Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dangerous Visions from Evelyn Lief, Andrew J. Offutt and Richard A. Lupoff

When we were reading David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's anthology Generation we read a story by Evelyn Lief in which she attacked the suburbs and television.  We just read a novel by Andrew Offutt in which Muslims fight genetically engineered pterosaurs over a thousand years in the future. And just a few days ago I tried to use the occasion of Richard Lupoff's birthday to promote two old blog posts about his books. So it seems like a good moment to read the stories by Lief, Offutt and Lupoff to be found in Harlan Ellison's 1972 Again, Dangerous Visions.

"Bed Sheets are White" by Evelyn Lief

In the three-page intro to this three-page story Ellison brags about how tough he is as a teacher at workshops and how it was his toughness which inspired Lief to write this brilliant story.  Then Lief brags that she is a zionist-socialist who lives in a commune in Brooklyn and hopes to spend the rest of her life working a few months at a time and then writing and travelling a few months at a time.

The story, which is mostly printed in italics, mostly consists of the thoughts of a man driving cross country.  He lives in a world in which the government has decreed that everything be white; people must have white sheets on their beds, the highway is painted white, the buildings on the side of the road are white, etc.  This story is some kind of bizarre riff on the Beautification Campaign promoted by Lady Bird Johnson (at this link read a government website that gives a very sympathetic account of this project of Mrs. Johnson's.)  The driver's wife is a member of an anti-White Laws activist group.

The protagonist drives into the night, and is stopped by the cops, who advise him not to drive at night, because at night you see the color black.  Then he looks up at the sky and is arrested for committing this act, recently made illegal.

In her afterward Lief thanks Ellison for buying the story.

Silly, pointless, useless.

"For Value Received" by andrew j. offutt

Offutt's byline is all lowercase here in Again, Dangerous Visions, perhaps a signal this is a serious literary story.  The intro is six and a half pages, and in it Ellison inveighs against "The Corporate State" and suggests you sabotage the telephone company (by overpaying your bill and confusing their computers) and the cereal manufacturers (by claiming you found a fly in your box of cornflakes) and brags about shoplifting books and records.  He brags that he has committed acts of sabotage so radical that it would not be safe for him to reveal them to us readers.  (That's OK, Harlan, your safety is our paramount concern!)

Offutt himself informs us that most of his writing is anti-authoritarian satire and talks at some length about his life, career, and environment, poking fun at his experiences of writer's block and of stereotypes of urban elites and of his own rural Kentucky milieu (while hinting there is some measure of truth to these stereotypes.)

"For Value Received" is a more obvious and more focused anti-authoritarian satire than, say, Messenger of Zhuvastou or My Lord Barbarian, though those sword-swinging adventures certainly have their share of anti-establishment elements.  In this eight-page story a new father refuses to pay a hospital bill, and so he and his wife leave their newborn baby at the hospital and go home.  The little girl grows up in the hospital, Mom and Dad coming to visit during visiting hours every day, taking her to school, etc.  Rather than suggesting that this unusual upbringing will turn the child into a weirdo, Offutt indicates it has beneficial effects: "Mary Ann Barber, M. D., was graduated from medical school at the tender age of 23.  Her Boards score set a new high."

This story gets points for being original and crazy, but I didn't actually enjoy it. Marginal negative vote.      

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" by Richard A. Lupoff

In his novels Sandworld and Crack in the Sky, Lupoff expressed his conventional liberal ideas about race and filled up space by talking about or imitating genre fiction heroes Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft, as well as underground comix. When I realized "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" was an early constituent part of the famous and critically-lauded 1978 novel Space War Blues, and saw Ed Emshwiller's illustration for the story, I figured it would be an anti-racism story imitating/satirizing the kind of space war epics "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Jack Williamson produced, and/or Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  I look to SF stories for fun and for ideas that are new, and a parody of The Legion of Space or Spacehounds of IPC that featured anti-racism lectures didn't sound new or fun, but I decided to give it a shot anyway, to see what all the hoopla was about.

Ed Emshwiller's illo for "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama"

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" (presumably the long title is a mocking reference to those juvenile books for boys about explorers and fighting men, like We Were There with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys by Robert N. Webb (1956), The Battleship Boys with the Adriatic Chasers by Frank Gee Patchin (1918) and With Washington at Valley Forge by Judith M. Spiegelman (1967)) is about a race war in outer space and consists of 13 chapters totalling 90 pages. Chapter 1 introduces us to Gordon Lester Wallace III (AKA GLW3, AKA GLWIII and other variations) of the planet New Alabama (AKA N'Alabama, AKA Alquane VII and other variations), who has just graduated from boot camp (or a military academy?) and will soon be shipping off to serve in the war against the blacks of N'Haiti.  New Alabama, you see, is inhabited by the descendents of white colonists from Alabama; in the (distant?) past the large countries like the United States and USSR were broken into their constituent parts by the united small countries, and then each of Earth's many countries started colonizing alien planets.  Then the Jews and Arabs ("the Jewrabs") united to take over the Earth, leaving all those extrasolar colonies to fend for themselves.

Chapter 1 is written in a degraded dialect of English with different spellings and punctuation rules than we are all used to, so that reading it is a slow process.  People have "funny" names (a stripper is named "Miss Merriass Markham") and there are lots of minor jokes based on repetition; for example, when looking at the curvaceous Miss Merriass the omniscient third-person narrator says "think of that belly belly-to-belly with your belly...."  Lupoff describes the hair of several different New Alabamans, and the description is always the same: blond hair, plastered flat.  Repetition of every kind is a recurring motif throughout the story.

Chapter 2 is set on N'Haitai.  In contrast to the brute we met on N'Alabama who spent Chapter 1 in a strip club, in Chapter 2 we follow a government office worker, Christophe Belledor; this chapter, to (I guess) demonstrate that in this story the whites are savage and the blacks are sophisticated, is written in clear English prose (though I guess these characters are really speaking French.)  "...you know the blancs, Phillipe," Christophe tells another public employee, "they breed like beasts."  It's the old switcheroo! (Or, as Joanna Russ calls it, "role-reversal.")

Christophe is copy editing a government report drafted by a Deputy Minister; the Deputy Minister has conceived a plan to supplement the N'Haitian workforce with zombies created by injecting an alien parasite into the brains of corpses recovered after space battles.

Chapter 3 is a mind-numbingly detailed description of a planet covered in water, inhabited by a colony of small almost-mindless creatures that are distant descendents of humanity--these are the aforementioned alien parasites.

The rest of the long story alternates between difficult to read and allegedly funny ("Our old sarge he looks, maybe not quite with twenty-twennies (no sprig chicken he no more but he keeps in good shape rest assured) but he gets buy with spectacles at leased") chapters about the racist rednecks of New Alabama and chapters about the scientists and bureaucrats of New Haitai.  The New Alabaman chapters hardly move the plot forward at all, they just show the white characters acting like buffoons and expressing racism and their repressed homosexuality.  The New Haitian chapters are more interesting, covering as they do the Frankensteinian voodoo scheme the N'Haitians have in the works, but these chapters also include committee meetings and voodoo rituals that are not exactly thrilling.

Anyway, Christophe (he got drafted due to office politics) and Gordon meet in hand-to-hand combat in a tremendous space battle (the space battle is actually good, an homage to the exciting fighting in, say, "Doc" Smith or the famous first chapter of Starship Troopers) and Gordon, killed, is resuscitated as a zombie soldiers in the service of the New Haitaians.  The N'Haitians conquer N'Alabama and reduce the whites to second class citizens.  Christophe hooks up with Yvette, a young woman we witnessed in a masturbation scene and voodoo ritual sex scene.  There is also a subplot about how God is a mischievous child and our universe is a plaything given him by an indulgent uncle.

It is easy to see why critics like this story: there are the anti-racist and anti-war messages and the caricature of Southerners, and Lupoff's ambitious, extravagant and experimental wordplay in the New Alabaman chapters in which he mines every possible pun, phonetic spelling and form of punctuation for potential laughs.  But I found reading the story a chore--during the period I read it, "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" felt like my job, and I turned to Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos" and Night Fighter by C. F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright for my leisure reading.  My reward for grinding through Lupoff's experimental prose and the long tedious sections was a sort of standard plot with a typical message and jokes which are not funny. (Having lived the first 40 years of my life in the Northeast I have heard lots of criticisms and mocking of the South and Midwest, mostly from people who learned about the South and Midwest from TV, so for me this kind of material feels very tired.)

It is perhaps interesting to consider how critics today might respond to the story. Obviously, in portraying blacks as better than whites in just about every way, Lupoff was endeavoring to be a good "progressive" or "liberal" of the late '60s (when the story was largely written) or early '70s (when it was published in Again, Dangerous Visions.)  But, today, his focus on voodoo, the scene in which a young black woman admires her naked body in a mirror and touches herself and then participates in a voodoo orgy, and even the way blacks are portrayed as bourgeois types with a bureaucratic government overseeing an industrial and scientific society, might raise eyebrows for being exoticizing, exploitative, or culturally appropriative, or valorizing Western middle-class values by portraying blacks "acting white" as admirable. (These aren't my criticisms; I'm just speculating on what today's cultural arbiters might think.)

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" makes you use your brain and addresses all kinds of issues related to popular literature as well as social issues, but it was just not very enjoyable, so I can't really give it a thumbs up.  People interested in literary SF and SF that addresses issues of race are likely to find it worthwhile, however.  (As the weeks go by, I suspect I will begin to appreciate "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" more as the tedious stretches fade from memory and the naval battle, the Frankenstein stuff, and Lupoff's admirable ambition--he clearly put a lot of hard work into this thing--rise in prominence.)

**********

Well, these stories, even if I didn't think them very fun, certainly fit Again, Dangerous Visions' purported raison d'etre; they are certainly "out there:" they are crazy, uninhibited and potentially offensive attacks on our society that editors would have every reason to be chary of publishing.  In his 1982 essay "Science Fiction and the Academy: Some Notes," Barry Malzberg lists the dozen books of fiction he thinks should constitute the syllabus of a college course on SF, and Again, Dangerous Visions is one of them.  Well, I feel like I just had a big lump of healthy, if not tasty, science fiction education!

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