Saturday, May 7, 2016

Early '70s tales from Eddy C. Bertin, Arthur C. Clarke & Harlan Ellison

It's the fourth and final installment of our look at Donald Wollheim's The 1972 Annual World's Best SF!

"Timestorm" by Eddy C. Bertin (1971)

Bertin is a Belgian, and "Timestorm" first appeared in Flemish in De Achtjaarlijkse God, a collection of Bertin's stories.  Wollheim tells us it won the "'Sfan Award' as the best original story in the Lowlands language sector."  Bertin translated it himself into bland and unidiomatic English--witches are "hung" instead of "hanged," things appear "on intervals" instead of "at intervals."  Why didn't some native English-speaker copy edit this stuff?

In the year 2213 two wandering stars collide and cause a "timestorm."  Somehow this transports an Earthman, Harvey Lonestall, into a vast library of baton-sized cylinders, billions of them.  This "time tower" exists beyond space and time; here Harvey need not eat or sleep.  When inserted into a projector machine the cylinders each can transport Harvey's consciousness into the body of an historical figure; when he tests some they are all people involved in acts of violence; Lee Harvey Oswald murdering JFK, or a crewmember on the Enola Gay as it bombs Hiroshima, for example. Sneaking around the sprawling corridors of the time tower Harvey spies on aliens; these jokers are, apparently, manipulating Earth history!  (Somehow our hero can understand their speech as they talk about Nero, Waterloo, World War II, and other atrocious historical people and events.)  Harvey theorizes that the human race is naturally peaceful and these aliens are to blame for our history of crime and war. (Remember detective writer John D. MacDonald's Wine of the Dreamers?)

Harvey kills the aliens and then uses the machines to manipulate history in a peaceful direction, preventing the rise of Hitler and Napoleon, the outbreak of the First World War, the birth of the Marquis de Sade and the murders of Jack the Ripper.  He even goes back to caveman times to prevent humans from eating meat!  (In this world, Summer Kreigshauser, you would be Chopped Champion!)

Harvey returns to 2113 Earth where he happily joins the peaceful vegetarian society of primitive hut-dwellers who have not even invented the wheel.  Then we get our Twilight-Zone-style twist ending.  Evil space aliens arrive and the human race is too weak to resist them!  You see, the aliens in the time tower were beneficent, and were tailoring a human race strong enough to liberate the universe from these evil aliens! Oops!

The style of this story is poor, as I have already noted, and it is too long and feels tedious.  The plot is just silly, and Bertin fails to give it credibility or emotional power. (Invoking tragedies like famous murders and major wars is a cheap method of playing on the reader's feelings that has little efficacy here because we've heard about JFK, WWII and Jack the Ripper a million times already and because Bertin doesn't do any work to move us, he just throws the names out there.)  I have to give "Timestorm" a thumbs down.  I think Wollheim included this story not because it is one of the "best" from 1971, but because he thought a Continental story had novelty value.  (Science fiction from beyond the Anglophonic world seems to have been an interest of Wollheim's.  We await Joachim Boaz's assessment of Wollheim's 1976 anthology The Best from the Rest of the World.)  

"Transit of Earth" by Arthur C. Clarke (1971)

Here we have some of the hardest of hard SF, a realistic first-person account of an expedition to Mars in 1984 to observe the passage of the Earth across the face of the sun.  Drama is provided by the fact that our narrator is marooned on Mars after an accident, and will run out of oxygen soon after the transit ends.  Besides his description of the transit he provides memories of his life and charts his psychological state as death approaches at the very moment of his, and mankind's, triumph.  The astronaut (and Clarke) show off their taste and erudition with references to Samuel Johnson, James Cook (who observed the transit of Venus from Tahiti in the 18th century), Robert Falcon Scott (who, like our narrator, died after achieving the goal of his mission and left behind a record discovered by later adventurers) and to lots of classical music.  (Don't worry SF fans, Wells, Burroughs, and Bradbury also merit mentions!)

I don't generally seek out these super realistic SF stories, but this one is quite good. "Transit of Earth" first appeared in Playboy.

"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" by Harlan Ellison (1970)

I actually read this story in my teens, maybe 30 years ago, and then forgot the name of it and over the years started mixing up the details of this story with Ellison's famous "Jeffty is Five," which shares with "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" a child protagonist and a nostalgic tone.  I was glad to read this story and batten down one of those untethered thoughts that had been fluttering in the back of my mind for decades.

Ellison stand-in Gus Rosenthal, a forty-two year old who brags about his success as a writer and how he was the only one to escape his Ohio town, leaving the rivals of his youth behind to work low-class jobs and marry fat women, travels back in time to meet his childhood self. Protecting little Gus from bullies and sharing with him a love of comic books and genre literature brings big Gus a happiness he hasn't felt in a long time, but he can't stay in the past; not only is he suffering time travel-related medical problems, but little Gus is becoming anti-social, stealing and so forth.  So, big Gus has to leave, which breaks little Gus's heart--big Gus realizes that it was himself, not bullies and poverty, that drove him to fight his way out of Ohio and to fame and success.

I find Ellison's braggadocio and self-congratulation a little hard to take ("One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" is squarely aimed at the stereotypical science-fiction fan demographic, the unpopular kid who thinks he is smarter than everybody else), and this story is a little too sappy and sentimental for my tastes.  However, it is well-written--the structure, pacing, and length are all just right, and there are plenty of interesting images--and I appreciated Ellison's little asides praising Jack Williamson and Harold W. McCauley.  So, thumbs up for this one.

"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" first appeared in Orbit 8--if you haven't already, check out Joachim Boaz's review of that anthology--and was made into an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone which I have not seen.


The 1972 Annual World's Best SF is a good collection of stories; the Niven, Russ, Anderson, Lafferty, Clarke and Ellison stories all feel characteristic of what those authors typically do, but seem more fun, more streamlined, and more accessible than their average work.  Definitely worth a look.

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