner Quincy Magoo, I attended Rutgers University.  But in the '80s RU offered me an opportunity that these heroes of communism, capitalism, and astigmatism* didn't have--the opportunity to take a class entitled "Science Fiction."  Of course, I'm the kind of person who squanders opportunities, so I didn't actually read most of the books assigned for class.  One such neglected volume was Doris Lessing's 1971 novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell. This week I made good this lacuna in my education, reading a library copy of the 1981 paperback edition of Briefing put out by Vintage.  

*Poetic license--"myopia" don't rhyme!

Lessing doesn't break the novel (which is 278 pages in this edition) into parts or chapters, but I think it is fair to talk about the novel as consisting of two parts of approximately equal length, Part 1, which I think of as "The Dream Part" and Part 2, which I think of as "The Epistolary Part."

PART 1: THE DREAM

First of all, I have to say that the first hundred or so pages of Briefing was some of the most unappetizing reading I have done in a while, maybe years; reading it was a chore, like washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor, something I knew was worth doing but was hardly fun or even interesting.  I often found it difficult to focus on the text, and every time I picked the book up it was with some level of resignation.  Most of these pages are written in a dreamy "stream of consciousness" style, with long paragraphs, long sentences, and lots of "word play": repetition, puns, lists, metaphors. I think page 34 provides examples of the things I am talking about:

Click for a larger version
The plot moves slowly, the characters are uninteresting and serve as spectators instead of participants in the story, and there is limited excitement or emotion or suspense, which left my mind to wander hither and yon.  Most of the philosophical ideas presented are tired and obvious--war is crummy, we are all brothers and sisters and should learn to get along, modern man is too materialistic and should be more in tune with nature like primitive people allegedly are--so I felt there was no real reward for trudging through all those tedious sentences and hacking through those boring poems.

Medical records form a small part of this opening half of the novel.  It is late summer 1969, and the cops have brought a disheveled guy with no ID who seems to be out of his mind into a London hospital.  We readers get recorded conversations between the patient, a nurse, a Dr. X and a Dr. Y (don't worry, we get the "Doctor Why" pun you were expecting) as well as doctors' notes.  Dr. Y is a softie, while Dr. X is a hardass, always prescribing shock treatments and radical experimental drugs.  The patient has not only lost his memory but spends almost all of his time asleep, experiencing an adventurous dream that, while awake, he thinks is reality.

These medical records are interspersed with a first person narrative of the dream.  The dreamer starts on a boat in the Atlantic, one of twelve men.  A nearly invisible apparition, a crystalline disk (the narrator calls it "the Crystal"), appears and whisks away the dreamer's eleven comrades.  Heartbroken over being left behind, the dreamer, now hating the lonely boat, builds a raft and drifts off.  Shipwrecked on a rock, he is rescued by a porpoise who helps him get to the shore of a mountainous jungle region.  Lessing spends page after page describing terrain, flora and fauna in excessive detail.  The dreamer is guided by big cats (pumas or something) up a plateau to an ancient ruined city.

Back of copy I read
The roles played by the porpoise and the cats reminded me of the sympathetic view of animals in Ben, In the World--the dreamer even refers to experiments done on animals, experiments the narrator, and presumably Lessing, think are needlessly cruel.  A related theme of the jungle sequence is that the natural world is a paradise, one ruined when exposed to mankind and its violence and pollution.

As happens in dreams, or when people travel through time or between dimensions, at first the dreamer doesn't even notice the city, seeing only a field of wild grass atop the plateau.  But then the city abruptly becomes apparent, first as nothing but a flat carpet of rubble, but then well preserved, with many intact, though roofless, houses that offer shelter to the dreamer.  A few days later he notices ("it was very strange indeed that I had not noticed this before...") a sort of town square, a flat expanse with geometrical designs carved into the stone.  He clears and cleans this area, and after a few pages of scenes about three ghostly witches who kill cattle and a baby (this scene, which reminded me of the dream in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, is perhaps Lessing telling us that "meat is murder") the Crystal, during a full moon, lands in the square.  But again the dreamer is rejected, apparently because he ate meat with the witches.

Two tribes of semi-intelligent creatures take up residence in the city, a tribe of semi-bipedal dog-like rat people, and one of apes.  These vegetarian groups get along at first, but then a war erupts, and they degenerate--they begin eating meat, abandon bipedal posture, and even fight amongst themselves. A huge bird arrives to give the dreamer a ride over the ocean, which is polluted by the corpses of the ape-ratdog war, and then guard him as he cleans the square again, in preparation for the next full moon.      

So, on page 92, a third of the way through the book, the dreamer is absorbed into the collective consciousness of the Crystal.
In that dimension, minds lay side by side, fishes in a school, cells in a honeycomb, flames in a fire, and together we made a whole in such a way that it was not possible to say, Here Charles begins, here John or Miles or Felicity or Constance ends.
We get a ten-page description of what the Earth looks like from space--with his newly Crystal-enhanced vision the narrator sees every living thing as a different color/sound. We also get lots of astrological jazz about how things happen on Earth because "the balance of the planets had shifted, or a comet came too close--or the moon spoke, voicing the cold, the compulsion...."  The Moon is very important to the first half of the novel, and is mentioned frequently.  A comet is blamed for introducing individualism to the human race when it crashed into the Earth and poisoned the air; this bad air inhibits brain function, and makes everybody forget the unity of the universe and hate instead of love.

In a self-consciously "whimsical" section the planets are personified as the Greco-Roman gods (the Sun is the Father of All, presumably analogous to the God of the Bible), and they have a conference on what to do about the Earth, where there are so many wars and so much pollution.  At this conference a team that is to visit the Earth is briefed (the briefing to which the title refers)--their mission is to help the human race remember that they are not truly individuals, but part of the cosmic unity.  The Briefing is implanted in the team member's brains, and they are sent to Earth, where they arrive as babies in the womb, their previous existences forgotten.

PART 2: EPISTLES

Halfway through the book, page 144, Doctors X and Y learn the dreamer's name, Professor Charles Watkins--the police have found his wallet on the street.  About the same time the reader realizes that Watkins must be one of the alien agents, his collapse and insanity a result of the sudden reemergence of the knowledge of his mission. Watkins stops sleeping so much, and there are no more dream sequences.

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell becomes much more enjoyable in its second half, as characters and human feeling come to the fore.  The text consists mostly of letters and memoirs written by Watkins and his family, colleagues, and acquaintances, and these are in a readable, affecting style.  Through the letters we learn about Watkins' life and personality, and about other characters; the letters are full of clues suggesting that these other characters are, like Watkins, alien agents who only have an inkling they are on a mission to teach humanity that we should be at one with each other and nature. Lessing's more interesting philosophical ideas, like her skepticism of science and equation of science with religion, and her suspicions that civilizations existed before those 20th century people know about, get an airing.  These ideas were present, in a cursory fashion, in The Fifth Child and Ben, In the World, but in this novel Lessing expands on these ideas at length in a way that is compelling and is well integrated into the lives of the characters she has created.

One of the doctors convinces Watkins to write a memoir of his 1940s war experiences, and reading this account we learn what, perhaps, are the sources of his wild dream.  After seeing much action in North Africa and Italy (in which he was more than once the only survivor of a squad of infantrymen, prefiguring the way he is left alone on the boat in his dream), he was parachuted into Yugoslavia.  Watkins and/or Lessing engage in some romanticizing of the war in Yugoslavia, how communism united people across barriers of gender, ethnicity and religion:
The Red Star on their caps or on their breasts was what linked them....This group of young soldiers contained Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Catholics, and Moslems.  Nowhere but in these mountains, among these soldiers, these comrades, could it be possible for two people to meet, take each other's hands, call each other by name, Miro, Milos, Konstantina, Slobo, Vido, Edvard, Vera, Mitra, Aleksa...take the Red Star as their bond and forget the rest.
(Because it could be to some extent disassociated from the monstrous tyranny and unrepentant imperialism of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, I think Tito's Yugoslavia had an important place in the hearts and minds of many Western lefties.)

Watkins' memoir of Yugoslavia gushes over with talk of how the individual is meaningless and the group is everything, prefiguring all the collective consciousness and unity stuff from the dream.  And like the jungle of the dream, Yugoslavia is beautiful and unspoiled by modern man's pollution.

Even though his war memoir is full of vivid detail, it turns out Watkins never actually served in Yugoslavia!  (His battalion went from Italy to NorthWest Europe, and he went with them.)  Is this another dream?  Or has he tapped into the minds of men, alien agents like himself, who did serve in Yugoslavia?

Watkins has recovered sufficiently enough that he is able to circulate with the other patients, and he befriends a beautiful young woman who walks around in a skirt so short her privates are exposed (she eschews panties.)  Drugs having failed to restore his memory, he finally agrees to shock treatment.  The treatment works, and Watkins returns to his family and college professor life, his hazy knowledge of his mission to restore unity to mankind expunged.

It is left to the reader to assess how much of that business about aliens and prehistoric civilizations is true, and how much mere insanity.  I think we might think of Watkins as a Don Quixote character, a man whose noble old-fashioned values mark him as insane in our corrupt modern world.

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While I was reading the first 140 or so pages of Briefing For a Descent Into Hell I didn't think I was going to be able to recommend it.  But the second half is good in every way.  And while the style of the first half is not at all to my liking, the first and second halves are in fact well integrated--the whole novel is well structured, with all kinds of things in the letters and Watkins' homage to Yugoslavia reminding you of details from the insane dream.  All that trudging and hacking did finally pay off.

I think the blurbs on the back of the edition I read (see above) are overselling it, but this is a good novel, and if you get assigned Briefing For a Descent Into Hell in a class I recommend you read it, even if it takes you 20 or 30 years to get around to it.