Thursday, February 15, 2018

Shadows of Tomorrow cast by Leiber, Boucher, Shaara and Gunn


Here's another of my 50 cent finds from the carts outside Second Story Books in our nation's capital, 1953's Shadow of Tomorrow, edited by Frederick Pohl, alumnus of the Young Communist League and author of the classic Gateway.  My copy of the 379-page book is in pretty good shape if you ignore the water spots.  An earlier owner appears to have used the inner front cover as scratch paper while working on his algebra homework or trying to crack a KGB cipher.  I hope he passed the class or caught the Rosenbergs' controller or whatever.

The description of Michael Shaara's Orphans of the Void
sounds like it is for a different story.

In our last episode we looked at four stories from Astounding from the period 1938 to 1944.  Today's crop of SF capers are all from Galaxy, from the early 1950s.  Let's see if they are really "more vivid than anything you have ever read" and "possible," as the back cover promises.

"A Bad Day For Sales" by Fritz Leiber (1953)

In his intro to this volume Frederick Pohl says something that I don't expect to hear pinkos say: that the world and society are in pretty good shape!  The salutary state of the world in the early 1950s, Pohl continues, presents a problem to the SF writer who would play social critic: if things are so good, it is not easy to come up with a compelling story on how they should be improved.  One solution available to the able writer, Pohl tells us, is to write a story that points out not what course our society should pursue, but what course to avoid, and Pohl includes "A Bad Day For Sales" on the list of stories from Shadow of Tomorrow that take this tack.  In his intro to the individual story itself, Pohl offers his opinion that "A Bad Day For Sales" is the best story ever written by Fritz Leiber.

So, what world does Leiber suggest we should avoid in this brief tale?  A consumerist world in which popular culture is suffused with sex and violence and America is involved in mass war in the Muslim East!  (I have the feeling we haven't exactly been heeding Fritz's warning!)  The plot consists of a robot on the streets of Manhattan, trying to sell various items to the city dwellers, like lolly-pops, soda pop, booze, copies of comic books (Junior Space Killers to a boy, Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper to a girl) and cosmetics (Mars Blood, a "savage new glamor-tint"), the last to a woman in six-inch heels and skin-tight pants who flaunts her body at the robot.  Nearby, a fifty-foot-tall animatronic mannequin dresses and undresses, advertising the latest fashions, while news about the Pakistan crisis flashes by on the Times Square news ticker.  Then a stealth missile lands in Times Square, killing scores of people; the robot salesman survives, but is confused by this turn of events.

This is a sort of trifling joke story, but some of the jokes are funny (I definitely laughed at Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper.)  I thought it a little incongruous to find the author of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, which feature light-hearted depictions of swordfights, thievery and rape*, apparently lecturing us on the issue of sex and violence in entertainment.  ("A Bad Day For Sales," by the way, features explicit depictions of people being maimed and killed by the missile attack--I expect these are meant to be disturbing, not amusing.)  I'm guessing Pohl loved "A Bad Day For Sales" because it feels like an attack on advertising and the sale and purchase of frivolous things like sugary sweets and cosmetics, and perhaps hints that all act as "the opiates of the people," distracting them and keeping them from changing the government which is getting mixed up in all the wars (Orwell and numerous other lefties make this sort of argument.)

I love Coca-Cola and Oreos and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, and if I had seen Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper on the shelf during one of my regular visits to Jim Hanley's Universe back in my Manhattan days I would have eagerly snatched it up, so I am looking at this story as an affectionate send up, a knowingly ironic homage, to our consumerist culture and giving it a thumbs up!  (Just call me Mr. False Consciousness.)  So there!

The immortal Charles Schulz was also mining the anti-social comic book title vein
in the early 1950s.  This panel is from the June 22, 1952 Peanuts strip.
"A Bad Day For Sales" has been reprinted many times in such books as the volume of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories that covers 1953 and The Arbor House Treasure of Science Fiction Masterpieces.  (While the former is "headlined" by Asimov and the latter by Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg is second editor on both...perhaps it is Greenberg who was so very keen on this piece.)

Is it vivid?  Yes!

Is it possible?  Yes!

*Not wanting to unfairly #metoo the Grey Mouser, one of the heroes of my youth, I took my 1986 copy of Swords and Ice Magic off the shelf and reread 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner" and I can confirm that therein the Grey Mouser rapes a teen-aged girl assassin and that the scene is played for laughs.   

"Transfer Point" by Anthony Boucher (1950)

Boucher is another well-known figure in SF with whose work I have little familiarity.  Because he also wrote mystery stories and his name starts with a "B," I sometimes mix him up with Frederic Brown, who once wrote a story about a man-eating armadillo.  I have a terrible memory!

Like Leiber's "A Bad Day for Sales," "Transfer Point" is a joke story, but whereas Leiber's story is brisk and brief and includes some funny jokes, Boucher's tale is long and tedious and not at all funny.

It is two thousand years in the future!  Modern medicine has advanced to the point that nobody suffers from allergies.  Well, this one guy does--he's got eczema!  The eczema-sufferer is a genius scientist, and constructs himself a "retreat" with super air-conditioning so he won't have to itch anymore.  (This guy joins the pantheon of literary characters who suffer from eczema that is headed by Jewish authority on Vermeer and man-about-town Charles Swann, who treated his eczema with pain d'epices, air-conditioning not having been invented yet.)  So when hostile aliens introduce a new element, an inert gas, into the atmosphere that causes everybody to cough and sneeze to death, this guy is safe!

Holed up with the genius scientist, safe in the retreat while the rest of humanity dies of the sniffles, is his vapid but sexy daughter and a young writer who is composing an epic poem about the history of the human race.  Sexy daughter flirts outrageously with the versifier (e.g., she eats fruits and sucks the juices off her fingers right in front of him!) but he is not interested because she is so dull-witted.  Bored, the poet kills time by reading some 20th-century science-fiction magazines he finds in the archives.  (Meta!)  He is amazed to discover that one of the stories describes his own time and plight--in fact, the story he is reading is the story we readers are reading.  He doesn't find it funny, either!

The scientist constructs a time machine and the poet ends up in 1948 where he becomes a SF writer and tries to romance a well-educated female editor and publish that story about himself and a human race menaced by alien chemical warfare.  Boucher piles on the meta with characters directly referring to Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros.  Then, after 20 pages of lame jokes, Boucher tries to switch gears and pull our heartstrings by having the romance with the editor fail and the poet's manuscript thrown into the fire instead of published, which means the time loop we've all been reading about is broken and the human race is exterminated in the year 3950 or whatever. 

Weak!

Despite my dismissal of this overly long and self-indulgent piece, Robert Silverberg included "Transfer Point" in the seventh volume of his Alpha series (promoted as a collection of "the greatest contemporary masterpieces") and it appeared multiple times in translation in Europe.

Is it vivid?  No!

Is it possible?  No!

"Orphans of the Void" by Michael Shaara (1952)

It's the guy who writes those novels about the religious beliefs of American Civil War generals!  Oh wait, he just wrote one of those--his son wrote the other ones.  Forgive me; everything I know about The Killer Angels I learned watching a two-minute review of the movie on the TV 25 years ago.

This is another sentimental robot story, one not as effective as the sentimental robot story we read in our last episode, Robert Moore William's "Robot's Return."  For three hundred years humanity has lived in peace and been capable of interstellar flight, but after centuries of exploration has yet to discover evidence of an alien race which has also achieved space travel.  (Planetbound alien civilizations have been discovered, but there is a strict rule that forbids contact with them.)  In this story, space explorers uncover the first ever sign of alien spacefarers, and track the clues to a planet covered in ruined cities, cities destroyed in a cataclysmic war.  All life on the planet was exterminated in the war, but the aliens' self replicating robots survived!

Here comes the sentiment.  To ensure obedience, the robots were programmed with a desire to serve their flesh creature masters, and suffer a sort of psychological pain when they are not serving.  Because their masters have been dead for millennia, the robots have suffered this pain for a long long time.  They even built space ships and went on a fruitless search for "the Makers," whom the robots, it is suggested, view in much the same way humans view God.  The happy ending of the story is that the human race will become these robots' masters; they will help us explore the universe, and need never feel that pain again.  (Shaara doesn't seem to explore the idea that humanity, by becoming these robots' masters, may be hubristically taking on the role of gods.)

The idea behind this story is OK, but Shaara failed to elicit any feeling in me; I just didn't care about these robots' psychological problems.  For one thing, the author fails to create any characters, human or robot, worthy of my sympathy.  He also breaks the "show me don't tell me" rules pretty severely.  Instead of us readers accompanying a human character as he uncovers this whole robotic psychology sob story, the truth of the robots' mental problems is revealed in a scene in which the captain of the space ship reads a report from his anthropology team.  Instead of using some literary techniques to inspire sadness in us readers, or convincingly display the captain's sadness, Shaara just tells is this whole thing is sad with lines like "Not since he [the space captain] was very young had he been so deeply moved."

There are lots of SF stories in which we are supposed to feel sad about robots who have problems, but such stories are a tough sell to me because I can never forget that a robot is just a machine.  When the Toyota Corolla has a flat tire I don't feel bad for the automobile--it's just a machine, with no feelings, and I am inclined to feel the same way about a robot.  Longtime readers of MPorcius Fiction Log may remember how much I gushed about Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, which features a robot that, apparently, develops feelings and then gets destroyed, but that novel worked because Lee placed at its center a believable human character who loved the robot, and the robot served as a catalyst for emotion and change in that human character.

I tend to like stories about dudes in space suits exploring alien artifacts, but I gotta give this one a thumbs down... however, it is not so bad that I won't give some of Shaara's other short SF a try.

Like "Transfer Point," "Orphans of the Void" showed up in Alpha 7.  Silverberg and I are really not on the same page today.

Is it vivid?  Moderately vivid.

Is it possible?  I don't think so.



"The Misogynist" by James E. Gunn (1952)

Back in 2011 I read a novel James E. Gunn coauthored with Jack Williamson in 1955, Star Bridge, and gave it a middling, mildly positive review at Amazon.  Gunn is an important figure in the SF world as a writer, editor, historian and critic, but I don't think I have read anything by him since this blog set sail.     

Whoa, this is another of those stories which wouldn't fly today, full of assessments of women that men nowadays deny they believe if they know what is good for them.  We'll let "Their minds work in devious ways; they win what they want by guile and subtlety" serve as our example of many such lines of dialogue in this story.

Gunn's story is structured as a written account of a conversation between the narrator and the smartest guy in his office, Harry, who has a reputation as a storyteller.  Harry has been married for a month, and has noticed that his wife acts much differently now than she did before they were married.  He expounds to the narrator his theory that most or all women are members of an alien species, left on Earth long ago--this is the only way, he believes, to explain the radical difference between men, who are practical and creative and able to grasp abstract ideas, and women, who are none of these things, but parasites who manipulate men.  No doubt the feminine fiends will eventually figure out how to do without men, and then exterminate them.  Harry warns that men who catch wind of the female conspiracy end up in the asylum or the morgue, but the narrator just thinks he's kidding and blithely tells his own wife, and Harry's, all about Harry's theory.  Two or three days later both Harry and the narrator are out of commission.

An obvious sort of story, but Gunn doesn't let it go on too long, and enlivens it with lots of sexist quotes from famous thinkers and the Bible.  An acceptable entertainment.

"The Misogynist" seems to have struck a chord with the SF community, appearing in numerous anthologies, including SF: Author's Choice 4, one of those anthologies in which writers tell you which of their literary productions they are most proud of--apparently "The Misogynist" represents what Gunn considers his finest work!

Is it vivid?  It is entirely set in some guy's living room, so, who cares?

Is it possible?  That women are different than men?  Yes.  That women are from outer space?  No.

**********

Ouch, these stories are kind of a disappointment.  The Leiber and Gunn stories are reasonably well-written and brief, but their ideas (boilerplate Marxism and boilerplate sexism) are banal.  The Boucher is long and tedious, and the Shaara has a decent idea but is poorly delivered.  Better luck next time, I guess.

More science fiction short stories published before I was born in our next episode!

1 comment:

  1. Well, all I'll say about the Leiber story is that he didn't include it in his The Best of Fritz Leiber.

    I like Gunn and have read most of his stuff, but, no, I don't find "The Misogynist" to be particularly memorable. (My wife, another Gunn fan, disagrees -- but because she finds it indicative of rather troubled marital relationships in Gunn's fiction and didn't like the story at all.)

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