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.

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