Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones


I have a weakness for stories about guys who put their brains in robot bodies and thus achieve immortality.  A manifestation of my fear of death, perhaps.  So when the wife and I stumbled on a Rotary Club charity book sale in a Fairmont, Minnesota shopping mall and I spotted Ace G-631, The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones, among a pile of westerns and murder mysteries and read its back cover, I decided to take it home.

The Sunless World is a 1967 paperback collection of three stories by Jones first printed in Amazing Stories in the 1930s.  Each stars Professor Jameson, about whom Jones apparently wrote over 20 short stories.  This collection presents the fourth, fifth and sixth stories about Jameson.

We get Jameson's backstory in a brief foreword to this volume.  Jameson, in the 1940s, figures out how to preserve his body after death, and leaves instructions that his corpse upon death be interred in a rocket and launched into orbit around the Earth. (This reminded me of 1957's "Mark Elf" by Cordwainer Smith.)  Forty million years later aliens, the Zoromes, find the rocket orbiting a lifeless Earth.  The Zoromes are brains encased in robot bodies, and obligingly plug Jameson's brain into one of their robot bodies and invite him to accompany them on their journeys through space.  Sounds awesome!

"Into the Hydrosphere" (1933)

This is a fun adventure story full of exotic settings, cool SF ideas, and mass violence.  It reminded me of other 1930s pulp adventures I have read, like those by Edmond Hamilton and Henry Kuttner.

Jameson and the Zoromes have cubic metal bodies with four legs and four tentacle arms.  (Gray Morrow, in creating the cover painting, actually seems to have been following Jones' description.)  They also have telepathy, which comes in handy. And they have the kind of names Star Wars droids have, like "744U-21" and "56F-450," which is kind of annoying for the reader.  Jameson's name is "21MM392," but, thank heavens, for the most part Jones refers to him as "Jameson" or "the professor."

Jameson and his fellow "machine men" decide to investigate a planet that is entirely covered in water.  There they meet and befriend two races of frog people, the Plekne and the Nacac, who live on floating cities made of kelp.  The frog people have never seen land, and their "museum of treasures" consists of rocks they have found in the bellies of dead fish over the years.

The frog people, who have no weapons more powerful than spears, inform their metal-bodied buddies that they are often raided by slavers who live beneath the ocean and have far superior technology.  Sure enough, these jerks attack, taking some of the Zoromes captive.  Luckily Jameson is just knocked into the ocean during the attack. He sinks to the ocean bottom (which is hundreds of miles below the surface) and proceeds to infiltrate and explore the country of the frog men's oppressors.  This "world" at the center of the planet is kind of like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar, first seen in 1915's At The Earth's Core.  The surface is concave, the inside of the planet's hollow core, and it is lit by an artificial sun that hangs in the geometric center of the planet.  This artificial sun is in fact a city consisting of prisons, an arsenal, and the bright lights that illuminate the surface.

The slavers, the Uchke, are revealed to be "like fragments of an evil dream, their ruthlessness and brutal character plainly stamped on beetling visages," and have four clawed arms, two stumpy legs and torsos seemingly too small for their oversized skulls.  The Uchke are not native to the watery planet, but alien invaders whose submarine settlement is a base where they process slaves and build weaponry to ship back to their home planet. Jameson has no compunctions about massacring these swine retail by strangling them with his tentacles or wholesale by blasting them with ray artillery!  

Airships regularly travel between the surface and the aerial city sphere.  Jameson hijacks one of these airships, rescues his fellow Zoromes, seizes the arsenal and inspires a slave revolt among the frog men living in bondage.  He is a leader in the resulting apocalyptic war of ray guns and airships which sees thousands killed and the inner world created by the Uchke absolutely destroyed.  This story is like 65 pages long, so Jones has room to entertain us with scenes in which captured Zoromes have had their legs unscrewed by the Uchke and resort to dragging themselves around by their tentacular arms, descriptions of the various vehicles and weapons involved in the slave war, and other bizarre visions.        

Fun!

"Time's Mausoleum" (1933)

After liberating the ocean planet, the Zor, we are told, travelled to the nearby planet of the Uchke and used their superior technology to blow up a few of the slavers' cities and bring them to the negotiating table.  It turns out that the evil slaver race gets its technology from a secretive and decadent elite of scientists, members of a more advanced species called the Qwux.  Only one of these Qwux, Zlestrm, knows the secret formula for making space ship fuel, and the Zor take him prisoner and carry him out of the system as a means of trapping the slavers on their world and thus protecting the frog people.

The main plot of this story concerns one of Zlestrm's inventions, which he brings with him onto the Zor ship.  It is a device which allows one to look clearly into the past, and to dimly perceive possible futures. Jameson explains how the idea of actual physical time travel is ridiculous and obviously impossible, which I found amusing because such time travel is a staple of SF.  

The Zor ship, with its score of machine men and poor Zlestrm, flies across the galaxy for a few years (!) and comes to the now barren Earth, where Jameson uses the time viewing device to watch the Earth formed when a wandering star passes by Sol, witness the Crusades and the Napoleonic Wars, and observe as his nephew inters him in his rocket and launches him into space.  Then Jameson and the Zoromes (and poor Zlestrm) observe several million years of human evolution, political and economic development including space colonies and interplanetary war, and so on.

This is one of those stories in which the characters are primarily observers rather than participants, which I find to be a drag.  There is little drama, especially since we already learned in the foreword how Jameson came to achieve immortality.  Jones tries to inject levity by having the town drunk see Jameson's nephew snatching Jameson's body from the cemetery.  I kept hoping Zlestrm, whom the Zoromes had basically kidnapped and taken from his home (for years!) and whose genius and labor they were exploiting without offering him any kind of remuneration, would make a break for freedom or seek revenge or something.  However he does nothing but fret that his food supply and air supply (the Zoromes, of course, need no food or air) is running out; I guess he really was as effete and decadent as he seemed.

There is finally some drama at the end of the story when the time viewing device malfunctions and Zlestrm, who of course doesn't have an impregnable metal body like the Zoromes, is killed.  My dreams of Zlestrm playing the role of the Doctor Zachary Smith of the Zor ship over the next 10 or 15 Jameson stories were dashed.

I don't think I can really recommend this one; nothing much happens, and the most interesting character is unceremoniously killed.  Zlestrm the Qwux, I will not forget you!  

"The Sunless World" (1934)

The Zor ship arrives at a huge planet which is just travelling through space, unconnected to any solar system.  The planet's interior is a honeycomb of tunnels and passages, and Professor Jameson and his fellow machine men encounter two alien races down there.

Remember how in Gods of Mars (1913), by our man Edgar Rice Burroughs, we learned that the people of Barsoom had been fooled into believing in a dopey religion which had them, just after becoming eligible for that sweet senior citizen discount at the Greater Helium Dunkin' Donuts, travelling to a secluded area which was supposed to be a paradisiacal afterlife but which instead was where they were devoured by monsters?  In "The Sunless World," Jameson, 34T-11 and 6W-438 meet the people of Ayt, who have a centuries-old superstition which leads them to send the elderly and criminals to a cavern full of bones where they are eaten by a brutish race of voracious creeps.  It is believed that, if this sacrifice is not made regularly, these creeps will attack and overthrow the city of Ayt.  

Jameson and his mechanical comrades refute the native people's dumb religion, and lead them in a terrific war against the monsters.  At the same time this war is going on the hollow planet is hurtling into a solar system, on a collision course with a planet!  A demolition team of Zoromes blows up this planet (!) but a little too late; massive pieces of the exploding planet hit the hollow planet of the Ayt people, causing tremendous earthquakes which kill 75% of the Ayt population.  But with their religion abandoned, their enemies devastated, and their formerly wandering planet now in an orbit around a star, the Ayt people have a bright future ahead of them!

While not as good as "Into the Hydrosphere," "The Sunless World" is pretty fun. There are lots of cool things going on, like Jameson's fall through a shaft hundreds of miles deep, that cavern full of mountains of bones, the very weird monsters (the morphology Jones comes up for them is unusual and interesting), and Jameson's temporary imprisonment in the Ayt city, when the natives think he is the leader of the monsters.

*********

Taken as a whole, The Sunless World is an entertaining old-fashioned space adventure book about technology, astronomy, and waging wars in the interest of justice.  There's no love or sex (I told you our hero was in a robot body, right?) and almost no character relationships (I told you our hero's comrades don't even have names, right? Well, they don't have personalities, either.  You know who had a personality?  Zlestrm the Qwux had a personality, and you saw where that got him!)  But Jones makes all the aliens, locales and fights work, and I will certainly buy the other volumes in Ace's Professor Jameson series should I come across them in my travels.      

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Warriors of Terra by John Faucette

"If we are to bring peace to the universe, we must break these blood chains of revenge....  We are breaking them now.  We are turning the other cheek.  We are going to show the Universe that pardon is better than revenge, and that eventually neither will be needed." 
Behold the one and only edition of this novel
I spent the week of Thanksgiving at my mother-in-law's house, which lies in the middle of a vast agricultural zone, over 20 miles from the nearest grocery store.  I found I had developed an allergy to her cat, and on Thanksgiving Day slipped on ice and hurt my knee.  While recuperating from all these afflictions and misfortunes I read John Faucette's Warriors of Terra, a 1970 paperback from our friends at Belmont.  To be honest, my main reason for buying B75-2002 was that I liked the cover of its sequel, Siege of Earth, which I encountered on the same expedition to Boone, Iowa. Even though the cover art on Warriors of Terra is weak, and the advertising text on the back seems to have been written by an incompetent, I figured I may as well get both.

Warriors of Terra, the first volume in the two-volume Peacemakers series, is a poorly written space opera with a message.  Primarily, the message is opposition of war, but there are subordinate supporting anti-slavery and anti-racism themes.  Despite the anti-war message, the book does seem to endorse hegemonic powers using their superiority to "persuade" weaker societies to behave (making them abolish slavery and hereditary rule, for example.)  We've seen this kind of author-approved imperialism inflicted on Earth by aliens in SF like the famous film The Day the Earth Stood Still and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, but in Warriors of Terra the shoe is on the other foot, with Earthlings using their space fleet to make aliens change their ways.  

The plot of Warriors of Terra is fine, but the novel lacks the spirit of adventure or the kinds of striking images and crazy SF ideas that make better space operas (like Edmond Hamilton's Outside the Universe and "Doc" Smith's Spacehounds of IPC) engaging.  The anti-war theme and all the scenes of people crying means the fight scenes and chase scenes are not exhilarating, but a slog.  An example of the lack of creativity and "world-building" can be seen in Warriors of Terra's aliens, who are just like human beings (they can and do have sex with Earth people), differing only in skin color-- Faucette doesn't give them interesting biologies or memorable societies.  And while Faucette tries to do more than present an adventurous entertainment, writing with a message in mind and portraying characters who change over time, he does so in a clumsy way, apparently having bit off more than he can chew.  Characters are flat and dimly realized, and spout some pretty corny dialogue:
"You're free to go now, Overlord. Though if I had my way, you'd regret being alive."
"I'm gonna get you Terrans, and when I do...."  His tone left nothing to the crew's imagination.
To ram home his theme, and perhaps in hopes of elevating his material, Faucette includes as epigraphs to many of his chapters quotes about peace from various luminaries, including Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, St. Augustine, John Ruskin, and Shakespeare.  Unfortunately the novel is dragged down by an abundance of typographical errors, with quotation marks particularly vulnerable to misuse, and some odd spellings ("Field Marshall" for Field Marshal, for example, while Shakespeare's play Cymbeline is cited as "Cymberline.")  The staff at Belmont likely deserve more blame for this kind of thing than Faucette himself.   

When we first meet our hero, Battle of Ran Hudson, (generally just called "Ran") he is an old man, ruler of the Earth and the Commonwealth of Peaceful Species.  His title is "Peacemaker."  Ran has his hands full because the Commonwealth is about to collapse into civil war at the same time extragalactic aliens are attacking.  The book soon switches from this drama to its main plot thread, a flashback to Ran's youth and a narrative of how Ran evolved from an angry violent young man into a lover of peace, and began his rise to power. 

(People in this book have distracting names; besides Ran's own name there is a human called "William Blake," and another named "Bull Dog Daggon"--an homage to both Sapper and H. P. Lovecraft?  The most prominent non-Terran in the book is named "Overlord Train.")

Young Ran was a slave on planet Morgia, home of the sadistic green-skinned, bug-eyed Morg.  Hundreds of Terrans are there as slaves, having been sold to the Morg by their captors, the Spartans, over a decade ago.  This was during a war between the bellicose Terran Empire and the Spartan Empire.  The Terran slaves on Morgia don't know how the war turned out, if the Terran Empire even continues to exist.

There are several brief flashbacks to this war between the Terran and Spartan Empires; these vignettes constitute the book's third plot thread and star Dane Marcellus Barclay, pacifist turned fighting man.  Dane works his way up the ranks to become ruler of Earth and is the first to bear the title of Peacemaker, his career in some ways paralleling that of Ran.

Somewhat improbably, Ran and some fellow slaves escape, are captured alive, and escape again in the first 60 pages of the book.  To make Ran's transition to peace lover more dramatic, young Ran is extremely bloodthirsty and says things like "Anyone who doesn't like the way I do things can leave.  There's going to be a lot of dead Morgs before I'm finished.  I'm going to enjoy killing every single one of 'em."  True to his word, Ran kills a multitude of Morgs in a dizzying variety of ways: shooting (of course), strangling, stabbing with a knife, chopping with a cleaver looted from a Morg kitchen. 

In his efforts to make the reader see the folly of war, Faucette includes plenty of gore--skulls cracking open like eggs, people holding their own intestines in their hands after suffering a belly wound, that kind of thing.  Accompanying all the violence, which cynics might suspect is exploitative rather than a component of the book's anti-war message, Warriors of Terra has some sex--for example, the Morgs take Terran women as concubines, and there is a scene in which one of Ran's fellow fugitives tries to rape another of their number.  This tepid erotic content is harder to justify than the pervasive bloodshed; it really feels like it is just there to titillate. 

Ran and friends steal a spaceship and flee to Novad, an independent planet on the edge of Morg space.  The yellow-skinned and scantily-clad (hubba hubba) Novadians protect our heroes from their Morg pursuers, so Overlord Train, the Morg who is in charge of the pursuit, hires the second finest swordsman on Novad to challenge Ran to a duel in the arena!   (As you know, people in SF stories are always getting tossed into the arena!)  Luckily, Ran has made friends with the Number One swordsman on Norvad and gets the pointers he needs to survive the duel.  (Following Faucette's anti-war theme, Ran wins the duel by allowing himself to be impaled, thus trapping his foe's blade and leaving him defenseless so Ran can stab him through the eye.)

In the final 60 or so pages of the 175-page novel Ran and friends leave Novad, are pursued by Train's ships, and then saved by ships of the Commonwealth of Peaceful Species.  The escaped slaves, and we readers, learn that the Terra-Sparta War ended with a treaty that joined the Terran and Spartan Empires into one polity under Barclay. Barclay and the Commonwealth have sworn off vengeance, and only use their space navy to "wage war to end war" and "persuade other species to join" the Commonwealth:  
"The Commonwealth does not accept surrenders.  In the first place, it doesn't defeat anyone.  It only makes them see the light and join the Commonwealth.... The Commonwealth doesn't allow slavery or class societies or hereditary rulers.  Fix these things and you have nothing to worry about."
Ran is distressed to find that Barclay is not interested in supporting Ran's campaign of vengeance on the Morgs, so he and his friends get their hands on a space ship and attack planet Morgia all by themselves.  After all of his friends have been killed Ran realizes the folly of war and the futility of vengeance and forgives Overlord Train. Then Dane Barclay's peacekeeping fleet arrives, and Train agrees to change Morg society to meet Terran demands, bringing Morgia peacefully into the Commonwealth.

The plot thread about elderly Ran, Peacemaker trying to keep the Commonwealth together, must be resolved in Siege of Earth, because it is not wrapped up here.

Warriors of Terra is ambitious, but poorly executed.  It is lacking in fun and excitement, and I didn't care who lived or died and which warriors became pacifists or vice versa.  Its ideology (war is wrong but it is OK to use force to make aliens change their cultures to meet my culture's standards) is kind of sketchy.  So I am going to have to give Warriors of Terra a thumbs down.  I'm still going to read the sequel, Siege of Earth, though, to see what Faucette does with these themes a second time around, and suggest that students of space opera and those interested in SF by African-American authors or explicitly anti-war SF may find Warriors of Terra a curiosity worthy of investigation.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

She said to her own children, "Please look after Amy.  Never leave her alone with Ben."
"Would he hurt Amy the way he hurt Mr. McGregor?" asked Jane.
"He killed Mr. McGregor," Luke said fiercely.  "He killed him." 
"And the poor dog," said Helen.  Both children were accusing Harriet.
"Yes," said Harriet, "he might.  That's why we have to watch her all the time."  
Front cover of copy I read
At Rutgers University back in the late '80s I took a class on science fiction, and was assigned to read Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell.  I did not read it.  (As I think I have mentioned before, if we judge a student by his grades, I was a good student--I graduated with High Honors--but if we judge a student by how much important knowledge, how many valuable skills, and what sort of work habits he acquired, I was a terrible student.)  Since then, of course, I have seen Lessing's books on the shelves (the hardcover editions of those Canopus in Argos books are very handsome) and heard about her occasionally in the news (she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2007, died in 2013) and have wondered when and if the time would come when I would give some of her work an honest try. Well, the time is now!  At the West Des Moines Public Library I saw the slender paperback The Fifth Child, a 1989 Viking edition of the 1988 novel, and found the back cover text enticing. It was time to take the plunge.

It is the Swinging Sixties!  David, a thirty-year-old architect, and Harriet, a twenty-something graphic designer working in sales, meet in London and marry.  David and Harriet are "eccentric," considered "oddballs" by their peers because they are not sexually promiscuous (Harriet suffers the contempt of women her age because she is a virgin) and have old-fashioned ideas about family life being the foundation of happiness.  They marry and buy a big Victorian house in the country and set out building a large family.

David and Harriet's house becomes a gathering place for their extended families, where legions of relatives will come for weeks-long visits around Easter and Christmas and during the summer.  Of one picnic outing we are told "The house party filled five cars, children wedged in or on the adults' laps."  David and Harriet are happy, their belief in the primacy of family life vindicated, their massive home a fortress of safety in a world, that of the early '70s, which is sinking into a period of rampant crime and instability.  Of course, sacrifices must be made for family; David spends four hours a day on the train commuting between their haven and London, and brings extra work home; Harriet and David must endure everybody's criticisms of the couple for having too many kids (four in six years); and they become financially and psychologically indebted to those family members who give them money and stay with them for months at a time helping look after the four darling children, little Paul, Jane, Luke and Helen.

Back cover of copy I read
Then comes Harriet's fifth pregnancy. The fetus is unusually large and energetic, causing Harriet such pain she comes to considers it "a monster," and "an enemy." In the face of the skepticism of her doctor and family she insists this pregnancy is "absolutely different" from her earlier babies. Exhausted and irritable, her relationship with David, once so close and warm, is strained ("At night, David heard her moan, or whimper, but now he did not offer comfort, for it seemed that these days she did not find his arms around her any help") while the criticisms leveled by the extended family and from those outside the family are redoubled.      

Harriet's fifth child, named Ben, is born in a hospital, unlike the four previous children.  Harriet declares that he looks like "a goblin," or "a troll," or "an alien."  Ben is very strong and seems to develop at an unusually rapid rate, rarely crying and learning to stand and walk without going through any intermediate crawling stage.  On the other hand he seems to be of low intelligence.  From day one Ben gives everybody the creeps, and his sinister escapades as he grows vindicate their instinctive fears--he harms one of his siblings, then stalks and kills a small dog, and then a cat! The people who used to throng the big house for weeks during holidays stop coming. The four "normal" kids live in terror of their weird and violent little brother.  Harriet is bombarded by insistent suggestions of what to do about Ben that leave her feeling that people blame her for the problems the little freak presents.  Ben has ruined David and Harriet's happy life together!  

David and his wealthy relatives take charge and Ben is briefly sent to a mysterious institution in the moors of northern England, liberating the family from the monster's oppression.  But Harriet is guilt-ridden, and when she visits the institution and sees the hideous conditions Ben is living in (constrained in a straight jacket and by powerful drugs, spending all day mindlessly lying in his own excrement) she brings him home. David and the four normal kids feel betrayed by Harriet; she has chosen the monstrous Ben over them.  As the years pass the four normal kids contrive to move away to boarding school and/or with relatives, while David buries himself in work, leaving Harriet alone in the huge house with her fearsome offspring.  

First edition cover
As a teenager Ben becomes involved with a violent gang of thugs, not returning home for days at a time, and as the novel ends Harriet wonders if he will end up in prison, or somehow survive by his wits a member of the criminal underground.

The Fifth Child is a good mainstream novel about the family and maternity and the choices and sacrifices people (women in particular) make, the dilemmas individuals and families face in their efforts to achieve happiness while trying to stay true to their values and do the right thing. Harriet, by leaving Ben in the institution where he soon would have died, could have preserved for herself, David, and their four ordinary kids the happy and healthy life they had before Ben burst onto the scene.  But, as a mother, and as a decent person, she felt compelled to rescue Ben, sacrificing her own happiness, psychologically damaging her other children and even putting the rest of the community at risk (Harriet has every reason to believe teen-aged Ben has been organizing robberies, participating in riots, and even raping women.)  

Lessing was not shy about associating herself with the science fiction community, and The Fifth Child has at least one major SF theme.  Harriet strongly suspects Ben is some kind of genetic throwback, representative of a forgotten race that flourished thousands of years before Homo sapiens, a people who perhaps lived underground and raided and raped human settlements, tainting the human genetic pool.  I'm not sure this element was well-integrated into the book as a whole, which is very realistic; it kind of comes off as hinting Harriet is some kind of crackpot.  

The Fifth Child seems pretty strait forward, and Lessing doesn't use difficult words or employ any unusual or challenging narrative techniques. But is there some kind of point, some kind of symbolism or statement I am missing?  Lessing was a member of the Stalinist British Communist Party in the 1940s and '50s--does this suggest we should see Ben as representing the proletariat, acting out because he is smothered by the middle classes?  Is Ben the product of the bourgeois decadence of the '60s or the neoliberalism of the '80s?  (Clues: adolescent Ben hangs out with uneducated young men who can't or won't find steady work, and members of teen-aged Ben's gang of criminals mouth revolutionary slogans.)

Could Ben represent the Third World, the inexplicable and oppressed "other?"  The many descriptions of Ben as some kind of alien or goblin brought to mind Kipling's phrase "half-devil and half-child" and the idea that misbehavior by non-whites is evidence of white responsibility, either that whites (as Kipling suggested) have a responsibility to civilize non-whites or that such phenomena as revolution, terrorism, and corruption in the Third World are the result of Western meddling and exploitation (what people sometimes call "imperial blowback.")  There is a scene in which we see that teen-aged Ben's gang eats, almost exclusively, foreign food (pizza, tacos, Chinese, Indian), perhaps a signal that Ben is analogous to non-British peoples in some way.

(The problem with these theories is that I didn't notice David and Harriet doing anything that led to Ben being a dangerous monster or suggested they deserved to have their family life wrecked.  The novel could perhaps be seen as a refutation of "society made me do it" explanations for crime--Ben was just "born bad" and his parents and siblings, and all those animals, are just his innocent victims.)   
Another possibility is that The Fifth Child is "about" the decay of English life, the rise in crime and social unrest suffered from the late '60s to the '80s.  Rather than being a throwback, perhaps Ben represents the bleak future of England.  The centrality of motherhood to the novel, and Harriet's essential blamelessness might be a response to commonplace arguments that poor parenting is to blame for the social ills (crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, etc.) that dominated discussion in late-20th century society.  I thought Lessing was using television as a sort of indicator of societal decay.  Before Ben is born the family almost never watches television, but Ben and the fourth child, Paul, who is arguably the character most psychologically damaged by Ben (among other things, Ben tries to strangle him at one point), watch TV religiously, as do Ben's gang of violent thieves.  

An entertaining novel that has me digging for clues.  The direct, understated, even detached, style is quite effective.  A worthwhile read.  After finishing it, it came to my attention that in 2000 a sequel to The Fifth Child appeared, entitled Ben, in the World. I'll try to get my hands on a copy soon; I'm curious to see how Lessing portrays Ben in a different milieu.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Million Tomorrows by Bob Shaw

One shot each and--with care--Athene and he need not die.  He searched within himself for some trace of the exultation that ought to accompany the thought, but there was a strange blankness.  

Let's check out another novel by Bob Shaw, this one copywritten 1970.  I have the 1986 Panther paperback of One Million Tomorrows, acquired down in South Carolina in the impressive science fiction section of the used bookstore known as Rainy Day Pal.

(Joachim Boaz wrote about One Million Tomorrows back in 2011; you'll have to take my word for it that I hadn't read his review for four years and drafted the below post before rereading it, so any similarities in our posts are a coincidence.  We agree on the main points, I think, making similarities almost inevitable.  In the comments to his post Joachim and 2theD and I talk about Barry Malzberg and Vladimir Nabokov--this was before Joachim, now a big Malzberg supporter, had read any Malzberg!)

It is the future!  The year 2176!  People commute long distances at incredible speed via "bullet" cars.  Women wear clothes consisting solely of light projected from necklaces!  Gardeners use a ray gun that induces a seed to grow into a blooming flower in a single minute!  Partygoers drink from glasses that include miniature refrigeration systems so that ice doesn't water down their booze!  Most importantly, a drug is widely used that, when taken regularly, confers immortality!  If you start taking the shots at 20 your body will be as a 20-year-old's for centuries!  Awesome!

But there is a catch!  Men who take the drug become sterile and impotent.  No more facial hair either!  Such men are called "cools."  Men who have not taken the drug and can still get it up are called "funkies," short for "functional," and wear facial hair so all the ladies know what they are capable of.  That's right, women who take the drug are not sexually affected--they still have sexual desire and can still bear children.  The result is a society in which many women turn to all-female "Priapic Clubs" where strap-on dildoes see extensive use and in which it is common for adult women to date 13-year old boys!

Science fiction novels often chronicle revolutions and paradigm shifts, and we are led to expect that One Million Tomorrows is in that category.  Our main character is Will Carewe, a 40-year old funkie who works as an accountant at one of the firms which manufactures the immortality drugs.  As the novel begins he is told that his firm has developed a new immortality drug that when taken by men does not cause impotence and sterility!  And his bosses want to test it on him!    

One of the remarkable things about One Million Tomorrows is that our protagonist is kind of an ignoramus, even a dolt.  We are used to reading genre fiction in which the main character is the smartest or bravest or strongest member of his cohort, but Will Carewe comes off as the dumbest guy in the book!  People around him are always making allusions and using words ("Beau Geste" and "Luddite," for example) he isn't familiar with.  Early in the novel Shaw tells us he "had never succeeded in finishing a book"!  Carewe's career is going well, but several times Shaw indicates he is a slacker ("Carewe pushed the compucards out of sight before he opened the vision circuits--they should have been dealt with two days earlier") and a clock watcher, and that a rumor is current among his co-workers that his advancement is due to a homosexual relationship with the boss.

Carewe is one of the few people in this world of 2176 who has a one-on-one heterosexual marriage; his wife is the attractive and well-read Athene.  Right after these guinea pigs take the new drug their marriage collapses for reasons too complicated to describe here.  Carewe, heartbroken, volunteers for a dangerous mission to sub-Saharan Africa--some of the natives down there refuse to take the immortality drug and live as bandits, so people from Europe and America have to pacify their villages and inject them with the emasculating drug against their will.

Shaw assures us that the one-world government of 2176 has all kinds of regulations in place so that vehicles and power generation and such are super duper safe.  So when Carewe's hover car and then his airplane crash, nearly killing him, it can only be sabotage!  Someone is trying to murder Carewe!  He gets back to America (as in Fire Pattern, British writer Shaw sets his book in North America and presents us with American main characters, while including eccentric British minor characters) and finds that Athene has been kidnapped!  There follows a quite good action scene in an abandoned factory where are stored frictionless ball bearings, and then some weaker action scenes in which Carewe rescues Athene (saving his marriage!) and we get the big reveal.  The obvious big revelation is that it is Carewe's bosses who are trying to kill him.  This was obvious from the start because the book has too few characters for a mystery, leaving Carewe's bosses the only suspects.

The less obvious big revelation is that there is no new drug!  It was a money-making scam, mere snake oil! Carewe took a placebo and is not immortal and is still a funky!  This book is not about changes to society, but about changes in an individual. Carewe, over the course of One Million Tomorrows, goes from being an indolent ignoramus leading a sheltered life to a guy who escapes deadly traps, survives numerous hand-to-hand fights, sees his society from a different point of view, and, at the end of novel, after taking the real immortality drug that renders him sexless, decides to embark on a campaign of reading piles of books and maybe even becoming a writer himself!

One Million Tomorrows has its strong points.  Shaw tries to figure out what a world of immortals, and a world in which a majority of men are sexless, would be like, even examining how it would affect the financial sector and people's career arcs (people who have been top executives for a long time will cycle down to the level of new hires to make room for their subordinates' advancement and because they enjoy working their way up the ranks!)  There are interesting technical as well as social speculations, like those frictionless ball bearings (like leading SF writers Robert Heinlein and Gene Wolfe, Shaw worked as an engineer as well as a writer.)

From a purely literary angle I was a bit disappointed in One Million Tomorrows, however.  I've already noted that the mystery is no mystery.  The characters and human relationships also are a bit weak, underdone.  What makes Will Carewe love Athene Carewe, and why does she love him?  In a world in which monogamous straight relationships are rare, why do they have one?  The villains are only faintly drawn, so it is hard to hate them or fear them or find them interesting.  (On page 172 of the 176 page book Shaw gives a rushed psychological explanation of the motives of one of them--he's bad because of his relationship with his mother who caught him jerking off one day.  Too little too late, Bob!)

The African section is brief, and gives us little sense of what the hell is going on down there; Carewe makes (white British) friends in Africa who save his life, and even has sex with one of these people, but then these characters and relationships are forgotten (as is the saboteur, who escapes), and don't add anything to the story besides moving the labored sabotage plot forward.  The whole African episode should have been fleshed out or eliminated, in my opinion.  If Shaw felt the need for Carewe to "be off the grid" to make the sabotage seem more plausible and so he could meet "backwards" people who resist the emasculating immortality treatments (maybe this Africa section is an homage to the scenes in the hinterland in Brave New World), maybe Shaw could have gone with hillbillies in the Appalachians or inner city slum dwellers and had one instance of sabotage instead of three.

I'm willing to give One Million Tomorrows a mild recommendation, because of the solid SF ideas and the one cool fight scene, but in character, plot and pacing it falls short.  Those interested in immortality in SF should probably give it a whirl.  Maybe people who are studying depictions of race and of gays and lesbians in SF will want to investigate Shaw's brief (and not exactly flattering) flirtations with these themes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Quest of the Dark Lady by "Quinn Reade"

"Once I lived, even, in rancid caves.  Before that, I was born in the swirl of flames and gases of a world.  I have only vague knowledge of my own beginnings, but I am old and mighty; and yet I am always young and vulnerable as well.  That is because I am Woman.  It is my mission to give; but I must take as well."  
Belmont must have had a genius art director or PR guy or something--I love the covers of their paperbacks.  Remember how much I adored the gorgeous cover illustration of their Novelets of Science Fiction and how I admired their bombastic and misleading ad copy ("BOOK OF THE YEAR!")?  Well, by gracing it with an evocative Jeff Jones cover and the declaration that it is "FANTASY ADVENTURE AT ITS FINEST," Belmont has made me fall all in love all over again, this time with Quest of the Dark Lady by Quinn Reade, published in 1969.

When a new love enters your life, you are always beset by questions, and this love is no different.  Is it by mere coincidence or clever design that the cover image and book title of Quest of the Dark Lady remind prospective readers of the oeuvre of the Swan of Avon?  Is there any chance the actual novel, by prolific writer of Westerns, sex novels, and books on racism in the American South, Ben Haas, using one of his many pseudonyms, will be as fun as the cover?  Let's read the book and see what answers we can find!

Quest of the Dark Lady appears to be set on the Earth of the future, 500 years after a nuclear war that nearly exterminated mankind.  The human race, reduced to a medieval technological level, is organized into the Empire of the Iron Lands and besieged by armies of hideous mutants.  Only the tireless leadership of the strongest and cleverest man on Earth, Emperor Langax, keeps humanity from collapsing into anarchy or being overrun by the giant slugs known as the Slimy Ones, the taloned Gibberers, and the shapeless Soft Creatures.  But now Langax has lost the will to live and retired to bed to waste away!  This is no doubt the work of sorcery!

In a rare moment of lucidity the stricken monarch orders the First Minister and Chief Physician to release the traitor Wulf from the dungeons and send him into monster territory to find "the Dark Lady." Wulf, an aristocratic army officer, has been sneaking into the cell next to his to have sex with a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde, Reen, the recently-captured leader of a band of brigands.  Reen is not merely a striking beauty, but an expert rider, swordswoman, and archer.  So when Wulf heads out into the nightmare forest in search of the Dark Lady, he brings Reen with him.  Also coming along is the Chief Physician, Delius, who, it turns out, is a master wizard as well as a Grade AAA sawbones!

Our three heroes cross a tangled forest and a scorching desert to meet the Dark Lady. Who is this Dark Lady, anyway?  Delius tells his comrades (and us) that she is "a sorceress, unimaginably ancient, yet always new and beautiful...."  Her magic power is dormant until she is "mated with a King....a woman's magic is different from a man's; that's why she needs the marriage to a King to activate hers."  He quotes Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" more than once in describing her.  It seems that the reason King-Emperor Langax is sick is that the Dark Lady has married some evil king who is trying to use the monsters to conquer Langax's Empire of Iron.  (The Iron Lands are not the last colony of humanity after all.)  The only hope for the Iron Lands is that Wulf, Reen and Delius get that marriage annulled and get the Dark Lady wed to Langax tout suite!

Wulf and company are captured and dragged before the evil King and his queen, the mesmerizingly beautiful Dark Lady.  Reen is raped, Delius is tortured, and Wulf is forced to fight a duel at a banquet against the best swordsman in this evil kingdom, who happens to be Reen's rapist!  Having won the duel, Wulf is taken into the evil king's service and provided a harem that includes Reen.  But Wulf puts Reen on the shelf when the Dark Lady, amoral and fickle, sneaks into Wulf's bed and he has the best sex of his life!

A 1976 printing with a
different Jeff Jones cover
The Dark Lady is an ambitious sort, and, recognizing that Langax is a stronger and wiser king than her current spouse, she conspires with Wulf to murder the evil king and liberate Delius.  Torture-victim Delius uses his magic to spirit the four of them back to the Iron Empire--where the Dark Lady marries Langax.  In a matter of weeks Langax is ruler of the world, and he gives Wulf and Reen full pardons and a big estate.  Reen forgives Wulf his dalliance with the Dark Lady, and everybody lives happily ever after.  

When I bought Quest of the Dark Lady I expected it to be weak; it was a novel by a writer I had never even heard of before, after all.  But I was wrong--Quest of the Dark Lady works quite well as a fast-paced sword and sorcery adventure story, and I really enjoyed it.  The descriptions of weird settings, unusual monsters (Haas wisely eschews the traditional goblins, trolls, dragons, giant snakes and giant spiders), magic spells and hand-to-hand combats are all well done.

The novel also benefits from its main themes: love, marriage and sex, how difficult sexual relationships can be and how love and lust can make us act crazy.  Here is a compelling topic that most of us can identify with in one way or another, and Haas really pours it on--we have a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate and betray men, a man who betrays a woman who loves him, men sexually abusing women, and men and women who can only achieve their true potential through marriage.  Haas means the Dark Lady to be the ultimate femme fatale, the archetypal irresistibly sexy woman, and matches her with the ultimate man, the brave and honorable nobleman Wulf.  Wulf struggles to choose between the black-haired queen, that conscienceless manipulator and sex goddess, and blonde Reen, who sincerely loves him and with whom he can have a healthy relationship based on mutual background, experiences and interests.  

The book is suffused with sex, though the actual sex scenes are not terribly explicit (no "throbbing members" or anything like that.)  The numerous instances of characters expressing, demonstrating and satisfying their physical desire for each other are supplemented by many mentions of the "erotic statues" that decorate Langax's castle and the legions of half-naked concubines that serve the inhabitants of both Langax's and the evil king's castle, generating a lascivious atmosphere that permeated the book.

An ably-written, solid adventure story with elements of sexploitation literature and characters representing all the stereotypical gender roles we are not supposed to believe in anymore--I'd definitely recommend it to sword and sorcery fans, aficionados of odd vintage paperbacks, and those studying gender in speculative fiction.  Haas wrote two more sword and sorcery capers, those under the pen name Richard Meade, and after experiencing Quest of the Dark Lady, I am definitely interested in reading them.

**********

My copy of Quest of the Dark Lady has four pages of terrific ads in the back, including one for what appears to be an operatic account of the troubles faced by America's own royalty, those expert navigators of boats, automobiles, skis, aircraft, and young ladies, the Kennedys!

I'm more likely to pursue one of the advertized novels by previous MPorcius Fiction Log subjects Edmond Hamilton ("One man against the universe"), Mack Reynolds ("His unearthly power could destroy the world"), Murray Leinster ("all that's curious and terrifying"), James Schmitz ("men without souls join forces with living machines") or Frank Belknap Long ("a top-rated author"???)


An entire page is devoted to "Gothic Suspense Novels," which I guess are those 20th-century women's romance novels which have some kind of stylistic connection to those classic 18th and 19th century Gothic novels like Castle of Otranto (which I thought was lame when I read it back in the '90s), Frankenstein and Dracula (which I think are great) and Jane Eyre (which I have not read.)  Another covers Sword and Sorcery novels, mostly by the mediocre writer but important editor Lin Carter.

Click for a legible version    

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Three more 2005 stories FROM THE EDGE about Outsiders by Elizabeth Massie, Katherine Ramsland & Melanie Tem

Before I have to take it back to the library, let's read three more stories from Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick's 2005 anthology of "All-New Stories from the Edge": Outsiders.  I chose these tales based on their provocative titles, and all are by women whose work I have never read before.  Let's see how edgy they really are!

"Pit Boy" by Elizabeth Massie

The term "pit boy" appears in the first paragraph of the introduction to Outsiders by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick, as part of a list that includes "goth" and "bag lady."  I know what a goth is, and what a bag lady is, but what is a pit boy?  I had no idea.  I resisted googling the term in hopes of being shocked and amazed by the story by Elizabeth Massie that bears that title.

This story is brief and effective, a first person narrative by a young man who apparently lives in a dark cellar with other young men.  The boys talk about how there is going to be party tonight, and our narrator describes briefly the arc of his life--born to a prostitute, work as a lookout for drug dealers, and now, apparently, some kind of slave to the guy who is holding the party.  I thought that our narrator and the other boys were catamites, but when the cellar door is opened by the narrator's owner and the lights are turned the truth is revealed--the boys are not sex slaves but 20th (21st?) century gladiators!  The boys are each locked in a separate cage, and Massie describes their battle scars-- missing ears and nipples, for example.  Yuck!

The pit boys are not Roman-style gladiators, but humans treated just like fighting cocks.  Their owner lashes Freddy Krueger gloves to their hands and spurs to their shoes, and they fight pit boys brought over by other owners for the pleasure of paying spectators.  The narrator wins multiple fights, and is rewarded with beer and the services of a prostitute.


Well-structured and paced, and certainly about outsiders and people on the fringes of our society, "Pit Boy" is more or less what I expected from this anthology, something creepy and disgusting about degraded criminals.  I am not sure if we should consider it a piece of speculative or merely crime fiction.  It seems to take place in modern America--spectators pay in dollars, people have names like Chuck, Erik and Ricky (yes, "Ricky" again), and consumer items like boom boxes, Coke, and Pepsi are mentioned.  But I have to hope there are not real to-the-death gladiatorial combats between slaves taking place in basements in the United States, that this is some kind of parallel universe, created by Massie in hopes of inspiring in the reader a loathing for such pastimes as cock-fighting, bull-fighting, dog-fighting, and the way, in my youth, I would throw live moths and flies to my pet anoles.

"Grim Peeper" by Katherine Ramsland    

I read this one because I thought it would be about voyeuristic sex.

Ramsland apparently makes her living catering to all those people who watch those criminal forensics shows; the intro notes that she wrote The Forensic Science of C.S.I. and The Science of Cold Case Files.  The first sentence of this story contains the word "perp," and the brief story takes place in a courtroom, where the narrator is observing a trial.

Our narrator is some kind of therapist, apparently studying people who are erotically stimulated by looking at dead bodies and watching such activities as autopsies.  The trial is of such a person.  The narrator, whose sex is not disclosed, over years of research has learned all their tricks and behaviors (like how to sneak into a morgue so you can hide in a closet and masturbate while covertly observing an autopsy through a peephole.)  The point of the story is that the narrator is similar to the perverts he or she studies, devoting his or her life and deriving sexual satisfaction from pursuing a difficult quarry the requires elaborate planning and risky maneuvers to catch up with.

This story is OK, no big deal.  It certainly qualifies as edgy and outsiderish, however.

"The Country of the Blind" by Melanie Tem

I read this one because the title refers to one of my favorite adages, and I thought it might be about a guy who gets one of his eyes gouged out.  Nothing says "horror" like an eye-gouging!  In addition, Tem, I saw from the intro, was a critically successful writer (she won Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards), so presumably worth a try.

As it turns out, Tem hits the edgy outsider jackpot with this unsettling and realistic story of blind down-and-outers.  The story has conventional literary values: it is well-structured and full of human relationships and has a good surprise ending.  Tem also fills "The Country of the Blind" with disturbing and squirm-inducing details--examples include numerous references to empty eye sockets, and the description of how a character enjoys kisses from rough, chapped lips.  There is the pathetic image of a blind homeless man wearing a woman's sweater and using an aggressive chihuahua as a guide dog.  "Pit Boy" and "Grim Peeper" both included inappropriate and yucky erections, but Tem wins the gross-me-out arousal competition when the protagonist feels a "stirring in his balls" when another blind person grapples him and sticks her tongue in his empty eye socket.  Yuck!

The plot [WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND]: We follow Clement, the blind beggar and shoplifter, through a day in his life in the city.  Clement lives in a house with other blind people including Seph, their leader and Clement's lover.  Seph has been blind since birth and takes in people who are down on their luck, helping them learn to survive via beggary and thievery.  Clement loves Seph, and there are several flashbacks in which we learn how much she means to him, how she guided him and taught him to survive, even enjoy, his life after losing his sight.  Clement is also jealous, and worries that a young white girl, Victoria, who may be joining Seph's household, may displace him as Seph's lover.

There are plenty of good scenes, some tense and some repulsive, about Clement begging and getting lost in the city with his beloved chihuahua Loozy Anna, who is a poor guide.  Seph and Loozy Anna, we see, are the two things that make Clement's life worth living.

At the end of the tale come the shocking revelations.  Victoria has decided not to join the group, putting Seph in an ugly mood.  She seizes Loozy Anna and, because the dog is not "one of us," tries to cut the dog's eyes out!  To the reader's shock and amazement, we learn that the wretches Seph takes in are not blind when they arrive at her doorstep--Clement and the others were sighted when they met Seph, but Seph demanded they allow her to gouge out their eyes (!) as a sign of commitment to her! And they did it!  Perhaps even worse, Seph, on this day the young girl whose eyes she wanted to possess got away, demands that Clement himself cut out Loozy Anna's eyes!  Our whole view of Clement's relationships with his lover and benefactor and with his guide dog is upended as Clement takes up the blade and lays the dog "on his thigh as if it were a cutting board."  Even though Tem had cleverly foreshadowed these dreadful revelations, I was taken by surprise.

There are three kinds of surprise endings.  There's the surprise ending that is not a surprise, which is not very satisfying.  Then there's the surprise ending which is a surprise because it makes no sense, which is annoying.  Tem delivers in this story the best kind of surprise ending, the surprise ending which makes total sense but still comes as a shock.  Tem's story is like the work of a mastercrafstman, and it is a joy to behold in this world in which so many things are mediocre or shoddy.  

"The Country of the Blind" takes you on a disgusting and depressing nightmare rollercoaster ride.  Very effective--five out of five empty eye sockets!  I'll read more Tem in the future, after I have had time to recover from this draining experience.

***********

I've only read six of the 22 stories in Outsiders, but I feel comfortable recommending it to people interested in reading stories "from the edge"--the Nancies Holder and Kilpatrick seem to have done a good job putting the book together, collecting stories that are either edgy, or well-written, or, as in the case of Tem's "Country of the Blind," both.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Outside the Universe by Edmond Hamilton

I think that never in all space and time could there have been a moment as strange as that one, when the mighty fleet of our galaxy lay prow to prow with this other mighty fleet from the dark, unguessed mysteries of outer space.  

I'm no expert on Weird Tales, and when I think of that "unique magazine" I think of Conan and Cthulhu, of sword and sorcery tales and of horror stories.  But Weird Tales also published space operas by Edmond Hamilton, including today's topic, Outside the Universe, which first appeared as a serial over the course of four issues in 1929.  Last week I bought the 1964 book printing of Outside the Universe by Ace (Ace F-271) at the Jay's CD and Hobby in South Des Moines.  This edition includes an illustration by Jack Gaughan and an introduction by editor Donald Wollheim.  Wollheim points out that A. Merritt adored Outside the Universe and wrote Hamilton fan mail about it. Wollheim, in his promotion (or defense) of the novel also seems to cast aspersions on SF writers who seek to use SF as a way of discussing science, saying that Outside the Universe was a "novel which told a tale of interstellar adventure on the kind of scale that would terrify the slide-rule space engineering storytellers of today....The purpose of the novel was not an exposition of advanced mechanics; it was an entertainment in starry voyaging....And, really, is there anything more anyone could ask from a science-fiction novel?"  

Our narrator is Dur Nal, human captain of one of the Interstellar Patrol's cruisers, a slender warship with a crew of approximately one hundred.  The Milky Way is a united political entity, with a central government in the Canopus system, and Dur Nal's crew is drawn from "a score or more" different intelligent species, including "Octopus-beings from Vega, great planet-men from Capella, [and] spider-shapes from Mizar...."  Dur Nal's lieutenants are an Antarean, Korus Kan, who has three eyes, three arms and three legs and is made of metal, and Jhul Din, a crustacean from Spica.

Dur Nal and company are patrolling the edges of the Milky Way when they detect an alien armada of 5,000 vessels bent on conquering our galaxy.  A running fight with the alien invaders leads to a terrific naval battle between the Milky Way fleet and the enemy, a battle lost by the good guys because the aliens have special "attraction-ships" which can magnetically grab the Milky Way ships and draw them to their destruction.

Dur Nal's ship is one of the few survivors of this debacle, but the craft is crippled, so Dur Nal and his crew (somehow) sneak up on an alien ship and board it.  They find that the extragalactic invaders are like worms or snakes, and Hamilton refers to them as "serpent people."  We are told it is unsafe to fire off ray guns inside a ship, so the fighting during the boarding action is all hand to hand, our people bludgeoning the invaders with metal bars while the snake people seek to constrict the boarders to death.  Sixty percent of the boarders are killed (as are all the serpent beings), but Dur Nal and comrades seize the ship and bring it back to Canopus.

Documents on the captured enemy ship are (somehow) translated, and it is learned that the invaders come from a dying galaxy, where nearly all the suns have gone dark.  The snake people tried to conquer the Andromeda galaxy, but were rebuffed, so attacked the Milky Way, their second choice.  The president of the Milky Way galaxy, "a great black-winged bat-figure from Deneb" gives Dur Nal, Korus Kan and Jhul Din command of the refurbished alien craft (it is faster than our own ships) and the mission of travelling to Andromeda to request aid.

In these adventure stories the protagonists tend to get taken captive, and, sure enough, on their way to Andromeda our heroes are captured by the serpent-people and taken to their dying galaxy of expired and decrepit suns.  The snakemen are masters at using force fields, and have surrounded their entire dark galaxy with one.  The opening to the galaxy is guarded by two colossal cubical space fortresses.  Nur Dal and the survivors of his crew are taken to the capitol planet of the enemy, where they find that the snakemen do not make their buildings of metal or stone, but the same flickering blue force fields that guard their galaxy.  Construction and demolition in the vast city that covers the entire surface of the planet is as easy as flipping a switch.  In the towering central government building our heroes are interred in a glass case in a museum of biology, pumped full of a drug that paralyzes and preserves them, suspending all bodily functions but thought:
Rigid, unmoving, unbreathing, yet with consciousness, mind and senses as clear as ever, living brains cased in bodies that were helpless and motionless, I think that no position of any in all time could have been more terrible than ours.
Of course our heroes make it out of the dark galaxy and to Andromeda.  The Andromedans are people made of gas, and have technology and power that surpasses that of the people of the Milky Way and of the serpent people; in fact, they have rearranged the very stars and planets of their galaxy for maximum efficiency.  In their government chamber they vote to launch a vast fleet to the dark galaxy and exterminate the snake race, and to put our man Dur Nal in charge of the whole shebang!

The last quarter of the novel follows the Andromedan fleet as it attacks the dark galaxy and then races to the Milky Way in hopes of catching up with the serpent fleet before it has made operational its super weapon, a conical ship 20 miles across armed with a death ray that can exterminate all life on a planet with a single shot!  In the very last pages of the book the Andromedans use their star shifting technology to move two suns together, crushing the giant cone between them.

If you are a stickler for scientific accuracy and an airtight plot then this book is not for you.  Hamilton uses the words "universe" and "galaxy" interchangeably, as evidenced by the title.  Space craft routinely travel a thousand times the speed of light, with a minimum of odd or unusual effects.  (However, during the climactic naval battle numerous ships travelling at such alarming speeds within the boundaries of solar systems blunder into planets and stars and are destroyed.) There is lots of talk of ether, the invisible substance that lies between the stars, and it plays a role in the story like that ocean currents and the weather would play in a story about ships at sea.  Ether currents can influence a ship's speed or course, and early in the story our heroes use an ether storm (it is marked by a space buoy) to foil pursuit.

As for plot holes, after numerous scenes in which ships spot each other via equivalents of radar (a "star chart" which shows moving "dots" for ships and "circles" for heavenly bodies) and powerful telescopes ("distance windows" and "telemagnifiers") it was a little difficult to suspend disbelief when Dur Nal's ship sneaked up on an alien ship and his crew of over one hundred spacers broke into it without being detected.  And how (in a matter of hours!) could the Milky Way cryptographers have deciphered the extragalactic documents?  And then there is Dur Nal figuring out, in minutes, how to fly the serpent ship.

As with much fiction involving wars or adventures, we also have to accept that thousands of people all around the hero are always getting killed in battle after battle while he somehow always manages to escape injury. We can (with some effort!) confidently ascribe the survival of Achilles, Aeneas, John Carter, Conan, and Elric on the battlefield to their superior ability to dodge and parry, and/or to divine intervention, but we have to accept that Dur Nal is just lucky that his ship is the one out of thousands that isn't hit by an irresistible death ray.  Even Dur Nal seems a little perplexed by his longevity:
How our own ship escaped, in the van of our fleet, I can not guess, for space about us at that moment was but a single awful mass of shattered and shattering vessels.
Outside the Universe is also remarkable in that there is really no character development, no relationships between the characters, and very little "normal" emotional content--all the emotional content is on the order of over the top terror of getting tortured or awe at the beauty of celestial phenomena and the sight of thousands of space vessels engaging in battles which lead to a fatality rate of 90% or higher.  The descriptions of stars and galaxies and space battles can be a little repetitive; perhaps readers in 1929 were less likely to notice this, taking a month out between reading each of the four installments.

Despite all these issues, the novel still has considerable appeal.  Hamilton tells the tale with gusto--the pace is fast and Hamilton writes in long breathless sentences full of superlatives.  Hamilton also has a wide range of invention, coming up with all sorts of alien races and menacing phenomena and curious settings.  There are plenty of striking images--the book is like a script for a movie you create in your mind, a technicolor epic replete with bizarre and awe-inspiring visions.

As for ideological content, the only thing notable (beyond the implied superiority of representative democracy) is that, while our hero is a human male, all the other characters, including our hero's political superiors, are aliens; Hamilton's novel doesn't suggest that Earth or the human race are in any way special, but just one of dozens of civilizations united E Pluribus Unum style.  We see so many SF stories in which humans in general or Europeans in particular are superior and have some kind of manifest destiny or Kiplingesque burden (I'm thinking of John Carter and Tarzan here, as well the end of Van Vogt's The Weapon Makers) and so many in which humans are assholes and elves or alien collectivists are shown to be our betters, that I think this vision of brotherhood and equality is noteworthy.  (I get the impression that Star Wars and Star Trek are going for this attitude, but perhaps are limited by the fact that they need to cast humans as the main characters.  Wasn't Han Solo supposed to be a frog man or something?)

I thought Outside the Universe was fun.  I think we can also see it as an interesting document in SF history, an early example of the seminal space opera genre which has conquered Hollywood with all those Star Wars and Star Trek movies and an example of what Harry Harrison was satirizing in things like Bill the Galactic Hero and what the New Wave writers were trying to get away from.  After a suitable interval (to catch my breath!) I will definitely be reading more Hamilton space operas.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

21st Century stories FROM THE EDGE by Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja & Poppy Z. Brite

Even though I buy used paperbacks at a rate that exceeds my ability to read them, I still check in at various university and public libraries to see what is going on.  On a recent trip to the Franklin Avenue branch of the Des Moines Public Library I spotted the 2005 softcover anthology Outsiders, edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick, which is said to contain "All-New Stories from the Edge."  The book seems to be targeted at the "teenage-girls-who-cut-themselves" demographic, but when I saw it contained a story by MPorcius fave Tanith Lee, as well as contributions from Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite, in whom I have recently taken an interest, I decided to borrow it.  This weekend I read these three pieces.

In the tradition of my blog posts about stories from Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, in which I judged to what extent the stories truly were"extreme," I won't simply assess whether Lee's, Koja's and Brite's tales are good, but will also assess how edgy they are.  Whose story will be the edgiest of the batch?  Place your bets!

Back cover text
"Scarabesque: The Girl Who Broke Dracula" by Tanith Lee

This story is apparently a chapter of an unfinished novel, the fourth Blood Opera novel, which isfdb suggests was never published.  I have not read any of the Blood Opera books, but I assume in the world they depict vampires are real.  If "Scarabesque: The Girl Who Broke Dracula" is considered alone, however, I think everything that happens in it is explicable without recourse to the supernatural.

Sue Wyatt is a plain and skinny 24-year-old woman who works in retail and has middle-class parents.  Every Friday night she puts on lots of cosmetics, black clothes and a long black wig and rides the train to London, where she calls herself "Ruby Sin" and hangs around in goth bars and clubs.  We follow the course of one of these Friday nights during which she is rescued from lesbian bullies who want to jab her with a syringe by a mysterious foreign man who then takes her to his elaborately decorated rooms in an abandoned part of town.

Interspersed with this tale are flashbacks to when Sue was fourteen, lonely and friendless, and became obsessed with the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker and the film version by Francis Ford Coppola.  (She watched the videotape of the movie so much she broke it.)  The same week she rented the movie she was raped for the first time by her father, when he found her dressed up in her mother's cosmetics and lingerie.

The mysterious foreign man makes Sue's dreams come true--he bites her neck, shedding blood, while caressing "her center," bringing her to her first orgasm.  The next day she can't find the man or even his decrepit neighborhood; she searches for him for years, to no avail.

This story is not bad.  I think the history of Sue's Friday night is supposed to remind you of Jonathan Harker's visit to Dracula--the dangerous lesbians are like Dracula's brides, for example.  Like Harker Sue rides in a cab driven by a mysterious taciturn figure.  Lee describes London's neon lights, which are perhaps meant to evoke our memories of the eldritch lights Harker sees as he travels through Transylvania.

Sue is definitely an outsider, with no friends or lovers, and no real family to speak of. She alienates herself from mainstream society with her goth outfit, but without joining the goth subculture--she goes to the bars and clubs but never talks to anybody there, ignoring women who address her and rejecting men who try to pick her up (Sue's experience with her father has soured her on the idea of sexual intercourse; her dream is to be bitten by a vampire like Lucy and Mina are in Dracula.)  I'd say this story is pretty edgy, despite its pun title.  

I should note that this story reminded me of Richard Matheson's famous and brilliant 1951 story "Drink My Red Blood" (AKA "Blood Son,") in which a young boy becomes obsessed with Dracula and, in the story's closing lines, meets the Count, who embraces him.

"Ruby Tuesday" by Kathe Koja

Good song, crummy restaurant.

This is a decent tear-jerking mainstream story.  I didn't detect any speculative fiction elements.

Our narrator is Rikki, a high school student.  I think Koja deliberately leaves Rikki's sex unspecified.  Rikki's mother is in the hospital dying of cancer, and the stress of this tragedy has severed Rikki's ties with his or her friends, ruined Rikki's grades at school, and strained Rikki's relationship with his or her father.

Rikki wants to be a filmmaker, and every week goes to see a film called Ruby Tuesday.  This is a goofy musical, clearly based by Koja on Rocky Horror Picture Show--the same people are in the audience every week, wearing costumes and singing along, throwing confetti during a wedding scene, etc.  Rikki studies the film, taking notes, hoping to someday create a film which, like Ruby Tuesday, will serve as an alternate world to which people can escape their problems.

Rikki is an outsider--like Sue in the Lee story he/she leaves mainstream society by taking up the rituals of a fringe community (the people who see and interact with the crazy movie every week) but without actually joining that fringe group--Rikki doesn't dress up or make friends with the other Ruby Tuesday fans.  Compared to the Lee story, with its gross sex, violence and crime, however, "Ruby Tuesday" is not particularly edgy.


"The Working Slob's Prayer" by Poppy Z. Brite

This isn't a real story with a plot and all that, more like a bunch of character sketches of people who work at a New Orleans restaurant.  According to the intro to this story, the characters described in "The Working Slob's Prayer" appear in a series of Brite's novels.  The story has no speculative fiction elements.

Leslie, a waitress, is from Brooklyn, and has to yell at the cooks to get them to put out the food as fast as she would like: "Fuck you in the ass, you pig motherfuckers!...If I want any more shit from you, I'll scrape it off the end of my dick, OK?"  Paco is the head chef, a culinary genius and misogynist who has contempt for his customers and employers, most of whom can't appreciate his abilities.  Rickey (another Rick in this anthology?) and G-man are a gay couple, Rickey somewhat violent and low-class, G-man more sensitive and conventional.  The tensions in their relationship are the most interesting part of this story: G-man is offended and worried by how much Rickey idolizes the thuggish Paco (Paco, for example, uses the term "fag" derisively to describe men who are ineffectual or whiny.)  Shake is a Croatian-American whose parents wish he would get out of the restaurant business.

This is a somewhat forgettable mainstream story.  Maybe people fascinated by the seamy side of the culinary world (people who love Anthony Bourdain, perhaps) would get excited by it.  Is it edgy?  Are the characters outsiders? Well, everybody uses cocaine and gets drunk all the time and swears all the time.  I guess that is kind of edgy.  But in 2015 aren't the drug culture and homosexuality practically mainstream? And since they are all working together on a team, making money in a pretty prestigious industry, can we really consider them outsiders?

This is the least interesting and least edgy of the three stories I read in Outsiders this weekend.

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I have to admit I was a little disappointed in these stories, even though none is actually bad.  For one thing, I expected them to have more SF elements.  For another, I expected them to represent efforts to really push the envelope, full of shocking behavior or ideas.  The Lee is the only one that seems to be really dedicated to presenting edgy behavior, and the only one I would really recommend to the typical SF fan.

Maybe I'll read three more stories from Outsiders later this month, in search of serious edginess.