Friday, September 29, 2017

Martyr by Brian R. Utley

She was looking at me frankly, warmly, with complete openness, her hair, golden...her eyes, an infinite blue...the beauty of her face, soft and quiet.
"You see, I really am to be yours...as I said last night.  It's part of Dearborne's plan."
 I could only stare at her, understanding, but not really understanding.  "Dearborne's plan..." I said.
She nodded.  "You do believe in the plan, don't you?"
"Of course I do!"
Today we look at Martyr, by Brian R. Utley.  Who is Brian R. Utley?  Well, he's no giant of speculative fiction, I know that much, and not much more.  He's only got this one credit at isfdb, and it appears Martyr was only printed a single time, in this paperback edition (meaninglessly labelled "Complete and Unabridged") put out by Curtis Books.  Why am I reading Martyr?  You doubt that the fact it was printed in 1971, the year of my birth, is reason enough?  Well, anybody can read a SF novel by a Grand Master like Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt or Poul Anderson. And anybody can read a SF novel by the pioneers who inspired people like George Lucas to produce the sort of SF that now dominates our culture, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton (in 1980 in "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction" Barry Malzberg suggested that "Much of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back appear to be based upon a close reading of his [Hamilton's] work.")   But the crew of the HMS MPorcius are explorers, hard-bitten types who want to go where no one else has been, see things nobody else has seen.  Do they love Heinlein, van Vogt, Anderson, Burroughs, Brackett and Hamilton?  Of course they do!  But they also love investigating the terra incognita, filling in the blank spaces on the map, looking under rocks and seeing what wriggles out.  So let's lift up the Curtis Books rock and see what the hell is going on behind the shirtless-guy-near-a-tower-and-a-spun-glass-city cover of Martyr.


Martyr starts with a three-page prologue.  A young man is interviewing an elderly black man, apparently a respected hero, getting him to tell the story of his life.  This man is our narrator for the next 150 pages of the 155-page novel.

The nameless narrator grew up in our underground future, in a subterranean city of "toobes" managed by a "Mother Machine," where people are incubated in test tubes and don't know their biological parents and the authorities keep a strict control on what food you eat and what media you are exposed to and encourage you to spend your free time at the local "pleasure center."  "The Greater Down Empire" has been mankind's refuge for many centuries due to overpopulation--every acre of the planet surface was needed for agriculture if the people, numbering "a million million," were to be fed.

In the first few chapters of Martyr, the narrator is hanging out with two friends--John Dearborne, another black man whom the narrator reveres and follows with an almost blind loyalty, and Roger Pleasant, a more ambivalent and equivocal character with a "dusty complexion, the color of ashes"--witnessing their debate about life under Mother Machine's rule.  (The real protagonist of the narrative is Dearborne, while our narrator mostly plays the role of second banana and chronicler.)  Dearborne denounces MM's orderly utopia because it has extinguished what he, and he feels all men, really need--freedom, and the challenges freedom brings that lead to personal and social growth! Thus spake Dearborne:
"...I think that a man without the problems of opposition, as we know is supposedly the case Down, will become as stagnant as a receptacle without an outlet.... We wallow in pleasures that dissipate.  We delight in a conformity that hedges us all about, denying us our destiny.  And our first love is a machine."
Dearborne is determined to leave "Down" and try to live "Topside," and the narrator is eager to follow him, but Pleasant discourages them.  He lists the benefits of subterranean life and rule by Mother Machine ("Poverty, hunger, disease and all those other nasty little problems are gone, wiped out....We live in mutual approbation, mutual respect....We live in unity") and calls Dearborne's complaints "generalities" that lack proof; he also warns his subversive friends that Mother's agents will destroy any who try to escape.  Pleasant should know--he's a member of the elite, with a luxurious apartment in Level 1 (the deepest and most prestigious of the one hundred levels of the city) and some ill-defined job working for Mother.  Why Dearborne and the narrator (whom we later learn is a "class two plumber") are friends with this guy and expose to him their heretical thinking is something of a mystery, though later on we get a sort of half-baked explanation.

Pleasant's warnings go unheeded.  Dearborne has amassed an arsenal of knowledge and equipment that facilitates our two heroes' egress through a gap in the force field that surrounds the exit to Topside and confounds the hovering saucer robots that chase them.  The narrator is surprised to find the surface is a wilderness prairie, not a bunch of robot farms--Dearborne explains that there is no longer any food crisis, that MM is keeping everybody underground to maintain her own control, not to free up arable land.

The pair travel to the mountains, where Dearborne explains to the narrator that his aim is not simply to leave Mother Machine's underground empire, but to overthrow it in what he calls a "crusade" and a "revolution."  The narrator is a sucker for Dearborne's oratory and vision, as reflected in these three successive one-sentence paragraphs:
It was almost like God talk.
And...he was telling all this to me.
I suddenly felt rebirth.
This epiphany occurs halfway through the novel.  Then the narrator gets one surprise after another as Dearborne leads him through a secret entrance (a two kilometer deep shaft down which they must rappel) to an abandoned part of the Empire where they find an extensive array of dusty old machines.  Dearborne reveals that he is a member of the underground organization of people who call themselves Forsters (they are inspired by E. M. Forster's story "The Machine Stops," which seems to have inspired Utley to write Martyr), and that he even knew his own parents when he was young, hundreds of years ago!  Dearborne, we learn, was born ages ago and put into suspended animation by Forsters, and only recently revived.  Via what we would call "hacking," MM was made to forget the existence of this room of machines--a control room Dearborne calls "the Citadel" where he can override some of Mother Machine's operations--and a bogus ID file was created for him in MM's memory banks.  From the Citadel the charismatic Dearborne can preach rebellion over MM's own airwaves, even fool the credulous masses into thinking he represents her! 

The plot of the last novel we read, Poul Anderson's fun and scientifically rigorous Virgin Planet, could be described as the journey of a man who starts the book physically and psychologically dominated by women but then reasserts his (and the male sex's) independence and authority.  I'm tempted to look at Martyr the same way. Not only is the tyrannical computer described in explicitly feminine terms, but before he leaves the Empire to travel with his hero and role model Dearborne, the narrator has to break ties with his girlfriend, "Freddie."  During his adventures with Dearborne, when he sleeps, the narrator dreams of Freddie, dreams in which she obstructs Dearborne's quest and implores the narrator to come home.  Perhaps Freddie's masculine nickname is a sign that sex roles in the chthonic world of Mother Machine are blurred, that women are usurping men's rightful positions.   It is perhaps also significant that Freddie has a "fair complexion."

Dearborne and the narrator return to the Empire via a secret passage, and Dearborne introduces the narrator to more Forsters and provides a replacement for Freddie, "Gentle," a blue-eyed blonde with a "bubbly nymph albedo" who calls our narrator "man of color."  In the final third of Martyr the revolutionary crusade starts in earnest with clever (and not necessarily truthful!) propaganda broadcasts and a campaign of sabotage and bombings which kills thousands of innocent people.  The narrator participates in an operation that (accidentally) blows up large residential sections, including where Freddie lives!  Freddie's apparent death triggers doubt about the wisdom of the revolution in the narrator, who confronts Dearborne, but Dearborne quickly convinces the narrator that the carnage is not too much of a price to ask for freedom.

(I can't tell if Utley is being ironic in having the narrator rebel against the mass murderer Mother Machine, who runs his life, only to let mass murderer Dearborne run his life!  Is this a knowing commentary on revolution as it was experienced in France, Russia, China, etc.?) 

Finally, the narrator and Gentle get captured, and find that Pleasant is head of the robotic police force!  Under torture the narrator reveals all he knows, and Dearborne is captured.  But this is all part of Dearborne's elaborate plan!  After he (somehow) convinces Pleasant to release the narrator and Gentle of the "golden hair" and "eyes of infinite blue," Dearborne sacrifices himself, detonating a bomb hidden in a copy of The Machine Stops that the government police inexplicably allowed him to bring to his place of execution.  This bomb destroys Mother, and triggers an exodus of people convinced by Dearborne's broadcasts that mankind belongs on the surface.  Dearborne's own white girlfriend (right before she commits suicide rather than live without Dearborne) tells the narrator that Dearborne left instructions to proclaim the narrator the leader of the new Topside civilization.

In the two-page third-person epilogue we learn that Pleasant survived the explosion and, reconciled with the narrator and Gentle, has grown old on the surface along with them.  Utley, with references to flies and blizzards, reminds us that life on the surface is not as comfortable as was life in the subterranean utopia of Mother, and implies that the new Topside society is surviving by excavating stuff from the wreck of the defunct Greater Down Empire.   

I'm on board with Martyr's pro-freedom themes, its smothering mother metaphors, and its portrayal of a revolutionary leader who uses lying propaganda and kills thousands of innocent people, just like the tyranny he is working to overthrow.  But the book has problems.  The style isn't so hot; it's not smooth or sophisticated or thrilling, and when the author and/or the editor mix up "flout" and "flaunt," a pet peeve of mine, as well as "it's" and "its," you feel like you are reading something shoddy.  The plot includes twists and turns meant to be (melo)dramatic, but which strain the reader's credulity.  But back in the plus column, we have to consider its ambivalent and ambiguous treatments of race and religion, which, for me at least, turn the novel into a sort of intriguing puzzle.

I don't really know what to make of the use of race in Martyr; do the protagonists just happen to be black, or is Utley trying to say something about the black experience with this book, or use allusions to the history of Africa or African-Americans to add depth to his story?  Our two heroes are black, and characters who cast doubt on their mission and stand in their way--"color of ashes" Pleasant and "fair" Freddie--are white, but Utley's narrative is not a straightforward tale of blacks fighting white racists; there are plenty of white Forsters, including the heroes' devoted girlfriends, and presumably the population of the underground city that Dearborne is liberating is largely white, and, of course, E. M. Forster is white.  All the interracial sexual relationships and the fact that Pleasant and the narrator reconcile suggests Utley is advocating forgiveness and amity between the races.  Mother Machine's tyranny doesn't really remind the reader of European enslavement of blacks in the New World or imperialism in Africa--MM isn't exploiting the city dwellers' labor for her own gain, she is smothering them, making their lives too easy.  Could one of Utley's aims in Martyr be to attack Great Society welfare programs (less than a decade old when the novel was published) that were meant to help the poor but which have been blamed for weakening the traditional family structure--in the African-American community in particular--and accused of setting up the government as a replacement parent?     

Martyr, as the novel's title suggests, addresses the topic of religion as well as race.  Martyr largely seems to follow the SF tradition of depicting religion as a scam.  In a way perhaps similar to how some Christians bless themselves with holy water before entering and leaving a church and some Jews touch a mezuzah while entering or leaving their homes, inhabitants of The Greater Down Empire are expected to conduct little ritualistic hand movements before entering and after leaving their apartments and elevators and the like.  Pleasant conducts these motions with enthusiasm and precision, while Dearborne conspicuously neglects them, and the narrator muses that there are so many such rituals that they "could almost swallow the intellect."  Mother Machine plays the role in the book not only of oppressive government but also of oppressive religion.

But, at the same time, Dearborne, the hero of the story, is a figure like a prophet who is compared to a deity more than once.  In his propaganda broadcasts he doesn't say Mother Machine is a scam--he claims to be her truest representative!  Is Dearborne (who, after all, rises from the dead and dies that everybody else might live in freedom) meant to be a Christ-like figure who opposes a corrupt religious establishment and strives to bring the true word of God to the people?  (A Christ figure who is a demolitions expert, fights a cyborg cop hand-to-hand, and uses a ray gun to excavate a tunnel, is certainly an interesting character to contemplate!)  That true word perhaps being that a good mother sets her children free, rather than nagging and controlling them, lets them face the world and grow through struggle rather than coddling and cossetting them and keeping them from the world so they stagnate.

I'm reluctant to say Martyr is good, but I was never bored (even though we've seen lots of SF books about stifling utopias and revolutions and unbelievable conspiracies that were better written and more entertaining) and I enjoyed trying to figure out what Utley was getting at with all the references to religion and people's skin colors, so I'm judging it acceptable to mildly recommendable. 

**********

isfdb lists 95 publications from Curtis Books--we'll be looking at another one in our next episode!   

Monday, September 25, 2017

Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson

"You know," answered Davis, "this is the kind of thing I used to daydream about in my teens.  A brand new world, like Earth but more beautiful, and I the only man among a million women.  Well...I've found it now and I want out!"
So many SF novels have covers that I really like produced by artists whom isfdb is unable to identify.  There's the cover of the 1970 Lancer edition of Damon Knight's World Without Children and The Earth Quarter, the cover of Belmont's 1963 Novelets of Science Fiction, Ace's 1975 edition of Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, and Dell's 1971 collection of A. E. van Vogt stories, More than Superhuman. Well, we can add Paperback Library's 1970 printing of Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet to the list.  The use of color and metaphor (the women in the book are not giants) gives the cover a very poster-like, "graphic design," feel which I like and which distinguishes it from the many more literal and realistic covers produced for Virgin Planet over the years, while not neglecting the obvious erotic overtones of a book about being the only man on a planet full of women.

Virgin Planet first appeared in book form in 1959, an expansion of a 1957 novella published in the very first issue of Venture with attractive illustrations by Emsh, and has been reprinted frequently.  I just sang the praises of one of Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories; let's see if Virgin Planet provides me a chance to issue further encomiums to the man who built a houseboat with Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

The Delta Capitas Lupi system of two stars and five planets and many moons has been cut off from the human space federation (the "Union") for as long as anybody can remember by a "trepidation vortex," the kind of thing in other SF you might call a warp storm.  The vortex has largely shifted out of the way, and playboy Davis Bertram (is this a Wodehouse reference?), girl-chasing son of a wealthy businessman, has purchased a one-man space ship with the idea of being the first to explore the system and win some prestige.  When he lands on the Earth-like third moon of the subordinate star's larger planet he discovers it is inhabited by the cloned descendants of a lost all-women colonization vessel that crash landed on the moon 300 years ago; these women have only preindustrial technology and are illiterate and have only dim legends about their ancestors' origins and ordinary human sexual life!

Anderson's narrative begins in medias res, with Corporal Barbara Whitley of the flightless-bird-riding cavalrywomen of Freetoon, one of the competing settlements of clones on planet Atlantis, as they call it. She captures Davis (in the Union, family name comes before personal name) with a lasso and drags him to imprisonment in Freetoon.  After a few flashback chapters which give us insight into Bertram's character, the novel's plot showcases the radical effect Davis's arrival has on Atlantean society.

Women who have been resorting to celibacy or lesbianism all their lives jealously compete for the attention of Davis, while the rulers of the towns see him and his spaceship as the key to absolute hegemony, and war erupts over him.  Barbara Whitley and her genetically identical comrade Valeria free Davis and they escape into the wilderness with him as a coalition army from other towns is storming Freetoon.  Davis insists on bringing along Elinor Dyckman, a voluptuous brunette who makes her way in the world via flattery and sex appeal and for whom the athletic and belligerent red-headed Whitleys have contempt.

The novel is quite readable and entertaining.  Anderson devotes considerable time and energy to setting the scene, describing in detail the sky of Atlantis, for example, with its many heavenly bodies that include the huge planet about which Atlantis orbits, a gas giant which looms 14 times the size of Luna as seen from Earth and  whose amber light alters colors on the Atlantean surface, where the numerous moons often paint a complex multiplicity of shadows.  We learn all about Atlantean society.  The 300-year old ship which brought the very first iteration of Whitley and Dyckman and all the few hundred women who are the prototypes of the hundreds of thousands of people now living on Atlantis is now the base of a sort of papacy.  Women from all the many towns go to Ship City as pilgrims, to be impregnated by the mysterious "Doctors" via a parthogenetic process which splits one of their ovum so they can give birth to a baby genetically identical to themselves.  The Doctors stay out of the endless political disputes between the warlike towns but demand regular tribute and live relatively luxurious lives.

Though there are no explicit sex scenes, Anderson plays up sex angle--one of the first things Davis witnesses in captivity is Barbara Whitley stripping and bathing in a trough, and on their harrowing journey over the mountains and through the woods to a different region of Atlantis, Davis repeatedly gets within seconds of getting into the quite willing Elinor Dyckman's pants, only to be interrupted each time by a jealous Whitley or a monster attack.  Anderson also talks about genetics and sex differences that maybe we aren't supposed to talk about nowadays?  For example, how women's muscles are weaker than men's, which results in Atlantean close combat yielding relatively few fatalities rates-- the women are not strong enough to easily penetrate each other's armor with their axes and spears.  Because an individual's personality, inclinations and abilities are determined by her genetic identity, each class of clones becomes a caste and fits the same niche in each town near Davis's landing spot--every settlement is ruled by mannish Udalls, and wherever you go all the aggressive Whitleys are members of the warrior class while the selfish Dyckmans (a Dickensian joke name?) are lovers and advisers to Udalls and mercilessly manipulate everybody at court.    

In the region of Atlantis beyond that mountain range the party of Freetoon refugees encounters a town in which all the women are the same type of clone, Burkes.  The Burkes have a republican society with a council and social equality, everybody taking turns at menial tasks, a contrast to the  the Udall monarchy and rigid castes--among them a class of helots--found at Freetoon and neighboring settlements.  The Burkes take Davis captive, hoping to breed with him and thus throw off their reliance on the Doctors and generate a more diverse, vital and physically strong nation which will be able to take over the entire planet.  Our heroes escape to an island where resides a settlement inhabited by a small variety of different genotypes, all creative and artistic people, a sort of decadent artists' commune.  These sensitive types are also eager to mate with Davis, for less utilitarian reasons, but the jealous Whitleys yet again interfere.  Then a representative of the Doctors shows up.  Uninterested in having their exalted position disrupted, the Doctors want Davis killed at once, hiding their fears behind the allegation that he is no man, but an alien monster.

The last third or so of the 150-page novel covers Davis's cobbling together of a military alliance of women disaffected from the Doctors and their conquest of Ship City. Anderson keeps this realistic rather than John-Carteresque--like you would expect of an actual political leader, especially in a society like the galactic Union which has abandoned war, Davis is far in the rear with the generals, watching the assault and not even issuing orders but letting an old native, a veteran ship captain, command the operation, until his special expertise is required when it is discovered that the Doctors have his ion blast pistol.  In the end Davis and Barbara and Valeria are able to neutralize the Doctors and make peace among the Atlanteans.  Davis leaves the planet with his lady love (one of the Whitleys, though Anderson keeps it a mystery which) to open up Atlantis to the Union--soon the women of Atlantis will all know the joys of heterosexual sex and sexual reproduction!

After the novel proper Anderson provides a seven-page explanation of all the science in the story, telling us he is emulating Hal Clement's well-respected and very science-based Mission of Gravity.  

A quite good example of the traditional SF story--an adventure with violence and danger that portrays a paradigm shift, expresses skepticism of religion and slings a lot of science--in this case astronomy, biology, sociology and political science--at you in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.  Anderson also succeeds in presenting characters who all have motivations, personalities and relationships that make sense, and who evolve as the novel proceeds.  Thumbs up for Virgin Planet.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes

Paul Danton found his brain whirling, lost in the complexity of it.  He felt curiously humble.  This duplicate, who differed from him only because a Security agent had thought him more devious than he really was, reasoned in a way that was utterly alien to him.
This recent weekend the Toyota Corolla conveyed the wife and me to Dayton, Ohio, where we took in the Alphonse Mucha exhibit at the Art Institute (strongly recommended) and ate dishes with "shish" in their names and drank coffee and tea at Olive Mediterranean Grill (MPorcius Travel Guide also recommends this establishment.)  On our way out of town we stopped at the One Dollar Book Swap, a huge warehouse next to the highway with masses of used books for sale for a dollar each.  It seems like it is some kind of charity or something, staffed by volunteers and only open on the weekends.  I pored over the SF shelves, which were not alphabetized and mostly had books too recent to interest me, but I did pick up two volumes, a 1990 edition of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s  The Moon is Hell! and a legitimately old book, the 1959 Avalon hardcover printing of James Blish and Robert Lowndes' The Duplicated Man.  Mine is a bedraggled copy formerly in the collection of the Lake Bluff, Illinois, Public Library and so covered in red "DISCARDED" stamps and hand-scrawled catalog numbers, but I'm a reader of books rather than a collector, and I think these evidences of former ownership add character to the volume, and I am certainly glad to have it for one dollar.

The Duplicated Man first appeared in a 1953 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction with an amusing declaration on its cover that assured potential readers that the novel was "complete" and "not an abridged 'magazine version.'"  For this magazine publication of the novel Lowndes used the pseudonym Michael Sherman--the Avalon hardcover of The Duplicated Man is actually dedicated "to the memory of Marcus Lyons, Michael Sherman, and John MacDougal," pen names employed by Blish and Lowndes, a little SF in-joke.  If you are not lucky enough to have secured your own copy of this novel for a dollar, the internet archive has you covered--check out the original 1953 magazine text, complete with disturbing Paul Orban illos, here.

The Duplicated Man is about four political hierarchies and their relationships with each other, each of them to varying extents revolutionary and tyrannical, three of them riven by no-holds-barred factional infighting.  The four political groups--the parliamentary rulers of Earth, the dictatorial cabal of Venus, an Earth revolutionary party which sympathizes with Venus and a revolutionary party on Venus which sympathizes with Earth, have been in a tense stalemate for many years, but political and psychological pressure has been building over that time, and the novel describes the course of events as things boil over into crisis and everybody takes extreme measures to win power or just survive.

I guess we should see The Duplicated Man as a meditation on the world politics of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, which were characterized by communist and fascist revolutionaries and mass war and saw, in response to economic and military crisis, a major increase in state power in liberal societies like the United States and Great Britain; the book also expresses Blish and Lowndes' negative view of technological change and their bizarre wish fulfillment fantasy of how geniuses might manipulate everybody to bring peace to the world.

The Duplicated Man is not structured in the way most of the novels I read are structured; rather than following a single sympathetic or interesting character or group of characters from start to finish, there are twenty or twenty-five characters who drop in and out of the narrative; many of them only appear in the first or second half of the book, none of them is very sympathetic, and only one is actually interesting.  Throughout the 222-page novel people make and break alliances, switch sides or reveal they were moles the whole time, double cross and stab each other in the back.  There is plenty of dialogue that consists of planning how to trick somebody or description of how somebody got tricked, and speculations of how somebody else is going to respond to events based on his or her psychological profile or strategic vision. Much of this stuff is neither easy to follow nor very entertaining.

The Background:  A century before , back in 1971 (the year of my birth!), the "Peace Squadron" bombed "the ice-cap," causing mass flooding worldwide and transforming the geographic and political landscape.  Countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and a world government, the Security Council, took over. Each of the newly designated nations of Earth was given a seat on the Council.  The first thirty pages of The Duplicated Man follow a publicly-broadcast parliamentary debate (the Security Council prides itself on its transparency) lead by Joachim Burgd, representative of Antarctica, about the so-called Earth-Government-in-Exile on Venus; this debate also touches upon the Pro-Earth Party, an underground organization on Earth itself.

You see, not everybody is happy with the Security Council's rule.  When they first took over a bunch of people, including one of Earth's greatest scientists, Geoffrey Thomas, fled to inhospitable Venus where they established subterranean cities.  From Venus these people periodically launch missiles (with conventional warheads) at the Earth, about a dozen a year, indiscriminately blowing people and property to bits.  The Security Council is unable to counterattack because that genius Thomas has surrounded Venus with an energy screen through which no nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels can pass, and the Venus settlements are too small, well-concealed and widely dispersed to target with conventional weapons--also, the Security Council's charter explicitly forbids warmaking!  This bombardment has been going on for like one hundred years (!) and the people of Earth are starting to crack under the strain!

The Pro-Earth Party is one of those revolutionary groups in which everybody has a code name and is in a three-man cell, the members of which signal each other in public via signs and countersigns like how they light their cigarettes.  These jokers hope to take over the Earth and end the bombardment by negotiating with Venus, but the Party's bloodthirsty leaders can't agree on methods and are always splitting into factions and purging each other, leaving the low-ranking members at risk of being on the wrong side of a purge at any moment. One such low-ranking member is the nominal protagonist of the novel, Paul Danton (his name, presumably, is significant.)

After introducing us to Danton and the Earth situation, Blish and Lowndes switch the camera to Venus, where we meet Thomas himself, leader of the exiles and a man of over 500 pounds and over 140 years--he needs the help of assistants just to walk!  He's having a meeting with the Directorate, usually called "the cabal," all of the members of which want to depose him and take his place and somehow squeeze the secret of immortality out of him.  On Venus we are also introduced to an underground group (one of the authors'' little jokes is that on Venus the "underground" organization meets on the surface) called the Earth Party which hopes to put Venus under Earth control--they too are having a meeting.

The Plot:  Danton has been investigating rumors of a Duplication Machine, a device which can create duplicates of human beings.  At a meeting of a division of the Pro-Earth Party he reports that the fabulous contraption is no myth--he has located it and seen it with his own eyes--and the leaders of the Party announce plans to seize the amazing machine and use it to support a direct military attack on the Earth government. Their idea is to kidnap members of the Security Council and duplicate them, which will sow confusion in the government hierarchy.  Immediately after this announcement, party members who are in fact government infiltrators shut down the meeting, capturing everybody present, including Danton.

Danton, it turns out, looks just like one of the members of the Venus cabal (this kind of thing happens in fiction all the time, like to our pal Fred, and even happens sometimes in real life!) and the Security Council enlists him for a mission to Venus. Imitating the Pro-Earth Party's aborted plan, the Security Council will use the machine to duplicate Danton five times and send all six of them to Venus, where they will disrupt the Venus government's operations.

At the same time, Thomas and the Venus cabal discover that their screen is down so they launch a preemptive invasion of Earth, desperate to conquer our big blue marble before the Earthers realize how vulnerable Venus now is.  The Venusians have sixteen warships, but only five take off because one of the cabal (pursuing his own agenda) joins the Earth Party and they sabotage the launch.  The Danton mission to Venus is also hamstrung: the Venusian preliminary bombardment (2000 missiles!) and assassins from the Pro-Earth Party waylay some of the duplicates on Earth, while the original Danton just stays on Earth because he has to distract a female member of the Security Council who has fallen in love with him!  Only two Danton duplicates and a Security Council secret agent make it to Venus.

One of the recurring themes of The Duplicated Man is how plans always fail--nothing anybody does seems to work as they had hoped--and another, related theme, is limited intelligence.  Because of the thick cloud cover of Venus, people on Earth have no idea what is going on on Venus (the Earthers don't know Thomas is immortal, for example, and assume he has been dead for thirty or more years), and people on Venus have little greater knowledge of conditions on Earth.  The Security Council activates the Duplication Machine without knowing how it really works, and, in the event, it doesn't actually duplicate Danton very well.  The "new" Dantons have all of the original Danton's memories, but their looks and personalities are all skewed and influenced by members of the Security Council apparatus.  One Danton dupe, thanks to the subconscious input of the beautiful woman on the Council who is in love with Danton, has powerful sex appeal, for example.  The passage used as an epigraph to this blog post refers to another dupe, one influenced by the aforementioned secret agent,

In the end of the book we find that everything that has happened has been orchestrated by Geoffrey Thomas and Joachim Burgd and that half the things everybody else, including us readers, believed is not true (e. g., there has never been an energy screen around Venus!)  Venus is now under the control of the one man on Venus devoted to peace and the Earth is under the thumb of the Security Council (but held in check by the Pro-Earth Party) so freedom and peace now reign throughout the solar system.  This ending is absolutely incredible* and very frustrating, in part because it undermines all the interesting themes of limited intelligence and failed plans we've been seeing for 210 pages--Thomas and Burgd are like omniscient and omnipotent gods who knew all and successfully manipulated billions of people to accomplish their goal.
* [in-kred-uh-buh l] adjective, 1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed. 2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.

The Duplicated Man is a pretty mixed bag.  The actual science fiction elements of the book are good--the passages on the form of immortality experienced by Thomas, the Duplication machine, the Earth agents' exploration of the Venusian surface, and the space war, are all interesting and evocative.  Blish and Lowndes also do a lot of psychology and sociology stuff I appreciated, even if I don't buy their theories--the stress endured by Earthlings who could be killed at any moment by a falling bomb and the claustrophobia of Venusians who live their entire lives underground; the lust for vengeance of some Venusians who feel they were unjustly exiled to that barren desert planet and the yearnings of other Venusians to live on Earth, even though they don't know a thing about life there; the psychology of people like Danton immersed in a merciless and totalitarian revolutionary organization.  No doubt feminists will not appreciate the psychological profiles the authors cook up for the women characters--like the Venusian femme fatale who uses sex to dominate men but is looking for a man to dominate her and the Earth politician at the top of the heap who falls in love with a low-ranking terrorist she just met and abandons her career for him--and I have to admit I never really understood why the Dantons were willing to undertake the dangerous mission to destabilize Venus--didn't Danton like Venus?

The plot and characters are flat, like watching a bunch of lifeless cardboard counters move around a gameboard until you lose track of which is which.  And Blish and Lowndes' philosophy is lame.  Instead of responding to the nightmare world created by the Bolsheviks and Nazis by considering that just maybe governments have too much power, they give us a childish fantasy of governments with even more power than Hitler and Stalin had but headed by selfless geniuses who can kill millions of people in just the right way to create peace.  It's bad enough to find yet another SF story in which we are supposed to welcome elites manipulating us (an idea the story undermines by portraying most of its characters as psychopaths--Thomas even tortures a guy!) but the authors also put into Burgd's mouth some pretty absurd luddism:
"Do you actually believe that we would need to run the Earth at its present peak of technology, if our only concern were to keep the people well-clothed, housed, fed, healthy and so on?  Nonsense!  We passed that peak around 1910.  Medicine, agriculture, education--none of them require a technology as advanced and as energy-expensive as the one we maintain."
1910?  Is that a typo? The magazine version and my hardcover copy both have "1910," so apparently not.  Did Blish and Lowndes really think that people's lives had not been improved by technological advances in medicine, agriculture and education between 1910 and 1950, and wouldn't benefit from further advances in the future?  Dumb!

Alright, time to sum up.  I've got a lot of complaints about The Duplicated Man as a piece of literature and entertainment, and I don't find its ideology congenial.  On the other hand, it feels ambitious, it addresses interesting issues in a way that (to me, at least) is strange, and it was never boring or painful--in fact, at times it was surprising, and I think surprise in fiction has value, even if the surprise is how crazy or foolish the author's opinions turn out to be.  One reason I read speculative fiction is because it exposes you to ideas and people that are outside the mainstream--A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry Malzberg, and R. A. Lafferty, to name a few, often write in ways or express ideas that ordinary people do not, and that is one reason I like them, even if I disagree with particular ideas or find particular writing techniques unsuccessful.  I've never read and have no interest in reading Stephen King, but I found the recent controversy about an underage sex scene in one of King's 1980s books a little bewildering--shouldn't we expect to find material that is challenging, offensive, disgusting, bizarre, etc., in horror novels and speculative fiction in general? Don't people read speculative fiction and horror specifically because they are looking for such material?  I'm not on board with a lot of what Blish and Lowndes do in The Demolished Man, but being exposed to it was worthwhile.

It's a borderline case, but I'm giving The Duplicated Man an "acceptable" rating.  I don't feel like reading it was a waste of my time...but don't expect to see me reading any more Blish soon.

**********

On the back cover of my copy of The Duplicated Man is an ad promoting Avalon's SF line, "The Best in Science Fiction."  I have read five of the listed titles, including the two Vances, which I read before this blog sprang fully formed from my febrile noggin, as well as The Space Egg, Across Time, and Hidden World, all of which have suffered this blog's attentions.  I own a paperback of Virgin Planet; maybe it's time I read it?
       

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Valley of Creation by Edmond Hamilton

"It is true, outlander.  You now inhabit the body of the wolf, Asha."
The strong wild thought of the stallion interrupted.  "The power of the ancients!  The punishment of those who transgress the brotherhood!"
In our last installment we talked about Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon.  At the risk of becoming the Hamilton-Brackett Book Blog (which doesn't sound like a bad fate, actually) today we are talking about The Valley of Creation, a novel by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton. The Valley of Creation first appeared in Startling Stories in 1948, but the edition I read, a 1964 paperback from Lancer, prints a revised text, copyrighted 1954.  The indispensable isfdb warns us that that "1954" is a typo for "1964," and reminds us that in a 1976 interview Hamilton admitted that three chapters of this novel were written by Brackett!

(Check out the issue of Startling at the internet archive--L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Vance and Henry Kuttner also contribute stories, and don't miss the Virgil Finlay illustrations or Marion Zimmer's long letter in which she assesses Finlay, Kuttner, and a host of other SF figures, and presents "Ode to Startling," her poem honoring the magazine!)

The cover illustrates the reprint of the
1937 Kuttner story
The protagonist of The Valley of Creation, Ohio-born Eric Nelson, served in the U. S. Army in the Korean War and became addicted to the dangerous life of a fighting man!  (And you thought being addicted to KitKats was unhealthy!)  So for ten years he has been a mercenary, fighting for petty warlords against the communists in the mountainous regions where China, Tibet and Burma meet, his comrades including a patriotic anti-communist Chinese man but mostly American adventurers like himself and European criminals unable or unwilling to get conventional jobs.  In the first third of The Valley of Creation Nelson and his four mates are hired by Shan Kar, a weird guy of unusual ethnicity from an obscure, hard-to-reach valley.  Before they reach the valley a beautiful woman of the same mysterious race as Shan Kar, named Nsharra, tries to seduce Nelson, and, while he is distracted by her feminine charms, she sics her wolf on him!

Nelson survives this assassination attempt and he and the four other mercs, guided by Shan Kar, make it to the valley of L'Lan, where they learn the whole crazy situation they have gotten themselves involved in.  In L'Lan, wolves, eagles, horses and tigers are as intelligent as humans!  Shan Kar is the leader of a human faction that thinks humans should have exclusive governmental responsibility over the valley, while Princess Nsharra and her father are leaders of the establishment, called the Brotherhood, which includes most humans and all the animals--they think there should be legal equality between human and animal, as there has been for time immemorial. Very much in the minority, Shan Kar's Humanites will need outside help to win the civil war they are starting against Nsharra's Brotherhood.  In the ancient past the people of L'Lan were masters of super science, but while they still live in the elaborate cities of bubble-domes and high towers built by their ancestors, the current inhabitants of the valley have lost the ability to produce mechanical devices and so fight with swords and bows--in such a setting the mercenaries' grenades and automatic weapons may be decisive.

At the novel's halfway point Nelson gets captured while on a botched commando raid against the Brotherhood's main city.  As anybody who read the back of the book was expecting, the Brotherhood punishes Nelson by blowing the dust off an ancient wonder of super science--a mind switching machine!--and transferring Nelson's mind into the body of a wolf! (The wolf is installed in Nelson's own form, but for some reason, instead of exploring the joys life offers those with thumbs, he just sleeps.  Another loose end is the question of why being put in a wolf's body is considered a punishment if everybody in the Brotherhood is considered equal.  I'm afraid Hamilton didn't think all of this stuff through.)

The scenes in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf are by far the best part of the novel, as the author compellingly describes the emotions of a man so transformed, rendered inhuman but also imbued with new abilities and new perceptions.  In that 1976 interview, which has been mentioned before on this blog, first by commenter marzaat, and which I strongly recommend to classic SF fans, Hamilton says that some consider the chapters of The Valley of Creation Brackett wrote the high point of the book, strongly suggesting that she wrote these very wolf's-eye-view passages.

People in these Hamilton/Brackett stories often switch sides, and as we've been expecting, Nelson turns against the Humanites and his fellow mercenaries (as does the Chinese merc, who gets killed seconds later by one of the Eurotrash mercs.)  Back in his human body Nelson helps lead the fight against the Humanites, but his former comrades-in-arms outmaneuver him and take the Brotherhood's city.  Nelson and Nsharra go into a cavern in which is embedded a crashed alien space ship and via an ancient recording learn the amazing truth about the valley of L'Lan and about the human race!

Long ago, aliens who had destroyed their own world with their technology were searching for a new home when they crashed on Earth.  Unable to breathe our atmosphere, they genetically altered the five most advanced species they found in the valley--the ape, the horse, the tiger, the wolf and the eagle--so they could transfer their alien minds into them. This was how the ape developed the intelligence that marks humankind! Some intelligent apes left the valley to colonize the world and become its master, but for some reason the other four intelligent species never left the valley.

(Hamilton's body of work includes numerous stories with bizarre explanations for how humankind arose--check out "The Accursed Galaxy" and "Devolution" from the 1930s, for example.)

Nelson manipulates events so that Shan Kar hears the recording, and he switches sides and, as he dies from bullet wounds, helps finish off the mercenaries and orders his followers to abandon their sinful rebellion.  Nelson of course stays in the valley to live with Nsharra, who is now ruler of L'Lan, her father also having died on the fighting. Not only does Nelson have the hots for Nsharra, but he couldn't stand to live in the outside world, where people treat horses like slaves!  (This is pretty bogus, in my opinion--the deer and rabbits and mice in the valley don't have intelligence, so the intelligent tigers, wolves and eagles devour them with a clean conscience--why shouldn't the intelligent humans outside the valley exploit the unintelligent horses out there with similar insouciance?)

The Valley of Creation is a below average performance from our man Hamilton. Firstly, the characters and setting are just plain boring.  Secondly, building an entire story around talking horses and wolves, even if all the talking is via telepathy, feels too childish and goofy to me for a serious adventure story, which this is meant to be (there are no jokes and there is tons of blood and death.)  Thirdly, the novel feels kind of cobbled together, with too many loose ends, some of which I have already pointed out--The Valley of Creation's moving parts just don't move together smoothly enough.

Another problem is that it is way too obvious that Nelson is going to switch sides and help out the Brotherhood.  The fact that Hamilton chooses some of the most beloved and romanticized animals possible--horsies, eagles, tigers and wolves--is an obvious sign who the real good guys are--why not challenge yourself, Ed, and try to make us side with rats, spiders and cockroaches?  Shan Kar tortures an eagle on page 25 of the 159-page book, making him pretty unsympathetic from the get go, and his urge to rebel against the egalitarian status quo of thousands of years makes no sense, so Nelson has no philosophical reason to stick by him.

Shan Kar's lack of any motivation for his rebellion is a good example of how weak the characters in this book are.  The animals haven't started causing trouble all of a sudden, so his rebellion has no rational practical basis, and the fact that Shan Kar changes his tune when he hears the recording that proves humans and animals are equal indicates that he has no personal emotional reason to rebel, no lust to be dictator of the valley or get revenge on the horses because stepping in a pile of manure ruined his first date or something.

It is also too obvious that Nelson is going to end up with Nsharra, as she is the only woman in the book--who else could Nelson end up with?

If we compare Valley of Creation to some of the other Hamilton/Brackett novels in which guys go to other worlds and get involved in their disputes that we've read recently, Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla and City at World's End and Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, the deficiencies of Valley of Creation are thrown into sharp relief.  The characters in those other books, in particular the villains and the people who switch sides, are all more interesting, more believable, and more nuanced.  Shan Kar's rebellion makes little sense, but it is easy to see where Loki (in Valhalla), the Sarks and Rhiannon (in Sword), and the galactic government (in City) are coming from, and the changes of heart of Ywain the Sark, Rhiannon the Martian god and Varn Allen of the galactic government, are more surprising and satisfying as drama than are Nelson's and Shan Kar's.  In Sword there are two beautiful princesses (a pyschic Sea Kings princess as well as war-like Ywain) whom the reader might suspect the hero will end up with, and in City at World's End the main character has to choose between his nice (if boring) fiance and gorgeous space babe Varn Allen.

(City at World's End also pushes Hamilton's anti-tyranny and anti-racism themes in a far more sophisticated and compelling way than does Valley of Creation.)

I don't want to say Valley of Creation is bad-- the story comes to life for those chapters in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf--but it is certainly disappointing.  I guess we'll call this one barely acceptable, and tell you to read all the other Hamilton books you see before this one!

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

"In yourself you are alien and strange and for that alone I would fear you because I do not understand.  But for that alone I would not wish you dead.  But I say that Rhiannon watches through your eyes and speaks with your tongue, that in your hands are his sword and scepter.  And therefore I ask your death." 
It's a Dhuvian!
When I announced to the world via twitter (your source for all important news!) that I had acquired a water-damaged copy of the 1975 Ace paperback edition of Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon (original title The Sea-Kings of Mars), members of the classic science fiction community were quick to tell me how much they loved the book.  Fred Kiesche even commented on the terrific cover, which uses that font I love and matches my Ace copies of Alpha Centauri or Die! and The Coming of the Terrans.

Besides the fine cover, the creator of which isfdb does not know, this edition has a brief intro by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, in which he reminds us that Brackett was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, mentored by Henry Kuttner, worked with Bogey, and was obsessed with Celtic myth.

Enough preliminaries, let's get our asses to Mars and experience this "Incomparable Science-Fiction Classic!"  If you don't have a copy, the internet archive can hook you up with the magazine version from Thrilling Wonder's June 1949 issue.  Whoa, this issue's contents page is full of names classic SFfans will recognize, including people whose work has already been scrutinized here at the blog: Raymond F. Jones, John D. MacDonald, Murray Leinster, James Blish, and the aforementioned Henry Kuttner!  Nice!


Matt Carse is an educated Earthman, an archaeologist, who has lived thirty of his thirty-five years on Mars, and so he is accepted not only among college professors but also among the native underclass Martians of the crime-ridden Low Canal towns.  One of the greatest living experts on the million-year-long history of the people of Mars, when a Martian thief shows him the Sword of Rhiannon, the Fallen God of Martian myth, and claims he has found Rhiannon the Cursed One's tomb, Carse is quick to follow him there.  At the tomb the thief shows Carse a throbbing black sphere, something like a black hole, and when Carse is distracted the ne'er-do-well pushes the Earther into it!

When Carse comes out of the sphere he finds himself in the tomb again, but not on the arid dying Mars of his day--oh no, he now strides upon a green vibrant Mars of glittering oceans, dense forests and grassy hills, the Mars of a million years ago!

Carse's Earthly good looks get him in trouble almost immediately.  The local people, whose town is part of the empire of the Sarks, think he looks like a Khond, an enemy race, and he ends up captured and put to work as a galley slave, pulling an oar on the ship of the Sark princess.  The sight of this arrogant warrior maiden, Ywain of the eyes like "smoldering fires" who looks like a "dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light" has a peculiar effect on him:
Carse felt the surge of bitter admiration.  This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength....It would be good to tame this woman.  It would be good to break her utterly, to tear her pride out by the roots and stamp on it.
Sexy!

Desperate fight in Caer Dhu!
(You'll probably remember that one of the best Brackett stories we've read recently, "Enchantress of Venus," also had a rough sex vibe to it.)

When Ywain sees the sword that was confiscated from Carse when he was taken captive she realizes that he must know the secret location of the Tomb of Rhiannon. Because the Tomb purportedly is full of high tech gadgets, every Martian and his brother has been looking for the tomb for ages, so Ywain tries to torture its location out of our hero.  When that doesn't work she unleashes her Dhuvian buddy on Carse.  The Dhuvians are an ophidian race who themselves have access to high technology.  In fact, the reason Rhiannon was cursed so long ago was because he shared some of the super science of his people, the Quiru, with these evil snake bastards, and the reason the Sark are currently the dominant race on Mars is because Dhuvians lend them a hand with their weapons technology from time to time.  (While it's not at as rich and deep as Burroughs' Barsoom, Brackett, in the small space of this single 140-page novel, does a good job of creating an exciting Mars full of different human and nonhuman races and political units, each of them with its own special powers, sinister or tragic personality, and relationship with each of the other polities.)

Carse undergoing psychic examination
in the grotto of the Sea Kings
Carse is able to resist the Dhuvian snakeman's hypnosis device and then leads a mutiny of the galley slaves, taking over the ship and felling and then binding haughty Ywain.  The liberated vessel sails to Khondor, home of the Khonds and the Sea Kings, the last hold outs against the Sarks and Dhuvians.  Psykers there make obvious to everyone what has been hinted at numerous times already (and baldly spoiled on the back cover of my edition)--when he passed through that black sphere and between time periods the Earthborn archaeologist's brain was invaded by the soul of Rhiannon the Cursed One himself!  (Regular readers of MPorcius Fiction Log know I love it when different psyches inhabit the same brain, like in Robert Silverberg's 1971 The Second Trip and Ian Wallace's wild and crazy Croyd (1967) and A. E. van Vogt's 1943 Book of Ptath.)  In fear of the evil god who gave the nigh invincible Dhuvians their power, Carse is imprisoned and awaits a sentence of death while the voice of Rhiannon tries to convince him to surrender control of his body!

 A hapless Khond abases himself before
whom he thinks to be the evil god
Rhiannon--Ywain isn't quite so easily convinced
Playacting that Rhiannon has taken over his body so that everybody, in awe, will do whatever he says, Carse commandeers Ywain's galley, escaping Knondor and bringing Ywain aloing with him. They go straight to Sark, and then to the nearby city of the snake men, Caer Dhu.  Is Carse's ruse working on all these Sark and Dhuvian creeps, or are they just leading him into a trap?

In the crisis, Rhiannon, repenting of his ancient sin, really does take over Carse's body and uses the super weapons to exterminate every last Dhuvian.  Ywain's family is deposed, Sark is reduced to its original borders, and Carse/Rhiannon forces a peace onto the Martians.  Then, guided by Rhiannon, Carse and his new girlfriend Ywain travel to the future, back to Carse's time, while Rhiannon joins his brothers, the Quiru, who have forgiven him, in some other dimension.

"Sea-Kings of Mars" / Sword of Rhiannon has been printed again and again, in many countries and languages.  In fact, I own two copies myself, this now broken-spined Ace edition and a version with British punctuation in my copy of Gollancz's 2005 Fantasy Masterworks collection Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories.  Both of these editions are full of irritating typos, but they are different typos:




Typos aside, this is a very good adventure story.  Sure, we've seen all this stuff before from a host of people ranging from van Vogt (whose Ptath also features a god in a time traveler's brain) to Michael Moorcock (perhaps Brackett's most famous and outspoken fan, whose heroes are always bouncing between dimensions and getting involved in sword-swinging wars in which ancient super weapons and people switching sides play a part) but Brackett's writing is sharp, clear and vivid (whereas van Vogt is deliberately obtuse), her characters seem to bubble, on the brink of exploding, with raw animal emotion (whereas in my memory Moorcock's characters seem cold and detached, stark and inert mythic archetypes instead of passionate, flesh and blood people like Brackett's), and the plot here is compact and smooth, with diverse settings, a variety of types of scenes and a real velocity, and no unnecessary digressions or cumbersome subplots.  The Sword of Rhiannon is one of many sword and planet / planetary romance novels, but it is an above average specimen and has a unique and compelling feel; I recommend it to all the John Carter-, Conan-, and Elric-loving kids out there, as well as anyone interested in old-fashioned adventure-style SF.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Four more 1970s stories by Barry Malzberg


It's time to explore the Dream Quarter (or Dream Quarters, you know, whatever) with our Virgil, Barry Malzberg (or Malzverg--you know who I mean!)

"State of the Art" (1974)

The fourth story in the 1976 collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter is "State of the Art," which originally appeared in New Dimensions IV and would later be included in the 2013 collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  In the Afterward, Malzberg tells us this exercise is a deliberate pastiche of Robert Silverberg's famous "Good News From the Vatican."

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the narrator, or simulacra or representations thereof, regularly meet at 1:00 at a Paris sidewalk cafe in the future or a simulation thereof.  Hemingway gets run over by a street car, Shakespeare is poisoned by a vengeful waiter (or maybe just gets sick) and dies, and then the authorities cart the writers all off to prison.

"State of the Art" strikes me as show-offy and self-indulgent and ultimately sterile. Maybe we are supposed to hunt the text for quotes from the luminaries who inhabit the story (Pound's only line is "like petals on a wet. black bough"), but in the Afterword Malzberg assures us the story is serious and not a frivolous light piece, so I guess it is supposed to be a warning that technology is bad for culture and a lament that society does not appreciate writers. Unconvincing and boring.  Have to give a thumbs down to this thing, which reminded me a little of a horrible off-off Broadway play I once endured in which Mae West and Billy the Kid (in the afterlife, mind you) debated the meaning of existence.

"Isaiah" (1973)

In the first installment of our look at Down Here in the Dream Quarter we learned that Malzberg was angry about the way that editors Jack Dann and George Zebrowski had rejected "A Galaxy Called Rome."  Well, in the Afterword to "Isaiah," we learn of another instance in which Jack Dann (allegedly) screwed over Barry!  As Barry tells it, Dann commissioned a 2,000 word piece from our hero for Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, he delivered "Isaiah,"and Dann rejected it, complaining that he wished it was longer!  In 1981 Dann made it up to Malzberg by including "Isaiah," eight years after it had been printed in Fantastic, in the sequel to Wandering Stars, More Wandering Stars, along with a second Malzberg story.

Top Billing!  Take that, Jack Dann!
Reading "Isaiah," I got a strong sense of deja vu--had I read this before? After all, I do own a copy of that issue of Fantastic with the sexy comic book witch (hubba hubba) on it.  But, no, what "Isaiah" reminded me of was "Bearing Witness."  Both stories include detailed descriptions of religious authorities smoking cigarettes, both stories mention "the Great Snake," and in both stories a guy goes to visit clergymen to ask them questions about their faith, only to find them distracted by more secular, political matters.  In "Bearing Witness" the narrator goes to a Catholic Church and talks to the chain-smoking Monsignor about the Apocalypse, then, after being sent away brusquely, he has the hallucination that he is the Second Coming of Christ.  In "Isaiah" the narrator goes to visit various people learned in Jewish religious traditions (first a Chasid, then a student rabbi at a Reform congregation in Teaneck, and finally a secularized and alienated Jew at what Malzberg calls "the Ethical Culture Society"), and after they have dismissed his questions about the Messiah out of hand, he returns to report to a man on a throne, I guess God himself, to report his findings.  God (?) climbs off his throne, stubs out his cigarette, and ventures forth.

I laughed out loud when I realized how Malzberg had reworked this material to produce another salable story.  Oh, Barry, you scamp, what are we going to do with you?  (Don't worry, we still love you--we still love The Kinks even though "All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me" are almost the same song, after all.)

I actually think this story is a little more interesting than "Bearing Witness," being longer, more audacious, having more characters and being about real specific places like Teaneck, New Jersey and The New York Society for Ethical Culture, whose massive building on Eighth Avenue I used to walk past regularly, back in my late and lamented New York days, when I would spend hour after hour in Central Park looking at girls and birds instead of hour after hour behind the wheel of a car looking at the trash and wrecked vehicles on the side of Route 71 (or as people here insist on calling it, "I-71.")  It looks like I graded "Bearing Witness" "acceptable," but "Isaiah" earns a "marginally good" score.

Afterword to "On the Campaign Trail"

We read "On the Campaign Trail" when we immersed ourselves in futuristic evil, evilometer in hand, by reading Future Corruption, a volume compiled by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood.  In the Afterword to the story here Malzberg claims that "On the Campaign Trail" was prophetic and moans that his prophecy was unrecognized: "The writer in America functions in obscurity; how much more obscure the domain and audience of the science fiction writer, who, the more serious he becomes, the more resistant he finds the audience."  I wonder if Malzberg is singing the same tune now that every "with it" person is expected to know who is having sex with who in the latest episode of the zombie show and the dragon show and in the killer clown movie.

Malzberg likes to pose puzzles, and he gives us one in the second para of this Afterword: "...the only two worthwhile national figures in American political life in my time have, I feel, totally betrayed me and all of us."  Who can he mean?  Get out the Venn diagrams!
It's not hard to come up with two national level politicians who were left-wing college professor types (the kind of pols I'm guessing a person like Malzberg might identify with), guys like George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, but does Malzberg have a reason to feel betrayed by McGovern and Humphrey?  It seems impossible that Malzberg could have ever admired vulgar and brutish Texan LBJ, and as for America's photogenic royal family, the Kennedys, I don't know why Malzberg would feel betrayed by Robert, doubt Malzberg cares about Chappaquiddick, and I don't think many Democrats hold their matinee idol JFK responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the Vietnam War.  A mystery!

"Report to Headquarters" (1975)

Like "State of the Art," this one first appeared in one of Silverberg's New Dimensions anthologies and then was included in 2013's The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.

"Report to Headquarters" is in the form of a glossary of terms used by the X'Thi, natives of a gaseous alien planet, sent by explorer Leonard Coul from that planet, upon which he is stuck because of a crash and perhaps an attack from the panicked (but now friendly) X'Thi.  Through the glossary entries Coul describes the native's cosmology and metaphysics, engages in a little self-aggrandizement, and begs for help.  Time is running out, soon the X'Thi's major religious festival (a sort of sex orgy followed by a mass pilgrimage) will take place and then they won't be able to help Coul.  How they are helping Coul now is not clear--Coul has to stay in the disabled ship because he can't breathe planet's atmosphere, and he communicates with the natives, whom he can barely see in the swirling gasses, which they in fact resemble, via viewscreens.  We readers have to assume there is a chance there are no X'Thi and Coul is another of Malzberg's many insane astronauts.

Not a bad story--I laughed at one of the jokes, and a digressive glossary is a good idea for an experimental literary story.  In his Afterword, Malzberg tells us "Report to Headquarters" is a sort of pastiche or homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, which he says he "reveres."  I haven't read Pale Fire myself, though I am a Nabokov fan; maybe this is a signal it is time to tackle it?  Malzberg tells us he thinks nobody has ever discerned the point of "Report to Headquarters," and I would not venture to claim I grokked it, either.

Afterword to "Streaking"

The next story in Down in the Dream Quarter is "Streaking," which I read in 2015 in the aforementioned Future Corruption and didn't really get.  This afterword isn't helping me much.  Malzberg explains what streaking is (mansplains?) because, he says, today's technology causes fads to arise and be forgotten very quickly, and we readers probably don't recall the phenomenon.  He makes some weak jokes about Watergate (Nixon should have streaked, he says) and that's it.  I don't usually grade the ancillary material, but I think I'm giving a thumbs down to this Afterword.

"Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" (1974)

This story made its debut in Nova 4, and then in the 1990s Ursula K. LeGuin included it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990, a book of SF inflicted upon college students. As Thomas Disch relates in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, LeGuin employed a number of editorial strategies to create in The Norton Book of Science Fiction a volume that would promote and cement in the minds of college students a vision of science fiction as a body of work with a feminist and leftist character.  One such strategy was to cherry pick stories by men which reflected LeGuin's own agendas, even if they were neither very representative of the author's work as a whole or examples of his better work.  Disch relates how LeGuin wanted a story of his which Disch was not very proud of, and would accept no substitute, and he also dismisses the Malzberg story we talk about today as weak, not "mordant and funny" like better specimens of Barry's oeuvre.  Let's see if "Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" delivers the pinko goods.  

Our narrator and a young woman, Betsy, inhabitants of the year 2115, on Bastille Day, visit a recreation of a 1974 American town built as a tourist attraction on Mars.  Our narrator moans that Mars has become a tourist trap!  He also lets us know that Venus is suffering terrible unemployment!

The fake 20th-century town is like a carnival, with barkers enticing people into tents. (Dare I point out the contrast between Ray Bradbury, optimistic Christian from a small Middle Western town, who loved loved loved carnivals, and Malzberg, urban Jewish pessimist, who seems to think carnivals are disgusting?)  Betsy and the narrator visit an attraction billed as "the iconoclast."  Inside the tent a person (human or robot? the narrator wonders), representing a contrarian of 1974, argues that the space program must be abandoned, explaining that it wastes money that should be spent on "our cities" and "the underprivileged" and distracts people from their real problems on Earth and in their own souls.  "We won't be ready for space until we've cleaned up our own planet, understood our own problem."

Betsy and the narrator argue with the iconoclast, and then, on the hallucinatory final page of the four-page story, the narrator and the iconoclast describe radically divergent histories of the post 1970s space program, the iconoclast one in which Man never colonized space because of 1980s civil unrest and the narrator the one in which the story is (apparently) set, in which Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter were colonized in the late 20th and the 21st centuries.  Then the narrator is hypnotized or has his consciousness sucked out of his body and placed in the iconoclast's shell or something--he comes to believe the iconoclast's pessimistic vision and finds himself in the iconoclast's place, arguing to people that the space program must be abandoned.

While I agree with Disch that this story is earnest instead of funny, says boring goop that lefties say all the time, and does not represent Malzberg at the top of his game, I still think it is a pretty good story, whether or not you share Malzberg's pessimism about the space program (Betsy makes the standard pro-space exploration arguments about as effectively as the iconoclast makes the standard anti- ones.)  In the Afterword, Malzberg tells us writing the story was "profoundly satisfying" because for the first time in print he was "speaking in his own voice."  He compares himself to Harlan Ellison, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Norman Mailer, suggesting he now knows the attractions of writing in the confessional mode and addressing issues and the audience directly.  One wonders if Malzberg is happy that our society (as reflected in political priorities and public discourse, at least) has abandoned the romance of space exploration and instead focuses on diversity matters, redistribution schemes, and environmental issues.  (As for myself, I'm with Betsy--"But don't you think that exploration is an important human need?  We'll never solve our problems on Earth after all so we might as well voyage outward where the solutions might be.")

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These stories, and even more so Malzberg's Afterwords, serve as a window onto Malzberg's recurring themes and interests and the 1970s milieu in which he wrote them.  Definitely recommended for the Malzberg aficionado--if there's a Malzberg otaku in your life, keep Down in the Dream Quarter in mind this holiday season!