Sunday, August 30, 2015

At The Narrow Passage by Richard C. Meredith

"I have only your word," I said, "and I'm sick and tired of taking other people's word for things.  I'm going to find out for myself."  

I think I bought At The Narrow Passage, Berkley N2730, a 1975 edition of the 1973 novel, over a year ago.  I bought it because I loved the cover painting by Richard Powers.  I like Powers, but often his work seems flat, physically and emotionally. Here was a Powers that had a strong sense of physical depth, and a terrible emotional power: it looked like the landscape that would confront you if you were assigned to explore a planet inhabited by feral vampires or sentenced to Hell by a merciless God. I had no idea who the hell Richard C. Meredith was, and the alternate universe soldier plot described on the back cover didn't particularly interest me, so I just put the book on my shelf and admired the cover occassionaly.

Then, back in June, Joachim Boaz reviewed Meredith's 1969 novel We All Died at Breakaway Station.  He only gave it a middling review, and complained about the book's characterizations and gender politics, but it sounded to me like it had some pretty cool ideas, and, if done well, the kind of bleak tone that would go along with the Powers painting on At The Narrow Passage.  This put At The Narrow Passage onto my radar screen, and I even kept it out of the moving cartons when I packed up my books for storage.  This weekend I finally read the novel.

Revised edition
(Tarbandu wrote about At The Narrow Passage and its sequels in January of 2014, but somehow I didn't make the connection until I had started reading this volume. Maybe because he read a revised edition put out in 1979 with a different cover.)

There are many different "timelines" in the universe, visualized as branches on a two-dimensional tree.  When the universe began there was just the one trunk, but when points of uncertainty are reached, decisive moments when something of consequence may occur (will the Roman Empire embrace Christianity or not?) the line will split into two lines.  By the 20th Century there are a "near infinite" number of lines.  In relation to each other, these lines are described as being to the East or West.  Far to the East of our own line are lines in which the Earth is inhabited by the Krith, an inhuman intelligent species that can't or won't manipulate tools or machines (they don't even wear clothes), but which can travel between the timelines (this is called "skudding") thanks to a special nervous organ.  The Krith become friendly with humans while exploring West, and warn them that in the 40th century or so hostile aliens are going to come to Earth, threatening the extermination of the Krith and human races.  So the Krith, Hari Seldon style, go to many human-inhabited timelines and scientifically predict what courses of history are most likely to produce a unified human civilization with the technological level to defeat the aliens. Then they try to push and prod the human race, more or less secretly, in order to get history to move in that world-peace/high-tech direction.

Our narrator is a human, known in his current timeline as Eric Mathers.  Mathers is a mercenary soldier, paid by the Krith to fight in the wars of various timelines on the side the Krith think more likely to lay the foundations of a civilization that will be able to resist those aliens in 2000 years.  ("Timeliner" mercenaries like Mathers can tip the balance of battles and wars because they bring with them special equipment, like rayguns and biological augmentations that provide them better eyesight and faster reflexes.)  In this timeline he is playing the role of a British Army officer; here the British Empire is in a war of attrition in Europe against the German Empire, a war roughly similar to World War One in our timeline.  Very few natives of this timeline know about the Krith and the timeliners, just people like the King of England and Britain's highest commanders.

Hardcover first edition
In the first 100 pages of the book Mathers is a member of a commando team trying to capture a German aristocrat who is in charge of an effort to develop atomic weapons.  Things go wrong and Mathers gets captured by mysterious allies of the Germans who turn out to be timeliners (they call themselves "Paratimers") from the West side of the Temporal Spectrum, lines the Krith have not yet visited.  These people claim the future alien invasion is a Krith fabrication, and that the Krith are manipulating people like Mathers and the British of this timeline for their own unknown purposes.

Mathers spends the middle third of the book as a prisoner in a secret underground city in Florida, where American revolutionaries are plotting to overthrow the British Empire (which in this timeline still rules all English-speaking parts of North America.)  The Paratimers try to get Mathers to switch sides.  This section of the book reminded me of bits and pieces from Robert Heinlein's work (Mathers has sex with lots of women, reminding me of parts of Glory Road, and witnesses pro-independence political meetings, like those portrayed in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Between Planets and Red Planet) and from George Orwell's 1984 (Mathers reads books purporting to be the true history of mankind's relationship with the Krith, like how Winston Smith reads The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.)  Unlike Heinlein and Orwell, however, Meredith doesn't discuss any kind of political philosophy or seem to have any particular political axe to grind. (Tarbandu suggests that he gets philosophical later, in the sequels.)

Meredith's treatment of minorities and women also reminded me of Heinlein's; there are non-whites and women in leadership positions, Mathers specifically condemns racial prejudice, and there are inter-racial sexual relationships--Mathers, who is white, thinks a black woman is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  It is also made clear that there are timelines in which sub-Saharan Africans developed modern industrial civilizations and colonized Europe instead of the other way around.

(While I'm talking about possible connections to other works, I should note that Meredith's dedication to this book, and tarbandu's discussion of the series, make clear that Meredith owes a lot of this timeline business to H. Beam Piper, but that I personally haven't read any of Piper's own work in this vein.)

Mathers escapes from the secret base and in the final seventy or so pages of the 250-page novel tries to figure out the truth behind both the Krith and the Paratimers.  He learns that both of these groups have been lying to and manipulating humanity--the alien invasion scare is a hoax, while the Paratimers' leaders are ruthless inhuman killers in disguise.  After a climactic ray guns and machine guns blazing confrontation in a desolate timeline where the Earth has been sterilized by Paratimer nuclear weapons, Mathers escapes both his Krith masters and the blue-skinned Paratimers. Safe in our own timeline, Mathers resolves to do something to protect humankind from these two sinister groups.  What the inhumans are ultimately up to, and what Mathers can do about it, I guess we learn in the sequels.

At The Narrow Passage seems to be designed to appeal to history buffs, particularly military history buffs.  There is a lot of talk about firearms and lots of long expository passages in which one character or another describes how his or her timeline got to be how it is.  (For example, in the timeline in which most of the book takes place the British were able to quash the American Revolution in the 1770s and make France a British satellite during the 1790s Revolutionary crisis there thanks to widespread adoption by the British Army of the Ferguson rifle.)  On the intellectual history side, the guy who is credited with figuring out the Krith are lying about the aliens and writing one of the Paratimer propaganda books is an analogue of Martin Luther named Martin Latham, while many of the Paratimers come from a timeline in which the Cathars came to dominate Europe.

There are lots of action and battle sequences: firefights, ambushes, artillery and aerial bombardments, burning towns and so forth.  As we almost always see in these adventure stories, plenty of people get captured and plenty of people escape capture--sometimes I feel like every book I read has multiple scenes in which people get tied up and at least one scene in which somebody gets knocked out with a blow to the head, only to wake up just fine a few hours later.  There is also a strong lascivious element to the book: Mathers meets lots of beautiful women and we receive descriptions of all their breast sizes; the topic of rape comes up several times; and it is normal for characters of both sexes to be naked, because they come from nudist societies or because they have been caught in dishabille during a sneak attack or because somebody needs to use their clothes as makeshift bonds to tie somebody up.

I like sex and violence as much as the next guy, and Meredith handles that material well enough, and all the science fiction stuff, while not believable, is adequately explained for an adventure caper.  And I'm a history buff myself, so all the references to Ferguson rifles and Albigensians were interesting.  On the negative side, the characterizations are pretty thin, and the book feels a little long and slow.

The best thing Meredith does is keep you in the dark as to whether you are supposed to sympathize with the Krith and the British or the Paratimers and the rebellious Americans; both sides put forward arguments that don't hold water, and both count among their members some admirable figures and some creepy suspicious figures. This is more interesting than those stories in which one side is racist or exploiting the environment and so you know right away they are the villains, and have to trudge through half the story to the "surprise" of the main character switching sides to join the multicultural tree-hugging side.  Meredith kept me guessing and wondering through the entire novel.

I enjoyed At The Narrow Passage enough that I plan to read the sequels; I am genuinely curious as to where Meredith is going to go with these ideas.  So call this one a positive review!  It is not for everybody, but it does what it sets out to do creditably.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Electric Forest by Tanith Lee

"Grown skin and grown hair," he rapped out at her.  "Cellular growth after a blueprint in a growth tank,inner organs built like machine parts inside a machine.  Put together like a doll.  You're a clock, Magda. Vellum outside and tick-tock inside.  Tick Magdala. Tick tock.  You can do it all, Magdala.  You can even screw.  But don't foul it up for me."    

Another of my South Carolina purchases, the hardcover first edition of Tanith Lee's 1979 novel Electric Forest, published by Nelson Doubleday.  It looks like a previous owner inscribed his or her name on the first page, but this evidence of ownership was then removed by the expedient of cutting off the corner of the page.  Curious.

The wrap around cover illustration, with the subdued colors and odd perspective, is by Jack Woolhiser.  I am happy to have gotten my hands on a novel by Lee I had not yet read, of course, but seeing the perfectly composed and colorful illustration by Don Maitz on the DAW paperback has me wishing I had found one of those.  Maitz also, I believe, did a frontispiece for the DAW printing of Electric Forest, something I would like to see.

Something else I would like to see is an English version of the essay about Lee by MPorcius fave A. E. Van Vogt, which appears in the Italian edition of Electric Forest.  Knowing such an essay exists, and that (presumably) Van Vogt was a fan of Lee's, made me wonder about possible similarities between Van Vogt's and Lee's work.  I have to admit that, Van Vogt's writing typically being clumsy and confusing, while Lee's is generally so beautiful and clear, I had never really considered comparing them!  However, in the area of plot, I think we can see something like characteristic Van Vogt ideas in Electric Forest, and maybe in some other novels by Lee.

Magdala Cled lives in a future when the government closely monitors reproduction, and all births are supposed to be the product of carefully selected artificial insemination, guaranteeing that every baby is a healthy and attractive specimen.  Some traditional conceptions and births fall through the cracks, however, and our main character's mother, a government-licensed prostitute, had one of those, producing the severely deformed Magdala.  Lee does not skimp on descriptions of twenty-something Magdala's repulsive body, how her squat asymmetrical form lurches around the high-tech solar-powered city, from her button-pushing part-time job in a pristine factory to her periods of leisure in an"electro-library" and evenings in a tiny spartan apartment.  Magdala, abandoned by her mother at birth, raised at a callous government orphanage where the other kids beat her up, has no family or friends, but as the novel begins she is accosted by a very handsome and very wealthy young man.

Claudio Loro is an arrogant jerk, but also a brilliant scientist.  He has created an artificial body, that of a beautiful woman with blue-black hair and fawn freckles, and at his seaside estate and laboratory, a thousand miles from the city, he shifts Magdala's consciousness to this body.  He then provides her forged ID and a crash course in how to use the body and how to behave in high society.

We soon learn that the haughty Claudio hasn't performed this miracle of science out of charity!  Magdala's new body is a reproduction of that of one of Claudio's former lovers, Christophine del Jan, a rival scientist. Magdala is forced to impersonate Christophine and help Claudio outmaneuver other rich people and infiltrate Christophine's home and place of business, both of which are on a distant island research center.

Claudio plays a role in Electric Forest like that a femme fatale might play in a story with a male protagonist; he manipulates Magdala in part by keeping control of her real body (it resides in a sort of glass sarcophagus and requires regular maintenance; if it expires Magdala will die) and in part through a sexual hold on Magdala, who has never experienced physical affection before and is vulnerable to his charms.  Their relationship is a twisted, codependent one: the intellectual and glamorous Claudio has contempt for the uneducated and hideous Magdala, and is constantly insulting her, and Magdala in turn hates Claudio as much as she aches for his caresses.  Lee also works in one of her common themes, incest--sometimes Claudio presents Magdala as his sister, "Magda Loro."
"Hate," he said.  "Worlds have been conquered on the strength of that.  Hate me, Magdala, but hate her more."  He put his hand gently on her head.  Gently he said to her, "Share it with me, Magdala.  My hate for Christophine."
"Why?" she said.
"I informed you, you must not ask why, or what.  You are my marionette.  Dance for me, and keep your mouth shut.  Or I won't be nice to you any more."
One theme of the book, as the quoted passage above suggests, is hate, primarily hate born of envy.  Claudio remarks on the hatred of the poor for the rich, and when Christophine appears, she explains to Magdala that Claudio hates her (Christophine) because Christophine is smarter than he is. Claudio has his own version of the story, in which Christophine hates him because he is the smarter one.

The major theme of the book is the tension between reality and artifice.  The "electric forest" of the title refers to holograms of trees used as a decoration at Claudio's estate, and on the island research center.  Everywhere she goes Magdala encounters deceptive and/or decorative holograms of one type or another.  Claudio is described as a "magician," and spends the entire book deceiving people.  Magdala, who has never had a human relationship before, once in the Christophine body has to resort to saying things she has heard actresses say on TV.  Is Lee, by presenting us with these extreme cases of false identities and disguises, reminding us how artificial we all are, how we use clothes and cosmetics and words to present an image to the world that doesn't necessarily reflect our true selves?

In the final chapters of the novel Magdala must decide which of the two manipulative scientists to side with.  Then, in a crazy twist ending that reminded me of the surprises at the end of Lee's first big novel, 1975's The Birthgrave, and 1980's Day by Night, we find that Magdala's entire life is an experiment! Everything that we have seen has been an illusion, from the city Magdala lives in (a theatrical set!) to Claudio and Christophine (actors!)  The Earth government has run this vast simulation to study the potential of their new consciousness shifting technology for use in espionage in a cold war with other planets!

This bizarre twist, the revelation that the world is not at all what it seems, is one of the things that reminds me a little of a Van Vogt story.  Also reminiscent of Van Vogt are scenes in which Magdala finds herself in a confusing new environment, and has to trick its inhabitants into thinking she belongs there, and scenes in which she has to choose sides in a conflict about which she knows almost nothing.

Even if I was a little let down by the ending (all those characters I cared about were just actors?) I really enjoyed Electric Forest.  The characters are all interesting and alive, and Lee's style is rich but smooth.  Electric Forest is also the right length; it doesn't drag the way I thought Day by Night did. The story is full of suspense--the characters, living in a world full of illusions, in physical and psychological intimacy with people they hate, are all teetering on some brink.  Can Magdala really navigate this unfamiliar world in this new body?  What if she can't get back to the sarcophagus with her real body in time to perform regular maintenance?  What is Claudio really up to? When will the real Christophine appear and how will she respond to meeting her double?  I didn't want to stop reading because I was eager to find out what was going to happen next.

Lee fills Electric Forest with references and allusions to the Bible (Claudio suspects Magdala was named after Mary Magdalene), classical myth and European literature (Claudio compares himself to Pygmalion and Frankenstein, Christophine to Circe, and Magdala, with her need to travel with her coffin, to a vampire) and fairy tales ("Beauty and the Beast" is directly referenced, while a number of elements reminded me of the story of Cinderella.)  I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

A very good read.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Genius Unlimited by John T. Phillifent

"I'm Rex Sixx, escort to the expert from Interstelpol.  Put that to music and you should have a hit number.  Excuse my levity, won't you?"

For 45 cents, on the eastern reaches of the land where the tall corn grows, I purchased DAW No. 16, Genius Unlimited, written by John T. Phillifent and published in 1972. The back cover copy includes the phrase "a yen to do the science-thing in your own way," and warns us that our hero is named "Rex Sixx."  Is this a novel about a hair band?

Another question: Who is John T. Phillifent?  We'll let the people at DAW answer that one:

Obviously!
To make this blog post relevant to today's youth, I will point out that Phil also wrote some novelizations of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV show, the basis for the latest movie craze!  (Why are there so many TV shows and movies and comic books that expect us to just forget all about the Katyn massacre, the Gulag, the '56 Hungarian Revolution, Prague Spring, et al., and cheer on some KGB agent because this week he's taking a break from murdering kulaks and tossing samizdat typists in prison to help the U.S. fight some fictional terrorist group?)

I like the cover by Jack Gaughan.  The guy climbing outside of his space ship to fire his pistol at some menace reminds me of the famous cover of The Gods Hate Kansas. I remember seeing postcards reproducing the cover of The Gods Hate Kansas for sale on a spinner rack in Union Square, across the street from that famous coffee shop.

My copy of Genius Unlimited was once owned by a young man by the name of Patrick Blackowiak.  Mr. Blackowiak planned to order four more DAW volumes, and even filled out the forms in the back of this book, but for some reason didn't tear out the pages and mail them off.  Let's hope this was a case of Mr. Blackowiak finding these Dean Koontz, Donald Wollheim, Mark Geston and Jeff Sutton books on his local bookstore's shelves, or photocopying these pages and mailing them off, and not Mom refusing to enable his addiction to DAW's fine product line.

Fellow SF fan Patrick Blackowiak, we salute you!
Enough preliminaries, what is up with Genius Unlimited?  The first thing I noticed was how poor the writing was, full of clumsy transitions, strange colloquialisms, labored sentences, and odd word choices.  Here's a section from page 11 to give you an idea what I'm talking about:

"I made it grow a name."
The whole book, 140 pages, is like this.  One odd tic that stood out for me was Phil's love of the word "angular."  On page 44 we are told of Alma Tillet that "There was just the faintest hint of Scottish angularity in her speech."  On page 74 we learn that Olga Glink, "despite her angular name was as chubby and curvaceous as any Greek marble..."  On the very same page Graham Packard is described as "a long, angular, austere hawk of a man...."  This is a book which could really use some copy editing.  

The story: On planet Martas is an island, Iskola, where geniuses who can pass a stringent psychological test are invited to live in seclusion and do their work unhindered by the rules and regulations enforced elsewhere.  These are real antisocial types, each living alone in a private compound surrounded by a force screen fence and thousands of acres of dense jungle. When Iskola suffers a mysterious crime wave, its leader calls for outside help.  Interstelpol (I.S.P.) sends a sexy woman (I mean lady) detective, Louise Latham, and Interstellar Security (I.S.) provides her two bodyguards, our hero Rex Sixx and his partner, Roger Lowry.  Latham is a genius herself; her senses are so acute and her brain operates so quickly she is practically able to read minds, foretell near-future events,and see in the dark.  In fact, her nervous system is so quick that it stresses her out, and she medicates herself with vast quantities of alcohol! For their part, Sixx and Lowry wear stark white "immunity suits" (with helmets) that readily identify them as I.S. agents and provide protection from vacuum, radiation, gunfire, and other dangers.

These three characters, who are essentially comic book superheroes, take 55 pages to get to Iskola.  Twice on the way Latham's super senses save her from deadly booby traps, while in a tepid action scene Sixx and Lowry's armor saves them from an attack by thugs with rocket launchers.  Once on the island they do detective stuff, investigating the murder of a senator, Arthur Vancec, who had been visiting Martas from Earth.  Our heroes gather together suspects and witnesses and question them, look at crime scene photos, and search the area for clues.  

Science fiction novels often try to teach you some science, and/or address economic or political issues.  Phil tries to do a little of this.  For example the Iskola geniuses have "high brow" conversations with Sixx and company.  One genius explains the concepts of signal, noise and distortion, another talks about how so many men throughout history have been willing to risk their lives in war in defense of the "abstraction" of the nation or homeland, and argues that only a society that was dying would endeavor to enforce material equality, a policy that punishes those with ability. Then there's the description of the island's environmentally friendly power source (chimneys that draw in moist warm air to drive wind turbines.)

Iskola, an island where superior people can go to live in isolation and do their own thing, is (or could be) a means of exploring themes like the relationship of the individual to the state and society.  At one point Latham says that "Iskola is private property, and it's no one else's business how they live," but Sixx "contradicts" her: "It is now...Vancec's untimely demise has made sure of it.  In a murder investigation there is no such thing as privacy...."  I wondered if Phil meant Iskola to be a satire of or response to Galt's Gulch from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged--the geniuses on Iskola are kind of dysfunctional, and have to call for help from the I.S.P., which I guess is a government agency, and in the end they repudiate (at least the most extreme aspects of) their individualism and plan to invite a bunch of normal people to the island.

(I should note that I have not actually read Atlas Shrugged, only read about it.)

Perhaps Phil means Genius Unlimited to contribute to a dialogue with other writers interested in libertarian issues, like the aforementioned Rand, Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson.  I detected other, more concrete, connections to other SF authors.  For one thing it is hard to believe that the murdered senator's name was not inspired by Jack Vance, who, like Phil, wrote mysteries as well as SF novels.  And in the very beginning of the novel there is also a jocular reference to Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth: "Martas," we are told, means "gravy" in Hungarian, and Lowry suggests the discoverer of the planet must have gotten the idea for the name from a book.

Anyway, in the final third of the book there are chases through the jungle and gunfights and explosions as it is revealed that hundreds of people (paranoids and megalomaniacs who failed that psychology test) have sneaked onto the island over the years and have been hiding in the jungle, awaiting their chance to steal the geniuses' new technology for use in a plot to take over the galaxy.  Lowry and Lapham are captured, but Sixx rescues them.  The geniuses learn the value of cooperation ("...we must discard our policy of independent isolation and work together on this") and Sixx and one of the geniuses, the curvaceous Olga Glink, fall in love.  It seems like Lowry and Lapham will also soon be getting it on.  So a happy ending for everybody (we even learn that Vancec was terminally ill anyway, and came to Martas to expose his evil half-brother, which he succeeded in doing by being murdered by him.)

This book is pretty bad.  The writing is bad, one of the characters is silly and all the rest are without any personality, the jokes are bad, the action scenes are boring, much of the detective stuff and the science stuff feels perfunctory.  There was actually a sequel, printed as a serial in Analog and then as half of an Ace Double, called Hierarchies.  Do not expect to see a discussion of Hierarchies in this space in the near, far, or very far future.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

1961 stories by Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, & John Wyndham

Traversing this great land of ours, mountains, forests, railroads, skyscrapers, art museums, birds, amphibians, and my wife's relatives are not the only natural and man made wonders I discover.  I also discover classic science fiction bargains!  One such bargain was a paperback edition of Judith Merril's The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition, printed in 1963 by Dell and covering science fiction and fantasy published in 1961.



In our last episode we looked at stories from Merril's anthology written by two writers on the periphery of the SF community, as well as one by a SF writer whose work has, perhaps, largely been forgotten.  In this installment we'll read stories by relatively well-known SF writers: Fritz Leiber, perhaps most famous for his contributions to the sword & sorcery genre; Cordwainer Smith, celebrated for his Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and John Wydham, author of Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids.

"The Beat Cluster" by Fritz Leiber

"The Beat Cluster" first appeared in the October issue of Galaxy, where it was the cover story.  I've enjoyed quite a bit of Leiber's work, but I cannot deny that Galaxy's cover illustration had me fearing  "The Beat Cluster" was going to be a story about popular music.  I try to avoid stories that tediously romanticize the author's favorite rock band or celebrate his favorite style of jazz or blues musician or whatever.

Merril, in her intro, responds to early '60s claims that science fiction (exemplified by the "space story") was about to be superseded by events, that once "science catches up with science fiction," it will be "dead."  She suggests that "space stories" that are more about people than "rockets and orbits," will have an enduring value and appeal, and that "The Beat Cluster" is an example of just such a story.

I was pleased to find that this was a story about people, as Merril had proposed, and that Leiber didn't overdo the music angle.  The Beat Cluster is a sort of beatnik colony or commune, informally overseen by Fat Jordan, an overweight black man who, following a career as a welder, is now an amateur guitarist and singer/songwriter.  (I agree, he doesn't really look black on the cover of the magazine.  Here's a data point for your master's thesis on the depiction of blacks in science fiction, grad students!) The commune consists of giant bubbles of self-sealing plastic, connected by tunnels to each other and to a proper space station devoted to research.  Large blankets with one reflective side hover around to provide cover from the sun, and the inhabitants spend their time making music and art, gardening, and just hanging around.  Lieber talks a lot about how the lack of gravity fosters lifestyles different from those on Earth, and how people grow food and generate oxygen and so forth in space.

The plot of the story serves to provide opportunities to compare Earthbound life with zero gee life.  The Station has a new Administrator, and he wants to send the beatniks back down to Earth--they are essentially squatters who have no legal right to be attached to the station, and they are dirty, their bubbles smelling horribly.  The beatniks list all the things they won't be able to do on Earth, all the discomforts gravity will inflict on them.  Luckily, the President of the United States and public opinion, on Earth and among the scientists and technicians on the main Station, intervene.  The beatnik colony, in fact, serves a useful purpose, as a pool of surplus labor, a place for the Station's staff to relax, and as the subject of a study of anarchic zero-gee life, and Fat Jordan and his fellow musicians have achieved a level of popularity on Earth via jazz broadcasts.  The deportation order is cancelled and everybody lives happily ever after.

I liked it.    

"A Planet Named Shayol" by Cordwainer Smith  

This is one of the critically acclaimed Instrumentality of Mankind stories; over the course of this blog's life I have enjoyed several stories in this series, so I was looking forward to this one.  Like "The Beat Cluster" it appeared in the October issue of Galaxy, and was promoted on the cover.  A little googling provides a look at the truly disturbing two page illustration by Virgil Finlay that adorned "A Planet Named Shayol;" is this what the kids are talking about when they use the term "body horror?" Yikes!

Merril in her introduction doesn't talk about the story, but rather about Smith's unique and exciting life and career inside and outside science fiction.  (I'm not being sarcastic here, check out Smith's Wikipedia page, he really is a unique figure.)  And there is no need for Merril to tell you anything about the story--it really speaks for itself.  "A Planet Named Shayol" is a terrific piece of work, full of emotion and psychological insight, as well as bizarre and memorable images.  It is also a truly disturbing horror story.  This is the kind of story which really gives you an idea of what science fiction can achieve, how it can be something truly vital, more than an entertaining adventure story set in outer space or a thrilling detective yarn set in a ray gun- and robot-infested future.

Mercer has been convicted of a terrible crime against the famously cruel Emperor, and so he is shipped to Shayol for what is rumored to be "eternal punishment."  After harrowing preparations on an orbiting satellite, where medical specialists alter Mercer's body so it is fit to survive on the surface, Mercer is shipped "downstairs." Native to Shayol is a sort of microorganism knows as the "dromozoa."  A person infected by the dromozoa is kept alive indefinitely by the organism; it provides rapid healing and sustenance for hundreds or thousands of years.  The dromozoa also causes its hosts to grow additional body parts--arms, legs, heads, fingers, whatever. There are hundreds of convicts on the planet, and the population's caretaker, an "homunculus" who was created with the mixed genetic material of a human and a bull, periodically prunes the convicts of their extra body parts for freezing and subsequent use in hospitals around the galaxy.

This whole process is horribly painful, and so the cattle-man keeps the convicts high on a super-powerful drug most of the time.

After Mercer has lived on the planet for over a century there is a change in galactic government, and the new government, once alerted to Shayol's true nature, has to figure out a way to continue the salutary production of body parts for use in rehabilitating accident victims, while ending the use of Shayol as a place of outrageous punishment.  They also have to do something with all these drug addicts.

"A Planet Named Shayol" is full of compelling ideas, touching characters, moving scenes and vivid images; much of this I have not even hinted at here.  (The story is substantial, about 40 pages long.)  Smith's style is unobtrusive but brilliantly conveys all the story's dramatic, intellectual and emotional elements.  I expected it to be good, but the story surprised me by how much if affected me.

Highly recommended!

"The Asteroids, 2194" by John Wyndham (1960)

Alright, so I was a bit disappointed with Re-Birth AKA The Chrysalids.  Let's see if I like this better.

"The Asteroids, 2194" actually first appeared in New Worlds (with the much more euphonious title "The Emptiness of Space")  in 1960, throwing off my whole theme for this blog post: "Stories From 1961."  I guess Merril thought it kosher to include it in the anthology because it first appeared in the US in 1961 in Amazing, as the cover story.


As she did in the intro to the Leiber story, Merril says this tale is a "space story," but focuses not so much on "hardware" as on the effect of life in space on human beings and their culture.

"The Asteroids, 2194" is a first person narrative about a space flight, led by a Captain Gerald Troon,  to the asteroid belt, during which a derelict ship, lost for over four decades, is discovered.  In the derelict is a man in a special space suit which has kept him alive via some sort of deep freeze or suspended animation system.  This man turns out to be Captain George Montgomery Troon, the grandfather of Gerald Troon. George Montgomery Troon is religious, and when he is revived he fears he has lost his soul.

This asteroid belt story (eight pages) is alright, but it is embedded in another seven-page long first person narrative set on Earth that gives a lot of background about a future world in which, after a devastating war in the Northern Hemisphere, Brazil and Australia are the competing great powers and various islands constitute a "third world" over which they compete for hearts and minds.  As a result this story feels too long. Isfdb is telling me this story is part of a series about the Troon family, so maybe all that (here, superfluous) background detail serves a purpose if you read the entire series.

This story isn't bad, but I am skeptical it was one of the best of 1961 or 1960.  Maybe Merril thought its use of religious themes made it stand out from the crowd.

*********

It's the Cordwainer Smith story, "A Planet Named Shayol," that made me sit up and take notice, but Leiber's "The Beat Cluster" is good and Wyndham's "The Asteroids, 2194" is OK.  The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition continues to prove itself a worthwhile purchase.  I'll sample more of its contents in the future.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

1961 SF stories by Kaatje Hurlbut, Robert Beverly Hale, & Ward Moore

Another of my Davenport, Iowa finds was The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition, Dell 9773, printed in 1963.  I love the look of the thing--being shorter than most paperbacks, and utilizing bold wide fonts for much of the text on the cover, it has a sort of solidity and strength that is appealing.  This impression of power and seriousness is reinforced by the black background and the fact that the book is 400 pages!  The cover illustration is also fun, as is the echoing swirl on the title page.

Edited by Judith Merril of Tomorrow People fame, The Year's Best S-F is the science fiction anthology series which the critics go gaga for, and which always has listed on its cover writers I don't think of as science fiction authors.  (Lawrence Durrell?  Muriel Spark?) One of Merril's favorite topics appears to be the relationship between SF and the mainstream.  In an essay at the end of the book she talks about how, in the early '60s, "s-f" as she calls it, is being (re)absorbed into the mainstream, but without receiving the respect it deserves; The Saturday Evening Post prints a fantasy or science fiction story in just about every issue without labelling it as such, the tv show The Twilight Zone is not recognized as "s-f," and "much of the best science fiction published today is under wrappers and headings that either angrily disclaim the 'science-fiction' label, or ignore it completely."

I decided to pursue this idea, and so today after mowing the lawn (ah, the country life) I read three stories from The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition that originally appeared in magazines which did not specialize in science fiction, by writers I've never read before.

"A Passage from the Stars" by Kaatje Hurlbut

In her intro to this story Merril tells us this is Hurlbut's first SF story.  It is also the only title listed for Hurlbut at isfdb.  She seems to have had some well-received short stories published in the '50s and '60s, but then to have faded into obscurity.

"A Passage from the Stars" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Mr. Paradee has lived his life in the canyons between the skyscrapers of a big city, working as a bookkeeper at a button factory.  He has no family, and in retirement has moved to a tiny Atlantic coastal town where, with its big sky and ocean, and the friendly townspeople, he finally feels at home.  Another old single person lives in the town, Miss Pomeroy.  Pomeroy's ancestors settled the area, and their 17th century house still stands.  The Historical Society wants to turn this old cottage into a museum, but Pomeroy wishes it could become a home, a place of shelter and comfort for a living breathing family.

One of Paradee's hobbies is tinkering with a ham radio set, and one day he makes contact with space aliens, a family of refugees in a small ship that is about to run out of supplies.  The aliens are looking for a home, just like he was!  He overcomes fears that this alien family will use its technological superiority to conquer the Earth the way the British used their technological superiority to conquer North America and New Zealand (Cook is obliquely mentioned) and he and Pomeroy invite them to land in the tiny town and take up residence in the 1600s cottage.  The aliens, we learn, in the course of achieving the kind of civilization that can cross the interstellar void, have grown out of any desire to conquer people.  Humans haven't grown out of that yet, but maybe Paradee and Pomeroy are a sign that we are moving in that direction.

This story is alright, maybe a little sappy.
       
"Immediately Yours" by Robert Beverly Hale

Merril has her own definitions of words like "science fiction" and "s-f" which I am not sure I am grokking yet. The first lines of her intro to this story are "Now this one is not science fiction.   It is, very much, 'S-F.'  Mr. Hale was not concerned with how or why his strange events occurred, or with the logic of the situation--and neither am I."  I guess Merril thinks "science fiction" applies to fiction that includes some science or logic, while "s-f" includes fantasy and stories with strange new ideas that have no basis in reason or reality.

I was kind of excited to read "Immediately Yours," as Merril informs us that Hale is not only an accomplished poet and artist, but the curator of the American Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my old stomping grounds of New York City.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I am a big fan of the American sculpture there.  (I love St. Gaudens, French, MacMonnies, McCartan, Bitter, etc.)

This story appeared in Mademoiselle.  Hale has only this one credit for fiction at isfdb; he has another for a poem that appeared in F&SF after first appearing in The New Yorker.  Apparently he is most famous as a draughtsman and as a drawing instructor.

This is a somewhat surreal story about an artist (our narrator) who is hanging out in a barn on Long Island--the area is a sort of informal artists' colony--and he is out there trying to get some painting done.  The bulk of the story may well be the painter's dream.  When a poet steals his girlfriend the painter takes some peyote and comes into possession of a meteorite.  The meteorite comes to life as a shape shifting alien.  The alien takes on the appearance of the girl of our hero's dreams and is eager to have sex with him, but instead of enjoying this situation he has the girl transform herself into a Jackson Pollock painting which he sells to an art dealer.  The art dealer, however, realizes the Pollock is an alien being, and before paying our narrator takes advantage of the E.T.'s  shape changing powers himself, both to make money via forgery and to create his perfect woman.  The alien girl is quite fickle, and at a party drifts off to spend time with a Coast Guard officer.  

There's also a lobster who likes to play marbles.

This story is a trifle; it doesn't even have a banal message, like the Kaatje Hurlbut story does.  However, it is fun and interesting.  Little details here and there made it feel like an authentic depiction of the life and milieu of a 1950s-60s fine artist.  There are also a few successful jokes; for example, when the girl first transforms into a Pollock our hero finds that the canvas is too large to fit out the doorway of the room in which he is claiming to have stored the piece.

"It Becomes Necessary" by Ward Moore

Unlike the last two writers, Moore seems to have made a go at a career in science fiction.  (Admiral.Ironbombs talked about one of Moore's big novels back in 2013.) "It Becomes Necessary" did not first appear in a SF magazine, however, but in Gent, which I am told is a Playboy imitator with a focus on women with larger than average breasts.  The story was entitled "The Cold Peace" (or maybe "A Cold Peace"?) at that venue.

Merril, in her intro, waxes nostalgic about her high school years during the New Deal, when the intellectual class supported communism and lamented the lack of sex education in the public schools and the impossibility of world government.  She also argues that the political and social changes that took place between 1936 and 1961 were as momentous as the technological changes, but were not recognized quite so readily.

This story is chockablock with learned references, like it is overcompensating for being in a magazine dedicated to girls' boobs.  On the very first page we get Brancusi, Queen Nefertiti, Louis Napoleon, and "Paris is worth a Mass."  This is not just Moore showing off, though; these references make sense in the context of the story.

The world has split into three blocs: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Third Force, which apparently includes every other country in the world, lead by the British and the French.  There has been a war between the US and USSR, and there has been a revolution in the United States that has put a racist and anti-Semitic regime in power; the revolutionaries maintain old forms, like voting and the Congress, but the President rules dictatorially via Executive Orders.  I'm not clear about cause and effect, if the creation of Third Force and the racist revolution in the US came before or after the war.

The entire story takes place at a Parisian sidewalk cafe.  Mrs. Fieldman is an American expatriate who fled to Europe after the revolutionaries in the US killed her husband. She is meeting a U.S. agent, who wants to purchase some information from her; in return for the addresses of other American expats, he offers her a pile of money and the right to return to America.  The agent says the other American expatriates won't be kidnapped or killed, that the current U.S. government wants to use them as intelligence assets inside the Third Force, which seeks to "police" the United States.

A French mob realizes the two are Americans, and, under a UN flag, menaces them. The American agent slips away, but Fieldman is forced to deal with them.  They demand she spit on a US flag in order to prove she is not a supporter of the current fascist regime in Washington, but she can't bring herself to do it, so they knock her down and kick the hell out of her.

The theme of the story seems to be that, while Fieldman deplores the current dictatorial U.S. government, she still has strong attachments to American culture and traditions.  Several times in the story she reflects that American food, booze, furniture and hygiene are so much more to her liking than that in Europe.  This brought to mind emigres from the French and Russian Revolutions, Vietnamese boatpeople and similar refugees from revolutions, who must miss the food and culture of their homelands, however much they hate and fear those of their countrymen who have put them to flight.

This story is pretty good; in fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

**********

Swirl!
These three stories are unobjectionable if not spectacular; they all get a thumbs up.  "A Passage from the Stars" is a little precious, and the most conventional of the stories, with its innocuous characters and uncontroversial message.  "Immediately Yours," is a bit of whimsy, and while fun and full of interesting art history tidbits, like "A Passage from the Stars" it does not engage the emotions. "It Becomes Necessary" is probably the best story; it inspires real thought and feeling ("What would I do, how would I feel, if my home country was taken over by violent radicals?  Could I be happy in some hostile, foreign, land?") and has a portion of the melodrama, violence and sex that are among the raisons d'etre of genre fiction.

I paid 35 cents for my copy of The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition; I feel like it has been a good investment.*

*Zut alors!  People at Amazon and abebooks are asking over 20 bucks for this paperback!  I'll try not to spill Coke on it!

Bad Ronald by Jack Vance

...he deeply resented the terms 'sex offender', 'deviate', 'murderer' when used in connection with himself.  Such words simply didn't fit the case; they implied a vulgar ordinary criminality which Ronald was far above and beyond.
I don't read many mysteries or detective stories, and when I do it is usually ones whose attraction isn't so much the actual detection aspect, but the violence and suspense.  I'm more interested in the psychological and adventure elements than in keeping track of clues and trying to figure out "whodunit" along with Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot.  But a few years ago I started looking at the mystery sections of used bookstores, hoping to find mysteries by Jack Vance.  I love Vance's writing style, and I was curious to learn if he used the same style for his detective stories and if this style would engage me as it had in so many of his SF stories and novels (which, of course, are often detective stories set in a far future milieu of space ships and ray guns.) At the Half Price Books in West Des Moines my search was rewarded with the discovery of a hardcover edition of three Vance mysteries, published in 2011 by Subterranean Press and entitled Dangerous Ways.

My copy is in pretty good condition (I believe I must be the first person to read any of it), and a look at abebooks and Amazon suggests it may be worth some money, which is odd because I think I paid like twenty bucks for it.  I know I didn't pay the cover price of $45.00.  Maybe the people at Half Price blundered, or maybe the value has risen dramatically since I purchased it.  I should probably sell it on ebay tout suite rather than read it.  Well, if I hang on to it maybe it will continue to increase in value, even after I've read it.  

I guess the cover painting is OK, but I don't understand the fonts used.  The font used for the title and author on the cover looks like something that belongs on a book about cowboys, while the font used for titles on the inside looks like it should be in a book of stories set in the Jazz Age.


I decided to start with the third included novel, Bad Ronald, because I had the impression it was more of a horror story about a loony tunes freako than a mystery in which a divorced flat foot would sit down and write out a list of clues while waiting for the lab results to come in and griping that the feds were trying to steal his big case. I'd heard that the title character was sort of like some of the mental cases pursued by Kirth Gerson in the Demon Princes books, which sounded good to me.

Bad Ronald was published in paperback in 1973 by Ballantine, who advertised it as a "suspense novel" and compared it to "The Boston Strangler;" whether they refer to the real life murderer of women, the journalistic book about the killer, or the movie based on the killer's exploits, or all three, I don't know.  Bad Ronald was made into a TV movie, but, if the summary at Wikipedia is accurate, they radically toned down Ronald's criminality.

Ronald Wilby is a teenage boy, living in a big Victorian house.  Ronald's parents are divorced, and he hasn't seen his father for ten years.  The boy has no friends and girls don't care for him, and he spends much of his time writing the history of, and creating maps and illustrations of, a fantasy world of his own devising. This is quite like the villain in the final Demon Princes book, The Book of Dreams.

On his seventeenth birthday Ronald, after being humiliated by a blonde girl his age whom he has a crush on, encounters an eleven-year-old blonde girl in the street and, on a sort of impulse, rapes her in the yard of a nearby house.  When she won't promise to keep this crime a secret, Ronald strangles her to death.  Ronald tells his smothering mother of his misdeed; the police will be along shortly, as Ronald left his jacket and other clues behind at the murder scene.  So, Mom helps him build a secret lair out of a small bathroom under a staircase; Ronald is to live in this diminutive room, being passed meals through a small secret door, until Mom has saved up enough money for them to skip town.  This could take months or a year!

Ronald hides in the tiny room for months, more or less content with his art projects and books.  But then Mom suddenly dies and the house is sold to the Woods, a married couple with three blonde teenage daughters.  Ronald installs peepholes and spies on the family, and, when the youngest girl is home alone, drags her into his lair to be raped and murdered.  He does the same to the middle child when he gets a chance.  Finally, the older brother of his first victim, who is dating the oldest of the Wood girls, figures out what is going on, and Ronald is dramatically expelled from his hiding place.  The relatives of his victims each get a chance to strike him in the ensuing melee, and then the police take Ronald into custody.

Even though Bad Ronald is not a first person narrative, it is told mostly from Ronald's point of view.  Much of the novel is about Ronald's psychological state. Ronald is obviously a sociopath or psychopath, though Vance doesn't use psychological language like that to diagnose Ronald, and he doesn't pass judgement on him; what Vance does is give us Ronald's own thoughts and words.  The novel is written in an understated way, never openly condemning Ronald, leaving that to the reader.  This reminded me of Vance's depiction of Cugel the Clever, the self-important and self-deluded protagonist of the two best of the four Dying Earth books. Cugel commits various crimes, rape included, but Vance never directly condemns him.

Vance also spends a lot of time describing how Ronald survives in the little room; what he does to occupy his time, how he acquires and prepares food, how he manages to flush the toilet without the Woods hearing it.  I found this compelling, and there is real tension when Ronald sneaks out of the secret room to seek food, information, or just to stretch his legs.

I like Victorian stuff, but it seems like when the novel was written and the story takes place, Victorian homes were out of style.  One of the interesting things Vance does is, through the dialogue or thoughts of various characters, subtly personify the house, give it a malign character.  For example, Ronald thinks of his "lair" as "brain of the house, the pulsing node of intelligence and passion...."  When they first move in, the most sensitive and creative of the Woods girls thinks the house has an evil 'atmosphere."

The book has some humor; Ronald's incongruously low key attitudes about his crimes and the danger he is in produce some subtle dark humor, and then there are the Woods' dismissive references to hippies and Democrats.  Science fiction fans might also enjoy the reference to Vance's buddy Poul Anderson, and to the Lord of the Rings and Oz books.

I thought Bad Ronald was effective; it is interesting and entertaining.  There are hints of the Vance style there, though the late 20th century setting stops Vance form having everybody speak in the elaborate and baroque fashion so many of his fantasy and science fiction characters do.

Despite my complaints about the title fonts, Subterranean Press seems to have done a good job putting together this volume.  I don't recall any scanning errors, which plague some of these reprints of classic genre literature (I'm thinking specifically of Night Shade Books' first volume of Karl Wagner's Kane stories and NEFSA's first volume of Poul Anderson stories, both of which I have read, and Nonstop Press's The Very Best of Barry Malzberg, which I have only heard about.)  I wish I could find all of their Jack Vance hardcover titles at bargain prices the way I did this one!     

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

April 1956 stories by Edmond Hamilton, Milton Lesser, and "Alexander Blade"

At an antiques store in Illinois called Winter Wheat I recently purchased, for like $2.20, a bedraggled copy of the April 1956 issue of Imagination.  According to Wikipedia all the critics think Imagination was a piece of crap, but flipping through the issue in Illinois, with South Carolina ("Look honey, I caught you this toad in the parking lot!") behind me and a stop at Steak & Shake ("Didn't I tell the waitress 'no mayo?'") ahead of me, the magazine looked like a lot of fun.  There's an Edmond Hamilton story and a charming little autobiographical essay by Hamilton, fun illustrations and comics that my college education requires me to warn you are sexist, a column that reviews fanzines, and a letters section in which fans of Imagination call the periodical "Madge," which I thought was just adorable.

This week I read three stories from the magazine; let's see if the critics are right to dismiss old Madge.  These three stories are available for free online at gutenberg.org, so even you cheapos out there don't have to let the critics (or me) do your thinking for you.

True riches come not from gold or diamonds, but from fulfilling relationships.

"The Legion of Lazarus" by Edmond Hamilton

This is one of those noirish stories in which a working class tough guy (in this case an electrician) uses his wits and his fists in a struggle against a ruthless interplanetary tycoon who has framed him for murder.  It also reminded me of a van Vogt story, in that an ordinary man develops psychic powers and super-intelligence and gets involved in a twilight struggle between merciless factions of weirdos.

Hyrst was working as part of a four-man team on Titan, doing maintenance on a robot mining operation.  The team's engineer, MacDonald, keeps bragging that he has found a vein of titanite, but won't tell anybody where he found it.  When MacDonald gets killed, Hyrst stands trial for murder on one of the moons of Mars, and, convicted, gets executed by being tossed out the airlock!


Fifty years later, Hyrst is revived!  He hears voices in his head; he is now a member of the Legion of Lazarus, a group of people with various ESP abilities!  After a scene in which Hyrst's son, who is now physically older than his father, denounces his father for ruining the family name, Hyrst follows the directions of the voices in his head and gets his ass to Mars.  On Mars he joins up with a group of Lazarites who are led by Christina, a beautiful but bitterly angry woman ("she was like a fire, burning with anger, burning with a single-minded, dedicated purpose.  She was beautiful, and frightening.")  Christina's group is at war with Bellaver, a businessman trying to win a monopoly on spacecraft construction; they have half-built the first interstellar ship, and Bellaver wants it.  To finish the ship, Christina's people need to find that titanite of MacDonald's.      

Over the course of the story (billed as a novel, and taking up like 50 pages of the magazine) people get captured and escape, there are space ship chases through the Asteroid Belt and a foot chase and siege on the surface of an asteroid, Hyrst beats people with a fire extinguisher, Bellaver uses an artificial gravity device to torture somebody, and other fun stuff.  The secret of who killed MacDonald (an employee of Bellaver's, of course) and the location of the titanite are extracted from Hyrst's brain. We also get a vague explanation of how all these people got their psychic powers and how they came back to life after being tossed into a vacuum.    

I thought this was a quite good space opera.  In particular, I liked how Hamilton described Hyrst's mental powers and how he grew into them, and the good job he did with all the settings: the snowy landscape of Titan; the surface of an asteroid littered with the eroded monuments of a prehistoric civilization; the cities of Mars, where the hooded natives, now a minority on their own planet, live in monolithic stone houses among the humans' modern buildings; Bellaver's orbital pleasure palace, etc. Hamilton also focuses on Hyrst's psychology, his shame, fear, anger.  The story also gives us hints of those staples of classic SF, the paradigm shift (when the public finds out about the Lazarites) and the "sense of wonder" ending, when the Lazarites in their hyperspace ship flash off to explore the universe.  "The Legion of Lazarus" also appeals to the apparently insatiable appetite of readers for tales of the evils of the bourgeoisie.  I find it hard to believe that the critics had this great adventure story in mind when they were badmouthing poor Madge!  

"The Graveyard of Space" by Milton Lesser

On August 7, via twitter, Joachim Boaz reminded us it was Milton Lesser's birthday. Jumping at a chance for a little self-promotion, I took this opportunity to remind the world that I had reviewed Lesser's novel Secret of the Black Planet at Amazon, pronouncing it bland and forgettable.  According to Wikipedia, Lesser, under the pen name Stephen Marlowe, won awards for his detective and mainstream fiction, so maybe he just put together Secret of the Black Planet on a bad day (or maybe back in January of 2012 I was just being a hardass) and I am going to love "The Graveyard of Space"!  Let's hope so!

Ralph and Diane Meeker (!) are headed home from Asteroid 4712, their efforts to mine it for uranium having come to nothing.  Their failure is straining their marriage. Then their second-hand space ship's radar fails, and they get sucked into the gravitational pull of a sargasso of dead spaceships, thousands of defunct craft orbiting in a swarm together.  (Remember Space Hulk?  Damn, my brother and I spent a pile of money on that stuff.)  The asteroid prospectors put on their space suits and split up to search the lost ships for a working radar set which will fit their model of ship.



This is an attempt at a horror story, and Lesser spends a lot of time describing the dead bodies on the wrecked ships.  Then Diane gets attacked by an insane man who has been stuck in the graveyard of ships for years and survived by cannibalism.  Ralph defeats the maniac in hand to hand combat.  Luckily, this very same ship has the radar set they need.  Ralph and Diane escape the Asteroid Belt; their ordeal has made them realize how much they truly love each other, and saved their marriage.

This story (fewer than 12 pages of text) feels like filler, but it is not bad.  An acceptable entertainment.  

"Zero Hour" by "Alexander Blade"

Who is Alexander Blade, you ask? I asked isfdb and Wikipedia the same thing, and found that it was a pen name used by many authors I have heard of, like Edmond Hamilton, Robert Silverberg, and John Jakes, as well as by authors I was unfamiliar with.  A few minutes googling did not provide any definitive info on exactly whose pen was responsible for "Zero Hour;" if you know better, please don't keep it to yourself!  Hamilton is a prime suspect; in the very next issue of Imagination his story "Battle for the Stars" appeared under the Alexander Blade pseudonym.  (I read the full length book version of Battle for the Stars and reviewed it at Amazon in January of 2012.)

I can see why nobody jumped up to take credit for this story; it's a trifle that reads like it was aimed at children, a strange contrast after Lesser's macabre story about failure, death, cannibalism and marriage.  Little Bobby's family lives on a high security government research base.  Bobby learns that his father is working on a rocket headed for the moon, and even learns the secret launching date.  On launch day Bobby sneaks aboard the rocket, assuming his dad is flying to the moon, but then gets cold feet, and sneaks back home to Mom before lift off.  It is lucky he did, because this was an experimental rocket which was sent, unmanned, to the moon to explode and mark the lunar surface with dye.


A competent but bland, innocuous sort of story.

**********

If most of Imagination's contents were like "Graveyard of Space" and "Zero Hour" I suppose the critics have a point, but I thought Hamilton's "The Legion of Lazarus" was an above average space opera, and I certainly have no regrets spending a little time with Madge.  Maybe I'll take my copy of this April '56 issue out of its plastic bag and take a look at the other three included stories in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Four stories by Thomas Disch from 1966

It's time to finish up with my 1971 US edition of the Thomas Disch collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.  (I read and blogged about the title story back in early 2014.)  All four remaining stories first appeared in 1966.

"5 Eggs" (1966)

This one first appeared in the anthology Orbit 1, edited by Damon Knight.  It's a good one, and is a good example of what I think of when I think of a characteristic Disch story; it is full of references to Shakespeare, Ovid, and Botticelli, it includes a sentence in Latin, a broken heart and a pathetic tragedy, as well as a central ironic joke.  It is only eight pages long, but Disch constructs the story as largely a bunch of flashbacks and documents, instead of a straightforward narrative.

The plot, in linear fashion: A wealthy ornithologist meets a beautiful alien woman and they have an affair, she living with him for two months.  She is a cruel lover who deliberately hurts him psychologically and physically, but he finds her irresistible and they become engaged. She leaves him just before the start of the party he is throwing to celebrate their engagement.  He takes some consolation in the fact that she has left behind five eggs, and instructions on how to hatch them.  Presumably, these are the product of their relationship.  The cruel alien has played a trick on the ornithologist, however, contrived a way to fool the housekeeper into including the eggs in a salad which he and his friends ate at the sad party meant to celebrate his engagement to the only woman he has ever loved.

A superior piece of work, the plot, structure, style, emotional impact and economy all remarkably good.  Five stars for "Five Eggs"!

"Three Points on the Demographic Curve" (1966)

This one first saw light of day in SF Impulse, a short-lived British magazine, edited by Harry Harrison for most of its existence.

It is the year 2240!  Government and Science! have been grappling with the problem of overpopulation for ages.  People live in tiny cubicles, children are raised in government barracks manned by robots, and, like in that Genesis song, the authorities have reduced human height!  But the Earth is still running out of room.

So, the authorities don't really mind when a Dickensianly-named guy from the future appears in a time machine and starts kidnapping children by the thousands, to repopulate a future Earth depopulated by war:
Prosper Ashfield was not a happy man.
As a youth, he had dreamed, as almost every young man dreams, of being the Last Man on Earth. Unlike other young men, Prosper had the good fortune to realize this ambition.
(Again we see the understated humor I enjoyed in "Genetic Coda.")

Prosper's plans fail, because the 23rd century kids have been ill-equipped by their education to rebuild society... these kids can barely walk, much less construct a new civilization.  Having been raised by robots, they love machines, so Prosper goes back to 1790 and sells them to a Scottish businessman, who puts them to work in a factory. Disch explains that Prosper is to be credited with the sharp increase in population at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

With 1790 and 2240 as Disch's first two points, the third is in the far future, when Prosper, the last man, goes into suspended animation, instructing his robots to try to "reverse entropy" and wake him up if they succeed.  His robots managed to make a time machine, so given enough time, maybe they can accomplish this similarly audacious task.

"Three Points on the Demographic Curve" is not bad, but I felt like the plot fizzled instead of delivering any kind of emotional payoff, surprise, or funny punchline.

"Invaded by Love" (1966)

This story was first published in New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, which is considered a sort of flagship of the New Wave.  It takes place in New York City, which of course pulls at my heartstrings!  To think that I used to live among all the places mentioned, the UN, Rockefeller Center, Tudor City, Sutton Place, St. Patrick's Cathedral. How many hours did I spend, sitting on a park bench or standing on a street corner, eating a slice of pizza or a bagel, admiring just these very buildings, watching the world go by.  That was the Technicolor period of my life, sandwiched between black and white stretches like Dorothy Gale's dream of a life of adventure in another world over the rainbow.

Enough about the Rise and Fall of MPorcius--back to "Invaded by Love."  It is the late 1970s!  An alien preacher has come to Earth, and used high tech hypnotism, the distribution of drugs (little yellow pills), and appeals to traditional Earth religious sentiments to get most of humanity to join his "Universal Brotherhood of Love."  War and violent crime essentially cease, but people also stop slaughtering cattle, fishing, and exterminating insects, leading to widespread hunger and economic crises.

Our main character is the head of the UN, who, like in so many SF stories, is some kind of world chief executive, the commander in chief of a hegemonic military (in this story the UN has a moonbase with an arsenal of nuclear missiles.)  I feel like during my entire life (I was born in 1971) that Americans have considered the UN a sort of debating society attached to a charity, an institution we take about as seriously as the Red Cross or the YMCA, but in these SF stories Americans are always willingly relinquishing their independence and power to some foreigner (in this story an Australian) because he's UN Secretary General.

The Australian UN guy, Seneca Traquair, is one of the few people to refuse to take the little yellow pill, and he resists the alien's demand that Earth immediately disarm.  The alien tries to hypnotize him, then kidnaps his son, but Traquair continues to resist, to the point of gunning down the alien in his office and nuking his orbiting space ship. But resistance is futile; the single alien missionary with one ship is replaced by an army of aliens with an armada of ships, and humanity is overwhelmed by their hypnotic power:
From the moment the invaders landed, the converts ceased to have wills of their own, lives of their own.  They were absorbed in the Ground of All Being and obeyed the Universal Will.     
Even Traquair succumbs, and rushes to embrace and obey Earth's new arachnid ruler.

I feel like I've read or seen a million of these SF stories in which "peace-loving" aliens put the screws to the Earth and make us violent humans behave; the film The Day the Earth Stood Still and the novels Hero's Walk (by Robert Crane) and The Killer Thing (by Kate Wilhelm) come to mind, as do Cosmic Rape / To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, which actually have the same "collective consciousness" angle that Disch hints at here in "Invaded by Love." Those five works all seem to be cheerleading for the human race to be dominated by an alien empire, but Disch, by likening the aliens to missionaries (like most SF writers, Disch is hostile to religion) and drug pushers, stressing the Big Brother aspects ("He [Traquair in the final pages of the story] loved his Father and did what he was told") and the starvation caused by the alien's love cult, appears to be more skeptical of alien imperialism.  While Clarke and the rest denounce Western imperialism by engaging in a somewhat hypocritical wish fulfillment fantasy in which extraterrestrial imperialism of the Earth is good, Disch (similar to how I think Wells does in War of the Worlds) denounces Western imperialism by having Earth stand in for the colonized and aliens stand in for the colonizer.  Going further than all these writers, the pessimistic Disch has the Earth be conquered and human freedom eliminated without whitewashing (or celebrating) this tragedy.

Not bad.

"Bone of Contention" (1966)

This story first was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

In the future, apparently related to a revival of interest in the culture of Ancient Egypt, many Americans cease interring their dead relatives and instead have them preserved in lifelike poses and leave them sitting around the house.  An older couple has over half a dozen such preserved corpses in the house, and the husband is getting sick of it; he'd like to sit in the rocking chair in the den currently occupied by Uncle Maurice, who died twenty years ago!  The wife loves her (currently bloodless) blood relatives more than she loves her husband, it turns out, and murders him when he tries to have Maurice carted off to a (in this future society, gauche and declasse) Christian cemetery.  A forgiving soul, she does have her husband preserved and sat in a new armchair right next to Maurice.

This story is OK.  I guess it suits the tone of macabre jocularity cultivated by Hitchcock in his TV appearances.

*********

British 1967 edition of the collection,
which does not include "5 Eggs" or
"Three Points on the Demographic Curve"
So, I've read every story from the 1971 edition of One Hundred and One H-Bombs.  It is a worthwhile collection, and the Harry Harrison introduction is also of interest.  But this exploration of SF history was not without its costs.  In the course of reading my copy, the dried glue of the spine gave up the ghost and my 160 page book now consists of a cover and 80 loose sheets, which I will have to entomb in one of those clear plastic baggies.  Rest In Peace, One Hundred and Two H-Bombs.    




Monday, August 17, 2015

Worlds of the Wall by C. C. MacApp

Zeke, far less sullen than he might have expected to be, did what was demanded of him...

Driving back from a wedding in South Carolina (where they have lots of interesting amphibians and arthropods, I must say) the wife and I stopped in Davenport, Iowa, to check out a used bookstore, The Book Rack, where I picked up several wacky old SF paperbacks.  Among these was a heavily worn copy of Avon V2308, 1969's Worlds of the Wall by California chess champion Carroll Mather Capps, who wrote under the name C. C. MacApp.  Like the people at ThriftBooks.com, the staff of the Book Rack mar their wares with oversized labels, but I guess for 35 cents I shouldn't complain.

Worlds of the Wall, about 210 pages of text, is the adventure of Zeke Bolivar, pioneering astronaut.  Something goes wrong with Bolivar's little one man ship during an experimental hyperspace warp, and Bolivar finds himself near a bizarre planet, one which appears to have been cut in half--one half is actually missing.  The flat side of the remaining hemisphere is covered with a black substance that juts out beyond the planet surface to the limits of the atmosphere, forming a 400-mile high Wall.

Things get more bizarre on the planet's surface.  Bolivar should be the first Earthling to arrive at the planet, but he finds it inhabited by Earth plants, animals, and humans who speak a creole made up of various Earth languages.  There seems to be some sort of time travel business going on; Bolivar encounters human-crewed space ships more advanced than his own, and even meets men who appear to be older versions of himself.

A major theme of the book is that we lack free will, that our lives are driven by destiny or fate or just manipulated by other people.  Bolivar's picaresque adventures on the planet are not driven by his own desires or decisions; he does what others tell him to, again and again.  Almost immediately upon landing (in the second of the book's twenty-seven chapters), the advanced humans push him through the black Wall and into a medieval-like world called Gatkun where people believe in magic, and have no technology more complicated than a sword or an oar-driven ship.  Bolivar marches in the direction a sage tells him to, and is quickly captured and made a galley slave.  He participates in his owner's "bring 'em back alive" hunt for giant animals in a swamp, and is given the job of animal handler because the biggest beast, an otter-thing the size of an elephant, takes a liking to him.  Bolivar accompanies the otter beast when it is delivered to his owner's customer, a sort of wizard pope known as The High Seer.  

The High Seer has "foreseen" Bolivar's arrival and even knows Bolivar is from another world, a fact Bolivar has kept a secret from everybody else in this magical half of the planet. The High Seer tells Bolivar that he "is needed for the fulfillment of an important destiny" and that he and the giant otter "are somehow intertwined in more than one continuum...and upon what befalls them may hang the very existence of Gatkun!"

This "continuum" business somewhat undercuts the otherwise prevalent themes of prophecy and determinism.  We are told that, even though Bolivar has met a version of himself who is thirty years older than he is, he could still be killed in the next thirty years, because maybe that aged Bolivar and the Bolivar we know are from different continuua.  

Worlds of the Wall appeared in a French
translation in 1978; fun fact: the French
word for otter is "loutre."
In the final quarter of the novel the High Seer sends Bolivar on a mission to fight an evil wizard who, Bonaparte-style, has escaped from the island to which he was exiled after losing a major war.  Bolivar enlists the help of an amphibious race of people with duck-like bills to defeat the evil wizard, and then is given final instructions of where to go by yet another sage figure. In the very last chapter Bolivar, somehow, by wrestling with a version of himself from another continuum, while several other versions of himself watch, causes The Wall to vanish, reuniting the planet's two halves.  But then one of those sages appears to tell Bolivar that The Wall will be back in twenty years.

We never learn the answer to several of the novel's mysteries, like why the planet was cut in half in the first place, why there are Earth life forms there, and why magic works in Gatkun but machines, like a windmill Bolivar tries to construct, do not.  Maybe MacApp expected to produce a sequel?

I have a weak spot for these stories in which a guy gets stranded on a planet where people sword fight, but MacApp's Worlds of the Wall doesn't reach the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter books, or Jack Vance's Tschai books, or Robert Howard's Almuric.  For one thing, MacApp's writing is pretty flat; he doesn't have a distinctive writing style like Burroughs, Vance and Howard, and the book conveys little feeling. Secondly, Bolivar is a bland and uninteresting character.  We learn almost nothing about him, and he isn't driven by a sense of purpose or passion, he doesn't fall in love with a woman or join a cause or desperately try to get back to Earth or anything like that. He's sort of just along for the ride, doing what he is told.  

The book's emphasis on prophecies and destiny also inhibits how much fun it can be. Even if Bolivar's lack of free will accurately reflects the reality of our own lives, in which the laws of physics (you know, Spinoza-style) and/or the government, the market, and cultural traditions limit or eliminate our free will, it doesn't necessarily make for a good adventure story, in which we might hope to see people make decisions and triumph or fail due to their own character.  It is true that one of the greatest fantasy adventure characters, Michael Moorcock's Elric, is doomed by Fate, but Moorcock makes the Elric stories work by imbuing them with a sense of tragedy. (Needless to say, Moorcock also has a good writing style, and in the Elric books I read in the '80s, a set of the six silver Berkley paperbacks with the iconic Gould covers that currently reside with my brother back in New Jersey, Moorcock created a compelling character.)  

Worlds of the Wall is also somewhat shoddily constructed.  The evil wizard and the duck people are introduced in the last part of the novel without any sort of foreshadowing and without us getting any time to know or care about them.  Instead of learning about the villain and the duck people, we spend the first two thirds of the book getting to know the otter monster and two human friends Bolivar makes aboard the ship, but these three characters play no role in the climactic battle with the evil wizard or the fight that brings down The Wall.  Worlds of the Wall is an expanded version of a story that appeared in Fantastic in 1964 entitled "Beyond the Ebon Wall," and maybe this helps explain why important figures from some parts of the story don't appear in other parts, and why there are those loose ends I've mentioned already.

I have a lot of complaints about Worlds of the Wall, but I still think it deserves a mild recommendation.  It was never boring or annoying, I was curious to see how things were going to turn out, and there are some good scenes, like all the animal hunting scenes.  I liked the evil wizard's style of magic, and at times the setting was intriguing. Even though Bolivar was a boring character, MacApp tried to make several other characters interesting, giving them peculiar, faintly amusing, attributes (the High Seer is a neat freak, the evil wizard has nervous tics, one of Bolivar's comrades is a pessimist, etc.)          

Worlds of the Wall is not a classic by any means, but acceptable as a pastime.  I don't begrudge those 35 cents!