Thursday, December 29, 2016

Agent of Vega by James H. Schmitz

Not my copy
In 1976, in ancillary matter included in his collection, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, our man Barry, New Jersey resident and expert on SF history, proclaimed that James H. Schmitz was "the best modern writer of non-modern S-F."  Mercedes Lackey, in an intro to a 2001 collection of Schmitz stories, credits Schmitz with turning her on to SF and setting her on the road to being a successful author herself.  When I read Schmitz's "Lion Loose" and "Goblin Night" back in 2013, I thought the former middling and the latter good.  All reasons enough to read Agent of Vega, a 1960 collection of four (perhaps revised?) Schmitz tales that first appeared in science fiction magazines in the period 1949-51.

My copy
I kind of wish I had the sexy 1972 paperback from Tempo which I spotted at a Half Price Books in Illinois, or the sexy (and phallus-infested--Boris does love his phallic symbols) 1982 paperback from Ace. My copy is the 1962 edition from Permabooks, which I purchased in May in Canton, Ohio.  A previous owner appears to have sliced at the cover with a razor blade and then repaired it with some mysterious black tape.  (I think he or she was trying to remove the large letter "A" from the cover for use in constructing a note demanding ransom, then thought better of embarking on a life of crime.)  This baby is still readable, so let's check out this "fantastic story" of "interstellar espionage" "on a galactic scale" "set centuries" or even "thousands of years" "in the future" which we have every reason to hope stars a gorgeous big-haired babe and some dude with a rifle.

"Agent of Vega" (1949)

The one that started it all!  "Agent of Vega" first appeared in Astounding and seven years later was included by Andre Norton in her anthology Space Police.

It is the far future and the human-led Vegan Confederacy is trying to manage "eighteen thousand individual civilizations" spread across the galaxy.  The Department of Galactic Zones is the Vegan Confederacy's secret police force, and one of its top operatives is Zone Agent Iliff.  Iliff is sent to planet Gull to help one of Vega's few non-human agents, a new recruit by the name of Pagadan, a member of the race of telepaths known as the Lannai.  The Lannai may not be human, but Pagadan looks exactly like a hot chick with a head of hair that resembles "a silver-shimmering fluffy crest of something like feathers."  (It looks like Boris actually read the book!)  

Pagadan has stumbled upon an operation by noncorporeal parasitic aliens to take over the galaxy!  These aliens, the Ceetal, can take over your body and they have already infiltrated the elites of almost one thousand star systems!  To stop this conspiracy Iliff and our girl Pag do the stuff you expect people to do in detective stories, like putting on disguises, interrogating people, getting captured, and escaping.  It turns out the Ceetal have taken over the body of the galaxy's master criminal, a genius psyker and space pirate whom Iliff has been chasing his entire career!  In a blistering final battle involving space armor, ray guns, high tech booby traps and psychic blasts, Iliff and Pagadan defeat the pirate and save the galaxy.

The first page of my copy includes an excerpt from the title story
This story has lots of fun SF elements, from robots to alien monsters to all kinds of technological and psychic jazz, and social justice types may appreciate that a "woman" (actually an alien who looks like a beautiful woman) is the hero as well as the tolerance/diversity subplot--Galactic Zones wants to include more aliens in the upper levels of the Vegan Confederacy and is opposed by the faction of "Traditionalists" until Pagadan saves the galaxy and uses her feminine and psychic wiles to win over some key conservatives.  There is also a pervasive theme of people secretly manipulating their inferiors: the Vegan Confederacy is always manipulating planetary societies, Galactic Zones manipulates the other departments of the Vegan Confederacy, Iliff's superiors manipulate him psychologically, the Ceetals and Lannai invade people's minds to control them, etc.

On the bad side, I thought Schmitz's style a little difficult to follow, and that the way he constructed the plot sapped much of its potential for suspense and excitement. Instead of following Iliff and/or Pagadan closely so the reader learns the truth of what is going on as the heroes learn it, Schmitz includes lots of scenes from the points of view of the Ceetal and from that of Iliff's supervisors, so that we readers know more than the protagonists.  Further distancing us from the action are Schmitz's practices of providing information via a recitation of government reports and having some tense scenes described in dialogue after the fact.

Not bad, but not great.


"The Illusionists" (1951)

According to Wikipedia, "The Illusionists" is a later title for the story "Space Fear," which appeared originally in Astounding.  The copyright page of my edition of Agent of Vega implies the stories appearing therein may have been rewritten by Schmitz for book publication; instead of simply listing story titles and original places of publication, readers are alerted that Agent of Vega is "based upon" earlier (unspecified) work that appeared in Astounding and Galaxy.  Though the last written of the four, "The Illusionists" appears as the second story in this book.


Padagan, now a full-fledged Zone agent herself, is in the Ulphi system, her heavily-armed and super-fast one-man ship serving as bait for Bjanta space pirates.  (The Bjanta are hideous arthropodic people who regularly prey on innocent planets.)  While in the Ulphi system Pagadan uncovers a horrible conspiracy on the human-inhabited planet that orbits Ulphi--somebody has achieved the ability to control the minds of millions of Ulphins and made himself secret dictator!  In order to keep the Ulphi system isolated he has hypnotized the planet's entire population so that they suffer "space fear," a phobia that makes it impossible for them to leave the planet.

The issue of Astounding which featured "Space Fear" and the Baen collection which
includes all four stories we're talking about today, plus the aforementioned
essay by Mercedes Lackey; dig Bob Eggleton's interpretation of Pagadan and her feathery coiffure. 
Pagadan runs a complicated scheme in which she uses a Vegan academic currently resident on the Ulphin planet as bait (without bothering to obtain affirmative consent to this exploitation!) to trick the dictator into leaving the planet.  The academic is a member of the Traditionalist faction, which is skeptical about letting non-humans have positions of influence in the Vegan Confederacy and suspicious about the Department of Galactic Zones' lack of transparency and accountability, so I guess it is poetic justice that non-human Pagadan from Galactic Zones exploits her and then rescues her. For good measure Pagadan invades her mind and shatters her Traditionalist beliefs by bringing to the surface subconscious knowledge that she is not quite full-Vegan human.  

I could voice the same criticisms of  "The Illusionists" that I did about the first story; there are plenty of good SF ideas, but the style and structure weaken the story, making it a little hard to follow and draining it of emotion; there are lots of scenes of minor characters yapping and reading government documents, and action sequences which we learn about second hand through dialogue.  The most thrilling scenes are those in which the Traditionalist woman uses her anti-grav devices and hand to hand combat skills to escape a mind-controlled mob.

OK.

"The Truth About Cushgar" (1950)

In this story, which first appeared in Astounding, we learn that the Vegan Confederacy isn't the only interstellar political unit in the galaxy; in fact there are several rival organizations with jurisdiction over hundreds or more systems.  Cushgar is one such empire, one far more exploitative than Vega.  In the first page of the story we learn that the Department of Galactic Zones has managed to subdue Cushgar and install Vegan governors over all the Cushgar planets, all without resorting to war.  How?  The other departments of the Vegan Confederacy don't even know!  But we readers learn!

"The Truth About Cushgar" is the tale of Zone Agent Zamman Tarradang-Pok, a female member of an isolated strain of humanity, the Daya-Bal, that evolved on its own for some centuries into a beautiful elfish race.  We learn her story largely through second hand accounts from other characters and from flashbacks.  Zamm (as everybody calls her) was a young mother on vacation with her husband and son on a luxury space liner when the liner was captured by space pirates.  She was left behind when her husband and son were taken captive by the escaping pirates, who left no clues to their identity or place of origin; Zamm doesn't even know if they were human or alien!

Since that terrible day seventeen years ago Zamm has been hunting the galaxy and her own mind for clues that might lead her to the culprits and her enslaved family members.  As an agent of Galactic Zones she zips hither and yon, capturing space pirates and interrogating them.  In an eldritch bit of psychological wizardry, she has had lifelike robot replicas of her son and husband made--talking to and caressing these simulacra triggers vivid memories, and as Zamm relives the traumatic attack on the luxury liner a psychology robot taps into her brain, seeking just one vital clue to the identity of the kidnappers!  These repeated brain scanning sessions threaten to drive the psychologically scarred Zamm over the edge into total insanity!

Back cover of my copy, which includes an
excerpt from "The Truth About Cushgar."
Finally, Zamm finds the clue she needs, and heads to the heart of the Cushgar empire to rescue her family. While Zamm is in suspended animation ("deep rest"), the craft of other Galactic Zones agents, among them Pagadan, join her ship, forming a flotilla of vessels disguised as "ghost ships."  The Cushgar people (like the Daya-Bal, evolved humans, but evolved to be ugly and evil, not cute and sweet) are very superstitious, and the appearance of ghost ships leads them to surrender.  When Zamm wakes up she finds her husband and son have been liberated and the Cushgar tyranny defanged!

This is the best story in Agents of Vega so far; Zamm the distaff outer space Captain Ahab is a more interesting character than Pagadan or Iliff, and the scenes of terror and violence in this one are better, much more exciting.  (When an insanely envious scientist is holding his more successful brother in shackles, Zamm rescues the good brother by blowing the head off of the evil brother with a pistol; this is the kind of activity look for in genre literature, isn't it?)  The style is also better; the story flows more smoothly and is easier to follow.  The somewhat silly ghost ship gimmick kind of comes out of left field and it is a little disappointing that Cushgar turns out to be a paper tiger, but this questionable means of resolving the plot only takes up the last fifth or so of the 38-page story, and of course is in the hard SF tradition of characters using superior knowledge and intelligence to trick their adversaries.

Good.

"The Second Night of Summer" (1950)

"Second Night of Summer" was
a Galaxy cover story
This caper stars a minor character from "The Truth About Cushgar," Zone Agent "Grandma" Elisa Wannatell of planet Noorhut.  For their own good, Grandma uses high technology and hypnotism to manipulate the people of Noorhut, who have a kind of 18th or 19th century technology--Grandma's aircar is even disguised as a beast-drawn wagon.

The plot of "The Second Night of Summer" reminds me of some kind of Warhammer 40,000 wargame scenario: malevolent extragalactic aliens, the Halpa, are about to teleport onto Noorhut and Grandma has to keep the human inhabitants of the planet ignorant of the threat and ambush the teleporting monsters.  If the Halpa start taking over the world the eight Vegan Confederacy battleships orbiting above (unbeknownst to the Noorhuttians) will use their extermination weapons to sterilize the planet.  We are informed that the Vegan government has already done this to over one thousand Halpa-infested planets over the last few millenia.

This story feels short and concise; it isn't overburdened with to many minor characters like the other three stories in Agent of Vega.  The Halpa are unusual, interesting aliens, and the details of the war between the Vegans and Halpa are also well thought out. Though it lacks the compelling emotional content of "The Truth About Cushgar," it vies with that story for title of best in the collection.

I like it!

**********

The four stories in Agent of Vega are entertaining specimens of traditional SF in which elites who callously manipulate the hoi polloi fight space pirates and hostile aliens with starships, ray guns and psychic powers.  Schmitz is good at presenting all the SF gadgetry and concepts we love.  Maybe 21st century readers will find Agent of Vega attractive because it is women who are manipulating the commoners, crossing the galaxy in search of revenge, hanging out with robots, and mowing people down with energy weapons.  These four tales are a worthwhile read for classic SF fans and people who want to investigate the conventional assertion that SF from the past is irredeemably sexist.

**********

The last page of my edition of Agent of Vega, Permabook M 4242, is an ad for a book, but not a science fiction book.  It's an ad for Hillel Black's Buy Now, Pay Later, a warning about the dangers of consumer debt!  For a quote from Buy Now, Pay Later check out libertarian luminary Virginia Postrel's November 2008 column in The Atlantic about consumer credit; spoiler alert--Postrel doesn't think consumer debt is anything to get too excited about.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

"You've probably never encountered honesty before.  Innocence.  Mike has never tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil...so we don't understand what makes him tick."
My copy, front cover
When around the turn of the century I heard they were making a series of big budget films out of The Lord of the Rings I hurried to reread Tolkien's trilogy, as well as The Hobbit, so that I could experience the story one more time with my own personal images of characters and settings in mind, images uninfluenced by the advertisements and action figures I expected to be seeing for the rest of my life.  When I learned recently that there would be a TV presentation of Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, I decided I'd better read my crumbling early '70s copy (a specimen of the twenty-seventh printing of the 1968 Berkley Medallion edition), even though it seems doubtful that the aisles of Toys "R" Us will soon be choked with action figures of newspaper columnist Bob Caxton and best-selling author Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D.

I'm fully aware that there is a later edition of Stranger in a Strange Land which restores the text to something closer to Heinlein's original vision for the book, but I think it makes sense to read this old version; for one thing, life is short, and the uncut version is like 600 pages.  More importantly, it is the 1961 version of the text that won the Hugo and struck a chord with so many people; reading this old edition will give me something closer to an authentic 1960s experience, the experience of so many people in the SF community and beyond it who read the book when it was new.

Stranger in a Strange Land (414 pages in this edition) is split into five parts.  In Part One Valentine Michael Smith is discovered on Mars.  Smith, or "Mike" as his friends call him or "The Man from Mars" as he is dubbed in the press, is the descendent of crewmembers of the first Earth ship to ever land on the red planet, a ship lost 25 years ago--the intervention of World War III prevented a second manned vessel from searching for that pioneering craft earlier.  Smith is brought back to an Earth ruled by a single planetary government based in Washington D.C.  Over the course of the novel Heinlein piles up details that give the impression that everything on this future Earth is some kind of a scam, an insincere facade; the top executive of the world government, Secretary General Douglas, provides an early example.  Douglas has a loveless marriage and is dominated by his wife; she manages the executive branch behind his back and bases many of her decisions on the advice of a fraudulent astrologer.  Characters like the Secretary General, his wife, and her astrologer are all as much victims of scams as perpetrators, deluding themselves as much as they delude others.  Additional examples include such relatively common SF tropes as the prevalence of synthetic foods and of vapid advertising.  Central to the novel is the prominent new Christian sect, Fosterism, a religion even more bogus than the ancient religions we are all familiar with; the Fosterist church is a major political force that the governmental authorities are reluctant to rein in, and often feel the need to placate.

1961 edition featuring a Rodin sculpture
that is prominently mentioned in the text
Smith, because of culture shock and because of the differences in gravity between Mars and Earth, is weak when he arrives on Terra, giving the government the excuse it needs to hide him away in a secure room in a hospital, out of the sight of the public and any pesky journalists.  They want as much control of Smith as possible: due to complicated legal reasons, Smith is the legal owner of Mars, and he is also fabulously wealthy independent of his "ownership" of the red planet--Smith's mother was a physicist and the inventor of a state of the art space drive, and Smith has inherited her vast fortune and business interests.  Away from the prying eyes of the public, Secretary General Douglas tries to trick Smith into signing away his rights to Mars, but anti-government newspaper columnist Bob Caxton, via his espionage devices, observes these shenanigans.  Caxton and nurse Jill Boardman sneak Smith out of the hospital to the estate of wealthy genius Jubal E. Harshaw.

Heinlein novels often include a venerable elder who shares his wisdom with the younger characters and serves as a sort of mouthpiece for Heinlein's own opinions.  Hershaw, who is not only a best-selling author but also a medical doctor and an attorney, plays this role in Stranger in a Strange Land. (In keeping with the book's "everything on Earth is a cynical scam" theme, Harshaw makes his money dashing off stories and poems for which he himself has little respect, publishing them under pseudonyms; presumably Heinlein knew, or knew of, SF writers who did just this sort of thing to make ends meet or to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.)  Heinlein is always interested in alternative forms of family life, and Harshaw lives with three beautiful professional women who act as his assistants.  The wise and good but curmudgeonly Harshaw, a sort of libertarian rebel against society who flings out aphorisms like "A desire not to butt into other people's business is eighty percent of all human wisdom" and "of all the nonsense that twists the world, the concept of 'altruism' is the worst....people do what they want to, every time"  becomes a father figure to Smith, and tries to educate the Man from Mars in the ways of Earth at the same time he seeks to learn all he can about Smith and about the mysterious aliens who raised him.

The Martians, whom we learn about second hand (there are really no scenes set on Mars or in space) are one of the strong elements of the novel. SF is full of aliens who are essentially just like humans; they travel in vehicles, they fight with guns and swords, they have religions and governments, etc.  Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land tries to create aliens who are actually alien: they don't have sex, or religion, or government, or fiction, or death, most of the things which occupy the time and drive the lives of us Earthlings. The radical biological and cultural differences between Martian and Earthly life make it hard for Martian-raised Smith to fully comprehend ("grok" in Martian) much of what goes on on Earth.  Smith's alien upbringing has also provided him with astonishing powers over his own body and outside matter; early in the novel we witness him shut down his life functions to the point that he can stay underwater for many hours, telepathically sense the "feelings" of plants and telekinetically move objects, and even make things--including people--simply disappear.  Smith in fact has just about every superpower you can think of--he could never star in an adventure story because he could defeat all the enemies and overcome all obstacles in seconds.  Stranger is less about Mike's psychic powers than it is his alien set of ethics and morality; he can't lie, he has no fear of death or sense of revulsion at cannibalism, and is selflessly devoted to all who have shared water with him--water is rare on Mars, and those who have drunk water together are "brothers" who must implicitly trust each other and support each other in all circumstances and at all costs.

Through legal, political and PR tactics, by the end of Part Two Harshaw has secured Smith's freedom, finances, and a high reputation before the public and among Earth's politicians.  In Part Three, Smith and we readers become intimately acquainted with Fosterism.  Heinlein's depiction of Fosterism is a broad satire of religion; Fosterism is shockingly garish and vulgar and its leaders are absolutely corrupt, promoting the religion as a crass commercial venture.  But at the same time Smith recognizes the comfort and joy that ordinary parishioners, those duped by the scam, derive from Fosterism's ritualistic and social elements.

Largely acclimated to Earth's gravity and America's culture, Smith and Jill Boardman, now lovers, leave Harshaw's estate and explore America, Smith using his superpowers to work a job as a carnival magician.  Smith fully reclaims his humanity with his experience of sex (Martians do not have sex) and by learning to laugh--we humans laugh to help ourselves forget that our lives are a tragedy; the immortal Martians, above pain, hardship, and discord, have no need to laugh.

Now fully human, in Part Four Smith, taking advantage of what he has learned about religion and about manipulating "marks" as a carnie, founds his own "church."  While there is a lot of ritual and rigamarole, Smith's group is more of a commune (where people hang around naked and enjoy sex with multiple partners, unburdened by the irrational prejudice of jealousy) than a religion; in fact it exists primarily to teach people the Martian language.  (Heinlein describes the organization and workings of Smith's cult in the same sort of detail in which he would later describe the lunar revolutionary organization in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)  As people learn the Martian tongue, they begin to think more like Martians, which not only brings people closer together but has significant health benefits and confers on the best students some of the psychic powers Smith is always using.  Ben Caxton and Harshaw's entire household join Smith, forming much of the cult's inner circle.  But the success of Mike's movement raises the fears of the powers that be!

In Part Five Harshaw himself finally joins the cult, just in time to witness Smith's martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob.  Mike, of course, could have used his superpowers to survive the attack; we readers know his martyrdom is just a step in the cult's rise, and we are given every reason to believe that over the succeeding decades or centuries the Martian way will win over humanity and our descendents will be a peaceful and happy race of promiscuous nudists who have abandoned jealousy and technology.

Heinlein has a good style and the story moves along, but make no mistake; this is a (long) book about ideas, not about adventures or interpersonal relationship drama--I found it comfortable and interesting, not thrilling or gripping.  Long sections of the novel consist of legal wrangling between Earthborn lawyers or conversations about philosophy and religion, dialogue that is full of obvious sarcastic jokes, and the entire text is larded with references to art, literature, history, and psychology.  (Among the more subtle references is an homage to Chelsey Bonestell, while a reference to Dorothy Kilgallen that would have been obvious to 1961 readers may fly over 21st century readers' heads.)

As I read Stranger in a Strange Land, over fifty years after its debut, at the front of my mind was the book's massive popularity, its enduring reputation as one of the top five or ten SF novels, and its reach beyond the SF community; what about the book appealed to so many people so strongly?

I've said that the book didn't thrill me, but my perspective is that of a middle-aged man living in permissive and licentious 2016, when things like divorce, abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography and birth control have been normalized, even celebrated, and are a ubiquitous presence in the media and public discourse, a time when Christianity is a spent force that is routinely mocked or ignored. 1961 was a different world, a world in which, perhaps, young people would have been thrilled by a book that told them religion was a racket and monogamy was a foolish and unhealthy idea that should be jettisoned tout suite.  Maybe early '60s readers got a thrill from Stranger like the thrill people of today get from TV shows, comedians and art that are "transgressive" or "politically incorrect," art which questions or ridicules accepted norms and cultural elites.

One reason I found the novel more appealing than many satires is that, even though it is telling you that the institutions of our society are a scam and our bedrock morals are in fact inimical to our happiness, it isn't bitter or condemnatory; many of the characters that at first come across as villains or knaves are later shown to have a good side, to be essentially decent people.  Douglas and the astrologer, for example, end up providing valuable support to Smith.  The novel even tells you that the most important message of religion, that your soul survives death and that you will live forever, is true--there are several scenes which take place in the afterlife, in which it is made clear that supernatural beings are looking out for the human race, guiding us to enlightenment. Stranger in a Strange Land is not angry or despairing or dismissive, it is confident and hopeful--when Mike is killed his water-brothers are not discouraged or brokenhearted because they know their friend is alive in another realm and that their movement is fated to succeed.

Heinlein's satire isn't flippant, he doesn't seek to merely shock like a comedian might, and his book isn't an absurdist farce: he tries to create a believable world and he goes beyond simply attacking our society to provide an alternative template for how you should live your life and how society should be organized.  Stranger, though sharing some characteristics with them, comes to the opposite conclusion of some of those misanthropic SF books in which honest and peaceful aliens, by contrast, make humanity, with its history of deceit and belligerence, look like a bunch of swine who should be exterminated or ruled by their extraterrestrial betters.  Heinlein celebrates the human race's potential; reminding me (oddly enough) of the end of A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Makers, Smith suggests to Harshaw that the human race is very likely unique in the universe, and uniquely superior because our species is split into two sexes and has been blessed with the ability to have sexual intercourse, an ideal means of achieving togetherness.  The human race has every reason to expect that it will surpass the very Martians whose teachings have made revolutionary advancement possible.

My copy, back cover
Another thing I kept thinking about as I read Stranger was Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, which I read recently, and Sturgeon and Heinlein's personal relationship.  Godbody and Stranger are broadly similar--in both a Christ-like being from somewhere out there appears and, for a small segment of the population, rehabilitates religion and brings to their attention the life-affirming magic of sexual intercourse.  When I read Godbody I remarked upon how it was pleasant to read Heinlein's introduction, in which he expressed his admiration and love for Sturgeon.  Sturgeon offers the same kind of gushing in a blurb on the back of my copy of Stranger, suggesting that his friend has produced a unique masterpiece of purity that leaves anything from the last 15 or more centuries or so in the dust(!)  The friendship between Heinlein and Sturgeon reflected in such extravagant praise is charming, even moving, even if you don't necessarily share the two writers' sky high opinions of each other's work.  Another important element of Stranger's appeal, I suspect, is that it inspires in the reader some of the same warm feelings that Heinlein's and Sturgeon's heartfelt writing about each other does.  While Stranger doesn't really provide the satisfaction offered by so much popular fiction, the catharsis of witnessing the protagonist overcome his enemies or some other challenge, the fulfillment of our wishes to conquer adversity and glory in triumph, what it does do is depict sincere affection and selfless love between and among the man from Mars and his friends, offering the reader a different kind of wish fulfillment, the dream of having friends we can trust to never betray or abandon us (as well as plenty of risk-free sex.)

Well, it feels good to have under my belt another of these oversized icons of speculative fiction which have impacted the wider culture.  After Lord of the Rings and Stranger in a Strange Land can it be that a reading of Dune lies in my future? Too bad they already filmed that one...twice.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"Ultimate" SF stories by Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Joanna Russ & Harlan Ellison from 1974

My wife found this cover so disturbing
that when she saw it on the kitchen
counter she hid it under a dish towel 
On the same early evening walk that yielded Harlan Ellison's From the Land of Fear, I picked up from the local Half Price Books a copy of Penguin's 1975 paperback edition of Final Stage, a collection edited by Ed Ferman and MPorcius fave Barry Malzberg.  Final Stage in its 1974 first edition was heavily rewritten by a busybody at the publisher, but the text of this Penguin edition, I am told, represents a full restoration of the stories to the form intended by their authors.

Malzberg apparently had the idea for this anthology: that he and Ferman would commission appropriate writers to compose the "ultimate" SF story on classic SF themes, Asimov writing the "ultimate" robot story and Harry Harrison producing yet another parody of space operas, for example.  Whether this is a genius idea or a silly gimmick I'm not sure--let's investigate what four writers with whose work I have some familiarity came up with: Poul Anderson, whose story is about "The Exploration of Space," Brian Aldiss, who was enlisted to write about "Inner Space," and Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, both commissioned to write on the topic of "Future Sex."  (Hubba hubba!)  

"The Voortrekkers" by Poul Anderson

This is a story about exploring the galaxy without a FTL drive.  Rather than launching a manned ship into interstellar space (the world's governments lack the budget for such an ambitious project and the authorities suspect being cooped up in a spaceship for such a long time will drive people nutso) the scientists come up with a way to scan a person's brain and upload his or her memories it into a computer.  Two people, Joel and Korene, are chosen to have their brains scanned and their personalities implanted into a space ship which will travel at an average velocity a fifth of the speed of light--they will be "turned on" only when necessary, to avoid the psychological dangers of a monotonous twenty-year trip.

The space ship contains apparatus to create artificial humans, and when an Earth-like planet is found the newly awakened software personalities bring to life two android, a male with a duplicate of Joel's personality and a female with Korene's.  These artificial people attempt to settle on the new world, only to find it poisonous, dooming them to tragically short lives.

The ideas that are the foundation of this story are good, and the plot is fine in outline. Instead of concentrating on adventurous stuff in which the disembodied and re-embodied astronauts tackle technical problems, Anderson's primary focus is on human drama--for example, on the angst people suffer when deciding if they want to have their brains scanned and on the relationships of Joel and Korene with their spouses and with each other; Joel and Korene, didn't know each other well on Earth but their recorded personalities explore the galaxy together as the "souls" of machines and in almost-human android bodies.  This is a good idea in theory, but somehow Anderson fails to bring the characters of Joel and Korene and their spouses to life, rendering the story boring.  In the 1968 short story "Kyrie," Anderson wrote a sexless love story, one between a human psyker and an alien made of energy, that I thought was successful, but the relationships in "The Voortrekkers" did not work for me, and they are the core of the story.

Anderson also tries to use elevated, poetic language to convey emotion, and it comes across as overly verbose and overwrought; here is android Korene describing the new planet:
The sun is molten amber, large in a violet heaven.  At this season its companion has risen about noon, a gold-bright star which will drench night with witchery under the constellations and three swift moons.  Now, toward the end of day, the hues around us--intensely green hills, tall blue-plumed trees, rainbows in wings which jubilate overhead--are become so rich that they fill the air; the whole world glows.  Off across the valley, a herd of beasts catches the shiningness on their horns.  
This kind of prose lulls me to sleep, a repose rudely interrupted by the jarring appearances of such words as "witchery," "jubilate" and "shiningness."  Maybe Anderson here (conscious that this is supposed to be an "ultimate" story) is trying too hard to be fancy instead of just telling it to us straight.

I believe the cover of this 1982 edition of
The Dark Between the Stars illustrates
"The Voortrekkers"
Another problem may be how Anderson skips between third-person narration and first-person narration by various versions of Korene and Joel, as well as hopping back and forth in time.  And then there are the scenes in which Korene and Joel do not figure, in which nameless religious authorities and public intellectuals express hostility to the space program for wasting money that should be spent on the poor on Earth.  (This reminded me of A. E. van Vogt's essay "The Launch of Apollo XVII," which I read in 1978's Pendulum and in which van Vogt suggests that "Part of the reason for the moon program ending is, of course, the perennial tendency of all conservative types to withdraw to their own backyard and save money.  But also, there is the enormous pressure of Blacks to get more funds channeled into equalizing aid programs.")

I think I have to give "The Voortrekkers" a grade of "barely acceptable."

Each story in Final Stage is followed by an afterword by its author.  Anderson in his tries to convince you that financing an elaborate space program is a good investment.  

"Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss is going maximum New Wave on us this time!  The first of the three "Diagrams" is a series of notes for a story about how the narrator, a university prof who studies dreams, and real-life writer Anna Kavan are out house-hunting and witness a car wreck.  (Shades of J. G. Ballard?)  Aldiss helps a woman named Olga out of one of the autos.  As Aldiss announces in the first paragraph, this story is all about ambiguity, how each of us has a private personal "truth" or "reality" different from that of others.  Olga, we are told, is short and plump, but "spiritually, she was a tall and slender girl."  Similarly, Olga is a natural blonde, but "her personality...was that of a dark girl," so dyes her hair black.  And so on.

Olga and the dream prof have an affair.  A movie is to be made out of the prof's research and dreams, and Olga will play herself as she has appeared in the narrator's dreams,  But then she gets killed in another car wreck.

(Reading between the lines, I suspect Olga is not a very attentive driver.)

The second "diagram" is an outline of what Aldiss tells us would be an adventure story.  Four men over 60 years old are recruited and given two years of sensory deprivation "training," which Aldiss describes in detail.  Then they are put into an abandoned airport (they are told it is an "alien environment") that has been converted into a labyrinth and treated like rats in a maze by unseen "operators" who change the maze periodically, shifting the walls and changing the lighting.  Aldiss stresses that the completed story will be vague and suggestive, that just like the four men, the reader will not really know what is going on.  The four men eventually start seeing figures they are lead to believe are "Alien Psychic Life" and the engage in a hunt for them, in the process uncovering some operators and killing them as well as an "alien."

This second part of "Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" strongly reminded me of Christopher Priest's 1971 "Real-Time World."  I guess it is also supposed to "subvert the conventions" of traditional adventure stories by having the volunteers be old instead of young men, trained to do nothing and tolerate an absolute absence of stimuli instead of being trained in how to use weapons and pilot complicated craft and respond to a myriad of dangers.

The third "diagram" is about homo superior living among us, a common SF theme. As in the first section of the story, our narrator is the dream-researching college professor. He tells us about his friendship with a family of "aliens" who are in fact a strain of superhumans, the result of "a pharmaceutical error, like the thalidomide children." These people are very charismatic and have their own rituals based on the four elements and their own attitudes about relationships; I think Aldiss may be using them to satirize Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.  (Coming soon to a TV screen near you!)

The super human family is fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson, but seems to have knowledge of writings by Stevenson which are not widely recognized.  The narrator eventually realizes that the homo superior brain can make its dreams come true--by conceiving additional works by Stevenson, the super family is making them pop into existence.  Aldiss suggests that the moral of the story is that you can wreck a culture by loving it too much, a moral he explicitly rejects.

It is hard to take this sort of thing seriously; it is like Aldiss is pawning off on us his drafts and outlines of parodies of famous SF stories as completed work.  (I felt similarly about J. G. Ballard's "condensed novels," that they were a sort of lazy trick, an example of an author doing the easy parts of writing fiction and just skipping the hard parts that make fiction rewarding for the average reader.)  But Aldiss is a good writer and even though I can't take these fragments as seriously as Aldiss presumably does, they are faintly amusing and at least not boring or irritating.  Marginal recommendation, though Anna Kavan fans and all you New Wave kids may like "Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" more than I did.    

In his brief Afterword Aldiss denounces "pulp science fiction" for "betraying" the possibilities of the genre in favor of "power-fantasy," "thick-arm adventure" and "jackboot philosophy."  But he considers the current generation's themes of "over-population and mechanized eroticism" as "banal" as the last generation's "faster-than-light flight and telepathy."  For his own part, Aldiss has become "preoccupied with the idea that art is all" and working on triptychs of "slightly surreal escapades" he calls "Enigmas."  Somebody is taking himself very seriously!

Last Orders is apparently full to bursting with Aldiss' three-part "Enigmas."
"An Old Fashioned Girl" by Joanna Russ

In the first half of this five-page story the narrator describes her house in the woods and all its high tech gadgets--she is having three friends over, and has driven them up to the house in her electric car.  Inhabiting the house with the narrator is a beautiful (swimmer's body, blue eyes) man, Davy, who makes the women drinks and walks around naked.  The second half of the story is a detailed sex scene between the narrator and Davy in which the narrator is the dominant partner.  The somewhat predictable twist at the end of the story is the revelation that the man is an artificial being, grown from chimpanzee "germ-plasm" and controlled by the house computers.  Men are in fact extinct, and the four women speculate about rumors that in the patriarchal past women were treated by men the way the narrator treats this organic machine, as an essentially soulless sex object.

This story isn't bad (the style is good), but it is simple and obvious, the kind of switcheroo* story you find in old EC comics in which a guy kills a spider and then gets caught in a giant spider web.  Russ thinks men mistreat women, and this story puts the shoe on the other foot and serves as a denunciation of (and perhaps plea for understanding from?) men as well as a feminist revenge fantasy for the delectation of women who share Russ' views..

First edition of The Female Man
When Aldiss complains about "power fantasies" I suppose he is talking about the kind of Edgar Rice Burroughs story in which a guy defeats monsters and villains and marries a beautiful princess.  Would Aldiss consider "An Old Fashioned Girl" a "power fantasy," albeit one aimed at a different audience, because it is about a woman who has absolute power over a beautiful man and enjoys him sexually in her beautiful house?

In her afterward Russ admits her story is not exactly groundbreaking, noting that much speculation about sex in SF depicts mechanical substitutes for human sex partners, and "An Old Fashioned Girl" does the same, but then adds "but I'd like to plead that the piece is part of a forthcoming novel in which there are lots of other kinds of sex." Wikipedia is indicating that the novel of which she speaks is 1975's The Female Man, which I have not read, but which, as a whole, presumably is a more nuanced and complicated piece of work than this little snippet appears to be when presented on its own.

*In the afterword Russ uses the phrase "role-reversal" and says that Davy is a "Playboy Bunny with testicles," revealing Russ' unsympathetic assessment of the women who have appeared in Playboy!              

"Catman" by Harlan Ellison

It is the high-tech post-scarcity future, when people teleport hither and thither through the "arcology" of a London whose buildings are made of force fields that are powered by energy beamed down from satellites.  But some things never change!  Our title character is nagged by his wife because he hasn't got that promotion yet, and his son is rebelling against his parents' and society's values!

Lewis Leipzig, a black man, works as a Catman, a sort of freelance cop who chases criminals with the aid of his robot animals.  His white wife Karin wants him to catch a jewel thief in order to get a promotion so he can afford to get her a rejuvenation treatment.  The jewel thief just eluded him, blowing up Lewis's robot black panther in the bargain, which puts a real crunch on their finances!  To add insult to injury, the jewel thief is Lewis and Karin's son Neil!

Why has Neil turned to a life of crime in a world where almost everything is easily available?  We follow Neil as he has a meeting with a rich aristocrat who rules Australia as her personal fiefdom; she is always searching for a newer, better high, and Neil has just stolen some very rare drugs that originally came to Earth from outer space.  He trades the drugs for information he obsessively desires; you see, Neil, having witnessed the unhappy relationship of his parents, how his shrewish mother has ruined his long suffering father, now directs his sexual desire towards metal and machines!  The aristocrat tells him where to find the HQ of a cult of people who live underground and have sex with a 200-foot tall computer!

Plugging wires into various sockets implanted in his own flesh and inserting his penis into the towering machine, Neil has the best sex of his life in a sex scene which takes up four pages!  He is absorbed by his towering mechanistic love partner, and when he emerges part of his body has been replaced by machinery!  And his father, Lewis the Catman, who followed him down into the computer-sex-cavern, has witnessed the whole mortifying act!

Worse is to come for poor Lewis!  Intercourse with the supercomputer has increased Neil's teleporting abilities, and, thinking he is liberating his father, he teleports to his parents' house, kidnaps his mother, teleports back to the cyclopean metal inamorato, and then permanently merges his own body and that of his shrieking mother with the machine, ending both of their (human) lives!  Lewis watches helplessly, and it is revealed to us readers that the problems in the Leipzig marriage (at least in Lewis' mind) were not due to Karin's tyranny, but to Lewis' own coldness!  "The mother always loved, but had no way of showing it.  The father had never loved, and had every way of reinforcing it, day after day."

In the same year "Catman" appeared in the
collection Approaching Oblivion
Ellison is of course a staunch anti-racism activist, but it is hard to read a story about two disastrous cross cultural sexual relationships (black man with white woman and human with computer) which includes a scene of a black man's half-white son killing his black panther, and not think it is somehow about the dangers of miscegenation.  Or perhaps Ellison is talking about how one culture can be undermined by intimate interaction with another (more powerful?  more seductive? more sophisticated?) culture. Is he suggesting that computers will exploit humans, take from humanity aspects of its culture and rework them to their own purposes, the way whites exploited blacks and seized upon aspects of black culture and put them to their own uses?

"Catman" is a crazy, over-the-top story, but the plot is straightforward and it is entertaining with its many far future gadgets, extreme emotions and vivid, lurid visions of sleek robots, decrepit cyborgs and bizarre sexual performances.

In his afterword Ellison describes the whole process of receiving the commission for the story and writing it, and does a lot of name-dropping of other famous SF writers, telling the reader little factoids and anecdotes about them.  Among those named is Ellison's fellow native Ohioan Edmond Hamilton.  Unlike Aldiss and Harrison, Ellison doesn't feel the need to express contempt for the writers of space operas and adventure stories.  There are plenty of stories about Ellison acting like a self-important dick, but Ellison, in his voluminous introductions and afterwards, always gives the impression that he likes and respects all the other writers who are there in the genre fiction trenches with him, banging away on those typewriters.

**********

Final Stage has been a little disappointing.  Each of the four stories I read has enough going for it that I can't condemn any of them outright, but they are far from the "ultimate."  Were I to rank them, the Russ--well-written, concise and clear--and the Ellison--a loud sort of grand guignol noir--would vie for the top spot; the Russ feels literary and sophisticated, but the Ellison is actually fun.  However, neither feels qualitatively different than what has gone before; we've seen plenty of role-reversal stories before, and plenty of future detective chases a guy stories before.

Anderson's contribution, which has the solid ideas and plot structure of a good hard SF tale but feels hollow, and Aldiss' story, which feels like a self-indulgent trick, compete for third place.  People who are committed partisans in Hard SF vs New Wave debates will have an easy time choosing between them, but I don't.

Surprisingly enough, the afterwords provided by the authors, which address political and social issues and indulge in interesting SF criticism, are more entertaining and thought-provoking than their actual stories!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Four stories from the 1950s by Harlan Ellison

If I got sick of being cooped up indoors while I lived in New York City I could just step outside and take a walk and experience all kinds of adventures, or at least take in the perennially fascinating sights afforded by the countless skyscrapers and the many vessels big and small plying the river.  If I step outside where I am living now I am confronted by ugly suburban houses and strip malls.  The only interesting thing to do within walking distance of the current MPorcius HQ is to peruse the nostalgia shelf at Half Price Books.  Which is how I ended up buying Belmont Tower's 1973 edition of Harlan Ellison's From the Land of Fear this weekend, even though I already have more paperback books than I can read in what remains of my lifetime.

Ellison provides an adorable introduction to this collection of ten short stories and one screenplay, which was originally published in 1967.  He brags about how brave he is (the only thing he fears is that he will die before he has written all the stories churning inside of him--oh yeah, and contact lenses) and talks about the burden his Talent with a capital T puts on him.  For example, when a woman has sex with him, is it because she is attracted to him, or is it "the Talent" that she loves?
The talent that is Me and the Man that is Harlan Ellison are two very separate and distinct entities.  That the Man lugs around the Talent becomes at once a blessing and a curse.     
The last time I read a Belmont Tower book I remarked upon how they had cut corners and left out any page numbers.  From the Land of Fear has its own idiosyncrasies; there is no table of contents or page listing where the included stories first appeared. Thank heavens for isfdb!  Let's take a look at four Ellison stories which first appeared in SF magazines in the late 1950s.

"We Mourn for Anyone..." (1957)

When this one appeared in Fantastic it was under the title "Mourners for Hire" and under a pseudonym, Ellis Hart.  Under his real name Ellison had this issue of Fantastic's cover story, "Satan is My Ally," evidently a tale about a man who rose from the grave. "Satan is My Ally" is a pretty great title, and I love stories about people rising from the grave, so I may take steps to acquire this rarely reprinted piece.

Back to "We Mourn for Anyone..." In his intro to the story Ellison tells us he wants the cheapest possible funeral and for his body to be sold to medical science and the money accrued thereby to be given to The Deacons for Defense and Justice for firearms and to Native American children for clothes.  You see, Ellison, citing Jessica Mitford, thinks the funeral home industry is a racket!

Our story takes place in a future of air cars, videophones, and high tech weaponry. Upper-middle-class people are into dueling over slights with hand flamers and other weapons (like in Robert Heinlein's Beyond this Horizon?)  People in this society also consider mourning over dead friends and relatives a waste of time and energy, and hire professional mourners to handle this burden while they get on with their careers.

Gordon Vernon murders his cheating wife, Liz (nee Sellman), and then hires the top mourner in the country, Maurice Silvera.  Dun dun dun!  Unbeknownst to Vernon, Maurice Silvera was the guy who was sleeping with Liz!  When Silvera uses his instruments to gauge how sad Vernon is about his wife's falling off the roof of a 96-story skyscraper (to determine how emotive a performance he has to put on) he realizes Vernon is not sad at all!  Silvera gives a poor performance, the Sellman family (a bunch of violent nouveau riches) is insulted, and their best duellist challenges Vernon, who has no chance of surviving the encounter.  Revenge!

A brisk noirish story full of SF gadgets and strange cultural norms; fun!

"The Sky is Burning" (1958)

In the intro to this one Ellison tells us he has an Alexander Shields bathrobe.  I had never heard of this brand before, and am not sure if Ellison is bragging that he is a stylish dresser with an oversized clothing budget or if he is hinting that he is just a man of the people who shops at the 1967 equivalent of Walmart.

This story, which first appeared in If, is narrated by an astronomer.  He is among the first to notice that hundreds of meteorites are burning up in the atmosphere of Earth, Venus and Mars.  But it turns out these are no ordinary meteorites--they are aliens!  People who look like the Egyptian sun god Ra, and have come to our solar system (like creatures from a Lovecraft story, they need no spaceship to cross the cosmos) after living a span of five thousand years to commit suicide!

Before killing himself, one of the thirteen-foot-tall aliens comes to the Earth's surface and telepathically communicates with some scientists, informing them that our solar system is the "end of the Universe" and that the human race will not be permitted to leave it.  This bad news breaks the hearts of the more sensitive scientists, including the narrator ("A feeling of waste and futility and hopelessness") and so they commit suicide.

Reminding me of Ellison's intro to the volume, this is an arrogant story about how special people ("Those of us who dreamed"), people who are better than the rest of us, suffer under the terrible burden of their superiority.  Ellison includes in the story examples of the hoi polloi for whom he has disdain--a military officer and the narrator's assistant, a careerist--and assures us that they will not be committing suicide because they are so insensitive.

It's bad enough when people who were born with gifts brag about their gifts, but when they turn around and tell you how hard their lives are because they are better than the rest of us, that is hard to take.  This story is OK, but it had me rolling my eyes the way I did when attractive women I would meet in New York would moan about how difficult it was being beautiful, what with all the men chasing them and all the other women envying them.

"My Brother Paulie" (1958)

In his intro to this one Ellison tells us it is a "gimmick" story and would have been perfect for The Twilight Zone and admits he made a goof in it.  Gimmicks and goofs aside, I really like this story.

Brad Woodland is the sole astronaut on the ninth rocket to try to fly around the moon and take readings of its dark side.  The eight previous rockets have all failed in one way or another.  But Brad has a still bigger problem--his envious twin brother, Paul, a jerk who has bullied Brad all his life, has stowed away on the rocket and is trying to murder him!

Despite being chased all around the ship by his blaster-wielding brother, Brad completes the mission and gets back to Earth in one piece with the data.  It is revealed that the astronauts who helmed the previous eight attempts had gone insane--like in a Kris Neville or Barry Malzberg story, in "My Brother Paulie," space drives you bonkers! The government hypnotized Brad into thinking his brother was along for the ride in order to distract him from whatever it is in space that drives Earthlings mad.  But wait, if Paulie and the blaster weren't really on the ship, what are all those blast holes in the cockpit?

I'm not sure I like the second twist of the twist ending (the possibility that Paulie really was aboard) but I like everything else about the story, the suspense scenes and the flashbacks to the boys' contentious youth.  Entertaining.        

"Back to the Drawing Boards" (1958)

Ellison admits that this one is a little gimmicky and unbelievable, but says that readers will generally go along with the writer, and if readers weren't willing to suspend their disbelief that "Heinlein, Asimov, Vonnegut and myself would be the most imaginative quartet of bricklayers in the world." (Heinlein did some masonry work on his own house and apparently considered it a kind of hobby.  I don't know if Asimov or Vonnegut have any history of bricklaying, but Ellison isn't the kind of guy to let logic get in the way of a good story or a good line.)

It is the close of the 21st century! Man has conquered the solar system!  TV viewers demand ever more exciting reality programming!  To meet this demand an inventor, Leon Packett, toils in his basement, inventing a super strong humanoid robot with a face full of cameras and microphones.  He calls the robot Walkaway, and it can go anyplace and get the best film because Packett has programmed it to have human-like emotions.

Packett built Walkaway without any government or institutional support ("I starved for fifteen years") and he hates all government and authority.  So he won't sell or give away Walkaway; the military or whoever has to hire Walkaway and pay him wages, just like they would a human employee.  When the government hires Walkaway to man (or "staff," as the feminists say) the first ever faster-than-light space ship, bound to explore the galaxy, Packett plots his final revenge on the human race!  After Walkaway heads off into hyperspace, Packett commits suicide.

Walkaway returns to Earth three and a half centuries later!  The people of Earth lost interest in interstellar travel long ago, and few people even know the name "Leon Packett."  The first thing Walkaway does when he lands is not telling everybody about all the awesome stuff he saw out there in space; no, the first thing he does is demand 365 years of wages--plus interest!  There isn't that much money in the world, so the people of Earth have to give Walkaway the planet, making him dictator!  (The last line of the story hints that the dictator forces everybody to be put in a robot body or something.)

Like the other three stories, "Back to the Drawing Boards," which first appeared in Fantastic Universe, is well-written and paced.  Maybe the end could be a little more clear, but I thought it was a pleasant diversion.

**********

Back cover of my copy of the 1973
edition of From the Land of Fear
"The Sky is Burning" rubbed me the wrong way--it is the most pretentious and least exciting of the four stories we looked at today--but it is not bad and the other three are all fun capers.  I'll definitely be reading more of Ellison's early work (ebay may provide an affordable route to "Satan is My Ally!")  

**********

When as a six-year-old child I saw the first Star Wars movie in a New Jersey drive-in theatre I immediately wanted to run out and buy an R2-D2 action figure.  Even as an adult living in New York City, after I saw The Phantom Menace I wanted to run over to the Virgin MegaStore on Union Square to buy the film's soundtrack.  Apparently, people living in 1973 who had just smoked a pack of Kents ("America's quality cigarette") felt the urge to run right out and buy a Kent-branded ice bucket!

Bound into my copy of Belmont Tower's 1973 paperback edition of From the Land of Fear is a full color ad not only for the Kent cancer sticks themselves, but for Kent-branded popcorn makers, ice buckets, percolators and drinking vessels of all sizes and shapes!  [UPDATE 12/8/2016: Check out ukjarry's comment and the accompanying link below for evidence of what Ellison must have thought of this ad!]

Order these "attractive" "collectables" for your family and friends.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mid '60s stories from Edgar Pangborn, Algis Budrys & Philip Latham

Let's take a look at Terry Carr's 1970 anthology On Our Way to the Future, Ace 62940.  The little bio at the start of the book tells us Carr lived in Brooklyn with his wife Carol, also a writer in and out of the SF field, and reminds us of his collaborative work with Donald Wollheim.  Oh yeah, and that he and Carol had two cats, Gilgamesh and George.  Meow!

We've already read the story by Kris Neville in On Our Way to the Future, as well as James Schmitz's contribution, "Goblin Night;" today let's look at the included pieces by Edgar Pangborn, Algis Budrys and Philip Latham (the pen name of professional astronomer Robert S. Richardson.)

"A Better Mousehole" by Edgar Pangborn (1965)

No doubt you remember when we read Pangborn's novels Davy and West of the Sun. Let's see what he does in a shorter format.

"A Better Mousehole," which first appeared in a special issue of Fred Pohl's Galaxy, is written in the voice of the uneducated bartender of a little hick town.  He speaks in a kind of redneck dialect ("The back room gets lively Saturday nights, and I ain't been sweeping up too good, last couple-three weeks"), saying "desecrator" for "decorator" and "thermostack" for "thermostat" and misattributing cliches to the Bible and that sort of thing.  Through the medium of his garbled text we learn all about the various wacky characters in this little town and their strained relationships with each other.  We also learn the plot of the story, somewhat obliquely.  One of the town's inhabitants is a wealthy intellectual who will leave his decaying mansion for months at a time to explore unpopulated corners of the world.  From his most recent trip he brought back to the little town a basketball-sized blue sphere which turns out to be the vehicle of tiny alien invaders!

These aliens, whom our narrator calls "blue bugs," are sort of interesting.  Those they bite have wonderful dreams; being bitten also seems to improve a  victim's mood.  It is hinted that the "bugs" might be able to make the world a better place by rendering people more mellow... but there are also clues that suggest being bitten drives some to insanity, murder, even death.  I compared Pangborn's novels to the work of Theodore Sturgeon, and the possibility that alien invaders might improve human society, as well as references to love and sex in "A Better Mousehole," also brought Sturgeon to mind.  [UPDATE 12/6/2016: In the comments ukjarry sheds light on the Sturgeon-Pangborn connection!]

The plot of "A Better Mousehole" is basically straightforward traditional SF stuff, but Pangborn gussies the story up by having it told via an idiosyncratic and unreliable narrator and by not telling the story in strict chronological order.  I found it entertaining.

"Be Merry" by Algis Budrys (1966)

When it first appeared in If, "Be Merry" was billed as a "complete novel" and it takes up like 50 pages of On Our Way to the Future.

This is one of those post-apocalyptic jobs, but has elements of hope as well as descriptions of ruins and sickly people and depictions of the ruthlessness of people who have been pushed to extremes.  And it takes place in my home state of New Jersey, with a description of a typical Jersey Shore town and references to Route 46, with which I am very familiar, and WOR, one of the radio stations I listened to during my four years of driving between home and Rutgers and then three years driving between home and the kind of job my RU history degree had prepared me for, earning minimum wage at a bookstore.

The background: Space alien lifeboats crash landed on Earth in the 1960s; the aliens were friendly, but carried diseases that killed most of mankind.  The aliens themselves were in turn made ill by Earth germs.  Human society collapsed, but the survivors have been slowly rebuilding a tolerant multi-species society.

The plot: Evidence reaches a center of the fledgling new society that there is a New Jersey town which is surprisingly healthy (of all the outposts of survivors, it is the only one which isn't always requesting drugs and medical supplies.)  Our narrator, a human, and his partner, an alien, are sent to investigate this mysterious town.  What they find could lead to their deaths, or the kind of paradigm shift we often see in classic SF stories, the solution to the problems plaguing the new civilization!

I have been very hard on Algis Budrys' famous novel Rogue Moon, but I liked his novel Man of Earth and I also like "Be Merry."  The writing style is good, there are engaging ideas, and all of the numerous characters play a role in the plot and feel "real:" they are interesting, have believable motivations and act in a logical manner, and the reader can identify with them; none are incredibly virtuous or cartoonishly evil.  Budrys actually had me wondering how the story was going to turn out, and actually caring how it turned out.  

Quite good.

"Under the Dragon's Tail" by Philip Latham (1966)

This is a humor story about an astronomer who is an arrogant jerk.  He works at a county planetarium near Los Angeles and is sick and tired of having to be nice to the taxpayers who pay his salary and having to listen to all the dolts and cranks who call him and write him with their dumb questions and crazy theories.  Most of the story's fifteen pages is this kind of comedy material.  When he is not complaining or running the projector, the astronomer finds time to do lots of calculations about an asteroid.  His calculations indicate that the asteroid is going to strike Los Angeles and cause "more devastation" than would a strike by "many thermonuclear weapons."  Instead of getting upset and calling Washington or other scientists for confirmation of this terrible news, he treasures the discovery to himself!  He's gone mad!

"Under the Dragon's Tail," first published in Analog, is not bad.  I guess it is sort of funny, and the author includes classical references, Shakespeare references, and plenty of stuff about astronomy and the operation of a planetarium, so it keeps the reader's interest, while the question of whether we should identify with the protagonist or deplore him provides a little ambiguity and tension.

**********

These three stories were all worth my time; Carr made decent selections here.  There are several more stories in On Our Way to the Future by writers I care about, so it is very likely we will return to it in the future.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pretty Leslie by R. V. Cassill

She had to be capable of anything now.  When the surface of her life flowed on like rote--as it usually did--still the lower currents wandered among the stony surprises of an unknown stream bed.  
I spent some time in Des Moines on my recent Thanksgiving travels, and found that the public library was selling books for five cents each! Among those I purchased for this cheap as free price was R. V. Cassill’s Pretty Leslie, a Bantam paperback from 1964 with an interesting red cover that proclaims it to be “the brilliant, moving novel of modern sexual life!”, complete with exclamation point! (The book first appeared as a Simon and Schuster hardcover with a repulsive cover in 1963.) The back cover text of my paperback suggests this 295-page book is about a horny chick whose horniness gets her in some kind of trouble; I guess we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Ronald Verlin Cassill was born in Iowa, and my copy of Pretty Leslie was once part of the Des Moines Public Library’s collection of books by Iowa authors. It is in quite good shape; evidently nobody found the sexalicious cover enticing  enough to actually sit in the library ("FOR USE IN LIBRARY ONLY") and read it. I guess it does look more like one of those "curl up all alone with" type of books.  But don’t think that I purchased Pretty Leslie in hopes it was a piece of pornography!  Not only did Cassill win various literary awards as well as the praises of the snobs at the New York Times and James Dickey (whose Deliverance I read about six years ago and am happy to recommend)--for two decades Cassill edited The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction,a perch of great power and prestige in the world of wordsmithery!  All the evidence suggests that Pretty Leslie, even if it is about a horny chick, is a respectable piece of modern literature!


Leslie Skinner (Skinner?  hmmmm...) grew up in the tony Long Island suburb of Manhasset, and then moved to Manhattan and worked at a famous magazine. As our story begins, Leslie is 27 and has lived with her husband, Ben Daniels, a pediatrician, for three years in Sardis, Illinois.  Leslie loves attention, and is a skilled liar and clever manipulator: “She could, and did, still make anyone she wanted to fall in love with her.  The tactics were exactly those that had worked in Manhasset High...."  She flirts with Ben's friends and the men at the ad agency where she works part time, and tells white lies to her female coworkers to get them to tell her their own secrets--these secrets she relays to her husband.  Leslie, Ben reflects, has a "contagious lust for drama."

The back cover of Pretty Leslie, with its handwritten quote from the title character's diary, had given me hopes that this novel would be a first person narrative from a nymphomaniac or someone with some other psychological problem, but it is in fact written in the third person omniscient form, and we follow several characters, learn their backstories, look into their minds, and witness events from their points of view. In the first of the novel's four parts we learn Ben Daniels' deep dark secret: As a child growing up in Kansas he cunningly murdered another boy, meting out rough justice for that boy's having tortured a dog. The murder was ruled an accident, and Ben and his stepmother moved to New York City to start a new life. Throughout his life Ben has wrestled with a dilemma: can he unburden himself of this weighty secret, tell anyone, even his wife, how he coaxed Billy Kirkland behind a car parked on an incline and then, oops, released the brake so Billy was crushed?

In Part Two we learn about Leslie's past: she was fat, which scarred her mind, making her obsessed with keeping off weight.  She developed a slender figure as a young adult, but she is haunted by a "Fat Girl" and at times of stress will quickly gain weight and resort to girdles.  Cassill's novel is full of Freudian mumbo jumbo: we not only learn about the childhood incidents which have caused the various characters' adult fetishes and hangups, but read all about their stupid dreams, and all the characters fling around goofy psychological analyses of each other. Ben, for example, thinks that when Leslie gains weight it may be because she subconsciously wants to be pregnant.

Did I say "fetishes and hangups?"  Leslie wants to be treated roughly by a man, dominated, or at a least part of her she isn't quite ready to admit, even to herself, does. One of Cassill's recurring themes is personalities split in two, entities composed of two opposing or complementary elements.  Leslie is both the sexy sophisticated professional and the Fat Girl, while Ben is both the cunning assassin of a child and the devoted preserver of children's lives.

Leslie's desire to be roughly handled is all mixed up in her attitudes about race.  While she calls herself a liberal and was "madly for Adlai" during her high school days, she was sexually aroused when she heard a horror story from the South about a black woman who was gang raped by whites while held up against the fender of a car, and was also excited when she saw a cop on the streets of Greenwich Village beating Puerto Rican boys with his billy club.  That very same cop later tried to make the moves on her, and when she resisted he hit her with the very same club, a beating she found cathartic.

Ben has his own complicated views of blacks and Hispanics, which are all mixed up in his beliefs in superstition and "the uncanny."  Ben's father died in Africa where his parents were missionaries devoted to helping whom Ben calls "black idiots;" a "witch doctor" tended Ben's father on his deathbed and Ben's mother soon after went insane. Ben himself volunteers two days a week at a clinic in an Illinois ghetto, looking after "Negro" children.  In an early part of the novel Ben fails to save a black baby (the little boy ate lead paint chips and dies of lead poisoning) and the same day revives an apparently doomed white little girl; Ben conceives the ridiculous notion that the events are inextricably linked, that somehow the little Negro boy was sacrificed to rescue the Caucasian child.

I should probably note that animals also play a role in the novel (there is the aforementioned dog, for example, as well as a pet bird, some pet fish, and a recurring reference to a chimpanzee) and that these animals play a role in the novel similar to that of the numerous minor nonwhite figures--they are alien inferiors, and the way the three white principals treat them reveals something about their character.  

First edition; are those gummy worms
or mitochondria?  Hideous!
The climax of Part Two comes when Ben is down in Caracas, at a medical conference where he learns about the plight of Latin American children.  After a party at her boss's fancy house Leslie has a brief affair with a social inferior, Donald Patch.  We learn all about Patch in Part Three.  A short man Leslie doesn't even like, Patch is a loutish commercial artist and science fiction fan (!) whom nobody respects; he uses an airbrush to paint highly detailed and "garishly" realistic depictions of people, aircraft and military equipment (sophisticated people like Leslie prefer abstract modern art, even if they work at an ad agency which makes its money by offering clients Patch's realistic work.)  Patch is a serial womanizer, but he has only ever had lower class women, including many "Negro" women--white, educated middle-class Leslie is a major catch for him.  Patch seduces women by being dismissive and cruel to them (I guess nowadays people call this "negging") and he is a violent lover who hurts Leslie.  This selfish creep brings Leslie to orgasm, something her kind and gentle husband has never done!

Also in Part Three Ben returns from Venezuela, his contact with poor Latin American kids having fired him with the idea that he and Leslie (who have been unable to have their own child) should adopt.  But when he suggests this idea to Leslie over dinner at a fancy restaurant she isn't even listening to him--she's thinking of Patch!  Over the succeeding weeks various clues convince Ben that Leslie had another man in his absence.  He tries to be modern and liberal about it ("If someone had her on her back, what's the harm in it?  Who am I to rock the boat?") but the knowledge of her infidelity has terrible effects on his mind; he becomes impotent, for example.  Patch badgers Leslie into resuming the affair; she spends her days in Patch's crummy apartment and her nights in the house Ben bought her.  Cassill suggests that Leslie needs both gentle Ben and brutal Patch to achieve satisfaction, and even that Ben and Patch are different versions of the same person, shaped by different circumstances. The climax of Part Three is when Leslie discovers she is finally pregnant!

In Part Four Leslie flees west and Ben finally realizes what is going on and confronts Patch; he and Patch (it appears) die, while Leslie, sower of discord, moves on to another phase of her life.

There are some good things in Pretty Leslie; the sex stuff is more or less entertaining, and the uncomfortable race stuff, Leslie and Ben's powerful but condescending, ambivalent, and at times hypocritical feelings about blacks and Hispanics, is intresting.  I liked the character of Donald Patch, the brutish artist consigned to the edges of polite society.  I give Pretty Leslie a passing grade.  But there are also lots of problems--it is certainly not as "brilliant" or "moving" as advertised.  Cassill doesn't have a very engaging prose style, and he uses lots and lots of elaborate metaphors and similes.  Some of these work, but some just weigh down the narrative, expressing an idea with more words but no more clarity than a simple declaration would have.  Some of the longer metaphorical passages I found distracting and, as my mind wandered, incomprehensible.

The profusion of metaphors suggests Cassill is trying to produce a serious literary novel; he also assumes a level of cultural literacy on the part of the reader, including plenty of references to artists like George Bellows and Willem De Kooning and fictional characters like Circe, Madame Bovary, and Mrs. Miniver.  Cassill never uses Maugham's name, but makes it clear Patch thinks of himself as Strickland, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham's Moon and Sixpence, an artist above the stifling strictures of bourgeois morality.

In the same way the overabundance of metaphors makes the book feel a little too long and too slow, there is a superfluity of minor, uninteresting characters who appear briefly and then never show up again; maybe Cassill could have combined some of them--how many friends and colleagues do the Daniels really need for the narrative to function?

A recent edition
The novel's biggest problem is probably that it is about a marriage, but neither the husband nor the wife is very interesting, and their relationship isn't compelling either.  Leslie and Ben Daniels are wishy washy--why should the reader be "moved" if Ben and Leslie themselves are so bland and hesitant, so ambivalent, about each other?  I can't remember why they even got married, what attracted them to each other in the first place, they never exhibit the kind of deep love or ferocious hate I want to see in drama. Don Patch, a man driven by big emotions who stands at odds with society, is the book's most interesting character--he acts and reacts, he feels things and he does things.  Leslie and Ben just go with the flow, they think and talk but can't make up their minds about what they feel and what they should to do, and end up feeling and doing very little.  Leslie and Ben are passive victims to whom things happen, and victims are boring--Patch is a villain or antihero who makes things happen.

A part of the problem is all that modern psychology jazz; it quashes the characters' agency as well as any romance or tragedy the story might have had, turning them into malfunctioning machines instead of flesh and blood people you can feel for.  The idea of people as deterministic machines may make sense as a description of real life, but it can ruin fiction, especially when the characters, instead of rebelling against determinism, blandy accept it.

Pretty Leslie wasn't a waste of my time, but Cassill lacks the sort of special something--depth of feeling, a beautiful style, a unique point of view, humor or a sense of fun, surprising ideas--that excites me about the "mainstream" or "literary" writers I really like, such as Proust or Nabokov or Maugham or Orwell or Henry Miller or Bukowski, so I don't think I will be reading any other of his numerous works.