Monday, February 27, 2017

Mid-60s SF tales from Arthur C. Clarke, Lin Carter, R. A. Lafferty & Fritz Leiber

It's time for some more stories from Wollheim and Carr's World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series, the paperback edition of World's Best Science Fiction: 1966.  Today we've got stories from hard core man of science Arthur C. Clarke, hard core Catholic R. A. Lafferty (check out Edward T. Babinski's anecdotes about meeting Lafferty and other SF writers in the comments of this very blog's "About" page), and two giants of the sword and sorcery field, Lin Carter and Fritz Leiber.

"Sunjammer" by Arthur C. Clarke (1964)

This story first was printed in Boy's Life in '64, but I guess Wollheim and Carr felt it was legit to include it in their anthology because Michael Moorcock presented it in a 1965 issue of New Worlds.  I have to say, the cover treatment given Clarke's story by Boy's Life is pretty awesome, though it is strange that Clarke's name doesn't appear on the cover!  "Sunjammer" (AKA "The Wind from the Sun") seems to be beloved by all, and has appeared in a billion anthologies; I actually read this story in my teens, and it made such an impression on me that I can remember key details.  So, I guess I am already on the "Sunjammer" bandwagon, but after three decades a reread feels justifiable!

This is actually a pretty simple story, and I don't have much to say about it besides to note that it works perfectly.  A pioneer in the development of spacecraft which are driven by the solar wind via huge (fifty million square feet) sails, after decades of wanting to, finally has a chance to skipper a one-man ship himself, in a race against several other such craft.  We follow the race, Clarke making all the technical details of the various ships and their eventual fates both interesting and easy to understand, and expressing (without getting sappy) the "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" spirit of explorers and engineers who are on the cutting edge, mapping out and building humanity's future.  A great example of a hard sf story: streamlined and efficient, bracingly optimistic but also totally believable.

"Uncollected Works" by Lin Carter (1965)

I was surprised to find Lin Carter's name on the contents page of World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series because, while people in the speculative fiction community admire the valuable work he did as an editor and his infectious, tireless enthusiasm for the genre, I think most critics consider his fiction to be mediocre; of the many Burroughs pastiches I have read, I personally consider Carter's to be below average.  Presumably because they recognize this, in their intro to "Uncollected Works" editors Wollheim and Carr assure us that "it would be hard to imagine anything more different from" Carter's usual sword-swinging stuff  "than this quiet tale...."

This quiet tale is quietly bad.  An aging literary critic is our narrator; he drops all kinds of big names like Pound, Proust, Joyce and Yeats.  He is being interviewed by a journalist, and tells the journo the story of a conversation he had with another guy long ago on the Left Bank, a guy he calls the Gentleman in Green because he never learned his name, only meeting him once, right before he got run over by a Parisian cyclist.

You know that old saw about randomness, that with enough time a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random would eventually type out, by chance, the complete works of Shakespeare?  Well, Green Man told the critic that, inspired by this cliche, he invented a device that would type at random at superfast speed, and another device that could read at superfast speed and see if Shakespeare showed up.  Eventually real books did start showing up in the allegedly random text, but not just Shakespeare: the entire Western canon showed up, in chronological order!  The kicker of the story is that the machine didn't stop after it printed books from the current year--it started spitting out books from the future!  So our narrator knows the names of important books and authors of the future, and tells his interviewer that he regrets that he won't live to read these future masterpieces.

A literary nerd feeling wistful because he won't live to read the works of genius of the future is a good idea, but it just doesn't mesh with the random typing thing.  If the random typing machine is predicting the future, it is not really random, is it?  This story would work better with a time machine or an alternate universe or something like that.  Is it possible we are supposed to think the Man in Green and the narrator are mistaken, that the books they think will appear are in fact never going to appear, that they were just the result of random chance after all?

I have to give "Uncollected Works," with its flawed premise and unnecessary layers of frame story and pointless "atmosphere" in which the narrator blah blah blahs about famous writers, a negative verdict.  "Uncollected Works" was printed in the same issue of F&SF as Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth," which I read back in the dimly remembered year of 2014.

When I lived in New York there was a
good diner right under that green canoe
"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty (1965)

"In Our Block" first appeared in Fred Pohl's If.  In 2000, Martin H. Greenberg and the people at DAW put out a volume called My Favorite Fantasy Story--the book's genius gimmick was to have current top fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin, Charles de Lint and Terry Pratchett select and introduce their favorite story by another writer.  Neil Gaiman, who apparently doth bestride the 21st-century SF world like a colossus, chose "In Our Block" as his fave.

(Read about My Favorite Fantasy Story here; Steven Silver, in his review at the link, helpfully includes a list of who selected each story.  I first flipped through a copy of My Favorite Fantasy Story back in my New York days, at the branch of the NYPL on Fifth Avenue near my office, and, ever since, reading Gene Wolfe's selection, Mopsa the Fairy, has been on my "to do" list.  It has yet to be shifted to my "has been done" list.)

Well, this is certainly an interesting choice for somebody's favorite story; there is not really a plot, at least not a plot that gets resolved--I guess you'd call this a shaggy dog story.  Two guys meander down a dead end block rarely visited, to find odd people, apparently aliens--at least they are familiar with the inhabitants and climate of Jupiter--conducting business in a way that is plainly impossible.  They create products out of thin air, using the power of their minds, which they can then sell at low prices (a luxury car for a hundred dollars, for example.)  The two Earthlings visit several such stores and have funny conversations with the strange merchants, remark upon the oddities they witness, and then leave without trying to take advantage of the spectacular bargains available ("No, I already got a car.")

Faintly amusing.

"The Good New Days" by Fritz Leiber (1965)

"The Good New Days" was first published in the 15th Anniversary Issue of Galaxy, which also included Edgar Pangborn's "A Better Mousehole," which we read in December.

This is a sort of light-hearted dystopian humor story about a 21st century in which an intrusive and incompetent government is always up in your business, robots and strict regulations create mass unemployment, and people live in shoddy tenements, distracted by big screen TVs broadcasting propaganda. The story is told at a breakneck pace, reminding me of one of those old screwball comedies from the 1930s in which everybody talks fast and is "witty" and manipulative.

Our narrator lives in a crummy flat with three of his brothers, his domineering mother, and one of his brother's irritating wives.  I guess the story is a complaint about or an attack on our society for being too money-obsessed and unromantic, but the breathless pace and extravagant ending (accidents kill much of the cast) left me thinking it was much ado about nothing or maybe a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

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I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't disappointed in this batch of stories from World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series.  The Clarke is a perfect example of its subgenre, and the Lafferty is alright, but the Carter (unsurprisingly) is not so hot, and the Leiber is just not for me, though I have enjoyed lots of his work, both before and during this blog's life.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

1965 stories by Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Clifford Simak and James Schmitz


I was lucky enough to find a bunch of exciting SF paperbacks for a dollar each on a recent visit to a central Ohio Half Price Books.  Let's get started on the stack with Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series, the paperback version of World's Best Science Fiction: 1966.  Today, four stories, all from 1965 SF magazines, by some pretty big names in the SF biz.

"Becalmed in Hell" by Larry Niven

The narrator and his comrade Eric spent four months flying to Venus, and are now exploring its dense 600 degree atmosphere from within their space ship.  Eric, I should note, is a disembodied human brain whose nerves are connected to cameras and the rockets and so forth so he can control the ship like it's his own body.  But then, trouble.  Eric can't feel the ramjets, so the narrator has to go out into the deadly Venerean atmosphere to conduct repairs.  But is the problem mechanical, or psychological?

This is a good example of the type of hard SF that seriously tries to figure out what an alien planet might be like and how NASA might try to explore it, a story full of science and engineering. Niven also includes lighthearted references to less realistic SF stories about adventures on Venus and movies about disembodied brains.

Good.

"Becalmed in Hell" first appeared in F&SF and has been widely anthologized; it actually appears in another book I own, Damon Knight's A Science Fiction Argosy, from which we read "Lewis Padgett's" "The Cure" back in 2015.

We read Bayley's "The Ship
of Disaster" in September of last year,
remember?
"Apartness" by Vernor Vinge

I think this may be Vinge's first published story; it appeared originally in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds.  Back in 2015, I praised another early Vinge tale, 1968's "Grimm's Story;" like that story, "Apartness" involves ships, which is fine by me--I can't swim, but I love stories about the sea and one of the things I miss about New York is looking at the ocean and all the ships and boats on the river and in the harbor.  "Apartness" is also a lament about racism and intolerance and man's propensity for war.

It is the post-apocalyptic future!  A nuclear/biological/chemical war has obliterated the Northern Hemisphere; South Africa and South America have somewhat stable, somewhat autocratic, societies with an 18th or 19th century level of technology (muskets, sailing ships--one elite guy has a revolver.)  Australia still has modern technology, but they aren't sharing it, feeling humanity is not ready for it yet.

The narrative follows a South American scientist (he studied in Australia) and his team; they are on board a ship of the South American Empire, on the quixotic mission of searching for Coney Island, which most of the superstitious Latin Americans of the dark future think is a floating island which travels the world (alright! a New York-centric joke!)  The scientists know better, but keep mum--it is not healthy to cross the astrologers who surround the Emperor.  Anyway, the expedition investigates a primitive settlement in Antarctica.  After some tense scenes reminiscent of accounts of Cook's voyages and scenes in which clues are discovered, the scientists learn that these Antarctic villagers are descendants of the few white people who escaped South Africa alive after the blacks won the race war there which followed the cataclysmic war in the North.  In the final scene a South African diplomat expresses the desire to observe the Antarctic tribe and gloat over the fact that South African blacks are now more advanced than the whites who oppressed them generations ago, while the protagonist worries that another apocalyptic war, this one between the African and South American empires, may be inevitable.

This story is well put together, but I've been exposed to so much anti-racism and anti-war material in my life that the story's "meaning" feels a little banal.  People nowadays might accuse the story itself of being racist: the white Australians still have all the knowledge and technology of the 20th century but refuse to share it with the Hispanics and blacks, the Hispanics are ruled by a dictator and a superstitious aristocracy ignorant enough to not know what Coney Island was, and the blacks have an empire which Vinge suggests is animated by vengeful hate.

Moderately good.

"Over the River and Through the Woods" by Clifford D. Simak

"Pastoral" is the word often used to describe Simak's work, and, sure enough, the first scene of this story features a woman in a farmhouse kitchen canning apples.  Two children come to her door, claiming to be her grandchildren.  As we readers realize at once, and the farmer's wife realizes after looking into their bags, these kids are refugees from the future, when aliens are about to take over the Earth.  The kids have brought anti-cancer drugs, which will presumably extend the life of (great-great-) Grandma, whom future records indicate will die of cancer in 1904, just eight years from the present.  Will all this alter history?  Simak raises the question but leaves the answer up in the air.  

Simak often writes these sentimental things suggesting simple farm life is better than urban modern life, and I guess if aliens were killing everybody in the 21st century, the 19th century would look pretty good.  Otherwise, I'm not really on board with his attitude.  It looks like "Over the River and Through the Woods" has come to be seen as representative of Simak's entire body of work.  Ursula K. LeGuin included it in her anthology designed for use on college students, 1993's Norton Book of Science Fiction, and it is the title story of a 1996 collection of Simak stories.  It first saw light of day in Amazing.  

Acceptable.  I can recommend it more strongly to people who enjoy scenes in which people are astounded by zippers and confused by talk of airplanes and rockets.  ("They talked of plains....and rockets--as if there were rockets every day and not just on the Fourth.")

"Planet of Forgetting" by James H. Schmitz

The last time we met James H. Schmitz he was regaling us with stories about female intelligence operatives of the far future. "Planet of Forgetting," first seen in Galaxy, is in the same vein. (Schmitz is one of those writers whom the cognoscenti tell us we should like because he includes strong female characters, and those of us who don't need to spend any more of our brief lives sitting through tendentious preaching are fortunate in that Schmitz's stories--in my experience at least--aren't satires or lectures but straightforward outer space thrillers with a woman slotted into the super spy role.)

Earth intelligence operative Major Wade Colgrave wakes up on an alien planet with amnesia--how did he get here?  As the story's thirty-odd pages unfold we switch back and forth between Colgrave trying to survive on the planet, which is full of weird animals, and flashbacks to the mission that landed him here.  You see, the evil space empire of Rala was preparing to invade the territory of the Lorn Worlds, an ally of Earth, and Colgrave was carrying to Earth the secret dossier on Rala prepared by the Lorneans when his ship was captured by Ralans.  Instead of just imprisoning or murdering him, the Ralans tried to coax him into becoming a double agent, giving him the opportunity to escape in a lifeboat, dossier in hand.  The Ralans catch up to Colgrave and, with the fortuitous aid of the local fauna, he foils their pursuit.

This is an entertaining Flash Gordon/Star Wars type of thing--Colgrave shoots lots of people with his energy pistol, puts on an enemy uniform as a disguise, is menaced by monsters, that kind of stuff.  We've all seen this sort of thing a hundred times, but some of us (including me) still enjoy it if it is done well.  Schmitz also includes fun gadgets in addition to the various types of futuristic guns, like a space suit that can fly in the atmosphere and a sort of man-hunting drone.  The explanation of how Colgrave lost his memory and the implications of this phenomenon are also good.

A solid adventure/espionage story.  (By the way, Colgrave may be a man, but the lead Ralan agent in the story turns out to be a beautiful woman!)

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So far World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series is shaping up to be a great collection.  More from its pages in our next episode.

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Thank heavens, no, Mr. Cerf.
Because I have an abiding hatred of everything from the 21st century, when my wife wants to hang out and watch TV I usually insist we watch TV shows that are 20 years old, at a minimum.  One of the individuals prominent in the middle of the 20th century with whom we have become familiar thanks to my idiosyncratic viewing proclivities is Bennett Cerf, an important publisher who was a regular panelist on What's My Line? (Libertarian types might find Cerf's memoir of his relationship with Ayn Rand interesting.)  Cerf had a reputation as a humor writer, and actually published numerous books of jokes.  My wife and I find his renown as a funny man incomprehensible, as his jokes on What's My Line are universally terrible, and the stories in the one of his joke books which we picked up at an antiques mall are practically anti-jokes, anecdotes lacking any punchline, like something out of Jim's Journal.

Anyway, it was a cause of great surprise and hilarity in the MPorcius household when I opened my copy of World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series to find Cerf's face smiling up at me from an advertisement for the "Famous Writers School" of Westport, Connecticut.  Whether this ad was included in the book by Ace, or was just used as a bookmark by a previous owner, I don't know, but the ad does include some points of interest to all you SF fans.  For one thing, Rod Serling (whom my wife, a better comedian than Cerf, always calls "Rod the Bod") is one of Cerf's partners in crime at the Famous Writers School, and secondly, a SF author I never heard of before, who nonetheless has a long list of publication credits at isfdb, Robert Lory, credits Famous Writers School with getting his career going.

Submitted for your consideration....
Click the scan below to grok the bright image of Famous Writers School presented to the world by Cerf and his cronies, and then read the Wikipedia article on the school to get a look at the shadowy truth behind the glamour.



Friday, February 24, 2017

King Dragon by Andrew J. Offutt

The squat beastly leader took his boots and strutted in them.  Allayth hoped those fine equhyde boots raised incredible bunions on the feet of the incredibly ugly creature.  His name was Abdur and should have been Igor.  He appeared to be the result of a bioengineering experiment gone wrong.
Maybe the whole bloody planet is.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown, among the treasures uncovered in one of his properties was the original canvas of Rowena Morrill's cover for Andrew J. Offutt's 1980 novel, King Dragon. Embarrassing for Morrill, no doubt, but she has some famous fans who are not quite so reprehensible as the Butcher of Baghdad, including Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote a gushing article about Morrill in 1983 for the September issue of Heavy Metal.  Ted tells us that, while he is a skilled car mechanic and chef, he can't draw at all, so "...I stand awestruck before the likes of Rowena Morrill."  Sturgeon specifically mentions Morrill's covers for the 1980 edition of his novel The Dreaming Jewels and his 1979 collection The Stars Are the Styx, for which she reimagined Sturgeon himself as a body-sculpted incarnation of Charon.

The 1980 Ace paperback of Offutt's King Dragon offers the discerning admirer of hot babes and reptilian beasts not only the apple of Saddam's eye on its cover, but dozens of interior illustrations by Esteban Maroto, the Spanish comic book artist.  (SF and fantasy blogger tarbandu is a big fan of Maroto.)  Most depict some kind of monster or a scantily clad woman (or both!), and while they may share the subject matter of the cover painting, they exhibit much more emotion and movement than Morrill's curiously static and flat illustration.  I like them.

Examples of the included Moroto illos
As the text on the front and back covers indicates, King Dragon is a riff on such novels as Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core and The Land That Time Forgot, stories about places in the world where scientists and adventurers can go study and fight with dinosaurs and cavemen.  As a kid I loved nothing more than the idea of fighting dinosaurs, and I still find those Doug McClure movies like At the Earth's Core (1976) and The Land That Time Forgot (1975) irresistibly charming, and my favorite film continues to be King Kong (1933), so I was definitely interested in King Dragon.  Besides, I have been interested in Offutt's curious career for a while. Let's see what King Dragon is all about.

It is the far future!  A grad student, Jimajin Allayth, is trying to decide what to write his dissertation on; is there anything new in the universe to study? Then a transmission is picked up that can make his academic career, a transmission from a distant star system, a transmission a thousand years old!  The transmission indicates that, a thousand years ago, the starship Hajar L'Illah, commanded by leading biochemist al-Bah'ram, travelled to that system laden with stocks of fetuses and DNA from Earth, intent on realizing al-Bah'ram's dream of terraforming the barren planet of Jauhar al-Ajr and turning into a kind of laboratory of evolution.  Allayth and Cicada Lurie, a female grad student, are provided a starship and they (and an arrogant diplomat who dies in a spacesuit accident almost immediately) journey to Jauhar al-Ajr to study the society that has evolved over the last ten centuries on the Hajar L'Illah as it has orbited Jauhar al-Ajr.

The prominence in King Dragon of Arabs and Islam is one of the first things the reader notices about the book; Offutt has an interest in Arabic and Islamic culture evident here and in his other work (he wrote a series of erotic novels set during the Crusades, for example.) Allayth is an Arab, as were all the crew of the Hajar L'Illah and thus all the inhabitants of Jauhar al-Ajr, and we are told that Arab civilization became the world hegemon in the 21st century. There are plenty of SF novels about a world in which socialists or ad agencies or feminists or insurance companies or aliens take over, so a "what if Muslims take over?" novel is a good idea but Offutt, wedded as he is to the idea of writing a novel full of sex, doesn't seriously take on this project (apparently Michel Houellebecq has recently done so.)  The Islam of Offutt's future is tolerant of gender equality and sexually permissive, so Allayth and Lurie act like everybody does in a typical 1970s or '80s SF novel, having premarital sex, discussing their erotic fantasies and the advantages of nudity, citing Freud, and so forth.  The only difference is that people and places have Arabic names instead of European or Asian ones.

Allayth and Lurie find the Saudi biochemist's vessel is still in orbit around Jauhar al-Ajr, but it is critically damaged and deserted, filled with evidence of violence.  After exploring the ship and collecting journals and other documents that record the thousand year history of the terraforming effort, they descend to the man-made rainforests of the planet, to face the man-made dinosaurs, giant bears, pterosaurs, et al.

There are three main plot threads to King Dragon.  We've got Allayth's adventure (Lurie gets killed by a cave bear soon after their arrival on the planet's surface), we've got the history of al-Bah'ram and his terraforming project (related to us partly via journal entries and other primary materials) and we've got the saga of the beautiful Joharah, inhabitant of the stone age village of Kwait.  In order to escape marriage to Raafar, a disfigured man (she had agreed to marry him before a giant alligator tore off half his face and then tried to renege after seeing what an ugly mess he was post-gator), she fled Kwait for the jungle and was promptly captured by ape people, people uglier even than a post-crocodilian Raafar!

When Allayth is captured by the same band of beast men his story joins Joharah's. They escape the beast men, fight numerous creatures, battle Raafar, and finally learn the truth about al-Bah'ram and King Dragon.  The scientist made himself immortal nearly a millenia ago, but advancing age rendered him insane.  He conceives of himself as Allah's right hand man and embraces an old-fashioned view of Islam which sees women as second-class citizens; nine hundred years ago some of the crew rose up in rebellion against his tyranny, and after crushing the revolt al-Bah'ram moved operations to the planet surface, where "his" people have lived as primitives ever since.  Al-Bah'ram lives in an isolated fortress, never seen by the people and considered divine.  He observes his flock and communicates with them at rare intervals via King Dragon, a genetically engineered and mechanically enhanced pterosaur he controls via a "exoskeletal control-feedback suit."  Over the centuries the mad scientist has striven to lead his people to genetic perfection--he will sometimes issue commands about who should mate with whom, for example.  The people of Jauhar al-Ajr obey King Dragon's telepathic commands unquestioningly, and Allayth, like John Carter before him, is determined to get the people he finds himself among to abandon their bogus religion: Step No. 1 is killing King Dragon!

The plot of King Dragon is actually good, but Offutt's style, that of an ambitious show off, undermines it.  Offutt is long-winded, he goes off on tangents meant to showcase his erudition (e.g., there are lots of etymological digressions) and employs some rococo literary techniques--all this slows down what could be a fast and thrilling narrative. Offutt tries to show Allayth and Joharah and al-Bah'ram's emotions and states of mind, and their evolution as people as they face hardships and grow to meet the challenges that confront them (or, in the case of al-Bah'ram, crack up), which is a great idea, but his writing is repetitive, conveying the same information again and again and using the same words and phrases again and again in what I guess is an effort to be poetic or to reflect the obsessive thoughts of a mind under the influence of stress or senility or psychedelic mushrooms (we have to endure lengthy dream sequences after Allayth eats some shrooms, and this happens to him twice, for a total of eight pages of hallucinations.)

Here is an example of some of the issues I am talking about, page 143, a scene which is actually pretty cool, the flight of King Dragon:

Flap on you crazy dragon!
Some of the writing is just bad; these lines, for example, should have been revised before publication:
Reasons were cited for arming the three people aboard the little jumpship Cygnet.  The decision, however, was not to do. 
Now comes the part of the blog post in which I tell you that, despite my hundreds of complaints about King Dragon, I still enjoyed it.  The fight scenes are good, and I like the ideas behind the book: an Islamic future, an immortal mad scientist, dinosaurs and other prehistoric and genetically engineered monsters.  I also admire Offutt's ambition, and his effort to present to the reader characters with personality who evolve. However, I wouldn't recommend King Dragon to anyone who isn't already very interested in Offutt's or Maroto's body of work and/or Lost World stories, unless maybe you are writing a dissertation on portrayals of Muslims in speculative fiction.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton

"Johnny," she whispered.  "Johnny, you shouldn't have come back!" 
My copy
We all had a good time back in November when, with Edmond Hamilton, we joined space naval officers, scientists and politicians (?) in the fight against aliens who sought to throw Earth into the Sun or blow up a super nebula and kill every person in the galaxy or commit sundry other genocidal astronomical atrocities. Those stories from the 1920s were reprinted by Ace in 1965 in the volume Crashing Suns, under the direction of the great Donald Wolheim.  But Ace wasn't the only publisher to join forces with World Wrecker Hamilton during the Swinging Sixties.  In 1966 Belmont Tower, whom we have to thank for my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction, Frank Belknap Long's It Was the Day of the Robot, and Harlan Ellison's From the Land of Fear, put out a brand new space adventure by Hamilton, Doomstar.  I own the 1979 reprint--let's check it out!

Our story begins in a nightclub in the Manhattan of the distant future where our hero, Johnny Kettrick, is watching alien dancing girls and ignoring his Earthling date!  (His heart isn't on boring old Earth, but out among the stars of the Hyades Cluster!) Unexpectedly, government agents pick Kettrick up and drive him out to Long Island (I hope Hamilton means the Hamptons!) for a meeting with some of the biggest wigs in the galaxy!  Scientists have reason to believe somebody in the Hyades has developed a weapon that can cause a star to emit catastrophically dangerous gamma radiation, radiation powerful enough to sterilize entire solar systems.  Kettrick, though an Earthman, grew up and spent his career in the Cluster until he was exiled from the Hyades two years ago for breaking some silly protectionist trade laws (the government calls that "smuggling.") Seeing as he knows all the ins and outs, all the languages and cultures, of the Cluster, he is the perfect candidate for the job of playing gumshoe out there and getting to the bottom of the eggheads' suspicions about a star poisoning device that, rumor has it, is known as "the Doomstar."

Fake news!  Johnny is not really a pirate!  He
just resists unjust trade restrictions!
Once Kettrick is back in the Cluster we get the hard-boiled detective stuff we should perhaps expect from Leigh Brackett's husband!  Some of Kettrick's old buddies, including his alien former girlfriend (for whom Kettrick is still carrying a space torch), aren't too happy to see him, and when somebody tries to murder Kettrick by sabotaging a boat he is a passenger on, it looks like they really aren't happy to see him.  Can it be that some of his old friends, the aliens he "went native" with as a youth, are actually part of the Doomstar conspiracy?  Trust no one, Johnny!

Hooking up with some other of his many friends in the Cluster and their old decrepit space ship, Kettrick travels from system to system, trading goods and seeking revenge on the boat saboteur while investigating this whole Doomstar business.  After lots of close calls and tense conversations on several different worlds (featuring eight different alien races), in the end, Kettrick leads a bunch of stone age alien tribesmen in an infantry assault on the ground-based missile battery whose cobalt-tipped munitions will, in mere minutes, turn the local star into a gamma ray death machine.

Doomstar reminded me of the kind of adventures Han Solo or Lando Calrissian might have had before getting involved with that troublesome Skywalker clan: travelling from planet to planet via hyperspace, dodging the authorities and buying and selling goods among disparate intelligent species.  Kettrick even has a big hairy alien sidekick and flies in a temperamental old ship that needs a lot of maintenance, and, like Solo and Calrissian, lays aside his hopes for personal gain to instead fight for the greater good.

The characters in Doomstar all have believable and interesting motivations and relationships, a welcome improvement over the flat characters in the 1920s stories of space war by Hamilton we were talking about earlier.  Unfortunately, this novel lacks the driving energy of those stories from Crashing Suns, the gusto and horror of the combat and torture that made up so much of those tales.   Johnny is not the kind of hero who is master of his fate and drives the book's plot; rather he often seems to be at the mercy of events and of forces beyond his control, and we repeatedly see him manipulated, protected or rescued by other characters (I associate such motifs with those hard-boiled mysteries in which the reader and the main character don't know what is going on until the end of the story.)  Doomstar's narrative feels more episodic than tight, though the individual episodes are all entertaining, if not thrilling.

First edition
I often wonder how these old stories would play in our 21st-century world in which everything is political and everybody is liable to be offended.  Laissez faire types might appreciate that our hero is an unabashed businessman out to make a profit (kind of like a Poul Anderson character) and the text's implicit idea that trade brings different cultures together amicably.  The whole book could be seen as a celebration of diversity, with Kettrick friendly with and working closely with numerous alien individuals and polities, and Kettrick even gives a lecture on tolerance to his Earthling date when she says that aliens give her "the creeps."  But on the other side of the social justice ledger we have the fact that most of the female characters in the book are ditzes or selfish, treacherous, femmes fatales.  Doomstar vaguely reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed, which--as I read it at least--argues that women are nothing but trouble and the best life for a man is to be among other men, having risky adventures far away from "civilization." Some might see Doomstar as guilty of romanticizing "cultural appropriation" and the "exoticization of the other," and the Edward Said definition of "Orientalism."  

A decent space adventure, suitable as an entertainment.

**********

The last page of my copy of Doomstar has an ad for three novels, none of them SF. There's an important mystery novel, a minor gothic romance thing, and a minor adventure caper apparently designed to appeal to fans of Burt Reynolds movies.  Even though they only advertise three titles, the good people at Belmont Tower include an order form with space for five titles, plus space for four alternates.  Just try to put yourself in the shoes of a guy who ordered a novel about a "Southern stock car racer cum hillbilly hoodlum" and opens up his mail (after waiting four weeks!) only to find the sole available alternate was the tale of Lady Barbara and her trials in gloomy old Cameron castle!


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Three stories by E. C. Tubb: "The Ming Vase," "J is for Jeanne," & "Blood in the Mist"

It's been a while since we read anything by E. C. Tubb, the scribe who recorded the many adventures of space gladiator of the far future Earl Dumarest.  Instead of cracking open one of my many unread Dumarest volumes, let's check out three short stories by Tubb which I found in magazines and anthologies from the MPorcius library.

"The Ming Vase" (1963)

"The Ming Vase" appears in numerous collections of Tubb stories, including two in which it is the title story, as well as the ninth of Judith Merril's famous Year's Best anthologies.  I guess this is one of Tubb's more critically acclaimed productions.  I read it where it first appeared, in my copy of the May 1963 issue of Analog.  (I recently read the Norman Spinrad story from that issue.)


It is the Cold War!  One of America's advantages over the Goddamned commies is our superior psychic program!  Unfortunately, one of our best psykers, Klieger, has gone AWOL from the psychic project's HQ at Cartwright House.  CIA operative Don Gregson (wait, is he supposed to be operating domestically?) is on the case, following Klieger's trail across the USA as he does things like steal valuable Chinese vases from tony antique stores.  But how can Don catch a man who can predict the future?  And why did Klieger, after obediently residing in the fortress of Cartwright House for a decade, suddenly make a break for it?  

This is a solid story with themes we've seen a bunch of times before (in our struggle with the Reds are we coming to resemble them?  Is the future determined or can it be altered by our actions?) and a decent "think-outside-the-box" ending.  In his interview with Charles Platt in 1980's Dream Makers Tubb tells the world he is a fan of Robert Heinlein's pre-Stranger in a Strange Land work (he hated Stranger, saying RAH had "done himself a tremendous disservice" in producing that and later books), so I was sort of primed to see similarities in "The Ming Vase" to Henlein's Cold War psyker story "Project Nightmare" (1953) and to "--We Also Walk Dogs" (1941), which also has a beautiful Ming ceramic as a major plot element--maybe those earlier stories were an influence on Tubb.

"J is for Jeanne" (1965)

In the interview in Dream Makers Platt portrays Tubb, and Tubb presents himself, as a "hack" who resides in the "skid row of the science-fiction ghetto," the "action and adventure" sub genre, and who is at a distance from, and perhaps even has some contempt for, "serious" or "ambitious" "literature."  So I think it is fun to see Tubb in such venues as Judith Merril's 11th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F along with such mainstream literary figures as John Ciardi (the translator of the version of Dante's Comedy which I read in high school and in college) and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as those critically acclaimed New Age pioneers J. G. Ballard, R. A. Lafferty and Thomas Disch.  It is in my copy of 11th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F that I read "J is for Jeanne;" the story first appeared in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds.

"J is for Jeanne" is not the kind of action and adventure story that we associate with Tubb and his fellows in their particular part of the SF ghetto.  Instead it is a lame gimmick story.  We are presented with an odd narrative in which, it appears, a woman is relating her recurring nightmare to a series of analysts.  As revealed at the end, and as the reader perhaps has predicted from various clues, Jeanne is not a woman at all but a computer, and the interactions between Jeanne and the engineers we have witnessed are just allegories or fantasies or indications tghat the computer has developed a (insane) personality.

In the interview with Platt, Tubb talks about throwing together brief stories to fill space when he, as editor of a short-lived magazine, needed material and the only stuff getting submitted was "rubbish."  This feels like a story that was thrown together in such a fashion.  Not good.

"Blood in the Mist" (1979)

I purchased my heavily foxed and water damaged copy of Heroic Fantasy, edited by Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt and published in 1979, at a flea market in South Carolina last year.  I kind of bought it just so I would have something to show for having dragged my wife and in laws to a hideous parking lot where people who smelled like cigarettes were selling rusty old tools, prehistoric videotapes, and boxes of expired pasta and breakfast cereal.  But now, months later, I am warming up to this volume which I originally thought of as a mere consolation prize.

In the intro to "Blood in the Mist" the editors compare Tubb's ability and volume of output to that of Henry Kuttner, Robert Silverberg and Edmond Hamilton, but, annoyingly, spell Hamilton's name incorrectly.  They also tell us it is the third story by Tubb about the hero Malkar; Page and Reinhardt don't give us the titles of the first two Malakar capers, but I'm guessing they are "Death God's Doom" and "Sword in the Snow," both from 1973.  It seems that in 1999 the Malkar stories were expanded into two novels (Death God's Doom and The Sleeping City), or maybe these novels are additions to the Malkar saga.

"Blood in the Mist" is one of those stories in which a grizzled mercenary (that's Malakar) meets an ancient merchant who seeks immortality and a gorgeous veiled lady in a smoky inn and accompanies them on their perilous journey through a snowy waste where they face treachery and monster attacks and the merchant resorts to calling upon the aid of eldritch demons.  I like these sorts of stories, and Tubb does a good job with the pacing, plotting, tone and the descriptions of the settings, creatures and fights.  Worth the attention of sword and sorcery fans; I'd be happy to read more Malakar stories.

**********

"J is for Jeanne" is just bad, but "The Ming Vase" and "Blood in the Mist" are entertaining stories and good examples of their respective categories.  I also recommend that SF fans read the Tubb profile in Dream Makers; it has some laugh out loud moments and provides a memorably cynical and iconoclastic perspective from within (maybe just barely within) the world of SF publishing.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Synthajoy by D. G. Compton

"What you're doing to Tony there--can you justify that as satisfying a need?"
"Of course I can.  The need for innovation.  It's as potent as the need for sex, or for power."
Against his rationalizations I could only range a deep, instinctive repugnance.
As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey I spent lots of time riding in the car on Route 80, travelling between home and my maternal grandmother's house. Nana, as we called her, had lots of cool old toys that I now see in antique stores, a round tin box full of like 12 pounds of fascinating buttons for us to sift through, and a bookcase full of hardcover books, including an encyclopedia published during World War II that, among other things, had black and white reproductions of Charles R. Knight paintings under the dinosaur entries, and a lot of those Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I bring this up not just because I like reminiscing about my prosaic childhood, but because it appears (according to this page at the New York Review of Books website) that critically acclaimed SF author D. G. Compton has done work for Reader's Digest Condensed Books as an editor and as a condenser!

Compton's first science fiction book published in America was 1968's Synthajoy, and this week I read my copy, the Ace Science Fiction Special edition with the cover by the Dillons.  I liked Compton's Steel Crocodile when I read it in July, so I expected to like this one as well, and I was not disappointed.  Joachim Boaz read Synthajoy in 2011 (check out his review here) and on this topic we are in close agreement--he also quite liked it.

Synthajoy is presented in the form of a first-person narrative from Thea Cadence, a nurse and the wife of Edward Cadence, a doctor and the co-inventor of Sensitape. The text switches back and forth between a day to day narrative of her confinement in a mental hospital, and flashbacks to what I think of as "the main plot," the story of the development of Sensitape and of Thea's relationships with Edward and with electronics expert Tony Stech, the other half of the Sensitape development team. The irony is that Thea is now receiving the very Sensitape treatment she helped devise with her husband Edward and his partner Tony!

Synthajoy sees use of literary or "New Wavey" techniques, like a sentence typed in undulating curves instead of on a level line, passages written in the form of a film script or a play, and sections and chapters that end in the middle of a sentence--many of these sentences are never completed.  Most importantly, the main plot is not related in strict chronological order.

The main plot: An increasing number of people in overcrowded England have come to feel life is not worth living, and they just lay down and, after a few weeks, even though their bodies are perfectly healthy, die. The medical professionals call this "Uncompensated Death Wish," or UDW, and over a million people a year are dying of it!  Edward and Thea Cadence treat UDW cases, one of whom is the Jewish owner of an electronics shop, Jacob Stech. Jacob's death inspires his son, Tony, to devote his electronics expertise to curing the disease, and together Edward and Tony invent a machine that cures UDW, Sensitape. Sensitape is a system by which people's thoughts and feelings are recorded and can be played back for others via a headset; the first tape, called Relaxatape, plays a recording of the brain waves of a person at peace, and the brainwaves of those who "listen" to the tape conform to the recording, forcing them to relax. Millions of lives are saved from UDW through use of such therapeutic tapes and Edward becomes a national hero, but the Sensitape team doesn't stop there.  Soon Edward and Tony are at the head of a major commercial enterprise, recording tapes of all kinds of experiences, from artistic creation to sexual intercourse, and selling the tapes and the machines needed to play them not only to medical institutions for therapeutic use, but also on the retail market for entertainment purposes.

While not a scientist herself, Thea is instrumental in the development of Sensitape; for one thing, she introduces Tony to Edward, suggesting that Tony ("the electronics king of West London") could be of assistance in overcoming apparently insuperable technical challenges faced by Edward.  As Thea begins to doubt the morality of Senistape, her essential role in its development burdens her with tremendous guilt. ("All this, the whole hellish structure, is my fault....I could have altered the fate of the human race.")  As she sits at the machinery with Edward and Tony while they record the brain waves of a couple having sex, she becomes vomitously ill.  She is in physical contact with a dying priest as his last thoughts are recorded and is a witness to Edward convincing musicians and artists to have their acts of performance and creation recorded.  And then there is a scene which explicitly tells us Sensitape is something like drug abuse, when gangsters who control the European heroin and cocaine trade knock on the Cadences' door and, guns drawn, demand they be given a cut of the profits of Sensitapes sold as a narcotic substitute because this product is driving the drug dealers out of business.

We've seen this sort of thing, artificial dreams or recorded thoughts used as therapy or entertainment/pornography/addictive substance more than once over the course of this blog's life, in numerous early '70s Barry Malzberg stories, in Lin Carter's 1968 "The Thief of Thoth", and Evelyn Lief's 1972 "Every Fourth House."  New Jersey's own Malzberg, one of the premier critics and historians of science fiction, in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, cites Peter Phillips as being the first to do this sort of thing back in 1948.

The human part of the plot concerns how Edward's and Thea's marriage is a cold sham, how Edward starts having an affair with the woman known as Mrs. X (the woman who was recorded for the sex tape--she has perhaps the highest sex drive in Britain!) and then Thea starts an affair with Tony.  Everything comes to a head after Tony dies in an experiment in which he "listens to" an experimental tape which Edward has prepared, Synthajoy, a tape which synthesizes various pleasurable and ecstatic experiences to create the ultimate pleasure, and Thea has a bad reaction to a recording of the emotions of a genius conductor leading his orchestra--she can feel the love of the genius for Brahms, and it makes her feel like an abominable interloper. ("To experience the tape was to trespass on that love....")  Edward is murdered; Thea tells us that Mrs. X, wanting to renegotiate her sex tape contract for a bigger share of the profits, killed Edward so she could steal the contract, but Thea herself is convicted of the crime. (All this adultery, murder, and murder trial jazz perhaps reflects Compton's career as a mystery novelist.)  Thea is sentenced to confinement in the very hospital for which she did interior design and subjected to the very sort of therapy she helped develop, compelled to experience tapes designed to induce contrition...or is it guilt?

In the last pages of the novel we realize how mentally unstable and how unreliable a narrator Thea may really be when she provides a different version of the story of the murder, we learn the truth(?) about her alleged frigidity, and, after spending the whole book talking about how she hates Sensitape and what it has done to British society ("hellish structure") and how she looks down on profit seekers ("To buy (with money) what Beldik had recorded (for money) was to compound a moral felony"), she declares she will perfect Synthajoy--the ultimate Sensitape!--and make a bazillion pounds selling it, apparently to get revenge on Mrs. X.  (Shades of Winston Smith!) To what extent has Thea always been flawed, and to what extent has the Sensitape therapy/punishment/brainwashing turned her into the troubled person we have spent this book with?

Synthajoy is a good novel and I enjoyed it.  The characters and their relationships are all believable and interesting, and all the literary touches (the somewhat experimental stuff I've mentioned, and also more conventional things like detailed descriptions of rooms and landscapes) aren't just showoffy frippery that obscure the narrative, but actually make the book more engaging.

Back of my copy
The science fiction elements are alright, but are secondary to the human drama.  The obvious novels to compare Synthajoy to are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but while those novels create rich fictional worlds and address, head on, important political and philosophical debates, in Synthajoy Compton doesn't really describe a world much different than our own or make a very direct or convincing moral or political argument.  The reviews from UK periodicals quoted on the back of my copy claim the novel is "horrifying" and "hair-raising," but I didn't feel that it was all that "horrifying" myself.  The England depicted by Compton isn't some kind of totalitarian nightmare; it seems like everybody whose brainwaves are recorded on Sensitapes, and most everybody who uses Sensitapes, is doing so voluntarily.  (As a convicted murderer, Thea is the exception.)

Compton's gripe seems to be that the people who produce the tapes are doing so for money, and that those using them are decadent sheep, the prey of manipulative sleaze merchants; Compton's complaints about Sensitape are reminiscent of the evergreen complaints we hear about drugs, pornography, television, rock and roll, comic books, etc., that these are shallow forms of addictive entertainment that turn their consumers into soulless zombies, or at least fail to elevate them the way high brow or wholesome art is reputed to by the intellectual elite or moral arbiters.  Synthajoy is an attack on capitalism and on innovation for innovation's sake, on business and science run amuck, and Compton's case is not based on logic or evidence or historical analogy--it is based on irrational emotion, the "instinctive repugnance" expressed by Thea in the lines I chose as an epigraph for this blog post.

A clue that the book is taking a conservative stand based on tradition or prejudice or some kind of "precautionary principle" is that the book's villains, those who keep promoting Sensitape and keep pushing the envelope, accuse Thea, our heroine, of being a prude, a puritan, or a reactionary, while calling themselves "progressive" and trumpeting how they are serving mankind even as they claw and scrape for money and fame.  

There are lots of thought-provoking things going on in Compton's book that are worth talking about.  As a man, the author takes a risk in writing a first-person narrative in the voice of a woman; and when I say "risk" I basically mean a risk that women will find his depiction of a woman unconvincing and that feminists in particular might consider it an outrageous act of misrepresentation or cultural appropriation.  (Let me repeat that from my perspective the character of Thea is convincing and compelling.) On the one hand, Compton does things with Thea that feminists may appreciate: her husband uses her to advance his career, he can be dismissive of her, and he can fail to recognize her contributions.  There's a good scene in which Thea enters the room where Edward and Tony are working on their invention; the men just met this very day, but Thea finds she is already treated as an outsider by them--among men she is "the other" despite her essential contributions and her previous relationships with them.  On the other hand, Thea says stuff like "No more or less than men, women judge you, dominate you, flatter you, compete with you.  But unlike men, their motives are unfathomable," her frigidity is a major plot point, she is a victim, she acts kind of hysterical, and much of what she tells us may be a self-serving lie.

While relationships between the sexes are at the center of the novel, there are also issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference presented in Synthajoy, and I have to admit I am not sure why these issues were presented (though I have a theory!).  The Steches, Jacob and Tony, are Jewish, and Thea's attitude about Jews is to see them as a sort of exotic species.  "I'd seen him [Tony] and his father together--there was a feeling between them my hospital experience had already shown me to be peculiarly Jewish."  After Jacob's death, Thea goes to visit Tony's shop: "I was there because I was cold, and already dead, and I wanted to see how Jews kept warm and alive."

There is also a minor black character, Dr. Mbleble, the giant ("six feet seven, with neck and shoulders like a big black bull") Nigerian sexologist who diagnoses Thea as being sexually dysfunctional because of what he calls "the repressive puritanism Mrs. Cadence was brought up under."  I probably don't have to tell you that the oversexed Negro is a sort of cliche.

My aforementioned theory is that a minor subtext of Synthajoy is of non-Christian, non-English people changing English society, and not changing it for the better.  Tony basically invented the Sensitape that changes English society in ways Thea finds so objectionable, and Mbleble spars with Thea's lawyer at her murder trial--he not only represents sexual license, but is a threat to her freedom.  The idea of the Jew as influencer is highlighted by this line: "'No strings,' he [Edward] said, spreading his hands in Tony's Jewish way."  Tony's "Jewish ways" are infecting English Edward!

I've already told you I see Synthajoy as an attack on capitalism and the profit motive, and I probably don't have to tell you that for centuries a standard trope among anti-Semites has been the image of the Jew as the cunning and ruthless businessman. Well, late in the novel we realize Jews aren't the only category of people Thea finds exotic and fascinating:
I occupied my time observing the other members of the board, businessmen, a phenomenon I had only recently come into contact with.  Everything about them fascinated me, the way they worked, what they thought, the faces they made.  Merchants, with merchants' eyes.
Here I will note that Mrs. X, another threat to Thea, is also a foreigner, though not a particularly exotic one; she is an American.  The United States, of course, is seen by many people as a sort of archetypal capitalist country, and it is common for people to characterize the U. S. A. as a place where the only thing that matters is money. According to my theory, the Jew, the American, and the black represent a new English culture, one based on technology, profit-seeking and sensuality that is killing the old English culture based on things like Christianity and classical music (over the course of the book a priest dies and a musician has a stroke in Thea's presence) and the heroism of people like Horatio Nelson, whose column is mentioned a few times. Maybe we should see this as a bourgeois or popular revolution against society's traditional elites?

As I have suggested, to me these (perhaps unsavory) elements of Thea's personality and/or Compton's beliefs serve to make her and the book more interesting, but it seems possible that other residents of our early 21st century might find them, as the kids say, "problematic."  Your humble blogger does not hesitate to recommend Synthajoy; it is a smooth and entertaining read without any fat or fluff that is also thought-provoking and rewards close attention.  Worth the time of anybody at all interested in "literary" SF or SF that touches on psychological or gender or race issues.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Four stories by Ross Rocklynne

In our last episode I read James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Milk of Paradise" from my copy of Harlan Ellison's 1972 anthology Again, Dangerous Visions.  I noticed a story in the volume by Ross Rocklynne, a writer I'd not yet read anything by, and decided to give him a whirl.  A quick look through my bookshelves and online yielded three additional stories by Rocklynne to serve as my introduction to his oeuvre.

"Escape Through Space" (1938)

Every story scientifically accurate
"Escape Through Space" was published in Amazing Stories; like I did, you can read it for free at the SFFaudio PDF page, which archives a scan of the original magazine's pages, including an illustration and a brief autobiography of Ohio-native Rocklynne.

This is a brief and sciency tale, but it also has political content, exhibiting the old level-headed American attitude that monarchy is stupid and socialism is evil.  Mankind has colonized the solar system, and such is man's hubris that the first pioneers on each planet and moon set themselves up as kings and queens!  As time has gone by, though, these monarchies have been getting overthrown and replaced with republics.  The latest revolution has been on Mars, where the revolutionaries are socialists and have killed all the aristocrats and royals with one exception, the Princess Helen.

American Larry Sharon is a young man of business, the youngest buyer at an import-export firm.  He is sent by his boss to the new Martian republic to negotiate a deal for some "tritonite."  On Mars, where Sharon witnesses signs that the socialists have been committing atrocities, he meets a high level official, who offers him a special job: ferrying the Princess Helen to Earth!  The revolutionaries can't just kill her in cold blood for fear of causing an interplanetary diplomatic outcry, but of course having her hanging around just encourages counter revolutionaries, so she has got to go.

Sharon doesn't trust the commies, especially when they stipulate that he not fly his own ship back to Earth but a clunky old rocket--they say it will be less likely to attract notice from bitter extremists eager to murder the Princess!  Of course, the new Martian government is giving him a slow ship so they can catch up to him and blow him and the Princess away far from any witnesses in the black void between the planets.

But Sharon has an ace up his sleeve.  He steals a march on the pursuing Reds by flying very close to the sun, within the "Boiling Zone" that, in normal circumstances, would destroy a ship.  He pulls this off by hitching a ride on a passing comet, using it as a parasol against the sun's rays!  Sharon gets to Earth with the cash money paid to him by the Martian bolshies, and the icing on the cake is that the gorgeous Princess has fallen in love with him--after a lifetime spent among effete aristos and diabolical commies, how could she fail to fall in love with an honest-to-goodness blue-eyed Irish-American hunk?  Another triumph for democracy!

Entertaining.

"The Men and the Mirror" (1938)

This story was first published in Astounding; I read it in my copy of Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age--it is the last story in that anthology. "The Men and the Mirror" is the third of Rocklynne's series of three stories about Lieutenant John Colbie of the Interplanetary Police Force and his pursuit across the solar system of a clever criminal, Edward Deverel.  In each story the 23rd-century gumshoe finds himself in what Asimov calls a "dilemma involving the laws of physics," and Asimov assures us that this tale is the best of them.

Using a disguise, Deverel has escaped the Terran base on Jupiter and Colbie pursues him to a rogue planet that has entered the solar system near the orbit of Neptune (these old stories are full of rogue stars and planets wandering into our precious solar system; we need to build a wall or something.)  On the surface of this interloping heavenly body is a huge circular mirror, like 3,500 miles in circumference, with an albedo approaching 1!  No doubt this was built by a vanished race far in advance of our own, a race of people determined to put our domestic mirror industry out of business!  The Terran Federation of Glaziers is sure to demand protective tariffs after it hears about this!

Deverel, though a pirate and a thief, fucking loves science as much as the next guy, so Colbie knows to search for him near the mysterious mirror, an engineering feat unique in the experience of humankind.  When he catches up to the pirate the two become friends (!) and decide to examine the mirror together.  They accidentally fall onto the frictionless concave surface of the alien mirror, and for 14 (fourteen!) pages slide back and forth within the bowl, trying to figure out how to get out!  Then comes the explanation of how they escaped, with sentences like this: "At the Earth's pole the plane of vibration of a pendulum turns around once every twenty-four hours, in a direction opposite to that at which the Earth rotates."

(I love to go to science museums to look at the dinosaurs, but I've never been able to really grok the pendulums they often have at these museums that, I guess, prove that the Earth rotates or something.)

Because they are now friends, Colbie lets Deverel get away, which gives me a chance to fling out one of my favorite public policy cliches: "mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent."

"The Men and the Mirror" is an extreme example of the classic science fiction story which is about science and which shows the protagonist resolving the plot by using his knowledge of science and his ability to do complicated math (even without paper or slide rule, in this case).  I have to say that I am considering this story more a curious artifact than an entertaining--much less compelling--piece of fiction.  

"Cosmic Yo-Yo" (1945)

Here's another story I read at the SFFaudio PDF page, in a facsimile of its original appearance in the pages of Planet Stories.


Bob Parker and Quentin Zuyler are in the business of delivering asteroids to the estates of wealthy Earthlings for use as colossal lawn ornaments.  They have been hired to bring back a particular asteroid, but when they find it they face a problem: It is already in the hands of a beautiful young woman spacefarer, Starre Lowenthal, a rich girl with a spaceship shaped like a dumbbell. This problem is solved when a rival asteroid hauling firm attacks them, leaving all three of them for dead and seizing the valuable asteroid for themselves.

Starre has the presence of mind necessary to save them from death in the utterly cold darkness of space, and then Bob uses his knowledge of science to get their asteroid back.  It is illegal for asteroid hauling ships to mount heavy weapons, but Bob has Quentin attach Starre's ship to their hauler with a chain so the dumbbell-shaped vessel can be propelled and retrieved like a yo-yo.  Our heroes smash the rival firm's ship with the yo-yo and retrieve the asteroid.

An equally contrived bit of scientific shenanigans overcomes the objections of Starre's family to Bob and Starre getting hitched.

Like that of "Escape Through Space," the plot of "Cosmic Yo-Yo" relies on some pretty unlikely coincidences to work, but feels even more contrived and gimmicky. Merely acceptable.        

"Ching-Witch" (1972)

Finally we get to the story from Again, Dangerous Visions.  In his intro, Ellison laments the feud between the "old and new waves," which he thinks is ridiculous. One of the problems caused by this nonsensical dispute is that it has discouraged some older writers from producing new work; Ellison suggests these skittish scribblers look upon Rocklynne as an encouraging example of a writer from SF's formative years who is up to the task of producing valuable new work in the post-New Wave environment.

I found "Ching-Witch" difficult to get into; it feels long and tedious, listless and quite dated, and my eyes kept glazing over as I read it.  It is, I guess, a sort of sarcastic homage or gentle satire of youth culture and those SF stories that contrast a utopia with our crummy and violent Earth society--in his afterword Rocklynne informs us that the story was inspired by a ten-day visit to Haight-Ashbury in 1966.

For over a century, the war torn Earth has prevented travel and communication with the human colony on Zephyrus, where everybody is noble and peaceful.  Captain Ratch Chug, a product of genetic engineering (he's 80% human and 20% feline) realizes the wars on Earth are about to blow up the planet, and escapes just in time, to Zephyrus.  He finds himself worshipped by the teenagers there, and teaches them Earth dances and Earth slang.  After a few years the Zephyruans realize Earth has been destroyed and Chug has been lying to them, and they reveal their true nature, which is almost as hateful and violent as that of Earthlings.  Chug has to move to yet another planet to avoid being lynched.

Bad.

**********

These stories are quite characteristic of the type or sub-genres of SF they represent (the hard SF adventure in which the hero uses his engineering and science knowledge to overcome danger and get the girl; the science puzzle story; and the jocular New Wave story situated within the youth culture), but they are far from the most entertaining or most well-crafted specimens of those sub-genres.  They aren't well-paced or well-plotted and they lack human feeling or engaging characters.

I own the Ace Double which includes Rocklynne's collection The Sun Destroyers, but, even though Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison have praised its stories, my experience reading these four pieces today has not inspired much enthusiasm for cracking it open.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Three stories by James Tiptree, Jr. published in 1972

As anybody reading this probably knows already, James Tiptree, Jr. is a pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon.  For ten years (1967-77) Sheldon published critically acclaimed science fiction stories under the Tiptree pen name, successfully hiding her true identity.  Tiptree is one of the famous SF authors I have never read, but that gap in my experience is closed today!

Charles Platt's profile of Sheldon in his 1983 book Dream Makers II makes her seem like a fascinating character who lead a privileged and heroic life: participation in safaris and scientific expeditions in Africa and India as a child, a successful career as a painter, work in the Pentagon analyzing aerial photographs in support of the U.S. Army Air Force in the Pacific War, work for the CIA during the early Cold War, then a stint as a behavioral psychologist.  In the profile she expresses the conventional lefty elite contempt for Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, but, being born long before our current identity politics era, she isn't afraid to paint a picture of Africa as a place full of cannibals and witch doctors who saw her, a little blonde girl, as some kind of goddess, or to say stuff like "much as I loathe Roman Catholicism as an authoritarian religion, Islam is worse."

Let's hope Sheldon's stories are as interesting and exciting as her own character and life were.  As part of my project of reading every story in David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's 1972 anthology Generation, I am reading the Tiptree stories included therein, "Through a Lass Darkly" and "Amberjack."  Also published in '72, the year of your humble blogger's first birthday, was Harlan Ellison's famous Again, Dangerous Visions, and I will be reading the Tiptree story included in that volume, "The Milk of Paradise," as well.  (Note that the Generation stories were purchased by Gerrold and Goldin in 1969, even though Generation wasn't published until 3 years later.)



"Through a Lass Darkly" 

In his intro in Generation to this story Gerrold praises Tiptree to the skies: "...if I had to pick one writer today as being the most all-around skilled architect of the short story as well as one of the freshest and most original craftsmen, I'd pick Tiptree.  No shit."

Amusingly enough, one of the two characters in "Through a Lass Darkly" is a man who writes an advice column under a female byline.  (In real life, libertarian journalist Nick Gillespie did this at Teen Machine magazine, ghostwriting an advice column for Alyssa Milano.)

The advice columnist is sitting in his office, banging away at the ol' typewriter, when a pretty girl teleports in.  She is from the year 2269, and speaks in a futuristic version of English which the columnist and we readers have to interperet as best we can. Deciphering her argot we learn that, in the 23rd century, sexual and social relations will be very different than they are today, with group marriages, and, apparently, government control over how many children a woman can give birth to.  When the girl learns that the columnist is a bachelor she is disgusted at his "perversion." (Interestingly, in the future there will still be a strong distinction between small town and big city values.)

In the same way that people in 1969 knew little about what went on in 1669, the girl from the future knows nothing of the typical concerns of a 1960s person, and when the columnist asks if there is nuclear war or race hatred in the 23rd century, she doesn't know what he is talking about.  Of course, her ignorance doesn't keep her from having an arrogant confidence that her society is far better and far more free than those of the past!

An entertaining and engaging story.

All three of the stories discussed in this blog post would later be included in Warm Worlds and Otherwise
"Amberjack"

This one is just three pages.  As with "Through a Lass Darkly" there is a level of intentional obscurity here, with long convoluted sentences and challenging metaphors and the use of onomatopoeia.  I think I have an idea of what is going on, though. While "Through a Lass Darkly" was light-hearted and a little jokey, "Amberjack" is heavy.

A young couple is reluctant to really commit to each other, to admit that they love each other, because of bad relationships with their parents and siblings, who were nagging, neglectful, etc; neither of them has ever had a good role model of a healthy love relationship.  One hot night they are sleeping on the fire escape of their apartment, and the woman admits she is pregnant; neither of them expects to find marriage or parenthood a happy situation.  Somehow a fight breaks out, and the woman falls from the fire escape to her death.  Then the woman's sister appears, telling the man she has been looking for them and suggesting she will help the man escape prosecution for the death of his girlfriend, her own sister--it seems like she wants the man for herself.

The three characters' names may be significant.  The man is called "Amberjack" throughout the story, but we are told that he was called "Daniel" when he first met his girlfriend, "'Rue."  Daniel brings to mind the lion's den, while an amberjack is a type of fish (which I did not know until today); the use of two names suggests some kind of uneasiness about identity, or a desire to be a different person than he was when he was with 'Rue.  'Rue's name always has that apostrophe, perhaps hinting that her bad upbringing has left her a truncated or incomplete human being?  "'Rue" makes one think of the phrase "you will rue the day," and also kangaroos, I guess.  The sister (who looks almost identical to 'Rue) is named Pompey, like the general who, during the crises during the last years of the Roman Republic, was allied with Julius Caesar but then sided with Cato and the Republicans against Caesar.  (Of course, the ancient Pompey suffered defeat and a depressing death, while this Pompey seems to have succeeded in her aims.)

This is one of those stories which forces you to decide how much time and energy you want to spend trying to figure it out.  Every line seems to contain a clue or a red herring.  I'm leaving this story with the feeling I often get after reading a Gene Wolfe story, that I enjoyed it, but that I probably missed something.

"The Milk of Paradise" 

In his intro to "The Milk of Paradise," the last story in Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison brags/complains that he is exhausted from writing 60,000 words of introductions for the 800+ page book.  Then he tells us that "The Milk of Paradise" is the best story in the volume, and Tiptree is a "Giant" with a capital "G."

Like "Amberjack" this is an economical story in which every word counts and which has me straining my poor brain in an effort to puzzle out what is really happening.

The universe is inhabited by two races, the Humans and the moronic, inferior Crots.  But our protagonist Timor claims to have been raised by a third race, a race so beautiful and sophisticated that they make Humans look like Crots!  Timor was "rescued" from the planet of this super race when he was ten; he believes that a disease unwittingly brought by his Human rescuers wiped out the super race.

Timor has just finished training as a space scout and is the "newboy" at the space station.  Human society in the setting Tiptree presents us is very sexually permissive, and very casual about sex, and both women and men make advances on Timor. Timor is receptive to these advances, but his memories of the super race leave him unaroused by his fellow Humans--to him, Humans, even his own body, are disgusting! Timor even wears a grey outfit to cover his hideous "pink" skin--the beings of the super race have grey skin.

Timor's first assignment is to accompany an experienced scout, a black man, on a space mission.  Foreshadowing what is to come, the black scout, Santiago, jestingly calls Timor a Crot, and, because his skin is dark, Timor is able to experience some kind of sexual feeling for Santiago.  Santiago wants to explore the planet of the super race, and uses drugs and other invasive techniques to get the data out of Timor's brain. When the two scouts get to the planet, which Timor recalls as a sort of paradise of shimmering towers, Santiago laughs to find the natives to be grotesque little monsters ("grey rotten lumps") with colossal genitals who live in wretched mud huts.  "SUBCROTS!" he guffaws.  But Timor jumps into the mud with them, starts having sex with them.

It seems like Timor had living within him one of these aliens, or its consciousness, or something like that.  Anyway, he is happy to return to his true people, who, it is suggested, are going to "totally recondition" him so he can live as an equal among them.  (As with "Amberjack," I feel like I "got" almost the whole story but was confused by the last few paras; Pompey's arrival is confusing in that earlier story and in "The Milk of Paradise" I am puzzled over Timor's precise relationship with the grey lumps.)

I guess you can say this story is about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder and different cultures have different customs and so forth (a theme also evident in "Through a Lass Darkly.")  Someone like Sheldon, a wealthy Westerner who lived among Africans and Indians as a child, would no doubt be very aware of the vast diversity in values and mores across communities.  The story is also about race, and about identity, and about how such things are potentially fluid and open to interpretation; we learn immediately in this story that the protagonist has two names (just as we did with the protagonists of "Through A Lass Darkly" and "Amberjack") and as the story progresses people call Timor a Human, a Crot, and then (indirectly perhaps) a Subcrot.  


**********

These stories are all good--they certainly better than most of the stories in Generation--and they have many of the attributes I admire in stories, like economy and a focus on human feeling and human relationships.  Significantly, they are all about people who have two names, two identities, like Sheldon, who, masquerading as Tiptree, did herself.  Perhaps we should consider to what extent each of the three characters choses to take on a second name and identity, and to what extent a second identity is thrust upon them by others, and compare this to what extent Sheldon herself voluntarily chose to write under an obscuring pseudonym and to what extent she felt societal pressure to do so.

It is good to have gained a little familiarity with an important SF author, and it is nice to find that there is something to all that hype.  I will certainly read more of Tiptree's work in the future.