Friday, November 18, 2016

1955 stories from Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson and Chad Oliver

Front cover of my copy of
the 1962 edition
Let's read three more stories from Fred Pohl's 1955 anthology of brand new (to Americans) stories, Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3. This time we'll be tackling stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson, and Chad Oliver (!?)

"The Deep Range" by Arthur C. Clarke

Scientist and diving enthusiast Clarke gives us a very hard piece of hard SF, all about technology and biology. This is also one of the many SF stories that gushes sentimentally over how smart and beautiful dolphins are.

In the future, the oceans are filled with electric fences, and "cowboys" in one-man submarines, with the help of dolphin "sheep dogs," shepherd herds of whales whose meat will end up on dinner tables the world over. Our hero is one such cowboy. When a forty-foot shark breaks through a weak spot of fence he uses sonar and the abilities of his two dolphin buddies to track down the predator; then he shoots it with a wire-guided poison dart torpedo, saving the whales for somebody's fridge.

This is a quite good realistic, straightforward, day-at-the-office-of-a-man-in-the-future story; Clarke paints a clear and sharp picture of what is going on in his speculative future. The story doesn't try to engage your emotions or achieve anything on the literary level, though it prompted me to read the wikipedia page about the Greenland shark, which can live to be 500 years old, something I hadn't known before. (Yes, the shark that gets killed in this story was probably swimming the seas when Samuel Johnson was compiling his famous dictionary and Napoleon Bonaparte was murdering people by the thousands--that shark was a witness to history but that didn't protect him from mammal privilege!) isfdb is telling me "The Deep Range" first appeared in the April 1954 issue of the British magazine Argosy; it would be expanded a few years later into a full-length novel in which we presumably witness still more endotherm on ectotherm macroaggressions.

"Guinevere for Everybody" by Jack Williamson

I have fond memories of Williamson's Legion of Space and some other of his books. But they can't all be winners!

It is the future, the period just after the management of large corporations has been turned over to computers! One of the biggest firms, Solar Chemistics (makers of delicious chemburgers), under the leadership of its managerial computer, Athena Sue, has begun marketing clones of a beauty contest winner. This doesn't sit well with the public--some object to what amounts to selling sex slaves, others feel threatened because the clones are apparently superior to us natural born humans. After a series of riots at the retail stores selling the clones and at Solar Chemistic's HQ, the board of directors shuts down the computer and puts a human being back in charge of the company; manufacture of clones is ceased. But why did Athena Sue pull such a blunder? A computer expert from General Cybernetics examines Athena Sue's workings and discovers she was sabotaged by the former general manager whom she was replacing! He also discovers that the beautiful and flirtatious clones were designed with planned obsolescence in mind--when you buy one it is a model of nubility, but overnight it ages into extreme senescence.

"Guinevere for Everybody," which is told in a light-hearted manner that undermines consideration of the various serious issues that are involved (what makes us human? how does our society and how do individuals respond to changes in the economy brought about by mechanization and computerization?) and whose jokes would probably be considered sexist today, feels like filler. Merely acceptable.

"Any More at Home Like You?" by Chad Oliver

If you are a regular reader of MPorcius Fiction Log, you may be saying to yourself, "Isn't Chad Oliver that guy MPorcius is always complaining writes the same dumb space-anthropologist-goes- native-among-primitives-who-live-in-harmony-with-the-environment story again and again? Why is he reading this?" The fact is, I am burning with curiosity: is there any chance that this is yet another story about a space anthropologist who finds low-tech aliens who are exactly like Earth humans, except that they live as one with nature, and so he decides to abandon his people and live out his life with the primitives in their mud huts or wigwams or whatever? How many times could he pawn off this same material on the SF community?

...and back.
When people talk today I all too often find myself unable to understand them, or simply recoiling at their vocabulary. I don't know what "gaslighting" means. I don't know the difference between a "big mess" and a "hot mess." When I am driving in the car I might say "I'm 200 miles from New York," or "I'm two hours away from Chicago," but I'd never say "I'm two hours out." ("Out?") I still say "Where are you?" instead of "Where are you at?"

One of the irritating neologisms I have just started noticing people saying is "nothingburger." This seems to be used primarily to describe accusations of a crime which you want to ignore, but "nothingburger" was the word that kept popping into my mind when I read "Any More at Home Like You?;" this is a story about as thrilling as an account of walking to the corner to borrow a book from the library.

A spaceship crashes near Los Angeles. An alien, who looks exactly like an Earth human, emerges. He claims to represent a vast galactic civilization and is taken to see the president and to speak before the UN about building peaceful relations with the rest of the galaxy. Then he sneaks away to talk to a college professor, a linguist. It turns out the alien is not a representative of a galactic civilization--he is a lowly grad student "studying the vowel-shift from Old English to the present" who wanted to sneak around the Earth undetected but fouled it up. The alien governments don't give Earth a second thought; the last alien to visit Earth, also an academic, was here a thousand years ago! The college prof gives him a crate of books that will make his research easy and the alien is picked up by his friends in a second spaceship. The End.

(This guy is going to base his dissertation entirely on secondary sources? Tsk, tsk!)

Oliver is going meta on us here, making a joke about how SF stories about alien landings usually feature an alien bent on conquering us or peacefully integrating us into a larger, more sophisticated, polity. But the reason those themes are common is because they are fun and interesting; a linguist coming to clandestinely research esoterica is boring. Oliver also includes what felt like a self-referential joke directed at critics of his work like me: before the alien has revealed his true mission, the Earth professor asks him if he is an anthropologist!

Like Williamson's story, this one feels like filler--while not offensively bad, it is merely acceptable.


Clarke's story is kind of modest in its ambition, but is a perfect example of the type of SF it represents; a world reliant on herds of whales for food is an exciting and memorable vision, and Clarke makes it feel real. Williamson and Oliver try to be funny and clever, but leave us with something limp and forgettable. 

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