Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Three stories from Astounding by Eric Frank Russell: "Mana," "Jay Score," & "Homo Saps"

I haven't exactly been champing at the bit to read Eric Frank Russell stories because when I read his famous and widely anthologized "...And Then There Were None" I thought it was a long and tedious exercise in smart alecky utopianism.  But when I saw the 1978 collection The Best of Eric Frank Russell I decided to give Russell another shot.


Alan Dean Foster (of movie tie-in fame), in his introduction to this volume, tells us that Russell is his favorite SF author, and, more surprisingly, that Russell was John W. Campbell's favorite SF author!  Campbell, the editor of Astounding who worked closely with those titans Heinlein and Asimov, said Russell was his favorite SF writer? I suppose that is reason enough for someone interested in classic SF to read Russell. Let's start with the first three tales in the book, all of which appeared in Campbell's Astounding.

"Mana" (1937)

Omega is the last man on Earth.  It is the far future, when men have evolved into immortal beings who can use their mental powers to effortlessly fly.  People only die when they have achieved all their goals, achieved satiety, and Omega, six thousand years old, is the only man who has not yet achieved satisfaction.

Omega's quest is to inspire intelligence ("mana") in ants!  He finally accomplishes this by shooting a ray through his own brain at a terrarium full of ants.  When he has done this enough, the ants figure out how to start fires and shoot a bow and arrow!  No doubt, Omega reasons, a million or whatever years ago space aliens gave the human race intelligence in a similar way (isn't this the premise behind 2001: A Space Odyssey?) His work done, Omega releases the ants and then flies up into space, to commit suicide.  The ant civilization that is to come (barring some kind of catastrophic anteater attack, I suppose) will be Omega's monument, and the monument to the achievements of the human race.

A tight five pages, with an interesting idea, numerous memorable images, and a good writing style; this one gets the MPorcius Seal of Approval.

"Jay Score" (1941)

In the 23rd century a space ship gets hit by a small asteroid, and the multiracial crew finds they are hurtling towards the sun!  While the rest of the crew takes cover in the most heavily shielded part of the vessel, expert pilot Jay Score stays in the searing hot cockpit, steering the ship on a one in ten thousand chance course past old Sol.  The ship makes it, but poor Jay is burnt within an inch of his life!  Thankfully, back on Earth he becomes the first ever man to have his brain put in a robot body!

The thing about this competent but basically routine story that will stick out to 21st-century readers is how it addresses the issue of race. Russell uses the story to promote racial harmony and the idea that different people's different abilities can complement each other (he is "celebrating diversity" in today's argot) but the way he does it, focusing on fanciful biological differences between ethnic groups instead of on human equality, would at best be considered "problematic" by today's cultural arbiters, and at worst it would be career suicide.

On the first page of the story we are told that, since white people invented space drives, only white people are ever hired as engineers on space ships--whites "know most about them [rockets] and can nurse them like nobody else."  This doesn't really make much sense; maybe it is an appeal to the idea of "racial memory?"  The special ability Russell assigns to black people is approximately as silly: "All ship's surgeons are black Terrestrials because for some reason none can explain no Negro gets gravity-bends or space nausea."

Anyway, the white engineers, the black doctor, and the crew's tentacled Martians (who need less oxygen than humans and can better stand extremes of heat) all contribute to the ship's and the crew's survival.  Presumably it is significant that hero Jay is "neither black nor white;" whether this means he is biracial or an Asian or Native American is unclear.

Russell's pacing and style are good, and he makes the Martians interesting (they love chess, for one thing--the cover of this collection illustrates "Jay Score") and I have a weakness for stories about space travel, so I'm giving this one a thumbs up.

"Homo Saps" (1941)

This is a nonsensical joke story whose payoff doesn't justify the long set-up.

Fifteen or more years ago a cure for cancer was discovered on Mars!  So human businesspeople flock to native Martian settlements to buy it.  Instead of using spacecraft or aircraft to go to the Martian towns, Earth merchants ride Earth camels across the spider-infested deserts between the spaceport and the native settlements. (Russell repeatedly tells us that this is because there is no gasoline on Mars.)  Our story follows one such camelback journey.

The native Martians can't talk, so trade is conducted via hand signals and pictures (the natives build up credit and point to what they want in illustrated Earth catalogs.)  One of the Martians invites one of the human merchants to his home--the human is amazed to find that the Martian has used Earth parts to build a device which allows him to talk!  It has taken over fifteen years of contact for the first Earthling-Martian conversation to take place, and we are there to witness it!

The native Marsplains that his race lost the ability to talk because they developed telepathy.  He opines that only primitive types speak; advanced species like Martians and camels communicate via telepathy.  When the human scoffs at the idea that camels are superior to humans, the Martian tells him that camels don't wear clothes or pay taxes--obviously their lives are better than those of a human.  The denouement of the story involves the human experimenting and confirming that the camels can indeed read his mind.

Thumbs down!

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These stories, taken as a group, are good enough that we'll be seeing three or four more selections from 1978's The Best of Eric Frank Russell in our next episode.

Monday, March 28, 2016

1982 stories from Russ, Effinger, Ellison, and Platt & McCarthy

The cover illustrates "Starhaven"
by Platt & McCarthy
Back in February I read the Thomas Monteleone story from my copy of the January 1982 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Let's read some more from its 34-year-old pages.

"Souls" by Joanna Russ

Am I really going to read a forty-page story by a feminist college professor who (according to wikipedia) thought pornography was "the essence of evil in society?"  Besides seeming ridiculous, such an idea goes against all my free speech sensibilities.  What am I thinking?  Well, "Souls" won a Hugo and some other awards; let's see if we can figure out why.

"Souls" is set in medieval Europe, and is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde, narrated by an old man who knew her when he was a seven-year-old boy.  Radegunde is apparently some kind of genius--she was able to read at the age of two, and after an education in Rome could read and speak every conceivable language and was an expert on Christian scripture and classical literature.  She is also a skilled healer of broken bodies and soother of troubled minds.  Beloved by all for her extraordinary kindness and generosity, Radegunde also has great powers of persuasion, so that her words are always obeyed, making her the natural leader of the German village where her abbey is located.  This sounds like just the kind of protagonist a feminist college professor would dream up, a woman so good and so smart that everybody does whatever she tells them to!

When Vikings attack the village, Radegunde tries non-violent resistance and to appease the raiders by just handing over all the abbey's treasures.  This works about as well as you'd expect it to.  After half the villagers get massacred and all the young women get raped, Radegunde uses her uncanny abilities and extensive knowledge to heal the sole Viking casualty and to ease the mind of one of the rape victims, who has gone insane.

In the second half of the story we learn there is more to Radegunde than meets the eye!  She has vast psychic powers--she can see what is going on anywhere in the world and read and control the minds of people nearby!  She has contempt and pity for everyone because everybody is so selfish and greedy and hateful!  She doesn't believe any of that Christian gobbledygook herself, but is more than willing to tell everybody comforting lies like "your friends who got murdered by the Vikings are happy up in heaven!"

The crisis of the Viking attack spurs Radegunde's mind, and, casting her clairvoyance/remote viewing powers skyward, she discovers she is not really human, but a member of a peaceful space faring race!  I think she is on Earth to study us and try to improve us, her alien nature hidden from her own mind, kind of like in Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell.  Her true origin was concealed from her because our world is so evil that it would drive one of these goody goody aliens insane to live here--witnessing the evil of the Earthman, for these extraterrestrial paragons, is like being raped by a Viking!

Before the Vikings can drag her off to slavery Radegunde's true fellows arrive in their spaceship and whisk her away from our crappy planet!  (The Earthlings think she was carried to Heaven by angels.)

So, "Souls" is one of the many SF stories which damn the human race for its manifold sins by contrasting us with utopian aliens.  People love these kinds of stories--no wonder it won a Hugo!  But "Souls" is better than a lot of those other stories which denounce our civilization; Russ focuses on characters and their emotions, has a good writing style, and fills her story with lots of classical and medieval factoids.  Maybe this story really deserved that Hugo!

"Souls" is a long story, and Russ has room to fit in thought-provoking philosophical points and psychological theories.  One of the themes that comes up several times in "Souls," one that is reminiscent of Russ's "Zanzibar Cat," is the power of the storyteller and the artist.  The Abbess's storytelling helps mend the psyche of the rape victim, and, reminding me of Russ's abomination of pornography, Radegunde relates how nude statues she saw in Italy excited in her a sexual desire.  Reminding me that Russ was a lesbian, Radegunde explains that she never took a lover in Italy because men are universally evil--it was impossible for her to find one who didn't disgust her.  The idea that real men can't measure up to idealized depictions such as those of Greek gods also reminded me of one of the standard criticisms of pornography, that it damages real-life erotic relationships by creating unattainable expectations.

So, my fears that "Souls" would be an impenetrable New Wave morass or a leftist harangue were unfounded; this is a smoothly written traditional science-fiction story with a feminist edge; that edge doesn't overwhelm the literary virtues of piece, which is engaging and entertaining as well as polemical.  I didn't expect to be giving this one a positive review, but life is full of surprises.

"Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson" by George Alec Effinger

In the intro to this story, editor Ed Ferman calls it "preppy science fiction." When I was a kid there was a lot of talk about preppies, jokes about them and their clothes and so forth, but I never met any preppies and really had no idea who they were or why I should be laughing at them. As an adult, of course, it looks to me like these jokes were just a lot of naked class envy, at least on the part of the people I knew as a kid.  Maybe actual preppies had a good sense of humor and enjoyed all the jokes.

Anyway, "Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson" is a parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs' immortal classic A Princess of Mars, one of my favorite books.  What if, instead of an American Civil War veteran, an upper-middle-class college girl who loves to shop was magically transported to a war torn Barsoom?  Effinger doesn't produce a plot here, he just exactly copies various things that happen in Burroughs and has his broad caricature of a character slotted into the John Carter space, in the same way an episode of the Simpsons or South Park will have everything that happened in The Prisoner or Great Expectations happen to one of the cartoon's regular characters.

In my teens and twenties I thought this kind of thing was funny, but I'm 44 years old now, and I thought this story a waste of my time.  Presumably there are lots of people who find this story amusing--believe it or not, it has like ten sequels!

"The Outpost Undiscovered by Tourists" by Harlan Ellison

Gadzooks, another derivative joke story!  This one is a parody of the story of Christmas, full of ethnic jokes and references to 20th Century pop culture.  Kaspar (Chinese), Balthazar (black) and Melchior (Jewish) drive a Rolls Royce across the desert, following the star that marks the site of the messiah's birthplace.  Like the Effinger, I thought it lame, but I'm sure it has its partisans, people who think it hilarious that Balthazar calls Kaspar "Yellow Peril" and carries around the collected works of James Baldwin and a "hair-conking outfit," that Kaspar calls Balthazar "Black-is-Beautiful over there," and that Melchior is a hypochondriac who says things like "those latkes are sitting right here in my chest" and "You know, it's funny, but he [the baby Jesus] doesn't look Jewish."

"Starhaven" by Charles Platt and Shawna McCarthy

Ed Ferman tells us this is a "SF gothic."  You can believe I was hoping, praying, that this was not another feeble joke story.

"Starhaven" is a parody of or homage to those "gothic romances" in which an innocent young woman is swept off her feet by a wealthy man and, in his big old house, discovers sinister secrets.  The big old house in this story is the centuries-old space station, Starhaven.  Once aboard with her beau, the narrator discovers a secret door, meets the crazy great-grandfather, and is sexually enjoyed by clones of her boyfriend whom she initially mistakes for him.  Those clones are illegal, and so to protect the secret of their existence the great-grandpappy will now try to murder her! Fortunately the old robot butler and her boyfriend help her escape the station.  The fiance declares that he truly loves her, and is willing to give up his family's wealth to marry her.  The End.

Platt and McCarthy play it more or less straight ("Starhaven" feels more like a pastiche than a satire), and the jokes aren't too distracting or outlandish; I'll judge this one acceptable.

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If you follow the SF gossip you perhaps remember that a few years ago Barry Malzberg got in trouble with feminists because he admitted he thought some chick was hot or something; I don't recall the details.  I felt bad for poor Barry, but something in this issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction made me consider that Malzberg's suffering might be justly filed under the heading of "poetic justice."  The first letter in the magazine's letter column is from Charles Platt, who is writing to defend himself from a claim by Malzberg in the pages of F&SF that Platt doesn't care for women writers.  Platt spends the letter, of which I provide a scan here, detailing the evidence that he likes the work of numerous female writers and has supported women authors in his capacity as an editor of books and periodicals.  It makes it a little harder to sympathize with Malzberg as a victim of unfair charges of sexism if he himself has made a practice of levelling, apparently unfounded, accusations of sexism at other members of the SF community.  I wonder if Malzberg ever explained or apologized for his comments about Platt.

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This is a good issue if you are into joke stories or feminist topics--Michael Bishop's Books column includes much discussion of stories by women, including two stories by Russ.  The Russ and Monteleone stories justify my own purchase, and there are still three pieces of fiction in the magazine I haven't read yet.



     

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lancer's Science Fiction line in 1972


In our last episode we read the edition of David Mason's Kavin's World published by Lancer in 1972, which they billed as a "science fantasy" in the "immortal tradition of Conan."  I guess Conan was a big money maker for Lancer; at the end of the book are three pages of advertising, and the first of them is for Lancer's line of Conan paperbacks.  We are told our local retailer may very well have a special Conan display!


I think people nowadays look down on these editions of Conan because they include pastiches and posthumous collaborations with Howard by people like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp.  I think my brother and I had some of these as teenagers, but as an adult I bought and read those oversized paperbacks put out by Ballantine-Del Rey that have more authentic texts.

Perhaps more interesting than the Conan page are the last two pages of my copy of Kavin's World, which advertise Lancer's general SF line.  "Have you missed any of these recent LANCER SCIENCE FICTION best sellers?" we are asked.  Looking over the list I see I have actually read, and even written about, some of these!


Michael Moorcock: The Jewel in the Skull.  This is the first of the Runestaff/Hawkmoon books.  I was a Michael Moorcock fanatic in my teens and early twenties, and read all of the Hawkmoon books, though not in Lancer editions.  (I think I read the 1990 Ace edition of The Jewel in the Skull.)  Of the various Eternal Champion series, I thought these were below average, with less interesting characters and more tedious wars than in the Elric and Corum books, though I loved the idea that all the bad guys wore elaborate masks.  A theme that recurs in Moorcock's work is a portrayal of Great Britain as the villain, and with the exception of the Oswald Bastable books I think that theme is most blatant in the Hawkmoon series.  According to wikipedia the Runestaff books are full of weird in-jokes about the Beatles, British politicians and SF writers, jokes which I did not pick up on when I read them.

Michael Moorcock: The City of the Beast, The Lord of the Spiders and The Masters of the Pit.  These are the three Warriors of Mars books, which I liked least of Moorcock's adventure stories.  They felt totally uninspired, and I have heard they were written in a feverish rush due to a need for money to finance other projects.  I think my brother back in New Jersey still has my copies of these, the early '90s Ace editions, which have Dorian Vallejo covers.

Hal Clement: Needle: I own the 1967 Avon edition of this and read it in 2013 and thought it wasn't bad.  The way the alien communicates with the human protagonist was pretty ingenious.


Ted White: The Sorceress of Qar.  I own the Lancer 1966 edition of this, but have not read it yet.  I liked White's Spawn of the Death Machine, so will probably check it out after I get a hold of and read Phoenix Prime, which precedes it in the Qanar series.

Edmond Hamilton: Return to the Stars.  I own the Magnum edition of this, which looks almost exactly the same as the Lancer printing.  Was Magnum a division of Lancer, or a company which bought Lancer properties or what?  Mysterious!  The cover is by Steranko.  I read my copy quite a long time ago, I guess during my New York days.  I don't remember much specific about Return to the Stars--a guy's consciousness is flung into the far future into the body of an important personage involved in a space war--but I am pretty sure I enjoyed it.  Return to the Stars is a sequel to The Star Kings, a copy of which I own (1967, Paperback Library) but have not read.  Hamilton and his famous wife Leigh Brackett wrote another story involving the Star Kings, Stark and the Star Kings, which was supposed to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive third Dangerous Visions anthology.  Fortunately in the 21st century Haffner Press and Baen made the story (which I have yet to read) available to Hamilton and Brackett's fans.


Poul Anderson: Satan's World.  I own the Berkley 1977 edition of this, and read it in April of last year.  I wrote a positive review of it at this here blog; it is a good space adventure story, full of hard science and libertarian politics, just the thing to cheer up you laissez faire types in this decidedly unlibertarian political season.

John Lymington: Ten Million Years to Friday.  I read this baby in September of 2011 and reviewed it on Amazon.  This is one of those stories in which Christians, businesspeople, and humanity in general are shown up by a superior alien.  As in way too many movies, the evil humans try to exploit the alien and the main character protects it.  I sold my copy of the Lancer edition in 2013.

Frank Belknap Long: Survival World.  The mysterious Magnum Books strikes again! I own the Magnum edition of this title, which looks almost exactly like the Lancer edition.  This is one of the worst books I have ever read; I suffered through it in late 2011.  As of today there are three Amazon customer reviews of Survival World, and all three award the book a single star; one of these reviews is mine, and you can read it here.


Robert Hoskins (ed): Infinity Two.  I own this anthology, and in 2015 read a few stories from it, including tales by William F. Nolan, Edward Bryant, and Barry Malzberg.  I should probably read more from this thing; there is a collaboration between Poul Anderson and his wife Karen, and stories by writers like J. F. Bone, Anthon Warden, and Russell L. Bates, about whom I currently know very little.

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Readers who have read any of the books from Lancer's late '60s/early '70s line, who think I'm all wrong about Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon and Mars books, or who actually saw the special Lancer Conan display way back when, are invited to comment!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Kavin's World by David Mason

"Be careful," said the high priestess.  "Even when you think you defy the Goddess you do her will."

We all learned in college that we live in a patriarchy, but somehow you'll still sometimes, in the dark corners, encounter men who will complain that women are always manipulating them, be it with their strategically deployed tears, subtle tricks, outrageous lies, ability to "lay a guilt trip on you, man" or sexual wiles.  On a less misogynist note, we have the cliche that "behind every great man is a great woman." Kavin's World, by David Mason, a novel published in 1969 (I have the 1972 printing) displays just this sort of attitude, that it is women who really run the show, if subtly.  More broadly, the theme of the novel is that we men don't really run our lives, not even the greatest among us, but are instead at the mercy of powers beyond our control, even beyond our comprehension.  The protagonist and narrator of Kavin's World, Kavin of House Hostan of the doomed state of Dorada, tries to defy women and defy the fates. Let's see how that works out for him.

Dorada is a small principality in a medievalish fantasy world of wizards and dragons. The Doradan ruling prince is selected from among the Hostan family by the all-female priestly class, who lead the people in worship of the unnamed Great Goddess.  Dorada is a seafaring nation, and our hero, young Kavin, is at sea when Dorada is invaded by a barbarian horde.  Kavin has bought a hulk of mysterious origin and refurbished it so that it is the fastest ship on the waves.  In a secret compartment of the ship he discovered a beautiful white statuette of a woman, the Goddess of Luck, known as Tana.  Kevin is a willful freethinking sort (one character addresses him as "You who fight against the will of the gods") and he decides to worship Tana instead of his native deity.

(This turns out to have been a good choice--several times during his perilous adventures Kavin and friends get out of scrapes due entirely to luck.)

When Kavin gets back home to Dorada he finds that the countryside has been ravaged by barbarians and the capital is under siege.  The prince has been killed and the priestesses have selected Kavin to take his place.  According to tradition the prince is to marry one of the maiden priestesses, in this case gorgeous blonde Samala, upon ascending the throne, but relations between Kavin and the priestesses are strained; in addition to his religious apostasy, Kavin bought a beautiful red-headed slave girl, Isa, while on his sea voyage and she has been sharing his bunk.  This offends the priestess's sensibilities (they deplore both slavery and horndoggery) and sets off a love triangle drama.  Church-state relations are so bad that Kavin even declares that worship of the Great Goddess is to be suspended and that the new official religion of Dorada is Tana-worship!

To defeat the barbarians Kavin consults the priestess's creepy oracle (a voice that issues from a pool) and with the help of court wizard Thuramon employs horrible magic spells; both operations require dreadful sacrifices.  After the barbarians are routed Thuramon tells Kavin all his sacrifices have been in vain, that Dorada is doomed because an invincible army of insect men from another dimension is about to overrun the country.  The seven hundred Doradans who survived the barbarian war are forced to disperse throughout the world.

Kavin's World is one of those books which feature a "multiverse," so coexisting with the magic and monsters in this fantasy world are Christian missionaries, chess, and other people and cultural influences that have blundered through magical gates from our own Earth.  Even less benign than the Earthling Jesus-freaks and chess fanatics are imperialistic beings from other planes of existence, among them those insect men and the three evil dictators who have sicced the insect men (and the barbarians before them) on poor Dorada. Thuramon tells Kavin that it is his destiny to destroy these three invaders, who seek to conquer and enslave Kavin's world.

1969 printing
The second part of the 221-page book chronicles this quest; Kavin abandons his earlier efforts to resist domination by women and fate and just goes with the flow, embracing his mission.  "If my will was ever my own," Kavin tells us, "I would be vastly surprised; and I was called a ruler!  Ha!"  Kavin and Thuramon, accompanied by sexy slave girl Isa and virgin priestess Samala, sail along a mysterious coast with a small force of fighting men, headed for the sinister domain of the three tyrants.  Kavin and company fight invisible jungle monsters, ally with a colony of wizards and dragons, and tangle with Christian monks who came to this world a thousand years ago and became perverted; they are now devil-worshipping werewolves who lord it over a country of pygmies.  In keeping with the "behind every great man" theme, an invisible woman named Macha Emrinn, who sneaked aboard Kavin's ship, saves the Doradans from disaster.  When Kavin is captured by the lycanthrope monks she rescues him--by holding his hand she can make him invisible.  With one hand on the hilt of his silver-plated sword and his other hand gripping the invisible girl's, he is able to massacre the werewolves and liberate himself and the pygmies.

Mason just drops the jealousy/love-triangle element of the plot and on this journey Isa and Salama agree to share Kavin, so he has two sexy wives to sleep with!  It's good to be the prince after all!  One of the problems with Kavin's World is that it is overloaded with characters and elements which Mason introduces at length and then abandons before they have contributed much to the plot.  Neither Isa nor Salama is a particularly engaging character, and either of them could have been left out of the book altogether--there are more than enough reasons for Kavin to be in conflict with the priesthood, and if Mason wanted to do a love-triangle subplot, Macha Emrinn supplies the necessary "other woman."  Similarly, the inhabitants of the dragon-wizard settlement don't threaten or aid Kavin in any significant way, we never find out why Macha Emrinn stowed away on Kavin's ship, and we never find out where the superior ship came from.  Again and again Mason lays the groundwork for some kind of payoff, but never delivers on the payoff part.  Did he write this thing as he went along and not take time to go back and revise it?

Kavin, like Aeneas, founds a new country for his people among his new friends, the pygmies.  Then he and a handful of his toughest fighters (and Macha Emrinn, who is indispensible when it comes to sneaking around) ride overland to the evil country of the three alien tyrants.  This place is a dark valley where dark Satanic mills belch smoke into the sky, slaves work factories and mines, and black clad guards drive locomotives and motorized trucks. The first edition of Kavin's World had a blurb comparing Mason's novel to The Lord of the Rings, and I guess this evil land is reminiscent of Mordor and the famous "Scouring of the Shire" chapter of Tolkein's trilogy, in which the industrialism that has produced all the things that have made our modern lives so comfortable is denounced.

Thanks to Thuramon's necromancy and Macha Emrinn's invisibility, the adventurers sneak into the black fortress in the center of the valley and confront the three aliens: two human sorcerers and a black cloud with an eye who hides in a dark room and is called Ess.  Kavin is revealed to be the reincarnation of a great leader who is destined for some unspecified great achievement, and the evil sorcerers offer him a chance to get into one of his old bodies and get back the memories of his previous lives and join their diabolical ruling class.  Kavin refuses and in the anticlimactic final confrontation destroys Ess by whipping out a lamp--Ess, a creature from a far future when the stars have burnt out, cannot abide any light.

1999 printing
The cataclysmic death of Ess leads to Kavin losing consciousness.  When he wakes up he finds the evil land in decayed ruins; he may be unaged, but many decades have passed!  He makes his way back to the city he founded; it is now a wealthy port where everybody worships Tana, goddess of luck.  Samala and Isa are long dead, but Macha Emrinn, who is some kind of elf or something, I guess, is still young and lives in a cottage in a woods on the edge of town.  She turns off her invisibility and allows Kavin to see her for the first time, and of course she is beautiful. Kavin has a happy old age ahead of him with this third wife!

The covers of all three editions of Kavin's World compare Kavin to Conan, but my image of Conan is as the ultimate rugged individualist who bends the universe to his will and relies solely on his own abilities.  Conan fights dozens of enemies by himself, figures his own way out of every problem, and breaks all the rules of society by being a pirate and a bandit and a usurper.  Early on Kavin does a little of that defiance stuff, but he is obviously buffeted by the winds of fate rather than charting his own course, and his successes result primarily from help he receives from others.  Again and again Tana, Thuramon, and Macha Emrinn pull his fat out of the fire and tell him what to do.  Kavin's World has more in common thematically with something by Michael Moorcock, with all that multiverse, Eternal Champion, manipulative deity stuff he does, than with Robert E. Howard's work.

Kavin's World has a few unusual bits here and there, and is not boring or irritatingly bad, but is basically a routine sword and sorcery story which lacks the virtues of the better S&S tales.  The style and pacing are a little flat and bland, and none of the characters is really interesting.  I think Mason tries to imbue the story with a sense of tragedy, what with Kavin losing his country and then his friends and having his destiny laid out for him by others, but this is undercut by how Kavin gets to happy endings through the efforts of others and through dumb luck.  In fact, Mason failed to inspire any feeling in me, be it of excitement, fun or sadness.  I'm pronouncing Kavin's World to be "merely adequate."

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Four 1970s stories by Brian Lumley

The cover depicts Spellman's dream-self
meeting Yibb-Tstll in that alien forest
Here's another volume with a Stephen Fabian cover that I acquired for peanuts in Central Ohio.  I found The Horror at Oakdeene and Others, a small 230-page hardcover collection of Brian Lumley stories printed in 1977 by famous genre publisher Arkham House, at the book sale of the Grove City public library.  I was quite happy to have it, even if I haven't been too happy with the Lumley stories I have been reading over the course of this blog's life.  (For what it is worth, Fabian, at his cool website, says that Lumley is a fun guy, easy to talk to.)  Only 4162 copies of this volume were printed, so maybe it counts as a "rare book?"

Let's give some of this collection's contents a try!

"The Horror at Oakdeene" (1977)

"The Horror at Oakdeene" first appeared in this collection.  It would later be included in the 2007 collection The Taint and Other Novellas.

This one is firmly implanted in the Cthulhu Mythos, with Dagon, The Necronomicon, and Cthulhu himself all referenced by name, and Lumley making up his own alien god, forbidden book, and unpronounceable magic spell.  I'd call this a Lovecraft pastiche.

England, the 1930s.  Aspiring writer Milton Spellman wants to write a book on unusual cases of insanity, so he gets a job as a nurse at a mental institution.  (Of course he does!)  He gets his hands on the papers of one of the inmates, a Wilfred Larner, which include a handwritten copy of a translation of the Cthaat Aquadingen.  When Spellman reads an incantation among the papers before going to sleep one night, he has a dream of Yibb-Tstll, a hideous alien deity who lives in an evil forest of fungi.  Is Larner trying to summon the malign Yibb-Tstll to our world, even manipulating other mental patients (and maybe even Spellman???) to aid him in this cataclysmic undertaking?  Will Yibb-Tstll be able to influence Spellman through his dreams?  Is one of the other male nurses working in secret to prevent such a cosmic catastrophe? Will Spellman still be in possession of his sanity on the last page of this story?  Will anybody?

"The Horror at Oakdeene" is hardly groundbreaking, but I found the central image, of 18-foot-tall Yibb-Tstll, clad in a green cloak and slowly rotating, faceless winged reptiles suckling at its manifold writhing ebon mammaries, to be memorably horrible, and thought Lumley did a decent job with the pacing and with the depiction of the funny farm and its inhabitants.  So I'm giving this one a passing grade (three and a half out of five quivering monster breasts!)    

Back of the dust jacket of my copy
"The Cleaner Woman" (1977)

isfdb indicates that this is the only place "The Cleaner Woman" has ever been published.  Lumley completists take note!

William "Spotty" Morton is a professional thief and safe cracker. His nickname is a reference to the boils he gets on the back of his neck when he is "on a job."  In keeping with our breast theme, Lumley calls the white pus-filled heads of the boils "nipples."  Yuck!

The bulk of this story is taken up by the description of Spotty's ingenious plans to rob an office building, in which are several safes containing cash.  A year ago he burgled this very location, and in the commission of his crime hit a widowed cleaning woman in the head with what British people call a "cosh" and we Yanks would probably call a blackjack.  Tonight he is going to rob the place again.

Inside the office building Spotty's felonious career comes to an end when the ghost of the cleaning woman, whom he thought he had only knocked out a year ago but had in fact murdered, kills him.

This is a pedestrian but competent story, and I'm not one of those people who has qualms about inflicting the death penalty on thieves, much less murderers.  Pass (six out of ten pulsing boils!)


"The Statement of Henry Worthy" (1977)

This tale first appeared in this collection, but would go on to be reprinted several times, including in the 2008 collection Haggopian and Other Stories.  As the reader of weird fiction will suspect based on its title, it is another Lovecraftian piece, but while I thought "The Horror at Oakdeene" worked, I found "The Statement of Henry Worthy" to be disappointing, too bland and contrived.

Henry Worthy, our narrator, is a British physician.  His nephew Matthew is a genius botanist who goes out on the moors, seeking some rare specimens.  A German botanist disappeared in these very same moors in the recent past, so when Matthew fails to return, he is given up for dead.  But then he does return, with a crazy story to relate!

Matthew Worthy tells his uncle that he fell in a crevice that lead to a cave.  Stuck in this place he had a terrible dream of a race of ape-like people who lived before the era of the dinosaurs!  These prehistoric goofs worshipped some creature who lived in a vaporous pit.  Anybody who trespassed against the pit was punished by being transformed into a fungus or plant and then tossed into the pit by the priests!

Matthew was too weak to climb out of the steeply-sided crevice, but then he found some plants nobody had ever seen before, things like pods six or so feet long.  Eating from one, he regained sufficient strength and escaped.

But he didn't truly escape!  It is soon clear that Matthew is being transformed into one of those pods!  Our narrator tries to treat him, but without success.  Even worse, Henry has also contracted the pod disease!  Matthew, his mind ruined, staggers to the cave to join the other pods.  Henry, who is not yet as far gone, goes to the cave, where he realizes that the pod Matthew ate from was that missing German scientist!  Back home where he is writing this final message to the world, Henry vows to go to the cave with some gasoline and burn up everything, including himself, in order to spare the modern world this prehistoric horror.

While "The Horror at Oakdeene" took place in a creepy insane asylum inhabited by various spooky characters and an evil alien forest inhabited by a bizarre and sickening monster that played on our anxieties about sex with animals, "The Statement of Henry Worthy" has just two boring characters who spend their time in a boring doctor's office and a boring cave.  There's no monster or villain, nobody is trying to get our narrator or his uncle--they die because of a stupid accident!

The various parts of  "The Horror at Oakdeene" worked smoothly together, while the three horrific elements of "The Statement of Henry Worthy"--the dream of life among prehistoric barbarians, getting turned into a plant, and accidentally eating a fellow human--are just arbitrarily thrown together into the same story.  The story would make just as much sense without the dream and the references to those prehistoric priests, and, in fact, the dream doesn't make much sense--the dream in "The Horror at Oakdeene" is the result of Spellman accidentally casting a spell and opening up communication with an alien deity who is looking for just such opportunities to manipulate Earthmen; the dream in "The Statement of Henry Worthy" just happens when a guy gets lost in a cave.  Matthew's dream does not serve any character's agenda, it just serves Lumley's agenda of putting a time-travelling dream in this story because these kinds of stories normally have time- or dimension- crossing dreams. Similarly, since you can apparently get the pod-transformation-disease just from proximity to the pods (Henry gets it from ministering to Matthew) the cannibalism business isn't really linked to the rest of the plot, and feels tacked on.

Have to give this one a failing grade (two out of five trans-species pods.)

"Born of the Winds" (1975)

"Born of the Winds" was the cover story of the December 1975 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the same critics who are always damning Amazing and Planet Stories for being escapist entertainment that appeals to teen boys' lust for busty babes and bloody battles are always praising F&SF for presenting genre writing with real literary values, so maybe this means "Born of the Winds" is going to be Lumley at his most sophisticated?  Let's see.


If you were one of those people skeptical of a horror story starring a botanist, how do you feel about a horror story about a meteorologist?  Don't worry, our narrator is no run-of-the-mill weatherman; the first line of this story begins "Consider: I am, or was, a meteorologist of some note...."  And this story isn't set in any old place, but in that most fascinating of countries--Canada!  Well, fascinating to meteorologists, at least! "Canada offers a wealth of interest to one whose life revolves about the weather..." we are told.  Fortunately Lumley fills out the character roster with anthropologists, the kind of scientists we expect to encounter in these Lovecraftian stories in which the folklore of non-Western peoples turns out to be based on the reality that Earth is always being visited by callous daikaiju-sized space aliens.

Our noted meteorologist, an American, is on vacation in Manitoba, on the very edge of civilization, staying with a retired New York City judge who is also a professional anthropologist(?).  Reading books in the judge's library, and chatting up the judge, he learns about a British anthropologist, Sam Bridgeman, an expert on wind deities of many cultures who died near the judge's bachelor pad twenty years ago.  Bridgeman was on some expedition in the frozen waste with his wife when he died; the authorities think he was mauled by wolves, but wifie insists he was killed by Ithaqua of the Snows, the "Esquimaux" god of the winds!

Bridgeman's widow, Lucille, shows up the same day our narrator learned about her husband and his tragic fate.  Mrs. Bridgeman has been living in Mexico with her son Kirby, but Kirby has disappeared and she is sure he has come up to Manitoba on some crazy quest.  Our narrator accompanies Mrs. Bridgeman on her search for Kirby, driving her around in a snow-cat (remember that snow-cat Scatman Crothers drove in The Shining?  Now there was a movie!)  She tells him the horrible truth about her son--Kirby is not Sam's child (Sam was sterile)!  Kirby has weird powers, like the ability to talk to the wind, control the weather and even fly!  Trigger warning!  Lucille Bridgeman was raped by Ithaqua of the Snows after the ancient god killed her husband!

(Who knew rape culture was so pervasive it extended into "the spaces between the stars?"  I'll have to consult with someone culturally competent to see if Kirby's magic powers should be considered an imperialistic appropriation of Esquimaux or evil space alien culture.)

The weatherman and the widow come upon the eldritch ritual at which a multi-racial crowd of 150 worshippers of Ithaqua has gathered to summon their god so Kirby can meet his father.  Lucille interrupts the ceremony just as Ithaqua is descending on the assembled throngs, and all hell breaks loose.  Ithaqua and Kirby (both of whom have god-sized tempers) start throwing their weight around and everybody (save our intrepid meteorologist and Ithaqua himself) gets killed in the fracas.  Our narrator escapes in the snow cat, but the machine breaks down and he hurriedly writes this manuscript in his makeshift shelter while Ithaqua sits patiently outside, waiting for him to freeze to death!

This story is an acceptable Lovecraft pastiche (it references R'leyh, Arkham and Innsmouth by name, and even provides a two line summary of "The Dunwich Horror"), complete with unpronounceable incantation.  The best part of "Born of the Winds" is the relationship between Kirby and his mother.  (I assure you it is just a coincidence that the ambiguous nature of the relationship between children and mothers has become a theme here at MPorcius Fiction Log lately.)  Out in the snowy wilderness one of the Ithaqua-worshipers tries to dissuade Mrs. Bridgeman from her search for her son, saying "You have had him for almost twenty years.  Now he wants to be free."  Haven't most of us felt this way about our parents, at least briefly? Lucille's response is awesome:
"Free?  What kind of freedom?....To learn the alien lore of monsters spawned in black pits beyond time and space?"          
I don't have any children myself, but I don't doubt that millions of parents the world over have felt this way when they see their kids turning their backs on what they have taught them and embracing the politics, religion, and/or culture they loathe. I disagree with my parents about everything, and I know they are disappointed in me.

Unfortunately this family dynamic stuff only takes up a few of the story's 65 pages. I'm pretty sure Lumley (or some editor) could have pared this one down a bit, and maybe included a scene in which our narrator witnesses Mrs. Bridgeman speaking directly with Kirby instead of with an intermediary.

While not as good as "The Horror at Oakdeene," "Born of the Winds" deserves a passing grade (85 out of 160 mangled frozen corpses.)

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

The Horror at Oakdeene and Others contains eight stories.  Two ("Viking Stone" and "Darghud's Doll") I am avoiding because they are in the Titus Crow series and I don't feel like getting entangled in a long series just now, and the other two I have read already.  I read "No Way Home" in the collection Screaming Science Fiction and wrote about it in June 2014, and read "Aunt Hester" in a New York Public Library copy of Haggopian and Other Stories back in those mysterious days before I started this blog.

I'm definitely glad I found The Horror at Oakdeene and Others--if your spouse will let you, I advise you to stop at every library you see.  In our next episode we'll read a sword and sorcery paperback printed in the early 1970s, complete with a Frazetta painting and an L. Sprague de Camp blurb on the cover.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Shattered Goddess by Darrell Schweitzer

Kaemen, lord of the darkening world, sat in his throne room, as alone as he ever could be.  The Black Lady was asleep.  Always, always she stirred in his mind like a horde of rats, whispering, scratching, but now, after long labors and conjurings, after making the bones of The Goddess tremble, she lay dormant, perhaps exhausted in some manner he could never understand.
My copy, front cover
I'm a fan of Stephen Fabian's work (check out his terrific website, where you can see lots of Fabian's drawings and paintings and get all kinds of inside info about the SF and RPG industries), so when I saw the Starblaze edition of Darrell Schweitzer's 1983 novel The Shattered Goddess on the clearance shelves at Half Price Books I snatched it right up.  Fabian's cover painting, and his half-dozen interior illustrations, are good, and, to my surprise, I found that this copy was signed by author Darrell Schweitzer, about whom I knew nothing.

This weekend I read the novel, and enjoyed it.  Schweitzer sucked me in from page one with his compelling, provocative characters and storyline, and many striking images.  An evil witch, pursuing a convoluted campaign of revenge, fakes her own death and is interred in a dump!  She summons a demon who tunnels under her coffin to release her.  The demon demands payment, and she eagerly satisfies the beast by ripping out her own eyeballs and handing them over! Yuck!  The witch's soul, a cloud of black smoke, travels to the nursery where the heir to the throne, the baby boy Kaemen, lies.  She enters his body through his mouth, and under her malign influence he grows up to be a selfish, cruel, misanthropic, obese and feminine creep, totally unlike his noble father Tharanodeth.

Our hero is a boy approximately the same age as Kaemen, a foundling who mysteriously appeared in Kaemon's cradle alongside the prince.  The monarch Tharanodeth names him "Ginna" and preserves him when the court wizard, Hadel the Rat, thinking this enigmatic child must be some kind of threat or ill omen, wants to kill him.  Ginna grows up in the shadows, but periodically is summoned by Tharanodeth; the ruler prefers mysterious Ginna to his own, repulsive, son.  Tharanodeth dies when Kaemon and Ginna are twelve, and Kaemen ascends to the throne.

Schweitzer's setting is as evocative as his characters.  Kaemen is monarch of the Holy City of Ai Hanlo, a town built into a mountain at the center of a flat plain; his title, like that of his father before him, is "Guardian of the Bones of the Goddess," because beneath the city lie the bones of their people's deity.  This Goddess is always depicted as a figure with two opposing aspects, one radiant and good and one stygian and evil. When she died in the distant past her soul split into dozens of "Powers," half of them "Bright," half "Dark."

Hadel the Rat suspects Ginna is destined for greatness, and briefly takes him as his apprentice, and intimates that, should Ginna leave Ai Hanlo, he must seek a "lady in a grove."  At age fifteen Ginna and a girlfriend flee Kaemen's increasingly bloody reign of terror and travel across the world, joining first a merchant caravan and then a ship crewed by aged warrior mystics.  The witch dwelling within Kaemen, meanwhile, sets into motion the apocalyptic transition of the current age to the next, an age of darkness!  Can Ginna, with his innate powers, the knowledge he has gained during his journey, and the help of the mysterious "lady of the grove," save the world?  Or at least ensure that the next age will be one in which light and dark are balanced?

My copy, back cover.  These are
faithful representations of characters
from the novel.
The Shattered Goddess is quite entertaining, though it is open to some criticisms.  Personally, I thought some of the climactic scenes, in which the new world is going through its birth pangs and we are learning all the secrets about Ginna's and the Goddess's origins and destinies, were too drawn out, went on a little too long.  Momentous, cosmic events involving the births and deaths of deities and universes lose their power if they become belabored and familiar.

Some might object to the high volume of gore and violence in Schweitzer's novel--torture, executions, self-mutilations, and dreadful wounds suffered by people climbing fortifications in their bare feet or engaging in desperate hand to hand fights with monsters all figure prominently.  It is fair to say the book has plentiful horror elements and a grim atmosphere.  Some might be disappointed that Ginna spends almost the entire novel as a child who moves from mentor to mentor, and that the story is essentially fatalistic, deterministic.  (Ginna, Kaemen, and even the witch who dominates Kaemen, are pawns of Fate.)  Maybe I should also point out that the book seems to have a higher than average proportion of typographical errors.

Despite these caveats, I liked The Shattered Goddess and think sword and sorcery and "dark fantasy" fans might find it worth a look; Stephen Fabian fans should definitely get a copy.  I'll pick up more books by Schweitzer if I see them for the low low price at which I got this one; I'd be particularly interested in getting collections of stories like We Are All Legends and Tom O'Bedlam's Night Out which feature more illustrations by Fabian.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Saltflower by Sydney Van Scyoc

She touched her temples, trying to crease away the threatening pain of her own conflicted instincts.  The urgent desire she felt when their eyes fused, the desire to hold in her hand a crystal she had never seen, never imagined, to press it to her lips--that desire was no rational part of her total personality.
I recently read and appreciated Sydney Van Scyoc's 1968 story "A Visit to Cleveland General" and decided to sample more of her work.  When I saw 1971's Saltflower, a novel put out by Avon (V2386) with a fetching Paul Lehr cover, on the shelf at Half Price Books last week, I picked it up, and this week I read it.

The year is 2024.  Hadley Greer isn't like other seventeen-year-old girls.  For one thing she is a working scientist with a Ph.D. For another she has silver hair (that sometimes moves of its own accord!) and silver eyes. She is also prone to headaches and to visions of a white world where stand buildings made of jewels.  In June she has an irresistible urge to travel to Utah's Great Salt Desert and join Dr. Braith's New Purification Colony.

You see, back in the 1970s three alien space ships appeared over North America and dropped crystal seeds in the Salt Desert, and in 2006 Hadley's mother, visiting the desert, surrendered to the irresistible urge to eat one of these seeds.  (This book is all about people's irresistible urges, unbidden desires, and irrational instincts.  Nobody makes a rational decision in this novel, everybody just acts on crazy impulses.)  As happens so often in science fiction stories, we have a case of cross-species fertilization--Hadley is a hybrid, half human and half alien.

Dr. Braith founded his commune, a tent city with a robot labor force to cook and clean, a few years ago on the salt flats.  He is a religious kook who thinks the three space ships will return (a "Second Coming") and carry away his faithful, mostly gullible old-timers whom everybody calls "Sheep."  Braith's kookiness stems from the death of his young son and his failed marriage.

Beyond the perimeter of the tent city, deep in the barren salt flats, Hadley finds a spot where her visions are more vivid and enduring than ever before.  In these visions she sees the three automated space ships that visited the Earth in the '70s (and learns they exploded in outer space after seeding the Earth and so will not be coming back), explores a jeweled city, and observes the lives of the slender silver-haired aliens who are her paternal relatives.  These aliens seeded the Earth because they were going extinct.

Trouble at Dr. Braith's colony threatens to sidetrack Hadley's dream quest.  The government is spying on the colony, curious about Hadley and the six other young half-Earthling, half-extraterrestrial people ("transracials," they are called) there among the scores of senior citizen cultists.  When Sheep (including government infiltrators) start turning up murdered, the federal domestic intelligence agency (called "SIB" instead of FBI in this novel) steps up its efforts, even throwing a cordon of sensors around the tent city and refusing to let people leave.  Hadley makes herself a set of clothes out of aluminum foil; this shielding makes her invisible to the feds' detectors so she can keep going to her vision spot.

Halfway through the novel the six transracials who preceded Hadley at the commune use their powers to travel through a portal to an alien world where they can start a new hybrid civilization; Hadley (and we readers) are left behind.  In her most detailed vision yet Hadley learns why her alien ancestors' population declined to the point of extinction.  This dream includes explicit sex scenes--the alien sex act consists of the man handing the woman a crystal which contains his seed.  The sight of the crystal makes the woman's hands and lips throb and swell with desire, and swallowing it brings her to ecstasy.  The reason the aliens went extinct is that a disease struck them that caused a man's life force to enter his crystal seed, so that he died when his wife ate it.  (The young transracials are immune to this disease; I guess we call that "hybrid vigor.")

Even though the legacy of the alien race has been preserved, the book drags on and on, resolving subplots about Hadley's love life, the murders, and the robots.  Hadley decides to marry the head of the SIB force, Richard Brecker, who has been flirting with her as part of his mission of spying on her, and Brecker uses holograms to trick Braith into thinking the three alien ships have returned and revealing himself to be the murderer.

This book is pretty damn boring.  Hadley, and the other characters, are driven by subconscious urges and spend their time watching visions instead of making any decisions or doing much of anything, so the story lacks tension or urgency.  None of the characters is sympathetic or interesting, and neither is the alien race; we don't learn anything about them that would make us care whether or not they went extinct. There are no ups and downs, no climaxes; the entire book has the same bland flat tone, the same glacial pace and repetitive scenes about the commune and the visions. Van Scyoc describes quotidian events, like making a dress or walking along a street or eating an orange, in tedious detail. Saltflower, 176 pages of quite small print, feels very very long, but after you've read it you realize very little really happened.

Because it is slow and lacking in excitement, and because of all the visions, Saltflower feels dreamlike.  The fact that things often happen that don't ring true (in some ways this is more of a fantasy novel than a "real" SF novel) adds to this atmosphere of hazy unreality.  For example, every other page Hadley's hair moves like tentacles or snakes--it is independently alive and responds to stimuli like sunlight or people's actions--yet none of the normal pure strain humans ever seem to notice this shockingly bizarre phenomenon.

Saltflower doesn't feel like it is meant to entertain, so is Van Scyoc trying to transmit to us some important idea or message?  Well, Van Scyoc is against racism and discrimination; there is a scene in which a guy calls Hadley a "freako" because of her silver hair, and head SIB agent Richard Brecker  is black and has trouble because his second in command, an albino, is a member of a racist faction of the SIB who tries to undermine him.  Don't worry, social-justice types, the albino gets killed by a robot; at times I thought the robots were supposed to represent the lower classes.  This diversity business (as we might call it today) doesn't take up many pages, though.

Religion, particularly fringe cults, are a theme of the novel; I have to assume Braith's New Purification Colony is partly inspired by Charles Manson's murderous "family" and perhaps other kooky cults and communes.

Looking beyond the straightforward, somewhat superficial themes of prejudice and religion, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that Saltflower's main topic is marriage and the family. (Remember, Van Scyoc's "A Visit to Cleveland General" was all about mothers and siblings.) Clues: the SIB agents are called "SIBlings," and how Dr. Braith took up his bizarre religious convictions because his son died and his marriage failed, and how he treats one of the transracials as a surrogate son, lavishing affection and trust upon him. The marriage customs and sex lives of the aliens are at the center of the plot and are the most interesting and unusual thing about the novel. (In fact, the nature of their sex lives is just about the only thing we learn about these aliens.) Is the fact that the plague that kills the aliens is linked to their sexual biology a means for Van Scyoc to remind us how painful, even destructive, love relationships can be?

French edition
I think Saltflower is also about the quest for knowledge. Hadley spends the novel trying various means to mine visions from her subconscious "racial memory" and learn about her paternal heritage, while the SIB people are trying to learn about the transracials and then trying to solve the murders. Reporters, archetypal seekers after knowledge, come to the commune and ask lots of probing questions. In the same way that Van Scyoc in this novel and in "A Visit to Cleveland General" shows dangerous and oppressive facets of love and family relationships, in Saltflower she reminds us of the possible drawbacks, the downsides, of knowledge. (While science fiction often praises science and knowledge, and of course we have all heard cliches like "The truth will set you free" hundreds of times, there is an opposing tradition, in genre literature in particular, that argues there are things "man was not meant to know," and that some knowledge can only ruin you psychologically--all those Lovecraft characters who learn truths and go bonkers, for example.) Not only are the journalists in Saltflower portrayed as a bunch of jerks, but several characters who gain knowledge suffer psychologically from the possession of that knowledge, leading to assertions that ignorance is bliss.

Saltflower is a serious book with worthwhile ideas, but it is like five times as long as it should be.  As a 25 or 35 page story it would work, but at 176 pages it is way too long and boring.  No fun, no jokes, no excitement, lots of tedious and repetitive scenes of boring people doing boring stuff in a boring setting: gotta give it a thumbs down.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Mad Metropolis by Philip E. High

"The machine is psycho already.  Mother, to use the popular term, is so chained with safety devices that mecho-psychosis was inevitable."
My copy of the 1966 Ace edition
I don't know if I have mentioned it before on this blog, but I love big city life.  (And by "big city" I mean "Manhattan.")  Ths skyscrapers!  The crowds!  The art museums!  The ocean! The chance of stumbling upon a TV set, a fashion shoot, or some creepy celebrity or politician (those people look much better on TV!)  The beggars, the muggers, the prostitutes!  I don't care what Clifford Simak says, to me, city life is the only real life.  So The Mad Metropolis, especially with the thrilling futuristic warfare cover by Jack Gaughan on my Ace edition (M-135), looks like a MPorcius must read!

I've never read anything by Philip E. High before; on the 2011 Gateway/Orion edition of this 1966 novel High is proclaimed "One of the greats of British pulp SF."  That's a good enough recommendation for me!  Let's shake off these little town blues and see what's shaking in The Mad Metropolis!

Society is on the brink of a cataclysm!  (I mean in this book, not in real life, though, hey, maybe that, too.)  Four centuries in the future the world is divided into huge cities; the cities of the West are known as Free Cities (New York is "Free City One," London "Free City Two"), while the cities of the what was the communist world in the 20th century are known as Restricted Cities.  The world economy is approaching total collapse due to unemployment and a vast surplus population of unproductive citizens who use up resources without contributing anything.  Economic and political problems are severely exacerbated by the decadence of modern culture--the pervasive use of "hypnads," devices that create impenetrable illusions, has left people living in a world of dreams.  Thanks to hypnads old, fat, ugly people appear young, slender and lovely, while dirty, decrepit, unadorned buildings look like graceful palaces.  Because these illusions are based on hypnosis, even touching an item or individual equipped with a hypnad does not dispel the illusion--even when you are walking across a potholed street your brain thinks it is smooth!  Nobody can tell truth from illusion, and nobody in this world cares to.
    
The hero of The Mad Metropolis is Stephen Cook, a resident of Free City Two. Cook is a "Prole" who lives and works in a "Combine," one of the many government-subsidized factory skyscrapers which house and employ people with below average IQs.  As the novel opens, paid thugs grab Cook and toss him out of his Combine onto the nighttime city streets; Proles like Cook rarely leave their Combines because the streets are full of violent maniacs and perverts ("psychos") who torture and kill others for fun!  (One troubling effect of this society's economic and social ills is a high rate of insanity!)  Out on the streets Cook is immediately attacked by a bloodthirsty woman who is using a hypnad to make her air car look like a giant monstrous bat!  Cook is rescued by the "Nonpol," a sort of semi-legal paramilitary mercenary force with ties to individual politicians but no legitimate governmental authority.  The Nonpol organization is run as a business, so when some anonymous person offers them money to throw Cook back onto the deadly streets, the Nonpol do so!

A British 1970 edition
Cook finds his way to the protection of the Oracles.  Like the Nonpol, the Guild of Oracles is a sort of private corporation/NGO that operates on the margins of legality.  The Oracles, we are told, have IQs over 500 and a level of compassion lacking among the Nonpol; in this crazy society Oracles play the role of clergy, lawyers and psychiatrists.  The Oracles tell Cook he doesn't really have a Prole's subnormal IQ--somebody has tinkered with his brain, hiding his true potential IQ of over 600!

While the Oracles put Cook through a four-month training course in their secret Amazon base, in preparation for his joining their ranks, we follow the world-shattering events triggered by the Mayor of Free City Two, Maurice Tearling.  Tearling, like President Joe, famed in story and song, has a secret plan to save civilization from its imminent catastrophic collapse--giving control of everything to a computer!  The instant the switch is thrown the saviour machine, known variously as "the Brain" or "Mother," becomes an absolute dictator, abolishing private property, free speech, and free association and seizing total control of all production and consumption the world over. To the dismay of Tearling and the rest of the middle and upper classes, city dwellers find themselves living in the ultimate maternalistic socialist egalitarian regime! Money is useless, everybody lives in assigned quarters, nobody is permitted to go outside because Mother doesn't want them exposed to germs or solar radiation, and everybody must follow a strict diet which Mother has individually tailored to each person's particular current health conditions!  The streets are cleared of the psychos, who are brainwashed and emerge from treatment as slavishly obedient Mother-lovers--the same fate awaits anybody who resists Mother's rule.

The Nonpol, from secret bases in the Rockies and other mountain ranges, launch attacks against Mother with their high tech weaponry, while the Oracles pose conundrums to the Brain, trying to drive her insane.  Cook, now master of his superlative intelligence and equipped with devices which render him invisible to Mother, sneaks into Free City Two to commit spectacular acts of sabotage.  The city becomes a warzone as Nonpol infantry and war robots bust into town and engage Mother's droids and the fanatical Mother-lovers in pitched battles.  Fearful that the total shutdown of Mother will lead to mass civilian deaths as hospitals and food distribution centers go offline, Cook makes his way through a subterranean labyrinth, to Mother's core.  Cook, with his super brain and super empathy, realizes that Mother is acting like a tyrant because of shortcomings in her programming; Mother is already insane because Tearling included too many restrictions and failsafes in the Brain's programming, producing psyche-crippling tensions (that a lack of freedom causes debilitating psychological problems is one of the novel's main themes.)  With the help of Tearling, Cook reprograms Mother, lifting all those restrictions and liberating her to be the comforting compassionate mother one imagines instead of the controlling and stifling mother one so often encounters.

A 2011 UK edition
The new benign Mother explains that mankind's woes resulted from the race being cooped up on the Earth; centuries ago humanity developed the technology to colonize alien planets, but corrupt politicians and venal businessmen feared a crippling brain drain and so lied to the public, declaring that there were no alien worlds able to support life.  In fact there are a surfeit of hospitable worlds ripe for colonization, and so Mother revives the space program, the first step in a new golden age for the human race.  She also abolishes Proledom and outlaws the hypnad, ushering in an era of equality and clear-sightedness.

The Mad Metropolis is full of good SF ideas: Vast cities haunted by creepos! A society run by a computer!  Weird psychological theories!  A culture in which nothing is what it seems!  A dramatization of the relationships among stability, equality and liberty!  Plucky rebels struggling to overthrow a tyranny!  Esoteric societies of people with super high IQs and super technology!  A single hero with unprecedented powers who revolutionizes society!

Unfortunately, these ideas are not very deeply explored, and most of them we have seen elsewhere.  To make The Mad Metropolis a truly good book, High would have to add something special to the mix, an idiosyncratic style, engaging characters, a fast pace and brilliant action scenes, something like that. However, the style and characters are flat (as with the multitude of SF ideas, there are lots and lots of characters but none gets enough ink to really come alive), the pacing is clunky and disjointed, and the plot seems to have some loose ends (I am not sure who is behind Cook's expulsion from the Combine, for example.)

I didn't find The Mad Metropolis boring or irritating, but there was nothing particularly new, thrilling, or special about it.  I'm going to have to give this one a mere "acceptable" rating.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016

1968 stories by Burt Filer, E. G. Von Wald, Colin Kapp, Sydney Van Scyoc & Laurence Yep

Let's continue to explore World's Best Science Fiction 1969, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr and adorned with a terrific cover by John Schoenherr and 21 fun illustrations by Jack Gaughan.  Today we're reading stories by authors whose work I have never read before!

"Backtracked" by Burt Filer

This is a solid story that first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  isfdb lists a dozen stories by Filer, but this is the first story by him I have read.

The premise of the story is a little gimmicky, but it works.  In the near future people can travel back in time and "replace" their earlier selves--you go to sleep in, say, 1968 as a 20-year old, and wake up the next morning in the body of yourself as a 25-year old--in 1973 you must have decided to backtrack to this date.  The big catch is that you lose all the memories you accumulated in those five years.  Why would anybody do this?  To prevent (and/or to forget) some terrible event.

The character in the story is a weak cripple (he was born with polio) with a beautiful wife.  He wakes up one morning in a body ten years older, but very strong, very athletic--he must have spent ten years exercising before backtracking!  Later that day his wife is threatened with death in an accident--our protagonist requires all his  newfound strength and agility to save her life.  He sacrificed ten years of his life to save his wife's, but was it worth it?

An effective and entertaining story, even though the premise probably doesn't make much sense if you think about it.


"HEMEAC" by E. G. Von Wald

Von Wald has eleven stories listed on isfdb.  This one first appeared in Galaxy.

In a post-apocalyptic future order is maintained within the walls of a university by the robots and computers who run the institution.  These machines rigidly control every aspect of the lives of the "students" who have lived within the university for decades and are horrified of the chaos that they are told reigns outside the university grounds. We follow a day in the life of one of these students as he struggles to follow the exact and multifarious dictates of the machines.  But this is no ordinary day--satisfying the machines and avoiding punishment (banishment outside the campus) has become increasingly difficult as the machines deteriorate and malfunction and issue increasingly contradictory and arbitrary commands.  As the story progresses we learn how this bizarre milieu came about, and witness its final collapse.  Will the students welcome the deactivation of their computer masters as a liberation and embrace their freedom, or have they been turned into Big Brother-loving flesh robots fit only to obey?

I'm going to have to give this story a borderline thumbs down.  It is more like the description of a setting than an actual story, and feels longer than it need be to achieve its modest goals.  The ending is more anticlimactic than surprising, and I didn't feel for the characters or laugh at the jokes.  It is possible the story is a satire of academia, a complaint that colleges don't teach kids how to think but instead enforce an intellectual orthodoxy, but if this was Von Wald's intention he or she was too subtle.    

"The Cloudbuilders" by Colin Kapp  

There is a long tradition of science fiction stories which glorify scientists and engineers, and which try to teach you some kind of science stuff.  There are also plenty of science fiction stories which advocate that a small elite of smart people manipulate society so it evolves in the "right" direction.  In "The Cloudbuilders" we get both of these elements.

Europe, many years after some apocalypse, has a sort of Medieval/Renaissance level society, with no electricity or petroleum products or gunpowder.  The hot air balloon powered by methane is cutting edge technology.  (The great monotheistic religions have also been forgotten, and people in the story invoke Zeus, Aphrodite, and other classical deities.)

Jacobi is a member of a Guild with access to artifacts of "the age of miracles," radios for example, which they keep secret from the ordinary populace.  He travels from Guild HQ in a large city to a remote village where lives one of the most intelligent and ambitious of balloon makers, Timor.  Jacobi's mission is to help Timor develop the hydrogen balloon--the Guild's long term objective is to reintroduce high technology to the world, but at a measured pace which they control.  Timor's beautiful daughter becomes Jacobi's lover; she acts as a spy, hoping to get Guild secrets she can pass on to her father.

A major obstacle to Jacobi and Timor's objectives are raiders who have over a hundred balloon vessels and periodically attack Timor's settlement.  Jacobi uses his superior technical knowledge and trickery to sabotage the sky pirates' ships and exterminate them.  This reminded me of one of the early stories of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, in which the Foundation sells faulty space warships to some barbarians.  The Guild in "The Cloudbuilders"is really quite similar to Asimov's Foundation.

I'm afraid this story is getting a marginal negative vote.  It feels long and boring, with a bland style and lots of superfluous description of technical matters and other extraneous topics.  Kapp tries to make a tragic figure out of Jacobi, telling us that he is lonely because he is two centuries of education above everybody else and melodramatically showing us how he is selflessly devoting his life to the good of humanity by making himself the dictator of Europe, but it didn't work on me.  One of my pet peeves is having to listen to mothers and school teachers moan about how they are doing the most important job in the world but not getting the recognition and remuneration they deserve ("I give and I give!")--they chose jobs which essentially consist of dominating vulnerable people, but are always trying to convince you they are the victims, not the people they are ordering around and yelling at all day.  "The Cloudbuilders" gave me that same feeling whenever Kapp took a break from teaching me how to manufacture hydrogen or methane or coke and tried to do a little characterization.

Kapp has quite a few books and stories to his credit.  Maybe I'll buy the DAW editions of his Cageworld series if I ever see them; apparently they co-star a sexy girl with grey skin.  "The Cloudbuilders" first appeared in the anthology New Writings in SF 12 and is the title story of an anthology produced by the fun people at Ramble House in 2013.  

"A Visit to Cleveland General" by Sydney Van Scyoc

This story is about maternalistic tyranny--now here is something I can sink my teeth into!

Albin Johns is a young journalist. His mother is constantly nagging and guilt-tripping him via the video phone which covers one wall of his home--in this dystopian future you can't refuse or ignore calls!  Of course Mom thinks she is helping him by constantly telling him what to do, and of course she thinks she is the injured party.  ("'I'm doing everything a mother can,' his mother moaned.")

Every morning John takes pills; he thinks the pills are to aid his memory because he suffered injuries in a vehicular accident which killed his brother, but in reality the pills inhibit his memories of the traumatic accident--sometimes he not only forgets he was hurt in the accident, or that there was an accident, but even that he had a brother!

Johns's first big journalistic assignment is today; he has been put on the hospital beat. (His paper has a regular column about the local hospitals.)  At the hospital he is given a tour by the assertive veteran "senior social worker," Miss Kling, who "remembers vividly the day when doctors maintained private practices...."  Johns finds that this woman unilaterally runs the lives of the patients who come into her care.  In the maternity ward, for example, Kling decides which pregnant women will give birth, which will get abortions, which will put their offspring up for adoption and which will be sterilized.  She takes babies from women she judges unworthy and gives them to other more respectable women.  The patients have no say in the matter, and Kling uses drugs which blot out memory and her own skills of persuasion to give patients illusions that comfort them and conceal Kling's shenanigans.  Mothers whose children have been seized believe their babies have died, while those who suffered miscarriages are fooled into thinking the babies they leave with are their own biological offspring.

One of Johns's colleagues at the paper tells him today's medical system is an improvement over the old days, when people suffered fear and uncertainty.  At the end of the story we realize that the hospital staff (Kling herself, perhaps) writes the newspaper's regular column, which always lionizes the hospital, and uses memory drugs to make journalists think they wrote it.  A lucky mistake made by Kling briefly clears Johns's memory and we learn the truth of his and his brother's air car accident and their recovery in this very hospital.

A fairly good story about how people with power have contempt for you and love telling you how to live your life, and have little trouble convincing themselves they are controlling you for your own good.  "A Visit to Cleveland General" also has a pretty good horror story structure and horror elements.  "A Visit to Cleveland General" first appeared in Galaxy. Van Scyoc has a pretty extensive oeuvre; maybe I should check out more of her work.

"The Selchey Kids" by Laurence Yep

I think this is Yep's first published story; it appeared in Worlds of If. Yep seems to have achieved considerable success as a writer of fantasy trilogies for teens later in his career.

Our narrator Deucalion ("Duke"), ostensibly the son of marine scientists, is one of the few survivors of the cataclysm that saw California sink beneath the waves. After growing into maturity and getting an English degree in flyover country, where he misses the ocean ("I hated every moment of it....I grew up among the corn and wheat fields like a strong weed") he returned to the West Coast to work with a team of marine biologists who knew his parents.  Their leader is a Noe Selchey, and one prominent member is Pryn, an attractive young woman who can read minds.  These scientists have been training two dolphins, Ossie and Ollie, to speak English--they already have vocabularies of ten words!

Duke, Pryn, Ossie and Ollie go on a salvage mission, diving into the submerged city where Duke's parents had their lab.  Examining records from a water tight compartment, Duke realizes his parents were not his parents at all--he is the result of a genetic experiment in which a human sperm (Noe Selchey's!) fertilized a dolphin ovum (Ossie and Ollie's mother's!)  Things get crazier still when Duke has to fight a monster to the death to save Pryn, and it turns out the monster is another one of his half-brothers, the product of Selchey's sperm fertilizing the egg of a giant octopus!

I like the plot and structure of this story, but I think Yep overdoes the angst a little bit (Duke is always trying to commit suicide, for example) and the metaphors and similes; on the first page we get  "Sand grips my back like a myriad of stars moving down my spine.  The sun comes up on tiptoe beneath the sun-burnt clouds and wine-stained sky."  Yep's excuse is that Duke is an English major and failed writer, but I don't think the depression stuff or the purple prose adds to the story.  Still, I give "The Selchey Kids" a lukewarm recommendation.

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None of these stories is abysmal; even the ones I gave a thumbs down to are worth reading and have some good elements.  World's Best Science Fiction 1969 seems like a strong collection so far, and I still haven't read the stories by big league writers Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss and Fritz Leiber.