Tuesday, September 6, 2016

1979 stories by S. P. Somtow, Orson Scott Card, Richard Wilson & Richard Cowper

Cover of the hardcover edition
Let's read four more stories from Donald Wollheim's 1980 Annual World's Best SF.  Today let's look at stories by people with whom I am not very familiar.

"The Thirteenth Utopia" by S. P. Somtow (as by Somtow Suchartikul)

Some of us barely have the energy and dexterity to roll out of bed every morning and make the espresso for the wife without burning down the house.  And then you have those heroes who are fluent in multiple languages, compose symphonies and ballets and operas, are intimately familiar with the major American poets, and publish dozens of novels and scores of short stories.  S. P. Somtow (who published much of his fiction under the name Somtow Suchartikul) is just such a hero.  "The Thirteenth Utopia," one of his earliest published stories, is the first in a long series of stories known as the "Inquestor" series, and first appeared in Analog.  I have never read any of this dynamo's work before; let's see what's up with him.

(Earlier this year Joachim Boaz gave a middling review to Somtow's award-winning first novel, Starship and Haiku.)

Unfortunately, "Thirteenth Utopia" fits into two categories of stories which make me groan: the "guy visits hippy utopia and goes native" story, and the "we humans are violent and would be better off if we were conquered by aliens" story.  I've had to wade through a lot of these sorts of stories in my career as an SF fan, and I try to avoid them, but sometimes they ambush me.  These stories are just as much silly wish fulfilment fantasies as all those stories in which a guy fights monsters and/or in wars and marries a princess (John Carter) or beds lots of women (Conan.)  But while those Burroughs or Howard stories offer excitement, adventure, tension, horror, and an allegory of life as a struggle in which the good person (John Carter) or selfish ubermensch (Conan) can achieve lofty goals, perhaps improving the world or at least enjoying himself, most of these hippy utopia stories and "please conquer us, E.T." stories simply offer tedious lectures and bitter denunciations of the human race from an author who considers himself better than the common run of humanity.  If I need to offer a list of examples, consider these from just off the top of my head: Theodore Sturgeon's Cosmic Rape and "The Skills of Xanadu;" 75% of the Chad Oliver stories I have read, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Kate Wilhelm's The Killer Thing, Robert Crane's Hero's Walk, J. Hunter Holly's The Green Planet, and the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still.  You can probably think of more; hell, I have probably written about more on this blog and since forgotten them.  

"Thirteenth Utopia" is set in a universe in which there are many human-inhabited planets, most part of a sort of empire that is constantly embroiled in wars. The story's protagonist is an Inquestor whose job is to go to planets that are disconnected from the empire and are rumored to be utopias. He has already been to a dozen utopias, discovered their fatal flaws, and acted to overthrow their utopian regimes and integrate the planets into the space empire so their human and material resources can be used in all those wars.

His thirteenth target is Shtoma.  Here, everybody lives in harmony with nature, is in touch with their feelings, and has a lot of promiscuous sex.  There is no mental illness, crime, or war.   All the earlier utopias the Inquestor encountered had a rottenness at their core, their surface happiness based on a foundation of atrocious exploitation or murderous totalitarianism, but on Shtoma no flaw is to be found. There must be a flaw, the Inquestor knows, because man is a fallen creature, is himself fundamentally flawed. Then the Inquestor learns the truth--this planet's population has lost (the bad?) part of its humanity because the system's sun is alive and radiates into the people its "love," "cleansing" them.  As usually happens in these utopian stories the visitor goes native, and the Inquestor does not return from whence he came but joins the people of Shtoma in their happiness.

Why Wollheim thought this one of the best SF stories of 1979 is beyond me.  There are no new ideas and the style is unremarkable.  Is there any chance Somtow, in a subtle way that my sensors failed to detect, is attacking the tired and boring subgenres of which this story is an example?  (After all, the Inquestor is a man of passion and deep feelings who has lived a life of service to a cause and of adventure, while the people of Shtoma seem pretty frivolous and shallow.  Even so, gotta give this one the thumbs down.  

"Unaccompanied Sonata" by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is famous and important, what with that Ender's Game which everybody talks about all the time.  I've never read Ender's Game because I feel like I already know the plot and the surprise ending just from exposure to pop culture. Years ago I did read a short story by Card, a horror story called "Eumenides in the Fourth-Floor Lavatory," which I thought was effective, but I never went back to read any more of Card's work.  Well, here is my chance to further investigate Card's body of work.

"Unaccompanied Sonata" first appeared in Omni, and I was surprised at how good it is; it probably is one of the best stories of 1979!

Christian Haroldsen is a genius born into a static, technocratic, totalitarian world of the near future.  The government gives every child a battery of tests and can determine with almost perfect accuracy what job a person is best suited for and will make him most happy; each person is trained for and assigned this dream job, and everybody in the world is happy!  Haroldsen is found to be a musical prodigy and is groomed for membership in the tiny isolated elite of creative people known as the Makers.

One of the laws Haroldsen must follow is that he listen to no other music, only his own; his only influences are to be natural sounds, the wind in the trees and the calls of birds and such.  When he breaks this rule around age thirty he is punished, assigned the job of delivery truck driver and forbidden to ever make music again.  When he does make music (on an ancient piano in a bar) he is again punished, this time severely (his fingers and thumbs are severed with a laser beam!), and assigned to work on a road construction crew.  When Haroldsen makes music yet again, this time singing, he receives the ultimate punishment--he becomes a government agent, a Watcher, tasked with enforcing all these terrible laws against the Makers!

"Unaccompanied Sonata" is well-written and even moving, and brings up several uncomfortable questions about art and our lives.  To what extent should art be original, and to what extent do we accept derivative work as successful art?  Does (high) art really make us happy, or does it challenge us in ways that are disturbing and can actually make us less happy?  If a planned economy could be made to work and a totalitarian government put in the hands of people who are not corrupt or vindictive, would we all be happier with far less freedom than some of us today consider absolutely essential?  I am always against censorship, planned economies, technocracy and limits to individual freedom, but Card (in this story, at least) questions my values in a way that is more intriguing, and less boneheaded or insulting, than most suggestions that we need more government and less freedom.

Powerful and disturbing; strongly recommended!

"The Story Writer" by Richard Wilson

I've never read anything by Wilson, but isfdb lists three novels and about one hundred short stories published stories by him, ranging from 1938 to 1988.  Looking at the covers of his novels, I am lead to suspect Wilson is one of those guys who writes wacky stories full of silly jokes and inflicts broad satires of politicians on his readers. I try to avoid this sort of thing, but as I have suggested, sometimes my spider sense fails me and I get ambushed.  Well, this blog post is about exploring new territory, so let's get on with it!

"Story Writer," which first appeared in Destinies, a sort of periodical in book form edited by Jim Baen, appears to be one of Wilson's most famous short stories: it earned Wilson a Nebula nomination and is the title story of the 2011 collection of Wilson stories put out by Ramble House, a publisher all classic genre lit fans should keep an eye on.

"The Story Writer" is a sappy, sentimental, self-indulgent and pandering tale of 42 pages about a pulp writer who made enough money churning out western and detective stories and then TV scripts to retire in his fifties, who then starts hanging out at flea markets, banging out stories on the fly on an old typewriter for customers. I can see why "The Story Writer" would appeal to Nebula voters, what with the way it romanticizes writers and name drops so many old pulp writers and genre characters.  (The Nebulas, of course, are chosen by professional writers.)  The story is also full of details about what it is like to hang around flea markets and antique stores.  As followers of my Twitter feed know, the wife and I spend a fair amount of our free time at flea markets and antique stores, so I guess I am the target audience of this story in more ways than one, but somehow this stuff left me cold--I don't read SF to see my own boring life reproduced.

Anyway, a mysterious man comes to the flea market and the protagonist writes a story about how the mystery man is one of an alien race hiding on Earth, sought by the government, while the writer himself is the hero foretold in the aliens' prophecy.  He goes to another dimension, and then to Washington, D. C., to hash out a modus vivendi between the humans and the aliens.  So we have a weak story serving as a frame for a feeble story.

The plot is absurd, banal and tired, and the style isn't any good either, long-winded and boring, with long lists of items and of people and of song titles that are supposed to make you nod knowingly when you recognize them, a monotonous chain of metaphors when one metaphor would suffice, and plenty of superfluous prattle about the protagonist filling his pipe or drinking root beer or whatever.  And then there is the poetry....


No, no, please, no....
"Out There Where the Big Ships Go" by Richard Cowper

As Joseph Banks and William Bligh could tell you, sometimes you explore new territory and find fascinating new specimens, and sometimes you explore new territory and your friends get eaten by cannibals.  But we can't let these setbacks discourage us from our odyssey of literary exploration; our motto must be "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," even  if "the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain," and your foreign minister cares so little for transparency and national security that she lost or stole thousands of official communications and half of the twenty electronic devices full of confidential info she used.

Richard Cowper seems to have a pretty good reputation among the internet SF community (check out Joachim Boaz's posts and links here and tarbandu's review of a Cowper novel here) so maybe this story will salve the wounds I suffered at the hands of Richard Wilson.

"Out There Where the Big Ships Go" takes place in a post-Space Age future; during the lifetime of many of the characters the last of Earth's spaceships returned to Earth, never to leave again.  Because of a lack of fossil fuels (I guess, or maybe some other reason), international commerce is conducted via high-tech sailing ships.  Our main character is Roger, a 12-year old boy staying at a Caribbean resort with his mother (this whole set up, the story's tone, and various small details, like a maternal kiss, reminded me of Proust;could Cowper be consciously emulating In Search of Lost Time?)  Roger meets a beautiful woman, and the captain of that last space ship, a man of great wisdom, and in the second half of the story we readers learn about that last voyage and how it changed the world.  You see, the crew of that last voyage encountered peaceful and immortal aliens who play an elaborate skill-based board game, somewhat like go. When the game was introduced to the Earth, mankind became devoted to the game and imbued with its zen-like wisdom, ending wars and poverty.  A little sappy and utopian, maybe, but Cowper's style and delivery sell the story.

Charmingly written, this is a pleasant, entertaining piece.  Quite good.


So we've got two winners here, from Card and Cowper, a below average story from Somtow, and a story by Wilson that is so poor I'm guessing Baen and Wollheim published it mainly to honor an old hand who started in the genre fiction racket way back when (Wollheim in his intro notes Wilson was one of the Futurians) and devoted his life to it.  Looking back at them, I see three of the four stories are about ways of creating a happy human society, and question whether happiness should even be mankind's primary goal.

In our next episode, more science fiction short stories selected by a celebrated editor--these will be from the 1960s.

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