Thursday, May 5, 2016
Early '70s stories by R. A. Lafferty, Alan Dean Foster, & Leonard Tushnet
"All Pieces of a River Shore" by R. A. Lafferty (1970)
This is a fun, surprisingly light-hearted and straightforward (Lafferty's work can be grisly and a little opaque, but not here) story with a good central idea and sprinkled with interesting little factoids. And of course Lafferty's charming and amusing style. I enjoyed it a lot.
We learn that carnivals that travelled the American countryside in the 19th century offered, as one of their amusements, long paintings depicting the shore of the Mississippi. Like a giant scroll, these paintings, several feet tall and up to or even more than a hundred yards long, would be unrolled by mule power so that viewers were given the illusion that they were travelling along the river bank.
The main character of "All Pieces of a River Shore" is a 20th century collector, an American Indian of some means by the name of Leo Nation. He collects a multitude of things, from books and posters to wagons and locomotives, mostly related to Native America and the Old West. Nation has decided to start collecting the aforementioned river shore paintings, heralded in their day as "The Longest Pictures in the World." Over the course of the story, as he crosses North America hunting up and buying up these artifacts, he learns that the more common crude examples, made in the last few centuries by the white man, are merely imitations of startlingly clear panoramic pictures of mysterious origin known to Indians long before the arrival of Europeans. When Nation and his friends closely examine these "originals" they find they depict flora and fauna long extinct (giant sloths, for example) and in such detail that even under a microscope no brushstrokes are visible--in fact, one can see the individual cells in a leaf! In the last part of the story we learn the startling origin of these weird artifacts.
Here is a story I can recommend without reservation. First appearing in Damon Knight's Orbit 8 (reviewed by Joachim Boaz here), you can also find "All Pieces of a River Shore" in the Lafferty collection Lafferty in Orbit and the anthology Alpha 4.
"With Friends Like These..." by Alan Dean Foster (1971)
Foster wrote the novelization of the first Star Wars movie, as well as Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the first independent Star Wars novel. Reading "With Friends Like These..." makes the choice of Foster for these tasks feel very appropriate, because the story is a space opera with many elements in common with the Star Wars films.
The galaxy is riven by a tremendous war! Standing against the powerful Yop empire is a Federation of over 200 dazzlingly-different alien races. (Some have feathers, some are hairy, some have tentacles, etc.) This war of space battleships has been going on for centuries, and the multicultural alliance is losing. A desperate ploy is conceived! 450,000 years ago another war shook the universe, the war between Earth and the Venn! The people of Earth were found to be the galaxy's greatest warriors, and the Venn were exterminated, but the predecessor of the Federation was able to drive humanity back to Earth and surround the planet with a powerful force field, trapping our doughty descendents there. That forcefield is still in operation today, and "With Friends Like These..." tells the story of a Federation expedition to lower the forcefield and enlist the aid of the human race against the Yop.
At first it looks like the human race has been reduced to a small population of farmers who resort to using draft animals to plow their fields. But in reality mankind has evolved tremendous psychic powers! In one scene a young man uses his mind to disintegrate an entire Yop battleship! Earth's domestic animals also have high intelligence and telepathy! And the Earth has been hollowed out and is full of machinery--in the story's final scene the planet sets off under its own power to join the Federation fleet, a colossal dreadnought that will no doubt vanquish the Yop and, one of the Federation's wise men fears, make humanity master of the galaxy!
The tone of this story is light-hearted, with lots of little jokes and no real tension or thrills. Endearingly, Foster refers directly to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, and King Kong (one of my very favorite films), suggesting that the fame of these icons of pop culture will endure half a million years.
"With Friends Like These..." first appeared in Analog, and in his intro Wollheim suggests the story exemplifies the spirit of editor John W. Campbell and his prominent magazines, the idea that humanity will triumph over every obstacle. (Foster, it seems to me, is also undercutting, or showing the dark side, of that idea, portraying the human race as uniquely belligerent. In his 1978 intro to The Best of Eric Frank Russell, Foster, apparently a conventional lefty who bites his nails with worry over the environment and sympathizes with the Viet Cong and all that, tells us he disagreed with Campbell about just about everything.)
Inoffensively, adequately, pleasant, but I'm skeptical it is one of the "best" stories of its year.
"Aunt Jennie's Tonic" by Leonard Tushnet (1971)
If Wollheim hints that he chose Foster's "With Friends Like These" for this anthology because it is a good example of an Astounding/Analog Terra uber alles space opera, he comes right out and tells us that he chose "Aunt Jennie's Tonic" because it has an "ethnic background" and is about "the origins of modern medicine from primitive folk remedy." I'm going to be honest--"the origins of modern medicine from primitive folk remedy" doesn't sound like a recipe for a thrill ride to your humble blogger.
Our narrator is a Jewish-American chemist. When he realizes that the home remedies concocted by the aged immigrant woman who ministers to his relatives from her cluttered apartment in what is now a bad neighborhood, actually work, he analyzes them at the lab. Most simply duplicate the formulas of commercially available drugs, but one preparation appears to be a unique elixir of youth that revives his dying dog and, when he takes it himself, enhances his job performance. The chemist, envisioning riches and a Nobel prize, becomes obsessed with duplicating the potion, no mean feat after his "aunt" is murdered by thugs. His pursuit of the miracle drug imperils his sanity, family life, and career.
I liked the "East Coast Jewish life" parts of the story, the young American atheist scientist's relationship with the elderly representative of his superstitious Yiddish-jabbering Old World ancestors. But I think the chemistry parts were too long; Tushnet provides an overabundance of examples of Aunt Jennie's productions and describes their creation in superfluous detail. (I think "Aunt Jennie's Tonic" qualifies as a hard SF story, albeit one married to a mainstream narrative about the culture of immigrants and their descendents.) The dramatic part of the story, our narrator's collapse, is rushed, almost perfunctory. There's really no build up or climax--Tushnet's premise and background take up most of the page count and are carefully constructed, but the main plot is poorly paced and structured, almost like it is an afterthought.
Still, a marginal recommendation.
The Lafferty feels like a "Best of the Year" story, but the Foster and Tushnet, while good, seem to have been included for their interesting attributes.
In our next episode we'll finish up with The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, reading contributions by Eddy Bertin, who is new to me, member of the "Big Three" Arthur C. Clarke, and enfant terrible Harlan Ellison.
Nota bene: The 1972 Annual World's Best SF also includes short-tempered chess player Barry Malzberg's "Gehenna" and Ted "Killdozer" Sturgeon's "Occam's Scalpel," which I won't talk about this week because I read them and wrote about them on this blog in the past.