Sunday, February 25, 2018

Science Fiction and Fantasy from Playboy: Pohl, Sturgeon, Davidson and Ballard

Here's our third (and final) installment of our exploration of 1966's The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Today's stories are all by authors about whose work I have mixed feelings, or, as I like to put it, authors whose work is uneven.  If pressed, I will admit my mixed feelings for some of these authors may be partly a result of my skepticism or hostility to their politics or philosophies.

"The Fiend" by Frederik Pohl (1964)

It has been years since I read any fiction by Frederik Pohl, largely because I read Drunkard's Walk in 2011 and it pushed all my buttons (and I don't mean the good buttons that LeRoy Neiman's male fantasy "the femlin" is trying to push) though I have read lots of stories from books or magazines he edited over the course of this blog's life.  In my youth I read many of Pohl's novels, though the only ones I really remember are the Heechee books (I love the first, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Gateway) and Man Plus.  It is an odd feeling to look at the covers of Jem, Starburst, Black Star Rising, and The World at the End of Time on isfdb and vividly recall having library copies of them in my New Jersey bedroom and even carrying them around to Nana's house or high school (the feel of the protective plastic jackets on library hardcovers, and the annoying sounds they made, is very distinctive in my mind) and not recall anything about their contents.  Why do I read all these books if I don't remember anything about them?  Am I throwing my life away?

Let's put aside nostalgia and angst and read one of the two stories by Pohl that Ray Russell, anonymous editor of The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, selected for inclusion, "The Fiend."  (I read the other one, "Punch," back in 2014.) 

I am happy to report that, to my tastes, "The Fiend" is a perfect little classic SF story.  It's about a space voyage, which is nice, because I'm getting a little tired of oppressive dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenarios.  "The Fiend" is also a bunch of speculations about the technology and society of the future, and develops characters and human drama.  And it has a surprise ending which works, because it makes sense and is foreshadowed but still came as a surprise.  The story is also "edgy" because of its hints of sexual mistreatment of a teenage girl and its not exactly flattering depiction of homosexuality.

A space ship carrying hundreds of frozen colonists is crossing the void!  A 16-year-old girl is unfrozen while the ship is only like halfway to its destination.  Angrily, she jumps out of the freezing capsule and starts yelling; she has been warned that the captains of these ships, who pilot them all alone for decades, will sometimes break the rules and unfreeze colonists for sex or companionship.  We readers, of course, expect the captain to rape her or seduce her or something of the kind, but he only watches her, and as the story unfolds we learn why: 1) he is a repressed homosexual and all his life he has dreamed of enslaving women--not to have sex with them, but to treat them as dolls, to, through them, vicariously live a life as a woman!  2) he is a disembodied brain, integrated with the ship and tasked with managing it as punishment for some crime!

Pohl does a fine job in only seven pages of constructing a compelling milieu and fascinating characters and setting up and detonating a surprise for the reader.  Very good.  Five out of five disembodied brains!

"The Nail and the Oracle" by Theodore Sturgeon (1965)

I like a good proportion of Sturgeon's work and think he is an interesting writer, though sometimes his elitist and collectivist attitudes, and the more tedious of his utopias, can get on my nerves.  "The Nail and the Oracle" doesn't have those problems, but is a little oblique and I found it a little hard to understand at first, and then when I did (I think) decipher it I was disappointed that it was, in the end, a kind of pun story aspiring to portentousness.

It is the future of 1970, and our setting is the Pentagon.  The supercomputer called ORACLE that helps guide so many Defense Department decisions is on the fritz, and our protagonist is Jones, the head of the team sent by the manufacturer to repair it.  The way this computer works is that you type out a question on a typewriter and then hold the paper in front of a camera so the 'puter can read it.  ORACLE has read a vast quantity of books and periodicals in many languages in just this fashion ("It's the greatest repository of human thought and thought-directed action the world has ever known") and it uses this base of knowledge to answer your question.

Anyway, our hero and his all-star team of nerds overhaul and test the computer and it seems to be working just fine.  But three very important men who have very important questions for ORACLE report that the machine still refuses to answer their queries.  These men are an admiral, a colonel and a famous and influential adviser who sits on the Presidential Cabinet; Sturgeon doesn't name them, but I thought of them as caricatures or amalgamations of people like Douglas MacArthur and Henry Kissinger, people of great influence and stature with supporters among both the elite and the general public.  It seems likely Sturgeon had specific people in mind, but I'm just not familiar enough with the world of 1965, the world of six years before my birth, to be able to puzzle out who.

Jones tells the three titans that maybe he can fix the computer if they tell him their questions.  They are reluctant to do so, but eventually they each individually and privately reveal their queries to the computer man.  Both military men have been asking a question that reveals they are considering murdering the President or somebody else in order to take power themselves, while the civilian adviser wants to know if throwing his support behind a radical demagogue who advocates disarmament and isolationism will ensure peace.  One of the things I found confusing about the story is the fact that the servicemen would admit to Jones their illegal and prima facie immoral plans--aren't they afraid Jones will immediately expose them to the FBI or White House?  Sturgeon seems to suggest that the admiral and/or the colonel sincerely love the United States and are only contemplating such extreme measures because they think only they can save the country from disaster, and are willing to risk their careers to make sure the essential computer is working.  Anyway, Jones asks ORACLE how to convince the admiral and colonel to refrain from launching their coups and how to convince the adviser to refrain from lending his support to the demagogue, and then follows the machine's advice, saving the USA from domestic strife.

But why didn't the computer answer the three questions when the admiral, colonel and cabinet member presented them?  Jones realizes that the field of view of ORACLE's camera takes in not only the papers people show it, but the wall beyond.  On the wall is a sign bearing the single word "THINK."  Such signs, apparently, were common in IBM offices for decades, "THINK" being a sort of IBM slogan.  It looks like Sturgeon's surprise ending is that the computer was following this exhortation to think as if it were one of its instructions, and couldn't answer the three questions because the result of the admiral, colonel or demagogue taking over the USA was unthinkable.

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This story feels kind of contrived and the ending is a bit of a letdown, and I even think it could have been structured a little better to explain the motivations of the three questioners and the demagogue.  Sturgeon doesn't set a tone of urgency in the beginning of the story, so the revelation that the three bigwigs are all considering such radical expedients seems to come out of left field, as sports fans say.  A few lines about riots or impending war in Europe or something in the beginning of the story, and a mention of the demagogue (who isn't brought up until the middle of the story) would have made the story more effective, in my opinion?  It feels like maybe Sturgeon is relying on the reader's knowledge of current events to set the tone, in the same way he seems to assume we all know about THINK signs, but this doesn't necessarily work on those of us reading the story fifty years later.

I'll call it acceptable.     

"The Sensible Man" by Avram Davidson (1959)

I read Davidson's Mutiny in Space and Rork! years ago and just kind of shrugged.  During this blog's life I have read a couple Davidson stories, including "The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off Eye Street" which I denounced as "horrible," and "The Sources of the Nile" which I judged "not bad."  I'm kind of planning to read the magazine version of Ursus of Ultima Thule as part of my exploration of Ted White's Fantastic, but I haven't gotten to it yet.  Anyway, "The Sensible Man" has a chance to really change my opinion of Avram Davidson, which is not yet fully formed.

An American scientist, an important member of the team developing the USA's first spacecraft, murders one of his fellow scientists and defects to the Soviet Union!  When the commies ask him if he is a sincere Leninist he tells them he is a practical, sensible man, that he is joining the socialist East because he thinks they have pulled ahead of the democratic West and he wants to be on the winning side!  The traitor is given all the resources he needs to develop the first manned spacecraft, a tiny satellite.  He succeeds, but the bolshies don't trust him.  When the Soviets build the satellite from his designs they leave out any means of the craft--and its one-man crew--returning safely to Earth; the Yankee traitor himself is impressed into service as this one-man crew and blasts off on a one-way trip into orbit!  The satellite will be his grave, and if he wants to prolong his existence a remote-controlled IV will provide him sustenance every time he radios a useful report on conditions up in space back to Moscow.

This is a very short story, but it is solid.  I not only appreciate its dim view of the USSR and of treachery, but also like a little noirish touch Davidson (who won an Edgar award for his work writing mystery stories as well a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award) includes: the traitor's final resting place in his satellite/tomb is much like that of his colleague whom he murdered and then put in the trunk of his car, which now lies at the bottom of a lake.

I like it!

"Souvenir" by J. G. Ballard (1964)

I thought Ballard's novel The Drowned World was too long and tedious and its basic conceit silly, and things like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" a gimmicky waste of time, but I liked "Billenium" quite a lot and thought "The Garden of Time" to be very thought-provoking.  ("You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe" gave me a chance to put my favorite photo of Norma Jean Mortenson on the blog.)  My reactions to Ballard are all over the place, so let's see what happens with this one.

I really thought that all the stories in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy first appeared in Playboy, but it seems that "Souvenir" first was published in the collection The Terminal Beach under the title "The Drowned Giant," in 1964.  I guess the appearance in Playboy was the tale's first US appearance.

Our narrator in "Souvenir" is a member of a team conducting research at a library when a dead giant's carcass washes up on a nearby pebbly beach.  He goes to look at the titanic corpse, and returns to the scene over several days, witnessing people's reaction to the tremendous carcass, its decay and dismembered by the locals until only a few monstrous bones remain. 

When I read "Garden of Time" I thought it was about the inability of modern people to appreciate the finest achievements of our civilization, their actual propensity to wreck such things, that Ballard was lamenting that in our age, the age of democracy, capitalism and socialism in which the common man calls the tune, high culture was dying.  I think we see the same theme in "Souvenir" as well.   Ballard repeatedly likens the dead giant to a Greek sculpture, in particular a Roman copy of a Praxiteles, and to an heroic Argonaut or one of the fallen warriors about whom Homer sang, while parts of the giant's body are often metaphorically labelled after elements of classical architecture, columns and the like.  The dead giant is (or was) something beautiful and noble, a bigger and better version of ourselves, but the common people show it no respect--they climb over it like "flies" and perch on it like a "flock of gulls" on a big dead fish; children play games on it, marking it with their dirty footprints.  In the middle of the process of decay someone builds a sand castle on the giant's chest (like a medieval fortification built on ancient Roman foundations?) and late in the process business enterprises ("a fertilizer company and a cattle-food manufacturer") cart away pieces of the giant in pursuit of profit; we later learn that people are using some of the giant's bones as architectural elements, as medievals might use stone blocks from classical ruins to build their own homes, and that parts of the giant's body are attractions at circuses and museums, like ancient art and artifacts.  Months later, when the giant's carcass has been taken apart and almost totally consumed, people have largely forgotten the giant ever existed, in the way most people know nothing of the West's classical heritage.

Another theme of "Souvenir," I believe, is our inability to really understand the world around us.  The narrator is, apparently, some kind of professional researcher, a person whose job is to figure things out, to acquire knowledge, but he is consistently deceived or befuddled by the giant.  The corpse looks no bigger than "a basking shark" when he first sees it from a distance, but when he gets closer he realizes it is the size of "the largest sperm whale."  In one scene he looks at the giant's palm in hopes of learning about his character via the lines, but this is impossible because of "the distention of the tissues."  Of course, palm reading is a scam under any circumstances--perhaps Ballard is hinting that the methods of respectable intellectuals are no more reliable than those of mercenary and mendacious soothsayers in trying to comprehend the world around us.  Scientists come to look at the corpse but we learn nothing of their conclusions.

A good story of the ruminative, surreal (the event is obviously very surreal, but Ballard writes about it in a very realistic, matter-of-fact manner) type.


Nowadays our popular culture is suffused with sex and professionally photographed color pictures of topless women are trivially easy to come by, but this wasn't really the case in 1953 when Playboy debuted, and I think many of Playboy's fans and detractors would argue that Hugh Hefner's magazine played a major role in propelling America down the road to today's more open attitude about sex in general and in the media in particular.  Ray Russell similarly tries to put over the idea that Playboy revolutionized the SF world, giving SF writers more money and more freedom and, in return, getting the best possible SF stories.  I've read the eleven the stories in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy by authors in whom I have a particular interest, and I have to admit that, taken as a group (especially if we leave out the one clunker) they are pretty good, and perhaps the topics they address were sort of pushing the envelope when they appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

I also think quite a few of these stories may reflect the brand Playboy was developing for itself, one of sex and sophistication.  (Check out the covers of the various Playboy's Party Jokes volumes that foreground the secondary sexual characteristics of the "femlin" and claim that Playboy is "America's Most Sophisticated Magazine.")  Pohl's "The Fiend," Beaumont's "The Crooked Man," and Clarke's "I Remember Babylon"  incorporate or even revolve around sexual elements.  "I Remember Babylon" betrays a contempt for the ordinary masses (porn will trick the gullible dopes into becoming commies) while Bloch's "Word of Honor" and Sturgeon's "The Nail and Oracle" showcase a sort of sophisticate's cynicism about America's institutions and leaders as well as the common people, who need to be lied to and who will follow any demagogue who comes along.  Ballard's "Souvenir" is a monument to snobbery.  Perhaps most interestingly, the writers who take religion seriously, the Christian Bradbury in "The Vacation" and Talmudic scholar Avram Davidson in "The Sensible Man," subvert such misanthropic snobbery and cynical sophistication, showing them to be hollow and self-destructive.

I feel that my look at The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy has been a worthwhile enterprise.  More SF published by Playboy in our next episode!

1 comment:

  1. I also have found Ballard to be a writer of uneven interest and quality.

    While it doesn't mention "Souvenir" per se, you might find this Theodore Dalyrmple article on Ballard of interest in that it mentions his "sensitivity to modern decomposition" as a theme: