Sunday, September 25, 2016

1977 stories from Fritz Leiber, Brian Aldiss, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson

Inside jacket flap of my copy
We all love these anthologies of original SF stories, don't we?  So let's read my copy of the hardcover book club edition of 1977's Universe 7, edited by Terry Carr.  We are told it is "acclaimed" and "an eagerly awaited event in science fiction."  Let's see if the acclaimers and eager waiters of that world of long ago in which I was a mere six years old were well-served by Carr and the "famous authors" and "stars of tomorrow" who appeared between Universe 7's covers. Today we've got two titans of speculative fiction, Fritz Leiber and Brian Aldiss, and two people whose work I have never before read, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson.

"A Rite of Spring" by Fritz Leiber

Like a lot of us who played 1st edition AD&D in the 1980s, I have a special place in my heart for Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.  (Fave F&GM stories: "Seven Black Priests," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," "Bazaar of the Bizarre" and "Stardock.")  I also really liked Leiber's hard sf Hugo-winner "Ship of Shadows."  Hopefully "A Rite of Spring," which Terry Carr also included in Best Science Fiction of the Year 7, will join this list of solidly entertaining stories.

At the very start of the novelette (40 pages) Fritz hints that "A Rite of Spring" might be some kind of feminist switcheroo piece; the very first line is "This is the story of the knight in shining armor and the princess in a high tower, only with the roles reversed." I guess that is a fair description, but, equally justly, we can see the tale as a male wish-fulfillment fantasy in which some egghead who is ineffectual with women suddenly has his dream girl tossed in his lap.  It is also akin to those stories like Tom Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy in which a young person with an unhappy life suddenly learns he is the heir to a fortune or the son of a nobleman or whatever and is whisked away to a finer existence.

Matthew Fortree is a mathematical genius, a resident at a luxurious secret U. S. government campus where the finest of pure scientists are collected to pursue their research in hopes that they will produce breakthroughs which will aid our nation militarily or economically.  Matthew is eccentric and antisocial, a friendless virgin. During an electrical storm he (though an arrogant atheist) prays to the "Great Mathematician" and at his door appears a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl.  The girl, Severeign Saxon, is ostensibly at the secret installation to look for her brother.  She and Matthew play an intellectual party game, each in turn naming a famous thing associated with the number seven (e. g., Seven Sisters, Seven Against Thebes, Seven Samurai, etc.)  This game goes on for pages and pages, Leiber unleashing on the reader much erudite trivia from history, literature and religion, including references to Poul Anderson and to his own Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.  The game also has integrated into it a somewhat elaborate sex scene between Matthew and Severeign.

At the end of the story it becomes evident that Severeign is from another dimension, one Matthew glimpsed in trances as a child, "a realm where he was in direct contact with the stuff of mathematics" and where the mathematical genius can live a happier, more fulfilling life.  The authorities suspect Severeign is some kind of foreign spy, and when Matthew carelessly reveals classified information to her they come gunning for the pair of them.  Luckily Severeign has a magical artifact that allows them to escape to her better world.

The story may be a bit too long, and some sections exhibit a sort of folksy colloquial style that is (I guess) supposed to remind you of fairy tales or sitting by the campfire hearing some oldster spin a yarn ("For it was a Gothic night, too, you see") which might be a little hard to take.  Some might find some elements of the story a little pervy; not only is Severeign 17 years old, but she says that in the "other realm" that she and Matthew are siblings--he is the brother she is looking for!  But "A Rite of Spring" is cleverly constructed and for the most part smoothly executed.  If you can take the barrage of trivia, it is worth your time.

"My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" by Brian Aldiss

This is an effective sketch of a setting and characters; there isn't much plot here.

A decade or so (?) ago an energy-starved Earth sent aloft satellites (they call them "planetoids") that collected solar energy and beamed it down to the surface.  These satellites were like flying cities, full of fashionable stores and comfortable hotels and so forth for the benefit of crew and visitors.  But then six years ago some capital-C "Catastrophe" struck (a plague is mentioned) and the satellites drifted off into the sun or deep space or crashed on the Earth's surface.

Our characters are the Goddard family.  When the Earth was reduced to a medieval level of existence, Goddard, a designer of sportswear, and his father embraced the change and totally got into growing their own crops by hand and spending half the year leading a nomadic life, following a herd of reindeer.  Goddard's wife acted much more like I would--she was psychologically crushed by the collapse of our wealthy technological and capitalist society and became a hermit, moving into a crashed planetoid to take up residence in the ruined hotel therein and read books.  Periodically the four male Goddards--her husband, father-in-law, and her two young boys--go visit her.  On the visit covered in this story, Goddard tries to convince his wife to abandon her books ("Books are where you get your sick notions from") and join the family.  She dismisses them, saying they are living like mere peasants!  "I resent being kicked back to the Dark Ages, if you don't."  Amen, lady!

The story's title suggests, I guess, that we are to see these visits as similar to pilgrimages to a sacred site of a Marian apparition, like Lourdes or Guadaloupe.  Or maybe we are to consider that the fallen planetoid will be an incomprehensible artifact to future generations of Stone Age-level people, a place surrounded by outlandish legends vaguely based on the reality of our own high-tech society, the Catastrophe, and Mrs. Goddard's (tragic and heroic!) refusal to abandon the cultural heritage of our sophisticated modern society.

Not bad.  Terry Carr would also include "My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" in his 1980 anthology Dream's Edge, published by the Sierra Club.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!

"Probability Storm" by Julian Reid

This is Reid's only published story, if isfdb is to be believed.  Carr tells us Reid attended the first Clarion West workshop, where Harlan Ellison was very critical of one of Reid's stories; the enfant terrible of speculative fiction is said to have "literally" torn it to pieces.

"Probability Storm" is a tedious 35-page sleeping draught about an alternate dimension New York City where ordinary people coexist with dryads and gremlins and ghosts and mad scientists.  Most of the story takes place in a bar called Rafferty's (could this be a reference to R. A. Lafferty?)  Our narrator is a ghost who can enter people's minds as well as visit some parallel plane to observe probability storms, which he can warn the regulars at the bar about.  A villainous businessman called "The Fat Man" comes into the bar, hoping to buy the place (or something), but the ghost narrator and the gremlins, empowered by one of those probability storms, invade his psyche and turn him into a thin man who doesn't want to make business deals, I guess.  The whole thing is very very verbose but at the same time very very vague; Reid willfully provides a very very low signal to noise ratio, even admitting to the reader that he is doing it (the narrator says things like, "as you may already have gathered, my attention has a tendency to wander at times.")  "Probability Storm" is supposed to be funny, but the jokes consist of comparing the fat guy to a pig again and again and again and describing how the gremlins spill drinks on him.

Very, very bad.  As far as I am concerned, Ellison could have ripped this one up as well; by excoriating his work Ellison was doing Reid a better service than Carr did him by encouraging him.  I really don't know what Carr was thinking when he elected to inflict this mess on readers of Universe 7.

"People Reviews" by Robert Chilson

I recently bought Chilson's novel Shores of Kansas for three whole bucks because it has a cool dinosaur cover.  Hopefully "People Reviews" won't make me regret the investment!  (Yes, "Probability Storm" has turned me cynical!)

My mind is grasping for a quote by, I think, editor John W. Campbell, in which he exhorted Astounding's writers to give him stories that felt like "newspaper articles of the future."  Chilson does just that in "People Reviews."  In the future, people will be able to wear headsets which record their thoughts; these recordings can be "listened" to by others, and a whole commercial industry, like the book publishing and record industries, has sprung up that produces and sells these thought recordings.  Chilson's nine-page story is a critical review like you'd find in a highbrow magazine like The New York Review of Books, a discussion of recent thought recordings and a series of musings on this art form's potential and current state.

Engaging and original, highly recommended to all you New Wave kids!  Cynicism storm abated!


The Reid was astonishingly bad, but the Leiber, Aldiss and Chilson are all good; each is idiosyncratic and fresh, is well-executed when it comes to style and structure, and rests on a foundation of one or two interesting ideas.  Let's hope the second half of Universe 7 is as enjoyable.

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