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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Another six tales from Generation: O'Neil, Toomey, Carter, Sky, Pumilia and Hensel

There are twenty-five stories in Generation, David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's 1972 anthology of stories by writers lauded as "the most dazzling new stars of science fiction."  Some of these "stars," like Gene Wolfe, Barry Malzberg, Piers Anthony, the mysterious James Tiptree, Jr., and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, went on to have careers highly successful critically and/or commercially.  Others are people I rarely or never hear about.  Let's check out six stories by those relatively minor writers.

"...After They've Seen Paree" by Dennis O'Neil

The wife and I were recently in Dayton Ohio, at Carillon Historical Park, where you can see old locomotives, a plane built by the Wright brothers, lots of old cash registers, and that sort of stuff.  They have an exhibit on World War One which includes a Lewis gun and a 3-inch field gun.  Worth a few hours if that is your thing.

Anyway, the title of O'Neil's story brings The Great War to mind, and, like the song for which it is named, the story is about people who are changed by contact with the big city and with war.  As he does with the title, O'Neil fills the story with literary and historical allusions; Virgil, the Bible, Dylan Thomas, etc.

It is the post apocalyptic future!  Near a ruined city, a tribe lives simply and primitively, having sworn to eschew the evils of the past: the Democratic and Republican parties, TV, booze, etc.  Our protagonist, Norman*, is about to have sex with his cousin Tresa when a Volkswagen microbus with a computer brain kidnaps her and carries her off to the city.

Our hero spends a year reading the forbidden books (combat manuals with silly titles-- this story is supposed to be funny) in preparation to liberate his cousin from the city.  When Norman invades the city he battles the two last remaining U. S. Army soldiers and their battleforce of robot cars; Tresa is still alive, soldiers having kidnapped her for use as a sex slave.  Norman also learns the cause of the apocalypse, a race war which saw a cataclysmic exchange of fire between satellites and ground installations.

Norman brings Tresa out of the city, but she has changed.  Not only did the soldiers' surgical robots fill her breasts with silicone, but contact with the military and with urban decadence has turned her into a saidst who is sexually aroused by violence and a slacker who refuses to work the subsistence farm with the rest of the tribe.  The sweet and innocent Tresa is gone, and Norman considers killing her to expunge the tribe of her corruption (this resort to violence a reflection of his own corruption.)

Acceptable; the story moves at a brisk pace, gives you lots to think about, and the jokes, while not exactly funny, are not annoyingly poor.  According to isfdb, O'Neil has written several novels and over a dozen short stories; most of them seem to be about DC Comics characters.

*Norman is a good name for writers to give an "everyman" character because it sounds a bit like "normal" and "no man."  Ray Davies named the mentally ill office worker in The Kinks Present a Soap Opera "Norman," for example.  

"The Recreation" by Robert E. Toomey, Jr.

A lame gimmick story, less than two pages.  God is just like a short story writer: he creates planets and tries to sell them, does hackwork to make ends meet, gets depressed and turns to booze.  Earth is a planet he has been unable to place; while under the influence of a hangover he revises the Earth, adding humankind--the joke is that human beings are terrible because God made us when he was out of sorts!

Toomey is credited with a single novel at isfdb as well as seven short stories.  "The Recreation" would later appear in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, a book I borrowed from an Iowa library a few years ago.

"Constitution in E Flat" by Paul E. Carter

Carter has eleven short stories listed at isfdb.  In 1977 Columbia University Press published a nonfiction book he wrote about SF magazines which looks like it is probably pretty cool.

"Constitution in E Flat" is set in a future United States overtaken by authoritarianism and decadence. The air outside is too polluted to breathe without nose clips or some kind of filter mask, and the US is involved in a world war on a broad front in Latin America and Africa.  This story takes place in a  noisy club where there are go-go dancers and all manner of drugs are for sale; a composer has set the text of the Constitution to music, and at the club is meeting two government representatives and the head of the Musicians Union to discuss the new composition.  (This is apparently a fantasy world in which people still care about symphonic music.)  One of the government guys expresses skepticism about the composition, and then the other one has him arrested on the pretext that this is evidence of insufficient patriotism.

I guess this story is supposed to remind you of Soviet Russia where government officials are always stabbing each other in the back and art is under the control of the State (the government guy who is not arrested has a sort of Russian-sounding name, "Rikhoff"), and suggest that the American people are becoming deracinated, divorced from their political and cultural heritage (in the final lines a singer sings "Ave Maria" in Latin but nobody in the club understands the words.)  This sounds like the basis for an interesting story, but something about Carter's style made my eyes glaze over and I kept forgetting which authority figure was which; I don't know, maybe it's me.  Merely acceptable.        

"One Ordinary Day, With Box" by Kathleen Sky

As I think I have mentioned before, Gerrold's introductions for stories in Generation by women come off as sexist by today's standards.  In his intro to "One Ordinary Day, With Box" he tells us that there is "certainly" no woman in the world sexier than Sky, and then shares his theory on what a "truly liberated woman" is: "not one who has forsaken her femininity, but one who has accepted it and wears it without falsity."

(For some reason Gerrold refuses to provide us readers any insights into the earthy masculinity and raw sexual magnetism of Gene Wolfe and Barry Malzberg.)


isfdb tells us that Sky has published five novels (two of them about the trials and tribulations of the crew of the starship Enterprise) and eight short stories, two of them collaborations with her husband (from 1972 to 1982), Stephen Goldin.

"One Ordinary Day, With Box" is an acceptable Twilight Zone-style story.  A greyish man carries around with him, from town to town, a light but bulky black box.  It contains, we are told, not what people want, but what they need.  For example, when a wretched drunk reaches into the box he gets a healthy sandwich (not the cash he wants) and when a boy-crazy teenage girl reaches into it she gets birth control pills.  People, we learn, always reject what they truly need.

This is a good enough premise, but the ending is a little weak.  When the greyish man reaches into the box himself, he just gets another box (the original collapses.)  "One Ordinary Day, With Box" was translated into German for Science Fiction Story Reader 5, and also appeared (like Roger Deeley's The Shortest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told, also from Generation) in Reflections of the Future: An Elective Course in Science Fiction and Fact.

"The Porter of Hell-Gate" by Joseph E. Pumilia

We've actually encountered Pumilia before here at MPorcius Fiction Log, when we read "Hung Like An Elephant," which Pumilia co-wrote with Steven Utley.  That story was also purchased by Gerrold and Goldin, for Alternities.

"The Porter of Hell-Gate" is about an immortal creature of pure energy who guards one of the spots where the different universes touch; if energy should leak from one universe to another then chaos could result, stars dying or exploding, the laws of physics breaking down, etc.  The Porter has to fight evil energy creatures who want to break into his universe and cause mayhem, and he faces his greatest challenge when a female energy creature seduces him and tricks him into opening the gate.

This is one of those stories that isn't actually bad, but just sits there.  Acceptable, I suppose.              

"A Sense of Thyme" by C. F. Hensel

This is one of those stories in which Death is an elegantly dressed man who walks with a black walking stick and drives a black Rolls Royce, who comes to you when your time is up and drives you to the train station to get on the train to the afterlife. Are there a lot of people who actually like these kinds of stories?

My mother used to tell us kids that the Santas we'd see in stores and elsewhere were Santa's helpers, and in this story there are numerous representatives of Death driving around in black Rolls Royces, each with a schedule to keep.  The Death in this story was a normal person horrified of death who joined the "firm" at the age of 19 because such a position confers immortality.

Today he is collecting an old woman reputed to be a witch.  She too, he learns, made a bargain to gain immortality and wisdom, many, many, years ago, but then gave up immortality to return to the mainstream of human life:
"It eventually occurred to me, my dear, by virtue of that wisdom gained at such cost, that I was imprisoned.  Trapped....As long as I never aged, I never learned the lessons of age.  I never developed....I became inhuman...."  
This is a sentimental story with lots of descriptions of the witch's beautiful eyes and a long scene in which Death cries and so forth.  I'm kind of shrugging it off, but I suppose some will find it moving and find the story's argument, that being immortal would be lonely and unfulfilling, comforting in a sort of sour grapes way.  Acceptable.

The "C." in C. F. Hensel is short for "Christina," and in his intro Gerrold tells us Hensel is "sexy" and "feminine."  Hensel has three stories listed at isfdb; the other two are collaborations with Stephen Goldin.

**********

All six of these stories feel like filler.  Too bad!  In retrospect, compared to the rest, the O'Neil feels ambitious, full of allusions and social commentary, while the Toomey looks even more like a lazy piece of junk.

In our next episode I will read the two James Tiptree Jr. stories to be found in Generation, and then I can proudly say that I have read every single story in the collection.  (I read Stephen Goldin's "Stubborn" back in late 2014 when I was flipping through 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories.)  Stay tuned!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Six stories from 1972's Generation: Lief, Stevens, Laurence, Ray, & Deely

Back cover text of Generation
After a two episode sojourn in the broadly defined World War II period (1939-1954), it's back to the era of flower power and Generation, the anthology of science fiction stories by "new voices" printed in 1972 but written in 1969.  We've already read Generation stories by critical darlings and MPorcius faves like Gene Wolfe and Barry Malzberg, and stories by prolific big sellers like Piers Anthony and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.  Now let's read stories by people I've never heard of before!  This is the kind of blog post in which I say stuff like "It's a tragedy this person never produced more SF stories" and "It's no surprise this person never sold another SF story."

"Every Fourth House" by Evelyn Lief

This story takes place in a Levittown, one of the prototypical post-World War II suburbs where all the houses look the same (the story's title refers to this fact; every fourth house in this house has red shutters.  This has become an almost cliched criticism of suburban life that we have all heard it in pop songs like Malvina Reynolds' 1962 "Little Boxes," Gerry Goffin and Carole King's 1967 "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and Sir Raymond Douglas Davies' 1969 "Shangri-la.")  I guess "Every Fourth House" takes place in the future, because a device is on the market that you hook up to your TV which allows you to smell the smells smelled by TV characters (remember "Smellevision" in 1944's "Old Grey Hare?") and think their thoughts and so on.

Housewife Barbara insisted her husband Harold buy her one of these devices so she'd have something to do all day besides watch the baby.  This brief story consists primarily of Barbara's flashbacks to the day Harold was killed in a car wreck and Barbara had an argument with mother, mixed in with Barbara's dreams about corpses and plagues; any of these "events" could in fact simply be reflective of the crazy adventures of the TV characters whose thoughts Barbara shares.  It is a little hard to figure out what is really going on, and I didn't feel like the reward of figuring it all out would match the amount of time and energy required to do so.  The last paragraph makes it seem like Barbara has either harmed her baby while under the influence of the TV, or has neglected to take the baby to the hospital after the car wreck because she is under the influence of the TV.  Either way, this story is some kind of attack on or lament about the suburbs and the TV, both of which are conventionally thought of by the cognoscenti as a "cultural wasteland."  (Maybe I should mention Ray Bradbury's much more interesting attack on TV in Fahrenheit 451?)

Do we need an unclear and dream-like story that tells us yet again that suburban life and TV are crummy?  Not really.  Is this story terrible?  Not really--I'm putting this one in the mediocre file.  However mediocre I thought it was, it was translated into German and into French (by Belgians, I think.)  No doubt those sophisticated continentals had a good laugh at the expense of our suburbs over a nice plate of kraut, snails and waffles!

Achtung! and ooh la la!
Lief has a novel and four short stories listed at isfdb.  It is a little embarrassing that I said I have never heard of her before because she has a story in Clarion and another in Again, Dangerous Visions, both of which I own and both of which I have read from.  I guess my eyes glazed over her name as I looked at the contents pages of both books.  Well, I have a bad habit of skimming and a poor memory, no doubt the result of a childhood spent empathizing with Gilligan, Barney Rubble and the long-suffering Fred Mertz!  A Google search suggests that Lief has found success as a psychoanalyst and as a painter and photographer in beautiful New York City, far from any ticky tacky Levittowns.

"The Birthday Boy" by James Stevens

Stevens has a novel and like 20 stories listed at isfdb, and apparently has achieved considerable success in the television industry (don't tell Evelyn!), writing and producing and directing films and commercials.

"The Birthday Boy," for most of its seven pages, is a charming, amusing, and bittersweet story about children and childhood and how cruel and callous kids can be and how the people we envy because they have wealth or some other advantage probably have problems just like we do.  This first part of the story consists of the narrator talking about the seventh birthday of his best friend, a child eager to grow up--this material is witty and fun, reminding me in some ways of that famous Jean Shepherd movie, A Christmas Story.  The last page and a half are a sort of surreal allegorical fantasy, I guess a sort of dream or nightmare?  This bizarre sequence seems to suggest that it is foolish to wish to grow up quickly because decrepitude and death come all too soon.

I enjoyed this one.

"Reprisal" by Alice Laurence

I think "Birthday Boy" and
"Reprisal" only ever appeared in
Generation--too bad, these are
worth your time
Laurence has a novel and thirteen stories listed at isfdb, and has also edited two anthologies, including Speculations, the anthology in which the authors' names were written in code and the reader was expected to try to guess who wrote what story based on style and content!

In his intro to "Reprisal," editor David Gerrold warns us this is a story about an oppressed minority with special powers.  We get a lot of these stories in science fiction, I suppose because of the considerable real estate in the popular consciousness occupied by the topics of anti-Semitism, racism, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights movement, and because the stereotypical writer (and SF fan) is somebody who thinks he is smarter than everybody else and yet feels ostracized, alienated, or bullied.  Even though Generation is billed as including new voices and being fresh and original and all that, Gerrold admits that Laurence's story is not really new, but yet again hammers home a lesson he thinks we should hear "again and again and again."

This intro made me think reading this story was going to be like eating my broccoli or attending a mandatory diversity training, but it is actually not bad.  Joachim Boaz has suggested I hold off reading these intros until after I've read the story they accompany, but I just can't help myself.

It is the future!  Crime was so rampant in the late 20th century that in the 21st century there was a revolution in criminal justice, spearheaded by a psychologist!  The government abolished the overcrowded prisons and instead of imprisoning malefactors instituted a system of punishment which consisted of public paddling of lawbreakers!  This form of punishment was so humiliating that most people subjected to it reformed, abandoning all thoughts of leading a life of crime!

The plot of this story follows Anne and Johnny, the leaders of a non-violent movement for the civil rights of the newly emerging race of homo superior.  These people, popularly known as witches and wizards, have minor psychic powers, like telekinesis strong enough to move a sheet of paper, but, more importantly, can fly using transparent wings.  (As with the totally absurd idea of abolishing prison and replacing it with spanking, Laurence's description of how the witches and wizards fly is absolutely ridiculous and not meant to be believable; this story is a kind of fable.) Poor old homo sapiens resent and fear the wizards and witches, and besides making them live in ghettos and being reluctant to hire them and the like, they make flying illegal and paddle any of them caught flying.

"Reprisal" actually reminded me of something Robert Heinlein might write, in particular Stranger in a Strange Land.  Much of the text of the story is taken up with philosophical discussions between the narrator (Anne) and Johnny, who is a wise and saintly leader, like Heinlein's Valentine Michael Smith, and these discussions have a libertarian flavor (Johnny hates eminent domain, for example, and instead of agitating for anti-discrimination laws he accepts that refusal to rent to or hire witches and wizards is within the rights of business owners.)  Like the Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land, Johnny dies a martyr, but not before he has taught his followers a better way to live.

"Reprisal" can also be compared to Lester del Rey's "Day is Done," which we just read, in that it is about a new, superior, race ineluctably supplanting an old one, but while in Del Rey's story the new people are cruel jerks, in Laurence's story it is the obsolete race, driven by fear and envy, who commit all the sins.      

Clearly written (it is nice to get a break from the surrealism of the last two stories!) and including strange ideas and paradigm shifts like so many classic SF tales, I can give "Reprisal" a thumbs up without reservation.

"Psychedelic Flight" by Robert Ray

One of my pet peeves in SF is psychedelic dream sequences which the writer intends to convey the experience of being high on drugs or having amazing sex or listening to mind-bending rock music.  Robert Silverberg includes such scenes in The World Inside and Shadrach in the Furnace, and in my opinion theses scenes are boring and gratuitous and stop the narrative cold.  I feel a little bit like a hypocrite feeling this way, because I love the "Star Gate" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, but I think my attitude is justified by the vast differences between the different media and because the Star Gate sequence, with its strange sights and sounds, represents a quantitative rather than a qualitative change from the rest of the movie; the entire film consists of strange sights and sounds, the Star Gate section is just the strangest part, not a gratuitous digression at all but a fully integrated component of the work.  Also, the sequence is not simply in a character's head, but is "really" happening, unlike a drug-induced or music-inspired dream which is has nothing to do with the plot.

Anyway, the title of this story had me worrying that it was going to be just a bunch of pointless surreal visions.  (Joachim, there is no way I am going to read these stories without reading the title first!)

Our narrator is a pothead from New Orleans who moves to New York and gets mixed up in a "scene" with wealthy acid heads.  He doesn't want to use acid, but they basically force him to do so.  When he wakes up he is in a prison on another world, his soul trapped in the body of a hideous tentacled monster, a member of the intelligent race which rules this planet.  One of the other tentacled monsters tells him the score: the natives of this planet reproduce via a sort of industrial process in which souls of people from other planets, including Earth, are implanted in native bodies. Usually the souls come as a blank slate, but sometimes the soul is still imprinted with its original personality, as in the narrator's case.  Such people are put in this prison, where they live for centuries before the monster body wears out.

(I wonder if this story is some kind of homage to H. P. Lovecraft... in "The Shadow Out of Time" a narrator's consciousness occupies the body of an alien tentacled monster during dreams, and he talks to other humans who have suffered the same fate.)

To make boring prison life more interesting, the narrator figures out how to make hallucinogenic drugs by ripping off monster skin and drying it.  On one of his skin trips he dreams he is a guy on Earth, a pothead from New Orleans who moves to New York, etc.....

Gimmicky and lame, "Psychedelic Flight" get a thumbs down.  (Still, it is probably better than editor Gerrold's own drugs-sent-me-to-outer-space story in Generation, "All of Them Were Empty.")   Ray has three novels and five stories listed at isfdb. Like Evelyn Lief's "Every Fourth House," "Psychedelic Flight" appeared, in French, in Cauchemars au ralenti.

"The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" by Roger Deeley

Remember "Sign at the End of the Universe" by Duane Ackerson, which appeared in David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's 1974 anthology Alternities?  Well, here is another one line joke story Gerrold and Goldin saw fit to purchase.  Don't expect the nuance and excitement we witnessed in "Sign at the End of the Universe"'s three words, however; "The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told"'s three words are a groan-inducing disappointment.


Lame.  Still, it was included in 1975's Reflections of the Future: An Elective Course in Science Fiction and Fact, and was translated for the delectation of our Francophone buddies.

I had trouble finding a good photo of Reflections of the Future

"Here's a Health Unto His Majesty"
by Roger Deeley

Deeley isn't finished!  He has two stories here in Generation, and thus a chance to redeem himself!  And I suppose he does; "Here's a Health Unto His Majesty" is a trifling, but competent, time travel story, told from the point of view not of the time traveller but of the 17th century people he meets.

It is shortly after the Restoration, and a guy on his way to London stops at an inn.  The innkeeper tells him the story of a strange man he met back in 1649.  This man, we readers can easily discern, is a 20th-century genius who invented a time machine and travelled to the 17th century on a mission to rescue Charles I from execution.  His mission failed because he caught smallpox and died before he (armed with a supply of hand grenades) could get to London.

Acceptable.

Deeley has six short story credits at isfdb.  In the intro to "Here's a Health Unto His Majesty" we learn that his ancestors were French aristocrats who lost everything in the 1789 revolution.

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Taken as a whole, not a bad batch of stories.  More stories from Generation by people I know nothing about in our next episode.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Four more stories from Operation Future: Russell, Simak, Del Rey and Knight


Let's read four more stories from 1955's Operation Future!  Today we'll be looking at tales by relatively well known members of the SF community: Eric Frank Russell, Clifford D. Simak, Lester del Rey, and Damon Knight.

"Exposure" by Eric Frank Russell (1950)

(I am going to be saying "It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering" under my breath for a week after writing this.)

Last year I read the 1978 collection The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  Here's a story which didn't make it into that collection, but which has been anthologized several times, not only in a Russell collection (Like Nothing on Earth) but in at least three anthologies with Martin H. Greenberg's name on them.  Perhaps even more remarkable, it was included in a 1952 anthology called Let's Go Naked: Love and Life in a Nudist Camp edited by SF super-editor Donald Wollheim!  (isfdb doesn't mention Let's Go Naked, but the editor of Operation Future, Groff Conklin, does in his intro to "Exposure," warning us that "Exposure" is the only SF story in that book.)


"Exposure" is a joke story about aliens who land in a secluded forest in the United States and go about collecting samples of Earth life; their people plan on conquering Earth and enslaving us natives, and this recon ship is here to learn as much as they can about us before the assault is launched.  These aliens are shape-shifters, and after they have collected (and dissected!) two human beings from a camp, their best scouts take on the appearance of humans and try to infiltrate several nearby towns in order to investigate our weapons and energy technology.  The punch line of the story is that the aliens took their sample humans from a nudist colony, so their scouts have no clothes and are immediately picked up by the authorities, which foils their reconnaissance mission and ultimately spares Earth the calamity of invasion.

This is a humorous story and it is full of little jokes, but Russell plays it straight; this is not a farce or an extravagant satire, and the jokes come out of believable characters and situations and are actually amusing.  The aliens and their recon methods are convincing and interesting, and I enjoyed the story as much or more for its "serious" bits as the comedy.  I can see why "Exposure" has been so widely anthologized--it is quite good.

"Exposure" first appeared in Astounding.  Also pictured: a 1956 edition of Let's Go Naked.
"Worrywart" by Clifford D. Simak (1953)

I haven't read any Simak in a long time.  I think Simak is a good writer, but I find his anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-industrial attitude a little tiresome.  Maybe it is just me, but I don't actually think the world would be a better place if the only humans left were roving bands of Indians who leave the cities to intelligent dogs and robot priests.

Simak was a newspaperman, and "Worrywart"'s text draws on this knowledge, and talk of how a 1950s newspaper was run adds some additional interest to the proceedings.  Our protagonist is a copyreader who comes across a number of stories describing almost impossible events, like a terrible plane crash which all the passengers survive and the miraculous recovery of a terminally ill child, and investigates possible connections between them.  He discovers that a man with amazing mental powers must be at the bottom of these unlikely deliverances.  This guy was an invalid as a child, and did lots of reading and fantasizing.  Somehow his fantasizing about travelling to other planets has put him in touch with alien intelligences, and this relationship has given him the power to manipulate matter, time and history!  If he wants something to happen, or something to unhappen, he can make it so!

"Worrywart" was first published in Galaxy
The psychic is very agitated about the possibility of a major war.  ("He's hell bent...to bring peace to the world," one character says of him.)  One assumes Simak is alluding to Cold War tensions (1952 and 1953 saw lots of exciting Cold War incidents, including Stalin's death, anti-Communist uprisings in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, the execution of the Rosenbergs, various nuclear weapons tests and the tail end of the Korean War) but Simak studiously avoids mentioning such words as "Cold War" or "Soviet Union" or "communism."  Perhaps Simak was chary of offending readers who had taken sides in the political and ideological struggle between the East and West; we don't all have the courage to say what we really think about the people who pay our bills, the kind of courage we see in Drexel professors.

Our newspaperman worries that the psychic, who has lived a sheltered life and never been to school and so is very naive, will clumsily use his astonishing powers in an attempt to ensure peace, perhaps in a way that will cause more problems than it solves. The newspaperman is aware that the psychic reads science fiction stories, and when he finds that a new magazine includes a story about a man who ends modern war by outlawing electricity, his worries go into overdrive--by tinkering with man's knowledge of electricity, or the natural phenomena of electricity itself, the naive psyker may impoverish mankind or even destroy the universe!

This story is well written and well paced and all that, so I don't mind recommending it, even if the plot is a little silly.  All you SF scholars out there can compare it to the famous Jerome Bixby story about a naive person who wields godlike power, "It's a Good Life," which was published the same year as "Worrywart."

"Day is Done" by Lester del Rey (1939)

"Day is Done" first chronicled
 microaggressions against Neanderthalers
in Astounding
Del Rey's last name is very familiar to me from the spines of Ballantine science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks (he and his fourth wife Judy-Lynn were both important editors) but I haven't read a whole lot of his fiction. When I read the short version of Nerves back in 2014, I thought it long and boring, but on this topic I was swimming against the tide: that version of Nerves has been widely anthologized and even included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and Conklin praises Nerves in his intro here.

All you paleontologists and anthropologists will be thrilled to hear that "Day is Done" is about cavemen!  Del Rey spins the sad tale of the last Neanderthal, Hwoogh, who is not only driven out of the hunting business, but insulted and abused by the smarter, more dextrous, and more technologically advanced Cro-Magnons who moved into the area when Hwoogh was young.  They even violate his cave, which everybody knows is a caveman's safe space!  Del Rey describes these peoples' biology and culture in some detail; I have no idea how much of what del Rey tells us is based on scientific research and how much he just came up with.  Whatever the case, this story is entertaining enough, and will perhaps resonate with readers who have grown old and feel obsolete, or have witnessed their culture, people or way of life demeaned and swept away.

"Special Delivery" by Damon Knight (1954)

Like del Rey, Knight may well be more important as an editor than a writer, but I have actually read a bunch of Knight's own fiction, as well as stories he edited for such publications as the famous Orbit series.  It turns out that "Special Delivery" is a commonly used name for short stories; Kris Neville published a story called "Special Delivery" two years before Knight's.  Neville's "Special Delivery" was about an alien spy softening up Earth for conquest, while Knight's "Special Delivery" exploits new parents' anxieties about their children and how a baby will change their lives, and features some of the whining we never stop hearing from public school teachers about how the taxpayers don't shovel enough money into their pockets.

"Special Delivery" first sent chills up new
parents' spines in Galaxy
Moira, wife of school teacher Len Connington, a Columbia alumnus and aspiring physics grad student, is pregnant.  Knight signals the story's cynicism by telling us (in a sort of oblique way that softens the blow and muddies the issue) on the second page that Len regrets ever meeting Moira!  It quickly becomes apparent that their unborn child is some kind of mutant supergenius--he can read Moira's mind and see through her eyes and so forth, and while still in the womb can understand English and even talk--a doctor holding a stethoscope to Moira's belly hears the baby insulting him.  Yes, insulting him--this baby is a jerk! (Knight flings a healthy helping of cultural references at us in this story, and one such allusion compares the enfant terrible to Monty Woolley's character in the 1942 film The Man Who Came to Dinner--old movie fans and wikipedia will tell you this character was "notoriously acerbic"; internet film reviewer MonsterHunter calls him "consistently caustic" and "maddeningly self-absorbed.")

The baby, whom Moira names after Leonardo da Vinci, starts running the household by threatening to kick if he doesn't get his way.  Leo gets Len fired from his teaching job, forces Moira to read stacks and stacks of challenging books, and refuses to let Len sleep in the same bed with Moira!  Len and Moira fear that Leo will become a dictator and rule the world with an iron fist once he is free of the womb, but they needn't have worried: Leo's genius is the result of the low oxygen environment of the uterus; once he has to breathe normal air he reverts to being a normal infant, ignorant and helpless.

Not bad.  All you SF scholars out there can compare this to Bradbury's 1946 "Small Assassin" and Kuttner and Moore's stories about troublesome kids in conflict with their parents, like 1944's "When the Bough Breaks" and 1946's "Absalom."  It's true: babies are scary!

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All these stories are entertaining and worth the SF fan's time; the Russell and Simak indulge in far-out SF concepts but reflect the anxieties of a world embroiled in the Cold War in which the cataclysm of World War II was a recent memory, while the del Rey and Knight allegorically treat our personal worries about our places in the world and in our families.  Operation Future is a worthwhile purchase.