Saturday, February 28, 2015

Three stories by Kris Neville about democracy

I was pretty keen on the three Kris Neville stories from the 1950s I read recently, so I just read three stories from later in his career, published in those SF anthologies I have been going through.  I found them to be quite different than those earlier stories I was raving about.

"Shamar's War" (1964)

I read "Shamar's War" in my copy of Seven Trips Through Time and Space, a 1968 anthology edited by Groff Conklin.  My copy of Seven Trips  was previously owned by Ellen Kennerly Dallis, a woman with breathtakingly good handwriting.

Fellow SF fan Ellen Kennerly Dallis, we salute you!
Groff Conklin's introduction to the anthology touches upon the New Wave; Conklin not only opines on the phenomenon ("many of the avant-garde S.F. writers have little to recommend them except their shock value...") but also refers to a piece in The New Yorker which discusses the controversy between old and New Wave SF (New Wave supporters want more sex and drugs in their SF, apparently.)  I thought this intro (just two pages) worth reproducing for the benefit of the curious.


After how much I liked "Special Delivery," "Shamar's War" was a major disappointment.  While "Special Delivery" was a straight and sincere adventure story, and focused on the psychology of the protagonist, "Shamar's War" is a big joke. "Shamar's War" is one of those cynical satires that argues that there is no real difference between the representative governments of the West and the one-party dictatorships of the Soviet Union and Communist China, no difference between a free market economy and a planned economy, no difference between Christianity and socialism--all those systems are corrupt scams run by crooked elites and all those beliefs a stupid fantasy that only dangerous fanatics believe.

Perhaps even more disappointing, the basic plot of "Shamar's War" is quite like that of "Special Delivery," but played for laughs instead of to generate suspense and excitement.

Captain Merle Shaeffer commands a civilian interstellar transport ship.  He is enlisted by a general (a drunk) and the head of the space transport company (a Christian fanatic) to go on a secret mission to the planet Itra.  The Earth's democratic government tried to set up a trade deal and political federation with Itra's one-party government, but was rebuffed.  So the Earth government and Earth's big businesses want Shaeffer to sneak onto Itra and build up a resistance movement to the ruling Party and set off a pro-Earth revolution.

After three years of studying the language of Itra, Shaeffer, taking the Itran name "Shamar," sneaks onto Itra and quickly starts a romantic relationship with an attractive Itran woman.  There are all kinds of hi-jinks with lawyers and Party officials that serve to show the reader that the planned economy and despotic rule of Itra is in fact quite similar to the allegedly free market economy of Earth (which is in fact run by monopolies in league with the government) and representative government of Earth (because the two political parties pursue identical policies the elections don't matter.) Shaeffer does set into motion the overthrow of the tyrannical Itran government and reforms of its sclerotic command economy, but this does little to improve the lot of the Itran people.  At the end of the story Shaeffer is back on Earth, and starts to destabilize the Earth government, using the same tactics he learned on Itra.

With its banal message, tired jokes, flat characters, and total lack of emotion, "Shamar's War" is pretty forgettable.  It is not offensively bad, but it just kind of sits there, occupying 36 or so pages.  Too bad.

"Ballenger's People" (1967)

Like "Shamar's War," "Ballenger's People" is about democracy, and like the Neville stories I was praising in earlier blog posts, it is about psychology.  The story takes place in the future (there are private personal helicopters, personal computers, VHS tapes and voice recognition software) but the setting is incidental to the story.

Bart Ballenger is mentally ill.  A minor aspect of this illness is that he falls in love with pop stars he sees on TV and hears on the radio and has no real-life friends.  A major aspect of it is his fetishization of democracy.  Ballenger imagines that each human being is a nation, that he has within himself a multitude of people, ranging from the common citizens to aspects of his personality that play the role of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.  For example, when he goes over his accounts he imagines he is having a conversation with his finance minister.  Whenever he makes a decision he pretends to consult polls.  People he does not like he believes to be tyrannical states with no respect for democracy.

Ballenger has fallen in love with a different pop star (this one has bigger boobs) and so decides he doesn't want to pay the bill for the tapes of the last musician to win his admiration.  He receives collection notices for the bill, and goes to the office whence the notices came, where he ends up "going to war" with a lawyer there, murdering him with a pistol (which he thinks of as an ICBM launcher.)

This story is OK.  Is it suggesting that we in the West overrate democracy, or that democratic states can be just as aggressive and behave just as irrationally (or maybe even more so?) than dictatorial states?  I'm not sure.  It is certainly tempting to see a pattern in "Shamar's War" and this story; in both self-professed democratic states act belligerently towards what they claim are tyrannical states.

I read "Ballenger's People" in the 1970 anthology On Our Way to the Future, edited by Terry Carr.  It first appeared in Galaxy.

"Survival Problems" (1974)

I purchased the 1976 paperback edition of Terry Carr's Universe 5 last month and its striking cover by Patrick Woodruffe became something of a leitmotif of my twitter account for a few days.

This story is set in the Research Department of the American Mortuary Society, and is all about efforts to cheat death. A satire, the story shows all such efforts to be failures, and, in fact, to diminish or destroy life instead of preserving it.

One character takes drugs which prolong life, but which also slow all physical and mental processes so the user becomes a vegetative dolt. Another character wins a government lottery; he and a young woman will be put in suspended animation underground and revived automatically in five thousand years; this is a way of ensuring the human race will endure the nuclear war with the communists which is expected any day.

The third topic the story treats is an innovative method of preserving corpses in a clear plastic so they can be put on long term public display.  I assume this is meant to set up a moral equivalency between the U.S. and the Soviet Union--Lenin has famously been on display in Moscow since his death in 1924. The effort to preserve the president (who recently died in an accident at a munitions plant) with this new technique is a disaster, largely because it was the originator of the method who won that lottery and is asleep in a vault a mile underground.

As in the other stories discussed today, Neville repeatedly uses the word "democracy" sarcastically in "Survival Problems" and portrays the leaders of the democratic country in the story as goofballs.

I guess this story is OK; it doesn't generate much feeling and there is little by way of plot or character, but it has some peculiar ideas going for it.

**********

I'm disappointed in these stories because they lack the human feeling, vivid characters, and spot-on pacing and plotting of "Old Man Henderson" and "Special Delivery."  I'm also not a very receptive audience to the suggestion that the U.S. and its founding ideas are no better or different that Leninism or Maoism.
 
On the other hand, "Ballenger's People" and "Survival Problems" have their unique ideas to recommend them, and it is not fair to harshly judge a story for not being what you wish it was.  These stories probably succeed on their own terms, probably accomplish what Neville wanted them to accomplish, so I can give at least the second and third some kind of lukewarm endorsement.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Four stories by William F. Nolan

William F. Nolan is a name I have been seeing on all these anthologies I have been reading, but who is William F. Nolan?  Over the last couple days I read four stories by Nolan in an effort to discover what he is all about.

"And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" (1965 revision of the 1958 story)

This one is for all you Robert Frost fans! "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" also reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury and of The Twilight Zone, which makes sense when you read about Nolan's life and career on Wikipedia; Nolan is an expert on, and was a friend of, Bradbury, and has done quite a bit of work for TV.

Ever since he was a kid Robert Murdock wanted to be a spaceman!  He was the only boy in his little Midwestern town to make it into the astronaut service, and at the age of 21 he blasted off.  Twenty years later he is finally heading back home.  Unfortunately, on an alien planet he contracted an incurable disease.  The doctors are able to predict to the hour when he will die, and there isn't enough time to get back to Earth to see his parents one more time.  So, he has a robot made to look exactly like him, and uploads his memories into the machine--his parents won't know the difference!

The twist ending: his parents died a while ago, but instead of letting Robert know they were sick they had robot replacements of themselves made!  As robot Robert embraces robot Mom and robot Dad, the onlooking townsfolk think they have tricked Robert in order to spare his feelings, just like the space service people think they have tricked the Earthers!

This story is OK, a little sappy for my taste (not that I am in any position to judge other people's sentimentalism, after Barry Malzberg's "Conversations at Lothar's" brought tears to my eyes.  I guess we all have our buttons, and this story just didn't push mine.)

I read "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" in Man Against Tomorrow,  a 1965 anthology edited by Nolan.  The story originally appeared in Infinity Science Fiction, a magazine I don't remember having heard of before, but which, judging by the covers at isfdb and on google, published work by big name authors and tried to include a sexy dame on every cover of its twenty issues.  Nolan informs us that he revised "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" for inclusion in Man Against Tomorrow.

"He Kilt it With a Stick" (1967)

I read "He Kilt it With a Stick" in my copy of the second volume of the paperback version of the Anthony Boucher memorial anthology Special Wonder.  My copy of Special Wonder: Volume 2 at one time was in the collection of Branch Library 5 at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina.

SF fans among serving and former United States Army personnel--we salute you!
William F. Nolan, who has won Lifetime Achievement-type awards from The International Horror Guild and the Horror Writers Association, is probably better known as a horror writer than as a writer of science fiction (narrowly defined to mean stuff about future or alternate technologies and societies.)  "He Kilt it With a Stick" reflects this fact; it is a realistic psychological horror story.

In six pages, "He Kilt it With a Stick" tells the tale of a guy who hates cats so much he goes out of his way to kill them.  The story details his most memorable kills, suggests why he hates felines (his mother told him that old myth about cats stealing a baby's breath, and a cat scratched him when he was seven) and relates how, in middle age, he dies of a heart attack when he has a hallucination of hundreds of cats overpowering him.  (I guess he never heard that "herding cats" cliche.)

This story is competent, but pedestrian.  Acceptable, but unremarkable.

"Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" (1971)

As a kid, Gorf was one of my favorite arcade games.  I loved the "quark laser" concept, and the fact that the game had different levels which played differently, and the way the villain would talk to you (a feature I also loved in Berzerk.)

Anyway, "Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" appears in Infinty Two, that anthology of all new stories edited by Robert Hoskins that I have been reading lately.

"Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" is one of those absurd humor pieces, a parody of those movies about giant creatures attacking everybody.  In beautiful upstate New York a scientist with a beautiful niece is trying to increase food production and accidentally creates a bullfrog the size of an apartment building.  The thing starts eating people, and skinny and depressed Dave Merkle and fat and jolly Eldon Sash, who work at the Pentagon's "Office of Stateside Emergencies," head out to investigate.  The military employs various weapons on the monster, but it is impervious to all physical harm.  Finally, the niece uses a female frog to lure the colossal batrachian into quicksand.

Fourteen pages of feeble jokes.  Thumbs down.


"Starblood" (1972)  

This one is in Infinity Four, like Infinity Two, an anthology of original stories published by Lancer and edited by Robert Hoskins.

"Starblood" is a series of vignettes depicting a future (or maybe futures) in which people are all assholes, living in societies in which all our institutions are corrupt or decadent.  Most of the six vignettes portray a relationship which should be based on love but which in this case is not, and all end with someone getting killed.  There is a brief frame story in italics (this entire story, all seven parts, is just 13 pages) about alien beings who would like to bring love to the Earth, but are rejected.

The vignettes, each numbered and named after the person who gets murdered:

1) A baby boy's crying interferes with his parents' pastimes, so Mom throws baby out of a helicopter.

2) A pretty girl was part of a religious cult's harem, but got thrown out when she spoke up to one of the male masters.  Brokenhearted, she sees a hypno shrink; the only solution to her sadness is euthanasia.

3) A motorist is ambushed by teenage bandits; he survives the energy gun firefight, but his car is knocked out and he is killed by another pack while on foot.

4) A kid who is obsessed with death rents a robot doppelganger of William Faulkner at a bookstore, and gets run over by a car on the walk home.

5) A woman and her husband are drug smugglers; right before they make a big sale she poisons him in a restaurant so she can keep all the profits for herself.

6) A young woman is rich because her Dad is at the top of his lucrative profession. His job title is "assassin for hire."  He comes home one day and completes a contract--someone hired him to kill his daughter.

I guess you could call this a New Wave exercise; the vignettes are striking, and include all sorts of SF paraphernalia (robots, underwater cities, ray guns, telepathy, alternative sexual arrangements) but the story lacks any sort of character, feeling or plot.  The story isn't bad, but doesn't leave any sort of impression; like "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" and "He Kilt it With a Stick," I'd say "Starblood" is acceptable, but forgettable.

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

These are run-of-the-mill stories--they feel like filler.  They are professional, but lack anything that makes them feel special, there is no sense that we are experiencing a person's unique vision or singular voice.

These stories probably do not represent Nolan's best work.  I'm still interested in him, so I should probably poke around online and figure out what his most admired stories are and try to hunt them down.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Three 1950s stories by Kris Neville

In January I read my first Kris Neville story and thought it was pretty good, so this week I took a gander at the SFFaudio PDF page and sifted through my anthologies and read three more stories by Neville, all written within ten years of World War II.

"If This be Utopia..." (1950)

I found "If This be Utopia..." at the very cool page of public domain stories in PDF format at SFFaudio's website. They seem to have made the page more user-friendly since I last looked at it, so bravo to those guys.

"If This be Utopia..." first appeared in the May 1950 Amazing Stories, and was reprinted in the June 1966 issue.  The PDF scan at SFFaudio includes the illustration by Enoch Sharpe (the illo is a little too spoily in my opinion.)

This is one of those stories about a future society in which the government (in this case, "the New State") runs your whole life, determining where you can live, what job you will have, and keeping an eye on you via informants.  Our main character is an executive/manager type, stressed because he isn't sure he can meet his various quotas and thus suffering nervous tics and hallucinations.  An interesting element of the story is how he is complicit in the cruel regime, oppressing his subordinates in a way similar to how his superiors oppress him.  The New State not only makes victims of its citizens, but transforms them into villains, steals not only their freedom and their lives (at the end of the story the protagonist is euthanized) but their humanity.

Not a terrific story, but well-written and very much in tune with early- and mid-20th century issues, like the pressures of modern business, life in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, technocratic, scientific management and efficiency movements, etc. Not bad.

"Old Man Henderson" (1951)  

This one was first published in the June 1951 issue of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which has a cover you could use as the basis for your master's thesis in gender studies.  I read it in the 1970 paperback anthology Special Wonder: Volume 2, edited by J. Francis McComas.

When I read Kris Neville's 1949 story "Cold War" last month I noted how I felt like it presaged Barry Malzberg's career with its mentally ill astronauts. I had the same feeling when I read "Old Man Henderson," which also presents a very Malzbergian theme, how the public has lost interest in the space program.

"Old Man Henderson" takes place in a future when Venus and Mars have been colonized, and exotic animals have been imported to the Earth from these planets. Henderson is a retired astronaut, the first man to set foot on the moon, but, instead of being a revered hero, everyone in town is sick of hearing his story of the moon landing and he lives alone, avoided by everyone.

A sad and somewhat cynical story; I found it touching.  At 11 pages it is just the right length to accomplish its purpose, and Neville employs a smooth engaging style. Thumbs up!

"Special Delivery" (1952)

Originally appearing in Imagination, "Special Delivery" is a quite good adventure/espionage thriller.  I read it in the 1965 anthology Man Against Tomorrow, edited by William F. Nolan.  Neville is very good at conveying suspense and depicting the tension suffered by the protagonist, an alien Knoug disguised as a human, on Earth as part of a team softening up our beloved world for the impending alien invasion!  The novella (it's over 60 pages in the edition I read) also includes fresh and exciting SF ideas.

The expansionist Knoug space empire is at war with the Oholos.  Earth is strategically located on the Oholo system's "blind flank;" if the Knoug can take the Earth the Oholos will be in trouble.  Parr, our main character, is a Knoug "advanceman."  He sneaks into Los Angeles and sets up a shipping operation--renting a warehouse and hiring local laborers and truckers--to prepare and send out a mass mailing on a specific date, just days before the scheduled Knoug invasion.  This mass mailing will soften up the Earth's defenses, but Neville wisely doesn't let on how these thousands of deliveries will weaken the Earth.  For page after page I was wondering what could be in all the parcels, and was genuinely surprised when the truth was revealed.  The surprise is satisfying because Neville plays fair with the reader; the answer is foreshadowed, and someone more clever than me could have figured it out.

While Parr is managing this whole advance operation he is also battling against the Oholo agents who are on Earth.  The Knoug and Oholo are psychics or telepaths or whatever you want to call them, and Neville presents a whole system of mental warfare in which the Knoug and Oholo try to detect, evade, and destroy each other with mental shields, probes, and assaults.  As in the other Neville stories I have read, he focuses on the psychology of his characters, portraying the effects of stress upon Parr's mind as he struggles to complete his mission, survive, and deal with doubts about himself and his life.

Very good.  A few years ago the people at Armchair Fiction and Sinister Cinema put out an edition of "Special Delivery;" it, and their whole line, are worth a look.  

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

Three stories it is easy to recommend; now I am really looking forward to reading more of Neville's work.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Three Barry Malzberg stories from the early 1970s

From the dawn of the disco era, bleak visions born in the mind of the sage of Teaneck!

Last week I read three old stories by Barry Malzberg; why should this week be any different? I found today's stories in anthologies edited by Robert Hoskins and published in the early 1970s.

"Elephants" (1971)

It seems like just yesterday I was reading Robert Hoskins's Infinity Two, an anthology of all new SF stories I purchased in South Carolina while doing my holiday traveling.  Hoskins's intro to the volume starts off "Man is a waster..." and goes on to argue that mankind must have a death wish, or perhaps is possessed by some malevolent force; what else could explain the way we are polluting our world, which, to primitive man, may well have been a "paradise!"  Hoskins muses that perhaps nature created human kind by mistake, and is trying to rectify its error, and even hints that 1972 could bring the end of humanity!

"Elephants," six pages, appears under Malzberg's pen name, K. M. O'Donnell.  This is a mysterious story about a small crowd at a crummy little circus. In the crowd are three small children, a boy (10) and two girls (6 and 8).  The spectators watch the juggler, then the magician.  The juggler is announced as "the last juggler," and when he has finished he declares "The end of all juggling!" and throws his clubs into the darkness of the night.  Likewise, the magician is "the last magician" and his tricks include "the last vanishing" and "the last dancing rabbits."

Taking my cue from Hoskins, I think this story is about the last day of humanity; tomorrow the human race and/or the Earth will be destroyed, and the small crowd at the circus are those people who have decided to spend the last hours of their lives at their favorite amusement.  (The kids don't quite realize what is going on.)

"Elephants" would have another chance to bewilder the public two years later in Hoskins's anthology The Edge of Never: Classic and Contemporary tales of the Supernatural.

"The Ballad of Slick Sid" (1972)

Between the covers of Infinity Four Malzberg goes by his own name.  Hoskins's intro this time is about changes in the publishing industry which he considers "a revolution."  Fiction, we are warned, "is in serious trouble."  Far fewer magazines publish short fiction, "one knowledgeable source in the field predicts that within twenty years there will no longer be such a thing as a hardcover bestseller..." and, of course, prices for paperbacks will continue to rise--the four dollar mass market paperback bestseller is not an impossibility!

Slick Sid is a teenage drug addict living in the grim future of the 1990s!  While astronauts are dying on Mars (astronauts in Malzberg stories rarely meet success) Sid has to deal with squares like his girl friend, who wants him to settle down with her, his parents, who want him to consider his future, and the cops, who want to learn all Sid knows about his friend Jug's "final trip" (drug-induced suicide.)  On the same day all contact is lost with the explorers on Mars, Slick Sid pens his own suicide note, this nine page story.

I actually thought this one was pretty funny; Slick Sid insists everybody (even the police investigator) call him by his full name (Slick Sid), calls the Kennedys the "Kenny cats" and says "the only tragic thing about the Kenny cats is that we got to hear about them," and in a dream about going to Mars tells a Martian that he is an expert on drugs come to the red planet to conduct research on ancient Martian hallucinatives.

If you are less of a happy-go-lucky sort than I am I guess you could interpret "The Ballad of Slick Sid" as a tragedy about the collapse of American society as evidenced by the inability of the young to see any purpose in life or relationships and the failure of the government to accomplish anything in space.  Maybe Malzberg is suggesting that we should see shooting off rockets as a foolish and destructive distraction from our society's real problems, the same way we see shooting up as an individual's stupid and risky way of avoiding his personal problems.

In 1976 the story would be included in the Malzberg collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter.

"Conversations at Lothar's" (1973)

This one first appeared in Roger Elwood's Children of Infinity, but I read it in Robert Hoskins's The Liberated Future: Voyages into Tomorrow, printed in 1974. Children of Infinity is a collection of SF stories specifically aimed at "young readers."


Maybe I'm young at heart because "Conversations at Lothar's" really affected me--this story is a good example of what I am looking for when I read SF, why I read SF in the first place.  Malzberg quickly and efficiently (in less than five pages) sketches out a world and characters that are at once strange and easy to understand, to empathize and identify with.  This story also provides some of that "sense of wonder" and "paradigm shift" business that the critics talk about being one of SF's defining characteristics, depicting characters who suddenly gain a new perspective about the realities, and possibilities, of their world.

I think "Conversations at Lothar's" has had more of an emotional impact on me than any other Malzberg story.  Most Malzberg stories are too detached, ironic, and/or difficult to elicit any emotional response from me, but this one is clear and sincere.  Is "Conversations at Lothar's" an example of Malzberg stretching himself, or just the opposite, a case of Malzberg limiting himself to quotidian techniques that a boring conventional person like me can grok?

In the late 22nd century the government controls every aspect of your life--"the Bureau" assigns you a place to live and a mate, provides all necessities, and keeps a close eye on you via reports from your cohabitants.  People almost never go outside and are almost never alone.  In the teen-aged narrator's apartment building lives an unusual man, Lothar, who has a collection of scrapbooks which provide evidence that in the past people had far more freedom.  Is Lothar crazy?  A dangerous anti-social element?  Is there any value in the knowledge he relates to the narrator?  And what will happen to that knowledge if somebody reports Lothar and the Bureau carts him away?

A powerful and beautiful story; I'm a little surprised it has not been more widely reprinted (I believe it has only appeared in the two anthologies I have mentioned.) Maybe editors consider it too childish, or too derivative of things like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.  And it is uncharacteristic of Malzberg's work.  I, however, do not mind admitting that this is probably my favorite piece of fiction by Malzberg.

**********

These three Malzberg stories, to me, seem better than his average.  Recommended.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Three stories by Edward Bryant: "Road to Cinnabar," "Strata," and "Audition: Soon to be a Major Production"

Back in August of last year I read four stories from Edward Bryant, finding two were pretty bad but two good.  Since then I have purchased many decades-old anthologies and magazines, and so have a new crop of Bryant stories to try out.  Early this week I flipped through some of these publications and found and read three Bryant stories.

"The Road to Cinnabar" (1971)

I read this one in Infinity Two, an anthology edited by Robert Hoskins, where it first appeared in the year of my birth.  "The Road to Cinnabar" would go on to be the first selection in Bryant's 1976 collection Cinnabar.  (SF bloggers Joachim Boaz and 2theD both own copies of Cinnabar, as revealed in this blog post, but I don't think either has written about it yet.)

"The Road to Cinnabar" is a decent story; it reminded me a bit of an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Cinnabar is a city on the coast in a desert.   A man, Cafter, walks into the town from the desert, but can't recall how long he walked or where he came from.  He sits in a bar for a long time, watching the establishment's owner abuse his staff.  Cafter is a labor organizer, and tries to convince the staff to organize, but the staff has no interest in being organized.  A giant, a dwarf and an albino with a film camera come into the bar, and are surprised when Cafter addresses them.  At the end of the 12-page story it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Cinnabar are robots of some kind and the town is an elaborate film set--the robots are the actors.  The giant, dwarf and albino are film crew, and the Cinnabar people (the giant calls them "simulacra") are "conditioned" to not see them.  Cafter's having seen them is evidence of malfunction, and he is deactivated so he can be repaired.

The story is well-written, so an acceptable entertainment.

At Infinity, clothing is optional

"Audition: Soon to be a Major Production" (1972)

This story appears in Robert Hoskins's Infinity Four, and was not included in 1976's Cinnabar.  In fact, I don't think it has ever appeared anywhere else.

"Audition: Soon to be a Major Production" is a humor piece, a parody of adventure fiction.  It is too long, 18 pages, but I laughed at some of the jokes so I will have to say this is a positive review.  The punchline to the whole thing is that aliens invade the Earth in order to have a subject to film.  "I'm told the production will gross an incredible amount in the Rigel System," our first-person narrator passes along to us.  I guess Bryant has film on the brain.

"Strata" (1980)

This story appeared in the August 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a copy of which I own.  "Strata" was well-received, and was reprinted in numerous collections and anthologies, including Fantasy Annual IV (1981) and Dinosaurs! (1990).

Bryant lived for many years in Wyoming, and this story is set in that state.  The first seventeen or so pages reads like a pretty conventional mainstream story.  We meet our four characters as they party in the mountains after their senior prom: Paul, the Japanese-American who is bitter because of the 1940s internment of his ancestors and lingering racism; Carroll, the cheerleader and valedictorian whose brother committed suicide; Steve, the smart but underachieving slacker kid who wants to be an actor; and Ginger, the girl who feels out of place in the country because she grew up in Cupertino, California.  Fifteen years later they meet again back in Wyoming, all of them having suffered setbacks, like divorces and abortive careers in Hollywood or big city journalism.  Paul is the head geologist of an energy company that Ginger, reporter at the Salt Creek Gazette and Paul's lover for a period after Paul divorced Carroll, believes is abusing the Indians and the environment.  Is Paul despoiling the environment and getting rich to get revenge on Wyoming and show the people of Wyoming how superior he is?

Over the course of his life Steve has often had weird dreams and seen UFOs, and in the last ten pages of the story, when Paul, Carroll and Ginger seek to take advantage of Steve's strange sensitivity to supernatural phenomena, we get the real SF stuff.  The ghost of a mosasaur or pliosaur (in the Cretaceous Wyoming was underwater, you know) or some such creature has been scaring the energy company employees.  Steve's high school chums want him to help them find it!  So they pile into an energy company truck to go look for the ghost.  Ginger moans about the environment ("Nobody actually needs air conditioners,") as they drive the mountain roads.  When the huge flying ghost scares them they crash, and Paul is killed.  Ginger laments that the death of her former boyfriend will probably not stop oil and coal extraction.

"Strata" is competently written but the soap opera stuff and the environmental debates feel tired, and we seem to spend a lot of time meeting these characters for the size of the payoff.  Maybe people familiar with Wyoming would get more out of it than I did; one theme of the story seems to be how Wyoming's beautiful terrain and wildlife get under your skin, into your soul, etc.

***********

These three stories are alright, but no big deal. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Killer by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner

The lizard-ape bounced to the earth like a cat, as the last two snarling hounds sprang for it together.  Spinning and slashing as it ducked under and away, the thing was literally a blur of motion.  Deadly motion.

I read a library copy of Killer when it was relatively new, in my teens, and parts of it have always stuck with me, maybe because when I read it I knew nothing about Ancient Rome.  Recently I was in South Carolina, and visited 2nd & Charles, a chain of used books/music stores which I guess fills a market niche similar to that filled by Half Price Books out here in the Central Time Zone.  (As a kid growing up in New Jersey I pitied people in the Central Time Zone, who had less time to do their homework and eat dinner before the prime time TV shows came on, and who would have to watch Johnny Carson at the early hour of 10:30.)  2nd & Charles had a copy of the same edition of Killer I had read in my youth, so I brought it back to my Middle West HQ and this weekend read it.

Nota bene: Only one of the book's
twenty-seven chapters is in space
The galaxy is ruled by the methane-breathing Cora, a race of varicolored blobs.  These killjoys have outlawed the blood sports that are such a common feature of SF stories, but oxygen-breathing biped RyRelee isn't going to let that harsh the buzz of fight fans everywhere.  RyRelee is a kind of secret agent or bounty hunter hired now and again by the Cora, but he has a side business supplying monsters to the arenas still in operation on scofflaw planets. Unfortunately, one of his monster transports just crashed on some Class 6 planet the primitive natives call Earth, and a female phile, just about the meanest creature known to interstellar civilization, is now loose in central Italy, the center of the empire ruled by Domitian, the eleventh Roman Emperor.  The phile, which the Earthlings take to calling a "lizard-ape," is almost unkillable, and if RyRelee doesn't capture it quick it will give birth to enough little philes to swamp the planet and exterminate all native life.  The Cora feel a responsibility to protect the peoples of primitive planets like Earth, so if the phile starts reproducing they plan to nuke the Mediterranean region from orbit to protect the rest of the humanity.

Before RyRelee sets foot on Earth (the plastic surgery which will allow him to blend in among the people of Italy takes a little time) Domitian puts Lycon the Greek on the lizard-ape case.  Lycon is a 40-something veteran of the Roman legions, the gladiatorial arena, and a career as a beastcatcher; he hunts tigers, lions, and other animals and brings 'em back alive to Rome.  When RyRelee presents himself to Domitian (in disguise as an Egyptian), the Emperor instructs Lycon and RyRelee to work together to catch the monster.  Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that while the basically decent Lycon and the Cora are determined to destroy the menace, money-grubbing RyRelee and twisted sicko Domitian want to catch it alive (Domitian wants to watch it massacre animals in the arena.)

Did Baen pay a kid in candy bars for this cover?
Killer is a pretty straightforward adventure story.  There is an omniscient narrator, and we see the story unfold from the point of view of several characters, including the blue-scaled, bird-footed monster itself. There is a lot of action, and quite a bit of gore as the phile eviscerates animals and people and the sadistic Domitian tortures and murders people.  (Killer is one of those stories which on the one hand condemns people's bloodlust while on the other appealing to it.)

The adventure/horror elements work, as do the science fiction elements.  The techniques RyRelee uses to try to fit into Roman society, and the growing suspicions of canny Earthlings like Lycon of this strange man who claims to be an Egyptian but speaks Greek and Latin with weird accents and does odd things like touching sizzling hot metal without flinching, are engaging and add suspense.

All the references to Roman history and culture add another layer of interest to the book, and Drake and Wagner also set up lots of parallelisms between the human and alien characters.  The Cora are kind of like the Romans (arrogant jerks who make wide use of auxiliaries from other races/ethnicities and maintain order across a broad empire), Lycon is like RyRelee (both hunters who go to exotic lands on the periphery of civilization), and like the phile (both are expert killers who have been trained to fight in the arena for the pleasure of their so-called superiors.)

Killer is an entertaining mix of elements exploitative (depravity and gore) and highbrow (mentions of Horace and Euripides, descriptions of life in Ancient Rome.)  I enjoyed it.

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

There are eight pages of ads at the back of my 1985 printing of Killer.  The final two pages constitute an order form, while each of the other pages is devoted to a single publication.  Unfortunately most of these full page ads, which attempt to reproduce cover illustrations in black and white, look pretty bad.

Readers of any of the eighteen advertised books (and Killer, of course) are invited to comment.  Of all of them I have only read Jack Vance's Cugel's Saga, which I adore, of course.  I have read the title story of Joanna Russ's The Zanzibar Cat; it was thought-provoking, but not entertaining, like something a college professor would assign you to read to get you to think about the place of literature in society or something.


John Willett has only one novel listed at isfdb, but at least it is endorsed by famous scientist Robert Bussard.  Seven issues of Far Frontiers were produced, and then it changed its name to New Destinies, and endured for nine additional issues.  Keith Laumer and Fred Saberhagen are authors I feel like I should like, but whose work often feels kind of pedestrian when I read it.  I do plan on reading some of their signature works in the future.


I didn't think much of the Mack Reynolds I read.  I have the same attitude about Gordon R. Dickson that I have about Laumer and Saberhagen.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hidden World by Stanton A. Coblentz

I read that I guaranteed to take Loa, the daughter of Professor Tan Torm, as my one and only legal wife; that I agreed to obey the Population Laws and produce as many sons as possible for the benefit of the Motherland; and that I promised to rear my children and conduct my married life according to the best accepted principles of Thoughtlessness.

When I spotted the Airmont paperback of Hidden World in an Iowa antique mall I fell in love with the cover by Ed Emshwiller.  Tanks the size of sky scrapers crashing into each other?  Infantry men with ray guns charging beneath their proud war banner?  Is this Warhammer 40,000?  Now here was a book I had to have!

Poor Stan didn't get his name on the cover
Hidden World first appeared in 1935, under the title In Caverns Below, as a three-part serial in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories.  It has been reprinted numerous times; I think mine is a 1976 printing.  (I'm not sure if this version was revised, an unspecific reference to the Second World War may have been added later, or may be Coblentz simply predicting such a war.) I had never read any Coblentz before, and so when I started the book I had no idea if the story could live up to the terrific cover.

Phillip Clay and Frank Comstock are engineers, and have been hired to inspect a deep mine in Nevada.  An earthquake traps them underground, but also opens the way to a vast network of caverns, where resides a high-tech civilization.  Clay and Comstock's introduction to this civilization is witnessing a terrific battle between land-battleships.

Comstock, our first-person narrator, is captured by the pale-skinned people of this bellicose society, and is soon taken into the custody of a scholar who teaches him the language of the subterranean people.  This is when it becomes evident that Hidden World is not really the Burroughs-style adventure story I was hoping for, but a broad farce and a facile satire of current events.  (Coblentz makes his project clear with a reference to Voltaire; a minor character in Hidden World is General Bing, no doubt named after John Byng.)

Comstock has been captured by the people of Wu, a classbound people who are perennially at war with the people of Zu.  The two nations of ethnically indistinguishable pale white people (Comstock calls them "chalk-faces") fight their endless stalemated war for honor and to keep the economy, which is based on manufacturing arms and subsidizing families with many children (and taxing families with fewer than seven children), running.  The rulers of Wu are a tiny aristocracy so inbred as to be hideously deformed and so lazy their limbs have atrophied to uselessness.  Comstock witnesses government workers destroying food and clothing in order to maintain high prices.  Wu has a secret police force that stifles any unpatriotic expression, and on the walls are signs listing the "Brass Rules."  The third Brass Rule is "Thoughtlessness is next to godliness."

Stan is on the cover this time, but that
illustration must be for some other story
The novel is full of weak "Bizarro World" jokes that might constitute some kind of mockery of early 20th century society.  The people of Wu have bad eyesight at short range, and so have to read a book from twenty yards away with a pair of binoculars.  They drive little cars at reckless speeds.  Men wear skirts and women trousers.  The men consider wrinkled faces and obese bodies attractive, so all the young women spread on their faces wrinkle-inducing cream and powder their bodies with "producing powder" guaranteed to make them fat.  The scholar's fat wrinkly daughter wants to marry Comstock, and gives him a wedding bracelet; this is followed by a visit from the government eugenicist, who rates Comstock 99 and 44/100%.

These absurd jokes are not funny, and diminish any excitement or suspense the adventure elements of the story might generate.  It is possible that Coblentz meant Hidden World to be a parody of Burroughs' John Carter stories: whereas Carter is able to outfight Martians because Earth's heavier gravity gave him superior strength, Comstock is able to defeat the people of Wu in hand-to-hand combat because of their horrible eyesight; Carter is a fine swordsman because of his military service on Earth, while Comstock credits his time on the college track team with his ability to run away from danger, and his lack of military service also exempts him from marrying the obese wrinkly woman who pursues him (Carter, of course, is pursued by striking beauties); Burroughs glorifies aristocracy and warfare, Coblentz portrays both as disgusting.

(Hidden World also shares similarities with Fritz Leiber's "Lords of Quarmall," which wasn't published until 1964 but was apparently drafted much earlier.)

A 2009 reprint featuring lamentable typography
After escaping marriage, Comstock, by helping to break a strike by the workers who keep the air of Wu fresh, achieves fame and a good job.  When he gets sick of life in Wu he comes up with a scheme to escape.  Like the protagonists of so many of these old SF books, Comstock uses his engineering ability to resolve his problems and employs audacious trickery to outmaneuver his foes and manipulate the masses.  Comstock becomes ruler of Wu and tries to launch a societal revolution, but the people of Wu resist all his reforms (e.g., speed limits and traffic lights are denounced by the multitudes as interference in "the rights of private property.")  At the end of the book Comstock discovers that his friend, Clay, has become dictator of Zu, and the two of them try to make peace between the two nations.  But, exhibiting the contempt SF writers so often demonstrate for the common man, the subterranean people--aristocracy, bourgeoisie and proletariat--are all committed to the wasteful war, and Comstock and Clay are overthrown and must flee to the surface.    

Hidden World is not the fun adventure story I was expecting, and the jokes are too broad for my taste.  On the other hand, it is competently written, and all the references to 1930s political and economic issues make it an interesting historical document.  (I wonder if Jesse would consider this pulp to be "ideologically empty.")  So I guess I will give it a marginal thumbs up.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Three stories by Barry N. Malzberg: "At the Institute," "Track Two," & "O Thou Last and Greatest!"


Let's check in with Barry Malzberg...the Barry Malzberg of the past!  This week I read three stories by Malzberg I found in old digest-sized SF magazines, two stories from 1974, and one from 1989.

"At the Institute" (Fantastic, March 1974)

In the intro to this story Fantastic editor Ted White (author of Spawn of the Death Machine, I am sure you will remember) gives Malzberg a little space to speak kindly about famous SF editor John Campbell, Jr.  Malzberg won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, which was widely seen in the SF community as ironic, as Malzberg's politics and attitude are quite different than Campbell's. Here, however, Malzberg claims that Campbell taught much of value to the SF community and had been a positive influence on his own writing.

"At the Institute" would be reprinted two years later in the 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  A translation of the tale appeared in the French collection L'assassin habite au XXIe siècle in 1987.

Like so many Malzberg stories, here we have a first-person narrator with some kind of mental problem.  It is the future, and murders are few because society has learned how to "attack root causes."  Our narrator has a lust to kill, and so he is in the Institute for treatment, which consists of wearing a helmet that produces dreams.  In the first dream the patient faces his father, and kills him.  This constitutes failure.  In the second dream the narrator kills his unfaithful girlfriend; another failure.  He only gets one more chance; if he fails the third dream the authorities "will have no choice."  But in the third dream the narrator faces himself, and he is not sure if killing himself represents success or failure.

An entertaining story.

"Track Two" (Fantastic, July 1974)

Like "At the Institute," "Track Two" was first published in Ted White's Fantastic, and would be included in 1976's The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  I'd like to get a copy of that collection--it has a great cover by Roger Schulz and apparently is a whopping 400 pages.

Malzberg has themes he returns to again and again, and the life of Christ is one of these. In "Track Two" Malzberg presents us four vignettes ("tracks," he labels them) from the life of Jesus: Jesus on the cross, Jesus brought before Pilate, Jesus meeting Lazarus's wife, and Jesus wrestling Satan. Malzberg alters these episodes in several ways (does Lazarus have a wife in the Bible?); for example, Jesus has no supernatural powers, and has to tell the people of Bethany that he can't raise Lazarus.  Most importantly, Jesus believes that when something bad happens to him (losing the "public opinion poll" to Barabbas, hanging on the cross between the two thieves) it is just a dream and he will wake up. Jesus also admits to Satan that he would rather just live the simple life of a carpenter.

This story is entertaining enough.

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

Malzberg also appears in the letters column of the July 1974 issue of Fantastic, just after a letter from Harlan Ellison and before one from Christopher Priest.  Malzberg points out that his kind words about John Campbell, Jr. in the March issue were not meant to be published!  Malzberg also praises Brian Stableford: "He is the absolute best writer who has come into the field in the past couple of years."  Wow, high praise! What works of Stableford's could have so impressed Barry?  Maybe the early Hooded Swan books, which my man Tarbandu talks about here?

"O Thou Last and Greatest!" (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1989)

This one appears in the 40th anniversary issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  As I often get to say when I blog about Malzberg, this story has only ever appeared here, so all you Malzberg completists out there need to track down a copy of the October 1989 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction!

(Actually, isfdb doesn't mention it, but it appears there is an e-book of Malzberg stories which includes "O Thou Last and Greatest!")

On sitcoms aspiring writers are told to "write what you know," and here Mazlberg follows this advice; "O Thou Last and Greatest!" is about Malzberg's frustration with his literary career and the unsure place of science fiction in literature.

Barry is in the afterlife (realized as a bar where the drinks materialize before the patrons) with a bunch of other writers, like Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson.  With the exception of H. P. Lovecraft, for whom Barry has contempt, there are no other SF writers present.  (Malzberg does not use Lovecraft's last name in the story, but instead calls him "the man from Providence" or "the author of Colour Out of Space," that sort of thing.  He also uses the word "acromegalic" to describe him again and again.)

Malzberg produces little imitations of the writers' styles, which mostly fly over my head because I am not familiar with Wolfe's or O'Connor's work.  In the end of the story angels or similar beings, judges, appear, and it is suggested that Barry is trapped in purgatory because he refuses to admit that SF is his true home.

I found this story a little boring and hard to follow; Lovecraft, O'Connor, Wolfe and Malzberg himself are all very long-winded, cryptic and vague, and I am not sure what the pay off is.  Reading this story gave me that uncomfortable feeling you get when you know you are missing all the references and jokes.  I do have some theories about what "O Thou Last and Greatest!" is all about, though.  The story's first three words are "In the corner" (Lovecraft is sitting in the corner), and the story's last dozen words include the phrase "in the corner" three times.  Is this an indication that the judges (and maybe Malzberg) think SF belongs on the periphery of literature?

Another theory I have is that Lovecraft is described as having acromegaly again and again because acromegaly is related to gigantism, and Malzberg is commenting on Lovecraft's growing reputation.  Could Malzberg be likening the pulp writer whom he looks down upon to a deformed and diseased giant who is unnaturally and undeservedly considered by some (Joyce Carol Oates, maybe?) a major American writer like Wolfe, O'Connor and Hemingway?  The problem with my theory is that I am not sure how far along Lovecraft's rehabilitation had gone in 1989.

***********

Three brief stories that are worth the reader's time.     

Six 1940s erotic stories by Anaïs Nin

Scan of my copy
With that Twilight sequel in the theatres it seems like everybody is talking about erotica written by women.  MPorcius Fiction Blog is not afraid to jump on this trend!  On Valentine's Day, appropriately enough, I purchased at Half Price Books a quality-sized paperback edition of Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus.  My copy is in quite good shape for a used book, which pleased me because I love the cover: I love the colors, the typeface, and the photo.  I even like the somewhat rough, matte paper they printed the cover on.

The story goes that in 1940 a wealthy weirdo approached writer Henry Miller and offered to pay Miller a dollar a page for pornographic stories for his private personal collection.  Miller suggested to Anaïs Nin that she also write some erotica for the mysterious "Collector," and over the course of a few years she did so as a means to supplement her income, particularly in times of financial hardship.  Several other struggling writers joined in.  In the 1970s Nin decided to publish some of these stories, and in 1977 Delta of Venus, which contains fifteen of them, was presented to the public by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and achieved some measure of acclaim.  I'm a fan of Miller's, and have enjoyed the Nin I have read, and so I have been curious about Delta of Venus for years.  This week I read about 50 pages from the collection, the first six of its stories.

The six stories, I was disappointed to find, are quite poor, lacking style, feeling, plot and character.  Most are so full of rape, incest, pedophilia and violence that I found them more disturbing than arousing.  (That collector must have been a real piece of work!)  It was a mistake to read so many in a row, because they get really monotonous.

I am lead to wonder about all that critical praise you can see on the back cover of the book and hear about on wikipedia.  Maybe "erotica written by women" is just not for me.  Maybe the stories in the rest of the book are better, but I am loathe to go on.  In fact, my original plan was to read half the book (Delta of Venus totals 250 pages) but I couldn't do it.

In Nin's defense, she was writing this stuff to order for a freakazoid, and said freako specifically enjoined Miller, Nin, and all the other down-and-out writers who took up his commission to "Concentrate on sex" and "Leave out the poetry."  The "Collector" complained that George Barker's submissions, which Nin herself loved, were "too surrealistic."  Nin herself fully recognized how weak these stories were; according to wikipedia she worried that they could negatively impact her reputation.  In 1941 she wrote the collector a letter, saying she and the other writers hated him and explaining to him that his mechanical monotonous view of sex was boring, that it was emotion and human relationships that made sex exciting.    

(The passages from Nin's diaries that describe the collector and include the "we hate you" letter are all reproduced in the front matter of Delta of Venus, which is far better reading than the first six tales in the body of the book.)

Three of the many Penguin editions of the collection: gotta catch 'em all!

So, if these stories are bad, and Nin recognized they were bad, why did they get published? (In two volumes--Delta of Venus was followed by Little Birds, another selection of Nin's dollar-a-page erotica.)  Nin tells us in the Preface to this volume that, "I finally decided to release the erotica for publication because it shows the beginning efforts of a woman in a world that had been the domain of men."  According to Nin, for centuries erotica had only been written by men, and this makes Nin, who tried to write about sex from a woman's perspective, "using a woman's language," a pioneer.

People interested in Nin and her milieu and/or the history of women in (erotic) literature should check out Delta of Venus but I can't recommend the six stories I read as entertainment, though the  ability of some of them to shock cannot be denied.

For a description of each of these six stories, read on.  Adults only, please!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Gender Genocide by Edmund Cooper

Rura spent her days learning to forget that she had ever been an exterminator, learning to become a woman....  She began to feel proud of her swollen breasts and swollen belly. These were the outward and visible signs of the true nature of womanhood.


In our last installment I invoked the name of Edmund Cooper, so it seemed appropriate to follow up Bob Shaw's well-received Orbitsville with fellow Briton (or "Britisher" as Ace puts it) Cooper's 1972 Who Needs Men?   I own a copy of the sole American edition, which doesn't even include any cover blurbs.  This paperback, published by Ace in 1973, bears the title Gender Genocide and has a sort of folk art/art deco cover by an artist nobody can identify.  I recently goofed on the cover of Robert Bloch's Lori because the illustrated woman had over-sized man-hands, and I find the diminutive right hand of the woman depicted on Gender Genocide to be equally disturbing.  The Portuguese and German editions of the novel also have unsettling covers.

Via twitter, internet SF blogger extraordinaire Joachim Boaz suggested to me that the critical consensus on Gender Genocide is a big thumbs down, but let's see for ourselves if this ain't rock 'n' roll, diamond dogs!

Who Needs Men?/Gender Genocide takes place in the 23rd century in the British Isles.  London is the capital of the Republic of Anglia, the successor state to Great Britain; the Republic's population consists of three million cloned women.  The small number of British men left alive, thirty thousand or so, hide in the wilds of Wales and Scotland, where they and their families are subject to being hunted by the helicopters and hover cars of the Republic's Execution Squads.

How did we arrive at this world turned upside down?  Back in the 21st century biological warfare spawned a plague to which men were more susceptible than women, which set the stage for a worldwide feminist revolution that saw women take over and men driven into hiding.  The policy of the current prime minister, Curie Milford, is to pursue the male until he is completely annihilated.

The first 70 or so pages of the novel are amusing thanks to all the wacky ways Cooper depicts a post-feminist revolution world.  The government, which relies heavily on propaganda and censorship (like the Papacy from 1559 to 1966, it maintains an Index of forbidden books) has its citizens convinced that Shakespeare and Leonardo were in fact women in disguise.  Words and concepts like "pregnancy" and "wife" are so disgusting that young women get sick to their stomachs when they hear them.  Buckingham Palace is now called "Liberation House" and Queens College is now "The College of Insemination."  The characters say things like, "Goddess damn you!" and "Ovaries alive!"  When one woman says she wants to go by the book, another snaps, "Stick the book in your vagina!"  The people hiding in the hills are called "regressives," the men "pigs" and their wives "sows."  A character who is credited with valor in the fight against regressives up in Scotland is "awarded the silver nipple for gallantry."

Our lead character is Rura Alexandra, who at the start of the novel has just graduated from the College of Exterminators and, along with other recent graduates, is on her first mission to the Celtic fringe, whipping over the lochs and heather in a hover car, looking for "pigs" to shoot down with laser rifles or blow up with grenades.  A major theme of Cooper's book is that no amount of government propaganda can change human nature, and it is clear that Rura and some of the other newly minted Exterminators in her squad are none to eager to exterminate.  Some even find that the customary lesbian orgies leave them feeling empty.  To distract themselves from their unhappiness they turn to booze, which, as you can imagine, hampers their combat abilities when it comes time to go toe to toe, crossbow and dirk versus laser rifle and grenade, with the regressives.

Rura's comrades are killed and she is captured and gang raped, then made the wife of Diarmid MacDiarmid, leader of one of the most tenacious bands of regressives.  Away from England and all that propaganda, Rura's true heterosexual nature blossoms and she falls in love with Diarmid in short order.  They enjoy a tragic love affair in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, amidst the death and destruction of the Republic of Anglia's war of extermination, and Cooper really lays on the romantic and melodramatic slosh:
Knives and forks and plates would have been incongruous.  The fish were laid on leaves and delicately dissected by fingers.  They tasted as fish had never tasted before.  They tasted of stolen time.
"Make us a fire, then we can hold each other and go to sleep as you wished.  If there are nightmares, we will drown them in orgasm.  I doubt that we could drown them in whiskey.  There is not enough whiskey in the whole of Scotland to wash away this day's work."  
The air was sharp, the nights cool.  Sere leaves fell from beech, oak, ash.  The evergreens preserved their illusion of immortality.  
Rura finds she enjoys cooking and cleaning and housework and being a mother.  But the Exterminators are relentless, and Rura and Diarmid don't live long enough to see the birth of their child.

At 200 pages, Gender Genocide is too long, and the second half seriously drags.  We could probably do without at least one of the numerous and tepid action scenes.  We also spend way too much time admiring the scenery and contemplating the history and literature of Scotland--did Cooper get a grant from the Scottish Tourism Board to finish this novel?  (Maybe, in an alternate universe, VisitScotland.com, instead of telling you to visit Scotland because it inspired Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, is advertising its connection with Gender Genocide.)


I liked the parts set in England, among the cloned women, when Cooper is satirizing feminism and revolutionism; they are strange and original.  Unfortunately this material only constitutes about a third of the book.  The "love and survival in post-apocalyptic Scotland" part of the book, like 130 pages, is totally uninspired and basically pointless--we get all this repetitive detail about how Rura and Diarmid live off the land and avoid the Exterminators, and then in the last chapter they just get lasered down. What I consider the climax of the book, when Rura expresses her love for Diarmid despite all her misandry training, is on page 92!

Gender Genocide would have worked much better as a long short story or a novella, like 100 or 120 pages, maintaining its focus on the totalitarian women's state, jettisoning the Highland camping travelogue, and keeping the love story to a bare minimum.  All of Cooper's themes, like how most women want to have love relationships with men and bear a man's child, are right there in the first half of the book.  

Obviously, this book's cavalier attitude towards rape, unflattering portrayal of lesbians, endorsement of traditional gender roles, and assertion of the primacy of nature over nurture are going to offend many people.  The greater crimes, in my eyes, are that the book feels padded, the characters are uninteresting, and the love story and adventure elements are boring.  I'm giving Gender Genocide a marginal/moderate thumbs down; the concept behind the book has potential, but it is poorly executed in a way that is unforgivable.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Orbitsville by Bob Shaw

"As far as I can tell, the object out there...the thing we have discovered is a space ship over three hundred million kilometres in diameter!"

Bob Shaw's Orbitsville, which first appeared as a serial in Galaxy in 1974, has received enthusiastic acclaim.  In 1975 it won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. The book's cover is awash in high praise from such institutions as The Times Literary Supplement and from such luminaries as our buddy Edmund Cooper.  I recently acquired a copy of the 1985 Panther paperback of the novel, and this week I read it.

From its first page I was convinced that Orbistville was worthy of its renown; Shaw has a good writing style, and quickly seizes the reader's attention with compelling characters, brilliant images and a tense, suspenseful scenario.

The pollution-ravaged Earth of the future is ruled (apparently informally) by a cruel and capricious female, Elizabeth Lindstrom, President of Starflight, the firm which has a monopoly on interstellar travel.  In a time when most women take advantage of technology that can render them perfect physical specimens, Lindstrom is content to be hideously ugly and exude a disturbing odor. One of her space ship captains, Vance Garamond, is told to babysit Lindstrom's nine-year-old son for a few hours, but he botches the task--the brat falls and cracks his skull.  Knowing he faces summary execution by the erratic and autocratic President, Garamond bolts from her palace, collects his wife and son, and they flee the Earth in his exploration ship.  Unfortunately, there is only one other habitable planet known to exist in the universe, and Lindstrom basically runs that one as well.

The early part of the novel is plotted like some kind of high seas adventure story set in the 16th century-- the star ships even have to deal with interstellar weather in the form of ionic winds, and Garamond uses an ancient map to find a third habitable "planet." This is when we shift into Larry Niven territory; the heavenly body Garamond discovers is a Dyson sphere over one AU across which someone dubs "Orbitsville." The inner surface of the thing has an Earth-like atmosphere, artificial gravity, and is covered in supernutritious and easy to cultivate grass.  There is enough room on the bucolic inner suface of Orbitsville to accommodate the population of the overcrowded Earth a billion times over--Garamond has discovered a paradise, and suggests the entire human race move into it and that money and private property be abolished.

Lindstrom's space fleet catches up to Garamond's ship, but she has to put her lust for revenge on the Garamond family on hold, because Garamond is a world-famous celebrity.  (Shaw doesn't make it very clear, but even though sometimes Lindstrom acts like Queen of the galaxy and murders people with impunity, apparently there is some kind of Earth government and she has to take it, and public opinion, into consideration.) Lindstrom, who fills the role of evil businessperson we so often see in fiction, decides she will continue to charge people for transporting them across the galaxy, and immediately begins shipping in colonists to Orbitsville (or as she calls it, "Lindstromworld.")  Unlike the many college professors I've met in real life who are feverishly hunting for grant money when they aren't railing against capitalism from their gorgeous Manhattan apartments and Hamptons summer homes, Garamond practices what he preaches and refuses the monetary rewards Lindstrom offers him for finding this paradise.

Am I crazy, or is that Pete Townshend
in that space suit?
The third and final act of the 187-page book has Garamond off exploring a different part of Orbitsville's star system.  One of Lindstrom's minions sabotages his ship (oh naughty sneaky), dooming it to a fatal collision.  We get some solid traditional hard SF scenes as the scientists and engineers in Garamond's crew take up their computers and welding torches and rebuild the ship in eight hours so they can survive the crash.  They crash inside the Dyson sphere fifteen million miles from the settlement, and from the wreckage build a squadron of propeller planes so Garamond can make his way back to Lindstrom and get his revenge on her!  He expects the trip to take over two years!

Orbitsville is quite good.  The adventure stuff, the science stuff, and the character stuff all work.  Garamond is obviously the hero and Lindstrom obviously the villain, but both are interesting and nuanced, with Garamond causing many of his own problems and putting other people at risk with his negligence and selfishness, and Lindstrom idiosyncratic and even a little sympathetic in her broken-heartedness over the death of her son.  (She reminded me of Medea, a woman both evil and wronged.  This is another of those SF books which would be an interesting subject for feminist analysis; Garamond's wife is also an interesting character.)  Shaw cleverly sets up parallels between Garamond and Lindstrom: both seek revenge, and even as Garamond resists Lindstrom's authority, Garamond's own crew resists his.

The actual meat of the story, the space travel and alien artifacts, reminds me of something Poul Anderson or Larry Niven might write, but Shaw's writing style and characters are better, making for a really enjoyable piece of work.  And people who think "government is the only thing we all belong to" and find Anderson-style libertarianism tiresome will be thrilled with the last chapter, in which the formerly out-to-lunch government suddenly reasserts itself with the aid of that iconic hero of the center left, the investigative journalist, and throws Lindstrom in prison.  In an italicized epilogue we are told colonization of Orbitsville leads to absolute equality and a homogenization of mankind; Orbitsville is a trap set by ancients designed to domesticate adventurous and aggressive societies like our own.

Recommended.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lori by Robert Bloch

"I'm very fed up playing the passive female," she told him.

After eating the blandest food I've ever encountered in a restaurant (apparently this place caters to the septuagenarian crowd) I scouted out the thrift stores and libraries in an Iowan college town, and at one large thrift store purchased three paperbacks for thirty cents.  Among these was Lori, a 1990 Tor paperback of a 1989 novel by Robert Bloch.  The book is covered with extravagant praise from horror titans Stephen King (he read it in one sitting!), Ramsey Campbell ("spinechilling!") and F. Paul Wilson (who calls it an enthralling gem.)  Harlan Ellison also has a blurb--in his two dozen words he manages to work in a pun and a Poltergeist II joke.

The cover illustration by Jim Thiesen is obscured by all kinds of text, which is just as well because it doesn't look too hot.  Is this a story about the green ghost of a girl who has a man's hands?

(When I googled Thiesen I discovered that he has done some pretty exciting work, so I guess he did the cover for Lori on an off day.  I love the Bosch-style monster in Evolution and the image of Death and the bizarre sculpture in The Crossing.)    

I read Psycho in 2013 and thought it was alright, and more recently I liked his 1938 story "Eyes of the Mummy," but during the life of this blog the Bloch I have read has often been kind of disappointing.  But for ten cents I'm willing to give Bloch another shot!  

After reading it myself, I can see why Stevie King was able to finish Lori in a single sitting.  The style is brisk and straightforward, the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters (44 in 282 pages) mostly short.  I can also see why Harlan Ellison thought his pun and pop culture reference appropriate.  Just about every page of Lori is enlivened with some kind of wordplay.  We get puns innocuous:
The fees were outrageous but this was Beverly Hills, and nothing was inrageous here.
puns macabre:
Dead.  Mom and Dad are dead.  Everything's dead now, even the phone.   
metaphors:
They knew that once accused of arteriosclerosis, charged and convicted with cancer, the sentence was death and there'd be no appeal.
and etymologies of people's names, this being one of Lori's scholarly interests.  (She majored in etymology at college.)

The 1989 hardcover edition has no gravestones,
and Harlan Ellison's blurb gets top billing;
I am always curious about these marketing decisions
Bloch provides details that give the novel a strong sense of its place and time; there are passing mentions of Beverly Hills, Sepulveda Boulevard, George H. W. Bush, Sylvester Stallone and Madonna.  And there are tons of references to literary and TV detectives.  I guess this is supposed to make the novel feel real, to help the reader identify with the characters and locations described so the horror elements are all that more shocking.  I get the theory, that I'm a boring suburban 20th-century American, so I should be more scared or thrilled when a fellow boring suburban 20th-century American is in danger than when Frodo or John Carter in Middle Earth or on Barsoom are in danger, but for me it doesn't always work that way.

Themes, or motifs, of the novel include the perception of a decline in American life over the course of Lori's life, due to increases in computer use, crime, inflation, traffic, pollution, etc.  Alcohol and drugs are a related theme: many of the characters relieve stress by turning to a bottle secreted in their homes, offices or vehicles, and people are always pushing drinks and sleeping pills on poor distraught Lori.

The plot:  Lori Holmes comes home from college graduation with her fiance to find that her parents burned up along with their house just in the last hour--the place is still in flames.  A frumpy young Jewish woman, a psychic, contacts Lori out of the blue and uses her ESP powers to find a metal box hidden in the smoldering ruin.  In the box is a 1968 college yearbook; a senior in the book, Jessica Fairmount, looks just like Lori!  Lori's parents' lawyer steals the book and plans to kill Lori, but mysteriously gets killed himself.  A police detective who has Dirty Harry and Murder She Wrote on his mind investigates the case, as does Lori's psychiatrist, an amateur sleuth who loves Sherlock Holmes.  Lori's fiance is an investigative reporter, and in the last third of the book he also runs his own private investigation.

The big reveal:  Lori was adopted after her mother, Jessica Fairmount, died in childbirth.  Her real father is the shrink, a crook who fled the US after Jessica died.  In the Caribbean he learned voodoo, and returned to California a few years ago with the plan of shifting Jessica's soul into their daughter Lori's young body so he could continue their affair.  At the last minute the cop and the reporter foil this scheme, rescuing Lori.  

Lori isn't bad; the wordplay is entertaining, and the plot is well-constructed: in the last few pages Bloch neatly ties together all the disparate threads and clues.  But I can't say it generated much enthusiasm in this reader.  For one thing, despite the ghost on the cover and all the talk about trembling and chills in the blurbs, this book is not scary; only in the last few pages did I feel that Lori was in any danger.  Lori is more of a Los Angeles detective story than a horror story, with the supernatural stuff taking up few pages, and I'm personally not very keen on LA crime stories, though I know there are many people who are.  One reason I read speculative fiction is to explore strange new worlds, like the aforementioned Middle Earth and Barsoom, and the Los Angeles of police officers I can see on TV every day doesn't fit the bill.

Lori is not an interesting character, and even though the novel is named after her, she is largely a spectator, with four or five other characters taking the initiative and driving the plot.  The psychic, the lawyer, and the cop are actually more complex and interesting characters than the static Lori.  Bloch more or less admits this is the case; on page 238 Lori says she is fed up "playing the passive female," and she is manipulated by her friends and foes from the start to the finish of the text.  Feminist critics friendly to Bloch could probably interpret the novel as an attack on our society, in which women are preyed upon by high status men (lawyers, doctors, etc), while such critics hostile to Bloch could judge the novel a symptom of our society, in which the bodies of young women are a commodity, like fertile land or money, which ambitious men compete over.    

Lori is competent and I didn't find it irritating, so I feel free to recommend it, but I'm not really its core audience, and it wasn't what I was hoping for.