Sunday, May 29, 2016

Earthwreck! by Thomas N. Scortia

"If the situation is as bad as we are speculating, then we need the personnel of the Russian station very badly."
"Need them?  For what purpose?" Rothgate sneered.
"Because..." Janice Svoboda said slowly, "because they have all the women."

The words "science fiction" do not appear on the cover of my Fawcett Gold Medal paperback edition of Earthwreck!, and it perhaps makes sense to think of it as a mainstream disaster novel or a "technothriller" rather than a "real" SF novel.  I bought the book thinking it was a SF story, but I was not disappointed; it is an effective and entertaining novel.

Published in 1974 and set in 1986 or so, Earthwreck! presents us with a world wracked by terrorism and locked in Cold War--a unified Arab Republic supported by Red China contends with Israel, while the USSR and China fight border wars against each other and both communist powers grimly face the liberal West led by the United States.  These tensions, however, have not been permitted to prevent advances in the exploration of space--both an American and a Soviet space station orbit the Earth, one hundred miles apart from each other.  Each station is building a ship with which to deploy a permanent base on the moon.  The Communist space station has been sending a series of probes to Mars, and they have discovered evidence that the red planet was once covered in dense forests, and that that vegetation is beginning to grow back.

In the novel's prologue we sit in on a collaborative meeting of dissident Japanese communists with Muslim terrorists, and in Chapter One these insaniacs detonate nuclear weapons provided by the Chinese in Tel Aviv, causing a chain reaction that results in worldwide nuclear and biological war.  By Chapter Five the entire human race has been wiped out, except for the 300 or so people in the two orbiting space stations!  Because of radiation, and airborne spores carrying the Soviets' weaponized strain of rickets, the Earth is off limits for at least a century!        

The plot of Earthwreck! consists of the characters dealing with various technical problems (I lost track of the number of times Scortia uses the word "jury-rigged") and psychological problems.  Sample technical problems:  In Chapter Four the Americans detect a Soviet warhead coming their way, and Italian-American engineer Quintus Longo has 38 minutes to figure out a way to redirect the deadly "bird." Genetic engineer Janice Svoboda, the only woman on the US station, develops simple organisms like chlorella to generate oxygen and strains people's feces in hopes of finding viable seeds.  The astronauts and cosmonauts work to cobble together out of the half-built American and Soviet moonships a single vessel with which to colonize Luna.  Scortia, a chemist who worked in the aerospace industry, knows all about Delta Vs and polymers and that sort of thing, and the book's science and engineering feel authentic and realistic.

For those of us who barely have enough know-how to drive a car, much less design a spacecraft, the psychological problems are essential to the novel's success.  Sample psychological problems: Will Longo crack up over the loss of his wife and sons?  Can the cold Svoboda learn to accept love?  Can Colonel Rothgate and Captain Steinbrunner, who hold grudges against the commies because years ago their loved ones were killed by Reds, be willing to collaborate with the Soviets?    

There's quite a bit of sexual content in the book.  A major element of the plot is how there is only one woman on the US station, but scores on the Soviet one, so if any of the American men want to participate in the propagation of the human race, they will have to collaborate with the Soviets.  Both Longo and Svoboda reminisce about their family relationships and sexual experiences back on Earth.  Earthwreck! has a homoerotic vibe, and a preoccupation with body hair, that are a little odd.  In the description of Longo's life with his family we learn that he insisted his wife Martha not shave her armpits, because the feel and smell of her body hair and perspiration excited him.  We also get a description of how proud he was of his five-year old son's body, including little Gino's penis, which Longo made sure would not be circumcised.

Scortia also talks a lot about ethnicity.  Many characters remark that Italians are emotional and obsessed with their children, and we are told Martha "was a marvelously hairy woman, very much true to her French ancestry."  Then there's expert pilot and motorcycle enthusiast Steinbrunner, who escaped East Germany in his youth.  We learn, when Longo showers with him, that Steinbrunner is "a dusky blond with the hairiness of the northern German blonds...."

I thought the psychological and sexual content--all the flashbacks to the events on Earth that formed the characters of these people now lost in space, and all the descriptions of how they respond to the pressures of the desperate situation they find themselves in--was effective and interesting, in part because some of it was unusual--it is common in popular fiction to find loving or leering descriptions of a woman's breasts, so all the descriptions of body hair here constitute a memorable change of pace.

Scortia's style is smooth, and the novel is well-paced and well-structured.  The brief homerotic shower scene early in the novel effectively foreshadows the revelation in the end of the book that the formative event in Steinbrunner's young life was a homosexual love affair--by a shocking coincidence the man who turned Steinbrunner's lover in to the Stasi is aboard the Soviet station, which provides the pilot the opportunity to wreak a terrible vengeance!  Similarly, the brief mention of Mars early in the novel presages how, in the final third of the book, the Reds convince the Yanks to redirect their colonization efforts from the nearby barren moon to the distant surface of Mars, which is rich in valuable organic matter.  The last 60 or so pages of the 224-page book generate real suspense, as we readers wonder if Rothgate and Steinbrunner will really go through with their scheme to sabotage the Mars plan, which they feel is much riskier than the moon plan.

I resent the moral equivalency between the USSR and the West we so often see propounded in academia and popular culture in the same way I resent efforts to portray the Japanese as victims of the Pacific War when they were its instigators and aggressors.  (How much time has the president spent comforting the Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Australians, Britons, Americans and others enslaved, tortured and abused by the Japanese?  Maybe he does that all the time, at the golf course or something, and it doesn't get much publicity, so I missed it.)  So if I have a gripe with Earthwreck! it is that, while the novel implicitly condemns socialism and the Beijing and Moscow regimes (with its references to tyranny in East Berlin, comparisons of the efficient and comfortable US station to the inefficient, ugly and smelly Soviet station, and its assigning of blame for the catastrophe to Chinese and Soviet weapons), none of the characters makes an intellectual or moral argument against communism--Rothgate's and Steinbrunner's hostility to the Soviets is born out of their having suffered personal injuries at the hands of Marxist terrorists and ruling parties, not out of a passionate love for human freedom or a scholarly recognition that socialism leads to poverty.  Anti-communism in the book is not an intellectual or moral choice, but a psychological problem that has to be overcome if the human race is to survive, which I think is unfair and unreflective of reality.  Well, let's be generous and chalk it up to an artistic and ethical choice made by Scortia, the decision to take as one of Earthwreck!'s themes the importance to the health of individuals and of societies of forgiveness.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Novelets by Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon and Chad Oliver


Last week the wife and I went to an "authentic" Italian restaurant in Gahanna, Ohio, the kind of place run by an old grandmother who greets you at the door like you are a delinquent member of the family and regales you with stories of her varicose veins; later she will, with jocular ferocity, enjoin you to eat your vegetables.  This place opens at dinner time, and the wife and I got there too early, so we killed time at the local library and at a tiny antiques and collectibles shop nearby.  The sparsely stocked shop had like two dozen old paperbacks, so few that I figured there would be nothing of interest, but I was wrong; when I saw William F. Nolan's 3 to the Highest Power, a 1968 paperback anthology with novelets by Ray Bradbury, Chad Oliver and Theodore Sturgeon behind its cool lunar cover, I had to have it.  This week, while loitering in Akron libraries and parks, I read the three stories; each is in the 30 to 45 page range.  The book's 160 pages are filled out by William F. Nolan's prefaces and bibliographies for each writer; SF fans must have found these indices very useful in the pre-internet age.

"The Lost City of Mars" by Ray Bradbury (1967)

Ray Bradbury is perhaps the most written about and most beloved of all American science-fiction writers; he certainly hasn't attracted the outspoken and well-organized legions of detractors that those other titans of American SF, Heinlein and Asimov, have.  In fact, Bradbury's one famous detractor, Thomas Disch, seems to have damaged his career by taking aim at Bradbury.  The matter of Bradbury's high reputation reminds me of Charles Schulz, another giant American talent whom everybody loves but who, to me, seems to have said and done things that should, but haven't yet, made him a target of the lefties.  Let's see if "The Lost City of Mars," first seen in the pages of Playboy, gives us reason to reconsider Bradbury's reputation.

Mars has been long colonized by mankind, and is dotted with human cities and towns as well as ruins of the extinct race of native Martians. In fact, as the story opens, the powers that be are considering what alien star system to explore; Mars has been conquered and the men of Earth will soon take their next step, beyond our solar system.

A public works project symbolizes the complete passing of Mars from native hands to that of the colonizers: the last of the Martian canals, dry for centuries, is filled with water by Earthmen.  A rich man's yacht sets out on the newly-navigable canal with a motley assortment of prominent citizens as holiday passengers, among them a famous poet and his wife, a beautiful actress and her maid, a celebrated big game hunter, and the captain of a rocket ship involved in the aforementioned selection of the first star system to be explored by humanity.  Bradbury doesn't come right out and say it, but the passengers all seem to be tired of life.  The actress, for example, has long enjoyed the worship of the male sex thanks to her great beauty, but is now depressed over losing her looks and men's adulation.  As for the hunter, he has used every weapon and killed every beast on Earth and has come to Mars to seek exotic new weaponry and novel quarry.  The rocket captain, who has long held a belief voiced by Bradbury himself in interviews--that by traveling to the stars humanity will achieve immortality--has become skeptical that the human race has the capability or even deserves to reach the stars.

The yacht trip is ostensibly a quest for Dia-Sao, the lost city of Mars which exhaustive surveys of Mars have never found, and which native myth condemns as "The City of Doom," a place to be feared and shunned.  The passengers do not take Dia-Sao very seriously.  Until, that is, they sail right into the lost city, which lies underground, inside a mountain (having thus escaped notice by aerial reconnaissances.)  

The yacht's passengers split up and explore the city.  (The people in this story don't act like real people would, but like characters in a fable or dream.  Would you explore an alien "City of Doom" all by yourself with no weapons, no armor, and no medical or communications equipment?  Of course you wouldn't.)  The city's robotic mechanisms still operate, detecting the deepest desires of each visitor and offering to each of them the opportunity ofhaving their dreams come true. The actress, for example, is entombed forever in a room of mirrors in which she will appear beautiful for all time.

"Lost City of Mars" also appears in the
widely available collection
I Sing the Body Electric
The rocket captain rejects what the city offers him, the illusion of life on a fresh new planet orbiting a distant star.  The prizes offered by the city, he feels, are illegitimate.  A decent person will derive no satisfaction from being given his heart's desire--true satisfaction, true achievement, comes from work, from taking risks, from overcoming obstacles and earning what you desire. He leaves the treacherous city with his ambition to conquer the stars renewed.

The poet also escapes.  Living with his nagging wife had made him long for death (!) and the city provides him the means to experience again and again simulations of death in vehicular accidents.  This gives him the strength to break up with his wife--he walks away from the city happier than he has been since his childhood.  His wife, on the other hand, never leaves Dia-Sao; it seems possible she activates the death simulation machine and actually dies.  (I wondered if the way the poet cheats death was a reference to the cliche that a poet will live forever in his verses; Shakespeare expresses this commonplace in his sonnets, as does Horace in his Odes.)

"The Lost City of Mars" is a good story, but (returning to my comment above about Bradbury's reputation) has elements that the kids who seem to be running our culture today might call "problematic."  There are three female characters, and two are negative stereotypes (the vain woman who has no skills other than being good-looking and the wife who crushes her husband's spirit) while the third (the actress's maid) is a nonentity who gets rescued from the city by the rocket captain.  (Is it possible that the maid's heart's desire was to be rescued by a hero?)

The story's defenders, among whom I will number myself, will consider the vain beauty and the nagging spouse to be not stereotypes but archetypes, and will point out that there are three male characters who succumb to the city's siren songs and whom themselves might be considered unflattering caricatures.  

"One Foot and the Grave" by Theodore Sturgeon (1949)

I never know how I am going to feel about a Sturgeon story before I read it; some are good, but some make me groan.  Let's see what Ted's serving up this time.

"One Foot and the Grave" is one of those stories in which we are told traditional superstitious nonsense, witches and spells and vampires and so forth, are real and can be explained by science--we just can't grasp the science yet, the same way medieval people wouldn't understand an electric light bulb or radar and would consider them magic.  It is also one of those stories which starts out with a bizarre circumstance and a bunch of characters, and then the characters all talk and talk and talk, the mysteries proliferating as we get more info until finally in the last few pages we learn how all the characters and weird plot elements are tied together.

The matter of the story is typical Lovecraftian horror stuff, but Sturgeon turns Lovecraft on his head (Sturgeon actually refers to Lovecraft by name in the story, telegraphing his intent.)  Lovecraft tells you the universe is indifferent or inimical, that life is meaningless, and that even greater horror awaits us in the future.  But in our optimistic pal Sturgeon's story we learn that there are powerful forces looking out for us, that love conquers all, and that everything is about to get much much better!

The cover of Vol. V of
  The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
illustrates "One Foot and the Grave"
The plot in brief (I'm leaving out half the characters, red herrings and plot twists here):  Claire has a crush on Thad, who resists her charms because he has a crush on small town physician Dr. Ponder's beautiful assistant, Luanna.  Claire has developed a bizarre malady--one of her feet has changed into a cloven hoof!  Dr. Ponder explains that millennia ago an evil entity was imprisoned in the woods nearby, and its magic has transformed Claire's foot.  To return her foot to normal, Ponder says, Claire has to recite an incantation over the place where the ancient monster is entombed.   Luckily, Thad realizes something isn't kosher when he spots Luanna eating a live rabbit!  In reality, devious Dr. Ponder is an evil wizard and Luanna is his familiar, and they are trying to trick Claire (who has some kind of special powers she is not really aware of) into preventing the liberation of the entity, which is in fact a good entity!  Thad frees the supernatural prisoner, who turns out to be the angel Kamel, imprisoned by Satan in the ancient past.  Now Kamel is free to do his work of leading humanity towards unity and happiness (we see this kind of utopian collectivism in Sturgeon's work all the time.)  With Luanna out of the way, Claire and Thad will get married and live happily ever after.

This story isn't bad; on a stylistic level it works quite well--I actually thought many of the descriptions were good, and I was legitimately puzzled and surprised by some of the mysteries and twists.  I wasn't thrilled to see Sturgeon drawing water from the collectivism well yet again, but that is just in the last three pages of the tale, so it wasn't too exasperating.  Some who were expecting a science fiction story may complain that this is a fantasy story, that Sturgeon's invocation of the spirit of Clarke's Third Law doesn't make a story about angels, demons, wizards and vampires a real SF story.  I think those people would be right, but since I like (good) fantasy stories, I don't care.  (The fantasy components and Lovecraft references are less surprising if you keep in mind that  "One Foot and the Grave" first appeared in Weird Tales.)

"The Marginal Man" by Chad Oliver (1958)

Back in the summer of 2014 (gadzooks, have I been writing this blog that long?) I read three Chad Oliver stories and was not overly impressed.  Maybe this story, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title "Guardian Spirit," will make me change my mind about old Chad?

Oliver was an anthropologist, and editor William F. Nolan's preface to "The Marginal Man" includes excerpts from Oliver's letters that describe exciting adventures in Africa involving dangerous elephants, rhinos, and tribesmen armed with poison-tipped arrows.  So it is no surprise that the protagonist of this story is an anthropologist of the future, but it is certainly a disappointment that the star of the story, Arthur Canady, has fewer exciting adventures than Oliver did in real life!

Rather than a compelling drama, “The Marginal Man” is a utopian story about how if you can develop a good heart and live at one with nature you will achieve immortality.  It is lacking in tension or interest, and full of sentimental goop printed in italics (“You must believe, that is all” ) and romantic descriptions of the weather and the landscape (“A sea of swollen clouds washed over the stars….There was an electric hush as the world held its breath.”) This sort of thing is not for me.

Anthropoligist Arthur Canady is a member of a two-man team that travels to planets where primitive people live.  Such teams give the natives sewing machines, rifles and steam engines to jumpstart their economies, fostering their development into suitable trading partners for the Earth.  This story tells how Canady (veteran of many such missions) and his partner land among people who are just like the Plains Indians whom Oliver studied in real life, nomads who live in teepees and follow herds of large herbivores that they hunt with bows and arrows.  These natives are unlike any other Canady has met before--they have absolutely no interest in making their lives easier with Terran technology.  Soon he figures out why: these people never get sick and never die, so they have all the time in the world to sew by hand and hunt with bows.  The secret to their incredible health and longevity: they rigidly control their population and are thus in perfect harmony with the ecosystem.  The tribe has a set number of members, and a woman in the tribe will get pregnant only after another member commits suicide.  There is also a ritual that appeases some gods or aliens or something.

Canady decides he wants to live forever among these Stone Age types and so he goes through the ritual, fasting on top of a mountain where he meets his spirit animal and blah blah blah and then the tribe welcomes him with open arms.  He has an eternity of buffalo hunting to look forward to!  (Oliver hand waves away the fact that now the tribe has one too many members.)

Like the Sturgeon story, this is a fantasy story which is counted as science fiction only because the author says it is science fiction—there is no effort made to explain logically how immortality is achieved, and immortality isn’t used as a springboard to discuss psychological or social issues or the catalyst for an exciting adventure.  There is little reason for the tale to be set on another planet instead of on some lost plateau in Africa or South America; an earthbound setting would perhaps be an improvement, as I found the unexplained fact that the galaxy is full of planets inhabited by stone age humans, instead of diverse species with varying levels of technological and political development, to be distracting.  Unlike the Sturgeon, "Marginal Man" is tedious and its mysteries are obvious and silly.

Has "Marginal Man" changed my mind about Oliver?  On the contrary!  Looking back at my 2014 post on Oliver I see that two of those three stories were also about a space anthropologist going native among primitive peeps.  Enough already!  A thumbs down for this na├»ve hippy wish fulfillment yarn, and a warning that you won't be seeing any more discussions of Oliver here unless I forget what he's all about again. (Which will probably happen, because I have a bad memory.)

***********

Thinking about the stories in 3 to the Highest Power, I think we can say that all three are fables or fantasies about paradises or utopias. Sturgeon and Oliver indulge in the childish daydream that through the intervention of perfect alien beings we can achieve wonderful lives of unity with all living things. Bradbury, in his mature wisdom, tells us what we already know, that life is hard, that an easy paradise is an illusion, and true satisfaction comes from hard work.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Patterns of Chaos by Colin Kapp

"Press that button, Jaycee, you vindictive bitch.  If you dare.  I'd be interested to know what it does--to both of us."
Prepared as he was, the pulse of pain that hit him was far greater than he had imagined possible.

Back in early April I bought the 1973 Award Books printing of Patterns of Chaos in Zanesville, Ohio.  (The novel was first published across three issues of Worlds of If in 1972.)  The owner of the used bookstore where I purchased it asked me if I was a fan of author Colin Kapp.  When I admitted to not being familiar with his work, he told me that Kapp was "like Robert Heinlein or E. E. Smith."

"Well, good," I replied, "that's what I like."  Whether the gentleman was suggesting that Kapp had something specifically in common with Heinlein and Smith, or those two worthies were just the first SF writers that came to his mind, I couldn't tell, but I still took this as a propitious sign.  Another such sign was the gushing blurb from Galaxy on the cover--I tend to think of Galaxy as a relatively literary and snooty SF periodical, in contrast to, say, the science-heavy Astounding and the escapist pulps like Amazing and Planet Stories.  If the pretentious snobs at Galaxy liked it, how bad could it be?

(If I was the cynical type I would think it significant that in 1972 Galaxy and If were both published by UPD and even had the same editor, Eljer Jakobsson.)

The protagonist of Patterns of Chaos is Bron.  As the story opens, Bron wakes up from a coma and finds himself in the middle of an evacuated city being blasted to rubble by the energy weapons of hostile space warships.  Even worse, Bron has lost his memory and has no idea who he is, where he is, or what he is doing!


Luckily, voices in Bron's head fill him in!  Centuries ago humanity spread across the Milky Way and colonized many systems, but these colonies have formed disparate cultures which don't get along.  Currently a terrible interstellar war is underway; the aggressors in the war are "the Destroyers," a space empire which has already laid waste to three dozen inhabited planets.  Bron, Bron learns, is a Terran commando on a mission to infiltrate a Destroyer ship and find out where the Destroyer home world is so it can be attacked by the Terran space navy.  The voices in Bron's head are his controllers back at HQ on Terra, on the other side of the galaxy.  They explain that Bron is disguised as Ander Haltern, a highly respected cleric of this Christian planet, Onaris, which is being conquered by the Destroyers at this very moment--the REMFs on the safe end of Bron's brainphone are sure that the Destroyers will capture Bron and bring him home, revealing to Bron's superiors the location of their base.

Sure enough, Bron is seized and carried off Onaris in a Destroyer ship.  Hours later Onaris is wiped out by huge missiles which streak by the Destroyer task force.  The Terrans believe that the missiles were launched by the Destroyers, but the Destroyers present evidence to Bron that somebody else, a malignant alien force from the galaxy of Andromeda, blew up Onaris, as well as all those other planets!

Patterns of Chaos is one of those novels that is full of conspiracies and mysteries, in which you are never sure what is really going on.  As the story progresses Kapp forces the characters and us readers to reassess our beliefs about the motives and objectives of each individual character and each of the three polities involved in this intergalactic crisis.  Patterns of Chaos is also a novel which dispenses with any commitment to ideas of good and evil, of justice and injustice.  Kapp populates his book with unsympathetic characters who act amorally at best and often with radical selfishness and perverse malice, and never condemns their behavior explicitly or implicitly.

The two most prominent of Bron's controllers are representative.  A male controller, Ananias, is suspected of being some kind of spy, saboteur, or coup-plotting conspirator, while a female controller, Jaycee, is some kind of sadist (she's not the only sadist in the book.)  The dialogue between Ananias and Jaycee and between Bron and Jaycee bristles with disturbingly abusive sexual tension--Ananias and Bron repeatedly call Jaycee a bitch, and she often threatens, and sometimes commits, physical violence against them.  Bron is always trying to rebel against his controllers and in response Ananias and Jaycee warn him they control mechanisms which can inflict punishing pain on Bron or simply kill him.  At one point Ananias tries to push the "murder button" and Jaycee grabs him and breaks both his thumbs!  (Maybe being a REMF is not as cushy as we thought!)

Significantly, Ananias and Jaycee succeed in their ultimate aims--these creepos live happily ever after!

In the final portions of the book we (and Bron) learn that Bron is some kind of superman, a "chaos catalyst" who can alter the course of history.  Before losing his memory, he worked with Ananias to exaggerate the Destroyer threat so that the Terran government would spend a pile of money expanding its space navy.  Then they manipulated events and worked behind the scenes in concert with the Destroyers to make sure the Terran and Destroyer fleets would meet--not to fight each other, but to unite under Brom's command to fight off the invading armada of those Andromedans. After defeating the alien fleet Bron leads the first human expedition outside the Milky Way; on the Andromedans' homeworld he finds their civilization has decayed but left behind technology which will allow him to unite the human race and launch mankind's conquest of the entire universe!

Patterns of Chaos is fast-paced and jam-packed with SF elements of the mind-blowing surrealist kind.  The novel's version of hyperspace is very trippy--each human ship bears within itself a "subspace cavity" which includes a 3D "map" of the galaxy. Navigators string floss-thin copper wires between the minute model stars, and then the ship shrinks inside-out into its own cavity and rides those wires.  People caught within the cavity during a subspace jump are apt to see their own tiny ship passing between the stars and to go insane.  Another surreal episode has Bron boarding a spaceship which has been transformed into a mirror image of itself--text on control panels appears backwards to him, meters, dials and keyboards are reversed, etc. Ananias was on the ship during its "lateral inversion," the shock of which killed the rest of the crew and left Ananias with his heart on the right side of his chest instead of the left.

Reminding me of the Nexialism in the novel version of A. E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, the guy Bron is impersonating, Haltern, is a "syncretist." A syncretist, Bron is told, is one who "works across the channels of scientific specialization rather than along them." Strengthening Bron's disguise is the fact that, through a "hypnotic synthesis" process, Haltern's personality has been overlaid on top of Bron's--if Bron can relax, this Haltern personality will take over in response to particular stimuli, like if Bron has to interact with Onarians or is asked questions about syncretism. (Should that fail, and it does, the real Haltern is hanging out with Ananias and Jaycee back on Terra and can coach Bron, Cyrano-style, in a pinch.)

Syncretists are experts in studying "the patterns of chaos;" chaos, Haltern explains, is "the whole spectrum of cause and effect...considered not as connected incidents but from an entropic standpoint...." Here is some more sample mumbo jumbo from Haltern (we get several pages of this sort of material):
Both cause and effect make detectable entropic 'sparks' that become the centers of expanding shock spheres.  If you can analyze enough of the sphere to be able to determine the radius of its curvature and its intensity you can locate the position of a cause or resultant both in space and time by extrapolating along the geocentric axis.   
The Terrans, Destroyers and Andromedan invaders all have means to detect chaos shock spheres, and can thus predict the future.  The extragalactic aliens, it turns out, predicted the existence of superman Bron millions of years ago, and their armada was sent to the Milky Way with the sole intent of killing him.  (These aliens never invented an FTL drive, and so the fleet is robotic and during its million year transit the race that built it fell into decadence and barbarism.)  Bron, as a chaos catalyst, is able to buck the trends predicted by the chaos detectors, and thus escape death as well as outwit the human race and make himself their dictator with Jaycee as his Queen.

This cover faithfully depicts the
final chapter of the book.
I've already hinted that sadism and masochism are themes of the novel.  Bron gets tortured and beaten repeatedly, and in his guise of religious fanatic Haltern he wears a futuristic living hair shirt in penance for an imagined sin, essentially torturing himself.  This brings us to another theme of Kapp's book, religion.  With the exception of Haltern, the main characters all seem to be pagans; at least they associate Christianity with weakness and when surprised exclaim "Jupiter!" or "Zeus!" the way a Christian might gasp "Christ!" or "Oh my God!"  Kapp seems to have contempt for Christianity; in the opening chapters of the book on Onaris we see that the church establishment there is corrupt (the head priest is a sadist) and its doctrines are nonsense which distract people from reality.  As part of his Haltern disguise Bron carries an antique Bible, and in a MacGyver moment (he's trying to get out of a prison cell) he rips pages out of the Good Book and uses them to start a fire! Is Kapp, whose novel pointedly ignores all issues of morality, dismissing the value of the Bible as philosophy and literature?

I think I can give Patterns of Chaos a moderate recommendation.  Its structure, style and themes are more reminiscent to me of van Vogt than Heinlein or Smith.  The style isn't so hot, the characters are not deep and the only strong feeling the book inspires is one of uneasiness (some will find the book's attitude towards women and/or Christianity offensive), but because it moves quickly and is so crazy and full of so many wild SF ideas, it is entertaining.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg

"You spoke the truth: prejudice is part of your nature.  You naturals are so foolish!  You run all over the universe looking for people to despise.... You admire their unusual gifts and skills, but privately you look down on them because they have too many eyes or heads or arms." 

I've read quite a few novels by Robert Silverberg, but not many during the period of this blog's life.  So when I saw the 1983 Tor "A Jim Baen Presentation" edition of 1969's Across a Billion Years (the mediocre cover actually faithfully depicts a pivotal scene from the novel) at Half Price Books, I snapped it up.  It was actually the only book I bought that day, as I try to cut down on my purchases in response to the realization that I may already have more unread SF books than I can read before Horace's little boat takes me to eternal exile.

Across A Billion Years consists of the recorded messages of Tom Rice, a young archeologist on his first big dig, to his twin sister Lorie.  The year is 2375 and Rice is an apprentice member of an archaeological team which includes various nonhuman beings; the team is excavating a billion-year-old site on an alien planet.  Lorie is a shut in, birth defects confining her to an Earth hospital bed where she is hooked up to a bunch of tubes.  Lorie is also gifted with telepathic powers, and serves as a component of the interstellar FTL communications network.  Tom relates to Lorie how he is "in at the kill" as they say when the greatest archaeological find in centuries is made, the uncovering of a projector which reveals the daily life of "the High Ones," a mysterious civilization which has left tantalizing remnants throughout our galaxy.

Halfway through the 245-page novel the team abandons the dig site and crosses the galaxy to a system with a black dwarf star where the projector suggests await still more exciting High Ones artifacts.  As hoped, they meet a billion-year-old robot built by the High Ones in the ancient past.  This robot guides the team to the homeworld of the High Ones, which is hidden within a Dyson sphere.  Disappointingly enough, all that remains of the population of the High Ones, who once spanned the galaxy, is a handful of individuals in a vegetative state who inhabit what amounts to a nursing home maintained by robots.  But their technology is ripe for plunder!  This technology provides the paradigm shift we so often see in the end of these SF novels: special High One headbands provide to just anybody the telepathic powers Lorie has naturally.  Not only does this allow Tom to chit chat with his sister from a bazillion light years away, but now the human race and all the other intelligent life forms can "achieve a full meeting of souls."  War, bigotry, thievery, lying, loneliness, etc., are a thing of the past!

Across a Billion Years is less about adventures in outer space than it is about social issues we read about in the news all the time.  Foremost among these is race relations and what we now call "diversity" issues more generally.  Again and again in the book people's prejudices about other individuals and other groups are proven wrong and again and again we are shown the value of embracing those who are different; the final discovery of the telepathic headbands will help us all just get along effortlessly.

The archaeological team of eleven is made up of five Earth humans like Tom, a synthetic human from Earth (an "android") named Kelly Watchman, and five different types of aliens.  One human member, Jan Mortenson, is in fact bi-species, three-quarters human and one quarter "Brolagonian."  (She can pass for human, but has six toes on a foot.)  At the start of the narrative our narrator complains that the team is thus constituted because of what we might call "racial politics":
As you might expect we're a racially mixed outfit.  The liberals must have their way.  And so the quota system has been imposed on us....
Tom is skeptical about the ability of some of these quota hires, but as the story progresses realizes they all do a good job.  For example, he thought the android, Kelly, would be poor at using the "vacuum corer" because androids are less sensitive than natural-born humans, but in practice she is a brilliant operator of the device. Kelly also gives the speech about the prejudices of "naturals" I used as an epigraph to this blog post.  Jan is scared of telepaths but this is a product of her ignorance of them, and Tom explains the truth about them and sets her straight.  When he has got his telepathic powers Tom can even see the good in a difficult woman he had to deal with back at the first excavation site.  The villain on the team turns out to be a male human, college professor Leroy Chang, a lecher who tries to force himself on Jan.

Other social issues addressed (but less fulsomely) include addiction (one of the archaeologists, a hippo-sized scientist who uses his massive tusks to excavate sites, is a drunk!) and the ability of the disabled to lead full lives (as does psychic Lorie.)

Silverberg does some good things in Across A Billion Years.  The various alien races are all superficially interesting, with unusual and memorably envisioned forms and environments.  The science of finding the black dwarf system is engaging, as are the archaeologists' interactions with the various robots of the High Ones.  But I can only give the novel an unenthusiastic "acceptable" grade.


For one thing, most of the characters are sort of flat.  There are too many of them, and most have only a single character trait that we hear about again and again (one guy is obsessed with his stamp collection, for example).  Individuals will at one point seem to be important, then go unmentioned for scores of pages, and then reappear as mere spear carriers.  (Leroy the lecher has his big abortive rape scene around page 60 and then practically disappears from the narrative.)  It is impossible to care about these characters.

Another problem: Silverberg devotes a high proportion of the novel's pages to describing the boring love lives of Tom, Jan, Kelly, Leroy, and at least one other character I haven't mentioned.  I like a good love story; I love the story of Tristan and Isolde, and I find the various erotic relationships in Proust fascinating.  I adored Tanith Lee's romance novel about a teenage girl and her robot boyfriend.  But the relationship stuff in Across A Billion Years is tedious sub-Archie comics stuff:  Girl A is jealous because Boy B is having a conversation with Girl C, so Girl A decides to spend time with Boy D, but Boy D is so shy blah blah blah.  Even the rape scene is low key and fails to evoke any emotions in the reader, though readers who attended college in the 21st century will no doubt be appalled by the theory about rape which Tom presents to Jan after she has fought off Leroy:
"You know, they say that rape isn't really possible unless the victim cooperates.  I mean, all she has to do is defend herself....  So when a rape happens, it's either because the girl is paralyzed with fear, or else because she secretly wants to be raped."
Jan dismisses this theory (which people today would denounce as "blaming the victim" and "promulgating rape culture") as "two-credit psychology."  Leroy never suffers any punishment for his transgressions, as far as I could tell.

Another problem is the novel's lack of passion, or tension, or danger.  From its first pages it reminded me of a Heinlein juvenile--the whole "telepathic twins seperated by space" angle brought to mind Time for the Stars and the whole structure of the book--a young person learns lessons about life on his first space adventure--has much in common with that of many of Heinlein's juveniles (as well as those controversial quasi-juveniles Starship Troopers and Podkayne of Mars.)  But while the Heinlein juveniles are full of danger and moral dilemmas and often put forward life lessons that are challenging, counterintuitive, and controversial (a ship's captain should be obeyed without question; bloody wars of independence are a great idea; teenaged boys should be encouraged to kill Nazis, space pirates, and other creeps with whatever means are at hand; the United States should surrender its atomic weapons to UN control; you shouldn't bring a gun on your trip into the alien wilderness because it will make you overconfident, etc.), Across a Billion Years lacks tension in its plot and in its ideas.  The "dangers" faced by the archaeologists consist of the possibility that their grant money will run out or that a bureaucratic snafu will put the kibosh on the expedition, and these problems are solved via deus ex machina.  Silverberg's message is the banal warning to not be a bigot that nobody would disagree with, and instead of having it as one of numerous themes in the novel, it dominates the book.  (Heinlein in many of his books argues against racism, but it is usually only one of a work's several ideas.)  And Tom and Jan aren't even "bucking the system" by overcoming their prejudices--they are learning to conform to the system of the quota-imposing "liberals" mentioned at the very start of the book.  Boring!

While not actually bad, Across A Billion Years is one of those books that could be much improved if it was streamlined, say cut from 245 pages to 145.  The hard SF stuff works, but many of the characters and all the sexual relationship stuff could easily be left out.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Underlay by Barry Malzberg

"You keep on mumbling about systems and charts and possibilities, but all I can see is that you're losing all of our hard-earned money....."
"It just takes a little time to break in," I observed.  "You can't come into a game cold and beat the hell out of it any more than you can start off in politics as President." 
My copy, from 1970
I highly recommend Charles Platt's 1980 book of interviews, Dream Makers, to anybody interested in Golden Age and New Wave science fiction.  Particularly entertaining and insightful is Platt's interview with Barry Malzberg.  Platt, who over the course of the interview eats Kentucky Fried Chicken and beats Malzberg at chess under Malzberg's own New Jersey roof, depicts Malzberg as a sort of egotistical loser who actually relishes being a loser.  Malzberg also reveals that the novel of which he is most proud is Underlay.  By coincidence, I had purchased Underlay at a Lexington, Kentucky flea market only days before acquiring Dream Makers at an Ohio Half-Price Books.  This week I read the novel, which, the advertising text on the very first page of the book maintains, "is the result of seventeen years of research."

1986 edition
Harry the Flat was a New Yorker who scrupulously avoided relationships with women because the true focus of his life was betting on the horse races!   He spent much of the 1950s and '60s at the Aqueduct Racetrack, trying out "systems," providing advice to other bettors, and losing vast sums of money.  In 1967 he died in violent and mysterious circumstances, right there at the track, and the Mob buried him right under the race track!  For four years horses have been thundering right over his rotting corpse! But the Mob's math experts have recognized that his presence is somehow throwing off the horses, making it harder for them to predict who will win each race. Harry the Flat must be disinterred!

Our narrator is one of Harry's friends, another gambler with an uneasy relationship with the Mob and with women (as we learn in graphic sex scenes, even during intercourse with his own wife and with Harry's widow he is distracted by thoughts of the races!)  Gangsters install a time bomb in his flesh and promise to remove it only after he has dug up his buddy Harry's remains and moved them to a less disruptive location.  This novel chronicles the day of this desperate operation, but most of its 49 chapters are devoted to flashbacks and background related to the narrator's and Harry's lives, and asides about life and horse racing.

Underlay is not marketed as SF, but like in so many SF stories, our narrator, halfway through the book, is told that the world is, unbeknownst to most, the site of a struggle between two powerful conspiratorial factions, and finds that one of the factions (the "Counters") is trying to recruit him away from the other, allegedly evil, faction, the Mob.  The Mob secretly rules the world, but their dominance relies on control of Aqueduct Racetrack, which means that the fate of the human race is in our narrator's hands--if he digs up Harry the Flat the world will groan under fifty years of Mob tyranny, but if he refuses to do the Mob's bidding the Earth will be benignly guided by the Counters.  At least, that is what a girl at a retail counter tells him.  (Such women can be very persuasive!)

(Malzberg scholars will recall how he has published fiction in which an unlikely individual believes that the outcome of his chess game or how he performs his civil service job will determine the fate of the Earth.)

Underlay is quite funny--it made me laugh out loud numerous times.  In this vale of tears, in which at any moment we could be facing a domineering mother, oral surgery, or the spectacle of our political party being hijacked by a fully-paid-up member of the opposing political party, such laughter is welcome!  Of course all this horse racing business is an allegory for our lives, which, despite all our calculations and all the advice we get from others, are totally unpredictable and often seem absolutely out of our control, and much of Underlay's humor comes from a recognition of life's utter mystery and futility.  Harry, the narrator, and numerous other characters (including one of Malzberg's obsessive subjects, President John F. Kennedy) all suffer repeated defeats and dreadful tragedies, no matter how hard they try to understand the universe or master their own lives, and no matter how lofty their stations.

2015 edition with its overly serious
cover illustration
I am ready to agree with Malzberg that Underlay is his best novel.  It is more coherent, more smoothly constructed, and more accessible than most of his work, and, most importantly, more fun.  I strongly recommend it to Malzberg fans (of course) and people who like humorous down-and-out narratives (I'm thinking of Bukowski here.)  People who like complicated crime capers and fiction that revolves around the horses might also enjoy it; I am not very familiar with such fiction, but it may be that Underlay acts as a sort of parody or homage to such work. An issue one might have with the book is the prevalence of racing slang; I devoted seventeen minutes of research online, reading glossaries of horse racing terminology and looking at maps of the Aqueduct Racetrack, in an effort to make sense of some passages.

My copy of Underlay is particularly darling because a previous owner filled it with underlining and notes in pencil, as if he or she was going to write a scholarly paper about it.  On page 1 is the note "first person," on page 76 (from whence I extracted this blog post's epigraph) I find the phrase "women's reality," and on page 77, where our narrator explains to his wife that he is leading an irresponsible life in deliberate response to how "responsible" people in government and business have screwed up the world, is inscribed "Attack on bourgeoisie." Someone has read this paperback with as much, or more, care than I did!  (Maybe it would cheer poor Barry to know people are reading his masterwork with such attention?)


My copy is, I believe, a first edition, from January, 1974, printed by Avon.  In 1986 an edition was produced by International Polygonics Limited; in 2015 Stark House Press published an edition with an inappropriately sober cover and a new Afterword by Malzberg that I would really like to read.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Early '70s tales from Eddy C. Bertin, Arthur C. Clarke & Harlan Ellison

It's the fourth and final installment of our look at Donald Wollheim's The 1972 Annual World's Best SF!


"Timestorm" by Eddy C. Bertin (1971)

Bertin is a Belgian, and "Timestorm" first appeared in Flemish in De Achtjaarlijkse God, a collection of Bertin's stories.  Wollheim tells us it won the "'Sfan Award' as the best original story in the Lowlands language sector."  Bertin translated it himself into bland and unidiomatic English--witches are "hung" instead of "hanged," things appear "on intervals" instead of "at intervals."  Why didn't some native English-speaker copy edit this stuff?

In the year 2213 two wandering stars collide and cause a "timestorm."  Somehow this transports an Earthman, Harvey Lonestall, into a vast library of baton-sized cylinders, billions of them.  This "time tower" exists beyond space and time; here Harvey need not eat or sleep.  When inserted into a projector machine the cylinders each can transport Harvey's consciousness into the body of an historical figure; when he tests some they are all people involved in acts of violence; Lee Harvey Oswald murdering JFK, or a crewmember on the Enola Gay as it bombs Hiroshima, for example. Sneaking around the sprawling corridors of the time tower Harvey spies on aliens; these jokers are, apparently, manipulating Earth history!  (Somehow our hero can understand their speech as they talk about Nero, Waterloo, World War II, and other atrocious historical people and events.)  Harvey theorizes that the human race is naturally peaceful and these aliens are to blame for our history of crime and war. (Remember detective writer John D. MacDonald's Wine of the Dreamers?)

Harvey kills the aliens and then uses the machines to manipulate history in a peaceful direction, preventing the rise of Hitler and Napoleon, the outbreak of the First World War, the birth of the Marquis de Sade and the murders of Jack the Ripper.  He even goes back to caveman times to prevent humans from eating meat!  (In this world, Summer Kreigshauser, you would be Chopped Champion!)

Harvey returns to 2113 Earth where he happily joins the peaceful vegetarian society of primitive hut-dwellers who have not even invented the wheel.  Then we get our Twilight-Zone-style twist ending.  Evil space aliens arrive and the human race is too weak to resist them!  You see, the aliens in the time tower were beneficent, and were tailoring a human race strong enough to liberate the universe from these evil aliens! Oops!

The style of this story is poor, as I have already noted, and it is too long and feels tedious.  The plot is just silly, and Bertin fails to give it credibility or emotional power. (Invoking tragedies like famous murders and major wars is a cheap method of playing on the reader's feelings that has little efficacy here because we've heard about JFK, WWII and Jack the Ripper a million times already and because Bertin doesn't do any work to move us, he just throws the names out there.)  I have to give "Timestorm" a thumbs down.  I think Wollheim included this story not because it is one of the "best" from 1971, but because he thought a Continental story had novelty value.  (Science fiction from beyond the Anglophonic world seems to have been an interest of Wollheim's.  We await Joachim Boaz's assessment of Wollheim's 1976 anthology The Best from the Rest of the World.)  

"Transit of Earth" by Arthur C. Clarke (1971)

Here we have some of the hardest of hard SF, a realistic first-person account of an expedition to Mars in 1984 to observe the passage of the Earth across the face of the sun.  Drama is provided by the fact that our narrator is marooned on Mars after an accident, and will run out of oxygen soon after the transit ends.  Besides his description of the transit he provides memories of his life and charts his psychological state as death approaches at the very moment of his, and mankind's, triumph.  The astronaut (and Clarke) show off their taste and erudition with references to Samuel Johnson, James Cook (who observed the transit of Venus from Tahiti in the 18th century), Robert Falcon Scott (who, like our narrator, died after achieving the goal of his mission and left behind a record discovered by later adventurers) and to lots of classical music.  (Don't worry SF fans, Wells, Burroughs, and Bradbury also merit mentions!)

I don't generally seek out these super realistic SF stories, but this one is quite good. "Transit of Earth" first appeared in Playboy.

"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" by Harlan Ellison (1970)

I actually read this story in my teens, maybe 30 years ago, and then forgot the name of it and over the years started mixing up the details of this story with Ellison's famous "Jeffty is Five," which shares with "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" a child protagonist and a nostalgic tone.  I was glad to read this story and batten down one of those untethered thoughts that had been fluttering in the back of my mind for decades.

Ellison stand-in Gus Rosenthal, a forty-two year old who brags about his success as a writer and how he was the only one to escape his Ohio town, leaving the rivals of his youth behind to work low-class jobs and marry fat women, travels back in time to meet his childhood self. Protecting little Gus from bullies and sharing with him a love of comic books and genre literature brings big Gus a happiness he hasn't felt in a long time, but he can't stay in the past; not only is he suffering time travel-related medical problems, but little Gus is becoming anti-social, stealing and so forth.  So, big Gus has to leave, which breaks little Gus's heart--big Gus realizes that it was himself, not bullies and poverty, that drove him to fight his way out of Ohio and to fame and success.

I find Ellison's braggadocio and self-congratulation a little hard to take ("One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" is squarely aimed at the stereotypical science-fiction fan demographic, the unpopular kid who thinks he is smarter than everybody else), and this story is a little too sappy and sentimental for my tastes.  However, it is well-written--the structure, pacing, and length are all just right, and there are plenty of interesting images--and I appreciated Ellison's little asides praising Jack Williamson and Harold W. McCauley.  So, thumbs up for this one.

"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" first appeared in Orbit 8--if you haven't already, check out Joachim Boaz's review of that anthology--and was made into an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone which I have not seen.

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The 1972 Annual World's Best SF is a good collection of stories; the Niven, Russ, Anderson, Lafferty, Clarke and Ellison stories all feel characteristic of what those authors typically do, but seem more fun, more streamlined, and more accessible than their average work.  Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Early '70s stories by R. A. Lafferty, Alan Dean Foster, & Leonard Tushnet

We're still reading The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, edited by Donald Wollheim.  Today we have a story from 1970 by R. A. Lafferty and 1971 stories by Alan Dean Foster and Leonard Tushnet.

"All Pieces of a River Shore" by R. A. Lafferty (1970)

This is a fun, surprisingly light-hearted and straightforward (Lafferty's work can be grisly and a little opaque, but not here) story with a good central idea and sprinkled with interesting little factoids. And of course Lafferty's charming and amusing style.  I enjoyed it a lot.

We learn that carnivals that travelled the American countryside in the 19th century offered, as one of their amusements, long paintings depicting the shore of the Mississippi.  Like a giant scroll, these paintings, several feet tall and up to or even more than a hundred yards long, would be unrolled by mule power so that viewers were given the illusion that they were travelling along the river bank.

The main character of "All Pieces of a River Shore" is a 20th century collector, an American Indian of some means by the name of Leo Nation.  He collects a multitude of things, from books and posters to wagons and locomotives, mostly related to Native America and the Old West.  Nation has decided to start collecting the aforementioned river shore paintings, heralded in their day as "The Longest Pictures in the World."  Over the course of the story, as he crosses North America hunting up and buying up these artifacts, he learns that the more common crude examples, made in the last few centuries by the white man, are merely imitations of startlingly clear panoramic pictures of mysterious origin known to Indians long before the arrival of Europeans.  When Nation and his friends closely examine these "originals" they find they depict flora and fauna long extinct (giant sloths, for example) and in such detail that even under a microscope no brushstrokes are visible--in fact, one can see the individual cells in a leaf!  In the last part of the story we learn the startling origin of these weird artifacts.

Here is a story I can recommend without reservation.  First appearing in Damon Knight's Orbit 8 (reviewed by Joachim Boaz here), you can also find "All Pieces of a River Shore" in the Lafferty collection Lafferty in Orbit and the anthology Alpha 4.



"With Friends Like These..." by Alan Dean Foster (1971)

Foster wrote the novelization of the first Star Wars movie, as well as Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the first independent Star Wars novel.  Reading "With Friends Like These..." makes the choice of Foster for these tasks feel very appropriate, because the story is a space opera with many elements in common with the Star Wars films.

The galaxy is riven by a tremendous war!  Standing against the powerful Yop empire is a Federation of over 200 dazzlingly-different alien races.  (Some have feathers, some are hairy, some have tentacles, etc.)  This war of space battleships has been going on for centuries, and the multicultural alliance is losing.  A desperate ploy is conceived!  450,000 years ago another war shook the universe, the war between Earth and the Venn!  The people of Earth were found to be the galaxy's greatest warriors, and the Venn were exterminated, but the predecessor of the Federation was able to drive humanity back to Earth and surround the planet with a powerful force field, trapping our doughty descendents there.  That forcefield is still in operation today, and "With Friends Like These..." tells the story of a Federation expedition to lower the forcefield and enlist the aid of the human race against the Yop.

At first it looks like the human race has been reduced to a small population of farmers who resort to using draft animals to plow their fields.  But in reality mankind has evolved tremendous psychic powers!  In one scene a young man uses his mind to disintegrate an entire Yop battleship!  Earth's domestic animals also have high intelligence and telepathy!  And the Earth has been hollowed out and is full of machinery--in the story's final scene the planet sets off under its own power to join the Federation fleet, a colossal dreadnought that will no doubt vanquish the Yop and, one of the Federation's wise men fears, make humanity master of the galaxy!

The tone of this story is light-hearted, with lots of little jokes and no real tension or thrills.  Endearingly, Foster refers directly to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, and King Kong (one of my very favorite films), suggesting that the fame of these icons of pop culture will endure half a million years.

"With Friends Like These..." first appeared in Analog, and in his intro Wollheim suggests the story exemplifies the spirit of editor John W. Campbell and his prominent magazines, the idea that humanity will triumph over every obstacle.  (Foster, it seems to me, is also undercutting, or showing the dark side, of that idea, portraying the human race as uniquely belligerent.  In his 1978 intro to The Best of Eric Frank Russell, Foster, apparently a conventional lefty who bites his nails with worry over the environment and sympathizes with the Viet Cong and all that, tells us he disagreed with Campbell about just about everything.)

Inoffensively, adequately, pleasant, but I'm skeptical it is one of the "best" stories of its year.

"Aunt Jennie's Tonic" by Leonard Tushnet (1971)

If Wollheim hints that he chose Foster's "With Friends Like These" for this anthology because it is a good example of an Astounding/Analog Terra uber alles space opera, he comes right out and tells us that he chose "Aunt Jennie's Tonic" because it has an "ethnic background" and is about "the origins of modern medicine from primitive folk remedy."  I'm going to be honest--"the origins of modern medicine from primitive folk remedy" doesn't sound like a recipe for a thrill ride to your humble blogger.

Our narrator is a Jewish-American chemist.  When he realizes that the home remedies concocted by the aged immigrant woman who ministers to his relatives from her cluttered apartment in what is now a bad neighborhood, actually work, he analyzes them at the lab.  Most simply duplicate the formulas of commercially available drugs, but one preparation appears to be a unique elixir of youth that revives his dying dog and, when he takes it himself, enhances his job performance.  The chemist, envisioning riches and a Nobel prize, becomes obsessed with duplicating the potion, no mean feat after his "aunt" is murdered by thugs.  His pursuit of the miracle drug imperils his sanity, family life, and career.

I liked the "East Coast Jewish life" parts of the story, the young American atheist scientist's relationship with the elderly representative of his superstitious Yiddish-jabbering Old World ancestors.  But I think the chemistry parts were too long; Tushnet provides an overabundance of examples of Aunt Jennie's productions and describes their creation in superfluous detail.  (I think "Aunt Jennie's Tonic" qualifies as a hard SF story, albeit one married to a mainstream narrative about the culture of immigrants and their descendents.)  The dramatic part of the story, our narrator's collapse, is rushed, almost perfunctory.  There's really no build up or climax--Tushnet's premise and background take up most of the page count and are carefully constructed, but the main plot is poorly paced and structured, almost like it is an afterthought.

Still, a marginal recommendation.

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The Lafferty feels like a "Best of the Year" story, but the Foster and Tushnet, while good, seem to have been included for their interesting attributes.

In our next episode we'll finish up with The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, reading contributions by Eddy Bertin, who is new to me, member of the "Big Three" Arthur C. Clarke, and enfant terrible Harlan Ellison.

Nota bene: The 1972 Annual World's Best SF also includes short-tempered chess player Barry Malzberg's "Gehenna" and Ted "Killdozer" Sturgeon's "Occam's Scalpel," which I won't talk about this week because I read them and wrote about them on this blog in the past.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

1971 stories by Michael Coney, Poul Anderson, & Christopher Priest

Let's continue reading The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, the work of DAW Books and its founder, Hugo- and Nebula-winner Donald A. Wollheim.  Are these really three of the best science fiction stories of 1971?


"The Sharks of Pentreath" by Michael G. Coney (1971)

MPorcius Fiction Log superfans will be well aware that I recently aquired a copy of Charles Platt's 1980 book Dreammakers, a collection of what you might call "New Journalism" interviews of SF authors.  This book is a treasure trove for the reader of 20th century SF.  One of the interviewees is Hank Stine, who currently goes by the name Jean Marie Stine and identifies as a woman.  Stine's interview is fun in part because he was not afraid to take a hatchet to many individuals, from Dean Koontz and Piers Anthony to Lin Carter and John Varley, as well as wide swathes of the American population, from Catholics to the middle class to those who think science can solve our problems.  Stine picks out Michael Coney for particular criticism when he suggests that too many SF novels of the 1970s are based on outlandish, "unworkable" premises; he uses Coney's Friends Come in Boxes as an example.

Stine's opinion does not appear to be a consensus one: Theodore Sturgeon, Brian Aldiss, tarbandu and Joachim Boaz all seem to have a soft spot for Coney--Joachim praises Friends Come in Boxes specifically.  I read some Coney stories myself in the period before I started this blog, and while I have to admit I don't remember them at all well, my notes suggest I thought them acceptable.  Stine's interview has got me curious not only about Stine herself, but about Coney, so I'm eager to see what's up with "The Sharks of Pentreath."

Like the novel Friends Come in Boxes (which I myself have not read),"The Sharks of Pentreath" is about a drastic societal response to the problem of overpopulation. Reminding me a little of Philip Jose Farmer's novel Dayworld and the story upon which it was based, 1971's "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World," in Coney's story the human race has been split into three groups ("rotations" or "shifts.")  Every two years out of three, people are confined to steel cabinets and survive on an IV drip; this period is called "Stilllife."  During Stilllife people are conscious, and control robots called "remoters."  Through the remoters people act as tourists, travelling as widely across the world as their budgets allow.  During their "Fulllife" periods people work at jobs, accumulating the money they will spend on trips during their next Stilllife period.

Pentreath is an English seaside town which survives on the tourist trade.  Our main characters are a married couple; the husband, our narrator, is one of the "sharks" of the title, one of the not-quite-scrupulous small businessmen who take advantage of the tourists.  (His wife acts as a foil, being generous and kind, "putting people before profits" as the pinkos propose.)  Over the course of the story we learn the background of this future world, and get to know the protagonist, who is kind of a jerk, and the other "sharks."  An encounter with an elderly couple (who are visiting via remoters) works a change in our callous and misanthropic narrator; we have reason to believe that in the period after the story he will turn over a new leaf and endeavour to have a warmer and more human relationship with his wife and with his community.

Coney's style is good, and the physical settings and all the characters are believable, so I enjoyed the story.  "The Sharks of Pentreath" is certainly vulnerable to the charge Stine lays against Friends Come in Boxes, that its premise is unrealistic--I don't think people in a free society (and the England in the story still has freedom of association and private property and all that) would accept the system it describes--but this didn't diminish the pleasure I derived from reading it.

Another possible criticism is that the science fiction element of the story is superfluous--this is a story about how the example set by another couple opens a man's eyes to how to better interact with his own wife and community, it is a conventional piece of fiction about "the human heart" with an unnecessary SF element just laid on top of it.  Again, while a valid criticism, this "problem" didn't stop me from enjoying the story.  

"A Little Knowledge" by Poul Anderson (1971)

I compared an earlier story from The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, Stephen Tall's "The Bear with the Knot on His Tail," to a weak version of a Poul Anderson tale.  Well, here's the real deal!  Our buddy Poul starts us off with a two-page astronomy lecture.  (If you don't already know what Roche's Limit is, Anderon provides you incentive to look it up on google.)  You see, there's this big planet, which under ordinary circumstances would be an uninhabitable "subjovian," but it's got this oversized moon in a lopsided orbit, see, that has been scooping away at the atmosphere for millennia....
    
This is a fun, entertaining story that comfortably fits in the classic SF template of hard science, engineering, space ships, blasters and aliens embedded in an adventure plot.  And if you are wondering what interstellar trade might be like (I know with the election going the way it is going some of you businesspeople out there are scrambling for a way to get off the planet), "A Little Knowledge," like Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession" in this same volume, presents some ideas.

Three human career criminals hijack a space ship piloted by a single small alien, a member of a sophisticated, artistic, and ambitious culture.  (I thought Anderson had perhaps based this alien society, with its elaborate courtesy and embrace of Terra's high technology, on Japan.)  The pirates have a scheme to get rich using the ship as the nucleus of a space navy they will build among belligerent aliens who are at a pre-hyper drive technological level.  The short alien triumphs over the pirates and spares galactic civilization a border war through his superior knowledge of the hard sciences and engineering.

"A Little Knowledge" first appeared in Analog, and is set in the period of Anderson's Polesotechnic League--Nicholas Van Rijn, whom we have read about several times during the course of this blog's life, even gets a mention!

Just the right length, density and tone--I liked it.

"Real-Time World" by Christopher Priest (1971)

I liked Priest's Inverted World (check out tarbandu and couchtomoon's laudatory reviews of that BSFA-winning novel), but the ending disappointed me, partly because I couldn't understand the science behind it, partly because it undermined the exciting setting the first part of the book had so evocatively described.  (Sometimes I regret finding out what the man behind the curtain is up to.)

"Real-Time World," which first boggled the mind in New Writings in SF19, is reminiscent of Inverted World in a number of ways--people in an enclosed structure discover they have been deceived about the nature of the outside world, and that their perceptions are perhaps not to be trusted.  There is also some science which I couldn't quite wrap my brain around.

The setting is what the narrator calls an "observatory."  He tells us that mankind has developed a time machine (hooray!) but it can only send you back in time a nanosecond (awwww....)  But don't be discouraged--if you are a nanosecond back in time you are invisible to everybody else!  This invisibility can negate the observer effect (sometimes colloquially called Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) and so one of these time machines, this very observatory, was deployed on an alien planet where a bunch of scientists can observe the life and environment there surreptitiously.

But studying the alien world isn't the only research going on in the observatory!  The researchers themselves are the subject of an experiment!  "Real-Time World" is, in part, about "the news."  In an effort to figure out how much "the news" affects a person's life, the people running the experiment only dole out a small, carefully selected, portion of the news from Earth to the observatory staff.  (There is a lot of exciting news from Earth because of all the Cold War tensions, food shortages, pollution, race riots, and other 1970s obsessions going on.)  Of the observatory staff, only our narrator is in on the experiment, and he carefully records the effects of the lack of news on the scientists.  In a way I didn't understand, the change in their diet of news gave the scientists the ability to predict the future.  As the story draws to a close, they reveal their most shocking prediction: that a catastrophic war between East and West has erupted on the Earth's surface!

The scientists have also realized what the narrator already knows, that the observatory is not on an alien planet at all!  The researchers were hypnotized into believing this lie, a deception bolstered by prerecorded films played on their viewscreens that simulate views of the fictional alien planet.  But there is something the narrator and the eggheads disagree about.  The narrator believes the observatory is on Earth's moon. The boffins are sure they are in fact on Earth.  Who has been conditioned to believe an illusion, and who recognizes the truth?  The stakes in this dispute are high because the scientists insist on opening the airlock and going outside!  They have no space suits, so if the airlock opens onto the surface of the moon they will be killed at once! As the story ends, the narrator sits safely in his office, and we can't be sure whether the scientists are dead on the lunar surface or exploring an Earth ravaged by atomic war.  In fact, we can't be sure anything in the story was true and not simply an illusion inflicted on our narrator.

I wanted to like this story because I liked the claustrophobic setting described in the first few pages (for example, the observatory is apparently beset by dangerous cracks that could let in the outside vacuum) and that the narrator was the sole non-scientist among a group of scientists, and thought of himself as the only sane man among a multitude of insane people.  I've often found myself the only grad school drop-out among college professors, the only Easterner among MidWesterners, the only white person among nonwhites, the only American among foreigners, and so forth, and identify with this kind of situation (in our modern world of diversity, nonconformity and cheap travel I think many people have these kinds of experiences.)  But Coney doesn't do much with these themes, instead moving on to many other ideas (I guess those cracks were just an illusion seen only by the narrator.)

These stories which end with you doubting every single thing that happened in the story make important philosophical points (our senses are not to be trusted, free will is a myth, maybe you should have paid more attention to the lectures on Descartes and Hume back in Philosophy 101) but are not necessarily fun to read.  In our last episode I gave the "doubt everything" story by Joanna Russ in The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, "Gleepsite," a sort of guarded passing grade, but her story was short and tight, and made me furrow my brow as I tried to figure out the puzzle.  In comparison, "Real-Time World" seems long and unfocused, full of extraneous matter, and made me roll my eyes; I think I have to give this one a marginal thumbs down.

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Taken as a group, not bad; I enjoyed the human-centric Coney and the meat and potatoes hard SF Anderson, and I am sure lots of people are keen on the Priest.

In our next installment, three more pieces from The 1972 Annual World's Best SF: we've got one-of-a-kind scribe R. A. Lafferty, movie-tie-in machine Alan Dean Foster, and Leonard Tushnet, about whom I know nothing.