Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Future is Now part two: Boucher, Etchison, Nolan and Purdom

Here's the second of the three installments of our study of the 1970 all-new SF anthology edited by William F. Nolan, The Future is Now.  I own the paperback edition offered to the public by Playboy Press in 1971 with its remarkably unattractive cover illustration, an assemblage by artist Don Baum photographed by Bill Arsenault.

"A Shape in Time" by Anthony Boucher

Go get 'em, John Carter!
In the intro to this two-page story Nolan lists Boucher's many accomplishments in all spheres of life.  Boucher died in 1968, but Nolan tells us that his widow found this story in his unpublished papers.

"A Shape in Time" is a convoluted and nonsensical and unfunny joke about a female secret agent who travels through time seducing men in order to prevent dysgenic marriages.  She has the ability to alter her body shape, and does so on assignments so that her figure will match the prevailing taste of whatever period she is working in.  The punchline of the story (I believe) is that while on a mission in 1880 she thought the large bustles worn by women of the time indicated that men desired women with huge hindquarters, a mistake which resulted in mission failure.


I may think it is feeble, but "A Shape in Time" has been reprinted numerous times in several languages, including in Croatian in Sirius.

"Damechild" by Dennis Etchison

Back in 2015 I read Etchison's Hollywood-centric story "The Dog Park" and his quite effective "The Dead Line."  In his intro here Nolan talks a little about his first meeting with Etchison at a guest lecture Nolan gave at UCLA.

"Damechild" is a little opaque and overwritten, with long sentences full of details that somehow didn't paint clear pictures for me, but I think I have a grasp of its setting and plot.

Five thousand years ago the Earth was going down the tubes.  A transmission of some kind was received from the Horsehead Nebula, so, to preserve the species, the people of Earth constructed a space ship and stocked it with frozen eggs and sperm and launched it at the source of the friendly message.  After fifty centuries, as the ship finally approached the Horsehead Nebula, the vessel's machinery thawed some of the eggs and sperm and fertilized some eggs, producing a handful of people--they are the only conscious humans in all the universe!  Damechild, fertilized and birthed ten years before the others, was to be their leader, and spends the story acting like their mother, coaxing and nagging and cuddling them.

Damechild received a final message from the Horsehead people--due to a war and some kind of environmental catastrophe the Horsehead civilization was about to be wiped out and would not be able to shelter the human race.  So she redirected the ship to the next closest potential refuge, which is like 500,000 years' travel away.  Damechild doesn't tell the other thawed people of this disaster.  These others become addicted to sensory machines--"The sexual stimulator, the sleep stimulator, the visual stimulator, the auditory stimulator, the hunger-satiety stimulator"--and spend all their time huddled against a wall with electrodes attached to their heads.  Their minds degrade, so that they become lethargic and mentally ill ignoramuses.  At least one tries to commit suicide over the course of the story.

Etchison doesn't tell the story in strict chronological order, focusing first on the demented addicts and then telling us the jazz about Earth and the Horsehead civilization in flashbacks, with the sad final message from the aliens as a kind of climax.  Etchison tries to shock or sadden us with the suicide attempt and the bathetic message, but the characters are so flat and the style so foggy I was not moved.

Maybe this story would work for someone who is less cold-hearted than I am?  The plot isn't bad, it's the execution which isn't working for me--neither the emotional landscape of the people nor the physical landscape of the ship is sharp or interesting.  (Chad Oliver, whom I usually think is not very good, did a far better job of conjuring up human feeling and vivid images with his own disastrous-colony-ship-from-a-doomed-Earth story "The Wind Blows Free," which we read recently in another Nolan anthology.)   I'll rate "Damechild" barely acceptable.  "Damechild" was translated into German for a 1977 publication.

"Toe to Tip, Tip to Toe, Pip-Pop As You Go" by William F. Nolan

In the intro to his own story Nolan uses the lame gimmick of a conversation with himself, Nolan the writer pitching his "nutso" and "wild" story idea to Nolan the editor.  Ugh.

This story is pretty bad, a sort of surreal or psychedelic series of boring jokes following a sort of parody of a traditional SF plot.  It is the future (I think the 21st century) and everywhere you go robots and machines, including the furniture, talk to you and give you nagging medical and psychological advice.  Recreational sex is with a machine; sex with another person is a seldom-practiced religious rite whose purpose is procreation.  The world is run by an industry that sells (or just gives away?) drugs, and most people are addicted to the drugs.  Our hero is in the advertising department of the ruling drug company.  Nobody who actually works for the drug company actually uses the drugs--if you use them, you are thrown "outside."  Our hero is kidnapped by rebels and taken outside; at first he thinks the rebels are all drug addicts, but the opposite is the case--the rebels want to end the drug company's rule and they never get high.  They also believe in recreational sex between human beings.  Our hero enthusiastically joins the rebels.  The end.

A total waste of time.  A bad story that results from a sincere effort can be funny or interesting, but this story is lazy and frivolous; it is almost a show of contempt to the SF fans who spent money on this book.

Like "Jenny Among the Zeebs" and "Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!," "Toe to Tip, Tip to Toe, Pip-Pop As You Go" would be republished in both Alien Horizons and Wild Galaxy.  I guess somebody must like these stories if they keep getting reprinted.

"A War of Passion" by Tom Purdom

I don't think I've ever even heard of Purdom before.  He seems to have made his living as a kind of technical writer, but, over the decades since the late 1950s, produced quite a few SF stories.  In Nolan's intro here he lists Purdom's interests: "urban planning, arms control, wines, politics and the city of Philadelphia."  It sounds like a Temple University professor's dating profile.

"A War of Passion" is kind of ridiculous.  In the future, mankind has colonized many planets, and people can live for centuries via brain transplants, and can have their brains augmented, though brain augmentation leads to oversized skulls.  As people get along in years (like when they are 700 or so), most lose interest in sex, and even order bodies which lack sex glands so they can focus on other things.  Some people think the abandonment of sex is the abandonment of humanity, and so there is an espionage war between the sexless people known as "elders" and the "normals" who retain interest in sex.

Our hero Vostok is 1200 years old and working for the sex-loving normals.  He is on a mission, the object of which is to have sex with Makaze, a young (268 years old) woman who has lost interest in sex because the elders were using her to seduce normals and get them to have scandalous S&M sex with her.  (I think.)  All that violent painful sex has conditioned Makaze to fear sex.  Vostok is desperate to have sex with her because if he doesn't the normal leadership may wrongly suspect that he himself has lost interest in sex and is a spy for the elders--the normals would quickly move to eliminate such a spy.  Vostok's mission is particularly difficult because he has had seven brain augmentations and his head is grotesquely oversized, so Makaze finds him repulsive.

Anyway, there is an explicit sex scene which readers nowadays would likely consider rapey, a sex scene which is several pages long.  While he is having sex with Makaze, Vostok worries that the normals are about to launch an attack on him, and he must decide whether he should climb off Makaze and take control of his robotic defenses or keep banging away at her.

I guess this story is supposed to be funny, like Nolan's "Toe to Tip, Tip to Toe, Pip-Pop As You Go" a parody of all those SF stories (like van Vogt's) about secret organizations of geniuses fighting a twilight war behind the scenes or about revolutionaries fighting an oppressive state, but Purdom's prose is pretty deadpan.  I'm very reluctant to call "A War of Passion" good, but because it is so crazy and feels original I'm going to judge it acceptable.

"A War of Passion" would later appear in Sirius.     


Ouch, four weak entries.   Well, we still have four stories to go.  Maybe The Future is Now can redeem itself?

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