Thursday, September 29, 2016

1977 stories by George Alec Effinger, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Carter Scholz

Fellow SF fan R. R. Nurmi,
we salute you!
It's Part Two of our look at Terry Carr's Universe 7, an all original anthology from 1977.  I own a hardcover copy of the book club edition which was formerly in the library of Des Moines resident R. R. Nurmi.  I own several volumes from the Nurmi library, including Anthony Boucher's A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

"Ibid." by George Alec Effinger

I know there are Effinger fans out there.  Well, here is where I tell you people that you have to buy a copy of Universe 7 because it is the one and only place where "Ibid." has appeared.

This is a decent Twilight Zone-style story that touches on Cartesian philosophical issues (can we trust any of our sense impressions?) and the question of whether life has any meaning if we cannot be confident of our knowledge of the outside world (if we can't tell if friends and family really like us or if our work is truly valuable, why not just become a slacker, a drunk or a suicide?)

Cathy Schumacher is an academic who suddenly finds messages directly addressed to her in academic journals, students' papers, supermarket celebrity magazines, even the local TV news!  Is she going insane?  Are mysterious eldritch forces aiding her? Tormenting her?  These bizarre problems are piled on top of more ordinary problems Schumacher is facing, the kinds of problems faced by many (most?) ordinary people: her work (teaching uninterested students about English literature) seems pointless and her daughter and husband are distant--he in fact may be having an affair.  Her response to these problems, revealed on the final page of the story?  Taking up alcoholism!

I like "Ibid."'s structure and themes, and the style is fine.  For a while I thought it should be more scary--the story doesn't transmit to the reader a sense of horror, it is a bit cold and clinical.  (If I opened up a supermarket tabloid and saw a headline that read "Hey, MPorcius, look out!") I'd probably just die right there on top of my cart full of Count Chocula and Ovaltine.)  But thinking further on the story, I have decided that it is less about the heavy kind of cosmic horror represented by the impossible messages, the kind of horror that drives people in H. P. Lovecraft stories insane, and more about one of the quotidian sadnesses of life, that we cannot have any confidence that those whom we love love us in return, the kind of sadness represented by Schumacher's relationships with her daughter and husband, the kind of sadness we see in Proust.  Because this sadness is so common, is experienced by so many of us, a low key tone makes sense, and keeps the story from descending into soap opera melodrama.  


"The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" by Gene Wolfe

I don't have to tell you that Wolfe is widely regarded as the best SF writer of all time and all that.  I read "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" in my copy of Storeys from the Old Hotel years ago, and here I go again.  This story must be highly regarded, it having been included in the Tor 2009 collection Best of Gene Wolfe.

It is centuries in the future!  The human race is reduced to a kind of Early Modern technological and political level, though educated people have knowledge of the computers of the past and can identify weather satellites in the night sky.  Perhaps to evoke thoughts of the Thirty Years War as well as Cold War fears of a NATO vs Warsaw Pact ground war, the story is set in Germany and people fling around references to Burgermeisters and have names like Hans and Gretchen and Karl.  A war with the Russians is underway, and has been for a long time; soldiers and deserters are everywhere, and in the distance can be heard the thunder of siege guns.  

A man comes to the village of Oder Spree who claims to own the sole surviving operable computer, a computer devoted to playing chess!  After the machine is demonstrated, an academic purchases it for the University, only to find the machine is a scam (much like the late 18th-century "Turk" automaton which captured the imagination of Europe and played such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte); a skinny mutant, a genius chess player with an oversized brain, hides inside the machine to make the moves.  The mutant falls in love with a local blue-eyed blonde and decides he wants to stay in Oder Spree; to this end he conspires with the academic to get his money back from the con artist, but a terrible tragedy results from their desperate plan.

Very good.  You've heard me praise Wolfe before, so you won't be surprised to hear me say the story is economical, full of memorable images, pulls at the heart strings, has clever foreshadowing, interesting premises, and a puzzling mystery.  Shall I voice my theory regarding the mystery?  Of course I will!  The mystery is that the chess-playing machine, to the surprise of the double-crossing scam artists, seems to start working on its own.  Now, Wolfe is a Christian who believes in the supernatural, so it is not impossible that we are to suspect that the machine is animated by ghost or deity as a means of punishing the sinful cheaters who callously put the blonde woman's life at risk.  A related possibility (one the unnamed narrator puts forward, but remember that Wolfe is famed for his use of unreliable narrators) is that the mutant has telekinetic abilities even he doesn't understand--it is his own guilty conscience that brings the antiquated machine to life.  But my favored theory (reflecting my cold-hearted materialism, perhaps) is that the machine is being used in strong sunlight for the first time in a long time (Wolfe mentions the sun and bright sky more than once) and the sunlight has recharged the computer's batteries via unremarked upon solar cells, allowing it to operate as it did a hundred or more years ago.

Like I often do with Wolfe stories, I read it twice in one day, enjoying it both times. Highly recommended.          
"Brain Fever Season" by R. A. Lafferty

This story is, according to isfdb, the final installment of a series of stories called "Men Who Knew Everything."  The story is a little opaque; maybe I would have had an easier time "getting" it if I had read some of the previous stories in the series.

The story's characters are immortal and eccentric geniuses who manipulate the world from behind the scenes.  Significantly, they "set up" the equator and the four seasons. The idea behind this story is that there are additional "seasons" which affect not the weather and length of the day, but the human mind.  There are, for example, seasons during which there is a flurry of large scale construction (the Great Pyramid of Giza was built during such a period, we are told) or a sudden flowering of artistic production.  In this story there is a sudden explosion in interest and publication of high brow scientific and philosophical writing, "an information-and-invention sort of fever," across the Northern Hemisphere.

Of course, all this stuff I'm just telling you in a few sentences is revealed gradually through clues over  story's 17 pages, accompanied by lots of jokes and farcical explorations of the ramifications of the abrupt elevation of intellectual prowess of the average man.  This isn't a "realistic" look at what might happen if everybody all of a sudden got smarter (like Poul Anderson's Brain Wave), but a funny, silly story in which geniuses feverishly write books in 18 hours and publishers get them printed and into the stores in five hours, a response to the public's fervid demand for material like "Emanuel Visconti's Costive Cosmologies Freed," the widespread demand for which actually predates the completion of the book's first draft.

A recurring motif of the story is likening the desire for knowledge to sexual desire; people "howl" that they are "hot" for a book and "have to have it right now," and the brain fever season is compared to the rutting season or oestrous period of animals. The explosion in human brainpower first becomes evident when publishers and sellers of pornography (famed for being able to produce and distribute material quickly) start selling mass quantities of books like a Tibetan grammar and a volume on plate tectonics.

"Brain Fever Season" is alright, not great.  I didn't laugh at the jokes (many are just lists, like of funny names) and I didn't feel like my work figuring it out had a commensurate payoff.  Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had been already familiar with Barnaby Sheen and his troupe of weird geniuses.  Besides in Universe 7, you can read it in the 1984 collection Ringing Changes, in English or Italian!

"The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" by Carter Scholz

I've never read anything by Scholz before, but on isfdb I see he has worked with Barry Malzberg and Kathe Koja, writers whose short stories I like, and has some kind of collaborative relationship with critical darling Jonathan Lethem.  A good omen.

The intro to "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" contains what I like to think of as "mysteries," even if you skeptical types out there would probably call them "typos."  Carr tells us that Scholz has a story in Alternities--I just read Alternities and there is no Scholz story in there!  He also tells us Scholz has a story in Clarion IV--there is no Clarion IV listed on isfdb, though probably Carr is referring to Clarion SF, the fourth Clarion anthology.  Finally, we are told Scholz has contributed a story to Output, but what exactly Output is, my five-minute Google search does not reveal.

Enough with the mysteries, on with the story.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" takes place in 2016.  A means of sending a person's consciousness back in time to inhabit the brain of another person has been developed; you can't influence your host, but you can see through his eyes and share his thoughts.  The main character of the tale, Charles Largens, is a musicologist, and he has his mind sent back in time to ride as a passenger in Beethoven's head.

A large proportion of the story concerns academic angst and office politics: the grantmaker will pull the grant if they find out how the money is being spent, guys compete over a promotion to head of a department, Largens has sex with another academic's wife, composers suffer writer's block, Largens worries that he shouldn't have abandoned his creative career as a composer to become a mere critic and historian of music, he realizes that his academic career has been manipulated by his mentor, etc.

The science fiction elements of the story revolve around the fact that, while your host won't be influenced by a single or a handful of visiting psyches from the future, so many scholars enter the head of a fascinating cultural giant like Beethoven that ol' Ludwig Van begins to pick up the "crosstalk" and it has a terrible negative effect on him.  Beethoven's output is diminished as he loses sanity (the famous Ninth symphony ceases to exist!) and Largens begins to notice differences between the 2016 he leaves for the 1800s and the one he returns to after each transfer.  In the end of the story Largens acts to shut down the dangerous time travel program and abandons scholarly life to return to his true calling, creating new music.

This story is well-written and constructed.  The idea that scholarly research work is sterile and stifling, and can render a creative person impotent (one character literally gets too caught up in his Beethoven research to be able to achieve an erection and have sex with his wife) is provocative, reminiscent of the way (one suspects) that actual soldiers and politicians look down on military and political historians, athletes look down on sports journalists, novelists look down on critics, etc.  (Scholz's story also reminded me of Proust's idea that things like friendship are a waste of time for the true artist, distractions from his real work, his art.) Sterility, like impotence, is a theme of the story--2016 is called a " barren year" and we learn in an aside that New York City has been reduced to a population of only two million, so that instead of new buildings going up, buildings are actually being torn down!  Sounds even worse than the real 2016!

Worth checking out.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" would later appear in British and German anthologies.


A good anthology, with seven stories that I can definitely recommend and only one clunker.  Universe 7 earns the MPorcius Seal of Approval.

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