Thursday, May 26, 2016

Novelets by Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon and Chad Oliver


Last week the wife and I went to an "authentic" Italian restaurant in Gahanna, Ohio, the kind of place run by an old grandmother who greets you at the door like you are a delinquent member of the family and regales you with stories of her varicose veins; later she will, with jocular ferocity, enjoin you to eat your vegetables.  This place opens at dinner time, and the wife and I got there too early, so we killed time at the local library and at a tiny antiques and collectibles shop nearby.  The sparsely stocked shop had like two dozen old paperbacks, so few that I figured there would be nothing of interest, but I was wrong; when I saw William F. Nolan's 3 to the Highest Power, a 1968 paperback anthology with novelets by Ray Bradbury, Chad Oliver and Theodore Sturgeon behind its cool lunar cover, I had to have it.  This week, while loitering in Akron libraries and parks, I read the three stories; each is in the 30 to 45 page range.  The book's 160 pages are filled out by William F. Nolan's prefaces and bibliographies for each writer; SF fans must have found these indices very useful in the pre-internet age.

"The Lost City of Mars" by Ray Bradbury (1967)

Ray Bradbury is perhaps the most written about and most beloved of all American science-fiction writers; he certainly hasn't attracted the outspoken and well-organized legions of detractors that those other titans of American SF, Heinlein and Asimov, have.  In fact, Bradbury's one famous detractor, Thomas Disch, seems to have damaged his career by taking aim at Bradbury.  The matter of Bradbury's high reputation reminds me of Charles Schulz, another giant American talent whom everybody loves but who, to me, seems to have said and done things that should, but haven't yet, made him a target of the lefties.  Let's see if "The Lost City of Mars," first seen in the pages of Playboy, gives us reason to reconsider Bradbury's reputation.

Mars has been long colonized by mankind, and is dotted with human cities and towns as well as ruins of the extinct race of native Martians. In fact, as the story opens, the powers that be are considering what alien star system to explore; Mars has been conquered and the men of Earth will soon take their next step, beyond our solar system.

A public works project symbolizes the complete passing of Mars from native hands to that of the colonizers: the last of the Martian canals, dry for centuries, is filled with water by Earthmen.  A rich man's yacht sets out on the newly-navigable canal with a motley assortment of prominent citizens as holiday passengers, among them a famous poet and his wife, a beautiful actress and her maid, a celebrated big game hunter, and the captain of a rocket ship involved in the aforementioned selection of the first star system to be explored by humanity.  Bradbury doesn't come right out and say it, but the passengers all seem to be tired of life.  The actress, for example, has long enjoyed the worship of the male sex thanks to her great beauty, but is now depressed over losing her looks and men's adulation.  As for the hunter, he has used every weapon and killed every beast on Earth and has come to Mars to seek exotic new weaponry and novel quarry.  The rocket captain, who has long held a belief voiced by Bradbury himself in interviews--that by traveling to the stars humanity will achieve immortality--has become skeptical that the human race has the capability or even deserves to reach the stars.

The yacht trip is ostensibly a quest for Dia-Sao, the lost city of Mars which exhaustive surveys of Mars have never found, and which native myth condemns as "The City of Doom," a place to be feared and shunned.  The passengers do not take Dia-Sao very seriously.  Until, that is, they sail right into the lost city, which lies underground, inside a mountain (having thus escaped notice by aerial reconnaissances.)  

The yacht's passengers split up and explore the city.  (The people in this story don't act like real people would, but like characters in a fable or dream.  Would you explore an alien "City of Doom" all by yourself with no weapons, no armor, and no medical or communications equipment?  Of course you wouldn't.)  The city's robotic mechanisms still operate, detecting the deepest desires of each visitor and offering to each of them the opportunity ofhaving their dreams come true. The actress, for example, is entombed forever in a room of mirrors in which she will appear beautiful for all time.

"Lost City of Mars" also appears in the
widely available collection
I Sing the Body Electric
The rocket captain rejects what the city offers him, the illusion of life on a fresh new planet orbiting a distant star.  The prizes offered by the city, he feels, are illegitimate.  A decent person will derive no satisfaction from being given his heart's desire--true satisfaction, true achievement, comes from work, from taking risks, from overcoming obstacles and earning what you desire. He leaves the treacherous city with his ambition to conquer the stars renewed.

The poet also escapes.  Living with his nagging wife had made him long for death (!) and the city provides him the means to experience again and again simulations of death in vehicular accidents.  This gives him the strength to break up with his wife--he walks away from the city happier than he has been since his childhood.  His wife, on the other hand, never leaves Dia-Sao; it seems possible she activates the death simulation machine and actually dies.  (I wondered if the way the poet cheats death was a reference to the cliche that a poet will live forever in his verses; Shakespeare expresses this commonplace in his sonnets, as does Horace in his Odes.)

"The Lost City of Mars" is a good story, but (returning to my comment above about Bradbury's reputation) has elements that the kids who seem to be running our culture today might call "problematic."  There are three female characters, and two are negative stereotypes (the vain woman who has no skills other than being good-looking and the wife who crushes her husband's spirit) while the third (the actress's maid) is a nonentity who gets rescued from the city by the rocket captain.  (Is it possible that the maid's heart's desire was to be rescued by a hero?)

The story's defenders, among whom I will number myself, will consider the vain beauty and the nagging spouse to be not stereotypes but archetypes, and will point out that there are three male characters who succumb to the city's siren songs and whom themselves might be considered unflattering caricatures.  

"One Foot and the Grave" by Theodore Sturgeon (1949)

I never know how I am going to feel about a Sturgeon story before I read it; some are good, but some make me groan.  Let's see what Ted's serving up this time.

"One Foot and the Grave" is one of those stories in which we are told traditional superstitious nonsense, witches and spells and vampires and so forth, are real and can be explained by science--we just can't grasp the science yet, the same way medieval people wouldn't understand an electric light bulb or radar and would consider them magic.  It is also one of those stories which starts out with a bizarre circumstance and a bunch of characters, and then the characters all talk and talk and talk, the mysteries proliferating as we get more info until finally in the last few pages we learn how all the characters and weird plot elements are tied together.

The matter of the story is typical Lovecraftian horror stuff, but Sturgeon turns Lovecraft on his head (Sturgeon actually refers to Lovecraft by name in the story, telegraphing his intent.)  Lovecraft tells you the universe is indifferent or inimical, that life is meaningless, and that even greater horror awaits us in the future.  But in our optimistic pal Sturgeon's story we learn that there are powerful forces looking out for us, that love conquers all, and that everything is about to get much much better!

The cover of Vol. V of
  The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
illustrates "One Foot and the Grave"
The plot in brief (I'm leaving out half the characters, red herrings and plot twists here):  Claire has a crush on Thad, who resists her charms because he has a crush on small town physician Dr. Ponder's beautiful assistant, Luanna.  Claire has developed a bizarre malady--one of her feet has changed into a cloven hoof!  Dr. Ponder explains that millennia ago an evil entity was imprisoned in the woods nearby, and its magic has transformed Claire's foot.  To return her foot to normal, Ponder says, Claire has to recite an incantation over the place where the ancient monster is entombed.   Luckily, Thad realizes something isn't kosher when he spots Luanna eating a live rabbit!  In reality, devious Dr. Ponder is an evil wizard and Luanna is his familiar, and they are trying to trick Claire (who has some kind of special powers she is not really aware of) into preventing the liberation of the entity, which is in fact a good entity!  Thad frees the supernatural prisoner, who turns out to be the angel Kamel, imprisoned by Satan in the ancient past.  Now Kamel is free to do his work of leading humanity towards unity and happiness (we see this kind of utopian collectivism in Sturgeon's work all the time.)  With Luanna out of the way, Claire and Thad will get married and live happily ever after.

This story isn't bad; on a stylistic level it works quite well--I actually thought many of the descriptions were good, and I was legitimately puzzled and surprised by some of the mysteries and twists.  I wasn't thrilled to see Sturgeon drawing water from the collectivism well yet again, but that is just in the last three pages of the tale, so it wasn't too exasperating.  Some who were expecting a science fiction story may complain that this is a fantasy story, that Sturgeon's invocation of the spirit of Clarke's Third Law doesn't make a story about angels, demons, wizards and vampires a real SF story.  I think those people would be right, but since I like (good) fantasy stories, I don't care.  (The fantasy components and Lovecraft references are less surprising if you keep in mind that  "One Foot and the Grave" first appeared in Weird Tales.)

"The Marginal Man" by Chad Oliver (1958)

Back in the summer of 2014 (gadzooks, have I been writing this blog that long?) I read three Chad Oliver stories and was not overly impressed.  Maybe this story, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title "Guardian Spirit," will make me change my mind about old Chad?

Oliver was an anthropologist, and editor William F. Nolan's preface to "The Marginal Man" includes excerpts from Oliver's letters that describe exciting adventures in Africa involving dangerous elephants, rhinos, and tribesmen armed with poison-tipped arrows.  So it is no surprise that the protagonist of this story is an anthropologist of the future, but it is certainly a disappointment that the star of the story, Arthur Canady, has fewer exciting adventures than Oliver did in real life!

Rather than a compelling drama, “The Marginal Man” is a utopian story about how if you can develop a good heart and live at one with nature you will achieve immortality.  It is lacking in tension or interest, and full of sentimental goop printed in italics (“You must believe, that is all” ) and romantic descriptions of the weather and the landscape (“A sea of swollen clouds washed over the stars….There was an electric hush as the world held its breath.”) This sort of thing is not for me.

Anthropoligist Arthur Canady is a member of a two-man team that travels to planets where primitive people live.  Such teams give the natives sewing machines, rifles and steam engines to jumpstart their economies, fostering their development into suitable trading partners for the Earth.  This story tells how Canady (veteran of many such missions) and his partner land among people who are just like the Plains Indians whom Oliver studied in real life, nomads who live in teepees and follow herds of large herbivores that they hunt with bows and arrows.  These natives are unlike any other Canady has met before--they have absolutely no interest in making their lives easier with Terran technology.  Soon he figures out why: these people never get sick and never die, so they have all the time in the world to sew by hand and hunt with bows.  The secret to their incredible health and longevity: they rigidly control their population and are thus in perfect harmony with the ecosystem.  The tribe has a set number of members, and a woman in the tribe will get pregnant only after another member commits suicide.  There is also a ritual that appeases some gods or aliens or something.

Canady decides he wants to live forever among these Stone Age types and so he goes through the ritual, fasting on top of a mountain where he meets his spirit animal and blah blah blah and then the tribe welcomes him with open arms.  He has an eternity of buffalo hunting to look forward to!  (Oliver hand waves away the fact that now the tribe has one too many members.)

Like the Sturgeon story, this is a fantasy story which is counted as science fiction only because the author says it is science fiction—there is no effort made to explain logically how immortality is achieved, and immortality isn’t used as a springboard to discuss psychological or social issues or the catalyst for an exciting adventure.  There is little reason for the tale to be set on another planet instead of on some lost plateau in Africa or South America; an earthbound setting would perhaps be an improvement, as I found the unexplained fact that the galaxy is full of planets inhabited by stone age humans, instead of diverse species with varying levels of technological and political development, to be distracting.  Unlike the Sturgeon, "Marginal Man" is tedious and its mysteries are obvious and silly.

Has "Marginal Man" changed my mind about Oliver?  On the contrary!  Looking back at my 2014 post on Oliver I see that two of those three stories were also about a space anthropologist going native among primitive peeps.  Enough already!  A thumbs down for this na├»ve hippy wish fulfillment yarn, and a warning that you won't be seeing any more discussions of Oliver here unless I forget what he's all about again. (Which will probably happen, because I have a bad memory.)

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Thinking about the stories in 3 to the Highest Power, I think we can say that all three are fables or fantasies about paradises or utopias. Sturgeon and Oliver indulge in the childish daydream that through the intervention of perfect alien beings we can achieve wonderful lives of unity with all living things. Bradbury, in his mature wisdom, tells us what we already know, that life is hard, that an easy paradise is an illusion, and true satisfaction comes from hard work.

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