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!

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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.

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