Sunday, October 2, 2016

Three stories from Far-Out People: Kris Neville, William F. Nolan & Michael Fayette

The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which I started talking about in my last blog post, contains page after page of very interesting SF criticism from Malzberg, an expert on SF history.  In the book he recommends Kris Neville's 1971 version of "The Price of Simeryl," which was printed in the anthology The Far-Out People.  I decided to read "The Price of Simeryl," and, while I was at it, two other stories from The Far-Out People, one by William F. Nolan and one by Michael Fayette.

"The Price of Simeryl" by Kris Neville (original publication date 1966, this revision 1971)

I've read (I think) seven Neville stories in the past, and generally have had a positive reaction.  Let's see how I feel about this one, which first appeared in Analog.  According to The Far-Out People's publication page, the version I am reading is a revision.

Planet Elanth was colonized by humans less than 100 years ago, and they got problems!  A "Third Secretary in State," Raleigh, is sent from the administrative center of the vast space Federation to Elanth to investigate.  We follow his investigation, as well as the efforts of the human leadership of Elanth to convince Raleigh to approve a loan and arms sale to Elanth, and to keep certain facts a secret from Raleigh.

Most of this 41-page story consists of conversations during which politicians and bureaucrats all are trying to put something over on each other and the public.  I guess the story is largely an attack on imperialism and colonialism and racism as well as government callousness and ineptitude; the fact that the human colonists on Elanth call the native Elanthians "gooks" is presumably supposed to make you think of the Vietnam War, while the plot element mentioned in the title, the drug Simeryl, I guess is meant to remind you of the Opium Wars.  The native Elanthians are mysterious; they have a stone age culture and technology, and "live in harmony with the environment," as so many natives in SF stories do.  Their religion or philosophy or whatever compels them to help others, and so they have become an indispensible part of the human colonists' economy, volunteering to do heavy labor on farms and building roads.  Decades of human influence has messed up the Elanthian ecology, leading to fewer volunteers, and efforts to repair the environment and keep the Elanthians on the farm by addicting them to Simeryl have only made things worse. When Raleigh arrives things have reached the point where the human colonials are suffering painful price rises due to inflation and seeking weapons to defend themselves from an expected native revolt.

When Raleigh gets back to the administrative center of the Federation of Star Systems he tells the First Secretary in State to send neither money nor weapons to Elanth, to just let the human colonists all die.  The colonists, he says, have been driven insane by contact with the superior culture of the Elanth natives.  The taxpayers' money should be used instead to help the natives recover from the malign effect of contact with the human race!

Neville structures the story like a whodunit, so we get 40 pages of chatter with vague clues and then on the last page Raleigh issues his harsh verdict and diagnosis, that the human colonists "...bumped into a superior culture in the Elanthians and this gave them a horrible inferiority complex...."  The text doesn't really make it that all that clear that the colonists are insane or that the natives are so superior.  I'm not sure whether we are supposed to see Raleigh as a kind of Sherlock Holmes genius who perfectly reads all the clues and agree with his opinions and policies, or suspect he and the First Secretary are just as callous and insane as the thousands of colonists they are consigning to death.

I find these noble savage stories, and stories in which we are supposed to side with the aliens against the humans, a little hard to take.  In this one we barely even get to see the natives and assess how great they are; Raleigh only has a single brief interview with one of them.  (It is hinted that the Elanthians once had an urban technological civilization and abandoned it; maybe that is our signal that they are awesome. I must to say, I had to abandon the urban civilization called Manhattan for the Middle West and I don't feel very awesome about it.)  After some thought, I'm deciding that "The Price of Simeryl"'s ambiguity and mysteriousness make it better than the more straightforward pro-alien/anti-human stories you get from a guy like Chad Oliver, king of the anthropologist-goes-native-among-primitive-tribes story.  I am judging "The Price of Simeryl" acceptable, but I think it is worse, and less thought-provoking, than other Neville stories I have read.

"Papa's Planet" by William F. Nolan (1968)

In early 2015 I read four stories by Nolan and didn't think they were a very big deal. Maybe this one, first printed in Playboy, will put me firmly in the pro- (or anti-?) Nolan camp.

Or maybe not.  This is a four page gimmick story.  A pair of newlyweds goes to a planet dedicated to memorializing the life of Ernest Hemingway.  All the famous sites of Hemingway's adventures, Paris and Pamplona and all that, are reproduced and inhabited by robots.  The wife falls in love with an F. Scott Fitzgerald robot and abandons her husband.

This is exactly the sort of story a cynical person would expect to see in Playboy, the kind of story which tells the reader "You're not just a creep who bought this magazine to look at girls' boobs, you are an educated sophisticate who recognizes the names 'Ernest Hemingway' and 'F. Scott Fitzgerald' and bought this magazine to look at girls' boobs."   Acceptable, I guess.

"Savior Sole" by Michael Fayette (original publication date 1970, this revision 1971)

Fayette has only three credits on isfdb.  This story first appeared in Robert Hoskins' anthology Infinity One.  A year later Hoskins included it (in a revised version) in The Far-Out People.  Reduce, reuse, recycle.

I am totally loving this Steranko cover.
This is one of those stories in which half the stuff that happens is probably just the main character's hallucinations.  (Am I crazy, or do I read lots of stories like this?) It is also one of those New Agey stories which includes lots of poetry-like repetition and a dictionary definition (of  "lonely") in the text.

What I think happens is this: in order to preserve the human race against a catastrophe the U. S. government puts three hundred and fifty people in suspended animation in an underground bunker.  Also in the bunker is an Air Force chaplain; he is to reanimate everybody if he sees a red alarm light come on.  This will only happen if the entire human race on the surface is exterminated.

After living five years alone in the bunker the chaplain goes insane.  He starts thinking the corpsicles are up and about, having parties.  He falls in love with a young woman and deactivates her suspended animation equipment so he can grope her naked body.  This tampering with the equipment causes her to die (Fayette graphically describes how she bloats up and decays and so forth.)  In the end of the story the red light turns on...or does it?

This story just kind of sits there, neither offensively bad nor memorable or interesting, mere filler.  At least it is short, nine pages.  Barely acceptable.


Three lukewarm stories: the fully formed but mediocre Neville and then two pointless, half-baked, gimmicky pieces.  It is more fun to read stories that are really good (obviously), and more fun to write about stories that are truly bad that give me a chance to enumerate problems and vent my frustration than to deal with these kinds of blah stories.  Well, that's life, I guess.

In our next episode we'll tackle more material from The Best of Barry N. Malzberg; no doubt Barry will inspire more excitement than did today's three writers.

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