Sunday, September 23, 2018

1961 stories from Julian F. Grow, Reginald Bretnor, Robert F. Young and Fredric Brown

I've talked about how much I like my copy of Judith Merril's seventh edition of The Year's Best S-F before, the book's size and shape and fonts and illustrations.  And I've written about a bunch of the stories it presents, including the Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smith and John Wyndham pieces and the selections by Rome, Bone, Feiffer, Glaser and Russell as well as, in a different book, the story by Mack Reynolds. Today let's delve further into this volume for which I paid 35 cents in Davenport, Iowa and look at stories by Julian F. Grow, Reginald Bretnor, Robert F. Young, and Fredric Brown.  (I have gotten a lot of mileage out of those 35 cents!)  All four of these tales were first published in 1961.

"The Fastest Gun Dead" by Julian F. Grow

Grow has only seven credits at isfdb, and five of them, including "The Fastest Gun Dead," are in the "Dr. Hiram Pertwee series."  The story at hand today is the first in this series, and appeared in If.

A humorous story that is played more or less straight and has technology at its core, I'm calling this one marginally good, a little better than "acceptable."

Our narrator for "The Fastest Gun Dead" is the aforementioned Hiram Pertwee, a physician in the Wild West.  Our hero is Jacob Niedelmeier, who moves to the little western town in which the tale is set from New Jersey, the greatest state in the union!  Why would anyone leave the Garden State for the land of six-guns and scalpings?  Well, our man Jake has come to make his fortune prospecting gold.  Unfortunately, as Doc Pertwee tells us, Jake is a "boob" and a "ninny" who finds no gold and gets a job as a store clerk.

Years go by, and one day Jake, out on a walk in the hills, stumbles on a skeleton...of a space alien!  The alien was armed with a laser pistol, a weapon that detects the brainwaves of those who would seek to kill the bearer, and aims and shoots all by itself!  By carrying this self-directed weapon around, and talking like the big man he actually is not, Jake becomes the best gunfighter in the territory, killing many tough galoots with funny names like "Fat Charlie Ticknor" and "Redmeat Carson."

The weakest element in the story is how Jake's career as top gunslinger comes to an end.  I guess the pistol's brainwave detectors can only detect aggressive thoughts in the left side of a brain, so when a left-handed cowboy tries to kill Jake the space gun doesn't work.  I wish Grow had come up with something better with which to end his story, as "The Fastest Gun Dead" cruises along very smoothly all the way to the last page and then hits this pothole and one of the wheels flies right off into the ditch.  Perhaps because of this problem the story has not been anthologized outside of Merrill's anthology here and its British equivalent, which is somewhat confusingly entitled Best of Sci-Fi Two

"All the Tea In China" by Reginald Bretnor

In her little intro to the story, Merril praises Bretnor for being one of the members of the respectable intellectual elite and literary mainstream, like Anthony Boucher, who has been working to improve the reputation of SF; Merril tells us that until recently "s-f reading was something almost everybody did, and practically nobody talked about."  (The relationship of SF to mainstream culture is one of Merril's themes throughout these intros.)

"All the Tea In China," from F&SF, is a kind of shaggy dog story, a bunch of meandering details that add up to little, in the form of a piece of rural folklore.  When, as a poor New England farm boy, our narrator's grandmother caught him blackmailing another kid, she scares him straight by telling him the story of one of his no-good great-great-uncles, a Jonas.  Jonas was a successful man of business but had few friends because he was malicious and made much of his money by blackmailing people.  A series of events involving a shipment of goods from the Far East and Jonas's attempts to strong arm a woman into marrying him lead to Jonas negotiating with Satan himself.  The narrator and Jonas both commonly utter the cliche "not for all the tea in China," and the climax of this story is when Satan offers Jonas "all the tea in China" in heavy wooden chests.  When Jonas accepts the deal the multitude of chests falls from the sky and crushes Jonas.

I can't recommend this thing.  The final joke is lame and doesn't have any connection to the story's theme that you shouldn't blackmail people.  Endorsing my dim view of it, no editor has anthologized it since Merril did.

"The Dandelion Girl" by Robert F. Young

Here is a story that first appeared in a mainstream publication, The Saturday Evening Post, complete with a Norman Rockwell cover celebrating diversity.  When we last saw Young he was lamenting America's automobile and TV-obsessed culture; let's see what he sold to what was once one of America's most influential publications.

The title of "The Dandelion Girl" immediately made me think of the hyacinth girl from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but the first line of this story name checks Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Forty-four-year-old Mark is on a vacation in the woods without his wife (she has jury duty!) when, on a hill with a picturesque view,  he encounters a beautiful woman of twenty-one with "dandelion hair" who reminds him of Millay.  Young tries to get a poetic vibe going in the story's first paragraphs, telling us about the autumn leaves ("burning gently with the first pale fires of fall") and the wind in Mark's face and all that.  We also get to hear again and again about Mark smoking his pipe and how his hands are trembling or tingling, depending on what Young is trying to convey.  After his first meeting with Julie we learn that one of Mark's favorite poems is Millay's "Afternoon on a Hill."  (Go ahead and read it--it is very short.)

The woman, Julie, claims to be from the future when all these woods are part of a huge city.  Her father invented a time machine and she comes back to this hill every day.  Mark and Julie meet on the hill over three successive days, talking about Bishop Berkeley and Einsteinian relativity, and Mark falls in love with her.  Julie fails to appear for two days, and when she reappears tells him her father has died.  Also, she doesn't know how to maintain her father's illegal unlicensed private time machine and it probably only has enough juice for one more trip and maybe not even that!  The last thing she says to Mark is that she loves him.

Anyway, Julie doesn't appear again, and Mark is depressed and starts neglecting his wife.  Then a few weeks later he finds a clue and realizes that his wife is Julie, that she must have used her last time trip to go back to the 1930s when he was her age so she could meet him and marry him.  Somehow Mark didn't recognize his own wife's face or voice or personality because she was twenty years younger, even though he knew her when she was that age.

I have to give this thing a thumbs down; it is sappy, overwritten, and tries too hard to appeal to an educated mainstream audience with all that extraneous Millay and Berkeley and Einstein business, and the idea of a guy not remembering what his wife looked like or sounded like when he met her 20 years ago has me rolling my eyes.  If you'll allow me to put on my feminist hat, I'll tell you that "The Dandelion Girl" appeals to the desire of the typical man to have sex with a woman half his age, and to common man's lament that his wife doesn't look like she did when he met her--the problem with this aspect of the story from an entertainment point of view is that Mark is absolved of all guilt for having these anti-social thoughts, so the story has no tension or edge, there is no meaningful interpersonal conflict or interior psychological conflict, none of the risk or nastiness which makes stories of sexual impropriety compelling.   

Despite my groans, people, foreigners in particular, seem to like this story, and it has appeared in Young collections (including as the title story of a Japanese Young collection) and anthologies of stories about time travel.


"Nightmare in Time" by Fredric Brown

You guessed it, another teeny tiny story from Brown.  This one is the teeniest, taking up just like a third of a page!  "Nightmare in Time" first appeared in a men's magazine, Dude ("the magazine devoted to pleasure"), I guess a sort of Playboy knock off.  At time of writing, the internet archive provides free access to three issues of Dude from the late '50s; these offer pictures of topless young ladies, off-color cartoons, and fiction, including stories from people we have talked about a little here at the blog, Harlan Ellison and Michael Shaara.

Anyway, this story is something akin to a palindrome, the few dozen words that make up the tale's first half being repeated in reverse order to create the second half; Brown does this to simulate the operation of a machine that can make time run backwards.  I don't appreciate these kinds of technical tricks. 

"Nightmare in Time" has appeared in many places and in many languages, often under the title "The End."


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Not the best batch of stories, but it's all part of our SF education.  More SF short stories in our next episode!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

1955 stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson

1955 was a big year for culture!  Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was first published in 1955, the first McDonald's opened in 1955, and Elvis Presley made his (local) television debut in 1955.  Was 1955 as big a year for SF as for literary fiction, gastronomy, and music?  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we have been looking at SF which Anthony Boucher considered among the best of 1955 and included in 1956's The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series.  (I own a 1968 printing of the paperback edition.)  In our last episode we looked at three joke stories; today we look at three stories that Boucher, in his spoily intros, tells us he finds "moving" or "pointed."

"This Earth of Majesty" by Arthur C. Clarke

The story printed in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series under the title "This Earth of Majesty" appeared in F&SF under a big question mark!  You see, the magazine was running a $200 contest to see which reader could come up with the best title!  (See the contest rules and MPorcius Fiction Log's 63-year-late entry below!)  According to isfdb, "This Earth of Majesty" was the name Clarke used, while the winner of the contest came up with "Refugee."  When the story was printed in the British magazine New Worlds in 1957 it was titled "Royal Prerogative."

It is the nearish future, when mankind has colonized Mars and Venus and ships carry cargoes between Earth and those worlds.  Rockets have just recently been replaced with ships propelled by "Field Compensation Drive generators" and a space port has been set up in England, not far from Stonehenge.  (England had no suitable sites from which rockets could take off, being too densely populated.)

Captain Saunders is a Texan in command of a space ship about to carry cargo from England to Mars; both members of his two-man crew are British.  The Prince of Wales comes to visit the ship after it lands; Prince Henry is a space buff and knows all about space ships and the history of space travel but has never been on a real space voyage because the government thinks it too risky.  Clarke here takes the line that being a member of the royal family is more a burdensome responsibility than a privilege, that the position is constricting and going to all those openings of schools and lame parties is soul-drainingly boring.  "This Earth of Majesty" is a sort of patriotic pro-Albion story; when Saunders visits London we are told that the Underground is "still the best transport system in the world," for example, and the story has the famous "this sceptred isle" quote from Shakespeare as its epigraph ("this Earth of majesty" is a phrase from this quote.)

The plot of this story is sort of obvious--American Saunders tosses aside his republican sentiments and quickly develops a soft spot for the prince, so when his crew finagle things behind his back so that the prince can stow away on the trip to Mars, he doesn't mind.  People who have it in for the English and fierce adherents to democratic ideals will groan!

Acceptable sappy filler.  Maybe an interesting historical document as a presentation of an Englishman's view of what Britain and the US are all about, or maybe the image of Britain a particular Englishman wanted to project to Americans.

My idea for the title is a nod to William IV.  Cross your fingers because I could use those 200 bucks.


"The Vanishing American" by Charles Beaumont

This story is about a 47-year-old who failed in his ambitions to become a college professor.  Wait, I’m 47 years old!  And...well, at least this guy still lives in the big city!  Count your blessings, bro!

Mr. Minchell works in an office at an adding machine.  His colleagues hardly ever talk to him--they hardly even look at him!  At home are his wife who never stops complaining and his kid who watches TV and never reads books—Minchell can’t identify with that little brat!  When he was a kid he read Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum!

On his 47th birthday Minchell looks in the mirror and realizes that the metaphorical process of vanishing has culminated in the literal condition of becoming invisible--nobody can see him! Shocking, a fate not unlike death...but perhaps also liberating?  When he wasn’t following the adventures of Tarzan or Dorothy and the Scarecrow, as a kid Minchell fantasized that the huge lion statue in front of the library was a mighty beast lying in wait, a creature that only he, young Minchell, could ride.  Now that nobody can see him Minchell decides to fulfill his childhood dream and climb up on the lion.  The act of living one of his dreams cures his invisibility—children and an adult man who himself was a dreamer in his youth see Minchell up there and cheer him.

Acceptable sappy filler. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, you'll recall, accused Boucher of having a “love of the precious;” maybe this is the kind of thing that august publication was warning us about?

“The Vanishing American” has been reprinted many times. To me it felt like the story of an individual guy’s problems, but I’m an individualistic sort; in fact the story’s title suggests Beaumont meant Minchell to represent “Everyman” and the city in the story, though at times it feels like the greatest city in the world and the tomb of my hopes and dreams, is a sort of "Everytown, USA,"* and so I guess Beaumont is casting Minchell's unsatisfying job and unsatisfying family life as a universal problem, perhaps the result of something wrong with the larger culture of the United States.  Serious anthologists putting together serious tomes (for sale in bulk to government schools, one presumes) took that ball and ran with it, including “The Vanishing American” in such books as 1975's Social Problems through Science Fiction and 1976's The City 2000 A.D.: Urban Life Through Science Fiction. (What are the chances that today’s college professors would assign their victims--I mean students--a book that suggests a nagging wife is a social problem?  And are the editors of The City 2000 A.D. using “urban life” as a synonym for “modern life?”  I’m sure there are plenty of people in farm country and suburbia who failed to achieve their dreams and are alienated from their irritating spouses and dimwitted offspring.)

If crummy wives and TV-obsessed brats are your cup of tea, check out Robert F. Young's 1957 story "Thirty Days Had September," discussed just days ago here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

*The subway Minchell rides and the huge lion before the library are of course reminiscent of New York City, but Beaumont never names the town and while there are two white lions before the NYPL at Fifth and 42nd, where in a different phase of my life I spent many hours, the lion in this tale is black and solitary.  I personally think Beaumont made an artistic mistake in leaving his story bereft of a sense of place by setting it in some vague neverland.  The best thing about Damon Knight's "You're Another," which also appears in this anthology and which I was slagging in our last episode, is the real New York locations.      


"Pattern for Survival" by Richard Matheson

I'm wishing I could tell you that the author of "Duel" and "Prey" was going to break this streak of sappiness we're going through, but I cannot; this brief tale, while not bad, is pretty sappy.

The story begins with a fragment in italics, the end of a SF love story in which the happy lovers look across their beautiful glittering city of mirrored towers.  Then we follow the love story's writer as he seals up this manuscript and takes it to the mail box, then the mail man (I know, "mail carrier") as he takes the manuscript from the mail box, then the editor at the magazine as he reads the manuscript, etc.  There are hints that something weird is going on, for example, the fact that the story is written in the morning and the magazine featuring it is published that very afternoon, and there there are all the references to the decrepitude of the magazine's offices and damage to the streets.  By the end of the story we realize that there has been a nuclear war and the writer is the last man on Earth and, in his despair, he is playacting all the roles of writer, postal worker, editor, newsagent, et al.

This story is not bad, and it is less than four pages long so it doesn't waste you time, but I'm kind of sick of these sentimental stories.  "Pattern for Survival" has not been anthologized much in English, but has appeared in many Matheson collections, including Collected Stories: Volume Twoa withdrawn library copy of which I own.  Collected Stories: Volume Two includes comments by Matheson himself after each story, and, contra Boucher and me, who took "Pattern for Survival" seriously as a portrait of a man whose mind has been destroyed by a cataclysm, Matheson says it is a "humor story" and a gentle satire of Robert Sheckley whom, Matheson suggests, would get his stories published under even the worst possible conditions!  "Pattern for Survival" has also been included in several European publications.


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These stories are all fine; I guess I am just too cynical and jaded or simply not in the mood for this kind of sentimentality.  I wish I would come across more stories like Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s "I Made You," to be honest.

More SF stories from the MPorcius Library's anthology shelf in our next installment!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

1955 stories by Damon Knight, Avram Davidson and Fredric Brown

Today we do a biopsy on a sample from Anthony Boucher's The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series, first published in hardcover in 1956.  I own a copy of the 1968 paperback, Ace G-714; looking at the contents list of the first edition on isfdb, it looks like this paperback of mine is a slightly shortened version; a poem by Boucher is missing, and Boucher's intro was shortened.  (It looks like there is a scan of Ace F-105, the 1961 edition of this anthology, at the internet archive, in case any of you Silas Stingies out there want to read these stories.)

My copy of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series was owned by Private Charles E. Harris, who inscribed his name, rank, serial number and Social Security number on its title page.  Included in the start of this volume is a one-page "Proem" by Fredric Brown entitled "Imagine," a poetical exhortation to us readers to imagine not just easy things like witches and spacecraft, but difficult things like the fact that there are billions of stars in the universe and the true nature of the relationship between our consciousness and our bodies.

Based on Boucher's spoily intros to the stories, I'm expecting the three pieces we'll talk about today to be joke stories.  (A review from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of this very anthology, quoted on the first page of the book, accuses Boucher of having "a love of the droll.")  In our next episode we'll look at stories from The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series that, I hope, are a little more serious.  All of these stories, and Brown's "Imagine," originally appeared in issues of F&SF in 1955.

Fellow SF fans Private Charles G. Harris and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, we salute you!
"You're Another" by Damon Knight

In the last installment of MPorcius Fiction Log we found that Knight had chosen some pretty good stories about robots and computers threatening our position at the top of the food chain for inclusion in The Metal Smile.  But throughout our career reading old SF stories we have also found that Knight can produce some pretty lame joke stories.  "You're Another" is a long story, over 30 pages here, so reading it is feeling like a risky investment.  So why am I doing it?  Well, once I walked through Central Park alone in the dark of night to prove to myself I wasn't as big of a p--I mean weenie--as I suspected I was.  Maybe this is a little like that.

"You're Another" actually starts in Central Park--our hero Johnny Bornish is there to do some sketching (in the 1940s Knight himself actually sold quite a few illustrations to magazines like Planet Stories and Weird Tales.)  Johnny is not only an artist, but a klutz who has bad luck--somebody's dog knocks him into the famous sailboat pond and when he goes to the Automat he drops his change and there is a major malfunction with the coffee machine.  (I don't know if Knight himself was a klutz.)  But Johnny has a good attitude.  You probably remember that when one of Don Quixote's acts of chivalry went awry the Knight of the Doleful Countenance would say "this adventure must be reserved for another knight!"  Well, when Johnny goes into an art supply store to purchase a new sketchbook and then forgets all about the sketchbook because he has spilled a can of red paint and made a mess of the store he thinks that "God did not care for him to do any sketching today."

On the day of these pond water, coffee and paint episodes Johnny has a revelation--whenever he suffers one of these catastrophes two people are nearby, a "tweedy woman" and an "old man."  Are they causing his bad luck?  And what about that Japanese coin he has been carrying around for ten years as a lucky charm...it is the only thing he hasn't lost in ten years.  Could it be an unlucky charm, or some kind of homing device used by the tweedy woman and old man?

One of the famous things about Knight is that he wrote a scathing and influential review of my favorite Canadian, A. E. van Vogt.  Here in "You're Another" we see a rather van Vogt-style plot, in which some guy learns about the secret weirdos who manipulate the universe behind the scenes, gains super powers and becomes one of those weirdos, but Knight, more or less, plays it for laughs.  I guess you could say this is, or very nearly is, a parody of van Vogt.

Johnny tries to get rid of the Japanese coin, but the thing always finds its way back to him, even flying through the air and adhering to his skin.  The coin gets damaged in the struggle, and then the old man shows up*, disguised as a "dark man," and there is some kind of malfunction and, by waving around the arm to which the coin is attached, Johnny can teleport through different dimensions or timelines or something.  Mostly he teleports to different Manhattan locations; eateries, the subway, a bus, the top of the Empire State Building.  This power gives him the upper hand over the old/dark man, and Johnny forces his former tormentor to tell him what is going on--it turns out that our world is just a movie set constructed by people of the future.  You and I, dear reader, are mere extras, while Johnny is the comic relief--the old/dark man and the tweedy woman are second unit directors or something like that, manipulating the unwitting "actors" like Johnny into following the script.  Johnny makes his way to the director and gets the script changed in his favor.

I'm giving "You're Another" a thumbs down; it isn't abysmal, but it is a marginal failure, a waste of time.  I don't care for parodies and spoofy imitations--I think Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are legitimately good movies, and things like Spaceballs and Austin Powers are a childish waste of time, the capering of buffoons; it is hard to create something sincere that is good, and easy to throw together a mocking imitation.  So, to the extent that "You're Another" is a goof on my man Van, I'm against it.

You can sort of look at this story as a straight SF story with a straight plot with lots of jokes appended to it; so maybe I should think more about why, if Knight is semi-seriously using a van Vogt-like form here, I enjoy this story far less than I have so many van Vogt stories?  I think that van Vogt's stories generally include one or more unusual theories about psychology or politics or sociology that can be thought-provoking (remember, SF is a literature of ideas, or so we like to tell ourselves) and help to generate an atmosphere of alienness and novelty; "You're Another" doesn't do much in this line.  Knight does refer to artists like Benvenuto Cellini and to New York mayor William O'Dwyer, which is kind of interesting, but those references don't add much to the feel of the story.  Also, in a van Vogt story, there is some usually some kind of war or revolution or killing spree going on, there is lots of danger and the stakes are high, which transmits to the reader tension and uneasiness.  Knight's story here has lots of little jokes that create a tone of light fantasy, make it a "romp" about which there is no reason to care, a limp contrast to van Vogt, who gives us a nightmare struggle for life or death and/or a mystery to be solved.

No ideas and no feeling means no good.

"You're Another" is included in the Special Wonder anthology published as a memorial to Anthony Boucher; I actually own the second volume of the paperback version of that anthology (I read a William F. Nolan story in it in 2015) and so I own two printings of "You're Another."  The story also appears in multiple Knight collections, including ones published in Europe.
 
*I had been hoping the tweedy woman was going to show up; more photogenic.  Sadly, Knight drops her from the narrative altogether--she has no dialogue.  Why even include her?  These kinds of extraneous elements help to make a story like this way longer than it needs to be.



"The Golem" by Avram Davidson

In his little intro Anthony Boucher tells us that the story of the golem is so famous that "it is familiar even to gentiles," so I need not rehash it here.  Davidson is a vast storehouse of knowledge, and often bases his SF stories on history and literature (he has a whole series of books I have not read that take medieval conceptions of Virgil as their jumping off point); the recent Davidson story we read included all sorts of references to figures of the period of the American revolution.  "The Golem's" characters live in sunny California, and Davidson alludes to a long list of old Hollywood notables, like my beloved Laurel and Hardy and a bunch of people I know little or nothing about, like Leatrice Joy and Harold Lloyd.

The Gumbeiners are a retired Jewish couple whose dialogue is full of words like "nebbich" and complaints about the Czar.  They sit on the porch, bickering back and forth ("When are you going to cut the lawn?," "Of course, of course...I am always wrong, you are always right") and are so busy with their squabbles that they don't pay much heed to the grey-faced man who sits down on the porch next to them and explains that he is a robot and, by reading Mary Shelly and Isaac Asimov, has come to realize war between robot and man is inevitable.
"Foolish old woman," the stranger said; "why do you laugh?  Do you not know I come to destroy you?"  
When the robot insults his wife Mr. Gumbeiner strikes it and cracks its skull so gears and wires are exposed.  Intimately familiar with the story of the golem, which he is certain is true (he even speculates that the "Communisten" may have sent the golem to Moscow), Gumbeiner contrives to get this new golem to mow his lawn the way the original golem in Prague carried the rabbi's water and cut his wood. 

I admire Davidson for having a huge brain full of cultural information and for being able to turn it all into genre stories (he apparently also wrote lots of detective stories set in various historical periods), but these stories rarely make me laugh or excite me.  Easier for me to respect than to love, this story is just OK, a sort of cute trifle.

The big wigs of the SF community seem to legitimately adore "The Golem" and it shows up in many anthologies with gush like "All-Time-Great," "Classic" and "Best of the Best" in their titles, as well as in anthologies of robot stories and of Jewish SF.

Click for a closer look at these quite good covers
"Too Far" by Fredric Brown

"Too Far" was first published in an issue of F&SF that, for whatever logistical or financial or artistic reasons, is lead by a story by J. T. McIntosh, one of my betes noir, and includes many reprints, including of pieces decades old.  Brown's piece is new, however, another one of these one-page jobs.  If you have a minute you can read the magazine version yourself at the link above to the internet archive, that fabulous resource for all of us interested in the popular fiction of the 20th century.

Editor Boucher calls these short-shorts "vignettes," and tells us that Brown calls them "vinnies."  Brown, we are informed, is a master of the form, a pioneer in the production of vinnies who has inspired others to take up the challenge of the vinnie.  "Too Far" is about a womanizer who lives in New York City.  He is also a lycanthrope who can change at will into a deer.  One day he decides to experience sex as a buck, and so sneaks into the Central Park Zoo to mate with a doe.  The doe turns out to also be a lycanthrope, a human woman who can also change at will into a deer.  (Who would have thought this was a common malady?)  She is also a witch (this I can believe) and casts a spell on our hero that makes him unable to change back into human form, trapping him in the zoo where he will be hers, all hers.

This story includes lots of puns, many around the fact that "buck" and "doe" are homophones for slang terms for money.

This story is linguistically clever and titillatingly hovers around the edges of good taste, what with its hints of bestiality and misogyny, and so I cannot deny that it has won me over.  This is a joke story that works--1) it is short, not 30-plus damned pages long; 2) it has some originality, and isn't just a "I'm too cool for school" half-assed mockery of what some other guy did sincerely; and 3) it actually generates in the reader some kind of feeling, because a) even though were-deer is an absurd idea, the characters are recognizable realistic types, the man who wants to sleep around and the woman who wants a steady relationship; and b) the bestiality and misogyny elements can disgust you or make you uneasy--the kind of "shock" humor I used to hear on the Howard Stern show in the late '80s and '90s, with Gilbert Gottfried and Andrew Dice Clay and other such characters may be low and vulgar and offensively sexist and racist and homophobic, but it gets a rise out of an audience in a way a guy spilling a can of paint does not.

"Too Far" appears in Brown collections, as well as in some anthologies about witches and scary sexual relationships.


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Knight's and Davidson's stories are "meta," reflecting self-consciously on other fantastic literature and referring to other art forms and to history, but Brown, who wrote one of the most "meta" of all classic SF novels in What Mad Universe, beats Knight and Davidson decisively in the comedy game and he does it in a fraction of the time. We admire such efficiency here at MPorcius Fiction Log!

More 1955 stories from F&SF in our next episode. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Robot stories by Aldiss, Brown, Anderson, Budrys and Miller

Alright, more anthologized short stories (just what you wanted!)  Today we are tackling five stories I have selected from a 1968 anthology edited by Damon Knight and published by our friends at Belmont: The Metal Smile.  I was raking poor Damon over the coals just a few days ago, saying he had the absolute worst story in Tom Boardman's anthology of 26 stories, An ABC of Science Fiction, so today we have a chance to see Knight in a better light, as an editor instead of as a writer.  Another flip of the script: I often praise Belmont for their terrific covers (check out this one and this one and this one) but I own the 1974 edition of The Metal Smile and its cover is absolute garbage!  The colors are foul, the fonts are irritating, and the image is mind-bogglingly bad.  Even the composition of the cover, with the tutti frutti authors' names at the top, the title in the center, and the embarrassing illustration on the bottom, is terrible.  Perhaps most galling of all, the 1968 edition of The Metal Smile has a great cover!  When I saw the original cover on twitter, I was filled with envy! 

I have already read one of the stories in The Metal Smile, "Two-Handed Engine" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, and it is a good one that I recommend.  Hopefully I will be able to recommend the five stories I read today!

"The New Father Christmas" by Brian W. Aldiss (1958)

Brian Aldiss is on my good side today, having written one of the top three stories in An ABC of Science Fiction.  Let's hope he can stay there!

It is the year 2388!  Robin has been caretaker of an automatic factory for 35 years—he and his wife Roberta are the only humans authorized to live in the factory.  Robin is decrepit-- bedridden--and Roberta is an absent-minded softie who is letting three homeless bums live in the factory. These tramps have figured out a way to escape being thrown out with the trash by the robot who cleans up the factory every day.

In An ABC of Science Fiction we saw some relatively benign robots (in Daniel F. Galouye's "A Homey Atmosphere") and even robots who are nicer than people (in Robert F. Young's "Thirty Days Had September") but the cover text of The Metal Smile ("MAN VS. MACHINE") suggests that we can expect some scary robots today, and Aldiss here sets us off to a good start on our journey through mechanized mayhem.

Our story takes place on Christmas Day; Robin even receives a Christmas card in the mail from the Minister of Automatic Factories, possible evidence that there are other human beings alive beyond the factory—R and R never leave the factory themselves and sometimes suspect there are no people left alive out there.  (We are given some reason to believe that the robots consider humans obsolete and have been replacing them.)  One of the tramps decides that the factory owes them a Christmas present, setting off a course of events which results in all five characters coming to the unwelcome attention of the robotic security apparatus.

An entertaining little story, written in a fun jocular style that does not prevent it from feeling real or from generating a sense of menace.  Short and satisfying.  "The New Father Christmas" first saw print in F&SF and has since appeared in numerous anthologies and Aldiss collections.

I really like the Powers cover on No Time Like Tomorrow; it looks like a fungoid
Manhattan, and achieves a strong sense of size and depth
"Answer" by Fredric Brown (1954)

This is one of those short-shorts--one page long!

The story of "Answer" is that a society which has colonized many star systems and built many computers decides to network all the computers in the galaxy together to create what amounts to a single super powerful computer.  Once connected this computer is essentially a god, and not perhaps a kindly one!

I feel like I've already read a story with this exact plot--connecting a bunch of computers creates a dangerous deity--in the last few years, but I'll be damned if I can remember the author or title, and I guess I haven't been cataloging and labeling these blog posts efficiently enough for me to find any clues.  Frustrating!  Maybe I actually read this story long ago--"Answer," after first appearing in Brown's hardcover collection Angels and Spaceships, has been anthologized many times.  [UPDATE SEPTEMBER 23, 2018: The story that "Answer" reminded me of is probably Arthur C. Clarke's "Dial 'F' for Frankenstein.")

"Quixote and the Windmill" by Poul Anderson (1950)

Well, here's a story that has not been anthologized widely.  "Quixote and the Windmill" was first published by legendary editor John W. Campbell, Jr. in Astounding, and, excepting Damon Knight's The Metal Smile, has never appeared in an anthology, though it has been printed in five or six different Anderson collections, including two different German ones.  Did Campbell and Knight see something in the story other editors didn't?

Anderson starts his story off at a high literary pitch, with powerful metaphors (the robot has "the brutal maleness of a naval rifle or a blast furnace") and a brief sort of history of the philosophy of the robot that mentions "the Golem, Bacon's brazen head" and "Frankenstein's monster" and ends by telling us that the people of the utopian future of government handouts and copious leisure time in which Anderson has set his story are a little uneasy about the recently constructed super-strong, all-seeing prototype robot, equipped with the first artificial "volitional, non-specialized brain" that for the last year has been wandering around among them.

After the literary prologue we move to the down-to-earth primary scene of the story, a bar where two drunks complain that they don't fit into this utopia.  One is a technician who was smart enough to find his job so boringly routine that he quit, but not smart enough or creative enough to find a job among the elite planners and artists of this society.  The other is a laborer who can't find work because the machines do all the labor; his wife left him because she wanted a man who would amount to something other than a recipient of the "basic citizen's allowance."  With nothing to do these guys have become dedicated drinkers.

The robot walks by the bar, and the two drunks, seeing it as emblematic of their plight and a harbinger of a future with no humans, only efficient robots, rush outside to violently confront it.  The robot calmly explains that 1) even if the drunks are ill-suited to current society there will always be men with ability ("who think and dream and sing") who will carry on the human race and keep its glory alive and 2) that the robot itself is useless like the drunks are.  What need is there for a humanoid self-aware robot when we already have self-aware humans and a vast array of mindless automatic machines that can build things and grow food and accomplish menial tasks?  The reason this robot is just walking around is that its builders have no use for it!  SF is full of self-aware humanoid robots who do ordinary jobs, robot maids and so forth, so I thought this was an interesting tack for Anderson to take, proclaiming that humanoid robots are pointless.

If you read classic science fiction you encounter quite a few of these stories about how utopia is a bore because man needs challenges and accomplishments, and this one is hardly groundbreaking, which is perhaps why "Quixote and the Windmill" hasn't been anthologized much.  On the other hand it is entertaining and it is fun to see Anderson whip out all the literary and historical references (showing off that he is a member of the cognitive elite who need not fear being rendered obsolete by a machine!)  The problem of what role unskilled workers can play in an advanced society is of course an interesting topic, and Anderson doesn't offer any comfortable solution to this quandary--a certain percentage of people are just going to be unhappy and/or decadent parasites, and this percentage is going to go up as technology and the economy get more efficient.

For a second opinion, check out Thomas Anderson's review of "Quixote and the Windmill" at Schlock Value.


"First to Serve" by Algis Budrys (1954)

Another piece from Astounding.  Budrys is an unusual person with a strange biography and career, and I certainly want to like his work, but he doesn't always cooperate and produce stories that I think are good.  I was unhappy with his famous novel Rogue Moon, for example, though I thought Man of Earth a success.  Let's see what we've got this time.

"First to Serve" comes to us as a bunch of government records, mostly the diary of a robot who has been programmed with so much intelligence it has achieved self-awareness!  Rogue Moon and Man of Earth explore the question of "what is a man?", and "First to Serve" touches on the same topic; on the second page the robot writes "I'm still having trouble defining 'man.'  Apparently, even the men can't do a very satisfactory job of that."

Why has a robot with such intelligence been created?  It is the high tech future of the 1970s, and the armed services are looking for the perfect soldier in the form of a robot.  The scientists in the story have come up with the diarist, a prototype that fits the bill--the perfect soldier needs to be able to think independently and to improvise when confronted with unexpected obstacles or conditions, so such a robot soldier needs human-level intelligence.  But there is a problem--nobody really wants a robot that can think like a human because such a robot would be superior to a human; after all, it lacks a human's frailty and biological needs.  Such a superior being would threaten to replace humanity--one scientist, actually a spy who has been assigned to the project by one of the armed services, asks, "Suppose they decide they're better fit to run the world than we are?"

The climax of the story is when the aforementioned spy, drunk, tells the robot that the head of the project (whom the robot sees as a friend) has been neutralized and that the robot itself is slated for some unspecified grim fate.  We learn the aftermath in some letters and memos written by government officials.  In response to the spy's taunting the robot killed the spy and wrecked the lab; the authorities have encased it in concrete and sunk it in the Patuxent River.  The head of the project is on trial, but will probably be acquitted based on the evidence in the robot's diary.

This story is OK.  Perhaps because of the voices it employs, that of a robot and government employees speaking officially, it lacks the style and characterizations that enliven the Aldiss and Anderson stories.  Budrys flings a literary reference at us (Trilby) that flew over my head, so maybe there is more I'm missing?  "First to Serve" was reprinted in some Budrys collections and some anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on them.


"I Made You" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1954)

Astounding strikes again!  I liked Miller's "No Moon For Me," a story about a guy who tricks the human race into exploring outer space that had adventure and hard SF elements as well as Malzbergian components, so I am looking forward to this one.

Whoa, this is a great military SF story, full of futuristic but believable equipment and weapons; it is also a good tense action story in which guys match wits with an alien "other" in a fight conducted under all kinds of restrictions--in some ways it reminded me of Fredric Brown's "Arena" and A. E. van Vogt's "The Rull."

A huge robot tank with an array of weapons is guarding a piece of territory on the moon.  The tank is damaged, so technicians drive over to fix it.  Unfortunately, the thing's IFF system is among the malfunctioning components, so it thinks every vehicle and person it detects is an enemy, and blasts the technicians.  Only one tech survives by hiding in a cave.  When more personnel arrive to help him out he struggles to figure out a way to defeat the tank in a short period of time (he is low on oxygen!) without blowing up the stuff the tank is guarding.

One of the cool things about the story is that it is largely told (though in the third person) from the tank's point of view; this kind of reminded me of van Vogt's "Black Destroyer." At the same time the humies are trying to figure out how to solve their problem, the robot tank is using logic and engineering knowledge to achieve its own goals!

Very good, an entertaining example of this type of SF--space suits and other futuristic gear, people puttering about on the moon, a life or death struggle, and engineering-based problem solving.

Thomas Anderson, a big fan of Miller's famous A Canticle for Leibowitz, has also written about "I Made You."  The story has deservedly been reprinted quite a lot, including in Joe Haldeman's Supertanks and Brian Aldiss's Introducing SF, both of which have striking covers that I love even though they exhibit very different cover design philosophies.

Car 54, where are you?
**********

Five worthwhile stories, all of them sort of pessimistic; though Anderson is confident that the gifted and talented among us will be fine, all the stories suggest that computers and robots will be a threat to the position or even lives of many of us.

More short SF stories written in the 1950s from the anthology shelf of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Final ABC: Vonnegut, Wyndham and Young

The day has arrived!  Finally, we will finish up Tom Boardman Jr.'s 1966 anthology An ABC of Science Fiction, a book which presents a story for each letter of the alphabet, each letter represented by a writer whose last name begins with that letter.   There are only three stories remaining, because we are skipping "X" (lame limericks written under a pseudonym) and "Z," Roger Zelazny's "The Great Slow Kings," which I read back in 2014--it totally fits in with the recurring theme of this anthology that human beings are terrible and with the general jocular or satiric tone of the book's stories. 

"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1961)

In grammar school we read "Harrison Bergeron" and at the time I was a little surprised to be reading a story in a school textbook that seemed to be either making fun of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution or criticizing the doctrine of equality or both.  "Harrison Bergeron" first appeared in F&SF and has been reprinted many times and even filmed several times.

It is the year 2081 and thanks to constitutional amendments (of which there are over 200,) the government ruthlessly enforces equality by mandating various handicaps.  Smart people have to wear ear pieces that disrupt their thoughts with piercing noises, strong and agile people have to wear weights that slow them down and wear them out, attractive people must don hideous masks, etc.  The plot concerns George and Hazel Bergeron, whose son, Harrison, is the strongest and smartest man ever born and who has been arrested.  G and H are watching ballerinas on TV--the ballerinas, weighted down and distracted, are fumbling all over the place.  Suddenly Harrison, having escaped, bursts into the TV studio, declares himself Emperor, throws off his handicaps and those of the most gifted of the ballerinas and demonstrates how beautifully two talented people can dance.  Then the government official in charge of the handicapping agency, a woman, arrives and shoots down the self-proclaimed Emperor and his lovely Empress.

On its face, "Harrison Bergeron" appears to be a ferocious, over-the-top attack on radical egalitarianism and government efforts to achieve equality.  But when we look at the wikipedia page on Vonnegut we see that he was a socialist who thought Americans too quick to denounce communism.  I think we have to entertain the strong possibility that "Harrison Bergeron" is not a warning against government interventionism but a lampoon of such warnings, that Vonnegut here, like the New Yorker with its controversial cover illustration in which Barack Hussein Obama is burning the Stars and Stripes and his wife is carrying a Kalashnikov, is painting opposition to government that actively pursues "social justice" as ridiculous.

The outlandish nature of some elements of the story--Harrison is a seven-foot tall fourteen-year old who breaks chains with his bare hands, and he and his Empress discover the ability to fly--seems to support such a reading, as does the name of the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers; while her first and middle names obviously reference the hunter goddess who shoots people as a means of punishing hubris, her last name reminds one of labor leader Samuel Gompers.  Maybe Vonnegut is presenting to readers a satiric view of how he believes supporters of limited government see themselves (as god-like individualists) and their opponents (nagging, autocratic and irrational people, especially women.)  It may be notable that Harrison Bergeron, the super-strong genius, tries to use his superior abilities to overthrow our republican society and make himself Emperor, like the kid in Pohl's "The Bitterest Pill;" lefties think we need a powerful public sector to keep private individuals with superior resources from lording it over others. 

Obviously this story suits the themes of An ABC of Science Fiction that people are jerks and the future is going to suck, and like so many stories picked by Boardman it is some kind of satire.  But unlike many of the other pieces in this book it is actually funny and offers hope, whether we take it at face value (Bergeron and his Empress win a brief victory over the government and give voice to the greatness of which a free humanity is capable) or as a satire of anti-socialist beliefs (by showing that opposition to government is so silly that socialism, as Marx would insist, is bound to succeed in the end.)


Well-written, fun and thought-provoking, maybe the best story in the book.  (I like to be the guy who goes against the conventional wisdom, the guy who prefers Gilligan's Island to A Night at the Opera and Led Zeppelin to the Beatles, but "Harrison Bergeron" is irresistible.)

"Close Behind Him" by John Wyndham (1953)

John Wyndham is widely admired, though you may recall that I dumped on his 1955 novel The Chrysalids, AKA Re-Birth, when I read it in long ago 2015.  Let's see if this story, first seen in Fantastic, and since reprinted in many Wyndham collections and horror anthologies, is more to my taste.

"Close Behind Him" is not a science fiction story at all, but a supernatural horror story, more or less a vampire story.  It is good, though, so thumbs up.

Our protagonists are a pair of burglars, Smudger and Spotty, who bust into a big old house whose owner lives alone, but periodically holds some kind of well-attended, sinister occult meetings.  The owner attacks them like an animal, biting and clawing instead of defending his life and property with a weapon, and Spotty kills him with the pipe he carries to deal with homeowners who give trouble.  When they abscond from the house the thieves find that Spotty is being "pursued" by red bloody footprints which match his own footfalls, each appearing a few yards behind him as he takes a step.  Smudger murders his colleague, hoping to escape this paranormal pursuit, but then the steps start following him.

Wyndham's story is mysterious enough that for a while we readers can suspect that justice is being served, that the burglars, as punishment for committing murder, are being harried by something akin to the Greek Furies (I've kind of got the Furies on the brain because of my recent reading of T. S.  Eliot's The Family Reunion and still more recent reading of Lyndall Gordon's discussion of that play in her book T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life.)  Back at Smudger's home this theory is exploded.  The bloody footprints gradually appear closer and closer, and, after two days of suffering a life-sapping anemia and dreams of a black hovering manlike form, Smudger dies.  The doctor who looks in on the burglar is present when Smudger expires, and, as he leaves, Smudger's wife sees that the footprints are now following the medical man.  Why is the monster chasing the doctor?  Presumably it is just a hungry beast, not any sort of avenger of wrongs.


This story is well-written and has a good basic concept, but I think the confusion over the monster's character--what exactly is it and what "rules" does it follow?--is a weakness.  There are early clues that the homeowner is some kind of male witch or maybe a werewolf, but then the importance of blood and Smudger's dreams and anemia put you in mind of a vampire.  The doctor thinks Smudger is just suffering hallucinations born of a guilty conscience and knowledge of lines from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but we know he is wrong because Spotty and Liz (Smudger's wife) also see the footprints, and that they are real because Liz wipes up the blood None of these classic templates--Greek Fury, witch, lycanthrope, vampire, hallucination--really fits what is going on and Wyndham doesn't supply any clear explanation of what is going on.  I guess the monster is just a "ghost" that does whatever would be scary at the moment?           

Still, a decent piece of work.

"Thirty Days Had September" by Robert F. Young (1957)

Early this year I read Young's "The Ogress" and found it to be an entertaining enough adventure story with a sort of high-concept premise ("what if the gods and monsters of ancient myth were real, super-beings created by the collective psychic energy of primitive superstitious people, and on other planets there are primitive villagers who unwittingly create these dangerous creatures and the Terran government needs to send out hunters to destroy them?")  Hopefully this story will be at least as good.

It's the early Sixties--the early 2060s!  When salaryman George Danby was a kid he was one of the last people to be taught in a school building by a robot teacher because his little rural town couldn't get TV reception; his own nine-year-old is taught over the television like all the kids nowadays.  But George doesn't think it is quite the same, and when he sees a refurbished fourth-grade robot teacher in the window of an antique shop, he is moved to buy it.  He's buying it to help his kid study, and to help his wife Laura with the cooking and sewing, of course--he's definitely not buying Miss Jones because of those blue eyes and that hair that "made him think of September sunlight..."! 

Some SF stories speculate about future societies which are radically different from the society in which the writer lives; Heinlein has people on the moon with new marriage practices, Delany and Lee have societies in which getting a sex change is trivially easy, Sturgeon has the planet where incest is the norm, Wolfe has his future of illiterate immortals, and on and on.  And then there is the SF that just depicts the society in which the writer lives but with futuristic trappings.  In "Thirty Days Had September" Young depicts a caricature of the 1950s with robots thrown in so he can air his rather conventional gripes about postwar America.

Miss Jones is not a hit at the Danby household because it criticizes the TV shows Laura and the brat watch all day--the siege of Troy, the aftermath of the war of Eteocles and Polynices, and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, all reimagined as Westerns--and because the private companies who operate the tele-education system have filled viewers' heads with anti-robot-teacher propaganda.  The brat even kicks Miss Jones, damaging it so it limps.  Late one night, after he's had a few beers, George sits with his arm around Miss Jones while the machine recites some original lines from Romeo and Juliet--it's one of the happiest moments in George's life!  But Laura comes out of the bedroom and catches them, and insists George return Miss Jones to the antique store.

But this story has a happy ending!  Laura's dream is to replace their Buick with a Cadillac, so she does not complain when George starts working nights at a hot dog stand to make some extra money.  Laura will probably never find out that the owner of the hot dog stand has purchased Miss Jones to perform as a member of his wait staff!

Young in "Thirty Days Had September" calls out the citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave for their obsession with automobiles and TV Westerns, their consumerism, and, I guess, the fact that most of them aren't kicking back after a long day working at the office or cooking, cleaning and raising the kids at home with volumes of Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare.  Young suggests that postwar America is a society in which life is meaningless.  One of the problems of his story is that Young doesn't suggest where people should find meaning or where they found meaning before the rise of America's car- and TV- oriented consumer culture.  The average person is not going to find meaning in life reading ancient Greek and Renaissance English literature, and Young doesn't mention some of the obvious things that have given meaning to the lives of ordinary people in the past, things like religion or working with their hands.  Miss Jones obviously represents the more meaningful rural life of George's past (half a dozen times we are told she reminds him of "September"), but how that life was more meaningful is left unsaid; maybe Young thinks it is obvious?

One way people imbue their lives with meaning is through loving relationships with their family members, and Young does address this, perhaps obliquely.  Laura and the brat, avatars of consumerist TV and car culture, are obviously not going to offer opportunities for meaningful love relationships, but perhaps Miss Jones, a robot, is.  Young includes many descriptions of Laura and Miss Jones's physical appearance, and while both are described as attractive, Laura is described primarily in sexual terms (she's had her breasts augmented, for example), while Miss Jones is more wholesome--we do hear about the rise and fall of her breasts as she mimics human breathing, but mostly we are told that her face and hair and so on remind George of "September."  In one weird metaphor George looks at Laura in her pajamas, which have images of automobiles printed on them, and imagines she is allowing the cars to "run rampant over her body, letting them defile her breasts and her belly and her legs...."  Are we supposed to think consumer culture has ruined sex, made sex disgusting?  Maybe we are supposed to see Laura as a shallow, materialistic and status-obsessed creature who is only good for (debased) sex, and Miss Jones as a sort of Beatrice figure, a beautiful but chaste woman who will lead George to a spiritually fulfilling life?  (That's Lyndall Gordon's influence on me again--Gordon has a whole riff on how, after his disastrous marriage to the unstable Vivien Haigh-Wood, whom he married because he wanted to lose his virginity, Eliot sees the respectable and even-tempered Emily Hale as his own Beatrice figure.)  My Beatrice theory would be stronger if Young actually mentioned Dante or Virgil, which he does not do.   

If we strip away the sex stuff, the tone and theme of this story is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's work--the hostility to TV and cars, fear that books will vanish, nostalgia about small town America, sentimental depiction of a relationship with a robot, etc.

Not bad; like Helen Urban's "The Finer Breed," "Thirty Days Had September" is perhaps an  interesting historical document that reflects the complaints of intellectual types about 1950s America, and it is perhaps also worthy of the attention of students of SF for its depictions of women and sex (feminists could easily do a whole madonna-whore analysis of this story) and for its invocation of "serious" literature.


First printed in F&SF, "Thirty Days Had September" has been reprinted in numerous American and foreign anthologies, many with a robot theme.

**********

It is good to leave An ABC of Science Fiction on a high note after some of the rough patches we had to go through there in the middle.

So, can I recommend An ABC of Science Fiction?  Well, it looks like I judged eight stories "good," ten stories "acceptable" and eight stories "bad."  That sounds like a pretty good average, to be honest.  People considering purchasing a copy have to also take into account the type of stories Boardman favors; despite the advertising text on the first page, An ABC of Science Fiction is not really representative of the whole range of SF, much of which is optimistic and fun.  This anthology has a high proportion of joke stories and satires--there are few realistic stories or hard SF engineering-based stories or adventure-type stories or utopias--and a high proportion of pessimistic stories--there are lots of stories with criminals as protagonists and lots of stories in which human society is outwitted, defeated, or actually collapses, and few stories in which people solve problems or triumph over obstacles.  Sometimes in SF we find stories that criticize our society by providing a contrasting example, or that show that people can grow and societies can change--there are quite a few SF stories in which the agent of the evil corporation joins the noble rebels or in which the soldier of the racist military joins the aliens to war against his own people or in which goody good aliens teach or force us naughty naughty humans to behave.  Most of the stories here in An ABC of Science Fiction, however, present no such hope--we are bad and doomed, and maybe on our way to hell we will infect other races with our evil--this thing is all Goofus and no Gallant.

OK, let's rank order the stories.  I am confident in my judgement of in which of the three categories each story belongs, and less confident of the proper rank of each story within its category.  Life is short, and I am not going to devote a lot of time to figuring out if the lameness of the limericks of "B. T. H. Xerxes" outweighs the odiousness of Damon Knight's "Maid to Measure" and should pull it down to the very bottom of the heap.

GOOD
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
"The Fence" by Clifford Simak
"Let's Be Frank" by Brian Aldiss
"No Moon for Me" by Walter M. Miller
"Project Hush" by William Tenn
"X Marks the Pedwalk" by Fritz Leiber
"Thirty Days Had September" by Robert F. Young
"Close Behind Him" by John Wyndham
ACCEPTABLE
"Homey Atmosphere" by Daniel F. Galouye
"Day at the Beach" by Carol Emshwiller
"Love Story" by Eric Frank Russell
"The Awakening" by Arthur C. Clarke
"The Conquest by the Moon" by Washington Irving
"He Had a Big Heart" by Frank Quattrocchi
"In the Bag" by Laurence M. Janifer
"The Finer Breed" by Helen M. Urban
"The Great Slow Kings" by Roger Zelazny
"Pattern" by Fredric Brown
BAD
"Family Resemblance" by Alan E. Nourse
"Final Exam" by Chad Oliver
"Mute Milton" by Harry Harrison
"The Bitterest Pill" by Frederik Pohl
"I Do Not Hear You, Sir" by Avram Davidson
"The King of the Beasts" by Philip Jose Farmer
Three Limericks by B. T. H. Xerxes
"Maid to Measure" by Damon Knight
**********

More short science fiction stories from my shelf of anthologies in our next episode!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Penultimate ABC: Eric Frank Russell, Clifford Simak, William Tenn & Helen M. Urban


Onward through the alphabet!  Today's chunk of Tom Boardman, Jr.'s 1966 anthology An ABC of Science Fiction covers those stories by writers representing the letters R, S, T and U.  Russell and Simak are prominent writers (titan of SF publishing John W. Campbell, Jr. once told Alan Dean Foster that Russell was his favorite writer, while Simak in the 1977 was the third person awarded the title Grandmaster) with whom I am somewhat familiar, while Tenn I have heard of but never read and Urban I don't know that I have ever heard of.

"Love Story" by Eric Frank Russell (1957)

Back in 2016 we read The Best of Eric Frank Russell; "Love Story," which first appeared in Astounding, was not in that collection.  It was reprinted, however, in Microcosmic Tales, a collection of 100 short-shorts, and similar German collections.

As short-shorts go, "Love Story" is inoffensive; it is competent filler, and I'm grading it "acceptable."  It is not really a science fiction story, though, more like a mainstream story set in the future, that could probably have been set in ancient Rome or Victorian Britain or something.

"Love Story"'s four pages relate a conversation between General Romaine and his colleague (I guess his aide-de-camp or something) Harding.  (General Romaine's hick cousin Iceberg and his snobby brother-in-law Arugula do not appear in this story.)  Romaine has to send three regiments (these are big regiments, with six thousand men each) from the Centauri region to the newly acquired Sirius region, and he is annoyed that so many men are trying to get out of going because they don't want to leave their wives and families.  He thinks a spaceman should renounce love, "as if he were a monk" and devote himself to serving Earth and dominating the cosmos.  Romaine goes on in this anti-love vein for a while, and then Harding points out a letter from a Sergeant Amadeo who says he doesn't want to leave Centauri because he had hoped to dedicate his life to the Centaurian Guard and doesn't want to be reassigned to the Sirian Holding Force: "they have taken away my helmet-badge, the silver horse of Centauri...."  This is a kind of love Romaine can respect, and he grabs the phone and pulls strings to keep Amadeo in his current unit and even sets Amadeo on the path to becoming a commissioned officer.

The figure on the DAW paperback of Microcosmic Tales looks like
a dude who is sick to death of hearing allegedly funny short-shorts
"Love Story" isn't exactly impressive, but it achieves its goals and is not irritating, so it is better than the last four stories we've read in An ABC of Science Fiction.     

I'm all for ladies running around in their underthings,
but if there is going to be any welding,
maybe throw on a bathrobe or something
"The Fence" by Clifford Simak (1952)

In my New Jersey youth and in my New York days I read lots of Simak's novels.  Simak is a good writer, but I haven't read much by him since this blog sprang from my cabeza fully armed like some kind of quixotic literary Minerva because I got kind of sick of his sentimentality and his famous "pastoral" attitude.  This "pastoral" attitude, as far as I could tell, manifested itself as a belief that rural life is better than city life and the world would be better off if the only inhabitants were animals, robots and stone age Native Americans.  A good example of where Simak is coming from is his 1953 story "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free," which I read back in 2014 (the blog post at the link includes an extended version of my anti-Simak spiel.  You can cut out the middle man and read the magazine version of "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free" yourself at the internet archive in an issue of Future Science Fiction with a very effective cover that features some of our favorite things--a gun, a skull, a space suit, and a healthy-looking blond.)

Earlier this year I considered embarking on a personal Frederik Pohl renaissance, Pohl being another author whom I read a lot of in my Garden State youth, but Starburst cooled me on the idea, and "The Bitterest Pill" hasn't reignited it.  Maybe "The Fence" is going to get me to (re)read some Simak novels?  The one I have fondest memories of is Heritage of Stars, but the one I actually own is The Visitors.  Well, let's see.

"The Fence" is a story about a writer who is worried nobody will ever read the stuff he spends hour after hour laboriously researching and writing!  That is hitting a little too close to home, I daresay!

It is the far future, so far that people don't have to work for money or food, murder is almost unthinkable, and the idea of marrying a woman and having kids with her seems "just a bit obscene" to our protagonist, Craig the historian.  Craig has a machine that can view the past, and he is conducting a detailed survey of events taking place in a single acre over thousands of years.  But lately his work seems a waste of time, and his Personal Satisfaction rating (P. S.) has dipped from 120 last year to a mere 75.  (P. S. scores are reported on a ticker tape that everybody can see.)  Craig goes to see a shrink, makes little progress, goes for a walk.

On his walk Craig meet a guy who is living "off the grid."  This joker, Sherman, says that people have it too easy now, that everything is handed to them so they feel no real satisfaction.  Sherman makes his own way, growing his own vegetables, trapping rabbits in snares and catching fish on a hook--he has satisfaction because he doesn't live on handouts.  Craig realizes that he is not sure where all the free stuff like food and clothes and energy that everybody except Sherman takes advantage of comes from, and Sherman subtly guides him to clues that suggest that aliens are keeping the human race as pets, that we are the object of their contemptuous pity.

Here we have one of the few legitimately good stories I've encountered in An ABC of Science Fiction; smoothly written and with gentle jokes that are actually amusing and philosophical ideas that actually deserve respect--thumbs up!  Like so many other stories in this anthology it is a pessimistic piece that portrays humanity as defeated and deceived, but it has a seriousness and maturity about it, and leaves room for a glimmer of hope in the form of Sherman, the man who has decided to live his own life as much as he can in manly defiance of the degrading conditions he finds himself in. 


Simak is giving Brian Aldiss a run for his money in the contest of who has the best story in this anthology.  "The Fence" first appeared in Space Science Fiction and has been reprinted numerous times in various languages.

"Project Hush" by William Tenn (1954)

I've always avoided Tenn's work, I think because I have got the idea he writes sarcastic satiric joke stories like Robert Sheckley and Ron Goulart, two writers I have written off.  I am sick of parodies (when you just imitate something else, like plunking Homer Simpson down in the same milieu as The Prisoner) and I am sick of comedy that is just mean-spirited score-settling with your political or class enemies.  I saw part of a Marx Brothers movie recently, and it just seemed to be about Groucho swindling and physically abusing others with his superior wit.  Am I supposed to identify with Groucho as he humiliates people?  I'm not the kind of person who humiliates people--I am the kind of person who gets humiliated!  I was sympathizing with Groucho's victims!  I like comedy that is based on human fallibility and human relationships.  I laugh every time I see Laurel and Hardy in Block-heads or Chickens Come Home, I love I Love Lucy and the original Flintstones and the first TV version of The Odd Couple (I am told there are other versions)--I can identify with screw ups who have been defeated by life, people who set themselves impossibly lofty goals and fall on their faces in pursuit of them.

My suspicions about Tenn are more a case of my spider-sense tingling than any actual direct or indirect research.  Well, today we conduct a little research in the primary sources!

I guess you could call "Project Hush" a joke story, a satire of government and the military, but Tenn plays it straight and the jokes consist of believable events and realistic dialogue, nothing absurd or over the top.

Our narrator, and his subordinates, are academics who have been mustered into the US Army and are leading the project of building a secret base on the moon from which to protect the USA from foreign attack.  (It is not made clear how a base on the moon will protect us from the USSR or Red China or whoever better than a base in Europe or Japan or something, but might as well just go with it.)  Our heroes secretly cross the void and are setting their dome up on Luna when a recon mission reveals that there is another dome on the Moon already!  Is it aliens?  Is it hostile foreigners?  Throughout the story the narrator has stressed again and again how the Army has striven to keep its moon base effort secret, and the punchline to the story is that the other dome has been set up by the US Navy, which has its own moon base project, just as secret as the Army's.


Marginally good; all the military and technology stuff feels real, as if this were a hard SF story, which I guess it kind of is, and as I have suggested the comedy stuff doesn't distract you from the story.  Maybe I have been unfair to Tenn and should look for more stories by him in my anthologies.  Originally appearing in Galaxy, "Project Hush" has been reprinted many times in compilations of short-shorts and anthologies of humor pieces, as well as Tenn collections.

"The Finer Breed" by Helen M. Urban (1956)

Urban has only six stories listed at isfdb.  After its initial printing in F&SF, "The Finer Breed" only ever appeared here in An ABC of Science Fiction.

"The Finer Breed" appears to be a spoof of advertising, TV and popular psychology, in particular specific verbal strategies or tics emerging at the time it was written.  The sometimes odd grammar and syntax of the story related to use and overuse of comparatives and superlatives (a lampoon of advertising verbiage and its alleged malign influence on ordinary people's grammar, I guess) make the story clunky to read, and its apparent reference to cultural trends from 15 years before I was born shook my confidence that I was really grasping what was going on.  Maybe Urban is referring to a specific TV commercial or ad campaign with which I am not familiar?

Anyway, in the future, government institutions have their own TV channels and ad campaigns—the captain of the police station at the center of this story, Northwest Station, ruefully monitors the TV commercials and programs of a rival station, Center Station, and considers that his station needs a better slogan.  These police organizations don't seem to be dedicated to deterring thievery and murder like we (vainly?) hope today's police are but rather to providing psychiatric services to people who self-diagnose mental problems and call the government up to voluntarily commit themselves to confinement for such infractions as “self expression.”  (Maybe this story is also about the conformity we always hear about when people complain about the 1950s.)  The "clients" who call up describe themselves in the same way people reporting a crime in detective and police fiction always describe a perp: "White; blue eyes; brown hair. five foot nine...."  The squads that collect these clients put on make up and are accompanied by a TV crew so their exploits can be .  (Maybe this story is goofing on the prevalence of TV shows about doctors and police?) 

The twist ending of the four-page story is that the captain of Northwest Station breaks the strange grammar rules of this future and has himself committed.

This story was annoyingly opaque the first time I read it and I was ready to give it a thumbs down, but on a second, more careful, read I think I sort of get it.  I didn't really enjoy it, but maybe somebody more familiar with the cultural artifacts or phenomena which Urban is parodying here might find "The Finer Breed" an amusing or interesting historical document.  Let's call it acceptable.

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A much better batch of stories than the last one.  In our next episode we'll finish our odyssey through the alphabet as represented by SF authors selected by Tom Boardman, Jr.