Thursday, September 15, 2016

Return to Alternities: 1974 tales by Jack C. Haldeman II, Robert Wissner, Arthur Byron Cover, and Steven Utley & Joe Pumilia

Let's dive back into that "nova of superb new young writers," 1974's anthology from Dell, Alternities, edited by David Gerrold of "Trouble with Tribbles" fame.

My copy of Alternities was previously owned by a Fred Thivener, who had one of those cool embossing devices.  One is led to wonder what Fred thought of Alternities, if he "relished and remembered" the stories we will be talking about today.  (Unless I am mixing up one Fred Thivener for another, the man who owned this book was an important person here in Columbus and received a pretty extensive obituary at the Dispatch.)

Fellow SF fan Fred Thivener, we salute you!
"Sand Castles" by Jack C. Haldeman II

This story is a pointless waste of time, and it is 17 pages long!

Two men, astronauts, are stranded on an alien planet after their ship crashes.  The remarkable property of this planet is that, while upon it, the men's thoughts are made manifest--the narrator imagines a dish of ice cream and it appears and he eats it.  His comrade imagines a stack of Playboy magazines and they appear and he cuts out the centerfolds and pastes them into a scrapbook.  The men have to make an effort to make things appear, and have to have extensive knowledge of the thing they are trying to conjure up; it seems that wishing into existence a means of transport back to Earth, or even of communicating with Earth, is beyond their abilities.  If attention lapses, things created in this way can simply fade away.

There are friendly natives on the planet, though they may be simply more creations of the narrator's imagination.  You cannot trust that anything in this story is real.  The natives say things about time ("The concept is fuzzy to us") and facts ("Facts are fuzzy things and are open to a great deal of interpretation....I don't see why you bother with them") that add to the story's pervasive feeling that nothing is real and no knowledge is reliable.

Maybe Haldeman is trying to say something about epistemology and causality, that you can't trust your sense impressions and we have no real reason to believe in cause and effect (maybe this story is Haldeman's response to just having read some Descartes or Berkeley or Hume?)  Haldeman doesn't use the scenario to tell a traditional story--the characters don't learn anything or accomplish anything, and nothing happens to inspire any feelings in the reader beyond frustration and boredom (it is not one of those stories in which the mystery is solved in the end.)  Haldeman just piles on crazy images (aliens hunting with Duncan yo-yos, a horde of three-inch tall people, a 300-pound black man sitting on a throne surrounded by naked girls and wearing a "Gay Power" T-shirt) and boring jokes (a simulacra of the narrator's sister is conjured up and the narrator tries to prevent his fellow castaway from having sex with her.)

Quite bad.  This printing here in Alternities constitutes the sole appearance of "Sand Castles" before the public.  This Haldeman, brother of the Haldeman who produced MPorcius-approved novels like Mindbridge and the enduring classic Forever War, has a long list of publications at isfdb and presumably most are superior to this thing.

"The P. T. A. Meets Che Guevara" by Robert Wissner

Wissner has five credits on isfdb, one of them unpublished because it was to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive Last Dangerous Visions.  That's right, folks, Ellison's indifference and incompetence are keeping 20% of this gentleman's literary output from his fans (if any.)

This story, five pages, is a first-person narrative describing an emergency P. T. A. meeting from the point of view of a father in attendance.  The meeting has been called because of an outbreak of vandalism at the school.  Feminists will note how much of the five pages are taken up by the narrator's assessments of various female teachers' physical attributes and sexual desirability.  There's nothing funnier than jokes about how an old fat woman probably never had sex, am I right?  The SF component of the story is the narrator's fantasy that the troublemaking kids, including his own eight-year old daughter, are revolutionaries who may break into the P. T. A meeting and murder the faculty as well as any parents who resist.

This story is not good, but it kept my attention and inspired some kind of reaction in me, so has managed to claw its way into the lower reaches of the "barely acceptable" category.

"A Gross Love Story" by Arthur Byron Cover  

A look at his credits on isfdb is giving me the idea that Cover is a writer promoted by Harlan Ellison whose work is meant to be funny.  He also has written books in shared universes and TV and computer game tie-ins.  (Damn, I haven't thought about Planetfall in years.)

In 2009 tarbandu reviewed Cover's first novel, Autumn Angels, (he awarded it 3 of 5 stars), which he tells us has a long intro from Ellison.

"A Gross Love Story" appears to us as a script or screenplay, consisting mostly of dialogue between characters A and B.  The setting is a graveyard at night, with a castle in the background.  (Despite the castle, the thing takes place in America.)  A and B are graverobbers in the employ of a vampire they call "the doctor" (he also conducts Frankenstein-type experiments.)  The dialogue consists largely of juvenile jokes: B is a "retard" from being hit in the head too often by his mother and consistently says "William G. Buckley" instead of "William F.," while A is a homosexual who was born without a penis and laments that the doctor is a prude who won't let him bring "cute boys" to the castle and declares "I was born without a dick but I wasn't born a homosexual!  Queers are made, not born!"

There is stage direction, like when A and B have to hide behind a tombstone because drunken Irish cop Clancy is walking by.  (Yes, this is the second drunken Irish cop in Alternities.  Erin go bragh!)

They dig up a beautiful young woman, recently dead, and B falls in love with her and is inspired to have sex with the corpse, but halfway through foreplay loses interest when he learns the girl was Clancy's sister, a slut.  Like the doctor, B is a prude and wants his first time to be with a virgin.

Bad, but so audaciously and single-mindedly childish, vulgar and insensitive to today's protected classes that I think it merits elevation to the "barely acceptable" category.  It is sort of like an intentionally crude and offensive underground comic, and I think those who appreciate that sort of thing may appreciate "A Gross Love Story."

"Message of Joy" by Arthur Byron Cover

This is a first-person narrative of an insane person living in a future Earth which suffers overpopulation and mass unemployment and is run by a sort of totalitarian government which pacifies the populace by handing out marijuana.  Our narrator is rebellious, and is (or at least he believes he is) wanted by the government for starting a riot during which many people were killed.  The story includes copious use of slang and colloquialisms made up by Cover, like "flippers" for feet and "fin" or "claw" for hand.

All of a sudden, while laying in bed, high, the narrator comprehends the secret of perfection and happiness, represented in the story by a brief tune: Dum-de-la-dum.  He goes out on the street to try to share the secret of perfection with people.  People are not interested.  He hires a prostitute and murders her, then starts fights on the street until knocked unconscious.  The End.

There's a glimmer of something happening here (I can imagine Malzberg doing something like this), but not enough to be worth your time.  Thumbs down.

"Womb, with a View" by Steven Utley

Utley has a long list of short fiction and poetry at isfdb, though I have never read him before.

"Womb, With a View" is about a gynecologist who bent over a patient, "separated her labia and peered up her" and found himself gazing upon the star-spangled blackness of deep space!  Is he insane?  No, his nurse sees the same thing!  Then small flying saucers start flying out of the poor woman!  Alien invaders put a space warp in this poor woman's reproductive organs!

This is a gimmicky trifle of a story, but it is competent.  Acceptable.

Utley is big in Germany
"Hung Like an Elephant" by Steven Utley and Joe Pumilia

We are used to reading SF stories that ask questions like: What would it be like if aliens invaded the Earth?  What would happen if the Earth colonized the Moon?  What might life be like on a planet with extremely high gravity or in the zero gee of space?  What will government, the family, religion, the environment, war, and crime be like in the future?  Well, Steven Utley seems to specialize in asking the question, "What if something impossible happened to somebody's crotch?"

The narrator of this story wakes up one morning to find that his phallus has fallen off and been replaced by the "lemon-sized" head of an elephant. For good measure, his navel has been replaced by a mouth which sings 1950s rock and roll.  He discovers his penis crawling around the bed like a bewildered worm, and he puts it in a jar.

(Remember when Rael and John met Doktor Dyper and then that giant bird?  Damn, that was really something.)

The narrator's girlfriend, thinking him joking, storms out, and his doctor has no idea what to do.  Religious people debate whether he is a miracle, a guru, or the devil, and a freak show tries to hire him.  Our hero decides that he is just the latest of the jokes God has been playing on the human race, like the sinking of the Titanic or the Battle of Little Big Horn, events impossible which insist on happening anyway.

Too long and disorganized, this one slips below the "acceptable" criteria to earn a marginal negative rating.

"Hung Like an Elephant" was co-written with Joseph Pumilia.  A quick glance at his isfdb page suggests Pumilia has mostly written "weird" stuff, by which I mean Lovecraftian horror, Robert Howard-style fantasy, and erotic horror.

Interestingly, both "Hung Like an Elephant" and "Womb, with a View" were translated into German; they never appeared in English a second time.


Alternities is shaping up to be a quite odd and quite poor anthology.  But we still have five stories to go, including stories by perhaps the biggest name authors in Alternities. Maybe in our next episode, when we talk about those five pieces, we'll find reason to revise our opinion of this unusual project of David Gerrold's.         

No comments:

Post a Comment