Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Crack in the Sky by Richard A. Lupoff

Only the windborne sand and aerial particles hurled into the sky by a century of industrial felons moved, and overhead no bird glided in search of hunter's prey or carrion.

Back at Christmas time I read Richard Lupoff's Sandworld.  My blog post about Sandworld hardly qualifies as a rave, but the novel wasn't so foul that it kept me from purchasing a copy of 1976's The Crack in the Sky when I spotted it on the shelves at the Omaha Half-Price Books.  The weak cover illustration apparently depicts a (symbolic?) giant bird piercing a sphere used for storing red paint.  I have to admit that for a few hours I thought the cover showed some kind of evil faucet, perhaps a representation of the easy access to narcotics hinted at in the advertising text.  When our friends in Britain and Italy printed The Crack in the Sky under variant titles they saw fit to provide it more literal cover illos.  

The Crack in the Sky is kind of like a poorly written response or pastiche of Thomas Disch's very fine 334, a fix-up from 1972: we follow several characters over interweaving plot threads and learn about a dystopian future world which is largely an extrapolation of trends that worried people during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It is the year 2000, and the environment has been destroyed; almost all the vegetation in the world is gone, the air is full of poison and grit, the oceans are black, and all animals bigger than an insect are extinct.  The surviving human population lives under huge domes--the dome in Northern California, where most of the novel takes place, houses thirty million people and stretches for over a hundred miles, covering Bodega Bay, Mount Oso and Santa Rosa.  (This is one of those books which rewards a familiarity with California geography.  Whenever I read one of these I wish it was set in New York, where I know where everything is without resorting to a map.  334 is set in New York, of course.)

There is very little work, and the government, which controls just about everything, provides food (algae) and housing, so people have sex and use drugs and watch prolefeed TV all day.

While Lupoff addresses many issues in The Crack in the Sky, from racism and politics to religion and literature, and the novel's main bugaboo is pollution, overpopulation comes a close second. The domes are crowded.  When the domes were first built one-family homes were seized by the government and split up into tiny apartments and public schools and similar large buildings were turned into dormitories.  Twenty years later masses of people are still living on the streets.  To control the population level, the water is laced with contraceptives and very few people (one hundred people a year in the U.S., chosen specially by the master computer) are permitted to have children. When the characters aren't having banal political discussions (e. g., one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter) or engaging in tired cultural criticism (e.g., discussion of gender stereotypes and "the old, old story of gaining personal esteem by contrast with the degraded") they are imparting history lectures about how the British are to blame for overpopulation because they brought modern medicine and sanitation to places like India, or how only crazy religious fanatics and people obsessed with individual freedom could oppose mandatory birth control.  I found it hard to tell how much of this stuff Lupoff endorses, and how much was him satirizing such views.

Lupoff pads out the novel (to 200 pages!) with multitudinous references to his literary interests.  He manages to shoehorn lots of material about Edgar Rice Burroughs into the book, as well as references to George Orwell's 1984 and talk about underground comics like Yellow Dog and comics creators like R. Crumb, Greg Irons, S. Clay Wilson, and George Metzger.

The plots and characters of The Crack in the Sky are not very interesting:
  • Marco Hyndal, a Chicano, after robbing a taco stand (the vendor is dismissed as a pimply-faced "petit bourgeois") is invited into the high ranks of a rising religious order that hopes to take control of the dome and repair society.  
  • Jomo Silver, a black comic-book fan, leaves his group marriage (to Gonzalez, Min-yi and Jacobson) over an argument about racism and hooks up with other African-American comix aficionados and helps them put out samizdat documents for Marco's religious order.
  • Oliver Gonzalez, a Chicano police lieutenant, pulls strings and saves Silver from being sent outside the dome (a death sentence) when Silver gets attacked by crooks--just like when I was attacked by bullies in junior high, the authorities make it their practice to punish all participants in a fight, including the victim!  
  • Min-yi, an Asian woman, is a former social worker who is skilled at meditation, massage and lesbian sex.
  • Janet Jacobson, a beautiful Jewish genius, works as an actress on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Adventure Hour and as a computer programmer. She is on the team that decodes messages from space aliens.
That's right, space aliens!  Transmissions from space that were received decades ago are finally deciphered during the period of the novel.  Perhaps having read Arthur C. Clarke, Kate Wilhelm, or maybe one of a hundred other SF writers who assure us we'd be better off if aliens were telling us what to do, the U.S. government organizes a major operation ("Project Help") to transmit a message to the aliens begging them to fix our environment.  They call in some communist scientists from the USSR and the People's Republic of Japan (!) to help; this gives Lupoff a chance to put into the mouths of the Marxist scientists the contempt for the common people and electoral government we find so often in SF, and for the US eggheads to agree:
[Communist scientist:]"Your mayor appears to be nothing but a buffoon.  But in your system, even a buffoon is allowed to stand for public office.  Tell me, do they ever win?"
[American scientist:]"Do they ever lose?"
Before Project Help can really get underway Marco, Jomo and their religious order buddies attack the science facility and murder most of the scientists; Janet survives and goes abroad to help the commies with the Project.  America becomes divided into two hostile camps, the pro-Project establishment and a powerful insurgent faction that says the Project is a waste of resources that won't work anyway.  When it looks like the anti-Project voters are going to win the presidential election the pro-Project incumbent prez cancels the election and civil war erupts.  The novel ends with a fire destroying the Northern California dome and killing everybody in it.

The Crack in the Sky is not very good. We've all seen domed cities, pollution, overpopulation, group marriages, planned economies, etc. before, and Lupoff doesn't add anything new that I can see to these well-worn widgets and doodads from the SF toolbox.  He doesn't have the kind of engaging and distinctive writing style that a Wolfe or a Lee or a Disch or a Vance has that lets him get away with working with elements we've seen a hundred times already, and he doesn't give us characters or a plot worth following.

The best part of The Crack in the Sky is how it opened my eyes to some underground comics I had never heard of before.  I know Lupoff's fiction has enthusiastic supporters (mostly for two books I haven't read, Space War Blues and Sword of the Demon, apparently) but so far I have found his work as a critic much more valuable than his work as a novelist.

Unless you are some kind of pollution and overpopulation obsessive, I'd suggest avoiding The Crack in the Sky.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Diabolus by David St. John

"In the British Isles there are said to be fifty thousand devil cultists, and in America at least half a million.  I think it is probably symptomatic of revolt against science and our dehumanized urban lives; against impersonal machines like computers that plan and program our lives without recourse to personal appeal."

I purchased this battered 1971 paperback edition of Diabolus by David St, John largely because of the Jeff Jones cover, with its abundance of naked flesh, sinisterly fashioned sword, and black-clad figure with red wizardly shoulder icons.  Another major factor that led me to part with a few of my scarce shekels was on the inside cover.  There, a previous owner had drawn his own bookplate, an image of (I guess) some kind of urn or altar on a pile of rocks.  Beneath the drawing is some fancy writing, indicating that this volume was a constituent part of the Jerry Something Collection.  I love the idea of some guy calling his pile of books about satanists the Some Guy Collection, and drawing his own bookplate in dozens (or even better hundreds!) of paperbacks.  I just wish I could read his last name.

The mysterious little bio of David St. John is also amusing.  A quick look at Wikipedia indicates that St, John was a pseudonym for E. Howard Hunt, a man who served in the U.S. armed services and intelligence services during World War II and the Cold War, and then, while working for the White House, committed various crimes against Richard Nixon's political enemies, resulting in his being imprisoned for over two years.  Besides Nixon, Hunt had close relationships with such figures as Allen Dulles and William F. Buckley.  Sounds like an exciting life!  Did such a life prepare Hunt to write compelling thrillers?  Is Diabolus a worthy addition to the Jerry Something Collection and now the MPorcius Collection?  Let's see!

CIA operative Peter Ward is on vacation on Lapoire, a French island in the Caribbean. He relaxes alone in a cottage by the beach, collecting shells and hunting lobsters.  A nice rest after helping moles escape from Moscow!  But then the fourteen-year-old girl who cleans and cooks for him disappears, and is later found dead by police, her body showing signs she was raped.  We readers already know she was witness to a voodoo ceremony, and Ward figures this out pretty quickly himself.

Ward spends much of the book doing the things guys conventionally do in detective and espionage fiction, and the first 40 pages of the book, thanks to the tropical island setting and some other elements, reminded me of Dr. No.  Ward talks to the police, who seem incompetent and/or corrupt, gathers clues by talking to a bartender and a priest and tailing a guy who tries to murder him by leaving a venomous snake in his bed.  When he starts learning things the police run him off the island, but Ward promises, MacArthur style, to return and seek justice for the servant girl.

In Washington the CIA chief sends Ward to Paris to investigate the French Foreign Minister's wife, Simone de Marchais.  Madame de Marchais  has been acting a little strange lately and we don't want her goofiness to ruin an upcoming diplomatic meeting that is critical to Franco-American relations! In Gay Paree Ward hooks up with a former girlfriend, a retired fashion model; she is in Madame de Marchais's social circle and can help Ward figure out what she is up to.  After some horizontal refreshment (if ya know what I mean), they infiltrate a Black Mass and discover that Madame de Marchais is performing the role of High Priestess!

The Satanists see through Ward's disguise (he is claiming to be a Canadian devil-worshipper and even has a black crow who sits on his shoulder and says "Je suis le Diable") and drug him.  This gives "St. John" a chance to pen a psychedelic "bad trip" scene in which Ward hallucinates snakes, tentacles, and naked women, feels his "blood boil," and learns "the secret of Time."  When Ward comes to his senses he learns the villains have checked him into a high security mental institution!  Ward busts out of this French funny farm and with the help of the fashion model and his CIA buddies unravels the whole plot.

It turns out that a Marxist Frenchman and Chinese communist agents are using voodoo to inspire the blacks of Lapoire to fight for independence; the daughters of islanders who don't go along get sacrificed!  (The ChiComs are hoping to use the island as a submarine base.)  Madame de Marchais grew up on Lapoire, and the conspirators have convinced her that she is a reincarnated 17th-century witch.  The main duties of the office of Satanic High Priestess (Paris branch) are to have sex on an altar in front of the entire coven, and the commies are taking photos of Madame de Marchais performing these duties to use as blackmail against the Foreign Minister and damage US-French relations.

The CIA agents have no trouble using hypnosis to cure Madame de Marchais of her belief that she is a reincarnated witch.  Then they foil the blackmail plot by holding their own bogus Black Mass, with an actress disguised as Madame de Marchais, so they can plausibly deny that the Madame was ever at any such orgy.

In the last 16 pages of the 160 page book Ward returns to the Caribbean and he and a black cop and a black Catholic priest battle the French traitor (he is acting as voodoo master priest on Lapoire) and his fanatic black acolytes.

While more or less competently written, Diabolus is pretty disappointing.  First of all, just like in real life, the witchcraft stuff in the novel is all a scam; there are no magic spells or demons in the book, the commies are just using voodoo and Satanism to fool ignorant blacks and naive white hippies.  The numerous long descriptions of voodoo ceremonies in Lapoire and Black Masses in Paris thus lack any dramatic power, because we know they are a trick.  (As a kid I always found it disappointing that the monsters and ghosts in "Scooby-Doo" turned out to be jerks in suits, and I felt the same way when it became clear that the Lapoire voodoo guys and Madame de Marchais did not really have any magic abilities.)

Rather than a tale of the supernatural, Diabolus is a Cold War thriller; the real subject of the novel is  not the Devil but the social and international instability of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In the passage quoted at the head of this blog post, and again when Madame de Marchais asks him (while she still believes she is a witch and he is still masquerading as a Satanist) why he has turned to the Devil, Ward suggests that the horrible "state of the world today" is what has driven people to turn against Christian and bourgeois values and take up witchcraft.

Ward himself is portrayed by "St. John" as a victim of the late twentieth century problems of violence and turning away from the natural world in favor of technological/urban life.  There is a brief scene in which Ward visits his sister's country estate, where he keeps his hunting dog and horse.  In these few pages we learn that Ward's wife was murdered, and Ward finds that his hunting dog has recently died, and his horse is fat because he has not been around to ride it.            

Despite the occult rituals described in the novel, the real menaces faced by Ward and all of Western society are a collapse of social cohesion (the Parisian student riots are mentioned, and poor relations between the US and France are a major plot element of the novel), drugs (minor characters are addicted to cocaine, and the villains and heroes of the novel repeatedly drug each other) and communism.  When Ward lists reasons why kids turn to witchcraft, I thought perhaps "St. John" was using "the occult" as a stand in for Marxism and drug use, new belief systems and practices that alienated young people would turn to, despite (or because) their elders find such things absurd and dangerous.

A thriller about communists that highlights social problems in the West like drugs and alienation could work, but I'm afraid St. John doesn't do a very good job of it.  A major problem is that there is no compelling villain in Diabolus; Madame de Marchais, instead of being a powerful sorceress or a cunning femme fatale, is a victim, a naif manipulated by the commies.  The commies are not interesting, either; they almost never appear in the book, instead doing their work behind the scenes.  The French traitor isn't even revealed until the last third or quarter of the novel,and Ward never actually has a conversation with him (Ward just shoots him down in the middle of a melee in the jungle in the end of the book).  Few of the black cultists and none of the Chinese communists even have names.  Neither the French traitor nor the Chinese communists have any dialogue; everything we learn about them is from the conversations the good guys have with each other.

There is also little action or suspense, especially in France.  One CIA agent gets murdered, but it happens off screen; Ward doesn't witness the murder, he just hears about it.  When Ward (who mostly does detective stuff, looking for clues and all that) does have dangerous confrontations in Paris they are not with sinister Red agents or bizarre voodoo priests, but boring generic thugs hired by the commies.

While I'm complaining, I may as well express my disappointment with the novel's love story.  Ward has sex with the fashion model, and she risks her life helping Ward; she seems clever and brave.  So I figured Ward and the fashion model would rekindle their relationship and maybe get married at the end of the novel.  More fool me!  In the end Madame de Marchais, who comes across as kind of a dope and who had no opportunity to develop a human or physical relationship with Ward, leaves the French Foreign Minister to marry Ward.      

Looking back on the novel the scenes I found most interesting in Diabolus were the jet-setting touristy scenes about Ward's vacation on the beach and his shopping and driving around and eating in Paris.

I'm going to have to give Diabolus a marginally negative review; it is not irritatingly bad, but the whole thing is kind of limp.  I hope Jerry Whatever enjoyed it more than I did, after putting in so much work decorating it!  I will not be seeking out St. John's other witchcraft books, even if they have Jeff Jones covers.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Berserker by Fred Saberhagen (Part 2)

This week I finished up my 1967 copy of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker, a collection of stories about huge space faring robots bent on exterminating all life in the galaxy.  The volume contains eleven stories that first saw light in the Fred Pohl-edited magazines If and Worlds of Tomorrow; I tackled the first five in our last installment, and in this post we'll look at the remaining six.

"What T and I Did" (1965)

In "Stone Place" we learned that the berserkers had captured human admiral Johann's fiance and brainwashed her into hating Johann.  How did the berserkers come up with such a diabolical scheme? In "What T and I Did" we meet the traitorous man who gave the genocidal robots the idea! In return for this advice, the berserkers put the traitor in charge of other human captives, whom he sadistically abuses.

When the berserker is damaged at the big battle described in "Stone Place" the traitor suffers a head wound.  One of the other human captives on the berserker is a genius surgeon, and he patches up the traitor's skull, and takes the opportunity to try to turn the sadistic creep into a good person by tinkering with his brain!

Cleverly, Saberhagen tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, from the point of view of the post-brain-surgery traitor (much of it in first-person present tense, like it's a Malzberg story or something!) When he wakes up from the surgery he remembers very little, and he learns the truth about himself and his actions along with us readers.

This one is pretty good.

"Mr. Jester" (1966)

This one is a broad farce, I suppose intended to be funny and make the point that humor is an important element of life.

Planet A has an elected government, but it is what you might call "big government." There's a Minister of Diet, for example, who is always telling people what to eat, and the government has what we might call a Fairness Doctrine or Equal Time rule which mandates that all the political parties have equal access to the airwaves.  Even more alarmingly, the government of Planet A enforces a utilitarian seriousness and sobriety on the population.  Citizens are expected to contribute materially to society, and humor is considered a distracting waste of time.  As the story begins, a comedian who tried to make people laugh is sentenced to solitary confinement at a lookout station on the edge of the star system!

Out there at the limits of the system the comic meets a berserker, this one a 40-mile wide sphere.  Like the comedian, this berserker is a misfit among its kind: a technical error has left it ignorant of the details of its mission--it doesn't quite comprehend what life is or how to destroy it.  The comedian takes command of the berserker and has it construct a troupe of comedy robots.  One of the robots is modelled on Jack Benny ("an Earthman of ancient time, a balding comic violinist..."), others are caricatures of Planet A politicians.

With the threat of the berserker cowing the government, the comic returns to Planet A and he and his robots give a performance on worldwide TV that humiliates the government and has the whole planet laughing.

I won't call this story bad, but it didn't make me laugh and in general I am not a fan of absurdist humor.

"Masque of the Red Shift" (1965)

Saberhagen gets mentioned on the cover again, maybe because of the provocative title?

In preparation for reading "Masque of the Red Shift" I reread Edgar Allen Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" at gutenberg.org. In the Poe story (which is very short) some decadent aristocrats secrete themselves in a fortress while the countryside is ravaged by a horrible plague.  In the fort they have parties all the time, but then a mysterious figure appears among the revelers, a figure which carries the plague and represents death, the fate which even the wealthiest and most sophisticated of us cannot escape.

In Saberhagen's story we again encounter the Emperor of Esteel, brother of the hero Johann--we first met these guys in "Stone Place."  The Emp, worried that his brother threatens his power, has Johann put into suspended animation, but tells the public that Johann has died of plague.  The Emp and fifty or sixty of his courtiers are partying like it's 2999 on his flagship when a berserker robot, disguised as a brainwashed human rebel captured by Johann, sneaks on board.  In true horror fashion the berserker disguised its robot by ripping the skin off the rebel and putting it over a robot body.  Yuck!

The skin falls off the robot, the truth is revealed, and the robot massacres almost everybody on the flagship before the Emp blows it away.  Then Johann is rejuvenated, and sacrifices himself to save his brother and a few civilians by drawing away the berserker into a "hypermass," a thing like a black hole.  (Wikipedia is telling me that the term "black hole" was not in general use until a few years after this story was written, and first appeared in print in 1964.)  The "red shift" in the title refers to how the apparent color of Johann's ship changes when viewed from the flagship as it accelerates into the hypermass.

This one is OK.

"Sign of the Wolf" (1965)      

This story takes place on a planet colonized by humans centuries ago, but which fell into primitivism after a cataclysmic war.  The humans still living on the planet are barbarians with no technology beyond the spear, who think the ruins of their space faring ancestors are temples or gods themselves.  When a berserker attacks the planet a shepherd boy witnesses the long-buried hi-tech defenses come to life.

I thought this one slight, but entertaining..

"In the Temple of Mars"  (1966)

This one quotes extensively from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale." Saberhagen is into recycling classic stories from history and literature, I guess.  (Robert Silverberg has done similar things, basing Man in the Maze on Sophocles's Philoctetes, Downward to the Earth on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and writing several times about Gilgamesh.)

The Emperor of Esteel has a new flagship built, the most powerful star ship ever constructed by humanity.  Because he is a twisted pervert the Emp has an arena and gladiator slave quarters built into the ship so he can watch men fight to the death.  Before the ship is delivered to him (he is still out by that hypermass in his old flagship) it is infiltrated by two factions of people with their own theories as to how the ship should be used.  One group secretly wants to use the new supership to try to rescue Johann, whom they believe may still be alive, orbiting the hypermass.  The second group is even more perverted than the Emp--these freakos worship the berserkers as embodiments of Mars, the Roman god of war!  They secretly want to use the super ship to make sure Johann, the greatest of all foes of the berserkers, is destroyed once and for all.

Luckily, the pro-Johann faction, among them Mitchell Spain, the writer and space marine we met in "Stone Place," prevails.  When the berserker-worshippers try to take over the ship, Spain and his friends release the gladiators, promising them their freedom if they defeat the hijackers, and they make short work of the cultists.

In a scene in which Saberhagen expresses his optimistic view of humanity (and I suspect his Catholic belief in free will), the berserker-worshippers use a mind ray on a gladiator that is meant to drive him insane with hate so he will massacre his friends. The love of a woman gives him the strength to overcome this evil influence.

Not bad.

"The Face of the Deep" (1966)

In this, the last story in the collection, Saberhagen tries to give us the "sense of wonder" classic SF authors often try to achieve.  Johann is in orbit around the hypermass, moving faster than the speed of light.  At such speeds, and under such tremendous gravity (the hypermass has more mass than a billion Sols), the ordinary rules of physics are out the window.  The berserker ship that is behind him tries to shoot him down, but in this weird environment energy guns and explosives fail to operate properly.

Johann admires the scenery, dust clouds and rocks and lightning and all that, and contemplates the nature of God.  After some days or weeks alone a rescue team from that new flagship arrives to save him.

This story is alright, but it doesn't really work on its own--it feels like the denouement of a novel, a sort of philosophical resolution after the action climax.  (Presumably, most people who read it in If back in the '60s were familiar with the earlier stories featuring Johann and the berserkers.)  Of course, the action climax was back in "Stone Place," 80 pages ago, so "The Face of the Deep" feels a little flat and anti-climactic.

Because we follow Johann and his brother through "Stone Place," "Masque of the Red Shift," "In the Temple of Mars" and finally  "The Face of the Deep," Berserker sometimes feels like a fix-up, a novel made by stringing linked stories together.  But the tale of Johann is interrupted by two stories which have nothing to do with Johann, "Sign of the Wolf" and "Mr. Jester" (with the latter in a totally different tone), and one story, "What T and I Did," which mentions Johann but in which he does not appear.

Another oddity is the brief introductions before each story, which really serve little purpose other than to expand the importance of the Carmpan.  The Carmpan also get top billing on the back of the book.  Yet, actual Carmpans only appear in one of the stories, and in my opinion they are more or less superfluous in that story.

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

I thought these six berserker stories, with the possible exception of "Mr. Jester," all worth reading as entertainment, and except for "Sign of the Wolf," each has something odd and memorable about it, be it the references to Poe, Chaucer, and Jack Benny, the hypermass, or the bifurcated personality and unusual story structure of "What T and I Did."

It is true that I have pointed out quite a few things I didn't care for in individual stories and some weaknesses of the volume as a whole, but for the most part I enjoyed the book and feel comfortable recommending Berserker to classic SF fans.    

Friday, March 20, 2015

Berserker by Fred Saberhagen (Part 1)


Years ago, while living in New York, the wife and I drove out west to visit in-laws, and in Minnesota I purchased the 1967 paperback edition of Berserker, the first volume in what is perhaps Fred Saberhagen's most famous series.  I read a few of the stories and, not particularly impressed, put the book aside for years.  Recently I have mentioned my decision to give Saberhagen another look, and this week took Berserker off the shelf with the plan of reading it in its entirety and assessing it anew. Today we'll cover the first five of the eleven stories in the 190 page volume.

For Ballantine's Berserker (U5063) Saberhagen added brief introductions to each of the stories that serve to link them together and provide a little background on humanity's colonization of the galaxy and relationship with the peaceful Carmpan, a cerebral race unprepared for the berserker onslaught.

"Without a Thought" (1963)

Originally published with the title "Fortress Ship" in If, "Without a Thought"'s first paragraphs tell us what we need to know about the berserkers: they are huge robots programmed to exterminate all life and equipped with enough firepower to destroy the entire surface of a planet in 48 Earth hours, built by the score a bazillion years ago by now-forgotten warring space empires.  The berzerkers act unpredictably, and thus are difficult for humanity's space navies to outfight.

Two human starships confront a berserker we are told is the size of my home state of New Jersey! If the robot gets past them it will destroy a human-inhabited star system! But it takes three human ships to defeat a berserker, and the third ship is four hours away! Can they stall the berserker until help arrives?

Yes! The berserker is testing out its mind-paralyzing ray! To assess the effectiveness of the ray, it challenges a human pilot to a game of checkers!  But the human figures out how it can fool the berserker into thinking the mind ray is not working--he develops a logical system much like a computer program that teaches his semi-intelligent alien pet how to play checkers!  This buys enough time for the third ship to arrive!

This story is OK, but it feels contrived and gimmicky, like Saberhagen came up with the cool idea of how to teach the pet checkers, and then built a story around this idea. (Can't the berserker just talk to the human to figure out how well the mind ray is working?)  The way the berserker toys with the humans instead of just shooting them down, even though Saberhagen explains that this is research and an effort on the part of the berserker to remain unpredictable, feels like the irrational behavior of a Bond villain who decides to let 007 live after capturing him.  Of course, "Without a Thought" fits well into the SF tradition of stories in which an engineer-type uses science and logic on the fly against the clock to save the day.

"Goodlife" (1963)

This story is much more successful as a human drama and an adventure tale than "Without a Thought."  Two people, a man and a woman, are captured by a berserker when it destroys the ship on which they are passengers.  Inside the berserker they encounter a young man who has lived his entire life inside the genocidal robot!  A test tube baby, created from the DNA of earlier captives, he has never seen a human in the flesh before, and habitually obeys the berserker, who calls him "Goodlife."  (All other life is "badlife.")  While the robot studies his two new captives and plots to breed the female with Goodlife, the man and woman plot to disable the berserker from within and win Goodlife over to their side.

"Goodlife" works as a sort of horror story, as it gives us glimpses of the psychological effect the berserker war has on people and thrusts them into the bizarre environment of the berserker's interior.

"Goodlife" first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow, which, like If, was edited by Frederick Pohl.  In fact, I think all the stories in Berserker appeared in Pohl-edited magazines published by the Galaxy Publishing Corporation.

"Patron of the Arts" (1965)

This one appeared in If.  A space ship full of famous art works flees the Earth because the berserkers are approaching.  The ship is captured by a berserker and the crew is killed while resisting.  Two passengers who do not resist survive, including a depressed artist whom we are told is weary of life.

The artist tries to paint an abstract representation of the berserker's "essence," a canvas "of discordant and brutal line...aflame with a sense of engulfing menace!"  The artist laments that the berserker will destroy all the famous paintings and sculptures on the ship.  He is then surprised to learn that the berserker is not going to destroy the art--the art is already dead, he is told, and thus destroying it is not part of the berserker mission.  The berserker is not going to kill the artist, either; the robot, detecting the artist's own unhappiness with life and interpreting his painting as praise for the berserkers, sets the artist and the art ship free so that "other life-units can learn from you...."  Shocked, the artist, as soon as he is out of the robot's clutches, rips up the painting of the berserker's essence and announces his intention to become a better person: "I can change.  I am alive." 

Titian - Man with a Glove
The most memorable scene in the story is probably when the artist, thinking the robot is going to destroy the artworks, has to decide whether to let the other human survivor, an ugly young woman, get away in a one-man life boat, or fill up the escape pod with Titian's Man with a Glove, which Wikipedia is telling me takes up about nine square feet.  I always find references to traditional high culture in classic SF, like the Chinese bowl in "--We Also Walk Dogs" by Robert Heinlein or all the references to classical music in Poul Anderson's Avatar interesting.  What is their agenda in mentioning these works of art?  To signal to the reader that "I am sophisticated, even if my work appears in these goofy pulp magazines!"?  To stand against the trend towards abstract art and rock music?  Saberhagen in  "Patron of the Arts" has the artist compare his abstract painting to Titian and feel ashamed of his own work, which he later destroys.  Who appreciates the abstract canvas?  The murderous robot!  Maybe we should see "Patron of the Arts" as a denunciation of modern art as inhuman and an insult to the high tradition of Western art.  

Saberhagen's choice, and the character's choice, of Man with a Glove also prods us to play such parlor games as "If you were on a desert island with one work of art..." or "If only one work of art would survive the apocalypse, what would it be?"

"The Peacemaker" (1964)

"The Peacemaker" appeared in If under the title "The Life Hater."  Like "Without a Thought," it is a story that portrays a single human outwitting a berserker to buy time.  "The Peacemaker" also tries to trick readers and hit us with a surprise ending.

A berserker is bearing down on a human planet on the edge of the galaxy!  The government is scrambling to build warships, but will they have time?  A lone man, "something of a pacifist," goes off in a one-man ship to "talk of peace and love" with the genocide machine!  The berserker and the pacifist have a little debate, in which the human tries to convince the machine that it should not destroy life, but serve it, and serve humanity in particular, humanity being the highest form of life, as evidenced by the complexity of human cells.

The berserker asks for a cell sample, ostensibly to see if human cells really are so complex.  In reality it uses the information from the cell sample to develop a biological warfare agent!  The berserker says it is convinced, and will now serve humankind, and sends the pacifist back to his planet infected with the biowarfare agent, expecting the human to land and infect the entire planet.  But the joke is on the berserker!  The pacifist has cancer, and provided the robot with a cancer-stricken sample, so the infection is curing him instead of killing him!  And his proximity to the berserker allowed him to gather valuable recon that will help the hastily assembled defense destroy the mechanical menace!

This one feels a little contrived, but is OK.

"Stone Place" (1965)       

"Stone Place" was published in If, and is the first berserker story promoted on the magazine's cover.

"Stone Place" is long (40 pages) and at times drags.  For me there is too much political jockeying stuff between various human factions; I generally find court intrigue to be boring.  There is also a prophecy based on mathematical calculations (shades of Asimov's psychohistory); I find that kind of thing tiresome.  This prophecy is pronounced by the first Carmpan to appear in an actual berserker story (the Carmpans have been mentioned in the intros, which are written in the voice of a Carmpan.  So far these intros have been superfluous.)

A large portion of this story was inspired by the Battle of Lepanto of 1571.  In "Stone Place" a dude named Johann, whose brother is the ruler of the Esteel Empire, is given command of a coalition space fleet.  In the 16th century a guy named Don John whose brother was King of Spain was given command of the fleet of the Holy League.  In "Stone Place" one of the space marines is a poet named Mitchell Spain; he loses an arm in the battle.  In the 16th century the great novelist Miguel Cervantes served as a marine at Lepanto, where he lost an arm.  And there are other clear parallels evident to the reader of "Stone Place" who is familiar with the Wikipedia articles on Lepanto and Cervantes.

Some people may enjoy picking out all the elements in the story inspired by the real-life naval campaign, but I find this kind of thing irritating.

There were things I liked about "Stone Place," however.  I liked the scenes in which Mitch Spain and his marines invade berserkers and fight battle droids, and I liked how the berserkers, in an elaborate piece of psychological warfare, brainwash Johann's beautiful fiance Christina de Dulcin (you heard that right, Don Quixote fans) so she will hate Johann and fall in love with Mitch Spain.  

Also noteworthy are the story's religious and philosophical overtones.  The all-seeing, all-knowing Wikipedia tells us Saberhagen was a practicing Catholic. (Has some English prof out there written his or her dissertation on 20th century American Catholic SF writers? It seems a fertile field of inquiry; for one thing you could compare people like Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty, and Saberhagen to the famous British religious writers of speculative fiction like Tolkein, Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, about whom I assume much has already been written.)  Johann is religious, and he is a hero and a decent sincere guy.  His brother the Emperor of Esteel believes in mechanistic determinism, that "everything [is] determined by the random swirls of condensing gasses," and he is a ruthless and decadent sex pervert who finds life empty and contemplates suicide.

Which brings us to determinism (and free will) as a major theme of the story.  There's the aforementioned Carmpan prophecy, and Christina's love for Mitch-- is her love "legit" even if it is the result of the enemy's tinkering with her brain?

The good parts of this story are good, but I think it could have been streamlined a little.

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

These stories are all worth reading; though they do have weaknesses, I'm not quite sure why I was so disappointed in them years ago.  Well, tastes and moods change-- now I am looking forward to finishing Berserker and finding the next two or three volumes of these stories in used bookstores.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Orbital Resonance by John Barnes

"We have a very small number of adults trying to raise a very large number of you into a culture that we just made up, one we don't have any emotional attachment to ourselves."
On the cover of my 1992 paperback edition of John Barnes' 1991 novel Orbital Resonance, Orson Scott Card compares Barnes to Heinlein, and on the back cover Poul Anderson compares Barnes to Heinlen.  Inside, on the "Praise for" pages, various SF periodicals do the same.  Well, I like Heinlein, so I thought I'd give Orbital Resonance a chance.

The year is 2024 and the Earth has been totally effed up by biological warfare, climate change and AIDS!  The only people to survive the catastrophes were those willing to do anything to survive.  Once these ruthless survivor types were in charge they came up with a scheme to save the Earth--space stations made from asteroids where things can be manufactured without damaging the Earth's environment, and where a new society of social-minded humans can be developed!

Our narrator is Melpomene Murray, thirteen-year-old daughter of a psychologist on the council ("CPB") who has played a major role in developing the new generation of communitarian people.  They live in Flying Dutchman, an asteroid in an orbit between Earth and Mars.  Melpomene is writing the book we are reading after having been enlisted by the CPB to produce propaganda that will help Earthers understand what life is like in space and convince them to think well of the space people.

The comparisons to Heinlein are quite apt--much of Orbital Resonance reads like a pastiche of "Menace from Earth" and the various juveniles, with a teenage girl as first-person narrator, describing her life in a space colony (we've got no room, no privacy, variable gravity, and we like it!) and teenage relationship dramas (a bully is mean to the new kid from Earth, girls worry about their figures and about boys liking them, Melpomene's brother is broken hearted because he is bad at computer programming class, there is a rift between Melpomene and her best friend Miriam because Miriam is paying attention to a boy, etc.)  The story also addresses philosophical issues that Heinlein often wrote about, like the tension between individualism and duty to society, when it is appropriate to obey authority and when it is appropriate to rebel, and the forms family and erotic relationships will take in the future.

Kids on the asteroid station are conditioned and hypnotized (Melpomene's father uses words like "designed" and "programmed") to fear breaking rules, to fear leaving Flying Dutchman, and to enjoy working in teams.  A math test, for example, is like a team sport; each student is given different problems, and the good students take time out to help the poor students because each student's score is affected by everybody else's score ("In Pyramid Math, your score is half your own plus one quarter the average of you and your partner, plus one eighth the average of your foursome,  and so forth....") If there is a fight in class every student gets punished.

Basically, the kids have been programmed to be a bunch of commies (Dad says "Individualism is dead because it didn't work,") but over the course of the book we see signs the programming is starting to break down.  The aforementioned bullying wasn't supposed to happen, for example, and an immigrant from Earth who cracks cruel jokes, Theophilus, starts everybody speaking their minds in antisocial ways ("'I've always thought things like that.  I bet other people have too.  We just never used to say them until Theophilus came up.'")  And when Melpomene realizes that so many of her attitudes and emotions, which feel totally natural, may be the result of tampering with her mind, she rebels.

Her rebellion, which occurs in the last seventy or so pages of the book, consists of hacking into CPB computer files with her boyfriend and eavesdropping on Dad.  She learns that she is, without her knowledge, being groomed to be ruler of the asteroid! Her brother is being manipulated into being an artist!  (He isn't really a bad computer programmer, the teachers just give him impossible problems so he will turn to his art. They also sabotage his sports career!)  Melpomene's boyfriend is being groomed to be the Flying Dutchman's captain!  The CPB also plan to outlaw labor unions and abolish elections soon.

Melpomene stops all the individualistic nastiness started by Theophilus (Winston Smith style, in the end Theophilus cheerfully joins the collective--he was just reenacting the cruelty he learned on Earth and now sees the error of his ways.) Melpomene also convinces the CPB to abandon all their manipulations of the kids as well as their plans of getting rid of unions and elections.  In fact, the adults who were born on Earth agree to leave the asteroid and move to Mars (which is in the process of being terraformed.)  Life on Earth with its violence and individualism has made the adults unfit to rule, so like Moses who lead his people to the promised land but could not enter it, they are leaving the space-born teenagers they programmed to run The Flying Dutchman without them!  

I wanted to like this book more than I did; its milieu is interesting and Barnes has interesting ideas, but Orbital Resonance is just too long (218 pages) and repetitive. The little Stakhanovs play sports all the time, so we get many long detailed scenes in which various low gee sports are explained to us; these are followed by long detailed scenes in which we follow the course of a match. I never watch sports if I can avoid it, and I don't read about sports either, and my eyes glazed over a bit during the sports scenes, and these scenes are legion.  (I should have kept track; I swear a third of the novel takes place in gyms and race tracks.)  I didn't care who won when I had to watch my wife's nieces and nephews play soccer, so I'm not likely to care if high school kids who aren't even real win or lose at sports that aren't even real.

(Jack Vance in his Alastor books and Demon Princes books has speculative sports scenes, but in the former the sport, hussade, has bizarre erotic overtones, and in the latter the sport, hadaul, is a blood sport, and in both series the sports directly serve the plot and are played for high stakes.  The sports are boring and the stakes are low in the sports scenes in Orbital Resonance.)

The scenes of relationship drama can also get repetitive.  There are numerous sexual relationships, teenage friendships, and parent-child relationships depicted in Orbital Resonance.  The kids on the Flying Dutchman, I guess thanks to their "programming," are really into expressing their feelings, and so all these relationships involve lots of hand holding, hugging, and crying.  I should have kept count; I swear somebody cries or gets a hug every five pages--usually both.

I like the kind of tragic love stories we read in Somerset Maugham and Marcel Proust, and I liked the teenage relationship drama in Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover, but the soap opera suds in Barnes's novel didn't interest me.  As with the sports stuff, I think this is partly because the stakes are low.  In Maugham and Proust people's amorous relationships result in lives being ruined; scenes of twelve-year-olds having crushes and pawing each other in a dark corridor or arguing with their parents have little emotional impact because we know even if they are crying today over a slight or a rejection they'll be over it tomorrow.

Another weakness of Barnes's novel, at least when comparing him to Vance, Maugham, and Lee as I just have, is the style.  Barnes's style is not bad, but it is bland. The novel inspires very little feeling.  One reason Lee's teenage relationship shenanigans pull at the heart strings while Barnes's just sit there is because Lee has a compelling, affecting style, and Barnes does not.  


I'm scoring Orbital Resonance as marginally positive/acceptable: I certainly don't like it as much as Card, Anderson, or the many other people who did their part providing the novel with over three pages of ecstatic blurbs.  What do they like so much about it?  Maybe after two decades of the New Wave some were happy to see an old-fashioned semi-realistic "life on a space station" story.  Maybe some approved Barnes's criticisms of our individualistic society (we don't hug and cry enough and we aren't doing enough about climate change and AIDS.)  Maybe some liked the stuff about teenagers groping each other and masturbating.  Orbital Resonance has virtues, but for me it is hobbled by a bland style and excessive length; my lack of interest in sports and computer hacking, and my devotion to the cult of the individual, also didn't help.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Four stories from Orbit by Gene Wolfe:


When Joachim Boaz took to twitter and his blog to praise Gene Wolfe’s “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" I was inspired to seek out Wolfe stories I had never read before, including “Sonya….” These four first appeared in Damon Knight’s famous Orbit anthologies of original stories, though I read them in later Wolfe collections I own: “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" in Storeys from the Old Hotel and "The Changeling," "Melting," and "Many Mansions" in Castle of Days.

"The Changeling" (1968)

Right off the bat I got a story that had me furrowing my brow, trying to figure it out; I read it twice over two days.  As is often true with Wolfe, it makes sense to read carefully, as each sentence is valuable and could contain a clue.  This is no chore, because Wolfe's writing is quite fine, a pleasure to read.

The text of "The Changeling" is a manuscript hidden in a cave.  Wolfe often employs narrators who are unreliable and intellectually and/or morally suspect, and early on we get a sense that there is something villainous about the writer of this manuscript.  As a U.S. Army soldier the narrator was captured in the Korean War and defected to China, even though he had an opportunity to return to the United States.  When he got tired of living under communism and returned to America he was put on trial because of something he was accused of by his fellow U.S. servicemen.  On the fourth page of the eleven-page story the narrator describes how, as a child, he tortured a frog, and when a girl, Maria Palmieri, tried to stop him from pursuing this dreadful behavior, he "hit her in the eye with a stone."

After getting out of prison the narrator returns to one of the towns where he grew up (he left before starting fifth grade), Cassonville.  There he confronts numerous strange phenomena.  He seems to be living in a slightly different world than other people in Cassonville; in particular, the depth and breadth of a river seem different to him than to a childhood friend, Paul Palmieri.  When Paul throws a stone, he claims to have thrown it clear across the creek, while our narrator sees it plop into the water.

Equally strangely, a boy the narrator played with twenty years ago during his frog-torturing days, Peter Palmieri, has not aged--he's still a child.  Only one other person in the town seems to notice that Peter has been nine-years-old for decades, the boy's putative father, an old Italian immigrant.  Papa Palmieri tells the narrator the story of how the child appeared in the town and every body else simply accepted him as a member of the Palmieri family.  As the years went by and Peter's "siblings" grew, and he did not, people simply stopped talking about him as Maria's older brother and started calling him Maria's twin, and then Maria's little brother.

While apparently an alien presence, Peter is acknowledged by Papa, and Peter's actions in the story bear this out, to be a very honest and conscientious person ("he's a good boy--better than Paul or Maria.")  

When the narrator starts investigating old school records and old newspapers he finds no records of himself, even though he should be moderately famous after his defection to Mao's China, court-martial and imprisonment in the US.  He doesn't even appear in an old class photo he knows he was included in--in his place is the mysterious Peter.  On the penultimate page of the story we learn the narrator's name: Pete Palmer.

It seems to me that our narrator and the ageless Peter are one and the same person, somehow split into their evil and good components.  (It is significant that the narrator remembers that not only Maria but Peter Palmieri tried to defend the frog from him, and that Wolfe slyly uses pronouns to leave the reader unsure whether at the climax of the fight the narrator stabbed the frog or Peter with his knife.)  As Christian thinking would suggest, the good part of Pete(r) does not age, while the evil part suffers in places like Red China and an American military prison.

The narrator decides to live as a hermit on an island in the aforementioned river, surviving on fish and handouts.  Here he writes and secretes his manuscript in a cave. Some of the people who bring him fish hooks and sacks of potatoes tell him they wish they were him.  Were China and the prison Purgatory, and the island Heaven?  Maybe the island is just more Purgatory?

As the title suggests, this is a story about how people and their circumstances change over the course of their lives.  The narrator talks repeatedly about how he has been changed by such events as the early deaths of his parents, how as a kid he often moved, how he changed his mind about living a life of poverty and factory work in Communist China.  The title also, of course, refers to folklore about elves, trolls, the devil or whoever swapping a human baby for an inhuman one, creating the phenomenon of a person being raised in a society or world not his own, a phenomenon the narrator presumably felt in China and admits to feeling back in Cassonville.    

“Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" (1970)

This is a story about the lonely lives of people in a decadent future utopia/dystopia which is paradoxically collectivized (everybody gets government handouts and there are police cameras everywhere) and radically individualistic (people need not leave their houses and those with money have relationships with organic sex robots instead of other people.)  If I had to guess at what Wolfe is getting at, I'd say it is that developments which many would regard as improvements, like a universal guaranteed income and high technology, could make human relationships superfluous, thus ruining the lives of many because it is human relationships that make life worth living.  I think we can call this one a satire of progress.

Wolfe writes “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" in a sort of folksy genial tone, reminding us repeatedly that it is a story about the future written in the present.  (This is somewhat similar to what he does in the introductory matter of The Book of the New Sun, the text of which he says is a translation of a manuscript from the future.)  Wolfe also includes lots of references to cultural figures like Julie Newmar, Debbie Reynolds, Harlan Ellison, the Kennedys, and even my beloved James Boswell.  The light-hearted tone masks a tale of sadness and horror.

The plot:  Sonya is an old poor woman with no family and no close friends who lives on the dole.  She is accidentally introduced to wealthy widower Crane Wessleman. Crane Wessleman finds her amusing, and for a period of a year he invites her to dinner (microwaved) every week.  Sonya hopes to marry Crane Wessleman, but when she visits he mostly talks about Kittee, his organic robotic "friend."  Wolfe makes it clear that Kittee is not a maid (the house is very dirty and Sonya puts her own dinner in the microwave) and that Kittee is disgusting, a smelly zombie sort of thing that doesn't talk or smile and was made from the "germ plasm" of a cat, monkey or canine, nobody is quite sure what.

The year of invites ends when Crane Wessleman dies.  Sonya investigates, finds that Kittee has started eating her "friend."  Sonya puts out food for Kittee and hopes Crane Wessleman left her something in his will.

Somewhat easier (for me, at least) to "get" than "The Changeling," and more emotionally affecting.

"Melting" (1974)

Well, I'm not in love with every Gene Wolfe story.  "Melting" is a discursive New-Wavish piece, just five pages, full of silly puns and tricks.  I think it is about a guy who has an elaborate dream of a party after using drugs and/or alcohol.  The party in his dream is attended by time travelers: apparently figures from books he has been reading like Joseph Bonaparte and a British Army officer who served in World War One, as well as one character who is based on his washing machine.  At the end of the story Wolfe reminds us that we are reading a story, and that the character in the story is unreal, a figment of Wolfe's imagination just like the people in the dreamer's dream were figments of his imagination.  Wolfe hints that we readers may similarly be figments of someone's imagination.

This story is OK, I guess, but not for me.  (For one thing, I hate "and it was all a dream" stories.)  It reminds me of "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion," another Anglophilic pun-laden Wolfe story set in some kind of alternate universe.  "How I Lost the Second World War..." is perhaps the Wolfe story I like least, but I guess it is widely admired; Ben Bova, Gardner Dozois and Peter Haining all included it in anthologies.  "Melting" also reminded me a little of Joanna Russ's 1971 "Zanzibar Cat" and the background to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

"Many Mansions" (1977)

"Many Mansions" is about gender roles and colonialism and has at its heart a very cool SF idea.  On a planet colonized by humans some generations ago the wealthier colonists lived in houses that were essentially alive--though built of wood and such inanimate materials, the brains of human women were integrated into the houses. These living brains, kept alive far beyond a normal human lifespan, maintained the house, keeping it attractive and in shape in a way the narrator compares to how a woman keeps herself attractive.

When a war broke out between the colony and the metropole (called "the Motherworld" in the story, presumably the Earth) the armies of the Earthers, who won the war, destroyed most of the living houses.  (The war seems to have resulted from, or coincided with, a gender-based revolution on Earth; the Earth army consisted entirely of female soldiers, and it seems there are no men on Earth any longer, that Earth is inhabited solely by female clones grown in "bottles" who live some kind of militaristic lifestyle.)  The living houses were mobile, however, and it is said that some escaped destruction and still haunt deep forests and sometimes capture people for some unknown purpose.

"Many Mansions" takes place decades after the war, when the houses are apparently a mysterious legend and have been entirely forgotten by Earthers; we readers learn all this history in bits and pieces from a colonial man and woman in conversation with a cloned Earth woman who has never heard of the houses.  This Earth woman is investigating the disappearance of a colleague.  The story has the structure of a horror tale; we slowly learn the danger the clone is in, and the possible fate of her lost comrade.  After talking about the houses for eight pages it is not that surprising to find on the ninth and penultimate page that the old woman narrator and her husband reside in one of surviving sentient houses.  The clone flees in fear, and it is suggested that someday she will be, and the lost clone already has been, somehow integrated into a house, where, by helping maintain a house, she will be doing true women's work.

This is a well-crafted story; the plot and characters all work and the idea of brains integrated into walking houses feels both very original but also very natural for SF. The story's form is somewhat experimental, as it is entirely told in dialogue, that of the husband and wife.  Wolfe leaves the reader to wonder which character (if any) to sympathize with.  On the one hand the husband and wife and their house (animated by the wife's great-aunt's brain and personality) play the role of the monster in the story, and it is hinted that the colonists are bigots who look down on the natives (whom they call "autochthons," a word Jack Vance often employs) as well as the poor and clones. On the other hand 20th-century readers have much more in common with the colonial society depicted than with a cold unisex society of Amazonian clones, and it is suggested that the clones have treated the colonists pretty poorly, that they act as an occupying force and will one day run off the colonists.  Reading the story, I wondered if we were supposed to see parallels to the relationship between Great Britain and the Thirteen American colonies, or Britain and the Boers.

I expected "Many Mansions" to somehow refer to 16th-century Spanish nun St. Theresa of Avila's guide to spiritual growth, The Interior Castle, which envisions seven stages of growth as seven mansions within a crystal castle.  There is a reference to the number seven in an anecdote about a drunk guy climbing an ancient road in a snowstorm; above the road is one of the walking houses, and it seems to beckon him, to offer a place of rest.

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

These stories are all quite thought-provoking--at least they had me gritting my teeth trying to figure them out and casting about my memory and google, seeking literary and historical references.  And, with the possible exception of "Melting," they are very entertaining speculative fiction, with speculations about future societies, alternate worlds, and/or horror story elements.  Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Night Walk by Bob Shaw

As he worked on it Tallon felt his mind sink through the layers the years had superimposed on his personality.  A younger Sam Tallon emerged, one who had been determined to carve out a career in domain physics, until some unremembered event had diverted him into world-hopping, and then finally to the Block and all it represented.

I recently enjoyed Bob Shaw's award-winning novel Orbitsville.  On the same trip on which I purchased Orbitsville I also acquired a Corgi 1977 paperback edition of Shaw's first novel, 1967's Night Walk.  I read Night Walk this weekend and am happy to report that like Orbitsville it is a literate and entertaining science-fiction adventure.

It is the 22nd century and the overcrowded Earth is always looking for new planets to colonize!  A former Earth colony, planet Emm Luther, discovers a habitable planet, but they refuse to tell the Earth where it is!  So Earth's intelligence agency, the Block, sends spy Samuel Tallon to Emm Luther, where he learns the new planet's coordinates and memorizes them, only to be caught by the local security forces.  Not only is the data erased from Tallon's conscious mind, but vengeful counterintelligence agent Cherkassky blinds him before he's sent off to prison!

In the grand tradition of prison stories, Tallon hooks up with other mechanically-minded jailbirds and they start building devices in the prison workshop to help them escape.  In the grand tradition of science-fiction stories that celebrate the engineer, Tallon, who was a physicist before getting into the spy game, invents a device to overcome his blindness.  One of Shaw's conceits in the novel is that our neurons leak electrons, broadcasting like radios.  (At least I think it is a conceit; I don't know much medical or biological stuff.)  Tallon designs a device that can read the transmissions of other creatures' optic nerves, and direct the data into the brain of anyone wearing a special headset.  Now he can see the world through the eyes of other nearby people and animals!

When Tallon hears a rumor that Cherkassky is being transferred to the prison to get his final revenge, the Earthman makes his getaway, sneaking and fighting through monster-infested swamps, train stations, suburbs, a factory, etc., on his thousand mile journey to the space port.  Along the way he encounters various wacky characters, including Earthborn hobos who hate Emm Luther's theocratic regime and a woman with a cat fetish (she likes to wear Tallon's headset and tune in on felines while they mate!)

Like Orbitsville, Night Walk is a good adventure story with intriguing characters and cool SF elements.  Shaw really explores the headset idea; Tallon and others use it to see the world (and themselves) through the eyes of birds, cats, dogs, and people, and Shaw's speculations on how you would adapt to living, travelling, and fighting for your life through the eyes of other creatures are entertaining and compelling.  The political and economic theories of the Lutherian theocracy, the novel's version of interstellar travel, and the memory-erasing business are also well done, and are more than just window-dressing, serving the human side of the story.  For example, in a poignant bit of character development, the vindictive Cherkassky erases Tallon's memories of his first love, but we readers can detect echoes of these memories in Tallon's later actions and feelings.  

As in Orbitsville, there is an interesting and sympathetic female antagonist (though feminists and radical individualists may groan when told "Twenty-eight years it had taken her to discover that she could not become a complete human being by herself.") Another similarity to Orbitsville is the ending; Tallon figures out an efficient way of exploring the universe, opening up vast living space and ending any need for competition over territory, thus ushering in a new era of peace.

An impressive and fun piece of work; I'll be keeping my eyes open for more Shaw books in my future travels.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Four stories by Richard Matheson from 1953


Joachim Boaz recently acquired a copy of Third From the Sun, a collection of 1950s stories by Richard Matheson, which brought Matheson to the forefront of my mind. Like everybody, I love I Am Legend, "Prey," and "Blood Son" (which also goes by the name "Drink My Blood."  Sneaky.) Since I started this blog I have not read very much Matheson, so I decided that the time had come to read some Matheson stories that were new to me.  While I, alas, do not own a copy of Third From the Sun with the sextastic cover that Joachim finds "horrid" (I respectfully beg to differ!) I do have my own stash of Matheson anthologies, and this week read four tales that first saw light in the year 1953.

"The Wedding" (1953)

A weak joke story about a groom who believes in dozens of silly superstitions, disrupting his wedding to a fat woman.  The punch line of the joke is that the truly dangerous superstition is the bride's--she insists the groom carry her over the threshold of their honeymoon hotel room, and he dies of a heart attack because she is so fat.

Hey, they can't all be as good as "Drink My Red Blood," (yet another of "Blood Son's" titles.)

"The Wedding" first appeared in Beyond Fantasy Fiction--dig that crazy cover!  I read it in my withdrawn library copy of Collected Stories Volume 2.

"Disappearing Act" (1953)

This is a solid psychological/existential horror story.  I guess you could call it a fantasy because what happens is nonsensical and there is no effort made to explain it. "Disappearing Act" originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; I read it in Tor's 2002 collection Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

The story is a journal, written by a failed writer with a failed marriage.  As I said about "Prey" way back when, Matheson is good at writing about the horror of our everyday lives--defeated ambitions, the agonizing search for love, that sort of thing-- and the first part of "Disappearing Act" is an effective look at the narrator's unhappy life.  And then we get into Twilight Zone territory when the people, and then the institutions, in the narrator's life begin to disappear without a trace.  The narrator begins to worry that he himself might disappear!  Matheson handles this fantastical material just as effectively.    

Quite good.


"Legion of Plotters" (1953)

This one first appeared in Detective Story Magazine.  Like "Disappearing Act" and "Wet Straw," I read it in my withdrawn library copy of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

"Legion of Plotters" is a well-written psychological tale with no supernatural or SF elements.  Mr. Jasper works retail in a Los Angeles department store and rides the bus between his apartment and work.  Jasper is hypersensitive, and the sounds, smells, and discourtesies of his fellow city-dwellers drive him to the edge, where he suspects people are conspiring to drive him insane, and then over the edge, to violence.

I liked it.

"Wet Straw" (1953)

"Wet Straw" was first published in Weird Tales.

John, a widower, is haunted at night while he lays in bed.  Each night the supernatural episodes, which start off with the smell of wet straw, grow more vivid and terrifying.  It turns out his wife is haunting him; one day years ago, on their honeymoon, they took cover in a barn during a rain storm, and agreed that they would always be together, even should one of them die.  The ghost of the wife has come to make good that promise, and reveals to us readers that John murdered her.

This one is just OK; somehow the writing is not as sharp and clear as in Matheson's best work, and the plot is a little more obvious and less innovative than "Legion of Plotters" and "Disappearing Act."  For example, I figured from the first page that John had killed his wife.  Also, there are scenes in which we are supposed to visualize how far from John's bed a window is.  At one point he has to stretch to barely reach the window, and then later the window is close enough that he punches his fist right through it.  When the doctor comes to look at John's hand, John lies and says he cut himself with a knife, but the doctor is skeptical because there is blood on John's sheets and blanket.  Doesn't the doctor see the broken glass?  Maybe I am nitpicking, but these kind of little discrepancies take me out of the story as I try to figure out what is going on  (maybe the window is in the ghost world and John didn't really break the window in our world?)

**********

I have to call "The Wedding" a miss, and "Wet Straw" just acceptable, but "Disappearing Act" and "Legion of Plotters" get the MPorcius Seal of Approval.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee

"He's a robot, but he made me feel more like a woman, more conscious of my desires, my needs, than any man ever did."

Last week the winds of fate yet again blew me to the region of West Des Moines, so I took some time to look into Half Price Books.  In the SF aisle I encountered one of those guys who talks about the books out loud to nobody or himself ("Is this a sequel? Or the first in the series?  It says on the cover here one thing, but inside it says...oh, no this is the first in the series...") presumably in hopes of striking up a conversation with another customer.  I pretended to study the clearance spinner rack so intensely that I didn't even notice this fellow creature and his sad cry for some kind of human connection in this lonely world.  My focus was rewarded with the discovery of a copy of the DAW 1982 edition of Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover.

(I'm not exactly crazy about Don Maitz's cover illustration, but Tanith Lee herself drew the frontispiece to this edition of the novel, which is pretty cool.  A must-have for all Tanith Lee collectors!)

The Silver Metal Lover is perhaps Lee's most famous work, but, for whatever reason, I have not seen it on book store or library shelves in many years.  When I first heard about it, as a kid, I had no interest in reading a 240-page book about a chick who wants to have sex with a robot.  (The year The Silver Metal Lover came out, 1981, my favorite book was The Empire Strikes Back novelization by Donald F. Glut, who also produced one of my top ten favorite nonfiction books, The Dinosaur Dictionary.) As an adult I have been very impressed by much of Lee's short fiction, and so I became curious about this famous novel.  This week I satisfied my curiosity.

Jane is a lachrymose 16-year-old who lives with her wealthy mother Demeta in a luxurious house that sits on steel stilts among the clouds.  Twenty miles away from Jane's home lies a large city, where live all of what girls today might call Jane's "frenemies."  Foremost among Jane's circle are Clovis, a sophisticated, promiscuous and cruel gay man, and Egyptia, like Jane an emotionally extravagant teen-aged girl. Then there are the twins, Jason and Medea (incest is a common theme in Lee's work), who are very wealthy but enjoy shoplifting and picking pockets.  Jason is an electronics whiz, and one of his hobbies is making amateur surveillance devices and booby traps.

Robots are everywhere, acting as servants in Jane's house and as clerks in stores, operating taxis and ambulances, even performing police duties.  These robots look and act like machines; Jane calls the household robots "spacemen" because they resemble astronauts' vacuum suits, complete with flat reflective faces.  As the novel begins new robots come on the market that look just like humans and can move and talk just as well as humans; in fact, better than humans. Jane sees a model with silver skin (the silver ones are musicians) and it is more physically attractive and a better singer and guitarist than any human male ever could be. Jane falls in passionately in love, and hopes to acquire the robot.  Her allowance won't cover the cost of the silver model, and her mother would presumably disapprove anyway, so Jane turns to Clovis and Egyptia for aid.  Egyptia purchases the robot, but she finds that it is so skillful in bed she is not sure she wants to part with it.  (Clovis also takes a turn in bed with the machine when left alone with it.)

In order to secure the robot for herself, while her mother is away at a conference (Demeta is a sort of academic, leading archaeological expeditions when Jane was a baby and currently presenting papers and chairing meetings and so forth) Jane sells all the clothes and furniture in her room, buys the robot from Egyptia, and runs away from home.  She moves into a crummy apartment in the poor part of town with her robot boyfriend, whom she just decides to call "Silver," and doesn't give her new address to her mother or any of her so-called friends.

Silver is the perfect boyfriend: thanks to his computer brain and super strong, super fast body, he is an expert at lovemaking, is always attentive and supportive, can play any musical instrument like a genius, can write beautiful songs and hilarious jokes on the fly, decorates their apartment in high style on the cheap, etc.  Away from her mother and her selfish creepy friends Jane becomes happy, and, because she is off the strict diet of pills and hair treatments Demeta foisted on her for years she loses weight and goes from a plump dull-haired girl to a strikingly beautiful blonde.  With Silver's encouragement she turns out to be a talented singer and song writer.

At the same time Silver seems to be learning from Jane how to feel--she is bringing him to life in a literal way even as he is bringing her to life metaphorically, helping her achieve her potential.  (It is hinted a few times that something is different about Silver; in a scene at the robot store the manager says Silver "doesn't check out," and "some of the readings are altered."  Maybe Silver is special before Jane purchases him, but that scene in the store is after Jane meets Silver on the street and kisses him, so maybe her kiss brought him to life.)

Can such happiness last?  The mischievous and malevolent Jason and Medea track down Jane and Silver.  At the same time the city government, in response to protests against the robots and as part of their economic policy (unemployment is one of the government's main concerns, so the last thing they want is robots who can replace even talented musicians, actors and dancers) have pressured the robot manufacturers to recall all their products and close up shop.  Jane decides they must escape the city. Clovis uses his wealth and connections to try to help Jane and Silver get out of the state, but Egyptia and the twins guide the electronics company people right to them. Silver is captured and (apparently) melted down into scrap and Jane, bereft, slashes her wrists, only to be rescued by Clovis's agents before she expires.

After Jane has recovered from her suicide attempt she receives what appears to be a supernatural message from Silver, suggesting that, thanks to Jane's love, he has developed a soul and awaits her in the afterlife.  (Cleverly, Lee foreshadows this development 220 pages earlier, as I noticed only after finishing the book and flipping through it.)



The Silver Metal Lover is kind of long, but it doesn't feel long.  Lee's style is smooth and very readable, and the characters and world feel quite real, and at the same time are quite mysterious, so I was always eager to learn new things about them.  Some years before Jane was born the Earth suffered a cataclysmic strike from a meteor ("the Asteroid") which killed millions of people and altered the very geography of the Earth. Lee fills the book with charming images: at night the city looks like jewels, a polluted purple river is inhabited by armored mutant fish, fragments of the Asteroid have gathered together and orbit the Earth as a second, blue-colored, moon.  All through the book I was trying to figure out where the city was; London?  New York?  Los Angeles?  The characters all use British idioms (e.g.; "I had a vision of myself standing there like a blancmange," and "They're very mean, despite their riches and their thievery,") but talk about fleeing "upstate," or leaving the "state."  People can leave the city to the east (there is agriculture there) but also to the west.  Within the city there is an "Island" in an old reservoir where rich people live, and nearby a "Canyon, which had been created even prior to the Asteroid...."  A puzzle!  Probably the city is a fantasy archetype of one or more real cities; Lee has done such things with Venice and Paris in other of her books.

All you well-read people can enjoy the numerous allusions to classical literature and Shakespeare.

The novel works as a love story set in an engaging locale, as a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for young women (princess plain Jane leaves home to meets her soul-mate and become a beauty and a popular singer) but it also addresses a number of interesting issues--in the same way I enjoyed trying to figure out where in the world the novel is set I enjoyed trying to puzzle out what, if anything, Lee was trying to say about life.

One obvious theme is of humanity rendered obsolete and even replaced by its creations.  The minor characters in the novel, in particular the city mob threatened by unemployment and the city government that does its bidding (and Egyptia, an aspiring actress who fears robots will take all the acting jobs), fear the replacement of humans by technology, but Jane and Lee herself seem to embrace the idea.  Lee even depicts the very thing that so many believe sets humanity apart from the rest of the universe, a soul, being attained by a machine.  Jane paints her skin silver, showing her allegiance to the robot and metaphorically abandoning the human race, and Clovis similarly changes his style in imitation of Silver, dyeing his hair red.

The Silver Metal Lover could be seen as an indictment of the human male (or perhaps more specifically straight men), or maybe just an assertion that men are superfluous and unneeded by women.  Silver, a mechanical device, is superior in every way to any man, as an artist, a friend, and a lover.  Men realize their inferiority, and like the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution they violently protest to defend their position in society.  But while the Luddites failed to halt technological progress, the city government in The Silver Metal Lover bends to the will of men and the robots are shuffled off the scene, rendering the robots the tragic figures, not the unemployed men.

Jane has no father (her mother was artificially inseminated) and half of Jane's friends likewise have no father in the home.  The evil Jason and Medea have a father, but he has signally failed to raise them to be decent human beings.  Clovis has a father, but when Jane says "I never had a father," right after declaring that Silver would make a fine foster father, Clovis's reply is "you didn't miss a thing." All the male characters in the book are malevolent or creepy, and even the homosexuals who aid Jane (like Clovis and Jane's understanding slum landlord) are associated with anti-social character traits, deception and/or disease.

Of course, most of the women in the novel are also pretty crummy.  Egyptia and Demeta are dominated by their own selfish emotions and take advantage of and manipulate others to suit their own warped psychologies.  You could perhaps criticize the book on feminist grounds: Jane's life revolves around her relationship with a "man," and other people (primarily males like Clovis and Silver) are always rescuing her from her problems (some of which are caused by envious women), providing money and saving her from death.  (Not that I would let such criticisms get between me and the enjoyment of the novel; Jane in The Silver Metal Lover, who is obsessed with love, like Podkayne in Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, who is fascinated by babies, remind me a lot more of real women I have met than many of the women we so often see in recent SF productions, who are always killing vampires and zombies by the score in hand-to-hand combat.)

I think we have to consider the possibility that one of the main themes of The Silver Metal Lover is misanthropy; people are crappy and we should not regret that robots will replace us!  Clovis tells Jane that having sex with Silver, "made me aware, for the eighty millionth time, what a pile of gaumless garbage most of humanity is."  Ouch!

On a more positive note, maybe we can see the novel as promoting individualism and celebrating rare generous love relationships, recognizing the importance of being yourself and surrounding yourself with supportive people who try to help you rather than change you, who express their love by helping to set you free.  Among her domineering mother and jerks like Egyptia, Jason and Medea, Jane could not grow, could not be herself.  When Jane escapes her mother's baleful influence she blossoms, losing weight (Clovis thinks she's lost thirty pounds and Jane tells us she has a 22-inch waist) turning out to be a blonde.  Egyptia also sees a change in her character: "Jane, you've changed so much....You're beautiful.  And fey.  And so calm.  So wise."  Jane is quick to credit this change to hanging out with Silver instead of Egyptia and her ilk.

Could it be significant that the most evil characters in the book, Jason and Medea, are inseparable twins, living icons of uniformity?  ("Like a lizard, Medea slithered abruptly away through the salon.  Jason, impelled by the invisible bit of string which connected them, peering back at Clovis, went after her.")

The Silver Metal Lover is a much more mature, memorable, and engaging and entertaining novel than the other novels of Lee's I have read, The Birthgrave and The Storm Lord.  It achieves the greatness of those short stories I have been praising on this blog, and sustains it for 240 pages.  Recommended.