Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Earth Factor X by A. E. Van Vogt

Resentment seethed...Damn those male rats!  Doesn't a man ever have a human feeling for a woman?  Is it all just sex?

In 1974 The Secret Galactics appeared as a large-sized paperback; on its purple cover were emblazoned the words "ONLY THE BRAIN-MAN COULD STOP EARTH'S TAKEOVER!"  The cover also claimed that Van Vogt was "America's greatest science-fiction writer."  It is debatable who had the most reason to find this bold declaration irritating, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, or the people of Canada, where Van Vogt was born and lived the first 30 years of his life?  Well, if we've learned one thing reading all these SF books, it is that you can't take the things written on their covers too seriously.  So, no hard feelings, Canada!

Two years later DAW printed the novel in paperback with the title Earth Factor X.  DAW No. 206, a copy of which I own and read this week, has an embarrassingly amateurish red cover by Deane Cate.  Later DAW editions of the novel would have a banal but competent white cover by Greg Theakston.  

The heroes of Earth Factor X are Dr. Carl Hazzard and his estranged wife Marie, a couple of Nobel-prize winning scientists.  A year ago Carl was "murdered," but the world's finest brain surgeon managed to save Carl's brain and hook it up to a life-sustaining machine.  As the novel begins Carl has just been installed in a robot body equipped with six wheels, claws, a blow torch, and a powerful rifle (Van Vogt at times describes it as a "cannon.")  It is fun to compare how Hazzard in his robot body is depicted by different artists:
 
Nobody saw fit to depict the cannon!
Early in the novel Hazzard travels around town (I think Los Angeles) in a specially modified box truck, doing detective and counterespionage work.  From within the truck he can fire weapons, but he isn't afraid to roll out of the truck and get his claws dirty, breaking and entering, eavesdropping and hunting for clues.  The wheels of his robot body are "flexible" and each can be "manipulated separately," allowing him to climb stairs.  Carl, following tips from Silver, one of his many mistresses, learns about the impending conquest of Earth by aliens who currently live among us in disguise!

So, who are these aliens?  We are told there are numerous alien races represented on Earth, sitting in positions of power in the government and business, but only three play a prominent role in the story--the Deeans, who have decided to take over the planet and have sent a huge space ship (almost a mile long) to accomplish this task; the Sleele, who are universally considered untrustworthy, and the Luind, the most advanced and benevolent of the alien races.

A third of the way through the novel Carl and Marie are captured by the Deeans, but with Silver's help Marie manages to escape.  (Silver is married to one of the Deean leaders and provides Marie with an energy gun.)  Marie also receives aid from the Luind leader on Earth, who is one of her lovers.  We witness quite a bit of diplomacy between the three main alien players.  In the end Carl, the Luind leader and the Sleele leader work together to trick the computer running the Deean ship to fly back home, which totally ruins the Deeans' plans (the ship won't be back for 100 years.) Van Vogt suggests that all three of them are acting not in the interests of the people of Earth, but in order to further their relationships with Marie, Silver, and other women.        

Despite the alien takeover plot, Earth Factor X is about gender roles and sex; maybe the title is a reference to the X chromosome?  The prologue of the novel is a "Special Report" from the alien "Galactoid-Embrid Institute" to members of the Deean invasion force.  The subject of the report is "Human Women" and it asserts "It is agreed by all: women of earth have to be experienced to be believed.  In the entire universe there seems to be no female quite so complex and unpredictable."  The aliens lament that their failures to conquer Earth have been the result of neglecting to take the human female into account.

Because he is a disembodied brain that can't have sex, Hazzard, who has been obsessed with sex since his youth and has had nearly 200 sex partners, is wracked by doubts about his manhood.  Before he was "murdered," Hazzard was writing a book on "the whole mystery of women's behavior," inspired by his own difficult sexual relationship with Marie.  This work, entitled Women Are Doomed, was never published, but Hazzard had a copy bound and he shared its wisdom with his friends. One female friend wrote a rejoinder, Men Are Doomed.   Van Vogt treats us to sample aphorisms from both of them:
"A large part of a woman's brainwashing includes a set of assumptions that men do the risky things that have to be done in this world....So long as a woman, or women, permit such attitudes to control them, she will deliver sex as a payment and never as a gift."
"The terrifying neurosis of the Real Man is that he wants what he can't have, and doesn't want what he can." 
Earth Factor X is full of discussions between men about women and sexual relations (or as Hazzard puts it, "the man-woman thing"), and conversations between male characters which reveal that all of them, be they alien spies, cops, scientists, whatever, live lives that revolve around their relationships with their wives and girlfriends. There are similar conversations between women which indicate the primacy of men in their lives. We also get Marie's internal monologues about her own sexual encounters, and flashbacks to Carl and Marie's marriage.

I'm not sure to what extent Van Vogt is endorsing the ideas about male and female psychology and sociology put forward by Carl and the other characters, and to what extent he is challenging them.  Carl is kind of a jerk, and misjudges Marie, which calls into question the value of the wisdom to be found in his book.

So, is this book any good?  I don't think I can recommend Earth Factor X on its merits.  I don't feel like I wasted my own time reading it because I am curious about Van Vogt's crazy career, but I doubt it will appeal to the typical person, someone who reads SF books in hopes of finding adventure, excitement, jokes, good writing, or unusual new ideas.

Van Vogt is to be commended for using science fiction as a vehicle to talk about gender and sex, but nothing he has to say is particularly groundbreaking; women like to spend [other people's] money, men are obsessed with sex, women like to get attention, men get bored of having sex with the same woman, women are attracted to ruthless powerful men, and playing hard to get is an effective sexual strategy, are all things we've heard before.  And it's not as if Van Vogt is a Somerset Maugham or a Vladimir Nabokov, someone with a good writing style who can create memorable characters and thus pull our heartstrings with timeworn plots about marital infidelity and sexual frustration.  The writing in Earth Factor X is poor; half or more of its sentences could be rewritten profitably, and this time Van Vogt doesn't have the excuse he had in Computer Eye, that he is writing in the voice of a nonhuman.

This one is for Van's devoted fans only, and people new to Van Vogt should start with Isher and Rull stuff, and Voyage of the Space Beagle.

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Perhaps in keeping with the sex theme, my edition of Earth Factor X includes an ad for the DAW editions of John Norman's books, including Norman's sex manual and guide to "the man-woman thing," Imaginative Sex.

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In our next installment, Van Vogt again tackles the tough issues!  We'll be looking at 1973's Future Glitter, perhaps better known to our British friends as Tyrannopolis.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The House that Stood Still by A. E. Van Vogt

"What's all this about?  Who are those people who were whipping you?"
"Oh--" she shrugged.  "Members of a club."
"What kind of a club?"
"The most exclusive club in the world," she said, and laughed softly.


The House That Stood Still first was unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1950, as a hardcover.  Since then it has appeared under numerous titles and in numerous forms. Its second publication was an abridged version in a 1951 issue of Detective Book magazine, and the novel includes much of the apparatus of a hard-boiled detective mystery.  There are murder investigations, drugged drinks, stakeouts, lists of suspects, and a protagonist who has a contentious relationship with the D.A. and who drives around town interrogating people and rifling through desk drawers looking for clues. In the final scene the hero gathers together all the characters to announce who the murderer is.  But this still is an A. E. Van Vogt story, so we also get immortals, mind readers, ray guns, space craft, and revelations of the secret cabal that hides in the shadows, pulling the strings.

This weekend I read the 1968 Paperback Library edition.  The description on the back is quite misleading--there are no "indestructible aliens" and there is no "catastrophe that threatened to obliterate the universe from the heavens."  I don't even know what "obliterate the universe from the heavens" means.

Allison Stephens is our hero.  A strapping veteran of the Pacific War (like Mike Hammer), Stephens studied law after the war and is now representing Tannahill, a guy who owns lots of real estate in a little sea side town in California.  One of the buildings owned by Tannahill is a mysterious house made of marble that is over a thousand years old, known as "the Grand House."

Despite what you see on the covers,
Mistra Lanett is blonde
Like those Mickey Spillane novels, The House that Stood Still has its salacious elements.  The indispensable website for Van Vogt fans, icshi.net, suggests that some or all of this erotic material was added to the novel for a 1960 version entitled The Mating Cry.  Within the first ten pages Stephens is busting into one of the rooms in an office building Tannahill owns to find that a bunch of weirdos with a taste for pre-Columbian art have tied up a beautiful blonde, stripped her to the waist, and are whipping her bare back.  A few pages later she is offering her body to Stephens as a reward for rescuing her (he accepts the offer).

This woman, Mistra Lanett, is no damsel in distress.  Instead, she is a femme fatale, one of the group of immortals who are all hanging around the Grand House.  These jokers all have access to high technology, including "night vision glasses," energy pistols that shoot "needle beams," masks which make you indistinguishable from the person you want to impersonate, and space ships.  Like Empress Innelda in The Weapon Makers, Lanett is a woman with lots of power and limited scruples, who has realized that what she really wants out of life is a husband and children.  When it comes to husband material, Stephens fits the bill.  But first, she has a test for him.

Lanett and the other immortals face a dilemma: they are aware that an enemy nation plans to launch a devastating nuclear attack on the United States later in the year, so they have to decide whether to stay on Earth or flee to their base on Mars.  Lanett wants to use her space ship to launch a preemptive strike on the enemy in the next few days, destroying their nuclear bombs while they are still in the factories and warehouses, before they are distributed to the submarines and bombers.  Operating a space ship on a strategic bombing mission is tough work (who knew?) so she wants her dreamboat Stephens to accompany her on her ship.  If he joins the mission, she promises to make him immortal and to love him forever.  But should he trust her? Does he want to risk getting shot out of the sky?  Could he live with the deaths of hundreds of civilians, in an undeclared private war, on his conscience?

(For some reason Van Vogt doesn't finger the Soviet Union as the country which is going to nuke America into oblivion, but the fictional country of "Lorillia."  The Lorillians, Lanett tells Stephens, have "the most powerful anti-aircraft defense in the world."  It's an odd choice, considering that I assumed the novel was set in the early 1950s, when it was written, a time when few countries were manufacturing nuclear weapons and had fleets of submarines and strategic bombers to deliver them.)

Everything in this 159-page book is confusing and crazy.  For example, Tannahill, one of the immortals, has amnesia because he was shot in the head two years ago; at the start of the novel he has just arrived in town from a hospital back east. While in the hospital he had dreams of being buried alive, which of course were not dreams at all--the other immortals were using him as a decoy, shuttling his unconscious body between a New York hospital and a California graveyard for use at a funeral.  I also didn't quite understand where the immortals got their high-tech equipment; none of those we meet seems to be a physicist or engineer.

Anyway, the basic plot behind all the confusion turns out to be this: in ancient times an alien robot star ship crashed in California.  The telepathic "robot brain" convinced the local people, Stone Age Indians, to help repair the ship.  So that the Indians would live forever (it takes a long time to fix a star ship, apparently), the robot brain applied a radioactive treatment to the marble structure he directed the Indians to build above the buried ship.  This special radioactivity keeps whoever resides in the Grand House forever young.  Over the centuries various people, like Lanett, the daughter of a Roman official in 3rd century Britain, ended up at the Grand House, which became the scene of various struggles between those who realized that it conferred immortality on its residents.  In one such struggle Tannahill, then a conquistador called Tanequila the Bold, seized the house and killed most of the Indians.  (After reading this book I can't get that Procul Harum song out of my head.)  During the period of the novel there are 53 immortals, and one of the few surviving Indians, Tezlacodanal, is trying to wrest control of the Grand House from the others, which leads to the wounding of Tannahill and the murders Stephens is trying to solve.  Tezlacodanal has an advantage over the whites, because none of the whites realize there is an alien star ship buried underneath the house; in fact, Tezlacodanal wants to use the alien craft to rule the world!

In the end, Stephens finds the ancient star ship, and working with the robot brain, eliminates Tezlacodanal and stabilizes the whole situation.  He and Lannett marry, and he hopes to give to the world the gift of immortality and to explore the universe with the robot.

Take that, Lorillia!
I didn't enjoy The House that Stood Still nearly as much I did the two Isher books.  For one thing, I'm not crazy about complicated mystery stories, trying to keep track of all the suspects and motives and clues and all that.  (I'm not even sure why the book is called The House that Stood Still; maybe you should take my interpretation of the plot above with a grain of salt!)  Secondly, the Isher books have a fascinating setting and address interesting ideological issues, which this novel does not.

The material in The House that Stood Still provides Van Vogt opportunities to engage the emotions of the reader, but he does not take them. Stephens does not participate in the attack on the enemy nuclear facilities, and the air raid takes place "off screen" and succeeds even without his help.  Why include the war stuff at all if the war is won without the main character's participation, and if he gets the girl without taking the risk and making the sacrifice she asked of him?  Van Vogt drains the excitement out of both the atomic war plot and the sexual relationship plot right there.

Tezlacodanal could have been an interesting villain, a man driven by a lust for power/and or passion for vengeance on the Europeans who destroyed his people and stole their life-giving building, but this guy almost never appears "on screen."  (I guess this is partly because a convention of murder mysteries is that the murderer's identity is kept secret til the end.)  Similarly, Van Vogt doesn't spend any time making the two people who got murdered, a black groundskeeper and an elevator operator, anything more than props, so we don't really care that they got killed or whether their killer is brought to justice.

I am going to have to give The House that Stood Still the all-to-common "barely acceptable" rating.  A disappointment after the Isher books, to be sure.

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The last page of my copy of The House that Stood Still is an ad for No Right To Bear Arms by Carl Bakal, which (apparently) argues that the government should strictly control who is permitted to own firearms.  I thought this an amusing choice for an ad in a book by Van Vogt, in whose famous The Weapon Shops of Isher is expressed the sentiment "The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free."

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The Van Vogt marathon at MPorcius Fiction Blog continues!  In our next installment, the 1974 novel The Secret Galactics, in its 1976 DAW edition, which appeared under the title Earth Factor X!      

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Weapon Makers by A. E. Van Vogt

Before Hedrock could explain the simple elements of human nature involved, the titanic thunder raged down again at his mind:

"MAN, WHY DID YOU RISK YOUR LIFE SO THAT OTHER HUMAN BEINGS CAN GO TO THE STARS?  AND WHY DO YOU WANT TO GIVE THE SECRET OF IMMORTALITY TO OTHERS?"


Like many of his stories, the publication history of A. E. Van Vogt's body of work can be quite confusing.  The Weapon Makers is considered a sequel to The Weapon Shops of Isher (it appears after The Weapon Shops of Isher in omnibus editions of the two novels, for example) but The Weapon Makers appeared in book form before The Weapon Shops of Isher did, and it was serialized in three issues of Astounding in 1943, years before one of the component stories of The Weapon Shops of Isher appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949.  I guess what matters is that the events recounted in The Weapon Makers take place seven years after those described in The Weapon Shops of Isher.

Greenberg's fun logo
I own a hardcover copy of The Weapon Makers, published by Greenberg in 1952.  This is a revised edition; apparently the text is different from the text in the 1943 serial and the 1947 hardcover edition by Hadley.  This week, immediately after reading its predecessor, I cracked open the 63-year old volume.

In The Weapon Shops of Isher we met Hedrock, a relatively minor character who was, secretly from everybody, immortal.  Hedrock is a big wig in the Weapon Shop hierarchy, and in The Weapon Makers he is our main protagonist.  We learn he became immortal thousands of years ago in a freak accident related to a technique that physically enlarges living things.  Over the centuries since, he has killed thousands of rats in experiments (don't tell the folks at PETA!), trying to duplicate the accident so he can offer immortality to the entire human race (don't tell the folks at ZPG!)

Over the course of The Weapon Makers we learn some of the many things Hedrock has been up to in his long life, each of them dedicated to the purpose of guiding the human race to a finer future.  Hedrock, for example, founded the Weapons Shops which have served to limit the excesses of a tyrannical government, and has often married and fathered members of the House of Isher, the rulers of that government.

Hedrock, who in the novel often performs as a super spy and super detective, has insinuated himself into the court of Empress Innelda, but in the first chapters of the book both the Empress and the Weapon Shops become suspicious of him--Innelda orders him executed at once, and the Council of the Weapon Shops eventually comes around to her belief that Hedrock must die.  Hedrock finds himself on the run from both of the powerful institutions that dominate the Empire of Isher.

That artillery piece is a mere
"ninety-thousand cycle unit"
Our main plot concerns the fact that a small team of scientists, independent of both the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops, have developed an interstellar drive.  Innelda wants to stifle this development, because she knows that her subjects will flee her rule as soon as they can get out of the Solar System.  The Weapon Shops want the secret of this invention revealed to the people.  Hedrock is right there in the thick of things when a criminal who has stolen the interstellar ship from the scientists hides it in plain sight in the middle of Imperial City, and the Empress's army, backed up by heavy energy artillery ("one-hundred-million cycle guns") storms the vessel.  Hedrock makes use of the interstellar drive and escapes to the far reaches of outer space, where he meets powerful aliens that look like spiders.

These aliens are totally lacking in any emotion and absolutely selfish, and send Hedrock back to Earth in order to study him.  As the incredulous spider people observe, Hedrock, Innelda, and other people take risks and make sacrifices in the interests of abstract causes and their fellow human beings.

In the Earthbound climax of the story, Hedrock uses that growth technique to make himself 150 feet tall and, reminding me of my favorite sequence from Little Nemo in Slumberland as well as my beloved Godzilla, marches through dozens of cities, smashing buildings and demanding that Innelda release the secret of the interstellar drive.  All the while Innelda's flying navy pursues him, blasting away with their batteries of energy cannon.  (Libertarian readers take heart: before launching this act of Brobdingnagian terrorism Hedrock has memorized the locations of the many businesses he has secretly acquired and developed over the centuries, and so all the buildings he is kicking over are his own!  And he attacks on the weekend when nobody is at work!)  This scene took me by surprise, even though Van Vogt had cleverly foreshadowed it and it appears on the cover of Italian edition of the book.

Hedrock the Immortal is probably a better title
 for the novel than The Weapon Makers

Perhaps just as startling, in the same chapter as the kaiju scene it is revealed why Empress Innelda has been making so much trouble for everybody by launching her costly attacks on the Weapon Shops: she is sexually frustrated!  Luckily, there's a cure for that--marry the man she has loved against her own will since she met him: Hedrock!  (Don't expect to see a glowing notice of The Weapon Makers in the book review section of Ms. anytime soon.)

Having a husband, and the prospect of having children, revolutionizes Innelda's whole psychology.  But tragedy strikes nine months after Hedrock and Innelda's wedding--suffering through a catastrophically difficult childbirth, Innelda must choose to sacrifice the baby, or herself.  Determined that the bloodline of Isher continue to hold the throne, she dies that her child with Hedrock might live.  

In the novel's final "sensawunda" paragraph the spider people, having witnessed the altruism and love they have never before encountered among any other civilization, realize that the human race is the greatest of all intelligent species and will someday rule the universe.  (At least I think that is what the mysterious final sentence of the novel means.) 

Full to bursting with ray guns, rocket ships, time travel, space aliens, mental powers, declasse political and psychological theories, and bizarre plot twists, The Weapon Makers is very entertaining.  And I have to admit that, having read and seen so much SF that argues that humans are a bunch of jerks and aliens or elves (or even Neanderthals!) are our superiors and should be telling us what to do, I enjoyed the ending which asserted that humans are the greatest thing in the universe.

A brilliant example of Golden Age SF, with all the characteristic elements people love or hate about the SF of the '40s and '50s.

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My next read: A Van Vogt novel from the same period of his career as the Isher books, The House That Stood Still.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. Van Vogt

"These men," she said, "go around surreptitiously using transparencies.  The first thing they discover is if you're wearing a weapon shop gun.  Then they leave you strictly alone."
Cayle's face hardened.  "Could I borrow yours?" he asked tautly.  "I'll show those skunks."
The girl shrugged.  "Weapon shop guns are tuned to individuals," she said.  "Mine wouldn't work for you.  And besides, you can use it only for defense." 



The Weapon Shops of Isher, first published in book form as a hardcover in 1951, is a fix-up of three stories from the 1940s, "Seesaw" and "The Weapon Shop," which appeared in Astounding, and "The Weapon Shops of Isher," which saw light in Thrilling Wonder Stories. (Back in late 2013 I read the version of "The Weapon Shop" which was reprinted in M33 In Andromeda in 1971.)  Early this week I read the Ace paperback printing of the novel (# 87855) from 1969 with the quite cool cover illustration by John Schoenerr.  The Weapon Shops of Isher has been reprinted many times, and served as the inspiration for numerous impressive illustrations; two of my faves are below.

Seven thousand years in the future the Solar System is ruled by the House of Isher, which sits atop a corrupt and decadent bureaucracy.  The young Empress Innelda is the latest in this long line of tyrants, and she is not happy with the status quo.  Her family has ruled for over four thousand years, but for some three thousand of those years a second power center has existed which has served to limit the depredations of the Isher government: the Weapon Shops.  The Weapon Shops sell to honest citizens small arms which are "the finest in the known universe," ray guns with integrated force fields that are proof against the government's own ray guns.  Thusly armed, a person is more or less safe from both government interference and from the many criminals the incompetent and corrupt police force is unable or unwilling to control. Dedicated to a policy of non-aggression, the Weapon Shops won't directly overthrow the government, but act as a check on its many abuses.  Over time the weapon makers hope to educate the masses and improve public morals such that a more just government will evolve.  Innelda hopes to repair her Empire by radical action, first destroying the Weapon Shops and thus increasing her own power, and then instituting reforms of the government and culture herself.

Based as it is on three separate stories, this novel follows three main plot threads; these are somewhat interwoven, but for the most part the tales of C. J. MacAllister, Fara Clark and Cayle Clark are confined to their own chapters, and the narrative periodically switches between these threads.

The heart of the novel, and its philosophical core, is the tale of Fara Clark, which was told in the 1942 story "The Weapon Shop." Fara, a small businessman in a small town, starts out the novel as the most dedicated of adherents to the Empress's cult of personality, and gradually learns of her, and his society's, corruption and decadence.  As a result he becomes a customer and supporter of the Weapon Shops.  It is in these chapters that Van Vogt presents his philosophical points ("The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to Be Free" and "People always have the kind of government they want") and the most realistic and literary character in the novel, Clark himself.

The MacAllister plot thread, I am assuming from "Seesaw," is the briefest, and serves to ground the story in the present day and add the climactic "sense of wonder" these old SF works often strive for.  Empress Innelda hopes to crush the Weapon Shops, which prevent her from achieving totalitarian power, but the Shops are rendered practically invulnerable by technology far superior to that of the government, like their teleporters and force fields. At last the Empress' scientists have developed a form of energy that can blow away the Weapons Shops.  A bizarre side effect of the use of this new energy is to suck a man from the past, 1951 to be exact, into the present of the novel. This poor sap, reporter C. J. MacAllister, finds himself in a Weapon Shop, charged with so much "time-energy" that, should he touch anything that isn't properly insulated, he will explode with enough force to destroy the Earth.

The Weapon Shop personnel put MacAllister in an insulating space suit and sending him bouncing back and forth through time.  In a way I could not begin to understand, MacAllister acts as the weight on one end of a lever ("seesaw") of time energy, with the colossal generator that powers the Empress's new war machines on the other end. While MacAllister shifts back and forth in time, so does the generator building, which appears and disappears at intervals, buying time for the Weapon Shop boffins to develop a defense against the Empress' new weapon.  With each bounce MacAllister is hurled further forward in time or further back in time, until he is floating in space in time periods during which the Solar System is long decayed, or yet to be born.  In the mind-blowing final paragraph of the novel, we learn that it is the explosion of MacAllister at the dawn of time that created the Solar System in the first place!

The lengthiest sections of the novel come from the 1949 novella, "The Weapon Shops of Isher."  These chapters serve to add action and sex to the novel, and follow Fara Clarke's son, the somewhat listless Cayle, who has been living at home in his twenties but refuses to work at his father's repair shop.  Cayle leaves his family's little home town for Imperial City, where he experiences first hand how exploitative and inefficient the government is.  For example, while flying to Imperial City he is robbed by the crooks that the government monopoly airships tolerate (because the government gets a cut from the thieves.)

Cayle is a "callidetic," which means he is very lucky (shades of Larry Niven!) and the Weapon Shop's high council suspects he will become important in their struggle with the Empress.  They assign a resourceful and attractive woman, Lucy Rall, to watch over him, and Cayle, a hick from the sticks, definitely needs someone to watch over him in that hive of scum and villainy we call Imperial City!  Lucy and Cayle fall in love while she shows him around town, and then she spends a lot of time and energy doing detective stuff, trying to find him once he's been kidnapped.  Lucy discovers that Cayle has been put to work at "The House of Illusion," an establishment that amounts to a bordello that caters to older women who desire the company of young men.  Lucy infiltrates the House of Illusion, but before she can rescue Cayle he gets shipped to the frontier world of Mars to work as a laborer!

In the end Cayle, hardened by his experiences in the big city (like being whipped in the House of Illusion) has the audacity to get his ass back to Earth and into the Imperial court, where he makes cunning use of time travel to neuter the Empress' new super weapon, save the Weapon Shops, make himself rich, and marry Lucy.

My favorite parts of the novel, beyond the material in the original "The Weapon Shop" story, are probably the descriptions of life in the decadent metropolis of Imperial City.  Van Vogt tells us all about the futuristic devices (energy drinks, hand-held lie detectors and x-ray machines, air taxis, solar power, etc.) there and the innumerable skyscrapers, like the 80-story-tall men's clothier which occupies three city blocks.  There you can buy a swimsuit or a ski parka, and then use them on the artificial indoor beach or ski slope encompassed within the store's vast acreage.  The House of Illusion scenes are also quite good.  Van Vogt succeeds in making the strange Empire of Isher come to life.      

The Weapon Shops of Isher is a classic of Golden Age SF, full of crazy ideas and plot twists that are all a lot of fun.  It is also recognized as an important text in the history of libertarian SF, having been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2005. Definitely worth the time of the classic SF fan.

Next up, the second novel of the Isher saga, The Weapon Makers.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Path of the Hero by Dave Wolverton

"All the Pwi, they are already enslaved by love and fear, and since they were born slaves, we do no wrong when we put chains on them."


At the end of Dave Wolverton's 1991 Serpent Catch we learned that not only were the Slave Lords about to conquer the last of the free people of the moon Anee, but that the ecology of the world was so out of whack that the bio-mechanical Creators were going to exterminate everybody and start over!  Tull, the half-Neanderthal, half-human hero, and his friends, foremost among them the thousand-year old blue-skinned superhuman, have their work cut out for them!  The sequel, Path of the Hero, relates their world-shattering struggle to save their world and open up the stars.

It appears that in 2014 Wolverton heavily revised the Serpent Catch-Path of the Hero sequence, turning it into four books, none of which is titled Path of the Hero.  But, as I did twenty years ago, this week I read the original paperback of Path of the Hero, published in 1993, the year of the World Trade Center bombing, "Black Hawk down!," Colin Ferguson, and (finally some good news!) the release of my beloved Doom.

Path of the Hero isn't as lavish a production as Serpent Catch was.  Besides the raised metallic lettering on its cover, Serpent Catch had a cool silhouette decoration by Derek Hegstead on the first page of each chapter, and a nice map.  Somehow, the sequel lacks all these features.  So, in honor of Mr. Hegstead, and to adorn this blog post, I have jumped into the breach and produced some two-tone decorations of my own!

T-Rex hunting hadrosaur (Chapter 1)
Path of the Hero picks up where Serpent Catch left off.  Back home in the fishing town of Smilodon Bay, Tull marries Fava, a Neanderthal (AKA "Pwi") woman, and on their honeymoon they rescue a runaway slave from his pursuers.  The refugee galvanizes Smilodon Bay to begin preparations for a final showdown with the ever-expanding slave empire.

Tull is a bone of contention between Chaa, Tull's father-in-law and the town's greatest Spirit Walker, and the blue man.  Chaa begins training Tull to be a Spirit Walker, while the blue man wants Tull to embrace his human heritage and study science and technology, so one day humanity can return to outer space.  The blue man also fears that Tull, who is very bitter about the Slave Lords, lacks the emotional maturity to become a Spirit Walker--the powers of a Spirit Walker are not to be used as a weapon!  (They always say this kind of thing in Star Wars about the Force and in martial arts movies about karate, even though we only watch those movies to see the hero use his powers to beat the hell out of the villain and massacre his countless minions.)  A few hundred years ago a Pwi with spirit potential like Tull's, a friend of the blue man's, lead a revolution against the slavers but instead of liberating everybody he made himself the dictator of the world, and the blue man doesn't want to go through that again!

Before Smilodon Bay can get ready and Tull can complete his Jedi--I mean Spirit Walker--training, the Slave Lord army attacks and the whole town is burned to the ground.  Most of the population, including Tull, is enslaved.  I was again reminded of Star Wars when the Slave Lords, instead of summarily executing Tull when they realize he's the world's best fighter and has unlimited potential as a Spirit Walker, try to convince him to join their evil army.  

In tried and true adventure fiction tradition, Tull fights in the arena.  The blue man leads an assault on the capitol of the slave empire which fails and he is captured.  Both Tull and the blue man, like so many other divine figures in our culture (e.g., Jesus, Gandalf, and Spock) die and come back to life with the aid of Pwi spirit power and human super technology.  Chaa and Fava rescue Tull and the blue man, and the novel climaxes with the blue man setting off a volcanic eruption that destroys the Creators and Tull achieving psychic communion with every intelligent being on the moon and in orbit around it.  This brief period of collective consciousness leads to the abolition of slavery and the lifting of the alien blockade of the moon: the people of Anee are liberated!  

Ironclad slave ship sails through the night (Chapter 7)
In Serpent Catch it wasn't hard to think of all the Spirit Walking stuff as just psychic phenomena and barbarians' superstition, so that the novel was still solidly science fiction.  But Path of the Hero dials up the supernatural quotient all the way to 13. There are long scenes in which Tull and others travel through the spirit world either to "connect" with each other via "fronds" or fight each other with "tentacles."  The Spirit Walkers can see everybody's soul, which has a good component (lightning) and an evil component (a "hollow.")  After a bungled spirit walk the inexperienced Tull, back in the material world, is attacked by a poltergeist which throws him against the ceiling, brings a bearskin rug to life, and destroys his father-in-law's hovel.  Good mystics and evil sorcerers routinely hold conversations with the souls of the dead and enlist their aid in battling their enemies.

For me, the scenes in the spirit world were too long and too detailed; this stuff is more believable (and less tedious) if it is kept mysterious and vague.  Also, all the earlier spirit world scenes weaken the novelty of the final climactic one.

Struggle in the spirit world (Chapter 8)
As in Serpent Catch, in this novel we witness stabbings, beatings, shootings, tortures, and executions galore, plus a healthy(?) dose of S&M-flavored sex:
Chulata smiled at him.  "You will undress me and give me my bath," she said, her voice cold, commanding.  "You will do it gently, as if I were your lover."
In Serpent Catch the female characters were mostly sex objects and villains, so people who like to see assertive female characters in their novels will be pleased to find that in Path of the Hero Tull's wife and a human girl who writes love poetry enjoy opportunities equal to the men's to put on disguises and murder slavers in their sleep or stab them in the back, and that Fava and the versifier play pivotal roles in saving the world.

Another difference from its predecessor, and I think a real improvement, is how in Path of the Hero we get a view of what life is like for soldiers of the slave empire. Several Neanderthals high in the ranks of the Slave Lords' armies are characters, and we listen in on their internal monologues and get to hear their point of view. Wolverton's Neanderthals are very emotional and sentimental--we are told that Neanderthals think with their hearts, while humans think with their heads.  (This is because, Wolverton tells us, a Neanderthal's hypothalamus is three times the size of a human's.)  To survive in the merciless slave empire's bureaucracy, the Neanderthal army officers and sorcerers who serve the Slave Lords have to painfully stifle their natural inclinations to express love and experience fear.  I actually thought these tormented characters were more interesting than the goody-two-shoes women from Smilodon Bay.

The Tomb of Theron Major (Chapter 10)
All in all, this is a good adventure story with well-developed characters that touches on topics that readers are likely to find interesting or appealing.  Sure, there's all kinds of violence and sex, but Wolverton also presents such elements as a stone-age matriarchal vegetarian tribe.  In the Pwi he seems to be trying to evoke the history and culture of Native Americans and African-Americans.  Wolverton also uses this long story of cataclysmic war as a way to talk about philosophical questions like "What kind of ambitions should an individual, and a society, pursue?  What sort of life is worth living?"

I'm happy to recommend Path of the Hero.

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

Reading Path of the Hero, I couldn't help but wonder what changes Wolverton made to it for the 2014 "repackaging" which appears under his "David Farland" pseudonym.  There are some oddities, like giving an old man in Path of the Hero the same name as a young woman who appears in Serpent Catch, that it would make sense to eliminate, but I'm mostly curious if the new version is more or less gory, salacious, and/or mystical.

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

On the last page of my Bantam Spectra edition of Path of the Hero is an ad for the oeuvre of Sherri Tepper, about whom I know nothing. 


      

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Serpent Catch by Dave Wolverton

"Tull, I know you believe that we will sell ourselves to the humans, and this bothers you.  But my father is a Spirit Walker.  Someday, he says, we shall be their teachers.  We shall overthrow the Slave Lords."

After graduating from Rutgers University, and before moving to New York, I spent nearly three years working at a bookstore in Northern New Jersey for minimum wage. During this period of my life I read mostly books I thought would prepare me for the study of 18th century British history, but I did read some science fiction novels I borrowed from local libraries.  The SF book that most impressed me during this time was Dave Wolverton's On My Way to Paradise.  I then read Wolverton's Serpent Catch and its sequel Path of the Hero.  Since moving to the Mid West I have purchased all three at used bookstores.  I can still recall quite a bit about On My Way to Paradise, so a few days ago I decided to reread Serpent Catch, curious because I could remember very little about it.

Googling around a little indicates that last year Wolverton released revised or reworked versions of Serpent Catch and Path of the Hero, but I am reading the Bantam Spectra paperbacks from the early 1990s.  Serpent Catch was published in 1991, and has a fun map and illustrations by Derek Hegstead, including silhouettes on the first page of each chapter.

Serpent Catch is set in the distant future on Anee, a moon 2,000 light years from Earth.  Over a thousand years before the novel starts, Earth scientists employed genetic engineering to recreate dinosaurs, mastodons, Neanderthals, and other prehistoric creatures, and populated Anee with them.  When hostile aliens destroyed all the Earth's space craft, humans had to hide on the surface of Anee and interact with their creations. Some humans allied with the Neanderthals, but others enslaved them and built a world-spanning slave empire.

Slavery is a major theme of the novel

Anee, full of prehistoric beasts, primitive tribes, genetically engineered monsters, and almost-forgotten technological cities and artifacts, is a brilliant setting for an adventure story.  And Serpent Catch does follow the format of a traditional adventure story, in which the world is going through major changes (for the worse), and a misfit who has some sort of special skill or attribute turns out to be the chosen one who must go on a quest to counteract these changes and save his society.  The human and Neanderthal town of Smilodon Bay is in trouble, because the sea serpents, who were designed by the scientists centuries ago to keep the rapacious Mesozoic animals from swimming from their continent to the Cenozoic continent where Smilodon Bay resides, are dying out.  If plesiosaurs and dinosaurs can swim to Smilodon Bay they will ruin the local ecosphere and hence the fishing-based economy, and leave the town vulnerable to the slavers who control most of the continent.  Our hero is Tull, who is half human and half Neanderthal and has had a difficult home life, and long been regarded by the people of the town as "a man without a people."  A Neanderthal mystic (a "Spirit Walker") declares that only Tull can travel into the evil land of the slavers to capture baby sea serpents to bring back to Smilodon Bay, so off Tull goes with a motley assortment of human, Neanderthal, and superhuman friends.

Superhuman?  Yes; a small number of humans on the moon still have artificial genetic traits possessed by the spacefaring Earthlings who originally terraformed Anee.  One minor human character, a merchant, can do complex math in his head instantly; this skill allows him to predict the changes in Anee's apparently erratic tides so that his ships can cross the seas more safely and swiftly than his rivals.  A major human character has blue skin, is almost seven feet tall, and has lived for centuries, thanks to his access to advanced technologies.  He has traveled the moon for ages, trying to enforce laws against importing dinosaurs to the Cenozoic continent and against slavery, and to prepare the people of Anee for an eventual return to space.

Blue man says pet stegosaurus is a no-no

In a lot of SF books the author will express his displeasure with humanity by contrasting humans with some nonhuman race, aliens or elves or whoever.  There is also a literary tradition of using "noble savages," American Indians for example, as foils for Europeans/whites/Westerners, in an effort to show how selfish, greedy, and indifferent to the environment "modern" people are.  In Serpent Catch, the Neanderthals (who call themselves "the Pwi") play this role.  While humans are ambitious and aggressive, individualistic and cruel, the Neanderthals are always smiling, always expressing affection for each other, live as one with the environment and for their families and communities. Here's a sample from page 46 of this 411 page novel:
Years ago, he'd realized that humans always seem to tell stories of conquest, of men who bulldog mammoths into the ground and slaughter each other in battle, but the Pwi always seemed to tell stories about reconciliation.  

There is quite a bit of sex in Serpent Catch, and we learn that the Pwi are monogamous and marry for life; Neanderthal widows and widowers generally die of grief soon after the demise of their spouses.  The humans in the book are all adulterers who crave rough sex (the Pwi like tender sex.) The Neanderthal families are all models of amity and devotion, while the human families are dysfunctional, either indifferent or brutal.

I often find this sort of thing hard to take, but Wolverton doesn't push it too far; Serpent Catch isn't a propaganda piece or a broad satire, but an epic quest story with three-dimensional characters.  The Neanderthal and human characters all feel real and the focus is on the adventure elements and on Tull's growth as a person, how he learns about his world and himself, and his place in that world.  By the end of the novel Tull is fully integrated into Pwi society, with a loving Pwi wife (though on his journey he had a variety of erotic encounters with females human and non-human) and Smilodon Bay has a new batch of sea serpents.  However, Tull and the blue man have also learned of even more catastrophic threats to the free people of Anee, setting the stage for the sequel.  

Serpent Catch is stuffed full of weird settings, strange creatures and dramatic incidents of sex, violence, and horror.  (Maybe it could count as "grim dark;" people are getting raped, murdered, and tortured all over the place.)  But there is also a lot about hope and love and wisdom of the folksy pro-community variety (the blue man says, "I have always believed that true morality can only arise when we recognize our mutual dependence on one another...," and a venerable Pwi crone tells everyone "Sometimes a pain is so great it cannot be relieved until it is shared.")  Wolverton's many individuals, tribes and ethnicities all have distinct and believable personalities and motivations.  The plot sustained my interest for the entire course of the novel; I was always curious about what was going to happen next, and I actually cared whether or not characters achieved their goals and lived happily ever after (or, like many people in the book, were frustrated, killed by enemies or eaten by monsters.)  Serpent Catch is a superior adventure story, with much of the flavor of a fantasy quest (people fight with swords and arrows and there is plenty of mumbo jumbo including prophecies), but the elements of a science fiction adventure (there are menacing space aliens, genetically engineered monsters, high tech gadgets and lots of biology and ecology) as well as some musings about crime and justice, freedom and responsibility, and family and community.

Strongly recommended to fans of epic adventure tales.  This week I'll read Path of the Hero; I'm hoping to enjoy it as much as I did Serpent Catch.

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

What's that?  You are wondering what other books Bantam Spectra offered to the SF-reading public in early 1991?  I'm glad you asked, for that information is right at my fingertips!


I haven't actually read any of the books advertised on the last two pages of Serpent Catch.  I've read one book each by Timothy Zahn (I think Angelmass) and David Brin (Sundiver) and just thought them OK.  As a teen I loved Weis and Hickman's first six Dragonlance books, starring depressed wizard Raistlin, who for a year or two was my personal hero and role model.  I have fond memories of reading the first Rama book in junior high, but have not read any of the sequels.  

Friday, January 9, 2015

Future Corruption 3: Elwood, Goldsmith, Sohl & Dozois


Here comes the third and final installment of our examination of corruption and evil with Roger Elwood and ten other toilers in the salt mines of the speculative fiction world of 1975. Four stories today, one each from editor Roger Elwood, Howard Goldsmith (of whom I've never heard), Jerry Sohl, and Gardner Dozois.


Look!  I'm not kidding!
"Feast" by Roger Elwood

This is a boring literary exercise, five pages of images, little prose poems set apart from each other by employing different fonts and strange enjambments and odd punctuation.  The images are of people, in a world facing food shortages, resorting to cannibalism. Who is to blame?  The last line tells the tale: "And we begin the feast that society has forced upon us."

I understand that editors are expected to buy a story from themselves when they put together these anthologies, but at least try to write something that isn't an actual insult to us, for Christ's sake.

A waste of time--I'm not even breaking out the evilometer for this one.
 
"The Last Congregation" by Howard Goldsmith

This story is two pages long.  A robot cleric laments to his robot congregation that religion and secular philosophies have all failed to keep mankind from engaging in a nuclear war that has destroyed civilization.  Then a "neo-Neanderthal" smashes the robots with a club.

Another waste of time.

"Before a Live Audience" by Jerry Sohl

Back in June of last year I read a story by Jerry Sohl, "I am Aleppo," in another anthology edited by Elwood, and didn't care for it.  This will be my second exposure to Sohl's work.

This story was a relief after the crummy Elwood and Goldsmith stories, like coming upon a Greek vase or a Roman sculpture in the art museum after walking by a Jackson Pollack and a Jasper Johns.  Here we have an actual story with characters and a plot that tries to say something about worthwhile topics, like how we may achieve happiness and psychiatric methods.  The story also delivers when it comes to what this anthology is ostensibly about: the characters make moral decisions, and many of them are corrupted by temptations.

Sohl tells the story in flashbacks and journal entries and that kind of thing, but, in brief, here is the plot.  A man arrives in the late 20th century from a utopian future, but accidentally materializes in front of a moving automobile and lands in the hospital. He heals up, but because he doesn't know what the hell is going on (like what year it is or who the president is) he ends up in a mental institution.  The institution is run by a woman who employs novel methods; a follower of Thomas Szasz, she thinks that there is really no such thing as mental illness.  She feels that people who appear mentally ill are simply acting irresponsibly, and through a system of punishments and rewards, she tries to get her patients to change their behavior.  Her methods often achieve success, and she has a high reputation.

The director of the mental institution comes to believe that the time traveler is telling the truth about his origins, and she becomes obsessed with the possibility of travelling to the utopian future, of being happy there.  She resorts to using her methods of punishment to torture the secret of his handheld time machine out of the man from the future, but he refuses to succumb, and dies from her mistreatment.  Later, tinkering with the device, the psychiatrist is transported to ground zero at Hiroshima, seconds before its destruction.

There's more to the story, more details and characters, and none of that material is extraneous or gratuitous, it is all entertaining or adds to the theme of the story. "Before a Live Audience" is seventeen pages long, and each page deserves to be there.

A good story, bravo to Sohl.  After the irritating Elwood and Goldsmith contributions, "Before a Live Audience" has restored my faith in the written word!      

"Before a Live Audience"     Is it good?:  Yes!    Evilometer Reading: High. 


"The Storm" by Gardner Dozois

Dozois is famous as an editor, and also has a good reputation as a writer; SF fan and R.A. Lafferty enthusiast Kevin Cheek has praised him in the comments to this very blog, and I certainly enjoyed Dozois' collaboration with Jack Dann, "Down Among the Dead Men."

"The Storm" is the tale of Paul, an aspiring writer.  The story alternates between two periods of Paul's life.  Half the sections of the 25 page story are about Paul's childhood, the day on which he and his mother pack for a move to Ohio, away from Paul's father and their home in a town on the Atlantic coast.  That very day a big storm rolls in.  The other sections of the story depict Paul's disastrous early adulthood in New York City.  Paul lives in Manhattan, holed up in his apartment, depressed over breaking up with his fiance, severing ties with his best friend, and losing his job.  I lived in Manhattan in the late '90s and the 2000s, and I thought it was beautiful and thrilling, but Dozois, writing in the 1970s, tells us that "Manhattan was a place that fed you hate, contempt, bitterness, and despair...."

Dozois does a good job of describing everything Paul sees and feels; the story is vivid and compelling.  Until the climax, "The Storm" reads like a literary story about a sad life, full of rich description.

Trapped in his dilapidated apartment with no food or water, disgusted by an invasion of cockroaches, Paul becomes so ill and depressed ("partially freed from the bonds of ego") that he achieves a new and elevated state of consciousness!  In touch with his "superconscious," Paul can sense all the things that had, would, and could have happened to him, and to all mankind!  His mind travels back to the day of the storm, a major turning point of his life, and he chooses to experience the worst of all the possible outcomes of that day. Dozois describes in detail how the storm develops into a hurricane that demolishes the seaside town and massacres the town's inhabitants, including Paul himself.

This is a solid, well-written, entertaining story, and I am definitely recommending it. However, the expanded consciousness business does feel a little like it comes out of left field, and I don't think the story addressees the issues of evil and corruption.  Paul has a crummy life, but it just seems the result of incompetence and/or bad luck, nobody seems to be preying upon anybody else.

"The Storm"   Is it good?:      Quite good.     Evilometer Reading: Low.

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

So there it is, Future Corruption, twelve 1975 science fiction stories.   Can I recommend this anthology? There was some half-assed junk from Goldin, Elwood and Goldsmith, but they constitute a small percentage of the book's page count.  Four of the tales I can heartily endorse--the Gloeckner, Lafferty, Sohl, and the Dozois--and the Pronzini, Russ and Lupoff are worthwhile.  (As for the Malzberg stories... well, we've seen better things from him.)  So I can definitely recommend the book as a whole.

All you New Wave and literary SF aficionados will perhaps want a copy, as one of the Malzberg stories and the Lafferty story have never appeared anywhere else.  People interested in portrayals of homosexuality in SF may also want a copy, as Carolyn Gloecker's "Andrew" and J. J. Russ's "Aurelia" have also never been reprinted.  Many of the stories also have as their springboard fears of overpopulation, so if that is your thing, maybe Future Corruption would be a worthwhile purchase.

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

At the back of Future Corruption is an ad for Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men.  As part of my Christmas/New Year's obligations I called my mother on the telephone, and she told me she was planning to read All the President's Men soon. Even though my mother has spent her entire life as a suburban housewife who watches TV all day, she likes to think of herself as a member of the 1960s counter culture and a left-wing activist.  When I told her I had been to South Carolina over the holidays to see in-laws (my mother refused to attend my wedding and has never met any of my in-laws) she exclaimed, "I hate the South!"

"Do they have open carry there?" she inquired.

"I didn't read up on the legislation before I went there," I told her.

"You would have seen the guns!  They bring guns to McDonald's!" Mom assured me, exasperated at my ignorance.  Instead of telling me how disappointed she is in me, as she has on Christmas telephone calls of years past, this year Mom enlivened our one-sided conversation by bitterly complaining about "old white men," who are apparently undoing all the work Mom's fantasy self did back in the '60s (while her physical self was in high school.)  My mother is some kind of genius; she says the same things the grad students and professors back in New York used to say every day, without ever having set foot on a college campus.


Future Corruption also has a page advertising "more exciting science fiction from Warner Paperback Library." Of these thirteen books, I've only read two.  I believe I read the stories to be found in Death Angel's Shadow in the later collection Midnight Sun, about four years ago, but I can't remember anything about them.  These stories are about Kane, Karl Edward Wagner's immortal wizard/warrior anti-hero.  Kane has many fans, but he never struck a chord with me the way Elric, John Carter, Conan, or the Grey Mouser did.  My favorite Wagner story continues to be the brilliant "Sticks."

Back during my New York days I read the Bison Books 2000 edition of M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud.  It felt quite long, but the idea of a guy being the last person on Earth, and deciding to spend his time burning down the world's cities, is pretty cool.

Poul Anderson's oeuvre is so large that I have never even heard of The Virgin Planet.  I also have not heard of Robert Miall or Martin Caidin.  I avoid John Jakes because I thought the first Brak the Barbarian thing I read was terrible, and Ron Goulart because I assume his work is broad satire I will find more annoying than amusing.  I should probably give the famous Philip K. Dick a second chance, but in my New York days I read a novel of his and immediately forgot everything about it, including the title.  I have mixed feelings about Keith Laumer; I thought his portion of Five Fates was alright, but the Retief and Bolo stories I have read have been pretty pedestrian.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Future Corruption 2: Russ, Malzberg and Pronzini

Let's continue our exploration of evil and corruption with Roger Elwood and "science fiction's top writers."  As in our first episode, we'll judge these stories from 1975's Future Corruption based on whether they are successful as entertainment and/or literature, and take a reading on the evilometer, assessing whether they have anything interesting to say about corruption and evil, and the magnitude of the evil they depict. 


“Aurelia” by J. J. Russ

Just a few weeks ago I read J. J. Russ’s short story “Interview” and I thought it was OK.  Like “Interview,” “Aurelia” is a sort of grim joke.

The story takes place in the first two decades of the 21st century. Back in the 1980s the development of a contraceptive virus went awry, creating a plague that killed almost all the women on the Earth. Most men have turned to homosexuality for comfort and sexual satisfaction, but some live lives of lonely celibacy.  One such confirmed heterosexual is our narrator.

Perhaps the only woman left alive is Aurelia, the object of our narrator's obsession. Under the auspices of the National Parks Service, Aurelia performs a striptease several times a day. Seeing as she has a monopoly on the "female sex worker" sector of the economy, she is very popular, and her millions of fans have to make reservations years ahead of time to see her show. Our narrator sees her every three years or so.

Most of the story takes place at the National Monument that serves as Aurelia’s strip club. Russ describes Aurelia’s dance in detail, at a show at the end of the 2000s, and then one in 2011. While in line waiting for the 2011 show an aggressive “transvest” tries to seduce our narrator. When the transvest refuses to take no for an answer and starts groping the narrator, the protagonist punches his harasser.  The transvest then disrupts the show.  In the confusion Aurelia is revealed to be a robot: there are no women left in the world after all! The punchline of the story is when our narrator gets a look at Aurelia’s crotch, and finds an embossed plug which reads “Disney Enterprises.”

(It is always interesting to be reminded of how much counter culture types hate Walt Disney, though I think the Disney joke here pushes the story too far into outlandish farce territory.)

In the last lines of the story we learn that our narrator, after learning the truth about Aurelia, has succumbed to 21st century sexual mores and is now living with a boyfriend.

“Aurelia” isn't a great story, but I'd judge it acceptable as an entertainment.  I’m not sure Russ here successfully addresses the issue of corruption and evil; in his introduction to the anthology, Elwood tells us that “Aurelia” "hits the exploitation of sex--commercialization of a private act to a point of true obscenity," but I'm not buying it.  Is paying to watch a robot stripper worse than paying to see a real woman strip?  Does Elwood think all strip clubs are truly obscene exploitations of sex?  Is paying to watch a robot stripper really morally different than paying to see an attractive woman on a movie screen?  Does Elwood think the careers of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor are truly obscene exploitations of sex? And who is being exploited in these situations, the women or the men, and who is exploiting them?  

"Aurelia"             Is it good?: It's OK                       Evilometer reading: Low



“On the Campaign Trail” by Barry Malzberg

Malzberg's fans know he is very interested in the JFK murder and presidents and political assassinations in general, and includes these elements in many of his stories. This story, a mere four and a half pages, consists of eight numbered paragraphs, each an entry in the journal or diary of the head of security of a politician’s national election campaign. Most of the text concerns attempts to murder the candidate, but the narrator also takes time to mention aspects of his not quite fulfilling love affair and to unleash some metaphors on the reader (“…when I replaced the receiver it was damp with little beads of sweat and saliva that clung to it like aphids.”)

I guess Malzberg is trying to paint a picture of a world gripped by paranoia and political violence, and in that he succeeds. Radicals and insane people are one source of the violence, but establishment institutions, like the police and the political parties, are also capable of political violence. The narrator writes in a cold and clinical style, perhaps to emphasize how “normal” political violence has become, and to suggest that people working for a political campaign are selfish cynics, their apparent dedication to the ideals they espouse just a pose. The description of the narrator's sordid and unfulfilling sexual relationship adds to the bleak picture of a world that has either degenerated, or, has simply stopped bothering to conceal the sad reality behind love and politics.

“On the Campaign Trail”        Is it good?: It's OK. 
Evilometer reading: Moderately high.



“Streaking” by Barry Malzberg (as K. M. O’Donnell)

Malzberg sometimes manages to sell multiple stories to these anthologies by writing some of them under pseudonyms. (Malzberg has three stories in Future City, for example.  Future City was also edited by Elwood, and I sometimes suspect Malzberg gets multiple stories in these things because his friends are trying to shore up his finances.) There is a tradition of this kind of chicanery in science fiction; two of Robert Heinlein's more famous short stories, "Universe" and "Solution Unsatisfactory," both appear in the May 1941 issue of Astounding, the latter under the pen name "Anson MacDonald."

“Streaking” stars a spirit creature (or alien or something?) that can change its appearance and is able to predict the future.  (For the third time today we have a first person narrator.)  This being interviews college students who have run naked across the campus as a stunt; the creature is curious as to why the students are streaking. The being seems disappointed that the students would do something frivolous and pointless instead of committing violence in the name of justice: “’But three years ago you were rioting,’ I say, ‘you were burning the campus as a symbol of injustice and repression. Why this now?’”

The second half of this six page story is about the being’s interaction with a college chaplain. The chaplain gives a sermon on how the streaking is wrong, and the narrator takes the form of a laughing naked man and runs hither and yon through the chapel before vanishing. I don’t know if this is supposed to show how effective a means of epater la bourgeoisie streaking is, or how pointless it is; is the creature embracing the practice of streaking, or mocking it?

I'm not finding “Streaking”'s examination of corruption very persuasive. Is Malzberg suggesting that it is corrupt for the students to be doing something goofy and harmless like streaking instead of something destructive and violent like arson or rioting?  Is he suggesting that streaking is a sign of a lack of idealism?  To my mind such idealism was always a myth; protesters and revolutionaries talk about idealism, but their actions are in the pursuit of selfish psychological or material ends, they do what they do because it is fun to “get in the face” of people you resent and to steal or wreck their things, and/or because they are trying to seize power, privileges and wealth, or protect power, privileges and wealth they already have.  Streaking and burning down the campus have the same source and purpose--they are fun ways for young people to thumb their noses at the establishment (an establishment most 1960s and 1970s students were themselves already, or soon would be, a part of.)

In the same way I didn't get the "commercialization of sex" ideology of "Aurelia," I don't get the "you should burn down the campus" ideology of "Streaking."  And there is not much else to the story, so I'm going to have to give a thumbs down to this one.

"Streaking"                   Is it good?  No.              Evilometer Reading: Low




“Paxton’s World” by Bill Pronzini

Bill Pronzini, oft-times collaborator with Malzberg, hasn't exactly been winning accolades on this here blog, but maybe I’ll like this one?

Paxton lives in the 22nd century; he is a rich man because his father was a pioneer in robot development.  Paxton, however, hates science and technology: "He thought Science was a curse rather than a servant of mankind; he thought it was the direct cause of depersonalization and dehumanization, and that it was responsible for the death of individual freedom."

So, Paxton flees the Earth in a one-man space ship; over the course of the long journey he goes insane.

Paxton finds a planet where he hopes to live a life close to nature, without any science or technology.  The primitive natives worship Paxton as a god, and we see how much of a hypocrite Paxton is (or how insane the trip through space has made him) as he rules over the natives as a merciless dictator, destroying their culture and society to such an extent that they go extinct.  Paxton, the anti-science crusader, has inflicted on the aliens and this virgin planet all the evils he claimed science had foisted on the human race and Earth.  A century after Paxton's death Earth ships land on his planet and it joins all the other human colonized planets as a world dominated by science and technology.

This is the best story of the four I've read today; at least it is directly addressing the issue of evil and corruption in a way that makes some kind of sense.  Pronzini also leaves it up to the reader to decide how much to sympathize with Paxton: is the point of the story that people who complain the loudest about society are often hypocrites who would make an even worse hash of things if given the opportunity?  Or that science and technology are invincible tyrants, corrupting even the most resistant of people?

"Paxton's World"    Is it good?: Moderately good    Evilometer reading: High

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

While not terrible, this batch of stories is a real let down after the first part of the book, which included the superior Lafferty and Gloeckner stories.  Lafferty and Gloeckner provided us believable characters in situations the reader can identify with, in stories that were really about corruption; today's stories are all flat fables with little or no concern for character or emotion, and three of them failed to say much interesting about evil or corruption.

Hopefully the writers represented in our final episode of Future Corruption-- Roger Elwood himself, Howard Goldsmith, Jerry Sohl and Gardner Dozois--can finish up the anthology on a high note.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Future Corruption 1: Lupoff, Gloeckner, Goldin & Lafferty

The world is full of evil, I think we can all agree about that!  (What we can't agree on is exactly who or what is evil; one man's courageous freedom fighter is another man's murderous terrorist, after all.)  If the world is full of evil today, what can we expect to see in the future?  Greater evil? Different evil?  Let's get our pessimism on (the kids still talk that way, right?) with Roger Elwood and a bunch of scribblers the people in the advertising department call "science fiction's top writers" and indulge in some literary speculations about Future Corruption.

Future Corruption, unleashed on the public in 1975, has a gloomy Richard Powers cover (gorgeous reds and purples) that reminds me of Abraham Bosses's famous frontispiece to Hobbes' Leviathan, and text on the back cover that is meant to invoke Anthony's funeral oration from Julius Caesar.  All the stories are new to this collection.  All this is giving me a good vibe.

For fun, let's rate these stories not merely on whether they are entertaining or show literary merit, like we always do, but also on to what extent they further the supposed mission of the anthology, and on the magnitude of the evils they depict.

"Saltzman's Madness" by Richard Lupoff

I recently read Lupoff's novel Sandworld and gave it a mixed review.  "Saltzman's Madness" is actually a decent horror story, but I'm not sure it really belongs in a book that aims to "explore the outer limits of our potential for evil" or "speculate on the spread of corruption" in the future.

This is a longish (over 30 pages), rambling story with quite a few characters. Basically, Saltzman is one of the lead computer programmers at a software firm that makes operating systems.  Saltzman hates wasting time, is in fact with obsessed with using time wisely.  He hates to sleep, he insists on working on documents while riding in the car, and so forth.  One night in the bathroom (!) he has a sort of epiphany, and becomes convinced that there is a lot of time out there that we don't experience, that each minute is actually something like 100 seconds long, and each hour 100 minutes long, but beings from another dimension are using those extra 40 seconds and minutes.

Saltzman talks to a scientist who is doing research on tachyons, and to the office beatnik who talks about how marijuana, LSD and "speed" effect one's "time sense." Finally, Saltzman comes up with the idea that if he listens to Josef Rheinberger's "Organ Concerto in G Minor" through headphones, with the orchestral track and the organ track moving at different speeds, maybe he will be able to access all that extra time that is out there.

(I listened to the rendition of the Concerto at the link above while I wrote this, and have to admit I found it too high pitched; all those high notes pained my poor ears. Maybe the speakers on my laptop are to blame?)

H. P. Lovecraft-style, this experiment drives Saltzman insane and almost summons malevolent monsters to our universe from another dimension--or maybe not almost; could Saltzman's insanity in fact be possession by an alien creature?

Also Lovecraft-style, we know from the first page that Saltzman is in a government funny farm with some kind of multiple personality disorder; the story is almost entirely a flashback.

I enjoyed the story, but if someone complained that it was padded with overly long lectures on Einsteinian time-space theory and illegal drugs, and discussions of computer programming and high end hi-fi equipment, I would be hard pressed to disagree.

So, a thumbs up for "Saltzman's Madness," but a very low reading on the evilometer.

"Saltzman's Madness"   Is the story good?: Moderately good.   Evilometer Reading: Very Low


"Andrew" by Carolyn Gloeckner

Gloeckner has only four entries on isfdb, all for short stories published in the first half of the 1970s.  Googling around suggests that there is a Carolyn Gloeckner who writes biographies of sports figures and adaptations of popular classics for kids, but I don't know if this the same individual.  "Andrew," apparently, is her last published SF story.

"Andrew" reminded me of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as well as episodes from Casanova's memoirs.

A black hole flies through the Solar System, destroying all the planets and exterminating the human race.  Just in time, a space ship leaves Earth with less than 2,000 survivors. The captain of the ship is a homosexual, and the twenty page story is about how he uses his position as captain to seduce a beautiful boy ("His face was childishly rounded, but his features were those of a Greek bust-- classic, symmetrical, elegantly defined.") The boy moves from his family's spartan cubicle where they eat protein bars every day and into the captain's richly appointed quarters where he can drink booze and eat gourmet food.  The captain fears that Andrew Garland's parents will object, but when they come to see him they just extort some extra rations out of him--they have essentially sold their son to the captain for use as a sex toy.

Before moving in with the captain, Andrew was recognized as one of the smartest pupils in the ship, and everyone expected him to become a high officer, even captain. However, access to alcohol and drugs absolutely corrupted him, and he abandoned his studies.  Years later the captain realizes the selfish thing he has done, turning a promising young man, who could have had an exciting and productive career and done a great service to humanity as a leader in the ship, into a parasite.

This is a quite good story.  All the human relations stuff is good, and all the SF stuff is good, and the story and all its scenes are just the correct length--Gloeckner conveys emotion and presents us a clear picture of life in the ship with the minimum amount of verbiage.  And "Andrew" is actually about what this anthology is supposed to be about: corruption.  The captain is corrupted by power and lust, Andrew's parents by poverty and greed, and Andrew by temptation.  In a situation in which the entire human race is reduced to fewer than 2,000 people, all these characters, instead of doing their duty to a fragile society, selfishly pursue their animal desires.

"Andrew"   Is the story good?:   Good!      Evilometer Reading:  Moderate


"Prelude to a Symphony of Unborn Shouts" by Stephen Goldin

Recently I read a very short story by Goldin and thought it pretty good.  Years ago I read one of Goldin's novels, A World Called Solitude, and also liked it.  

One of the reasons I liked the Goldin short short referred to above is that it had characters, plot and emotion.  Unfortunately, "Prelude to a Symphony of Unborn Shouts" has none of these.  It is one of those stories (six pages long, in this case) which consists entirely of newspaper clippings and quotes from fictional pundits.

The topic Goldin is addressing here is overpopulation.  (I guess he thinks it is evil to have children?Or more children than he has had?)  Set in the 1990s, the newspaper clippings describe how governments react to an overpopulation crisis by encouraging people to use contraceptives and have abortions.  Religious people resist these moves. The story is supposed to be funny (I think), and includes banal jokes from a fictional comedian.  Here's one of the jokes:
"You know, if they really wanted birth control, they'd simply outlaw aspirin.  Then the girls could have as many headaches as they wanted."  
The clippings about religion paint the religious as violent goofballs, and the final clipping is about food riots that (presumably) resulted due to overpopulation, so it is clear where Goldin's sympathies lie.  Maybe this story will appeal to militant atheists and people who are really worried about overpopulation.  I'm a laid back atheist and I'm not worried about overpopulation, and the story is not interesting or amusing or persuasive, so I thought it was quite lame.
"Prelude..."  Is the story good?:   No.      Evilometer Reading:  Low

"Heart Grow Fonder" by R. A Lafferty

I've read a sizable amount of Lafferty stories since I started this here blog, and for the most part I have found his stories amusing and thought-provoking.  It will be poetic justice if, after dedicated atheist Goldin laid that clunker on us, committed Catholic Lafferty can deliver the comedy goods.

Lafferty does not disappoint; "Heart Grow Fonder" is fun and entertaining and is all about temptation and the evils of deceitfulness, marital infidelity, thievery, and trying to be something (and someone) you are not.

Simon Radert is happily married and enjoys his work (apparently he is some kind of accountant or finance expert--Lafferty calls him a "paper pusher" and assures us he is well remunerated.)  When some swingers, the Swags, move in next door Radert is initially hostile to them, calling them "creeps," but it is not long before he is coveting sexy Mrs. Swag.

We learn that Mr. Swag has the ability to swap minds and bodies with people, and he shifts his own consciousness into Radert's body for an hour at midday so he can have sex with Radert's wife.  Mrs. Radert, at least initially thinking this is her own husband expressing renewed interest in her, is thrilled.  Swag starts doing this every day at noon like clockwork, and Radert, in Swag's body during these periods, succumbs to temptation and starts having sex every noon hour with Swag's wife.  (Swag's wife is aware another man is inhabiting her husband's body and responds with enthusiasm; she has many such liaisons every day!)

Radert not only succumbs to the temptation to betray his wife and marriage.  Being in Swag's body provides him access to Swag's bank accounts and financial papers, and Radert begins shifting money from Swag's accounts to his own (as well as engaging in far more complex swindles.)  Before the story is over Radert is even plotting Swag's murder.

"Heart Grow Fonder" benefits from Lafferty's jocular style, and moves briskly, but I found the end of the story, as various characters' duplicitous schemes collide, somewhat confusing.  

Notable about the story is that Lafferty does not follow the paradigm set out by the text on the cover of the paperback, that the stories be about the future and science. (To be fair, in his introduction to the volume, editor Elwood does not lay out these "rules," and perhaps they were concocted just for marketing purposes after the stories were compiled.)  This story is not about science or the future.  Lafferty specifically informs us that the body switching as depicted in the story is not scientifically possible, and attributes it to supernatural means, mentioning the devil repeatedly, and implying that Radert is bound for hell thanks to his sins.  Lafferty also argues, as we might expect a religious person to, that there are more ways to look at the world than the "scientific" way, and suggests that scientists are as susceptible to bias and error as anybody.

Like most of Lafferty's work, fun and thought-provoking.
"Heart Grow Fonder"  Is it good?: Yes.   Evilometer Reading: High.
     
********************

The Goldin piece was poor, but it was short.  I enjoyed the Lupoff story, and the Gloeckner and Lafferty stories were even better and addressed issues of temptation and corruption in an emotionally affecting and intellectually engaging way.  So far I'm really enjoying Elwood's anthology.

In our next episode, more corruption, this time with our old friends J. J. Russ, Bill Pronzini, and Barry Malzberg.