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.


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.

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