Monday, January 30, 2017

Four stories from 1955's Operation Future: Sturgeon, Leinster, Bixby, and Kuttner & Moore

Last week I purchased Operation Future, a 1955 anthology edited by Groff Conklin and put out by Permabooks, with the last pennies remaining on the Half-Price Books gift card I got as a Christmas gift.  Having just read a bunch of deliberately innovative stories from the 1970s, let's check out some stories from the late '40s and early '50s by Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Jerome Bixby and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore; perhaps these are the sorts of stories that laid the foundations for that 1970s work, or the sort of stories those "Me Decade" writers were rebelling against.

"The Education of Drusilla Strange" by Theodore Sturgeon (1954)

Editor Groff Conklin's introduction to this novella (it's like 36 pages here) made me laugh; in my last blog post we witnessed Barry Malzberg make the case that after ten years or so a SF writer should retire because he is out of ideas.  But Conklin here, comparing "The Education of Drusilla Strange" with Sturgeon's 1940 "Derm Fool," tells us that Sturgeon has "matured in the short space of 14 years, both in writing ability and in richness of conceptual grasp."  I suppose these assessments are not mutually exclusive (a guy could write the same basic story again and again for 15 years and get better at it with practice), but Conklin and Malzberg certainly seem to have contrasting attitudes about whether an enduring career leads to growth or degeneration.

A spaceship drops a beautiful naked woman off on the seashore--she is an alien with psychic powers and sophisticated science and engineering knowledge, exiled to our pathetic and disgusting planet of Earth for the crime of murder!  Not only does she have to live among us ignorant schlubs, but alien torture satellites beam down into her mind the beautiful music and art of her sophisticated homeworld, a painful reminder of all she has lost!

"The Education of Drusilla Strange" first
appeared in Galaxy 
"The Education of Drusilla Strange" is a quite good story that takes the adage "behind every great man is a great woman" and runs with it.  The plot is solid, and full of surprises; Sturgeon gets you to believe one thing about the alien exile or her homeworld or some other character, and then later pulls the rug right out from under you, telling you that the opposite is true. He does this in such a way that it doesn't feel like a cheap trick, but comes as a pleasant surprise that feels quite natural.

The alien, who takes the name of Drusilla Strange, thanks to her superior brain, ultra keen senses and mind reading abilities, has no trouble fitting into Earth society and making a decent living.  She takes up with a musician, Chandler Behringer, and, by designing a superior guitar and amplification system and even doing clandestine surgery on his arm to give him greater dexterity, succeeds in making him the world's finest guitarist!  She has an ulterior motive in doing this that reflects how miserable she is on Earth--she manipulates Chandler into projecting her own alien-style music back up at the torture satellites in hopes this act of insubordination will trigger a bombardment from the satellite which will put her out of her misery!

Fortunately for everybody, another exiled alien, Luellen Mullings, whom Drusilla initially thought was a vacuous trophy wife, saves the day.  Luellen, who is married to a novelist whom she has been shepherding to greatness, reveals the truth to Drusilla about their homeworld (it is decadent and corrupt and in terminal decline) and the Earth (it is young and vital, the "hope of the Galaxy") and how she can enjoy her life on Earth, and contribute to Earth's rise to greatness.  It turns out that Earth's history is full of alien exile women who have been inspiring human men to heroic deeds! A hopeful and happy ending, though I presume one which will not meet today's standards for thinking about gender roles.

All the little scenes and elements are good (Drusilla's reactions to Earth technology and customs are engaging), and the story as a whole is well-paced and constructed.  I really enjoyed ol' Ted's work here--this may now be my favorite thing by Sturgeon! (Feel free to check out the many ups and downs in my relationship with Sturgeon over the course of this blog's life!)

"Cure for a Ylith" by Murray Leinster (1949)

It looks like it has been over three years since I have read anything by Leinster.  "Cure for a Ylith" is one of those traditional SF stories in which a scientist uses high technology and trickery to resolve the plot and achieve his goals and trigger a paradigm shift in his society, and it is pretty good.

"Cure for a Ylith" first saw print in
Startling Stories; behold the Chrysler Building!
Planet Loren has suffered under the tyranny of the monarchy for centuries.  Garr, a medical researcher, is one of the tiny handful of Lorenian subjects permitted to travel to another planet via the interstellar teleporter system.  He returns to Garr after two years on Yorath, bringing with him a new device.  The device, he tells people, is able to pick up transmissions of such low power that they have never been detected before.  When people test out the device (by putting on a headset) they report that they have had conversations with deceased relatives--the device apparently allows communication with the immortal souls of the dead!  Good people who use the machine receive comfort and advice from their relations in the afterlife, while people who have misbehaved receive dire warnings of punishment!

Garr finds himself in the royal court after being called upon to help treat one of the King's pet monsters (the "Ylith" of the title.)  He makes sure that the King learns of the Yorathian device and tests it out himself.  This results in catastrophic internecine warfare among the palace guard and aristocracy--among the two million dead are the King and almost all his flunkies.  The monarchy collapses, hopefully to be replaced by a more responsible government.

As Garr explains in the final scene of the story, the Yorathian machine doesn't really communicate with the dead--it brings to vivid life the user's superego, personified as a trusted deceased relative.  (This sounds kind of dumb as I type it, but I felt like it worked as I read the story.)  The King's warped superego warned him of traitors among the elite, inspiring an attempted purge that set off the fighting.

Leinster does a good job of quickly sketching out his setting and characters, economically bringing it all to life.  I also like the plot.  "Cure for a Ylith" is a solid piece of work; can it be time for me to explore the unread Leinster books I have on my shelf: Quarantine World, Space Captain and The Greks Bring Gifts?  

"The Holes Around Mars" by Jerome Bixby (1954)

"The Holes Around Mars" first appeared in
Galaxy
Bixby's is a pretty prominent name in SF, but I am not very familiar with his work.  He of course wrote the immortal classic "It's a Good Life;" I also enjoyed "Vengeance on Mars" a few years ago, as well as some of the films he contributed to, so I welcome a chance to become better acquainted with him.

"The Holes Around Mars" follows the investigation of strange geological phenomena on the Martian surface by the first Earth expedition to the red planet.  I'm afraid readers will figure out the answer to the mystery long before the scientists and astronauts do.  I'd judge this story a little slight and kind of silly (a main theme of the tale is the puns made by the expedition's leader, and there is even a "he was so scared he shit his pants" joke) but it is a pleasant entertainment and I'm giving it a passing grade.

"Project" by "Lewis Padgett" (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) (1947)

"Project" is the main reason I bought Operation Future; I am keen on Kuttner and Moore, and a quick look at isfdb on my battered iphone while at the store indicated that this story has appeared in no other book.

It is the 21st century, and the world is ruled by an autocratic "Global Unit;" only a tyrannical one-world government, it is believed, can keep a lid on nuclear power and prevent the rise of dangerously powerful mutants (homo superior), the product of limited atomic wars.  The Global Unit, however, is not truly in charge--it accepts without question the advice of the scientists of the secretive Council at Mar Vista General.

The people, and some Senators of the Global Unit, are sick of the lack of transparency into the doings of the eggheads who truly rule the world from Mar Vista; no outsider has ever been allowed inside the facility since the foundation of the current governmental system.  So the most pugnacious of the Senators, Mitchell, insists on being allowed to investigate the secretive campus, and his findings will be broadcast to the world instantly from his little hand transmitter!

"Project" first saw publication in an issue of
Astounding with a typo on its cover (or is this issue
perhaps an artifact from a slightly different
alternate universe where Canadian SF writers
have subtly different pen names?)
The scientists are afraid that the truth of their work will cause a revolution and they will all be lynched by the ignorant masses. And what is this truth?  Well, not only did they engineer that whole limited atomic war business to increase their own power, but they have kept one of the dangerous homo superior mutants alive, in a sort of suspended animation which prevents it from maturing; they have been picking its brain, passing off its brilliant ideas as their own, while keeping it from reaching its full, world-shattering potential.  Luckily, they are mere hours from activating a super weapon which will give them total power; if they can just distract and delay Mitchell for a few hours they will have absolute control and be able to ignore any attack that may come from the Global Unit's military apparatus, much less a lynch mob.

Just after Mitchell, being held at gunpoint by one of the boffins, learns how much the Mar Vista scientists have been manipulating the rest of the world for decades, the ostensibly retarded homo superior reveals that he in turn has been manipulating the scientists!  He has only been pretending to be retarded, and has in fact achieved his full potential!  This superman will now take over the world, controlling the aforementioned super weapon and infiltrating its homo superior offspring among the homo sapiens populace until homo sapiens is extinct.

This story is disappointing; no wonder "Project" doesn't appear in any later anthologies!  It has no human feeling; it takes no ideological stand for or against human liberty or for or against the rise of homo superior; all the characters are bland and uninteresting.  The whole thing comes off as a boring history lecture about a complicated series of events you can't bring yourself to care about.  Too bad!

**********

Both the Sturgeon and the Kuttner and Moore stories include shocking revelations that flip what we thought was going on 180 degrees, but Sturgeon's twists feel natural and are closely tied to believable and touching characters, while the twists in "Project" had me asking, "Who cares?"

Sturgeon's "The Education of Drusilla Strange" is the stand out here, while the Leinster and Bixby are fun entertainments.  The Kuttner and Moore is worse than filler, it is a waste of time.  Sad, but true.

There are 15 more pieces in Operation Future, and we'll read some of them before the book goes back on the shelf.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Eight stories by Barry Malzberg from the period 1974-6

The time has finally come!  Today we conclude our epic journey through Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 collection, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  It has been an exciting trip, and we still have eight stories to tackle before we can return this baby, with its terrific Robert Schulz cover and surrealistic Harlan Ellison back cover blurb, to my dusty shelves.  Let's get to it!


"Twenty Sixty-One" (1974)

In the intro to this one Malzberg tells us he has "long been a fan of schizophrenia" (remember, his uncle Benjamin was Director of Research and Statistics at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene and author of publications with titles like Migration and Mental Disease: A study of first admission to hospitals for mental disease, New York, 1939-1941.)  He jocularly suggests that schizophrenia, "the only disease that was genuinely artful...might save all of us yet."

"Twenty Sixty-One" was first printed in F&SF and was later translated into Portuguese
"Twenty Sixty-One" is set in a single room, where we find two men.  Their dialogue, and insight into their thoughts provided by the third-person narrator, makes evident that these men live in a future in which so many people are unhappy with their lives that they pay technicians to administer drugs to them that give them mental disorders like paranoia and catatonia.  The twist ending makes us wonder if this scenario is in part, or entirely, a delusion.

As we have seen as we have read The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, our buddy Barry often writes about futuristic institutions which provide strange forms of therapy, forms of therapy which often seem more like self-indulgent recreation than any kind of serious medical regimen.  One of Barry's recurring motifs in these stories is that the therapists are called "technicians," not "doctors," suggesting the mental health professionals portrayed have little compassion for their patients, and that a human being is just a machine, like an automobile perhaps, not something magical with a unique personality or soul.

Pretty good.

"Closing the Deal" (1974)

"Closing the Deal" appeared in Analog (when it was edited by Ben Bova), which gives Malzberg occasion to use his intro here to talk about John W. Campbell, the legendary SF editor.  Malzberg credits Campbell with creating the modern SF field in the 1940s, and argues that, without Campbell's guidance, SF would be a tiny moribund niche market, like westerns, and not the prominent (perhaps dominant?) cultural phenomenon it in fact had become by the 1970s.  (Malzberg here calls SF "the American literature of the last third of the century.")

"Closing the Deal" is actually a good fit for Analog; it not only deals with one of Campbell's hobby horses-- psionic powers--but, compared to much of Malzberg's body of work, it is clear and direct, and has believable characters who are not insane. At the same time it is pure Malzberg: it is cynical and depressing, it portrays an unhappy marriage and an unhappy parent-child relationship, and it deromanticizes one of the most romanticized (and most ridiculous) of SF tropes.

A man whose wife abandoned him and their little girl is in discussion with another man.  The little girl, eight years of age, is a voluble genius who has the ability to levitate; she also accuses her father of stifling her. The conversation between the father and the visitor at first sounds somewhat like those between a social worker and a single parent facing difficulties, but we soon learn that psychic powers are relatively common in this world, and the visitor is a talent scout from one of several private firms who train and manage young psychics; he and the father are negotiating a price for the father to surrender custody and "total control" of the girl to the firm.  The father gets a much lower offer than he expects, not realizing how common psychic powers really are and how limited are his daughter's (the talent scout uses the phrase "third string.")  The scout reveals that he himself has psionic abilities, powers much like the little girl's, and these have not enabled him to have any glittering career or win any fame.

In a van Vogt story or a Sturgeon story people with mental powers radically change the world or the universe, leading man to his destiny of crossing the black void between the galaxies or the gulfs between individual consciousnesses, opening up an eternity of adventure or peace.  In this Malzberg story psykers are just people trying to sell their skills on the market like the rest of us, people just as likely to be frustrated with their careers and lives as anybody else.  ("How many violinists are there for every concert master?" asks the scout.  I wonder if Malzberg, who has admitted to dreams of being a professional violinist, had his own career as a writer in mind with this stuff; he was able to make a decent living for his family with his pen and win the accolades of his fellow SF writers, but is obviously disappointed he hasn't achieved the recognition of a Roth or Nabokov.)

It is great to see Malzberg put together a good mainstream story for the most popular of SF magazines without compromising his own artistic vision.  "Closing the Deal" is a better than average example of his work, and a story I can recommend without reservation to all SF fans, not just to those who are into experimental or literary SF.

Very good.  

"What the Board Said" (1976)

In his intro Malzberg warns us that this is another story about the JFK assassination.  I think it has only ever appeared here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg--completists take note!

It is the future!  The Earth is inhabited by thirty-five billion people, and they travel around the globe via a public transportation system of teleporter gates.  Our narrator works for the government, for the "board" which "runs the world;" his in-person report to the board makes up the first part of this story.  The board is an old man, whom it is hinted may be largely a machine and who apparently plays a sort of religious role in this future world; we are told the board is kept alive by a full-time staff and the prayers of half the world's population.  The board has sent the narrator to search the Earth for the answer to some unspecified question, and he has returned to say there is no answer that human beings can understand.  Presumably the question is about the meaning of life or possibility of free will or some other weighty philosophical issue.  The board, whom the narrator considers insane, weeps upon learning that this essential question is unanswerable.

The narrator leaves the broken-hearted board to join a line at one of the teleporters. There is a long queue because the teleporter system, like the board, is in severe decline, breaking down under the pressure of overpopulation and deficient maintenance.  A fat man in line behind the narrator begins complaining, and even proposes confronting the board.  The narrator considers this man insane (the narrator tells us that modern technology has driven many people insane) and tries to stop him; the fat man calls the narrator insane and leads an angry crowd back to the board's room, knocking over the narrator in the process.  The last line of the story reveals that all this has happened in Dallas and suggests that a violent revolution is about to take place.

I really don't see the connection between what happens in this story and the murder of JFK.  Was Kennedy assassinated in response to a severe deficiency of his government or general decline in American society due to overpopulation and technological change?  Did a popular revolution result from his murder? What happens in this story seems more akin to the French Revolution or the murder of Archduke Ferdinand or the Bolshevik Revolution or the fall of the Weimar Republic or something like that. Maybe the murder of Kennedy felt like such a cataclysm to his more ardent fans?  If it wasn't for that last line, and Malzberg telling us the story is about JFK in the intro, the reader would have little reason to link the story to JFK at all.

This story is alright; I think the last line is in fact distracting, and I would probably like it more if that last line was absent or modified; instead of feeling like a story inspired by the tragic death of JFK, it feels like the author wrote a story and then tried to cheaply take advantage of the reader's presumed deep feelings about the assassination to make his story seem more profound.

"Uncoupling" (1976)

In Charles Platt's very entertaining profile of Malzberg in Dream Makers, our pal Barry tells Platt that his favorite of his own stories is "Uncoupling."  In his intro to "Uncoupling" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, the author tells us it is a tribute to and a "shameless pastiche" of Alfred Bester, whom Malzberg considers the "best stylist" in the "history of the field."  Malzberg's exact words are "The best stylist pound-for-pound (I'd make him a light heavyweight) in the history of this field is probably Alfred Bester..." but I don't really know what he means by that "pound-for-pound" business; maybe it's just a joke?  Does Malzberg have a list of SF writers in his head, each ranked according to sales or influence or critical acclaim, with (one guesses) Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke the top heavyweights?  What weight class does Malzberg reckon he himself belongs in?

"Uncoupling" first appeared in Dystopian Visions and later in The Road to Science Fiction #4
In the overpopulated future in which the government runs everything and enforces its rules with an army of tentacled robot cops, a self-described fascist goes to the government-run brothel to enjoy his government-authorized monthly act of sexual intercourse.  Bad news--his allotment has been reduced from ten minutes to five!

Being a good fascist the narrator accepts this diminution of his sex ration: "I will not dispute the Government in any area."  But before the story ends we will learn that there are people in this totalitarian world who rebel against the government's control of their intimate relationships, however futilely.

I was expecting more from Malzberg's own fave story (I thought Malzberg's favorite of his novels was really good, the most enjoyable Malzberg novel I've ever read), but I certainly liked "Uncoupling," and it is probably better than average for him, and probably more approachable than average.  It also has what may be considered shocking or salacious elements: the government brothel caters not only to those who favor traditional sexual practices, but every fetish imaginable, and as the narrator is escorted to the "HETEROSEX" wing he passes by the "SADO-MASOCHISM,"
"BESTIALITY" and "NECROPHILIA" sectors, hearing various shrieks, squeals and moos as he does so.

"Over the Line" (1974)

In his intro to this one Malzberg claims he wrote it in an hour, during a break in an argument with his wife!  He also claims that "the writer" is "essentially" a "blue-collar worker."  I find it irritating when college-educated people who sit at desks reading and typing for a living try to don the mantle of the working classes; being a professional creative writer is certainly work and certainly comes with its own psychological challenges, but it is not like toiling in a mine or a factory or driving deliveries or scrubbing floors or whatever.

"Over the Line" first alerted us to the
pointlessness of our lives in
Roger Elwood's Future Kin
Whether or not he really wrote it in 60 minutes, "Over the Line" is quite good.  A generation ship has been crossing the cosmos for generations, so long that the ship's computer is breaking down.  At sixteen years of age inhabitants of the ship go ask the computer a question; this is a rite of passage that marks the line between childhood and adulthood on the ship.  Most of this story consists of our narrator describing his meeting with the computer during his own rite of passage.  He asks when the ship will finally reach its destination, and the computer admits that the files with the ship's destination have been lost--the ship is just going to travel on forever until it crashes or suffers catastrophic technical failure; the ship's voyage and the lives of the space travellers are pointless.  

An allegory for our lives!  And an allegory for (a cynical/practical view of) religion: when the narrator returns to his father he lies, telling Dad that the computer assured him that Mom, who disappeared eight years ago, is "at peace."  Religion is the lies we tell each other to make life endurable.

This is a good one; I like that the computer was programmed to feel emotions, in order to better identify with and serve the passengers, but that this has resulted in a computer that is depressed and miserable, scared of its own death and liable to short-tempered outbursts and self-pity.      

"Try Again" (1974)

"Try Again" and "An Oversight" share an intro.  In the intro Malzberg tells us that, while he is Jewish  ("guilt-stricken and intermittently disbelieving Reform") himself, he has written little influenced by Judaism, but quite a bit of work referring to the New Testament, and these two stories are examples of such fiction.

Both "Try Again" and "An Oversight"
first appeared in Strange Gods.  One
wonders if any of the stories is a
sword and sorcery adventure, as the
color illustration suggests.
The world has ended and the text of "Try Again" is that of the journal of a survivor, Steve the mediocre small town sportswriter, who is in a bomb shelter with his wife Eva and his father-in-law Bill, a fundamentalist minister.  (That's our  Barry, putting a woman named Eva in a bunker and suggesting she may be the only woman in the world, getting two allusions for the price of one!)  Bill has been preparing for the end of the world all his life, studying and preaching about the Book of Daniel incessantly for years--Eva, who hates her father, thinks he is happy that the world has ended!  Steve, we readers are given reason to believe, may also welcome the end of the world as a release from a disappointing life in which he never strove to do his best, but instead coasted--if the world was going to end during his lifetime anyway, his taking the easy path and settling for less all these years was justified!

Malzberg's work is often so short and crazy and experimental that he doesn't devote much energy to delineating characters, but in "Try Again" he effectively presents us with people with interesting personalities and motivations, people (in particular, the narrator) who are quite believable.  Malzberg often talks about psychology in his stories, but in an abstract or clinical way, throwing around Freudian terms and portraying characters who are totally bonkers.  In "Try Again" I felt like he was doing the more traditional literary thing, showing us the psychology of a more or less normal person, and I liked it.

Of course, this is still a Malzberg story, so there are some bizarre off the wall twists: can it be that the world hasn't ended after all? And what is up with this friendly tentacled alien who says he is a researcher and has been living in the bomb shelter since long before Steve and Bill and Eva arrived?

Fun and engaging, with a protagonist with whom an ordinary person can easily identify!

"An Oversight" (1974)

This brief story is a wacky trifle.  Our narrator, the head of some tiny apocalyptic Muslim sect with a mosque in the US (I guess in New York), thinks that "the Saviour" is on the Earth, travelling in various disguises.  He chases the Saviour around the world, spotting Him disguised as a hotdog-gobbling sports fan at a football game in St. Louis, as an Armenian Jew on a bus in Israel, as an old woman in Moscow.  Our narrator thinks if he can seize the Saviour that the Apocalypse can begin, but He keeps getting away, so much so that his followers are grumbling and making fewer and fewer donations to the cause.  Finally, on a plane bound for Alaska, the narrator realizes that the sexy stewardess is the Saviour in disguise!  He grabs her, and the "thousand years of war and judgement" begin.

This story is sort of amusing; the apparent preoccupation of the Saviour with money (our narrator suspects He disguised Himself as a stewardess so He could fly for free!) made me laugh.  Malzberg also hints that the narrator's theory that he can start the Apocalypse by grappling with the Saviour, who disguises himself in many ways, may be an excuse to sexually molest strangers.

Not bad, but slight.

"And Still in the Darkness" (1976)

Here it is, the last story in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg!  In his intro Barry tells us that, at age 35, he has made the "irrevocable decision to write no more science fiction."  Say it ain't so!

Malzberg explains that he loves the science-fiction field, but is convinced that even the best SF writers run out of ideas and just repeat themselves after seven or ten years. This fate he does not want to suffer.  (Malzberg's theory, that science fiction "seems to impose a definite time limit upon the creative working life of its practitioners" challenges those of us who are SF fans to look over the oeuvre of our favorite writers and try to figure out if, after the ten year mark, any of them wrote something fresh and different from what came before.  I also think it is fair to consider how much this discovery about SF--if true--matters to readers.  I am willing to admit that The Master Mind of Mars (1927) and Synthetic Men of Mars (1940) are not radically different from A Princess of Mars (1917; magazine version 1912) and Gods of Mars (1918; magazine version 1913), but I remember enjoying all four immensely!)

"And Still in the Darkness," which apparently only ever appeared in this essential volume for all of us SF scholars, bears considerable similarities to "Over the Line."  As a rite of passage a teenage boy has to go talk to the old computer that runs his society: the point of the encounter is to have it explained to him that life is "pain and darkness," that human life, compared to the vast size and scope of the universe, is insignificant.

Inferior to "Over the Line" because it lacks the family dynamics of "Over the Line" and the interesting idea of an emotional computer, so just OK.

**********

The Best of Barry N. Malzberg has been a great ride.  Many of these stories are good, and I love Malzberg's intros about his life as a writer and about the SF field.  This is an absolute must have for fans of Malzberg, and I also reccomend it to anybody interested in "literary" SF, the New Wave, and 20th-century SF criticism.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Generation, Part 2: Anthony, Bunch, Bryant (w/ Sutherland & Harper) and Yarbro

Let's continue our exploration of Generation, a 1972 anthology of stories that were probably written in 1969, stories by people promoted as "the brightest talents of the new generation of science fiction masters."  Today we'll read stories by Piers Anthony, David R. Bunch, Ed Bryant (one each with James Sutherland and Jody Harper) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.


"Up Schist Crick" by Piers Anthony

In my teens I read lots of Piers Anthony novels--Xanth novels, the Bio of a Space Tyrant series, the Battle Circle series, the Chthon books, the Orn books, the Apprentice Adept series, and more--because there was a lot of sex in them.  They were practically pornography (at least to my naive mind) and in the pre-internet era pornography (for a teen-aged MPorcius, at least) was hard to find.

"Up Schist Crick" would later appear
in Anthonology
"Up Schist Crick" isn't providing me any reason to revise my view of Anthony as a guy who writes about sex.  Our hero is William Zether, a junior executive at a big manufacturing firm.  In the files Zether has found evidence that a branch of the company has been test marketing a new kind of material in a tiny secluded town, and that the company bigwigs have forgotten about it.  Zether goes to the little isolated town, thinking maybe he can somehow appropriate the invention and make himself rich.

Sure enough, in the little town he discovers everybody is using the new material, an unbreakable one-molecule-thick stretchable fabric which has a wide variety of applications.  The most provocative use is as a transparent one piece suit which keeps the wearer comfortable and safe.  Because the material is so very thin and absolutely impenetrable by liquids, women wearing it can have risk-free sex without any other sort of precaution.  This convenient form of birth control has lead to a culture of casual sex in the little town, a culture which Zether takes advantage of soon after his arrival.

There is a catch, however.  The woman Zether had sex with is very marriage-minded, and her guardian is ready to vigorously defend her honor, so the story's main plot thread concerns Zether's efforts to escape the area and the impending shotgun wedding, a real challenge because his car has broken down on the ill-maintained road leading to the town.  

Looking beyond the story's erotic aspect and its climactic scatological humor, "Up Schist Crick" has much in common with a traditional SF story in which a new piece of technology is proposed and the writer speculates on how it will affect society; there are many passages describing the material and its many uses.

Acceptable.

"The Lady was for Kroinking" by David R. Bunch

I've read a number of stories by Bunch and I haven't been very impressed by him, but here I am, reading him again.  Bunch stories are always short, at least.

"The Lady was for Kroinking" would
later appear in Future Pastimes
"The Lady was for Kroinking" takes place in the future, and is mostly a dialogue between two characters, a man and a woman.  The "point" of the story is that the pace of future life is such that it drives people to sadism. The go-go life of the future fills people with rage and hate, feelings which, if left unvented, will cause dangerous levels of insanity.  So, the people of the future regularly patronize "Enjoy-Your-Hate houses," which are kind of like brothels, but instead of prostitutes these establishments provide realistic rubber dummies for customers to torture. Most of the text of the story consists of the woman's detailed description of the elaborate tortures she inflicted on a particularly interesting dummy earlier in the day.  Sample detail: the dummy had installed in its artificial head real lambs' eyes, so when the torturer penetrated them with red hot rods she could smell burning flesh.  The punchline/twist ending (?) of the story is when the man and woman kiss each other goodbye; they bite each other's lips so hard they both bleed profusely.

At five pages this story isn't quite long enough to get tedious, and I can't help but admire its audacity and bizarreness.  So I think I can give it an acceptable grade.

"Beside Still Waters" by Ed Bryant and James Sutherland

I have read several stories by Bryant, and have a better opinion of Bryant than Bunch; while some of Bryant's more self-indulgent and experimental pieces have aroused my distaste, he has also produced some well-written and well-constructed stories which I have liked.

James Sutherland has only one novel and four short stories listed at isfdb; one of the four shorts was slated to appear in The Last Dangerous Visions and has thus never been published.  (Oh, Harlan....[shakes head sadly.])

"Beside Still Waters" is a silly sort of story, one of those things in which some mythological creature suddenly appears in 20th-century America.  Bryant and Sutherland play it for laughs rather than trying to evoke a sense of wonder or horror.

Sidney Bates lives in LA, a divorced father with custody of his kids who has trouble meeting his alimony payments to his ex-wife Edna.  (I remember from my childhood viewing of Johnny Carson that California divorce law was a rich mine for jokes in the '70s; wikipedia indicates that California was the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law, in 1969.)  Bates has a pool, and dangerous creatures (a shark, a giant frog, a crocodile, etc.) and weather phenomena (an iceberg, a waterspout) have been appearing in it.  He contacts a psychic detective, who figures out what is going on: the pool draws water from a spring guarded by a beautiful naiad.  The detective summons and opens negotiations with the naiad, and there is a happy ending for everybody: the psychic detective has an affair with the naiad and when the supernatural creature learns that Edna, not Sidney, had the pool installed, one of the naiad's monsters kills Edna when she comes to visit to nag about her alimony payments.

This story is OK.      

"Beside Still Waters" and "Nova Morning" only ever appeared in Generation
"Nova Morning" by Ed Bryant and Jody Harper

This is Harper's only credit at isfdb.  Gerrold tells us Harper is good-looking and worked as a go-go dancer in Beirut, Lebanon, in case you were wondering.  (As Karen at goodreads suggests in her review of Generation, Gerrold talks about the female authors represented in the anthology in a way that probably wouldn't fly today.)

This is one of those arty stories in which almost every line of prose includes a metaphor and in which the paragraphs of prose are separated by snatches of italicized verse.

It is the end of the world!  Almost everybody is dead!  But Lea, a young poet, is still alive, on a college campus in Manhattan.  She goes to an empty classroom and activates the recorded lecture on metaphysical poetry.  Then a young man with whom she has a relationship, for whom she has even written a poem, appears; he wants to have sex, and she is revolted by his blunt overtures.  ("Let's fuck.")  She reads him her poem and he calls it "rotten."

Lea resists the urge to go away with him ("It's incredible, what a wretchedly bad bargain we are together--even if there's no one else"), but then succumbs; after all, how should she expect people to act at the end of the world?  "It's the way it is now," he tells her.  "You got to take it like that."

This story is alright.

"Everything that Begins with an 'M'" by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Yarbro is a big success; she has published a huge stack (thirty or so) of those sexy vampire novels which (I assume) are mostly read by women, and she has won a bunch of big awards.  I didn't like her postapocalyptic novel False Dawn when I read it, but what do I know?  Gerrold tells us that this is the third story she ever sold--from little acorns!

"Everything that Begins with an 'M'"
was later included in Cautionary Tales
"Everything that Begins with an 'M'" is about how the impoverished citizens of a tiny isolated village (in some kind of mythical medieval or early modern land, I guess) amuse themselves and enliven their dreary lives by spreading rumors and engaging in absurd speculations.  A mentally ill homeless man spends his time reclining at the "sand pit" where the villagers throw their refuse, singing to himself and tracing designs in the sand. When the tax collector comes to town he chokes to death on a hunk of meat, and, because the madman was scribbling on a piece of paper with a bit of charcoal at the same moment, the villagers begin to think the insaniac is some kind of wizard or holy man, and begin visiting him, hoping to receive sage advice, even making him a crude crown and giving him a fine robe.  The fact that the madman ignores them does little to shake their faith.

This is essentially the whole story.  Merely acceptable.

**********

My reaction to all five of these stories was lukewarm; none of them is actually good, but none excited my resentment, either.  I can imagine people being offended by the Anthony and the Bryant/Sutherland for what they would call sexism (though whether we should admire or deplore the protagonist of the Anthony is left ambiguous, and he does suffer his comeuppance in the end, frustrated in all his designs and humiliated into the bargain); being shocked or sickened by the Bunch; being touched by the depiction of a sensitive woman being treated like a sex object by a brute in the Bryant/Harper piece; and finding the Yarbro piece amusing, but somehow I was not strongly affected by any of them.  Maybe I'm getting blase in my old age, maybe all the stories are successful on their own terms, all achieve what they want to achieve, but I am not really the audience for what they are doing.

More Generation in the future; I've decided to read a bunch of included stories by writers I've never heard of, always an interesting exercise.

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My copy of Generation has bound within it a page of full-color advertisements.  Alas, these ads are not for science fiction books.  On one side, the people at Schick exhort us to embrace the new and different, in particular their new single-edged razor.  On the other is an ad for a free book of advice for car buyers; seeing as the book is produced by the people at Ford Motor Company, I doubt it includes my own advice to car buyers, that they buy a Toyota.


Monday, January 23, 2017

1972 (1969?) stories by Gene Wolfe, Barry Malzberg, David Gerrold, Vonda McIntyre & Gardner Dozois

Did the Half-Price Books employee
deliberately put the price sticker over
the figure's face?
I've been trying to resist the urge to buy more books, but I got a gift card for Half-Price Books for Christmas and, when I went shopping for Kinks CDs to help make more tolerable all the driving that is an inevitable part of post-NYC life, I couldn't resist Generation, a 1972 anthology showcasing "new stars of science fiction" edited by David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin.  (You'll remember I read Gerrold and Goldin's 1974 anthology Alternities, and that I have enjoyed four or five novels by Gerrold and two by Goldin.)  Not only do we have here an absorbing and crazy Robert Foster cover, but rarely-reprinted stories by Gene Wolfe and Barry Malzberg which I have never read, and numerous stories by other interesting writers.  

On the Acknowledgments page Gerrold gives us a hint of the odd history of Generation, saying it was assembled in 1969, but publication was delayed by unspecified problems (problems he takes care to say were not due to Dell, the publisher) until 1972.

Going in to Generation I assumed I would be facing very "New Wavey" stories.  In his introduction Gerrold takes pains to call the volume a collection of "speculative fiction," tells us that the best SF writers are no longer "preoccupied with science and scientists," but instead write about "what it means to be a human being," and that SF is no longer "content merely to entertain."  Gerrold admits that some "writers are still doing the space operas," but they "don't count," they are "no longer where it's at."  I find this needlessly hostile attitude a little irritating, and especially puzzling coming from Gerrold and Goldin--the books I have read by them, like Gerrold's Deathbeast, Yesterday's Children and A Matter for Men and Goldin's A World Called Solitude and Assault on the Gods, are full of entertaining battles involving monsters, laser guns, robots and space ships.  I also have the strong impression that Gerrold and Goldin are fans of old timey writers like Heinlein, van Vogt and "Doc" Smith.

More congenial is Harlan Ellison's back cover blurb, in which he subtly pooh poohs the idea of a collective "New Wave" and instead focuses on the fact that each writer is an individual talent.  In the past I have commented that one of the things I like about Ellison is that, while he has that angry young man thing going and is associated with pushing the envelope and encouraging innovative writing, he still has nice things to say about the writers of the past, people like A. E. van Vogt (whom he righteously championed as a candidate for the title of Grand Master), Poul Anderson, Edmond Hamilton, and L. Ron Hubbard.  You don't always have to tear down the old in order to build something new.

Enough preamble, let's check out stories in Generation by Wolfe, Malzberg, and Gerrold, as well as Vonda McIntyre and Gardner Dozois, and see if they are good representatives of the "fresh young talent" of 1969.

"It's Very Clean" by Gene Wolfe

Miles is a cultured young man (he reads Gunter Grass) and a virgin who has saved up a lot of money so he can go to a brothel where the whores are robots.  You probably remember that I've said Wolfe is my favorite writer, so you are not going to be surprised when I tell you that Wolfe very skillfully sets the scene and evokes our anxieties about our first sexual experiences and such socially and psychologically fraught practices as masturbation and prostitution.  And that the surprise ending actually surprised me. But what I say is true, this is another hit by the master.

"It's Very Clean" was published a second time in the 1996 anthology Cybersex, which has a hideously flat and busy computer-generated cover.  From Richard Powers, Robert Foster, Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta to this?  Sad!

"Vidi Vici Veni" by Barry Malzberg

This story is so outrageous that I am reluctant to tell you it made me laugh until I cried.  But I can't lie to my public--this story is hilarious!

"Vidi Vici Veni" (the title is a joke for all you classics scholars out there) is a cold and dispassionate government report about the sex crimes of a "supervising maintenance operator" at a "tool and die plant."  (Full disclosure: Your humble blogger spent some months working on and off in a machine shop doing tool and die work in the late '80s and early '90s.)  The actual meat of the plot is sort of obliquely described, but it appears that the main character's work generated in him an irresistible sexual desire, which he satisfied not only with his wife, not only with a very surprised male stranger (yes, this story is in part a joke about rape) but then with sundry inanimate objects, including pipes and furniture.  The punchline of the story is that his activities become famous and, if I am reading the obscure text rightly, that America is swept by a mass movement of people who have sex with inanimate objects.

Maybe this story is a sort of lament that our modern society has become so mechanistic and we have become so alienated from our fellow humans that we can more readily feel for manufactured items than each other. Whatever the serious intent of the story, if any, it is so funny it gave me physical pain. If you are the kind of person who won't be offended by a joke in which a male rape victim tells the police, "it was more the surprise than the other thing; if I hadn't felt so depersonalized I might have enjoyed it," I recommend it highly.

(It would be great if somebody else who has read this would confirm my interpretation or provide an alternate one--the story really is opaque and tricky.)

"Vidi Vici Veni" has only been printed once in English, but was translated into French and included in a 1976 volume with a cigarette-smoking frog on the cover!  Zut alors!

"All of Them Were Empty" by David Gerrold

Gerrold, in his long intro to this story, says it is "a favorite child," one of his best stories.  He also tells us he wrote it while high on drugs, and didn't revise it--the first draft was the final draft!

"All of Them Were Empty" is a first-person narrative, delivered by Deet, a guy who smokes a lot of pot, drops acid, uses mescaline, and says things like "Doors like hungry mouths pulled at us," and "Cars like giant panthers prowled the night streets, rolling silent-rumbly through dark-lit intersections and wet gutter bottoms."  Deet is looking for a new high, but is afraid of heroin, so when he hears about a place offering "a new kick" he braves the "hungry mouths" and panther-like automobiles and makes his way through the city streets to the source of this new high, dragging his girlfriend Woozle ("She had sucking eyes") along.

In a narrow apartment two girls sell them the new kick.  Deet and Woozle strip naked and spread goop from a jar all over each others' bodies.  (This sounds like one of the oldest of the old kicks, but be patient.)  Tanks to the goop when Deet and Woozle hold hands they fly out into space, growing bigger and bigger until they dwarf the Milky Way and approach the limits of the universe.  Then they shrink and return to Earth, but somewhere along the way Deet lost Woozle, and when he gets back to the narrow apartment everyone is gone.


This is quite bad, with a pointless plot and a style that is annoying, not only long and tedious, but weighted down by repellant "experimental" techniques which consist of mind-numbing repetition.  But I guess it strikes a chord with some people; "All of Them Were Empty" was not only included in the Gerrold collection With a Finger in My I, but would later appear in an anthology devoted entirely to stories about drug use, Spaced Out.

"The Galactic Clock" by V. N. McIntyre

I thought McIntyre's stories "Only at Night" and "Recourse, Inc." were effective; and had hopes that "The Galactic Clock," which I believe has never appeared in any other publication, would be equally enjoyable.  My hopes were not realized.

"The Galactic Clock" is a long tedious story that consists almost entirely of obvious jokes.  Elroy Farnsworth is an academic who has bad luck.  When he drives he hits every red light.  When he walks he hits every "Don't Walk" sign.  When he puts important papers in the mail they arrive at their destination one day late and so he misses out on an important opportunity.  When he applies for a job the other applicant is a beautiful woman and the person doing the hiring is a lecher; another big opportunity missed. Page after page (21 in total!) of these kinds of jokes, jokes which are not actually bad, but which don't actually make you laugh, either.

As for plot, the plot is just one of the jokes writ large, an example of this dude suffering some misfortune.  I am going to have to give this one a marginal negative vote--it is not a crime like the Gerrold, but it is a pedestrian waste of the reader's time.

"Conditioned Reflex" by Gardner Dozois

Here's another piece which, I believe, has not appeared elsewhere.

"Conditioned Reflex" relates the thoughts of infantrymen as they await the approach of enemy troops, reminiscing about their childhoods, regretting never having had children, expressing disbelief that death could come in just a few minutes, and so forth.  It is suggested that these soldiers may be among the very last human beings alive, and the impending battle may be the very last of a war that will destroy all of humanity.  Dozois uses the story to muse about the possibility that mankind is reflexively and inherently, destructive, or that society has conditioned people to be destructive.

Back cover of my copy of Generation
This story is vulnerable to the charge that it is melodramatic and overwrought, and that it has no real plot.  I liked it anyway; the soldier's thoughts were all quite believable, even affecting, and the story is well-written, just the right length, and it kept my interest. Thumbs up!

**********

The Malzberg story in Generation is one of the funniest things I have ever read, and all on its own generously repays my two dollars. The Wolfe is quite good, and the Dozois is solid.  The McIntyre is competent, but it is sterile, having no emotional intellectual impact.  The Gerrold is surprisingly bad.

Generation's 25 stories include pieces by Piers Anthony, David R. Bunch and Ed Bryant, writers I have some familiarity with, and two by the famous "James Tiptree, Jr.," a writer whom I hope to start reading soon. We will definitely be coming back to Generation.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Three 1960s stories by Norman Spinrad from Analog

I have had mixed feelings about Norman Spinrad.  Back in my Manhattan days, long before I started this here blog, I read 1983's Void Captain's Tale and quite enjoyed it as a story about space travel and weird relationships, but when I started 1985's Child of Fortune I quickly abandoned it, sensing it was some kind of hippy utopia travelogue that was going to feel very very long.  Some years later I read 1967's The Men in The Jungle, which I finished but which I thought tedious and absurd; I wasn't crazy about its apparent message (that people who read genre fiction are perverts or Nazis or something) either--Norman, if I want to be insulted, I'll just call up my mother!

On an impulse, while browsing a huge antique mall on Route 70 after touring Westcott House in Springfield, OH, I purchased eleven issues of Analog, all from 1963 or '64, for $22.00.  These issues include three stories by Norman Spinrad--I think these may be Spinrad's first three published stories--and I decided to give them a shot.  All three of these pieces would later show up in Spinrad's 1970 collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, which Joachim Boaz at SFRuminations read and reviewed in its entirety back in 2014.  Let's see what Spinrad's early work is like, and if Joachim and I are on the same page this time.

"The Last of the Romany" (1963)

In the homogenized and sanitized world of the future, in which Tokyo looks exactly the same as New York and almost every position is a bogus make-work job, a man with a mustache and a cigar travels the globe, bumming rides and stowing away on aircraft.  He tells a bartender that he is looking for the gypsies, and that he is keeping the gypsy tradition alive.  What this means in practical terms is that he goes to playgrounds and sings old songs and tells old stories about pirates and heroes to kids, trying to spark in them a sense of adventure and romance and independence, things sorely lacking in the current safe and stable and sterile world.  Before the story ends we readers find reason to believe that the last Romany's efforts have not been in vain, that some kids have been inspired by him, and even that a new era of adventure, for those brave enough to seek it, will soon be found beyond the solar system.

This story is alright; its nostalgia and one-man-carnival elements reminded me of something Ray Bradbury might come up with.    

"Subjectivity" (1964)

"The Last of the Romany" includes some weak but innocuous jokes; "Subjectivity" feels like one big weak joke.

In the future the Earth is so overpopulated that psychological and sociological pressures are going to cause a cataclysm, so the world government is determined to colonize extrasolar planets.  The scientists can't figure out how to make a faster than light drive, so colonists will have to be aboard starships for at least eight years before they reach their destinations.  Unfortunately, experiments indicate that even specially picked specimens, men and women of exceptional mental health, go insane after less than three years in the close confines of a starship.

Here come the jokes.  The government decides to experiment with sending not Earth's best into interstellar space, but "the dregs."  Trigger Warning!  The "dregs" include the mentally ill and homosexuals!  The government sends off a ship with a crew of schizophrenics, one crewed by sadists, one crewed entirely by gay men, one whose crew are all lesbians, among others.  None of these crews survives the psychological pressures of interstellar space.

The government tries a new tack with the thirteenth ship; the crew will be provided with hallucinogenic drugs, and told to take the drugs every day for all eight years of their trip to Centaurus.  Most of this brief story consists of the spacers dealing with their hallucinations.  At first the spacefarers can control their hallucinations, and share them; if somebody hallucinates a giant snake, she can make the other crewmembers see it.  Then the hallucinations, which for some reason are not cuddly kitty cats or the future equivalents of Sean Connery and Sophia Loren like you'd expect people stuck in a ship for sixteen years to summon up, but ravenous monsters like a dragon, a tyrannosaur, and the aforementioned Hyborian-sized snake, take on minds of their own.  Afraid of getting eaten, the spacers use their drug-induced powers to teleport the ship back to Earth, where a military unit has to confront the monsters, which have become all too real.

This story is ridiculous and it is not redeemed by being funny.  Thumbs down.  (Analog editor and SF legend John Campbell thought it good enough to include in the anthology Analog 4--tastes differ!)

"Outward Bound" (1964)

Here's the stuff!  A real hard science-fiction tale with starships, Einsteinian time dilation, paradigm shifts, space merchants, a ruthless and short-sighted government, even a sense-of-wonder man-is-going-to-master-the-Universe ending, all those classic SF elements we all love.

Mankind has colonized over 60 star systems, even though there is no FTL drive; people travelling between the systems go into a deep sleep and wake up decades later at their destination.  This means that Earth is always many years ahead of the colonies technologically, with space merchants selling the latest technology from Earth to the colonies, primarily in exchange for raw materials.  The story centers on two of the oldest space farers, a merchant and an admiral in the Earth space navy, who find themselves at odds when a scientist who may be able to invent a FTL drive flees from Earth.  The merchant wants to sell the egghead's ideas, and the colonies will be eager to buy them (FTL would put them on an equal footing with Earth), but the Earth government wants to keep FTL under wraps to maintain its dominance.

Lots of compelling and entertaining things in this story: descriptions of the technical and psychological aspects of space flight, starships chasing each other, an aside about what it means to be a gypsy or a Jew, characters with interesting and believable motivations who have to endure bizarre scenarios like being alone in a room for twenty years working on math equations and to make hard decisions about what their duties and interests really are.  I compared "Last of the Romany" to Bradbury; "Outward Bound" is perhaps reminiscent of Poul Anderson.

I like it!

**********

So, I'm scoring these moderately good, poor, and quite good.  How did Joachim rank them?  Well, we essentially agree on "The Last of the Romany" and "Outward Bound." Our big disagreement is about "Subjectivity;" I thought it was lame, but of the three it is Joachim's favorite!  He seems to like it because it is "ultimately nihilistic" and suggests that mankind is not up to the task of conquering outer space.

In his review of The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde Joachim stresses that Spinrad's work is typically "bleak" and full of "rage," and notes that "The Last of the Romany" and "Outward Bound" are perhaps not very representative of Spinrad's oeuvre as a whole.  Maybe this is a clue that Spinrad isn't really for me, that I liked his most hopeful and traditional stories!

**********

I thought the incentive plan described in this box on page 44 of Analog's January 1964 issue was interesting:

Click or squint to read
I wonder if Anderson and the other writers actually tailored their stories in an effort to secure the financial prizes described, which were awarded based on readers' votes. Anderson, the winner of the October '63 issue, got an extra $190.00.  I think that is like $1,500.00 in 2016 money!  Jackpot!

**********

The last page of the January 1964 issue of Analog is a full page ad for merchandise from Edmund Scientific Co. of Barrington, NJ.  (You don't realize how cool your home state is until you leave.)  One of the items on offer is a set of dinosaurs and terrain molded in "unbreakable plastic" that sounds pretty damn awesome!  These little "bronthosauruses" and dimetrodons are not just for kids--they are usable as "off-beat decorations!"  I'd love to see a photo of these toys; I had a ton of plastic dinosaurs as a kid, and still have quite a few, and wonder if I am familiar with the molds they used for this set.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Four Harlan Ellison stories from 1957

I recently expressed an interest in Harlan Ellison's story "Satan is My Ally," which appeared in the May 1957 issue of Fantastic. Commenter ukjarry helpfully pointed out that you can read old issues of Fantastic at archive.org, but too late; my itchy trigger finger had already ordered from ebay the Spring 1969 issue of Science Fiction Greats, the "All Harlan Ellison Issue."  Let's check out "Satan is My Ally" and three other stories by Ellison that appeared in Fantastic and Amazing in 1957, stories which have never been printed in book form.

"The World of Women"

Science fiction is full of utopias and dystopias in which women are in charge of men or there are no men whatsoever (during the life of this blog we've talked about Joanna Russ' short story "An Old Fashioned Girl," Wilson Tucker's Resurrection Days, and Edmund Cooper's Gender Genocide) and it is good to see Ellison in there swinging with the best of them!

For centuries Arka III, the world where women outnumber men two to one that is ruled by five women made immortal by special "anti-death drugs," has lived at peace with neighboring star systems.  But recently the Arkan women have started bombing and conquering other planets, killing billions of innocent people!  The Earth government receives a message from a secret informant on Arka III: one of the five immortals has exterminated all men on the planet and launched the attacks because her anti-death drugs have driven her insane!  Our narrator, Aaron Deems, sneaks onto the planet, and puts on a "lifeshell," a skintight organic suit that makes him look like a woman.  Elaborate hypnotic suggestion therapy performed on him back on Earth even helps him think like a woman.  Thus disguised, he has to establish himself in the capital city, contact whoever it was who sent the message, and figure out which of the five immortals is the maniac and eliminate her!

A fun fast-paced SF caper full of cool gadgets and processes that can manipulate physical matter and the human mind, complete with a traditional SF ending in which the heroes use technology and logic to outwit the villains.  "The World of Women" is also ripe for some kind of feminist analysis, as it has a nuanced view of women, with resourceful female characters both aiding and opposing the hero and a male character forced by circumstance to act and even think like a woman.  Thumbs up!

"The World of Women" was the cover story of the issue of Fantastic in which it appeared, as well as the cover story of Science Fiction Greats of Spring 1969.  The illustration accurately depicts the fact that Deems stores his lifeshell outside his tiny scout ship and pulls it through space on chains, but the artist's inadequate handling of perspective leaves the viewer suspecting the shell is like a hundred feet tall.

"The Glass Brain"

Paul Vaszovek is a genius scientist, the one man who knows the secret of "the energy probe."  When the armies of the self-proclaimed Superior Race win a world war and take over all of Earth, they try to torture the secret of the energy probe out of Vaszovek.  Meanwhile, Vaszovek's young son Peter is educated in the "Wasps," the Raceist youth corps, indoctrinated with all the beliefs of the world conquerors.

Paul Vaszovek refuses to give up the secret of the energy probe, so the Raceist hierarchy goes to Plan B--hooking father and son up to a brain-reading machine.  Because they share so much genetic material, information can be read from the father's brain and fed into the son's brain.  This process takes months, but in the end young Peter has the information the Raceist leadership wants.  But--twist ending--the brain machine also imbued Peter with his father's anti-racist values!  So Peter uses his newfound knowledge to assassinate the assembled Raceist high command--he points his middle finger at them (groan) and fire erupts from the digit, immolating the Raceists!

The plot of this story is good, and I like almost anything about tinkering with people's brains, but the villains and setting are weak and this undermines the story's emotional impact.  The reader is supposed to feel a catharsis when Peter gives the Raceists the finger and incinerates them, but the villains are too overdone, too cartoonish to naturally inspire a distaste for them in the reader.  (Besides the in-your-face Nazi analogy, Ellison lays the descriptions of the torture inflicted on Vaszovek and how fat, swarthy, jowly and oily the top Raceist is very thick.)  It feels too much like Ellison is just telling us to hate them, rather than painting a believable picture of people who deserve our hatred, that he is stacking the deck in a way that obviates any possible dramatic tension.

(Ellison's villains here pose an interesting contrast to the revolutionary mobsters in Barrington Bayley's novel Empire of Two Worlds, which we just read.  Bayley's protagonists commit a multitude of atrocities, but, just like imperialists and revolutionaries and gangsters in real life, they excuse their crimes against humanity as a response to upper class corruption and as part of a big idealistic project.  It is common in real life for people to excuse or even lionize a Lenin or a Napoleon or a John Gotti, so the reader of Empire of Two Worlds has every reason to suspect other readers, and Bayley himself, may well be ready to excuse and praise the scoundrels in the book; this lends the book ambiguity and tension, keeping the reader guessing and maintaining the reader's interest.)

It seems possible that in writing this story Ellison was indulging in some sort of wish fulfillment, giving vent to a desire to get revenge on Nazis (and maybe WASPs?); Ellison seems like the kind of guy who doesn't resist passionate impulses and is into "getting even."  I think the angry-young-man sound and fury of much of Ellison's work appeals to a lot of people, but sometimes, to me, it feels shrill and self-indulgent, even childish; when I read the famous "Tick Tock Man" story I was surprised at how silly it seemed.

Merely acceptable.

"Phoenix Treatment"

This is one of those SF stories about how the cognitive elite can and should manipulate the ignorant masses for their own good.

Ninety-five percent of humanity has fallen to an artificial plague!  The few survivors are very resentful towards scientists because it was scientists who created the plague!  This resentment is indiscriminatory, so the people of Coshocton, Ohio (Ellison's home state and the current location of MPorcius HQ) harass the staff of the laboratory on the edge of town, even though the scientists there are trying to develop a cure for the plague.

The boffins run a complicated and ridiculous conspiracy to get the citizens to leave them alone so they can get on with their work.  They sneak out of the lab at night to kill the proles' cows and even kidnap their leader's child, hoping to egg the commoners on, driving them into burning down their lab!  Then the plebeians will think they have killed the scientists, and then leave them alone so they can continue working in peace in their super secret underground lab!  Most ridiculously, the Ph.D.s manipulate one of the townspeople who has joined them into getting angry enough at them to leave and rejoin the ignorant masses, and then they coax him into helping them once again after the lab is razed.

The plot is very unwieldy and convoluted, and I am prejudiced against these "experts should run our lives" stories anyway.  "Phoenix Treatment" also lacks any particularly good elements to redeem it; gotta levy a negative judgment on this one.

(When I read "The Glass Brain" I wondered if Ellison was using the story to work out some of his anger and animosity towards racists and Nazis, and when I read "Phoenix Treatment" I wondered if it was set in Ohio because Ellison had some issues with the people he grew up among there.)

"Satan is My Ally"

Here it is, the impetus for my purchase of this 48-year old magazine!

"Satan is My Ally" is a wacky and incredible tale, the absurdities of which Ellison papers over by invoking the supernatural powers of Mephistopheles himself! Businessman Paul Dane (is it a coincidence that "Dane" is but one letter away from "Dante?") is a murderer, a thief and a philanderer who is summoned to Hell for an audience with Satan.  Ol' Scratch conscripts Dane and sends him out to California to take over a fraudulent cult (though first Dane kills most of his East coast contacts.)  In La La Land, at Satan's direction, Dane turns the cult into a devil-worshipping outfit and wins converts via a theatrical performance that is broadcast live on television.

Dane's performance consists of having a police officer empty a revolver into his chest on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, killing him.  (This insanity is permitted by the authorities because Satan fogs everybody's mind.)  Then, at a time that was announced just before he was shot full of holes, Dane rises from his grave in front of a crowd of onlookers and TV cameras.  This astonishing event attracts multitudes to join the Satanic cult, and Dane puts on the same exhibition every few weeks, until he finally has his comeuppance.  Satan warned him that if "a good woman finds you out, and labels you what you are, then the show is up," and, sure enough, a naive woman who followed Dane out to the left coast because she is blindly in love with him, once disillusioned, paints the word "DEVIL" on Dane's tombstone while he is still in the grave, making his death permanent this time.

I'm giving this one a passing grade because the first half of the story, out East, is good: the descriptions of Hell and the Devil, and depictions of Dane's journey down to the underworld and the many atrocities he commits, are effective, told with a kind of breathtaking brio.  But the main plot, what with the televised rising from the grave and the inexplicable way Dane's pact with Satan is voided, is just too convoluted and outlandish to take seriously, and it is not funny, either.  Disappointing!

Barely acceptable.

**********

I can wholeheartedly recommend "The World of Women," but as for the other three, well, it is not that surprising that they have never been published in books.  Probably they would have benefitted from revision, but Ellison was presumably a very busy man in 1957 with little time to polish and tighten these things up, especially if editors were buying them in the condition in which he sent them.

There are three more pieces in the 1969 all-Harlan-Ellison issue of Science Fiction Greats, and I'll be reading them soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Empire of Two Worlds by Barrington J. Bayley

"Killibol's the world, the world we're going to transform.  It's like a bomb waiting to be set off.  We're going to release all the energies pent up in those cities.  We'll make a society, an empire, where almost anything will be possible...."
His fellow British SF writers Michael Moorcock and Brian Stableford have a very high opinion of Barrington J. Bayley, and when I recently read two stories by Bayley I gave them passing grades, so it seems the time is ripe to read a novel by Bayley.  Now, it is true that, via twitter, Joachim Boaz warned me away from 1972's Empire of Two Worlds, but the John Schoenherr cover of my Ace edition of the novel, and the Karel Thole cover of the Italian edition even moreso, lead me to believe it is the epic tale of a land warship crossing a desert to wage war on or liberate a futuristic city--to a kid like me who watched StarBlazers religiously back in the '80s, this is nigh irresistible!  Let's see if Empire of Two Worlds lives up to its illustrators!

Killibol!  Desert planet!  Colonized by Earthmen approximately a thousand years ago, this barren rock has no native life and cannot support any sort of agriculture, so the people of the labyrinthine cities (compared by our narrator to termite hives) eat goop grown in vats primarily from waste material.  (They call them "tanks" on Killibol, but I prefer "vats," myself.  That's right, I'm editing the "most original SF writer of his generation.")  All you stoners out there, don't worry, somebody somehow and somewhere is secretly growing marijuana on Killibol to help people take the edge off of hive living!  (Don't harsh everybody's buzz by asking why, if they can grow pot, they don't grow wheat, tomatoes and basil and eat spaghetti instead of vat goop.)

These are some serious blurbs!
The upper levels of the hive city of Klittmann* are under government control, but the lower level slums (the "Basement") are in a state of warfare, warfare between various gangs.  Our narrator, Klein, a former metalworker turned muscle for one gang leader, Klamer, finds himself in the inner circle of Becmath, another gang leader, after Becmath takes over Klamer's territory.  Becmath is ambitious and intelligent, and has read some old books, so has developed a sort of Leninist dream of taking over the entire city and, as dictator, putting the vats, I mean tanks, under full government control.  For the good of the people, of course!

*When I was thirteen my friends and I would have laughed at this name for hours, and made jokes like "I'm trying to find Klittmann, where the hell is it, its like the hardest place to find in the world...." for weeks.

The police of Klittmann have big wheeled armored fighting vehicles called sloops, and Becmath has Klein construct a sloop for their gang, one with better weapons than the government sloops.  Then Becmath begins taking over the city, first the Basement and then pieces of the next level up.  Disaster strikes when the upper level police and some Basement dwellers who don't appreciate Becmath's rule combine forces and attack in concert; in the super sloop Becmath, Klein, and a few other ruthless criminal types escape the city into the lifeless wilderness, bringing along Harmen the "alchemist," the most knowledgeable man in Klittmann.

In the desert Becmath expresses his Napoleonic or maybe Alexandrian (with Harmen as his Aristotle?) ideas of a vast empire which, under his rule, will be devoted to "progress," and Klein swears an oath of allegiance to Becmath and his, at this point, purely hypothetical "state." Demonstrating their single-minded devotion to the State, Becmath cold-bloodedly murders a woman (a desert nomad) Klein picked up and has been having sex with, and Klein just shrugs off this atrocity.

A third or so of the way through the book Harmen leads the mobsters to an ancient teleporter thing that brings the scoundrels to the Earth of like a million years in our future.  (There's some mumbo jumbo about time moving faster on Earth than Killibol which is quickly forgotten.)  The human race has evolved, and artistic green-skinned people are at war with tall belligerent grey people who have been living on a terraformed moon for millenias and are now trying to conquer the Earth.  Becmath gets himself and his buddies ensconced high up in the lunar invaders' hierarchy, and soon Klein and the other Killibolians are managing vast factories and the requisite Earthling slave labor, building enough firearms and armored vehicles for an army. Nine years after his arrival on Earth, Becmath, like some kind of Caesar, Franco or Mao, returns to his home city of Klittmann at the head of a green-skinned conquering army!  But will his rule be one that fosters peace and prosperity, or one that, like that of so many revolutionaries in Earth's distant past, is more murderous and oppressive than the corrupt elites he is replacing?  Klein, in the final pages of the book, must decide how to react when he learns of Becmath's final solution for Klitmann and all of Killibol.

Empire of Two Worlds is an entertaining science-fiction adventure story, but one which totally lacks any wish fulfillment elements, one which doesn't glorify revolution or imperialism and which does not cater to Victorian morality or liberal sensibilities.  The main characters are drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and torturers, who unlike, say, John Carter, who civilizes Mars when he takes over, murder and exploit everybody who falls under their power.  None of the women in the story are the kind of take-charge kung fu girls who apparently predominate in 21st century SF action movies--the women in Empire of Two Worlds are helpless victims of the callous and cruel empire builders.  Bayley's story is sordid and vulgar: our "heroes" side with the evil invaders of Earth against the pastoral natives, and drug addiction (and not just to the relatively innocuous pot mentioned earlier) plays a major role in the plot and in Becmath's machinations.  This is a SF adventure imbued with elements of a tragic crime drama about low lifes and a cynicism about revolutionary politics.

The mobsters have to wear goggles on
Earth because Sol is much
brighter than Killibol's sun
I found Empire of Two Worlds entertaining, but, as I pointed out before, Joachim Boaz is down on it.  In his blog post of summer 2010 about the novel (which post I put off reading until after drafting my summary and assessment above) he awards the novel only 2 of 5 stars, a "Bad" rating, and complains that the characters are boring and the battle scenes banal.  I actually thought the characters and scenes of violence were pretty good; I enjoy straightforward adventure tales more than does Joachim.  Joachim and I agree that the beginning of the book on the desert planet of hive cities was better than the Earth sequences, and that Bayley has good ideas.  I would also suggest that Bayley does a good job setting the scene--describing various sights and sounds and smells, and describing how the narrator reacts to moving from one weird environment (cramped hive city to vast lifeless waste to fertile Earth to grim Luna and then back again) to the next.  I also appreciate that Bayley seems to be trying to say something about radical politics and imperialism, that men of ambition pursue big projects out of selfish ends despite what they may say about the good of the people and progress.

Moderate recommendation from me, particularly if you like adventure stories, gangster epics and anti-heroes.  Finally, I want to note that Klittmann reminded me of the Warhammer 40,000 setting Necromunda; I also sensed some kind of connection between Bayley and WH40K last time I wrote about Bayley's work.

*********


My copy of Empire of Two Worlds has fun stamps on its inside front cover that help chronicle its journey since its printing in 1972.  One indicates it was once in the inventory of the Book Nook of Atlanta, GA.  These is no Book Nook at 3889 Buford Highway in Atlanta today, but there is a Book Nook in nearby Decatur; perhaps the store moved there soon after acquiring Empire of Two Worlds?  Another stamp reveals that my copy of Bayley's book was sold by Chapter 1 of Ashland, OH.  Chapter 1's location now seems to be occupied by a business which caters to hipster booze enthusiasts.  ("Whether you’re new to the world of wine, craft beer or cask ale, we hope to be your friend and guide as we continue on this great adventure!")  Too bad!  I'm sure you can medicate yourself with the swill they sell at the many Kroger and Walmart locations in Ohio, but you can't find 40-year old books about a gangster on a desert planet just anywhere!  Fortunately for us scholars of crime on desert planets, Ohio is home to numerous Half Price Books locations; I bought Empire of Two Worlds at the Lewis Center location, along with five other important volumes