Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stories of the Fantastic by Important American Authors: Hawthorne, Melville, & James

You and I, dear reader, may recognize that Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Thomas Disch are important American writers, but I fear many ordinary people have never heard of them, while many "educated" people would dismiss them as mere genre writers who wrote for money and perhaps had suspect politics.  But this weekend I read short stories that qualify as what we now call "speculative fiction" by writers nobody would deny recognition as major figures in the American literary canon: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James.


I found these stories in a public library copy of the first volume of The Library of America's 2009 anthology American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.  I'm not crazy about the jacket of the book; the photos seem too contemporary for the contents (stories from before 1940), and their colors are irritatingly garish.  I have no opinion of Straub, whose fiction I've never read, but his intro to the volume has interesting things to say about the use of allegory in speculative fiction (he argues that "to respond to the particulars of the fantastic as if they were metaphorical or allegorical is to drain them of vitality") and American attitudes toward independence ("For Americans of all decades, it seems, the loss of agency and selfhood, effected by whatever means, arouses a particularly resonant horror") and Nature ("the belief that the natural world itself deludes, tempts, misleads, wishes to devour careless human beings, takes a commanding role here [in several of the stories in the volume.]"

"Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

I was the worst kind of student in grammar school and high school, totally lazy and disconnected, absorbed in my own thoughts and hobbies, but just clever enough and obedient enough to get passing grades while doing almost no studying.  I would learn things long enough to pass the test, and then absolutely forget them.  As a result, I gained very little knowledge in school, and very little experience of, or respect for, hard work.  Like a lot of the books we were assigned, I passed tests on The Scarlet Letter, but today I know almost nothing about it.

I'm not sure whether "Young Goodman Brown" is about the ubiquity of human evil and hypocrisy, or the way unfounded suspicions can sabotage your happiness, or both.  Brown leaves his wife Faith to walk in the woods in the evening--he has an appointment with the Devil!  The Devil reveals that everybody in the town is a worshipper of his, even those who are the most outwardly pious, like the town's religious leaders and the woman who taught Brown his catechism.  A sort of black mass is taking place, and even Faith appears, to be baptised with blood along with her husband.

It seems that, to at least some extent, this is merely a dream from which Bown awakes before the baptism of evil is accomplished.  But is it a dream that reflects the reality that the human race is fallen, and people are all hypocritical sinners, or one that simply reflects Brown's own irrational anxieties?  Whatever the case, we are told that after this event Brown becomes "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man," unable to enjoy a happy relationship with his wife and neighbors.  Is it his accurate knowledge of human evil that cripples his emotional life, or vain scruples and unfounded suspicions?

Of the three stories I read in Volume I of American Fantastic Tales, this is the least remarkable, the one that feels most conventional in style and content.  It's not bad,  but it's no big deal, either.  

"The Tartarus of Maids" by Herman Melville (1855)

I'm a big fan of Moby Dick, which I have read multiple times as an adult.  So I had high hopes for this story, hopes which were realized.  "The Tartarus of Maids" is a great little story, full of terrific sentences, images, metaphors, and ideas.  I can highly recommend this one, especially to people interested in industrialism and women's issues.

A businessman who purchases vast quantities of paper for his firm's operations visits a paper manufacturer in a remote region of New England to make a deal and to tour the factory.  Melville's descriptions of the pale white women who work there, the blank white paper that is produced, and the  complicated black machines and intricate processes involved in paper production are very evocative.  The journey of raw pulp through a machine that turns it into usable paper seems to be a metaphor for our journey from conception to birth, and perhaps to the course of our lives in a deterministic universe.  The narrator inquires why female factory workers are always called "girls," no matter their age.  The names of all the people and places in the story seem to have been carefully selected to give clues as to what Melville is thinking. There's a lot of thought-provoking stuff going on in this little story!

Very good.  "The Tartarus of Maids" is a companion piece to another story, "The Paradise of Bachelors," and apparently they are usually printed together as a single story in two parts.  For whatever reason, this volume only includes "The Tartarus of Maids;" I should track down the other component of the pair ASAP.

"The Jolly Corner" by Henry James (1908)

Henry James is one of those writers, like Jane Austen, whose work I am familiar with only through TV adaptations.  (Specifically, a 1972 six-hour BBC presentation of The Golden Bowl which I bought for my wife, then my girlfriend, back in the VHS era.) So this will be my first taste of what Henry James is really all about.

Oy, these are some long convoluted sentences!  I'm having flashbacks to my first reading of Swann's Way!  This is no light reading--it seems that you really have to focus when reading Henry James!

Spencer Brydon grew up in a mansion on a corner in Manhattan.  As an adult he went to Europe to experience culture, and after three decades there has returned to New York, in his fifties, to look over his properties.  Supervising the construction of a massive apartment building on one of his lots, he realizes he has a talent for managing such business, and suspects that, if he had stayed in America instead of gallivanting across Europe ("leading...a selfish frivolous scandalous life"), he might have become a real estate billionaire, a sort of Victorian Donald Trump!

Brydon tells a woman he is courting, Alice Staverton, that he senses within himself an "alter ego" which, under different circumstances, might have blossomed into a man of power.  He wonders if Staverton might prefer a super rich industrious Brydon to the current art lover Brydon, who is merely rich.  Can he start a new career, still become that man of greatness?

Our hero takes to haunting his childhood house late at night, during what the woman who comes over to the mansion everyday to sweep calls "the evil hours"--she is afraid to go there at night, sensing some kind of weird presence!  Brydon's family is extinct, and the house is almost entirely empty of furniture, and he stalks the physically barren but emotionally resonant rooms for hours, sure that the ghost of who he might have been lurks somewhere among one of the shadows of one of the mansion's four vacant floors.  Brydon compares hunting for this ghost to hunting a dangerous tiger or bear: "...he found himself holding his breath and living in the joy of the instant, the supreme suspense created by big game alone."  Is he hunting the ghost, or is the ghost hunting him?

They say sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you, and when Brydon finally confronts the ghost he loses his nerve and retreats, and then collapses in a swoon.  He is awakened by the tender touch of Miss Staverton.  She also saw real-estate-magnate-Brydon, the Brydon who might have been, in a dream, and took it as a signal to come looking for real-life artsy-fartsy Brydon.  "...I knew it for a sign. He had come to you."

Brydon's lady friend kisses him and assures him she loves him regardless of whether he is a powerful mover and shaker in New York business circles or just a rich slacker who loafs at art museums and nice restaurants all day.  The reader presumes these two aesthetes live happily ever after, and that the point of the story is that if you were born on third base, it makes no sense to work hard to get to home plate, if you will permit me to repurpose one of those cliches lefties love.

This plot of "The Jolly Corner" is fine, and I support any story that tells me I should avoid real work and devote my life to experiencing culture, but it feels long and difficult.  James's style is quite challenging.  I'll make sure to eat my Wheaties before tackling another of his works.

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The Melville is the standout, but all three of these stories are worth reading.  And even if I think the jacket is bad, I like Straub's introduction, and the way the book itself has been produced, the fonts, and the paper, and binding and all that.  American Fantastic Tales is a good piece of work, and I will certainly read more stories from Volume I and get my hands on Volume II when I have the chance. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

God, the craziness, the futile insanity of war.  Damn that German cruiser, damn those German gunners, damn them, damn them, damn them!...But why should he?  They, too, were only doing a job--and doing it terribly well.

I don't really read much bestselling mainstream popular fiction, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, that sort of thing.  Maybe P. G, Wodehouse, W. Somerset Maugham and James Dickey (I read Deliverance right before I moved to the Middle West) qualify as mainstream popular fiction, though I like to think of those writers as "literary figures." When I worked at a bookstore in northern New Jersey in the mid-90s all the bestsellers seemed to be either about lawyers and serial killers chasing each other, or knock-offs of Bridges of Madison County.  Those sorts of things do not interest me. What does interest me is British military history, and so the obvious exceptions to my aversion from popular mainstream fiction would be all those Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell I read as a teen, and the 15 or so Aubrey and Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian I read in my thirties.  It was also my interest in British military history that led me to dip my toe again into the mainstream fiction pool this week with a novel by Alistair MacLean, author of The Guns of Navarone.

I never thought about reading anything by Alistair MacLean until, at the Des Moines Salvation Army earlier this month, I stumbled on a crumbling 1957 paperback edition of H.M.S. Ulysses, its cover adorned with a sturm und drang depiction of British sailors manning Oerlikon and pom-pom guns in defense against what I guess are He-111s.  Informed by the advertising text on the first page that Scotsman MacLean actually served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, I decided to read H.M.S. Ulysses in the same spirit in which I read Sapper's No Man's Land, with the presumption that reading fiction about a military campaign by a person who actually served in that very campaign would be worthwhile.  

H.M.S. Ulysses, first published in 1956, starts off with 15 lines from one of those poems everybody likes, Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses," a cool map of the voyage described in the novel, and a cool diagram of the fictional light cruiser on which the novel takes place.  Then we get down to the novel, all 319 pages of it.

H.M.S. Ulysses chronicles the week-long voyage between Scotland and Russia of a convoy bringing to the Soviet Union Canadian-built tanks, fighters, fuel and ammunition for use on the Eastern Front; nearly all scenes take place on the flagship, the light cruiser Ulysses.  MacLean seems to be the kind of writer who deals in superlatives.  Ulysses is the best ship in the world ("She was the first completely equipped radar ship in the world"), with the best captain in the world ("Among naval captains--indeed, among men--he was unique. In his charity, in his humility, Captain Richard Vallery walked alone"), and its crew have been charged with the toughest duty faced by any servicemen anywhere in the world ("The Russian convoys, sir, are something entirely new and quite unique in the experience of mankind.")  Because she is indispensible, Ulysses has been going on more convoy missions than any other ship in the Royal Navy, and under the strain some members of the crew, just before the novel began, staged a little mutiny.  As a result, Ulysses has to redeem itself on its next trip from Scapa Flow to Murmansk.

A theme in military fiction is that those officers superior in the hierarchy to the main characters are stupid and corrupt.  (In fiction in which the main characters are top commanders, it is the politicians above them who are stupid and corrupt.)  I haven't served in the armed services myself, but I suppose it is possible that real military personnel think their superiors are all unethical jerks--everybody I meet in civilian life thinks his or her boss is a corrupt idiot who is running the organization into the ground and doesn't appreciate all the hard work he or she does.

Novels and movies about military men often have a scene in which one of the guys who has been in the trenches doing the real fighting gives a speech to one of the guys who has been maxing and relaxing back at HQ, a speech about how hard the real fighting men have it, and how the jerks in HQ do not appreciate them.  MacLean fits one of those scenes into the very first of the novel's 18 chapters when the ship's doctor yells at the Admiral sent from London to investigate the mutiny.

Military (and police) fiction is also full of scenes in which some officer has to tell somebody his or her spouse or father or brother or whoever got killed in action. MacLean also fits one of those scenes into the first chapter.  Talk about efficiency!

You may recall that I interpreted Sapper, in his book about the Western Front in World War One, to be praising the British soldier, denouncing the German people, and arguing that the rigors of war could have beneficial effects on individuals and societies.  MacLean in H.M.S. Ulysses takes the opposite tack; far from glorifying war, the novel is one grisly horror scene after another.  And it doesn't glorify the British people or their institutions, or condemn Nazi Germany or its citizens, either.  Sure, there are brave and skillful and decent British characters, but there are also evil British characters and British blunderers, and the Germans (who are only ever seen at a distance, from the deck of the Ulysses) are universally depicted as courageous and clever.  In fact, the Germans outwit the British again and again over the course of the book, and if the National Socialist German Worker's Party's genocidal racism and monstrous tyranny are ever mentioned, I missed it.  Instead Maclean tells us that German flying is "magnificent," German gunnery is "fantastic" and the like.

When I started the book I expected the convoy to suffer some losses, of course, but I thought Ulysses and most of the convoy would get to Murmansk and drop off a big shipment of war material to the grateful Bolshies.  Instead, the mission is a disaster! Of 32 ships that left Scotland and the New World, only five get to Russia, and the Ulysses is not among them.  Only a handful of people from the Ulysses, which starts with a crew of over 700, even survive the mission!  This is partly because the sub rosa purpose of the convoy is to lure the German battleship Tirpitz out into the open sea so a Royal Navy battlefleet can attack it, but the Tirpitz doesn't take the bait!  The Ulysses, and with it over two dozen other British, Canadian and American ships, is sunk for nothing!

Four topics fill up the lengthy narrative as the Ulysses and the rest of the convoy travel for 18 chapters through Arctic waters, enroute to Uncle Joe's worker's paradise in the teeth of German resistance.  These topics all reinforce MacLean's themes of the horror and futility of war and redemption through suffering and death.

1) The weather: MacLean spends lots of time talking about how cold it is, how windy it is, how the seas are rough, and how this can incapacitate the ships and the men. Several ships get damaged by storms and sent back to Britain, and people regularly freeze to death or have the skin ripped off their bodies when they touch cold metal.  In Chapter 6 the Allied sailors face the most severe storm in human history!  ("It was the worst storm of the war.  Beyond all doubt, had the records been preserved for Admiralty inspection, that would have proved to be incomparably the greatest storm, the most tremendous convulsion of nature since these recordings began.")  I didn't keep track of how many pages were devoted to the weather, but I felt like maybe the Weather Channel was sponsoring this novel.  Enough with the weather already!

2) The captain is sick: Captain Vallery, the world's finest captain, is always tired, always coughing up blood, etc.  This reminded me of the captain of the Space Battleship Yamato.  Maybe I'm supposed to feel bad because this dude is on his deathbed, but MacLean doesn't make him realistic or interesting enough for me to feel bad; besides, this is the middle of the most devastating war in history, in which are participating two of the most evil regimes in history--people are getting murdered in death camps and blown up in battles all over the place, why should I cry over this particular guy?  Hell, this very book is full of people getting killed in a dozen horrible ways!

Vallery, it turns out, is a Christ figure.  In the middle of the book he staggers through the ship, giving everybody a pep talk that raises their spirits as if magically, and in the end of the book he gives a speech over the PA system and dies a moment later.  Vallery's speech and death energize the British sailors, giving them the strength to fight on and redeem themselves.  I'm not a Christian so I might have missed this if a character on page 318 hadn't thought, "Vallery would have said, 'Do not judge them, for they do not understand.'"  I don't mind when the author makes it easy for us dummies in the audience.

3) Morale and mutiny: The stress faced by the crew, who are, after all, on the most stressful endeavour in human history, leads to trouble.  Most of the trouble is triggered by misbehavior by cruel officers, but there is also a rating, a career criminal, who is the ringleader of the mutinous sailors.

4) Attacks by the Germans: This is why we are reading this book, right?  The human and technological struggle between the RAF and the RN on one side, and the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine on the other, is one of the great dramas of human history!  Since I was a kid I've been fascinated and thrilled by radar, asdic, depth charges, hedgehog, torpedoes, the Hurricane, the Spitfire, the Bf-109, the Wellington, the Bismark, Window, Flak towers, the Dambusters, all that business.  When I read about this stuff I cheer on the British and their allies, and groan when something bad happens to them.  And I never feel any sympathy or guilt when I read about a U-boat being lost with all hands or an entire German city being reduced to ashes--my attitude is, "Take that you bastards!"

(Maybe that is the kind of thing about myself I shouldn't be putting on the internet for all to read.)

Anyway, the attraction of a book like this, for me at least, isn't hearing about the way ice on the deck can overbalance a ship or how some guy is coughing up blood from TB, it is hearing about naval warfare.  I have already suggested that MacLean's project in H.M.S. Ulysses is not to express patriotic sentiments or denounce Nazi Germany and celebrate its destruction, so I was doing a lot more groaning than cheering over the course of this novel.  When it comes to portraying the variety of naval actions experienced by sailors in the Second World War, however, MacLean really delivers--he unleashes on the poor doomed convoy and on us readers just about every type of German attack you can think of.  A midget submarine.  A drifting mine.  Condor reconnaissance planes.  A Hipper-class heavy cruiser.  The "largest concentration of U-boats encountered in the Arctic during the entire course of the war."  Bombers that drop all matter of ordnance: flares, glider bombs, torpedoes, and just garden variety bombs.  The fighting is so prolonged that for the first time in the history of the Arctic convoys the naval vessels run out of depth charges.

The fighting doesn't get that repetitive, because MacLean presents a variety of scenarios, many different problems the British sailors have to try to solve.  They fight in the dark, they fight with radar , they fight without radar, they hide in a smoke screen, they have to figure out what to do when a burning oil tanker is illuminating the convoy, etc.  

There are over thirty ships in the Allied convoy when it gets underway, crewed by thousands of sailors, and MacLean describes in graphic detail all the horrible things that can happen to them, all the different ways a ship can be crippled, sink or explode, and all the horrible ways people can be burned up or drowned or frozen to death or blown to pieces.  MacLean's dwells on the horror of war: the horror of men floating on the surface of the icy ocean amid a burning oil slick or paddling for their lives away from the murderous propellers of an approaching ship, and the horror of the men on intact ships who have to watch helplessly as these men, in their hundreds, perish.  We hear all about people being burned to skeletons, frozen solid, blasted to shreds, shot full of holes.  There are lots of mistakes and friendly fire incidents, and plenty of euthanasia, and lots of guilt-ridden men who commit suicide or sacrifice themselves to assuage their guilt.  Several ships and airplanes are destroyed crashing directly into enemy vessels, so that the bodies of Allied and German servicemen are intermingled.

Did I enjoy this novel?  Can I recommend it?

On the one hand I was surprised that the mission described in the novel was a tragic disaster instead of a triumph for justice and democracy.  Even though I was a little disappointed, I have to admire a book that holds genuine surprises.  We are used to adventure stories that start with some guy saying "It's a suicide mission!" and end with our heroes coming home safe after accomplishing the mission, so it was interesting to have a story in which the characters go on a suicide mission and it turns out to really be suicidal.

I learned some things I hadn't known about Royal Navy vessels: for example, I had never even head of the Kent screen, and I also had not know the Boulton Paul gun turret was mounted on ships.  That was good.  Hearing about the multitude of ways things can go wrong on a ship was also interesting.

On the other hand, there are some problems with the book.  It is too long, for one thing.  How many pages of weather do we need?  And how many guys who sacrifice themselves?  This happens again and again.  There are also so many characters and so many ships that it is not easy to keep track of them, and MacLean will not talk about some of them for a hundred pages, then they suddenly take center stage while they are getting killed.  It is hard to care about people you've never really been introduced to until they are getting immolated or disintegrated just like a bunch of other guys did a few pages ago.  This reminded me a little of the Iliad.  It's been a long time since I read the Iliad, but I seem to recall guys we never heard of before getting extravagant death scenes in which Homer laments that they will never see their wives or participate in their favorite hobbies again.

Another of the problems with H.M.S. Ulysses is that MacLean doesn't let you decide, and doesn't require you to figure out, how to feel about the characters; he tells you how to feel about them on the first page you meet them.  Captain Vallery is a unique man, an authority on music and literature who is deeply religious, hates war, volunteered to come out of retirement the first day of the war, but never brags about any of this (we readers know he is the best thing since sliced hard tack because of the omniscient narrator.)  Sublieutenant Carslake "was the quintessence of the worst by-product of the English public-school system....he was a complete ass."  Chief Petty Officer Hartley "was the Royal Navy at its best."  The mutinous stoker Riley "had at a very early age, indeed, decided upon a career of crime...his intelligence barely cleared the moron level."          

In my last blog post I talked about Mikhail Lermontov's novella "Princess Mary." Because "Princess Mary" has a first-person narrator who is deserving of skepticism, and all the characters act irrationally and are driven by their emotions, we have to figure out how to feel about every character based on their words or actions and our own moral and ethical sensibilities.  This generates a level of mystery and tension for the reader, and forces the reader to think, and means different readers will have different reactions to the novella, some identifying with or sympathizing with characters that other readers might condemn or dismiss out of hand.  The characters in "Princess Mary" also change as the story progresses, which may force readers to rethink their earlier assessments.

H.M.S. Ulysses lacks that mystery and tension, and does not provide the reader space to think and decide, because MacLean tells you immediately how to feel about each character.  With a minor exception, I don't think the characters in MacLean's novel evolve, either.  

Despite these problems, its vivid depiction of the world of the Arctic convoys, its gruesome catalog of horrors and the wide variety of naval engagements it presents make reading H.M.S. Ulysses a worthwhile experience.  Fans of military and nautical fiction, especially fiction that eschews patriotism, unrealistic heroics and happy endings, should check it out.

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The final three pages of my edition of  H.M.S. Ulysses contain ads.  Two indicate that the people at Permabooks expected MacLean's novel to appeal to history buffs.  I often see the advertised hardcover American Heritage volumes in used bookstores and antique stores.

If I'm going to read Veus Eruopesnl or Olnuzle,
I'd prefer to read the original unabridged texts
The third ad is for Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  My mother's mother, whom we kids called "Nana" and whom we saw often (multiple times a week before I started school, then every weekend when I was older) had a bunch of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and piles and piles of the Reader's Digest magazine.  (The magazine is actually mentioned in passing in H.M.S. Ulysses.)  I would often look at the pictures in the books and magazines, and read the little jokes in the magazines, but I don't think I found them very funny (perhaps just because I was too young to get the jokes.)

I do find something funny about this ad-- the drawing that accompanies it. For whatever reason, the people that put the ad together decided, instead of showcasing one of their most popular or exciting volumes, bursting with real life bestsellers, to include a picture of a book so generic that the titles on the spine are not real, and in fact are not even real English words.  I'm not even sure all the characters are real English letters!  A strange choice whose rationale I am unable to conjecture.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"Princess Mary" by Mikhail Lermontov (trans. Nabokov & Nabokov)

Back cover
Russian literature has a lot of boosters--even comedian Norm MacDonald is on the "you gotta read the Great Russians" bandwagon.  My own experience of Russian literature has not been extensive.  Recently I was flipping through a library copy of Penguin's The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, and noticed that the included translation of "Princess Mary," an 1840 novella by Mikhail Lermontov and a component of his novel A Hero of Our Time, had been done in 1958 by Vladimir Nabokov and his son Dmitri.  I'm a Nabokov fan, so I decided to give "Princess Mary" a shot.

Wikipedia says that the hero of A Hero of Our Time is "the embodiment of the Byronic hero."  So here was a chance for me to learn a little about Romanticism, another literary movement or period with which I am woefully unfamiliar.

"Princess Mary" is one of those stories in which fashionable witty people meet at resorts, "taking the waters," and have intrigues, some sincerely falling in love, others callously manipulating others for their amusement.  The story, like 60 pages in this edition, is in the form of the diary of Pechorin, whom Lermontov apparently intends to be an exemplar of the vices of his generation.  Pechorin is a master at seducing women and manipulating men, and considers "to subjugate to my will all that surrounds me, and to excite the emotions of love, devotion, and fear in relation to me" to be the primary source of happiness in his life.  At one point, savoring the knowledge that a woman is weeping over him, he compares himself to a vampire!

At one of those towns at the foot of a mountain where people go to enjoy the alleged benefits of "sulphurous" springs, Pechorin runs into several acquaintances of his, including a Grushnitsky and a Werner.  Pechorin is quick to point out to us that he has no friends: "I am not capable of true friendship.  One of the two friends is always the slave of the other, although, often, neither of the two admits this to himself." Grushnitsky he dislikes, but they hang around together because they met in the army. Werner, a doctor, and Pechorin are like two birds of a feather, both learned, cynical, witty.
"Consider: here we are, two intelligent people, we know beforehand that one can argue endlessly about anything, and therefore we do not argue; we know almost all the secret thoughts of each other; one word is a whole story for us....Sad things seem to us funny, funny things seem to us melancholy, and generally we are, to tell the truth, rather indifferent to everything except our own selves."       
Pechorin's wit reminded me of the kind of paradoxes I associate with Oscar Wilde--"platonic love is the most troublesome kind," "[I had] no charitable action on my conscience," "Women only love those whom they do not know," are representative specimens of his bon mots.

Also at the town is Vera, a woman Pechorin had an affair with in the past.  Vera is married to some old guy, but still aches with love for Pechorin.

Grushnitsky falls in love with a Princess Mary, a friend of Vera's who is in town, and Pechorin, for fun, encourages Grushnitsky to pursue her while he seduces the princess himself.  At the same time he is charming the princess Pechorin toys with Vera, breaking her heart.  After a climactic scene of humiliation, Grushnitsky, pursues revenge against Pechorin.  Despite Werner and others trying to stop them, Grushnitsky and Pechorin fight a duel--Grushnitsky tries to cheat, but is found out and is killed.  Vera, stressed out over the duel, can't hide her love for Pechorin from her husband, and her marriage and life are ruined; she is forced to depart, never to see Pechorin again.  Pechorin has a chance to marry the princess and live an easy life, but doesn't take it; he doesn't love the princess, in a final letter Vera begged him not to marry her friend ("you must make this sacrifice to me: for you I have lost everything in the world"), and Pechorin is a restless soul, irrationally unable to accept marriage and give up the freedom he doesn't even enjoy.  In the last paragraph Pechorin writes
I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig.  His soul is used to storms and battles, and, when cast out onshore, he feels bored and oppressed, no matter how the shady grove lures him, no matter how the peaceful sunshines on him.   
Front cover; that's Tolstoy on the horse
As we expect from Romanticism, there's a lot of descriptions of natural beauty and sublimity: cliffs, gorges, sunrises, sunsets, rivers.  Pechorin describes his ride through a gorge to the location of the duel, dewdrops falling from leaves and refracting sunlight and all that, and tells us "more than ever before, I was in love with nature."  At one point Princess Mary looks down at the water while they are fording a river on horseback and she is hypnotized, almost falling off her mount.  One of my favorite passages of the story is when Pechorin describes the jagged rocks three hundred feet below the ledge where the duel will take place, rocks upon which Grushnitsky is about to fall to his death, as "dark and cold as the tomb...awaiting their prey."  In the final pages of the book Pechorin's horse dies underneath him while he is galloping in pursuit of Vera--"Everything would have been saved had my horse's strength lasted another ten minutes."

People in "Princess Mary" are at the mercy of the natural world, just as they are at the mercy of their own passions (which, of course, are part of the natural world--at one point Pechorin makes the materialist argument that the "soul is dependent on the body").  Pechorin, despite the fact that he is so clever and carefully plans all his moves, is driven by irrational feelings and succeeds or fails in his endeavours due to luck or "destiny," this is a repudiation of reason and rationality that, I am told, is one of the essential characteristics of Romanticism.

I enjoyed "Princess Mary."  Even though we are expected to see Pechorin as a creep, I found it easy to identify with his skepticism about friendship and his irrational fear of marriage, attitudes I have shared.  (I got over my fear of marriage.)  I liked how Pechorin and Werner were always referring to Cicero or Tasso or some other literary luminary; I wish I knew people who would say interesting things like that.  People I run into just talk about the weather, or, even worse, "the game."  When they whip out references it is usually to Saturday Night Live ("We're going to pump you up" or "More cowbell!") or Seinfeld ("He's a low talker" or "Not that there is anything wrong with that.")  Even the college professors I meet talk just like working class people, the men about sports or video games or some girl's ass, the women about shopping, gossip, and their "crafts."  

The style is good, of course, Nabokov having had a hand in it, and the character of Pechorin is engaging.  The plot isn't surprising, but is acceptable (except for the tragic ending it actually reminded me a little of a Wodehouse plot, people sneaking around and trying to outwit each other.)  The characters besides Pechorin are sort of just there to be acted upon by Pechorin, to show how superior but also what a jerk he is.  

There is at least one sizable problem with the story.  In a way that somewhat strains credulity, the plot is driven by the fact that Pechorin and Werner are always sneaking up behind people to listen to their conversations, or just by chance coming upon people, unnoticed, so they can hear critical information.  I suppose fiction, especially first-person narratives, wouldn't really work without these sorts of devices, and this goes for high literature as well as popular fiction: I can think of two pivotal scenes from Proust in which Marcel fortuitously finds himself in the position of observing, undetected, the exotic and secretive behaviors of homosexuals, as well as other scenes in which he observes people who are unaware he is watching them.  The reader of fiction has to be willing to suspend disbelief, even if what he is reading isn't full of nonsense like hyperspace and psionic powers.

So, a thumbs up for Mikhail Lermontov and the Nabokov family; "Princess Mary," a little excursion into Russian Romanticism, was certainly worth my time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

No Brother, No Friend by Richard C. Meredith

On the one hand there was a sense of sincerity, of total and complete honesty exuded by the old female Krith, yet, on the other hand, over the years the Kriths had told so many lies, so many lies that had seemed to be totally convincing, I found it hard to credit truth to anything a Krith said without hard objective proof to back it up.
I'm blonde myself, so I think I am permitted to make the requisite
"blonde brings an axe to a ray gun fight" joke
My mother, for reasons I cannot fathom, has become a partisan of Thriftbooks.com, and for my birthday got me a gift card usable at their website.  I'd prefer a gift card usable at amazon, because the people at Thriftbooks.com ruin the appearance of the books they sell by affixing to them large stickers which are impossible to remove.  It is similarly impossible to tell this to my mother, who doesn't let one get a word in, and already thinks I am a snob ("Why do you wear those fancy clothes?  Why don't you wear something comfortable like the rest of us, like jeans and a T-shirt?") an ingrate ("We are very disappointed that you aren't using that education we paid so much money for") and a failure ("We thought you were going to be a professor, and now you have that dead end job....")  My whining to her about stickers on the books she bought me is not going to have a positive effect on our relationship.  So I guess that makes me a steady Thriftbooks.com customer.


Anyway, I liked the first volume of Richard C. Meredith's Timeliner Trilogy, At The Narrow Passage, enough that I used my birthday present to buy the rest, as well as Meredith's The Sky is Filled with Ships.  To my disappointment We All Died at Breakaway Station is quite expensive online; I'll have to hope to stumble on a cheap one in real life.

This week I read No Brother, No Friend, the 1979 paperback edition put out by Playboy.  Originally, the novel appeared in 1976 with a very odd, modern art collage cover that reminded me a little of Max Ernst.  The text of the Playboy edition, with a more conventional sex, violence, and aliens cover, is apparently revised in some way.

I was pretty disappointed as I started No Brother, No Friend.  It felt long and slow, with nothing much happening.  Our narrator from At The Narrow Passage, Eric Mathers, is hiding out with a girlfriend on one of the multitudes of alternate Earths, and after just a few pages they get captured by the Krith.  The Krith are one of two advanced nonhuman races competing for dominance of the multiverse, in part by manipulating the more numerous but less sophisticated humans; in the past Mathers has worked in their employ as a mercenary, but in the course of the earlier novel he became disillusioned with them.

The portion of the narrative covering Mathers's captivity includes lots of flashbacks to scenes from At The Narrow Passage and surreal dream sequences when Mathers gets drugged.  The style is irritating, tedious and overwritten, with unnecessarily wordy sentences (a Krith says "I am rather certain that your murder of Kar-hinter will not go unavenged" instead of just "I am certain you will be punished for murdering Kar-hinter" or "I am certain your murder of kar-hnter will be avenged") and odd and distracting metaphors--check out this sentence on page 17:
This one was tall, a full seven feet, built like a wrestler, but with no fat, and he carried an energy pistol exactly like Pall's--big, black, and ugly as patricide and incest.
Maybe this apparent non-sequitur about patricide and incest is supposed to foreshadow the relationship between humanity and the Krith which is revealed in the final third of the novel?

Fortunately around page 60 Mathers escapes to a timeline with a kind of Norse Viking flavor, and the style and pacing of the novel make a turn for the better. In this timeline North America is split up into smallish competing English ("Anglian"), German ("Imperial"), French ("Frankish") and Native ("Skralang") political units, and Mathers falls in with the English, who are allied with the American Indians.

As you may remember, At The Narrow Passage began in a dimension where the Krith were aiding the British, and featured Mathers participating in a British commando raid in France, the object of which was to capture a German aristocrat.  In the Norse world which is the setting for the middle part of No Brother, No Friend the Krith are working against the English, and Mathers participates in an English-American commando raid in Georgia, the object of which is to capture a Krith secret headquarters.  The German aristocrat is back, this time as a leader of the raid and a comrade of Mathers's.  It is nice to see this guy doesn't hold a grudge, even though Mathers not only tried to kidnap him but has been sleeping with his wife.

This middle part of the novel that focuses on the attack is an improvement over the slow and clumsy beginning.  The military and espionage aspects are entertaining, and a new character is introduced who is somewhat interesting, an embittered female spy who acts as a love (or maybe we should say "lust") interest for our narrator.  (She is a lot more interesting than the girlfriend I mentioned.)  The pace is faster, things actually happen, and the writing seems tighter.  I wonder if the first third of the novel got more revision, or less revision, than the rest of the book; this could perhaps account for the differences in style.

The English force falls into a Krith trap, and most of the characters don't live to see the final third of the book.  Mathers survives, of course, and after some shenanigans revolving around him capturing Kriths and Kriths capturing him, back and forth across a variety of dimensions, he ends up in the Krith home dimension.  Here he finds himself before the Krith ruling tribunal, the handful of rare female Krith, who are repulsively obese and wrinkled from age, but also gifted with tremendous psychic powers.  These female rulers explain the crisis facing the universe, hint at the multiverse-shaking importance of Mathers himself, and explain the bizarre origin of the Krith race--they are the descendants of genetically-engineered human beings, created and then abandoned by callous high-tech humans from a particularly advanced timeline.  (Of course, any or all of this could be a lie!)

When I talked about At The Narrow Passage I compared elements of the novel to the work of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.  Today I am going to compare elements of No Brother, No Friend to the work of A. E. van Vogt and Alfred Bester.  A few times in these first two Timeliner books a shadowy figure appears out of nowhere to aid Mathers.  In the last few chapters of No Brother, No Friend we learn that this figure is Mathers himself, the Mathers of the future, who has attained great psionic power and travelled back in time to help his younger self.  Van Vogt, of course, is known for having characters who develop super mental powers.  (At one point Meredith actually uses the word "supermind," which I thought might be significant.  While the first edition of No Brother, No Friend was published a year before DAW published Van Vogt's Supermind, Supermind is a fix-up of stories that appeared long before, and, of course, the revised edition of No Brother, No Friend appeared two years after Supermind.)  One of the memorable elements of Bester's well-known 1956 novel The Stars My Destination (AKA Tiger! Tiger!) is how the protagonist's future self travels back through time to periodically appear before him in a dramatic and mysterious fashion.

At the end of No Brother, No Friend, Mathers reunites with the (boring) girlfriend from the start of the book, and with the help of shadowy future Mathers they escape the Krith to a presumably safe timeline.  Of course, they hoped they were safe in the timeline that started the book.

The first quarter or so of No Brother, No Friend is weak, but the remainder has some of the strengths that led me to enjoy At The Narrow Passage--the military stuff, and the uncertainty surrounding  the true nature of the universe and which factions deserved the reader's sympathy.  So, a mild recommendation.  I'm definitely curious about what goes on in the third Timeliner volume, Vestiges of Time.

**********

The back pages of No Brother, No Friend advertise other paperbacks produced by Playboy, including a horror novel, The Siblng by Adam Hall, that Robert Bloch says will haunt your dreams, and a series of adventures by Graham Diamond which are apparently about a sexy princess who fights "the creatures of the forest" in a grim far future.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Orbit 4 stories by Harlan Ellison, R. A. Lafferty, and Vernor Vinge

On Labor Day I stopped in at Half Price Books to take advantage of the 20% off sale, and one of my finds was a copy of 1968's Orbit 4, edited by Damon Knight.  I like the cool green cover, with its resonant hints of alien planets, electricity, electronics, and the ocean deep.

There's no actual intro to the book as a whole, though on the first page there is a blurb from Publishers' Weekly that, without saying "new wave," comes across as celebrating that vaguely-defined phenomenon and Orbit's role in it: "Most of the stories typify the emerging new domain of science fiction, with its emphasis less on the 'out-there' than on the 'right-here, right-now.''  In the next sentence they give their prime example, the included Harlan Ellison story.

"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" by Harlan Ellison

My man tarbandu has made mention of this story a few times at The PorPor Books Blog, and I was glad to have a chance to read it myself.  "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" has appeared in numerous other venues, including The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, where William Stout (I love Stout's dinosaur illustrations!) gave it the comic book treatment.

Rudy, a recently discharged soldier, comes to a decrepit gothic house looking for his former fiance, Kris, whom he still loves and wants to marry, even though he hasn't seen her in eight months.  The house is full of hippies, and Kris, like the rest of them, spends most of her time out of her mind on drugs.  Rudy moves in, and helps to support the hippies by running errands, bringing in money, and serving as a presentable public face for the hippie colony, things which none of these perennially stoned goofballs can really do.  Significantly, because "love" is so much a part of the hippy "brand," Ellison shows that the druggies have lost the ability to love or care for each other--their sexual needs are like those of animals,

Ellison describes the house the way you would describe a haunted house, all weird noises and shadows, and goes beyond showing that drug use has turned the hippies into useless, filthy decadents: in an oft-foreshadowed final dream sequence/metaphor, the hippies appear as vampires, werewolves and other monsters.  Drug addiction has turned them into parasites, cannibals, who infect others with their evil: Rudy eventually succumbs and starts taking drugs himself, leaving behind his productive life (before his time in the service he had a job as a mechanic) and his sincere and human love for Kris.

This story is pretty good; it is certainly vividly and economically written, with each sentence serving the story's purpose and being worth reading with care.  As an attack on the drug culture and a warning to stay off drugs, I suppose many people would dismiss it as a sort of SF version of Reefer Madness.  Though I am sympathetic to Ellison's message here (I'm as square as they come and never drink or use drugs), and Ellison's writing is far better, "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" did remind me a little of that over-the-top anti-gun story by Davis Grubb, "The Baby-Sitter." Both stories employ horror fiction conventions to issue a heavy-handed condemnation of what their authors consider a social evil, in the process exaggerating the seductive power of the vice that has inspired their ire, and diminishing the agency of individuals.

Mild to moderate recommendation.

"One At a Time" by R. A. Lafferty

It has been a while since I read any R. A. Lafferty, so I eagerly took this chance to do so.  Lafferty is sui generis.  When you read a SF story in which a guy is swinging a sword at some other guys, it is easy to say "this story is an attempt to emulate Burroughs" or Howard, or Tolkein, and to assess the story's success by comparing it to those beloved classics.  But what can you compare a Lafferty story to?  Damon Knight, in his intro to the story, suggests "One At a Time" is like an "ethnic" tale, Irish most probably, but also argues that Lafferty's stories are probably best described as "tales unlike other tales."

Sour John, a rowdy hard-drinking type who hangs around in bars in port cities, "collects odd ones."  So when he hears an "odd one" is hanging around Barnaby's Barn, he hurries over to the tavern to meet him.  The odd one is McSkee, who eats tremendous quantities of food and drinks vast volumes of booze--he's breaking all the local records!  Sour John spends the evening with McSkee, wandering the city, fighting and whoring, living it up--for Sour John and McSkee it is such hearty, simple pleasures that make life worth living, and McSkee can handle more of such pleasures than any man alive.  Sour John tries to figure out McSkee's secret, and McSkee is quite open about it: he has learned how to put himself into a kind of hibernation, to slow down his body and literally die, and then wake up again, years or decades later. McSkee has lived for ages, but only one day at a time, each day separated by many years.

This is a fun story, and you have to suspect Lafferty is somehow referring to such central elements of Christian thought as Jesus of Nazareth's death and resurrection and the immortality of the human soul, as well as exhorting all of us to live every day to its fullest.  The story perhaps contains hidden depths.

"One At a Time" would later appear in the 1970 collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers, which I own, but which is currently in storage along with most of my books.

"Grimm's Story" by Vernor Vinge

In a time that feels long ago, I guess early 2003, when I either had money or was behaving as if I had money, the wife (then my girlfriend) and I took a trip to Western Europe, staying in a hotel in London, with a friend of hers in Denmark, and with a friend of mine in Portugal.  On planes and trains I read Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky.  It was the first science fiction novel I had read in a long time, and I rather liked it.  With its interest in human freedom and technological and social change, it reminded me of SF I had read in my youth.  Some time later I read The Peace War, but thought it was just OK; I remember thinking it addressed the same issues and had the same tone as a bunch of other SF work, including Deepness in the Sky, and being disappointed because I had been hoping for something new.

It had been approximately a decade since I'd read any Vinge when I bought Orbit 4, so I decided to check out the longish (over 50 pages) Vinge contribution, "Grimm's Story."  Isfdb told me that "Grimm's Story" is a component of a fix up novel called Grimm's World, which was later retitled Tatja Grimm's World.  If the cover illustrations of this novel were any guide, the story was about a sexy girl who has a battleship--that part of MPorcius's mind which is still 13 years old thought that sounded pretty good.


"Grimm's Story" is a traditional type of hard SF story.  In this category of story, which presumably has a name that I don't know, the author imagines a planet or planet-like environment which has some physical difference(s) from the Earth--the gravity or temperature or chemical composition or whatever are significantly different.  The author speculates on how civilization and/or the ecosystem would evolve and adapt in such an environment.  This alien world is then used as a setting for an adventure story in which the protagonists must journey from point A to point B and accomplish some mission; this journey provides the author opportunity to describe different facets of the world he has designed.  Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity is sort of the archetype for this type of story, but I think Poul Anderson's Three Worlds to Conquer and Larry Niven's Ringworld and Integral Trees books, and even Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, John Varley's Titan and Bob Shaw's Orbitsville qualify.

The planet in this story is a vast ocean with lots of little islands, inhabited by humans who are descended from Earth colonists who lost their high technology ages ago.  The planet is severely lacking in metal deposits; iron and aluminum are very rare, and as a result technological development has been slow.

Hard science fiction stories often glamorize scientists, engineers and merchants, and show contempt for religion and government, and Vinge delivers on these expectations.  Our heroes are an astronomer and the crew of a publishing enterprise that makes money by putting out girlie magazines and a journal of science articles and science fiction stories.  (Remember how, in his alternate world in Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov called science fiction "physics fiction?"  In "Grimm's Story" the people call science fiction "contrivance fiction" or "c.f.")  These businesspeople make their own paper and print the magazines on a huge ship that travels around the planet, delivering the periodicals.  Vinge describes the chemical and mechanical processes by which this is done, which will no doubt thrill some readers and bore others.

The astronomer, Svir Hedrigs (I just realized that when you say it out loud in the German or Scandinavian accent it seems to demand it sounds like "severe headaches") is sitting in a bar with his little pet monster that has psychic powers (hard SF is ostensibly based on real science, and yet somehow often includes characters with psychic powers, just like extravagant action-based space fantasies like Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000) when the tall and beautiful woman who runs the publishing ship, Tatja Grimm, appears and seduces him.  Grimm uses her womanly charms to persuade Hedrigs to join the publishing company on a perilous secret mission.  This mission is to infiltrate the impenetrable fortress in the capitol of the most powerful nation in the world, which is ruled by a murderous tyrant.  This dictator has the world's only complete collection of the aforementioned science fiction magazine, and he is planning to sacrifice this literary treasure to the gods!  This crime against humanity must be stopped!  The only way to rescue the magazines from the fortress is to use Hedrigs's little psionic monster to fool the guards.

In fact, the ruthless and manipulative Tatja Grimm has even bigger fish to fry than preserving old issues of her world's analogue of Analog.  She ends up using Hedrigs and his little hypnotic pet to overthrow the tyrant and make herself Queen of that powerful country.  As it turns out, Grimm isn't just the sexiest woman on the planet, but the smartest human being.  She thinks that, at the head of the world's strongest economy, she can advance technology to the point that people can fly to a neighboring planet!  And why does she want to fly to that planet?  Because she is lonely and hopes that on that other planet is a man smart enough for her to love!  On the last page of the story Grimm says:
"...I am going to turn this world upside down, and regain the ancient arts that mythology said we once had.  For somewhere in this universe there must be what I need most...a man."    
Was that sound I heard feminists' heads exploding?

I thought this story was pretty good.  I love the idea of a huge centuries-old ship, and thought the idea that they were on a quest to save old SF magazines pretty adorable. And I thought Vinge did a decent job with Tatja Grimm, a sort of anti-hero with mysterious motivations about whom we learn more and more as the story progresses. Now I want to find that fix-up novel and see what happens to Grimm and her quest for love!

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

I'm quite happy with this edition of Orbit--all three of these stories are entertaining and interesting.  (I read the included Silverberg story, "Passengers," some years ago and liked it, as well.)  I'll be reading more of the anthology in the future to see what else Knight served up the SF readers of 1968.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

More stories from The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition: Rome, Bone, Feiffer, Glaser, & Russell

The seventh edition of Judith Merril's The Year's Best S-F, printed in 1963 by Dell, includes lots of quite short pieces by people whose writing I'm not very familiar with. This week I read five such stories; all of which first appeared in 1961.

"Parky" by David Rome

This one first appeared in the British magazine Science Fantasy.  British-born Australian Rome has over 20 short story credits at isfdb, but only one listed novel, a 1970 release called Squat (other sources suggest Squat first appeared in 1964.)  Squat is billed as a novel about "sexual adventure on other planets," and the cover art is pretty striking.

"Parky"'s plot is a little slight, but Rome has a good style and includes charming little details that really elevate the material, so that I rather enjoyed the story.

Our first person narrator for this seven-page story is the owner of a traveling circus. One of his employees is a mind reader, Ephraim Parkinson, AKA "Parky." Parky isn't much of a showman, and his performances are unprofitable. So, the narrator is not exactly put out when an odd character appears and wants to hire Parky away. Once the deal is done it is revealed that Parky's new employer is from another world, one ravaged by war. Parky is the only true mind reader in the universe, and his abilities are needed to facilitate critical peace talks on this other planet or galaxy or whatever it is.

An example of one of the little touches that I liked: the alien is disguised as a human, and his umbrella is merely a prop-- when it rains he doesn't think to open it.

Good! I will have to figure out if I have easy access to any more stories by Rome online or at local libraries.

"A Prize for Edie" by J. F. Bone

Jesse Franklin Bone has quite a few credits at isfdb, and nine stories (including this one) available for free at gutenberg.org.  I believe this story, which appeared in Analog, is the first Bone story I have ever read.

"A Prize for Edie" is more of an idea than a story; there isn't much character or plot. As such, at four and a half pages it is too long.

The year: 2001.  A mysterious American researcher has discovered a cure for cancer! The Nobel Committee wants to award its prize to this benefactor of mankind, but C. Edie turns out to be not a man, not a woman, but a computer!  The entire story is a conversation among the Committee members in which they express embarrassment over having to invite a machine to a banquet and hang a medal on a machine and eat dinner with a machine, etc.

A weak joke.

"Looking Backward" by Jules Feiffer

Have you seen that 1980 Popeye movie?  I saw it this weekend....well blow me down, is it terrible!*   And yet half the people who worked on the movie (e. g., Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Henry Nilsson) are people we are supposed to revere as geniuses.  Well, I guess genius takes a day off sometimes.

One of the geniuses of whom I speak is Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay for Popeye.  Feiffer has a comic strip in The Year's Best S-F 7 in which he expresses his belief that "urban renewal" and post-war architecture suck.  His gimmick: when alien archaeologists dig up the ruins of New York they will suspect that the older, more ornate, buildings, like brownstones, were built by a later more sophisticated culture than the in fact newer, sterile, glass box skyscrapers.  I sympathize with his point of view, but this joke is just OK, and I don't really like Feiffer's drawing style; it feels weak, wispy, vague, though this strip is more solid and weighty than most of Feiffer's characteristically attenuated work.  I guess I'm giving a narrowly passing grade to the genius for this production.

(I actually quite like Carnal Knowledge, so don't think I'm some kind of Feiffer-hater.)

I'm going to pull a tarbandu here and reproduce the comic strip below.  If you are Jules Feiffer's lawyer, please take into account my effort to promote Carnal Knowledge to my vast readership before filing that lawsuit.


"The Tunnel Ahead" by Alice Glaser

This is Alice Glaser's sole credit at isfdb.  "The Tunnel Ahead" appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

This is an overpopulation story, set in the 22nd century.  Tom and his family are riding their tiny self-driving car home to Manhattan after spending time at the beach.  Glaser fills the story's nine pages to the brim with details of life in the overcrowded world; Tom looks out the window and Glaser describes the landscape of Manhattan, New Jersey and Long Island, the buildings and elevated highways and so on, and Tom reflects on his life and she tells of how people have reacted to slow, overcrowded lives without privacy and without productive work.  The story's punchline is that to get back to Manhattan you have to drive through a tunnel, and at random times the tunnel seals up, capturing the hundreds of cars within and exterminating their occupants.  This is a population-control policy that has been put to a vote repeatedly and endorsed by the electorate.  Presumably Glaser is attacking the American people, whom she believes to be more willing to murder people at random than to voluntarily or by legislation limit births.  (Tom has four kids and a fifth on the way.)  Perhaps most interesting about the story is the fact that Tom enjoys the life and death gambling aspect of driving through the tunnel; in a world in which computers and machines do all the work, it is the only excitement available to people.

This is a better than average overpopulation story, and a good science fiction story, combining as it does technological, social and psychological speculations with interesting images and even interesting characters.  It is too bad Glaser does not seem to have done any more work in the field.

"The Long Night" by Ray Russell

This story appeared in Russell's collection Sardonicus and Other Stories.  Russell had a career working in men's magazines, and this story also appeared in Rogue that year.

This is a gimmicky joke story, just two pages.  Due to a series of unlikely coincidences involving sorcery, astronomy and vampirism, a deposed dictator suffers an eternal torment in a desolate place of exile; he cannot eat, cannot sleep, and cannot die.

I'm finding it hard to believe this is one of the best SF stories of 1961.

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

It's a nice reminder of the cruel world we live in that the stories I liked out of this batch of five, the David Rome story and the Alice Glaser story, are by people who did no more work in the SF field or whose work is not easy to get a hold of.

************
*1) Boring.
  2) Long.   Every scene is very long and very slow, including action scenes, which need some velocity to be effective, and slapstick joke scenes, which require surprise to be effective.  Each joke takes too long to tell, and is repeated again and again--how many times do I have to see an anemic gag like a guy failing to pick up his hat, or demanding some weird tax?     
  3) Confusing. I could barely understand half the dialogue, and the highly choreographed scenes, like the meal at the Oyls' place early in the picture, are very busy and cluttered, and have no weight, no meaning or feeling, so there is no payoff for bothering to figure them out.  Character motivations are also a little confusing; why does Olive Oil change her opinions about Popeye and Bluto/Brutus? Similarly, I lost track of how we and the characters were supposed to feel about Pappy/The Commodore.  Did I doze through the explanations for these things?  
  4) Bad songs.  Too many of the songs are just a word or phrase repeated again and again.  Ugh.  
  5) Photography.  I'll grant that the water and sky are beautiful, but often the camera work puts the viewer far away from what was going on, putting distance between the viewer and the story and characters, making things more confusing and less emotionally resonant.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Space Egg by Russ Winterbotham

"What are you, Jack?" I said.  "You're not human any more!" 

Here's another one of my South Carolina finds, a water damaged copy of The Space Egg by Russ Winrerbotham, a paperback put out by Monarch in 1962.  The novel first appeared in 1958.  I love the Jack Schoenherr cover; look at the expression on that guy.  I feel like I make that expression all the time, but I don't know if I should call it my "That's Mom on the phone" face or my "Sure, we can listen to your Carpenters CDs, honey" face.

If you are wondering who Winterbotham is, the book's first page includes a biography which is terrific, in part because it predicts that men will walk on Mars in the early 1970s. Imagine how disappointed Space Egg readers must have been by the time 1975 had rolled around.

Be seein' ya soon, Tars Tarkas.
The Space Egg reminded me of an unambitious low budget black and white SF movie, and a little bit of Campbell's "Who Goes There?"  The entire story is set in a remote area of Kansas, at an old military base purchased by a businessman for use in developing a groundbreaking new aircraft.  Our first person narrator is Bob Reeve, a photographer there among the scientists, technicians, and flight crew; his job is to document their work on the XDW-49 rocket plane.

Our first scene is set in the control room, with all the eggheads and their radars and radios and control panels, as Jack the test pilot is high aloft, breaking altitude, acceleration, and speed records.  There is a mysterious mishap in the ionosphere, the cockpit of the rocket plane being broken in two places, but Jack brings the bird down safely.  But when he gets back to terra firma, Jack, formerly everybody's buddy, is a total jerk off who pushes everybody around, even physically assaulting a tech.  We soon learn that Jack has not only gained a bad attitude up there on the edge of space, but super strength, super healing abilities, and photosynthesis!

Bob discovers a mysterious item, a thing quite like a broken egg shell, in the cockpit of the rocket plane, and then a second one on the ground within the high security research base.  He hands these over to the research center's wise old physicist.  When the tech that Jack had that contretemps with turns up murdered, and Jack and Ruby, a sexy redheaded secretary, disappear, the physicist realizes that alien lifeforms have taken over Jack and Ruby's bodies. The local sheriff joins in the fun of searching the base for Jack and Ruby.

Note to self: Insert "scramble" joke here
Jack and Ruby are found up on the barracks roof by the water tank; because they have guns and water, near-immunity to small arms fire, and no need for food, they are basically impregnable up there. And we just can't say "live and let live" after Jack admits that the new type of hybrid life form he represents plans to take over the world!  Each of the still-human characters on the base has his own idea of how to deal with this alien menace.  The sheriff tries to just shoot them--no luck.  The businessman tries cutting a deal with them (Bob calls him Neville Chamberlain)--this doesn't work either.  The physicist builds an X-ray projector out of a big vacuum tube and Bob and we readers have to endure science lectures about electrons and radiation.  Sir William Crookes even gets a mention.

The X-ray device gets broken in the opening stages of the final showdown, but Bob saves the day by appealing to Jack's last vestiges of humanity and Ruby's feminine jealousy.  Jack was in love with Janet, a brunette secretary who is not quite as slutty as Ruby, and, when Bob reminds the hybrid creepos of this, a fight breaks out between Jack and Ruby.  This struggle ends with both weird entities being destroyed.

This story should have been shorter and more direct.  The character of Bob is not necessary; the novel should have been told from the point of view of the test pilot/alien, or the sheriff, or the businessman, or the physicist; any of whom might have had some interesting motivation, and difficult decisions and psychological stresses to face.  Bob the photographer is a bore--his main motivation is making the moves on Janet.  I don't really understand the logic of these stories in which the main character is more a spectator than a participant in the plot.  Again and again Bob watches other people do things, watches films, listens to other people describe what happened to them.  No Bob would mean no boring Bob-has-a-crush-on-Janet subplot, which would make a Janet-Jack-Ruby love triangle more exciting.  Whether Bob is around or not, we could definitely have done with fewer science lectures.  There's even a footnote on page 121 discussing whether or not Helium 5 exists!    

I have to give The Space Egg a thumbs down; there is very little fun or interesting about it.  Maybe a 21st century reader could squeeze some ironic enjoyment out of its potentially offensive treatment of the female characters (Janet is a ditzy damsel in distress and jealous slut Ruby spends the entire book in a skimpy bathing suit) and the way the fat bald character gets humiliated by everybody (he goes from yes-man to the businessman to yes-man to the aliens, and even Bob, our supposed hero, deposits him in a garbage can when they have a verbal disagreement) but I doubt it would balance out all the boring passages.     

Note to self: Options for ending this blog post:  
1) I guess Winterbotham really laid an egg this time!
2) Let's take a look at the scoreboard, folks: looks like Monarch books is going home with a goose egg this outing!
3) Just quietly move on to scans of the ads  

***********

Click to get an eyeful of what 30 cents could get the discerning reader in 1962
My copy of The Space Egg is full of ads for Monarch's most "famous" and "best-selling" books.  Monarch readers seem to love war stories both true and fictional (Bloody Beaches: Marines Die Hard and The Apache Wars), crime novels about sex (Make Mine Mavis and The Seducer) and biographies about disreputable celebrities (Lucky Luciano, The Dillinger Story and The Kennedy Cabinet.)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Agamemnon by Aeschylus (trans. R. Lattimore)

King of the ships, who tore up Ilion by the roots,
what does he know of this accursed bitch, who licks
his hand, who fawns on him with lifted ears, who like
a secret death shall strike the coward's stroke, nor fail?
In my last blog post I was lamenting a lack of sincere emotion in so much of our contemporary culture.  Well, where better to look for genuine feeling than in Greek Tragedy?  My personal library of classical books is in storage, so, on a trip to the South branch of the Des Moines library primarily devoted to borrowing Kinks and Portishead CDs, I checked out a 1958 printing of a 1947 collection edited by Dudley Fitts entitled Greek Plays in Modern Translation.  First up, Agamemnon by Aeschylus, translated by Richard Lattimore.

I read the three plays that make up the Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides) in the 1990s, I believe in a Penguin paperback edition.  I can't remember who the translator was.  I don't know any Greek, so of course I can't judge the faithfulness of the Lattimore translation of Agamemnon that I read this weekend, but I can say I quite enjoyed it.  The plot is full of people driven to extreme actions and emotion, I like the themes of curses, vengeance, treachery and envy, and I thought the poetry good, featuring a number of great metaphors.

Frederic Lord Leighton's depiction of
Clytemnestra watching for the signal fires 
The play is set in the Greek city of Argos. Agamemnon, King of Argos, has been gone for ten years, leading the Greeks in their siege of Troy, but today the fires that signal his return have been sighted. In the first half of the play the chorus (consisting of the elders of Argos), Klytaimnestra (Agamemnon's wife) and a herald arriving ahead of the king, all describe the hardships they have endured due to the long and destructive war. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that before the Greek fleet could depart those ten years ago, the gods required a human sacrifice, and Agamemnon laid his and Klytaimnestra's own daughter, Iphigenia, on the altar and sacrificed her, but every citizen of Argos has suffered.  Many houses have received shipment from Troy of an urn full of ashes, the last remains of a son or husband killed on the Asian battlefield, and the chorus asserts that life in Argos has been precarious in the absence of its leaders.  The herald, who fought at Troy, describes the horror of battle and the dreadful conditions in which the fighting men of Greece have been living for years.  Both the herald and the chorus members admit that during the war they asked the gods for death as a release from their misery, and Klytaimnestra claims to have attempted suicide.

The people of Argos resent Paris, Helen, and Agamemnon for getting them into this terrible war.  I liked how Helen was described as being like a lion cub, fostered in a home, an adorable playmate for the kids, only to grow up and repay the people's kindness by becoming "a priest of Destruction" who killed its benefactors' sheep and turned the home into an abattoir.

Halfway through the drama Agamemnon arrives on a chariot, Kassandra, the Trojan prophetess whom he has taken as his mistress, riding at his side.  Klytaimnestra literally lays out a red carpet for him, so that he need not touch the ground between his chariot and his palace.  Here's a neat bit of foreshadowing from Klytaimnestra:
                                               ...My maidens there!
Why this delay? Your task has been appointed you,
to strew the ground before his feet with tapestries.
Let there spring up into the house he never hoped
to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path.
Agamemnon is reluctant to walk on the valuable tapestries that make up the red carpet, warning that such veneration is fit only for the gods, and will excite a dangerous envy among the people, but after a little intermarital spat he agrees. Klytaimnestra tries to convince Kassandra to also enter the palace, but the Trojan prophetess refuses.

In a good series of passages Kassandra receives a terrible prophecy, that Agamemnon will be murdered, and that she will suffer the same fate.  In one of my favorite metaphors she describes the adulterous Klytemnestra as a lioness (again with the lions):
This is the woman-lioness, who goes to bed
with the wolf, when her proud lion ranges far away,
and she will cut me down...
Recognizing that she is unable to escape the verdict of fate, Kassandra enters the mansion, but not before prophesying that her murder (and that of Agamemnon) will be avenged in turn.  The chorus hears Agamemnon's cries of pain, and when the palace doors open it is revealed that Klytaimnestra has murdered her husband while he sat in a bath, after tossing heavy robes on him to impede his movements, and also dispatched poor Kassandra.  

The chorus of elders is aghast at this horrible crime, but Klytaimnestra explains that she has merely exacted justice for her husband's own atrocity:
No shame, I think, in the death given
this man. And did he not
first of all in this house wreak death
by treachery?
The flower of this man's love and mine,
Iphigenia of the tears
he dealt with even as he has suffered.
Let his speech in death's house be not loud.
With the sword he struck,
with the sword he paid for his own act.
Roger Payne's rendering of Clytemnestra
murdering Agamemnon; hey, where are the robes?
Klytaimnestra's lover, Aigisthos, appears, and explains that he planned the assassination.  He too asserts that his act has been just; Agamemnon's father murdered Aigisthos's brothers when he was but a baby, and cunningly cut up their flesh and fed it to Aigisthos's father.  Murdering Agamemnon has been the fulfillment of Aigosthos's father's vow of vengeance. The play ends with the chorus calling Aigisthos a coward for having a woman do his dirty work, Aigisthos threatening the old men, and further foreshadowing of the fact that Orestes, Agamemnon's son, is going to avenge the king.

Besides the lion metaphors, there are several great metaphors built around nets, perhaps reminding us that we are all trapped by fate (and how important fishing is to the Greek economy.)  Early in the play Zeus is said to have "slung above the bastions of Troy/ the binding net, that none" might escape "enslavement and final disaster."  Klytaimnestra lists as one of the hardships she has suffered in her husband's absence all the unfounded rumors that he has been wounded or killed:
                             ...Had Agamemnon taken all
the wounds the tale whereof was carried home to me,
he had been cut full of gashes like a fishing net.
Both Klytaimnestra and Aigosthos describe Agamemnon as having been caught in a net:
Klytaimnestra:  That he might not escape nor beat beat aside his death,
as fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread
deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.
  
(I like the phrase "deadly abundance of rich robes," which reminds the reader of one of the minor themes of the play, the idea that a display of wealth on the part of the upper classes can inspire envy and revolution among the lower orders.)
Aigisthos: Now I can say once more that the high gods look down
on mortal crimes to vindicate the right at last,
now that I see this man--sweet sight--before me here
sprawled in the tangling nets of fury, to atone
the calculated evil of his father's hand.
John Collier depicts Clytemnestra after
having committed the deed.; everybody
has his own idea what weapon she used
Agamemnon, only 50 pages in this edition, is a great little melodrama, packed full of the kind of sad wisdom about how people are all jerks ("In few men is it part of nature to respect/ a friend's prosperity without begrudging him") and we are all doomed that appeals to your humble blogger, as well as some solid poetry. Definitely worth the reader's time.