Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Three 1950s stories by Algis Budrys from The Unexpected Dimension


In 1979 Ace Books published The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, an anthology edited by MPorcius fave Barry N. Malzberg and his frequent collaborator Bill Pronzini.  In his long (thirteen pages!) introduction to the volume, Malzberg picks out Algis Budrys for special praise, saying Budrys "might have been the best of them; he certainly had the most profound, subtle mind, the best insight, the deepest perspective."  Wow!

That 1979 anthology takes its title from the Budrys story it reprints, 1954's "The End of Summer."  I recently purchased the 1960 Ballantine collection The Unexpected Dimension, which also includes "The End of Summer;" let's check out that story and two others from The Unexpected Dimension and get a deeper acquaintance with the writer Malzberg saw fit to laud with such vigor.

"The End of Summer" (1954)

In a "Prefatory Note" at the start of The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, Malzberg and Pronzini argue that the merit of Astounding in the 1950s is underrated; the critics, they say, feel John W. Campbell's magazine peaked in the 1940s, but Malzberg and Pronzini feel this was "not quite so," and present the stories in their anthology as evidence of Astounding's quality enduring into the Fifties.  "The End of Summer" was an Astounding cover story, and would go on to be selected for 1961's Penguin Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg for the Great Science Fiction Stories volume dedicated to 1954, and by Budrys himself for 1984's Writer's Choice II ("More Top Writers' Own Favorites.") 

It is the year 11958!  Mankind has achieved immortality, and all the people walking around in the 120th century were alive in 1973--in fact, they look about the same as they did back in 1973, with the five-year-olds of 1973 still physically and mentally five years old!  Women who were pregnant in 1973 are still pregnant 10,000 years later!  Nobody ever grows or gets older, and, if they are careful not to fall off a cliff or drink anti-freeze or something, they never die!

Budrys gives us a sort of tour of this strange future world, exposing us to its various weird cliques and classes of people, each of which responds to immortality and its side effects in different ways, and in the end of the story explains the genesis of this bizarre milieu.  In 1973 a guy set up a generator that promulgated a radiation across the entire Earth; this radiation gives everybody a sort of super healing ability; under the influence of the radiation, cells quickly reverse any changes they experience, so people don't get sick or get old.  But one troublesome side effect of this absolute resistance to alteration is that the changes in your brain that are the physical basis of memory are "healed," so everybody loses every new memory after eight hours or so--when people wake up in the morning, they think it is still 1973!  The solution to this problem is that every evening people have their brains scanned and a record of their memories recorded into a computer, and then this record is rewritten on to their brains in the morning.  A side "benefit" of this system is that if something crappy happens to you, like say your dog gets run over by a car, you can edit the record of your memory to remove any reference to the dog and thus the heartache its absence may cause you--you won't even remember ever having had a dog!  Many people's memories are a carefully crafted fiction that bears little resemblance to what other people remember about them!

The plot of the story follows one Kester Fay, a man whom we eventually learn is the guy who invented that generator. Fay runs over a kid's dog and this traumatic event triggers a thought process that culminates in his decision to turn off the generator and put an end to this stagnant, sterile, artificial society of immortals who can customize their memories and never grow or have children.

In "The End of Summer" Budrys addresses his typical themes of the lonely man somehow alienated from his surroundings and the question of what constitutes a real man--is a real man somebody who refuses to just take it easy but instead embraces risk, makes decisions, and then lives with the consequences of those decisions?  As the story begins, Kester Fay is returning to America from Europe, and it is made clear to the reader that he doesn't really belong in either place.  For example, he finds that his old American friends have forgotten him, for example.  Fay is also a member of one of the minority social groups, the Dillies (short for "dilettantes"), who use their long lives to travel and experiment, who drive cars and fly aircraft manually, when most people prefer to use much safer automatic guidance systems or to just stay home (there is a whole demographic of people called "Homebodies.")  Fay is also one of the few people who refuses to edit his memories. 

I like immortality stories, and I usually like these sorts of stories in which utopian conditions turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing because to be at his best man must face challenges and for societies to be worthwhile they must evolve, and this is a solid example of those SF subgenres.

"The Distant Sound of Engines" (1959)

"The Distant Sound of Engines" first saw print in an "All Star/Every Story New" issue of F&SF.  The very next year it was reprinted in a magazine I have to admit I had never heard of before, Harvey Kurtzman's Help!, in the same issue in which was also reprinted Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 "The Yellow Wallpaper," which I read in 2015.

This is a brief, clever little story.  Our narrator is in the hospital because his legs were severed in a highway accident.  Damn!  In the bed next to him is a guy covered in bandages who apparently fell from a burning plane, though they never found the plane.  This guy will not live much longer, and is kept under sedation most of the time, but when he is lucid he tells our narrator all kinds of important formulas for stuff like superalloys and how to overcome the speed of light.  Presumably he is an alien or time traveler come to give us this valuable information, but our narrator, of course, can't understand or remember all the formulae so the outsider dies thinking, erroneously, that he has succeeded in giving 20th century Earthman a boost when, in fact, all his efforts have been in vain.

"The Distant Sound of Engines" is well-written, with lots of ancillary stuff, like the narrator's descriptions of his careers as a truck driver and as a waiter at a diner, that holds the reader's interest the way such stuff would in a good mainstream story.


"Never Meet Again" (1958)

"Never Meet Again" was first printed in Infinity, and would later appear in an anthology of stories that speculate about what would happen if the Axis powers had won WWII.  The title is presumably a reference to the famous 1939 song, "We'll Meet Again."

It is 1958 in a Europe ruled by Germany, and old Professor Jochim Kempfer eats his lunch on a park bench in Berlin as he does almost every day, watching the happy young people and thinking.  He thinks about the war--the Germans conquered Britain in 1940 and ended the war by conquering the USSR in 1942; Canada and Australia are hopelessly blockaded by the Kreigsmarine and the current Chancellor seems able to maintain peace with the USA (Hitler died in a car wreck shortly after victory in Europe.)  He thinks about his scientific work on radar for the Hitler government, a major contribution to German victory in the war.  He thinks about his wife, who died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp.  And he thinks about the machine he has been secretly building in his basement for fifteen years!

Later that day Kempfer activates his secret machine and is transported to an alternate time line, one where the Allies won the war.  Kempfer emerges from his basement to find to his dismay that he is in the drab and depressing, ugly and oppressive, Soviet-occupied zone of Berlin!  (It sounds like this universe is the one you and I live in, dear reader.)  Kempfer by chance meets his wife on the street--in this universe she survived the war and he was killed in a U.S.A.A.F. bombing raid.  The lovers are reunited!  But Kempfer's sense of relief doesn't last--his wife runs to the communist authorities to tell them about his machine, and the Bolshies immediately place an order for another such machine,  which they feel will be useful in their project of achieving worldwide revolution.  Whatever universe Kempfer finds himself in, tyrants use his genius to enlarge the scope of their evil!

This story is alright, no big deal; its ideas feel less fresh than those in "The End of Summer" and it isn't as engagingly written as "The Distant Sound of Engines."

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Three decent stories.  "The End of Summer" is a story in the classic SF mold, all about paradigm shifts and how technology changes society and people's lives.  It is also fundamentally optimistic--mankind may have got off on the wrong course, but a single intelligent and moral man has the ability to set things to rights.  "The Distant Sound of Engines" and "Never Meet Again," on the other hand, are a little more literary (especially by John W. Campbell, Jr.'s definition of "mainstream literature," which he called "a literature of defeat"); they are smaller in scope, and fundamentally pessimistic, their protagonists unable to figure out a way to escape or overcome the terrible fates that confront them, their efforts to improve their own lives or the lives of others coming to nothing.

We'll read more from The Unexpected Dimension next time.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

From James H. Schmitz, Henry Kuttner, and Harlan Ellison: stories about being hunted!

In 1988 Baen Books published an anthology edited by David Drake, Things Hunting Men (a companion to another anthology, Men Hunting Things.)  Let's check out stories from this volume by three writers whose work we have talked about in the past here at MPorcius Fiction Log, James H. Schmitz (remember his stories about the female secret police of the future?), Henry Kuttner (remember his novel of a dangerous criminal who masterminds revolutionary change on Venus?) and Harlan Ellison (remember when he physically attacked Charles Platt?)

Things Hunting Men and the three magazines these stories first appeared in are all available for free at the internet archive; being a fan of classic SF is an inexpensive hobby.

"Greenface" by James H. Schmitz (1943)

In his intro to the story in Things Hunting Men, Drake reminds us that this is Schmitz's first published story, and suggests that he prefers it to Schmitz's interstellar espionage and psychic powers capers.  "Greenface" was printed originally in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Unknown, and has appeared in numerous anthologies and collections, including ones edited by Ray Bradbury and Martin H. Greenberg, as well three different books from Baen--the people at Baen must really think it is a winner!

Hogan Masters is a small businessman just trying to make it in this world of ours!  It is the first season of his venture, Hogan Fishing Camp, a collection of cabins on Thursday Lake he rents to anglers and an ice house in which to store the fish they catch.  Hogan hopes that this inaugural season will be successful enough that he'll be able to get together enough money to marry his girlfriend, Julia Allison.  But one day (by coincidence, the day he decided to drink a few beers in the early afternoon--oh, Hogan, you know that's not good business!) he sees a sort of green blob of protoplasm with tentacles devour a garter snake.  A few weeks later the creature reappears, larger and more menacing, and Hogan is not the only one to see it, proving it's not just the booze messing with him!

"Greenface" is a solid and fun horror/thriller story.  We follow the course of Hogan's Ahab-like weeks-long effort to hunt down the steadily-growing monster, a duel which turns Hogan into a drunk, ruins his business, and wrecks his relationships with Julia and Julia's father.  (Damn you, Greenface!)  Schmitz does a good job with the SF monster stuff (as we expect in an old SF story, Hogan learns all about the monster's idiosyncratic biology and tries to use that knowledge to defeat the creature), the action scenes, and the more psychological character-based guy-who-ruins-his-life stuff.  (Spoiler: John W. Campbell, Jr. told Barry Malzberg that "mainstream literature is about failure" but science fiction is about heroes, success and discovery,* and "Greenface" has an un-Ahab-like happy ending.)

Thumbs up!

*See Malzberg's essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971."

"Happy Ending" by Henry Kuttner (1948)

Here in Things Hunting Men, and when it first appeared in Thrilling Wonder, "Happy Ending" was credited solely to Kuttner, but isfdb credits Kuttner's wife C. L. Moore as a co-author.  "Happy Ending" seems to have been well-received by the SF community--it was included in Bleir and Dikty's The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 and by Damon Knight in the oft-republished anthology Beyond Tomorrow, as well as other publications.  In his intro to "Happy Ending" in Things Hunting Men, Drake laments that many SF writers fail to grow--their late work is no better than their early work.  Drake says that Kuttner, whose early work was "crude," grew better and better over the course of his career; as a case in point, he notes the structure of "Happy Ending," which is a little unconventional, starting with the ending and then filling us in on how the protagonist got there via flashbacks that ultimately turn upside down our beliefs about what was going on.

(Drake also praises C. L. Moore's Jirel stories, and admits that his own first published story, 1967's "Denkirch," a Lovecraftian thing, was not good.)

"Happy Ending" is a story that, like so many old SF tales, romanticizes science and logic and quick thinking, presents a world-shaking paradigm shift, and strives to give us that old sense of wonder at the boundless possibilities of technology and the future.  And it works!

It is 1949 and James Kelvin is a Chicago journalist spending some time in the warm air of California in an effort to relieve his sinus problems.  He meets a time-travelling robot who tells an unbelieving Kelvin that it needs gold to repair its time travel mechanism--the robot wanted to travel to 1970 but accidentally ended up in 1949.  In exchange for the gold plate from his watch, the robot gives Kelvin a device that can enable him to establish a rapport with the mind of a man in the far far future; people in the future have evolved super intelligence, so by transmitting his problems into a future man's mind Kelvin can receive answers to them.  If he can pose just the right questions to this future brain, Kelvin can become a rich man!  Unfortunately, on his first try the device malfunctions (user error!) and a being called Tharn becomes alerted to Kelvin's temporal mental probing.  The robot warns Kelvin that Tharn is a dangerous android and will now hunt the journalist down!

Much of the story follows Kelvin's use of the device to escape Tharn, who has seven fingers on each hand and wears a turban.  The device works as advertised, allowing Kelvin to read the mind of some guy in the far future and learn how to, for example, teleport or breathe while underwater, very useful skills when you are trying to escape from a relentless android!  As the story proceeds to its mind-blowing conclusion we are forced to revise our assumptions about the motives and even identities of all the characters in this crazy drama.

"Happy Ending" is a fun story, chalk up another success for Kuttner (and Moore?)

"Blind Lightning" by Harlan Ellison (1956)

Iowa-native Drake uses his intro to "Blind Lightning" to brag about how awesome Iowa is and to tell us how he first became acquainted with Harlan Ellison's writing--when a high school English teacher shared with him a copy of Ellison's 1961 collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-up Generation, which Drake calls "a stunning volume."

"Blind Lightning" was first published in Fantastic Universe.  When I looked briefly at the scan of the June 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe it was obvious that the version of "Blind Lightning" there was different than the version in Things Hunting Men, with paragraphs in different order, some different word choices, etc.  Hmm....  "Blind Lightning" was included in Robert Silverberg's 1966 anthology Earthmen and Strangers and the 1971 Ellison collection Alone Against Tomorrow; I own paperback editions of both (my 1979 copy of Alone Against Tomorrow is signed by Ellison--envy me, Ellison collectors!) and decided to read the version in Alone Against Tomorrow on the theory that that is the version in my possession most likely to be the one preferred by the author.

Xenoecologist Ben Kettridge, an old man (he's in his fifties!) is alone, exploring a jungle on planet Blestone; his comrades from star ship Jeremy Bentham will pick him up in six hours.  He gets captured by Lad-nar, a nine-foot-tall native barbarian--this monster's species is intelligent, with a language and a religion, but no tools or clothes or buildings.  Blestone is plagued by periodic electrical storms of terrible ferocity, and the natives must hide in their caves during these storms or be killed by lightning.  The storms are of long duration, so the natives typically capture some game to bring into their caves with them, and Kettridge is brought to Lad-nar's cave to serve just this purpose.  Kettridge learns all this because Kettridge and the native can communicate telepathically, to the surprise of both.

While waiting to be eaten Kettridge thinks back to earlier in his career, when he was on a research team which developed some chemical.  The chemical got loose or something and killed 25,000 people.  Kettridge feels guilty about this, and decides to earn some kind of redemption by helping Lad-nar's race, which Kettridge believes to be in terminal decline.  Kettridge is killed by lightning because he gives Lad-nar his elastic lightning-proof space suit so Lad-nar can walk outside the cave.  As he dies Kettridge instructs Lad-nar in how to contact the human exploration team and we readers are led to believe that Lad-nar's race will get help from the humans and not go extinct after all.

This story is just OK.  It is sentimental and melodramatic and the verbiage is a little extravagant, a bit loud and long-winded.  In my experience Ellison doesn't create characters in his fiction; it is always Ellison telling some story that is meant to hammer some idea into you or wring some emotion out of you, and when I read an Ellison story I always hear Ellison's voice in my head, and he is always yelling or snarling sarcastically or putting on some maudlin voice.  (This is where I confess that I don't really like Ellison as a person, and I am afraid it is an obstacle to my appreciating his work.)

I guess the interesting thing about "Blind Lightning" is the prominence of religion; Lad-nar considers the lightning to come from one god and is convinced that the human explorers are even greater gods, while Kettridge prays for help, and is himself a sort of Christ-figure--his walking in the deadly storm (providing a demonstration of the utility of his space suit to Lad-nar) is kind of like Jesus walking on water, and Kettridge dies while showing a race of people how to live without fear and how to get to the heavens.  In the scene in which Lad-nar and Kettridge inexplicably communicate telepathically, we are told that "To Kettridge it seemed there was a third being in the cave.  The hideous beast before him, himself...and a third" and I couldn't help but think the third might be God, trying to build a bridge between these two alien races and give Kettridge a chance to redeem himself.  Of course, I just recently read Gene Wolfe's 1,100 page The Wizard Knight and was just yesterday talking to my wife about U2's October and so have gotten into the habit of turning over every sentence to look for Christian messages, even where you wouldn't expect them, like in Ellison's writing.

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Three worthwhile stories.  More old SF tales in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2015 stories by Gene Wolfe, Cecilia Holland and Barry Malzberg

In 2015 Baen Books published Onward, Drake!, a tribute to David Drake of Hammer's Slammers fame edited by Mark L. Van Name.  Among the twenty all-new tales and essays in the volume are stories by MPorcius faves Gene Wolfe and Barry N. Malzberg, as well as one by Cecelia Holland, whose novel Floating Worlds I recently picked up.  Always interested in Wolfe and Malzberg's work, and curious to get a taste of what Holland is all about, I obtained a hardcover copy of Onward, Drake! via interlibrary loan to read those three stories.

(Nota bene: You can actually read Wolfe's "Incubator" and Holland's "SUM" for free at the Baen website.)

"Incubator" by Gene Wolfe

Each story in this book has an afterword in which the author talks about his relationship with David Drake.  Wolfe points out that he, Drake, and Joe Haldeman are perhaps the only speculative fiction writers to have been under enemy fire in wartime.  Wolfe also says, that, while SF strives to present worlds that are more or less plausible, that "The future will not be plausible.  It never is.  Thus, the story you have just read."

"Incubator," less than four pages long, is directly and indirectly about plausibility, about to what extent we can believe what we read and hear and see.  Set in a future in which people have apparently transcended traditional biological conventions (there are androids, "shemales" and "woe men" and some of the characters seem to have had three biological parents), all the characters express doubts about specific knowledge, and one dismisses even the possibility of knowledge.  "No one can see reality.  The mind processes a pattern of light reported by the optic nerves.  The mind interprets that."

As for plot, I guess a person goes to a remote building in response to a summons; at this place she is shown a valuable , "The Egg," which is said to contain "all the old humankind."  The sight of it causes her to flee.  In keeping with the story's theme, it is difficult to tell precisely what is going on.  (It is hinted that this egg is cracking and whatever is inside it will soon be unleashed...maybe 100% all natural men and women who will threaten this future of androids and shemales?)

Deliberately inscrutable, I guess a demonstration of the adage "the past is another country" as well as a discussion of the possibility of true knowledge.

"SUM" by Cecilia Holland

Holland's story is almost seven pages long and, to my surprise, touches on some of the same epistemological issues that Wolfe addressed in his story--it starts with two characters arguing over the possibility that their lives may just be illusions or hallucinations, that instead of being soldiers in the Dutch army searching for Spanish spies for Prince Maurice, they might simply be dead or insane.

The narrator, an officer in charge of five men, enters a house to hunt for the Spanish "cloaked investigators" but triggers an explosive booby trap and ends up buried alive under the wreckage of the house.  Most of the text concerns his efforts to dig himself out of the wreckage.  Holland includes references to Ovid and Nicole Oresme (Drake is a Latinist and an Ovid aficionado) and clues in the text pile up until even an uneducated goofball like myself can figure out by the end that the narrator is in fact Rene Descrates, the famed philosopher.

This is a competent thriller type of story; the literary and philosophical content providing an additional layer of interest and fun.

"Swimming from Joe" by Barry Malzberg

I've never seen Spalding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia or the film The Killing Fields so I am probably missing elements of Malzberg's nine-chapter story here.  (Those nine chapters take up only three pages, so I can't be missing too much, I guess.)

The protagonist of this story is a guy named Hammer who was serving with the U.S. military in Korea in 1954 when Marilyn Monroe visited the American troops there and became obsessed with the actress.  Today, in 1969, he is serving in Vietnam and imagines he sees a huge balloon of Monroe floating over the "killing fields."  Malzberg compares Monroe, who was "killed by Hollywood," to Hammer's comrades ("the Slammers") killed by "the War."  (Malzberg loves the metaphorical construction in which institutions or abstract entities kill people--in his 1980 essay "Mark Clifton: 1906-1963" he says that "the death certificates of all three [Clifton, Henry Kuttner and Cyril Kornbluth] should have listed science fiction under cause of death.")  More interestingly, Malzberg/Hammer suggest that Monroe's death made her immortal, and that the memory of her is what is keeping Hammer alive "in country."

In the afterword to "Swimming from Joe" Malzberg tells the interesting story of how he first came into contact with Drake--Drake wanted to send a fan letter to Raymond E. Banks and Malzberg's former employers at the Scott Meredith Agency directed Drake to Malzberg.  The two writers became friends--Malzberg says "He may be the closest friend I have."  Malzberg also reminds us that he served in the Army briefly stateside, and plugs "Final War," one of his most famous stories.

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Of these three stories the Holland is the most conventional and the most entertaining--it has a plot you can follow, dramatic tension and jokes, and a puzzle for you to figure out, the kind of stuff most people who read fiction are looking for.  "SUM" has made me think Floating Worlds will be a good read.  The Wolfe and Malzberg stories are sort of what we expect from those less conventional writers, though I think "Incubator" is less satisfying than most Wolfe stories, while "Swimming from Joe" is sort of average for Malzberg.

More short stories in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log, but we'll be returning to the mid-20th century for them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

"A knight is a man who lives honorably and dies honorably, because he cares more for his honor than for his life."
In 2001 Gene Wolfe wrote an essay for Karen Haber's Meditations on Middle-Earth entitled "The Best Introduction to the Mountains."  Haber rejected the piece, but it appeared in Interzone, and Andy Robertson purchased the right to reproduce it on his website, where I read it years ago.  It looks like Robertson's website has gone kaput, but you can access an archived version of the page in question at the link above--that's how I reread the essay earlier this month.  John C. Wright, I see today, reproduced "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" on his website in 2015, introducing it as the second best essay on Tolkien he has ever read and explaining the essay's title.

"The Best Introduction to the Mountains" is very entertaining and interesting, and I recommend it to all fans of J. R. R. Tolkien and/or Gene Wolfe.  Wolfe talks about the pulp magazines and genre paperbacks he loved as a kid, the SF like Thrilling Wonder Stories and the mysteries like Curtains for the Copper by Thomas Polsky.  Wolfe speaks with reverence of his hardcover copies of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, which he mail ordered from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s in response to a positive review in that magazine of Tolkien's work by Anthony Boucher.  Wolfe reproduces the letter he received from Tolkien about the etymology of "orc" and "warg," and the inscription he added to each of his three volumes, long quotes from Thoreau, Conrad Aiken, and Robert Howard--Wolfe flaunts his independent thinking by telling us he thinks the Howard quote the best.

If this essay is so fascinating, why did Karen Haber reject it?  I don't know, but maybe the fact that Wolfe uses the essay to denounce politicians and government workers, businesspeople and essentially the entire modern world and the very idea of progress, working from moral and even scientific grounds, played a role in her decision.  The thesis of "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" is that the society of the medievals, in some ways at least, was superior to that of us moderns, that the people of "Christianized barbarian Europe" had a strong sense of "defined duties and freedoms" that bound them together, gave them a sort of universally acknowledged "code of conduct," something of inestimable value that we today, in our world where people are power-hungry, selfish and greedy, lack, and that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is an important contribution to the revival of such a society, a society in which people can stand "shoulder-to-shoulder," a society of "freedom, love of neighbor and personal responsibility." 

Wolfe tells us in "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" that Tolkien has been a big influence on his work, and specifically points to a novel he was then working on, The Wizard Knight, suggesting that novel (published in 2004) owes more to Tolkien than his other work.  So, as I reread The Wizard Knight over the past two weeks, I had this essay of Wolfe's in mind, and kept my eyes open for signs of Tolkien's influence on Wolfe and of Wolfe's beliefs about what was right about medieval society and wrong about modern society.

The Wizard Knight is a bit on the long side, over 1000 pages (though I guess the print is sort of big), and was originally published in two volumes, The Knight and The Wizard.  I received the paperback editions of the two books from my brother as a Christmas gift in 2006, and I read them in 2007.  I often thought of the novel over the succeeding years, certain scenes and ideas having lodged in my scattered and fickle mind, but only reread it this year, 15 years after it was first published, the year of Wolfe's death.

The Wizard Knight is a first person narrative, a very long letter written by a man who, as a teenager, somehow found himself in a world of knights, dragons and fairies; the letter is to his brother Ben back in 20th (or I guess early 21st) century America, and describes his career in this swordswinging feudal world, his many interactions with queens, princesses, kings, witches, giants, et al.  Written in the voice of a regular guy, practically a kid, the text of The Wizard Knight is relatively simple and easy to read, but Wolfe is famous for employing unreliable narrators and presenting story elements obliquely, and we readers have to be on the look out for clues in every paragraph.  The narrator starts his fantasy world life when he wakes up in a seaside cave in which a woman is spinning a thread; she calls herself "Parka," and while this has no significance to the narrator, we readers of course recognize one of the Fates.

(Though parcae is Latin, The Wizard Knight owes more to Norse mythology and Arthurian legend than classical literature; I'm actually not that familiar with Norse myth and the stories of King Arthur, so while I caught obvious things like Valkyries and Jotun, I no doubt missed many allusions and references to those literatures.  There is also plenty of Christian symbolism; like Severian in Wolfe's immortal masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, the narrator of The Wizard Knight is a Christ-like figure.  While I am on the topic of references, there is an obvious allusion to Poul Anderson, and I have to wonder how many other, perhaps more subtle, references to SF writers I missed.)

Our protagonist leaves the cave and travels around a bit, meeting people and learning about his new environment.  Many of these people, like a knight, Sir Ravd, who explains to him what makes a man a knight, and a crippled hermit, Bold Berthold, who believes that the narrator is his long lost brother returned, act as mentors, providing explanations of what constitutes good conduct and serving as models of good behavior as well as offering practical knowledge.  The narrator, whom Parka called Sir Able of the High Heart, quickly starts acting like a knight, helping those in distress and fighting scoundrels and bossing around people who fall in between those categories.  This risky behavior is tenable because early on the narrator meets an Aelf Queen, Disiri, and she, seemingly in order to make of him a satisfying sex partner, transforms our hero into a huge muscleman.  Inside, the protagonist is still a boy, and Wolfe makes it abundantly clear that this is an allegory of how many adult men feel when faced with the responsibilities and challenges of adult life, that they are really just boys acting out the role of a man.
"You see our peasants plowing and sowing, and their women spinning and so forth, hard work that lasts from the rising of the sun until its setting in may cases.  But you need to understand that they have their own prides and their own pleasures.  Speak kindly to them, protect them, and deal fairly with them and they will never turn against you." 
In that 2001 essay praising Tolkien, Wolfe envisages a superior future society in which people of different social classes stand shoulder to shoulder, and he cites the example of Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings as a model for such relationships.  The Wizard Knight again and again provides examples of the kinds of relationships one would find in such an ideal society; the sympathetic characters exhibit, with enthusiasm, loyalty and rock solid allegiance across the boundaries of social class, species and worlds of origin, accept without question established hierarchies, the need for obedience to authority, and recognize the mutual responsibilities between lords and vassals.  There are no liberals or members of the bourgeoisie or revolutionary socialists in this novel to make a case for equality before the law or individualism or republicanism or democracy or the redistribution of wealth or anything like that, and those characters who buck the system or fail to live up to their roles within it either reform or suffer grim fates.

After Able leaves Sir Ravd, Bold Berthold and Disiri behind (though they are never far from his thoughts) he travels widely throughout the kingdom of Celidon* on foot, on horseback and via ship, meeting a multitude of people and intelligent creatures, and we witness him repeatedly pledging fealty to royals and barons and kneeling and making sacrifices to gods.  In turn, individuals are always recognizing Able's astounding ability and high destiny and volunteering to be his slaves, servants or followers--these people take all kinds of risks and make all kinds of sacrifices to help and protect Able, and Able demonstrates that he deserves their allegiance and assistance by taking all manner of risks and making all sorts of sacrifices to help and protect his followers and subordinates.

*Tolkien (though he was not the first to do so) famously pointed out that "cellar door" was an English phrase of particular beauty.

One of the challenges faced by writers of sword-fighting adventure tales in which a single guy again and again triumphs in the face of overwhelming odds is making that guy's victories over dozens of foes and escapes from captivity believable to the reader.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, renders John Carter's endless string of victories over huge monsters and armies of swordsmen somewhat more digestible by presenting his hero as an immortal who has been sword fighting for centuries and is thus the most experienced swordsman in the solar system, and by placing him on Mars, where his Earth muscles make him the strongest man on the red planet.  Michael Moorcock's Elric has a magic sword and the help of various supernatural entities, and Howard's Conan has his barbarian upbringing, which makes him superior to any civilized man.

Wolfe here in The Wizard Knight makes Able's successes believable by providing him with an array of magical weapons and a veritable army of supernatural supporters.  He has a bow made from the wood of a magical tree, strung with a thread given him by Parka, so that Able is the greatest archer in the world.  (In one of the novel's many clever and somewhat disturbing bits, the string pulses with the life stories of many individuals, and these stories invade Sir Able's dreams, so that as he sleeps he lives out the lives of many different men and women.)  As the long novel progresses Able is joined by a huge fighting dog from a higher plane of existence (it can grow as big as a horse if roused), a self-important talking black cat (the familiar of a witch who is now dead but not silenced), two sexy vampire-like Aelfmaidens who can get in and get out of just about any place unobserved, making them ideal scouts, spies and thieves, and a super strong ogre whose scales can take on the color of his surroundings, making him an ideal assassin.  (This list of magic weapons and otherworldly comrades is representative, not exhaustive, and I haven't enumerated Able's multitudinous mortal comrades.)

Wolfe loves detective stories, and The Wizard Knight is full of scenes in which Sir Able and we readers are presented a bunch of clues and are expected to figure out who did what and why or the true identity and motives of one of many slippery shape-shifting characters--this includes a murder mystery that features one of those scenes in which people look at the victim's wound and determine whether the murderer was right- or left-handed.

A lot of time is spent on puzzling out the mythology and cosmology of the seven-layered universe Wolfe has devised--how one travels between these worlds, their internal politics and their relations with their adjacent worlds.  In brief, the middle level, Mythgarthr, the home of the humans of Celidon, the evil giants of the icy north (Jotunland) and the evil cannibalistic Osterlings of the east (Osterland), is the most stable level.  Directly above Mythgarthr is Skai, home of gods like the Valfather, tricky Lothur and chivalrous Thunor, and directly below it Aelfrice, home of elves, and below that Muspel, realm of dragons and demons.  Each world was constructed from the refuse left over from the creation of the realm above it, and so each realm is more debased and evil than the one above it.  Able journeys to several of these realms over the course of his adventures, meeting their prominent personalities and trying to figure out the various relationships and identities of these beings as they try to help, manipulate, or fight him.  Ideally, those living in one realm worship the inhabitants of the realm above them, and provide good role models for those below, and one of the many mysteries of the novel, and one of the problems Able has to work to resolve, is the perverse practice of some humans of worshiping Aelfs and of some Aelfs of worshiping dragons.  (The setting of examples and provision of good role models is a major theme of The Wizard Knight; as I recall, this was also a theme of Wolfe's 1999-2001 trilogy The Book of the Short Sun, which featured vampiric space aliens who misbehave in part because of the malign influence upon them of all-too-fallible humanity.)  Complicating matters is the fact that time moves at different speeds in each realm; after Able goes to Skai at the end of The Knight he spends twenty years up there, but when he gets back to Mythgarthr at the start of The Wizard, only a few days have passed for his companions.
"Brega, you've taken an oath, the most solemn oath a woman can take.  You've acknowledged Duke Marder as your liege, and sworn to obey him in all things.  If you break that oath, Hel will condemn your spirit to Muspel, the Circle of Fire.  The sacrifices you've offered the Aelf can't save you." 
The biggest mystery, perhaps, is who the hell Able really is, this man who travels between the seven realms, has been somehow conflated with an American boy, and, due to Aelf magic and Skai magic, has lost many of his memories.  At the same time that Able is like a big kid who is driven by his passions (he tells us he does everything in hopes of being with Disiri again) he is also considered a savior by everybody he meets--everywhere he goes potentates want him to protect their thrones or destroy their enemies; Able is one of the most important people in the history of this universe, and, like Gandalf (and Jesus Christ!) he is a man who, apparently dies but then returns to make the world a better place.
 
In the final third of The Knight, Sir Able and his motley party of human and supernatural companions join up with a large caravan travelling north to Jotunland on a diplomatic mission from the king of Celidon.  The armies of the Caans and Wazirs of Osterland are putting pressure on Celidon from the east, and the king has sent a baron, Lord Beel, to negotiate with the belligerent giants of the frozen north.  The giants of Jotunland are always raiding the human kingdom for slaves; male slaves are blinded and female slaves raped, and such rape is so common that there is a whole population of half-breeds living in the mountainous marches between Celidon and Jotunland, dangerous marauders rejected by the heartless giant society.  (The 13-foot tall giants call these 9-foot tall halfbreeds "The Mice.")  In order to cement a peace deal with the giants that will permit Celidon to focus its military might on the Osterling cannibals, Beel is to present to the king of the giants, Gilling, a bunch of valuable presents, including a gold encrusted helmet and Beel's own beautiful daughter, Idnn.  Idnn wretchedly dreams of being rescued from the horrible fate of becoming the queen of the giants by Able or some other knight, presenting Able, like Beel, a loyal servant of the king committed to the established rules of Celidon, a terrible moral dilemma.
"You say you want to be my follower.  I'll be loyal to you as long as you're loyal to me, but no longer."
In the last hundred or so pages of The Knight, Able becomes a leader of the caravan as it faces disaster, and, up in Jotunland, has a heartbreaking reunion with Bold Berthold, now a slave of the giants.  In the book's climax, Able finds in a subterranean temple the magic sword promised him by Disiri and summons an army of phantom knights; with this army he engages in battle against a titanic dragon and the army of Aelfs who worship the wyrm; victory achieved against the demonic serpent, Able is carried aloft to Skai by Valkyries.

The Knight is a big success; it never feels long, the text is smooth and the plot keeps you turning the pages.  The funny parts are actually funny, and the chilling parts (like the witch scene) are actually chilling, and the sad parts are actually sad.

The Wizard is not quite as entertaining as the first volume.  The Knight feels fresh and fast-paced as we follow Sir Able from one episode to another, exploring new locations and encountering new characters at a pretty rapid clip, the story's tone shifting as Able travels geographically and grows in power and experience; we get many funny, horrible, sad, and triumphant episodes that are too brief to wear out their welcome.  The first half of The Wizard, however, is sort of mired in one location, Jotunland, and with the many characters we met in The Knight, plus some new ones, all gathered there, the narrative gets a little unwieldy.  Sir Able has already achieved his apotheosis, so that sense of growth and progress is not there, and the wisdom-dispensing adult Able isn't as fun or charming as naive-child-in-a-man's-body Able.  We spend less time with Sir Able and a lot more time with his friends and servants as they pursue objectives in one part of Jotunland while Able is in another.  (The text is still technically in the first person, still part of the narrator's long letter to his brother Ben in the modern USA, but much of the conversation and fighting Able relates is based on things people told him and feels like a third-person narrative.)

This long Jotunland section does serve Wolfe's thematic purposes.  Jotunland is a sort of dystopia, a depiction of what a society totally bereft of loyalty and cross-class solidarity and respect for authority looks like--there are constant rebellions, for example, and no family life--the men and women have no love for each other, so the female giants actually live in a separate country!  Overcoming her fear, Idnn does her duty to Celidon and to her monstrous husband, embracing the role of queen of the giants.  Much of the text which deals with Able's companions and subordinates is meant, I believe, to show the positive influence of Able's good example on them--Wolfe's human characters are not static, but grow and change over the course of the long novel, and, reflecting Wolfe's purposes with this book and/or a sort of Christian optimism, almost all the human characters evolve into better people as the novel progresses.  While it helps Wolfe achieve his goals, this section is just not as fun and exciting as the other 700 or so pages of the long novel.

The second half of The Wizard is quite a bit more satisfying than the first half.  Many of those mysteries to which I alluded earlier (who is Able and what is his appointed role in the universe? who murdered the King of the Giants? what are the backstories and motives of the elves of Aelfrice and the demons/dragons of Muspel?) are explained and the subplots they represent resolved.  The cast, joining forces with the Aelfs, the half-human Mice and the female giants, fight their way out of Jotunland and back to Celidon.  Able, driven by a destiny he doesn't himself understand, goes to the capital of Celidon, to the King's court, where he competes in tourneys and gets mixed up in the dangerous intrigues boiling between the corrupt and sadistic king, the king's wife, and the king's sister, a sinister necromancer.  All the characters and interactions in the capital are compelling, and, maybe because Able isn't surrounded by a dozen other people, things move more quickly and more smoothly.

Able gets tossed in the dungeon, escapes to Aelfrice--where time moves more slowly--and when he returns to Mythgarthr he finds that the Osterlings have taken over most of Celidon and sacked the capital!  Able leads the human counterattack against the monstrous armies of the Caans and we get a happy ending for most of the characters (Able, for example, heals blind and infirm Berthold, and Berthold, we are told, will go on to become a prominent knight who will achieve revenge on the giants who crippled him.)

The Wizard Knight is the kind of book that you can read casually, enjoying all the descriptions of weapons and monsters and fighting, all the jokes and horror scenes, but it is also a dense and carefully constructed work with allusions and details and foreshadowing that reward the attentive reader, and the reader willing to go back and reread passages or entire chapters, because sentences that may have barely registered initially set up a satisfying pay off hundreds of pages later, and on a second reading overflow with layers of meaning and emotion.  Strongly recommended.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Enemy of My Enemy by Avram Davidson

"Lermencas is part of the modern world; Tarnis isn't.  The Volanth aren't.  But they are going to become part of it, from now on.  And eventually, either with Lermencasi help or without it, the Volanth are going to have what they ought to have: a share in running their own country."
Last year Joachim Boaz, creator of the Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations blog, made a generous donation of SF books to the MPorcius Library, and on and off I have been reading and talking your ear off about these artifacts of the speculative fiction of days gone by.  Today we look at another of these donations, Berkley Medallion X1341, The Enemy of My Enemy by Avram Davidson.  Davidson is one of those critically acclaimed authors I have had mixed feelings about, but about whom I have not yet abandoned all hope of liking.  So let's give this 1966 novel a shot.  Joachim wrote about The Enemy of My Enemy in 2016, and our man tarbandu at The PorPor Books Blog wrote about it three years earlier still, in 2013; you should check out what they have to say, but I,  having, more or less, forgotten their assessments, will refrain from rereading their reviews until I have read the book myself and drafted my own thoughts.

Planet Orinel was colonized by Earthmen some 1500 years ago, and today is home to a dazzling array of distinct and complex human and native cultures and ethnicities.  We spend Chapter One in the port city of Pemath, an overcrowded hive whose high tech skyscrapers have been crudely subdivided again and again over the centuries to accommodate the tiny homes and businesses of the city's millions of impoverished citizens.  (In a memorable opening scene a man rides a disused freight elevator which now serves as the residence of a wretched family who make their meager living by charging passengers a pittance.)  Pemath wallows in public and private corruption, with merchants expecting to lose a fifth or a quarter of all shipments of goods to various species of theft.

In Chapter Two we get a taste of Tarnis Town, where the elites frown on commerce and instead devote themselves to the arts of war, gardening, painting, and scholarship.  We meet two different scholars whose interests are centered on the hairy and brutish natives of Orinel, the Volanth, savages who occupy much of the Tarnis hinterland.  As there has been no international war on Orinel for centuries, it is also the Volanth who are the focus of the Tarnisi aristocracy's periodic and enthusiastic warmaking.

While Pemath is a multiethnic center of international and even interstellar trade, Tarnis is an isolationist island whose dealings with the larger world are erratic, which lays the foundation for one of the big science-fictiony elements of The Enemy of My Enemy's plot.  Jerrod Northi, an orphan who has risen to the position of one of Pemath's top organized crime bosses (piracy a specialty) must flee Pemath because somebody is trying to kill him.  He decides to go to Tarnis, because, in that wealthy and sophisticated land where he will face little business competition, he figures he can make money in ways more safe and more honest than hijacking merchant vessels.  To get through Tarnis's very strict immigration controls Jerrod must hire the services of the mysterious Craftsmen, who perform upon him radical cosmetic surgery--surgery which even changes his voice--and "hypno-indoctrination" that implants false memories into his mind.  The remainder of the novel (which consists of twelve chapters and 160 pages in total) takes place in Tarnis.

Jerrod, posing as a returned exile, integrates himself in Tarnisi high society, where he acquires a girlfriend and sets up a lucrative import business.  When a Volanth uprising erupts he is called up as a member of the militia and participates in a gruesome punitive campaign against the natives, witnessing the aftermath of atrocities committed by the barbaric aborigines and, at first hand, the equally shocking Tarnisi reprisals.  Jerrod may have escaped from filthy and corrupt Pemath, but he has not escaped from the cruelty and horror of human life.
"They say, you--all of you--you always say, the Volanth are like animals.  And I've seen how they can be, and I know it.  But I've seen the Tarnisi like animals as well.  And so I see nothing to choose between them, and it's made all this land I longed so long for, it's made it abhorrent and abominable to me."
After this horrible episode Jerrod gets involved in politics, working, tentatively, in the interests of the exploited and abused Volanth and the Tarnisi landless class, as well as the ghettoized "Quasi," people of mixed Volanth and human race.  This work dovetails with the interests of the Craftsmen to whom Jerrod is beholden; they start calling in favors, and Jerrod finds himself helping other bogus "exiles" into positions of importance, setting the groundwork for a revolution against the Tarnisi aristocracy.  As the final third of the novel begins, Jerrod (while reading a book of economic history!) comes across a clue that indicates that the Craftsmen are agents of Lermencas (a country Davidson hasn't told us much about before, apparently a great power whose wealth comes from international trade) and explains why the Craftsmen want to overthrow the Tarnisi aristocracy--their lives of sophisticated leisure, punctuated by periodic wars against the wild Volanth, are terribly inefficient, leaving much land suitable for agriculture underused or even barren.  The Lermencasi hope to end the wars and cultivate all that unexploited wilderness, employing the Volanth as farm laborers.

Additional revelations follow as the novel builds to a climax.  Jerrod learns that he himself is a Quasi when a hairy witch doctor in the ghetto works his psychic powers on him, unearthing suppressed memories.  Quasi activists don't want to hand Tarnis over to the Lermencasi but to run it themselves, and so they call in help from Baho, another country Davidson gives us only hints of--the Bahon are in a Cold War with the Lermencasi, and are apparently of an authoritarian, anti-individualistic bent.  Jerrod, who is able to move in both Quasi and Tarnisi circles, who has connections to the Craftsmen and Pemath and of course his nautical and piratical skills, becomes a leader of the Quasi/Volanth rebellion that sweeps Tarnis and demolishes the beautiful Tarnisi civilization; he strives to not only liberate those with native blood from their oppressors, but to make sure the new Tarnis is not merely a puppet of the Lermencasi or Bahon.

I'm wracking my brain, but I can't recall any
giant worms appearing in this novel; maybe they
are in the accompanying short story by
Joe Hensley, "Alvin's Witch"
Davidson offers dense descriptions of all aspects of life in Tarnis and Pemath: rituals, social mores, cultural touchstones, etc.  This "world-building" is thick and convincing, and more or less interesting; readers may enjoy trying to figure out Davidson's models: Tarnisi culture seems to share much with that of Japan, and its politics perhaps owe something to that period of Roman history in which the Gracchi are prominent, while the plight of the Quasi may be informed by the experience of African-Americans who are able to "pass" as white.  But is The Enemy of My Enemy entertaining?  While the novel has adventure and detective elements like a chase scene, battles, guys finding clues, guys getting captured and escaping, guys having their air car sabotaged, etc., the story is heavy rather than thrilling, tragic and sad rather than light-hearted and fun; the pace is kind of slow and none of the many characters is really compelling (I found it a little challenging keeping all of them straight, to be honest.)  Jerrod is tormented by a lifetime of intimate experience with poverty, crime and inhumane behavior, and Davidson offers us numerous references to the murder of children and the rape and murder of women, including a shocking description of a maggot-ridden corpse.  The scenes of horror and violence are not sensational or exploitative but literary and depressing.

The Enemy of My Enemy is a serious book that is perhaps easier to admire than to enjoy.  Davidson addresses issues like racial and class conflict and the Cold War, but not in a satirical or cathartic way; he doesn't point fingers or present solutions or engage in wish fulfillment that flatters the prejudices of readers or satisfies their revenge fantasies.  The world changes, but working the change is dirty and sordid rather than glorious, and much that was fine is swept away, including Jerrod's girlfriend, killed by Volanth fighters when they destroy the city with the disintegrator weapons they have been provided by the Bohan.  Davidson describes the processes of history coldly rather than romanticizing them, and his book is sad but not actually moving because Jerrod doesn't really come to life, and neither do any of the other characters.

I'd say The Enemy of My Enemy is OK, a tick or two above acceptable.

Looking at their reviews, I see that tarbandu and Joachim had much less patience for The Enemy of My Enemy than I did; both of them gave it only two out of five stars and use words like "bland" and "dull" and "slow" to describe it.  Joachim compares The Enemy of My Enemy to Jack Vance novel, to Davidson's detriment, and such a comparison is appropriate enough, as baroque societies and divergent human evolution and rogues and semi-intelligent autochthons and detective fiction devices all loom large in Vance's body of work.  I can't really disagree with most of tarbandu and Joachim's specific criticisms, and would certainly bet that any random novel by Jack Vance would be more fun than The Enemy of My Enemy, but I think they are mistaken in looking at The Enemy of My Enemy as an adventure caper which has failed.  I think Davidson's project is to ruminate on conflict between classes and between races and to illustrate the tragedy that is history, and I think that project is a qualified success.

**********

The Enemy of My Enemy is the tenth book from the Joachim Boaz Wing of the MPorcius Library which I have read and discussed.  Here's a list of the first nine, with handy links to my blog posts about them:

Slave Planet by Laurence M. Janifer
Three Novels by Damon Knight
Dark Dominion by David Duncan
New Writings in SF6 edited by John Carnell
Tama of the Light Country by Ray Cummings
Tama, Princess of Mercury by Ray Cummings
A Brand New World by Ray Cummings
Ultimatum in 2050 A.D. by Jack Sharkey
The Power of X by Arthur Sellings