Sunday, April 21, 2019

Algis Budrys's "Gus" stories

The third story in Budrys' Inferno is "And Then She Found Him," which isfdb is telling me is the second of the three "Gus" stories written by Algis Budrys and published between 1955 and 1957 under the Paul Janvier nom de plume.  I decided to look up the other two Gus tales at the internet archive and read the three of them in chronological order.

"Nobody Bothers Gus" (1955)

Augustin Kusevic is one of the early specimens of homo superior.  He has tremendous intellectual and psychic abilities--he can use math to foretell future social and economic developments; he need only read the first three pages of a novel to predict its course and conclusion; he can manipulate matter, say, turn a pen into a bouncing ball and back again or melt a twelve-lane highway, with ease.  But all these powers have come with a terrible price.  Gus autonomically generates a "field that damps curiosity," with the effect that people pay no attention to him, dismissing as magic tricks the psychic miracles he performs and forgetting that he was once heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  Superior to everyone, and  unable to form any emotional connection to an individual or to the larger culture, Gus is a lonely man without a country, without friends, without love.

"Nobody Bothers Gus" is a mood and character piece whose main plot (middle-aged Gus, having abandoned his too-easy boxing career, buys and fixes up a remote house only to lose it to eminent domain when the Feds decided to build Earth's first spaceport nearby) feels secondary.  The tantalizing component of the plot is the revelation that there are other people like Gus out there, presenting the possibility that maybe Gus need not be alone forever.

Not bad.  "Nobody Bothers Gus" first appeared in Astounding and was well received, chosen by Judith Merril for her first Year's Greatest SF anthologies and included since then in a multitude of anthologies edited by everybody ranging from Damon Knight and James Gunn to Barry Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg.

"And Then She Found Him" (1957)

Gus Kusevic doesn't actually appear in "And Then She Found Him," making me doubt the utility of calling these three stories "The Gus stories," but the tale does take place in the same universe and address similar themes.  It appeared in Venture and later in the anthology No Limits, as well as the various printings of Budrys' Inferno (AKA The Furious Future) and some European publications.

"And Then She Found Him" is quite plot-driven, and even has a shock ending.  In Chicago a community of fifty of the superhumans with the curiosity-damping field has assembled.  Following various clues, one of the supermen, Deerbush, travels the country finding these mutants and bringing them back to Chi-town to be welcomed to the super-community.  Deerbush is sort of like a matchmaker; when he finds a mutant he usually senses that there is a person back in the Windy City who would make a perfect spouse for this new member of the homo superior colony.

In a town he finds Viola, a mutant who has been using her superpowers to steal expensive consumer goods.  Viola has a power Deerbush has encountered in no other mutant--she can hypnotize people into obeying her; nobody can resist her commands, even commands to steal or to assault others. So rapacious is Viola that her thefts are wrecking the local economy and making the local retailers and law enforcement personnel paranoid.  If the Viola crime wave is not ended soon many people may lose their jobs and innocent people may be imprisoned or suffer mob justice!

Almost as mindblowing as Viola's powers is that Deerbush the matchmaker realizes Viola is his soulmate and he falls in love!

Tragedy strikes when the extent of Viola's mental illness becomes fully apparent.  She refuses to go to Chicago and leave behind all the luxury items she has stolen, and she has no interest in marrying Deerbush.  Unreformable, her powers of hypnosis a threat to all of civilization, Deerbush has no choice but to kill her!

This story is acceptable, less moving and more sensationalistic than "Nobody Bothers Gus."  I suppose feminists might object to it as a story in which a woman is so selfish, materialistic, and manipulative that she has to be put down for the good of the universe, or just on the basis that it is a story written by a man which attempts to psychoanalyze a woman. 

"Lost Love" (1957)

Old Doc Bennett is riding a bus across the great state of New Jersey.  Doc is dozing on mass transit among the plebs instead of caressing the wheel of a Mercedes because he is the kind of doctor who ministers to the poor instead of providing face lifts to the haute bourgeoisie!  Doc notices a teen-aged boy across the aisle, a pathetic wretch clad in rags!  He wants to help this emaciated scarecrow of a human being, and engages him in conversation, even offering to let him stay in his household a while until he gets on his feet.  But the boy refuses Doc's help, saying it would be no use; he describes his life and we readers of "Nobody Bothers Gus" recognize that this kid is one of those supermen with a curiosity-damping field, that he can't make friends with us normies because we forget him as soon as we look away from him.  Case in point: every time Doc Bennett wakes up from a snooze the kid has to introduce himself again!  The kid has been travelling the nation, refusing to use his superpowers to steal and thus living on the edge of starvation, hoping he will somehow meet somebody who will remember him, somebody of his own superhuman species.

The tragic twist ending comes when Doc gets home.  He greets his wife but is surprised to find that a teenage girl who actually looks a little like his wife is also living in his house--this girl moans that Mom forgot to set the table for her yet again.  Dun dun dun!  Doc Bennett's own daughter is one of the superpeople, and if the boy had accepted Doc's hospitality he would have met his soulmate and his (and her!) abject loneliness would have been relieved for good!

Acceptable, but inferior to "Nobody Bothers Gus" because it is too sappy and too melodramatic.  "Lost Love" first jerked the tears of SF readers in a magazine called Science Fiction Stories edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes that endured for seven years (1953-1960, 38 issues total.)  Martin H. Greenberg would later include it in 101 Science Fiction Stories, which was published in the United Kingdom as The Giant Book of Science Fiction Stories.

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"Nobody Bothers Gus" stands above the crowd, but I think "And Then She Found Him" and "Lost Love" are just average, though I guess "And Then She Found Him" is remarkable for being one of those stories (like Tom Godwin's famous 1954 "The Cold Equations") that contrives a situation in which it makes sense to slay a woman who isn't perhaps really morally responsible for all the trouble she has caused.

We'll finish up Budrys' Inferno in our next blog post.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Three 1950s stores from Budrys' Inferno


Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading Budrys' Inferno, a 1960s paperback collection of nine stories by Algis Budrys first published in science fiction magazines in the 1950s.  The collection is dedicated to Damon Knight, and in the introduction Budrys tells us the stories were selected by Thomas A. Dardis.

In our last blog post we read the second story in the collection, 1958's "Between the Dark and the Daylight."  Today let's read the first, fourth and fifth pieces.

"Silent Brother"  (1956)

This one appears to have been a hit.  After it first appeared in John W. Campbell's Astounding it was chosen by Judith Merril for the 1957 edition of her famous Year's Greatest SF anthology series, and would go on to be translated into French, German and Japanese.  I actually own that edition of Year's Greatest SF, and see that, in her intro to "Silent Brother," Merril praises Budrys fulsomely, jokes about his profusion of pennames ("Silent Brother" appeared under the pseudonym "Paul Janvier") and says he is "from Jersey;" Budrys was born in Konigsberg in 1931 but, his Lithuanian family in exile after the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, Budrys spent his youth in the greatest state of the union.

Harvey Cable is an astronaut and engineer whose work was essential to making Earth' first interstellar voyage successful, but he wasn't able to fly to Alpha Centauri himself with his comrades because he had been severely injured in a test flight accident.  When his friends return from their unprecedented adventure, the invalided Cable envies the public acclaim they receive.  But soon he has other things on his mind--mysterious changes around his lonely house which suggest there is either an intruder in his home, or that in his sleep he is able to move freely, as if he had never been injured.  Whoever it is, a stranger or his own sleep-walking self, is constructing in the basement an electronic device that the waking Cable can make neither head nor tail of!

This is a good story, a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy about becoming a superman who will never be lonely again in a world of plenty and peace.  Cable's friends, out on some alien planet, were united with benevolent immaterial aliens, and have come to share these beneficent beings with the rest of humanity.  An Earthling living in symbiosis with such an alien is super healthy (in mere days Cable's ruined eye, useless legs, and lost teeth are regenerated) and can walk through walls and perform feats of technical wizardry.  Soon every person on Earth will have such a little friend and all our problems will be solved and we will be able to explore the universe.

I thought Budrys's handling of the scenes in which Cable tried to figure out the mystery of what was going on in his house clever and entertaining, and Budrys also provides us a sort of life-affirming story arc in which Cable misses and envies his friends but then learns that they have been thinking and caring about him all along.  This is a story about people getting along which isn't mawkish or saccharine and doesn't show its hand until the end--thumbs up!

Budrys' Inferno was printed several times in Great Britain under the title The Furious Future
"The Skirmisher" (1957)

This is a brief noirish detective story about a time traveler from the future who comes back to 1957 to set elaborate traps that kill people before they can produce the offspring whom, for unspecified reasons, somebody in the future doesn't want to have to deal with.  Maybe the most noteworthy element of the story is that the reader is expected to figure out that the assassin is a time traveler.  The meticulous planning of the deadly Rube Goldberg "accidents" in this story reminded me of Budrys's intricate descriptions of Harvey Cable's methods of investigating what is going on in his house in "Silent Brother," but while that story had an emotional arc and was optimistic, "The Skirmisher" is cynical and a little gimmicky, and too short to really develop characters or a world.   Acceptable.

"The Skirmisher" was first published in Infinity Science Fiction and has only ever resurfaced in Budrys collections.

"The Man Who Tasted Ashes" (1959)

Like "The Skirmisher," "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" concerns an outsider who puts into motion an elaborate scheme to murder somebody.  A space alien living in disguise on the Earth wants to start World War III and hires Redfern, an English adventurer who now lives in America and does things like gunrunning for a living, to murder a communist diplomat who is visiting Washington.  "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" is composed of scenes that feel like they were lifted out of espionage fiction: Redfern in a hotel room, trying to remain cool as a cucumber as he negotiates with the alien and receives high tech gadgets, Redfern's anxiety boiling over as he talks to a British diplomat in the shadowy corner of a restaurant, Redfern obsessively checking his watch as he drives down the highway in a stolen car, trying to reach the aliens' spaceship before blast off.  Will the diplomat from the Warsaw Pact be killed?  Will war erupt between East and West?  Will Redfern get to the alien ship on time?

I liked the car driving scenes, and Budrys starts the story in the car, in medias res (all those negotiations are related in flashbacks), and thus gets the reader's attention in a way that telling the story in strict chronological order might not.  And while the complicated crime stuff in "The Skirmisher" is the  eat of that story, all the lurid spy and space alien skulduggery in "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" is used to construct a psychological portrait of a warped personality; I can recommend this one.

"The Man Who Tasted Ashes" first saw print in Damon Knight's If, and would go on to appear in an anthology of If stories and a 1966 book of SF stories designed for use in schools.

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More 1950s stories by Algis Budrys in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"The Avenger" (1944) by Damon Knight and "Between the Dark and the Daylight" (1958) by Algis Budrys

In his introduction to Budrys' Inferno, a 1963 Berkley Medallion collection of some of his 1950s stories, Algis Budrys tells us that one of his favorite stories in the book is "Between the Dark and the Daylight," and that the story was inspired by Damon Knight's 1944 tale "The Avenger."  Budrys feels that "Between the Dark and the Daylight" is so heavily indebted to Knight that he thinks of Knight as a co-author of the piece.  So today, as a first step in our exploration of Budrys' Inferno, which I recently purchased down in South Carolina, let's read Knight's "The Avenger" and then the Budrys tale it inspired.

"The Avenger" by Damon Knight (as by Stuart Fleming) (1944)

It looks like "The Avenger" only ever appeared in the Spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories, where it was illustrated by Graham Ingels of EC Comics fame. (You may recognize the cover, also by Ingels, because we've already read that issue's lead story, Leigh Brackett's "The Jewel of Bas.")  I'm reading the scan of the issue available at that indispensable resource for the vintage pulp fan, the internet archive.

"The Avenger" begins with a half-page prologue in italics, a first-person narrative from the point of view of some being that is having a psychological breakthrough--it never had emotions before, but cries for the first time upon seeing the bloody corpse of Peter Karson.  When the main text starts we find it is a flashback, a third-person narrative all about Peter Karson when he was still alive!

Karson is an engineer and scientist working in his office in a skyscraper in the "Science City of Manhattan."  He is just putting the finishing touches on the "blackprints" of his latest invention, Earth's first space ship, when space aliens who can fly, pass through walls, and employ telekinesis appear on the Earth and cause all manner of mayhem.  These E.T.s have absolute contempt for us, treating us not like people with a civilization but the way human scientists treat insects and rodents!  Multitudes die because the world government is powerless to stop the invaders from using their mental powers to conduct such fascinating experiments as dissecting John Q. Public while he is still alive!

One of the aliens makes mental contact with Karson, putting Karson into a coma for nine months.  When he wakes up, the human race has resorted to digging underground cities in which to hide, but this is a fruitless measure: the number crunchers have calculated that, due to the continuing depredations of the aliens, the human race will be extinct in fifty years!

Karson's "blackprints" hold the key to humankind's only hope.  In an underground bunker the world's first spacecraft is quickly constructed; Karson is going to travel to space to expose a cargo of embryos (and himself!) to cosmic rays in hopes of creating a mutant superhuman race that will be as superior to the aliens as they are to us!  Karson's girlfriend, another genius inventor, wants to come with him into space, but he denies her request to board, saying that being mutated by cosmic rays would ruin her looks!

(Is now the time to recall how fifteen years later Knight lost a job by complaining that Judith Merril's 1960 novel The Tomorrow People was full of bad science and was way too girly?)

The last page of "The Avenger" returns us to the first person-narrative that began the tale.  The narrator is one of the embryos, now grown to adulthood, a superhuman with no emotions who could liberate Earth from the invaders.  But this first specimen of homo superior identifies with the cold-hearted alien invaders more than with the human race!  Karson implores him to go to Earth and save humanity, but the narrator refuses and euthanizes Karson by crushing his skull in his bare hands!

This story is alright.  It reminds me a little of those 1930s Edmond Hamilton stories about radiation and evolution I read when this blog was in its infancy.

"Between the Dark and the Daylight" by Algis Budrys (1958)

Budrys's tale begins under a dome on an alien planet, where squabble the mutated descendants of Earth people; these products of centuries of rapid, artificially-directed evolution have tremendous strength, a coat of fur, "sagittal crests" and "sharp canine tusks."  Their ancestors crashed on this inhospitable planet generations ago, and ever since the native fauna have been trying to break into the ship, while the colonists inside have been genetically engineering their offspring to have the superabilities needed to tame this inveterately hostile world from which there is no escape.  Tomorrow is the big day, the day when the nursery gates will be opened to the outside and the new generation of humanity will be released onto the planet surface, but for years the captain (he's also chief "biotechnician and pedagogical specialist") has kept the rest of the colonists in the dark about exactly what he has been doing to their children, and they are not happy about it!

This is a pretty good story.  Not only is the scenario and the images it gives rise to (a dome full of genetically modified humans under siege by an army of hideous alien monsters) striking, but Budrys does a good job of transmitting to the reader the crushing tension endured by the besieged humans, for example, in dialogue between the captain and his wife.
"You don't care for one living soul besides yourself, and the only voice you'll listen to is that power-chant in your head.  You married me because I was good breeding stock.  You married me because, if you can't lead us outside, at least your son will be the biggest and best of his generation."  
I like the Ahab-like determination of the captain, and the way Budrys in this story examines the common theme of his body of work, the question of what truly constitutes a man.  Are the people in the dome, the product of centuries of eugenic breeding and genetic modification, people who couldn't breathe the air of Earth and are so big and strong that furniture made on Earth is too fragile for them to use, still human?  Should we see the captain, who dominates his fellows and is emotionally distant from his family, as a real man (a mensch, as the Jewish colonist who celebrates Hanukkah on the day before the nursery is opened might put it) for his single-minded devotion to the mission his ancestors set him on, or as a selfish and obsessive tyrant?  These questions are tied up with the theme of Knight's 1944 story: when the captain opens the nursery and unleashes the children he has designed to thrive on this hostile world, will they have any reason to identify with their parents, whom they have not seen for years and who cannot even breathe the same air they do? 

"Between the Dark and the Daylight" was first published in Infinity and would go on to appear in two anthologies, including one I own, 1983's Changes, edited by Michael Bishop and Ian Watson.  It is a good enough story that I am looking forward to the rest of the pieces in Budrys' Inferno, which we will examine in our next two blog posts.

Four more 1940s erotic stories by Anais Nin

Last week I noticed an uptick in the number of pageviews of my 2015 blog post about Anais Nin's late-1970s collection of erotic stories she composed under odd circumstances in the 1940s, Delta of Venus.  I am skeptical of the very limited web statistics I have at my disposal (it could very well be not fans of literary smut clicking on my blog post on Delta of Venus but Russian bots seeking to further demoralize our nation!) but, nevertheless, I was spurred by this phenomenon to revisit Delta of Venus.  Back in 2015 I read six of Delta of Venus's fifteen tales and, boldly taking a stand against the opinions of The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angles Times, and Cosmo, I gave them all a thumbs down.  Today we'll read four more of these stories in hopes that I will enjoy them more than their predecessors; I must ask that adults only follow me beyond the curtain and join me on these NSFW journeys of sexual awakening!



Sunday, April 14, 2019

Stories by Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Kate Wilhelm from Orbit 8 (1970)

Let's finish up 1970's Orbit 8 with stories by authors beloved by the critics, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Kate Wilhelm.  Four years ago Joachim Boaz wrote about Orbit 8; feel free to click the link and check out what he had to say and then come back to see if Joachim and I are on the same page or at loggerheads when it comes to these three artifacts of the cutting edge of the SF world that prevailed before we were born.

"A Method Bit in 'B'" by Gene Wolfe

I purchased Orbit 8 in our nation's capital back in February largely because it contains a Gene Wolfe story that appears to be unavailable elsewhere.  Like a lot of people I think Wolfe is the best writer SF has produced, and that everything he does is worth grappling with.

Well, even Homer sometimes nods, and I have to admit I am disappointed in "A Method Bit in 'B'," a gimmicky sort of joke story of four and a half pages.  Our narrator is a policeman in a foggy rural part of Britain where there are moors and a crime-plagued manor house.  He realizes he is not a real person but stuck in a series of cliche-ridden B movies.  Acceptable filler of The Twilight Zone species.

Joachim actually really liked the story, giving it four and a quarter stars out of five and calling it "delightful."  You are going to have to get yourself a copy of Orbit 8 and make up your own mind! 

"Interurban Queen" by R. A. Lafferty

This is a clever tongue-in-cheek utopian story, a glimpse at an alternate universe in which the automobile has been outlawed and America is covered in railways.  It starts with theory--a dude with a big inheritance in 1907 has to decide whether to invest in rubber (for car tires) or in trains that will connect small cities, and he consults the experts, who tell him that the automobile will turn America into a living hell by fostering the development of dense cities and suburban sprawl and by turning everybody into an arrogant jerk:
"The kindest man in the world assumes an incredible arrogance when he drives an automobile...it will engender absolute selfishness in mankind...it will breed violence...it will mark the end of the family...it will breed rootlessness and immorality...." 
After the nightmare world of an America on wheels is described by these naysayers, we witness the edenic America in which poverty has been conquered and everyone has access to beautiful countryside generated by ubiquitous mass transit in the form of trollies.
"We are all one neighborhood, we are all one family!  We live in love and compassion, with few rich and few poor, and arrogance and hate have all gone out from us.  We are the people with roots, and with trolleys.  We are one with our earth."    
This utopia has a dark side: in hiding, all across America, toil men who love cars, men with names like "Mad Man Gudge," who illegally construct automobiles by hand and at night drive these noisy contraptions around.  The government is too soft on these outlaws, so ordinary citizens snatch up their rifles and jump off their trolleys and hunt down the drivers and lynch them.

With its over-the-top rhetoric and concluding scenes of idyllic life and extreme violence, "Interurban Queen" succeeds in being both a genuinely amusing parody of utopian and dystopian fiction and a thought-provoking piece that leads the reader to wonder about the effects of such technologies as the automobile and the locomotive on society and the individual.  Good!

(Joachim and I agree on the quality of this one.)

"Interurban Queen" is widely available, later appearing in the strange anthology known as Survival Printout, a copy of which I purchased in my Ohio days, in the Lafferty collections Ringing Changes and Lafferty in Orbit, and a bunch of other places.

"The Encounter" by Kate Wilhelm

I've been avoiding Wilhelm, Orbit editor Damon Knight's wife, because I wasn't crazy about her 1967 novel The Killer Thing, a tendentious retelling of Frankenstein that denounced strip mining and, in a cheap deus ex machina ending, advocated the human race being conquered by aliens.  But today I'm giving Wilhelm another look.  "The Encounter," the blurbs on the back of the book tell us, is a "boy-meets-girl" story in which we can expect "real horror."  Let's see what this Nebula-nominated twenty-four-page tale is all about.

Randy Crane, an insurance salesman riding a bus in a late night snowstorm, gets marooned in a cold bus station, all alone with a woman illustrator.  Through flashbacks we learn he is a failed writer with an unhappy marriage; he suspects his wife Mary Louise of cheating on him and even of trying to murder him on the ski slopes via a bogus accident.  Mary Louise claims he is a phony who is always putting on masks and who has hidden his real personality deep inside, and, in fact, Randy has seen head shrinkers who have told him he is "schizoid" and "had a nearly split personality."  These flashbacks get more and more shocking as we learn about Randy's service in the Korean War and that his wife, perhaps at his insistence, had an abortion.

In between these flashbacks we observe as Randy and the nameless illustrator try to get the furnace of the bus station to work as the place becomes increasingly, dangerously, cold.  In the start of her story Wilhelm piles on the long descriptions of everybody's clothes and the landscape and so on, making everything very clear, but in the end of "The Encounter" things get somewhat mysterious and confusing.  It briefly appears that the illustrator may not really exist, may merely be a figment of Randy's imagination, and/or that Randy strangles her, but then these suggestions are supplanted by the still more radical possibilities: that the illustrator is some kind of sorceress who absorbs Randy and thereby becomes a more skilled artist, and/or that Randy had a male half and a female half who have been struggling against each other for years, and tonight at the bus station the female half has finally triumphed.  Weird (almost Lovecraftian, really) elements of a flashback to Korea that feature a "chill" that originated  "in the farthest blackest vacuum of space" and a woman who appeared "out of nowhere" during a life or death situation in subzero temperatures hint at the possibility that an alien life form or a witch somehow entered Randy during his war service and that the current snowstorm (and the weakening of Randy's psyche due to his horrible relationship with Mary Louise?) has given the alien invader an opportunity to finally take over Randy or leave his body and destroy him. Whatever the case, when the bus station staff and bus passengers return to the station in the morning only the illustrator is there and she tells them it is her birthday.

In a lot of ways "The Encounter" feels like a conventional mainstream story full of pop psychology with some added feminist overtones; e. g., Randy doesn't really see the illustrator woman--he can't remember what she looks like the way he can remember what his male clients look like; Randy thinks women are manipulative and slutty and to blame for his failed career as a writer; Randy commits and/or hallucinates about violence against women. Wilhelm employs fancy literary techniques, using plenty of symbolism and metaphors.  She links the door to the station through which dangerous cold air comes to the "door" that seals off part of Randy's psyche, and that stream of cold air to the passage of the immaterial alien through Earth's atmosphere.  She also plays with the idea that Randy and the illustrator are failed creators; Randy wanted to be a creative writer and failed, Mary Louise's abortion means he failed to become a father (creator of a child), and during the brief moment we think the illustrator is a hallucination, Randy suggests that by conjuring her up, he has finally successfully created something.  The illustrator, early in the story, laments that she is not a true artist, but after having eliminated Randy she brags that she really is an artist.  (Another theme of the story seems to be woman as parasite.)

The end of the story, in which the alien parasite business is revealed and Randy vanishes, brings the story firmly into the SF realm, and I also suspect all the detailed description of Randy and the illustrator's efforts to get the furnace to work is an homage to or parody of those hard SF stories in which astronauts and scientists struggle to jury rig rocket engines or atomic reactors or whatever.

There is a lot going on in "The Encounter" and the story shows a lot of ambition, but I think it has a real problem.  The fact that Randy really has vanished by the morning undercuts all that Freudian and feminist stuff; if Wilhelm had had Randy kill the illustrator instead of vice versa, she would have left open the possibility that either the supernatural/SF stuff or the Freudian/feminist stuff was real, leaving the reader to wonder if Randy had really been attacked by and fought off an alien or if he was just a sexist agent of the patriarchy suffering delusions due to war-induced PTSD and the rape culture of our bourgeois society.  But since it is the illustrator who survives and Randy who disappears we have to assume Randy really was the victim of strange alien forces and that his psychological issues and politically incorrect behavior were a reflection of this alien invasion and not shortcomings of the male sex and our capitalist civilization.  So all that stuff about sexism and psychoanalysis is just a pile of unnecessary red herrings.

Joachim liked this one more than I did, rating it "Very Good."  He argues that the SF elements are of secondary importance, I guess thinking what makes the story is all the feminist and psychological components.  I think that because Randy actually dies/vanishes that we can't compartmentalize away or minimize the SF elements--they aren't window dressing but at the indispensable core of the story-- but that those SF elements undermine all the feminist and psychological elements, so I'm only grading this one fair, though recognizing all the effort and technique put into it.

"The Encounter" was included in Nebula Award Stories 7 and is one of the three stories by his wife that Knight chose to include in Best Stories from Orbit, Volumes 1 to 10; the story also appears in the Wilhelm collection Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions, and was translated into French, German and Polish. 

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The Lafferty is solid, what I would have expected from him, while the Wolfe feels like a trifle and the Wilhelm is an elaborate construction with a near-fatal flaw.

As a whole I think Orbit 8 is a big success, well worth my time and 50 cents.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Red Hawk by Edgar Rice Burroughs

"You are a strange people," she said, "that you could be so brave and generous to one you hate, and yet refuse the simpler kindness of forgiveness--forgiveness of a sin that we did not commit."
For the last few weeks an unexpected road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, biographies and analyses of T. S. Eliot, and the work of Rumiko Takahashi have come between me and ERB, but now the time has come to read the third and final installment of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Moon sequence, The Red HawkThe Red Hawk first appeared in Argosy in 1925, serialized across three issues.  As you no doubt recall, my brother acquired a copy of the 95¢ Ace edition of The Moon Men in an unspecified place in the unspecified past, and it is now in my possession; I will be reading the version of The Red Hawk included in that volume.

(I'm not going to explain who Julian and the Kalkars are again; please refer to my blog posts about The Moon Maid and The Moon Men if necessary!)

The protagonists depicted on the cover of the 1992 Del Rey edition of The Moon Men (the work of  Laurence Schwinger), and on the title page of my 1974 copy (drawn by Roy Krenkel), have a sort of Plains Indian look to them, and sure enough, as The Red Hawk begins, we find the twentieth incarnation of our narrator Julian, known as "The Red Hawk," leading an army of unarmored horsemen armed with lances and bows and adorned with warpaint and bird feathers.  The Red Hawk's horde of one hundred clans lead by people with names like "The Wolf," "Rain Cloud," "The Vulture" and "The Rattlesnake," crosses a desert and attacks an army of armor-clad Kalkars near Cajon Pass.  After a tremendous hand-to-hand battle (over the last three centuries the Kalkars have run out of ammunition for the guns they had in The Moon Men) our narrator is taken captive and brought before the Kalkar leader, a half-breed descendant of the treacherous Orthis we met in The Moon Maid.  This Kalkar ruler makes peace overtures towards the Red Hawk, but our narrator rejects them out of hand--he hates the Kalkars and the descendants of Orthis with a passion and feels peace between them is impossible.

In his prison atop an ancient skyscraper, the Red Hawk meets another descendant of Orthis, one who is a pure-blooded Earthman.  At the top of the Kalkar hierarchy there has been conflict between those Or-tis who are pure strain Earthlings and those who are biracial (part-Earthling and part Lunarian)--the current occupant of the throne ascended to power by murdering the previous leader, this prisoner's father, who was planning to negotiate with the Yanks.  In a speech that will perhaps surprise and dismay today's readers, this Or-tis invokes the one-drop rule and makes a sharp distinction between pure-blooded Earthmen and irredeemable half-breeds.
"Our blood strain is as clear as yours--we are American.  There is no Kalkar or half-breed blood in our veins.  There are perhaps a thousand others among us who have brought down their birthright unsullied....He [the current leader] is the son of a Kalkar woman by a renegade uncle of mine.  There is Or-tis blood in his veins, but a drop of Kalkar makes one all Kalkar, therefore he is no Or-tis."
Julian the Red Hawk finds talk of making peace more persuasive coming from this pure-blooded Or-tis, and they work together to escape the skyscraper.  During the succeeding horseback chase they are separated.  The Red Hawk travels around what I guess is Southern California, seeing the ocean for the first time, meeting a tribe of friendly dwarves (three feet tall) who are descended from Japanese people, and another purebred human Or-tis, a beautiful woman, Bethelda.  Bethelda is the brother of the Or-tis with whom The Red Hawk escaped the skyscraper.  Julian 20th falls in love with Bethelda, rescues her from a band of brigands led by a nine-foot-tall renegade Kalkar named Ragan, and comes to realize that the pure-blooded Or-tis should not be punished for the sins of their ancestors, but welcomed into the Yank community.  The Yanks and purebred Or-tis join forces and defeat the Kalkars and half-breeds, uniting North America under the Stars and Stripes.         

The Red Hawk is short, just shy of 100 pages in this edition, and an entertaining adventure story full of fights and chases and people getting captured and escaping captivity; as in so many ERB tales, our narrator even marries a princess and lives happily ever after.  There are some nice SF touches: at the start of the story the Red Hawk and his advisers speculate about whether the Earth is flat and what the stars are, there are good descriptions of the ruins of high-tech 20th-century civilization and the response to them of Earth's primitive future inhabitants (the narrator opines that the wealth built by 20th-century man did not make him any happier), and then there is the fact that the Kalkars have been bred for size since conquering the Earth centuries ago and many are seven or even eight feet tall--nine-footer Ragan is the ultimate expression of this eugenics program.

Even though it extends only to pure-blooded Earthlings and not to Lunarians, the story's theme of the value of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and Julian 20th's psychological journey from a seeker of revenge to one who can love an Or-tis give the story an overtone of hope.  However, there is a contrasting theme of the futility of striving, which is linked to Burroughs's common theme (famously seen in the Tarzan books and less famously in The Cave Girl) of the superiority of the primitive over the modern:
How long and at what cost had the ancients striven to the final achievement of their mighty civilization!  And for what?
How long and at what cost had we striven to wrest its wreckage from the hands of their despoilers!  And for what?  There was no answer--only that I knew we should go on and on, and generations after us would go on and on, striving, always striving, for that which was just beyond our grasp--victims of some ancient curse laid upon our first progenitor, perhaps.
Burroughs makes clear that the Yanks and Or-tis are white, but the American West of the future is also inhabited by native Americans, some of whom live free in the wilds, others as slaves of the Yanks and the Kalkars.  Like the Japanese dwarves, these Indians play no role in the war between the Yanks and the Kalkars, refusing to strive, and the Red Hawk muses that they may be wiser than any of the warring factions:
...I thought of the slave woman and her prophesy.  Her people would remain, steadfast, like the hills, aspiring to nothing, achieving nothing, except perhaps that one thing we all crave in common--contentment.  And when the end comes, whatever that end shall be, the world will doubtless be as well off because of them as because of us, for in the end there will be nothing.  
I think related to these two themes--the importance of reconciliation and skepticism of the value of striving--is how Burroughs depicts the major battle at the start of the story; he emphasizes exhaustion and the vast piles of dead bodies, and the way the battle runs out of Julian's control, as much as heroism and swordsmanship and generalship.

As with the other two Moon books, Burroughs in The Red Hawk does the stuff he generally does (fighting man fights and marries a princess) but changes things up a little with some unusual themes.  Here he almost entirely abandons the earlier Moon stories' attacks on communism, big government and revolution to instead muse about the futility of ambition and the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Worth a look for adventure fans, and if there are any scholars out there doing research on portrayals of Native Americans in SF, The Red Hawk should be on their reading lists.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

1970 science fiction stories by Pip Winn, Ted Thomas and Graham Charnock

It is time for three more stories from my perforated copy of Orbit 8, the 1970 anthology of all-new SF stories.  For Orbit 8, Damon Knight didn't just get stories from his wife and from award-winning and critically acclaimed authors like Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Harlan Ellison, but from people I've never even heard of!  Today we'll read stories by Pip Winn, Ted Thomas and Graham Charnock, minor SF authors to whom Knight offered a platform in one of the most important SF anthology series of all time.

Remember that Joachim Boaz, generous supporter of this blog and bulwark of the vintage SF internet community, has already digested Orbit 8 and discussed it at his blog and you should totally check out what he has to say about these three stories before or after you read what I have to say about them.  We disagreed about several components of the last batch of Orbit 8 tales, and maybe we'll get some more friction today?


"Right Off the Map" by Pip Winn

Pip Winn has only this single credit on isfdb, and it only ever appeared in Orbit 8.  "Right Off the Map" is a competent story with a brisk jaunty style, acceptable but no big deal; you might call it "filler."

It is the overcrowded future and even what today is the Sahara desert is covered in buildings.  Space is so tight that a vast government bureaucracy controls every moment of people's lives, scheduling what hour of each week you are allowed to go grocery shopping, for example, and even then everybody has to wait in long lines.

Our narrator, a biologist, and his roommate, a sociologist, by looking at an old map, learn that there is a lost valley in India still unoccupied by man, and they get government approval to explore and assess it for use as a site for more housing.  Once they get there the biologist sees one of the last tigers on Earth, and has to choose whether to return to civilization with the specimen or murder his roommate and live out his life in the jungle he is quickly growing to love.

An obvious overpopulation/environmentalism story, but I thought the style was good enough that it deserved a pass.  Joachim thought it so silly and tiresome that he condemned it as "bad."  I guess I'm a softie!

"The Weather on the Sun" by Ted Thomas

Ted Thomas, also known as Theodore L. Thomas, has a number of credits at isfdb, including two novels coauthored with Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight's wife.  A few years after its debut in Orbit 8, "The Weather on the Sun" was included in one of those anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover, The Science Fictional Solar System.

Thomas was a legit scientist, and "The Weather on the Sun" is hard SF full of science.  (Sample: "The electron-positron pairs do not annihilate back to high-energy photons completely.")  I am in general sympathetic to hard SF; I like it when one astronauts is racing against the clock to jury-rig some busted gadget while his comrade is crunching the numbers on the only orbit that will conserve enough rocket fuel and oxygen to do wherever they gotta do before whatever horrible fate befalls them.  Unfortunately, "The Weather on the Sun," as I suppose I should have guessed from the title, is about that most boring of natural phenomena, the weather.  It is also one of those SF stories in which the scientists and politicians look down on the common people as children to be managed, in which the bogeyman to be staved off by the enlightened elite is "individualism," and in which we are reminded that politicians are in fact not cynical greedy power-hungry jerk offs who prey on the taxpayers, but martyrs who sacrifice themselves for us--remember that on April 15th, you ingrates!  Worst of all, "The Weather on the Sun" is also one of those SF stories which consists primarily of cardboard characters sitting around talking to each other about shit that is boring.

Here's a core sample from the story, a quote from the president of the world government, that perhaps tells you all you need to know about "The Weather on the Sun:"
"Our entire culture, our entire civilization, the world over, is built on weather control.  It is the primary fact of life for every living being.  If our ability to control the weather is destroyed, our world will be destroyed.  We go back to sectionalism, predatory individualism.  The one factor that ties all men everywhere together would disappear.  The only thing left--chaos." 
(Typing this quote out has forced me to consider the possibility that this story is a joke, a parody of the self-importance and myopia of elites and/or of histrionic SF stories.)

The plot:  Changes in the sun lead to a diminution of the government's ability to control the weather.  We get a long boring scene of the scientists finding this out, and a long boring scene of politicians finding this out totally independently of the eggheads.  Why two unconnected scenes which accomplish the same plot objective?  Maybe Damon Knight was paying by the word?  We get scenes of the politicians debating and voting on raising everybody's taxes to figure out what the hell is going on and scenes of the boffins discussing how to spend all that mullah ("Maybe a carbon alloy would improve the efficiency of the turnaround effect.")  The scientists figure out how to fix good ol' Sol--fly a space ship into the core of the sun and add some fluid--but a human has to be aboard the ship, and the ship won't be able to lave the sun one it has entered it--it's a suicide mission!  The president of the world suddenly learns he has a terminal disease so he volunteers for the one-way trip to hell and eternal fame.  Oh, brother! 

"The Weather on the Sun" is like twenty-four pages long, and after I had dozed my way through each page I riffled through the rest, counting how many more pages of this torture session lay before my bleary eyes.  Every scene is too long, with tedious descriptions of boring objects and opaque lines of gobbledygook, the hard SF version of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."  Every joke, like the two-page scene in which it rains on a guy's picnic, falls flat.  There is no excitement and the many many characters are indistinguishable and convey zero human feeling until page 21 when Thomas turns the dial marked "sappy melodrama" up to 11 and everybody starts crying.  Gotta give this one a severe thumbs down--an irritating waste of time.

Joachim thought the story the pinnacle of hokiness, but still judged it "vaguely average."  Who's the softie now?
 
"The Chinese Boxes" by Graham Charnock

One of the reasons I decided to read every story in Orbit 8 instead of just reading the stories by Wolfe and Lafferty and moving on with my life is that on the publication page I saw that Graham Charnock in his story "The Chinese Boxes" had quoted T. S. Eliot's 1917 poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night."  I've been reading a lot by and about Eliot and his cronies Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis lately, and I was irresistibly curious to see how Charnock would integrate Eliot's work into his story.  Readers of this blog may remember how I read Douglas R. Mason's From Carthage Then I Came for similar reasons and then was disappointed, but hope springs eternal!

"The Chinese Boxes" is a bleak story about the linked issues of our responsibility to others and the question of whether life has any meaning or even value, a story in which death is a recurring topic.  Initially, Charnock presents us with two alternating but parallel plot threads.  One concerns Carpenter, a man of above average intelligence who, because of the poor economic conditions of the near future in which the story is set, has serially taken and lost simple entry-level positions, like being a clerk at retail stores.  Currently he is employed on the campus of a major research organization; his job is to sit in a large room watching a giant cube.  He and his girlfriend wonder what the cube is all about.  The other thread is about a guy imprisoned in an almost featureless room, a man who is going insane, losing his memory and so forth.  It is not much of a surprise to us readers when Carpenter learns that the cube is an isolation chamber and the prisoner we have been witnessing go bonkers is in it; a former bartender, he volunteered to be the guinea pig in a psychological experiment seeking to find out how a person might react if he was isolated from all human contact for eighteen months?  This experiment is super hardcore--the only way the bartender can escape the box is via suicide!  Knowing the truth, Carpenter and his girlfriend have to decide if they want to be any part of this bizarre, risky, and morally suspect enterprise.  We readers, of course, see many similarities between Carpenter's ostensibly "free" life and the bartender's life trapped in the cube. 

Judged on a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, "The Chinese Boxes" is well-written.  Images are sharp and phrases and characters are all engaging; Charnock's writing is never boring or vague, and I quite enjoyed it.  How well the story is constructed as a whole, I am not really sure; it is ambitious, which of course is good, but may be too obvious, too earnest, too "arty."  I liked it, but others may find it showy and sophomoric, like a pretentious student film about the meaning of life.

A big reason I enjoyed the story was that Charnock's direct references to Eliot, which include a recitation of the last ten lines of "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," had me picking up and shaking out every passage looking for indirect references to Eliot's life and work, and I think I found some!  One of the noteworthy things in "The Chinese Boxes" is the presence of one of those IBM "THINK" plaques we encountered a year ago in Ted Sturgeon's 1965 story "The Nail and the Oracle," and I wondered if the invocation to "THINK" might also be meant to remind readers of the "nerves" section of The Waste Land.*  Various phrases (e.g., "But what do they do?") and themes (isolation in a place so boring that death is a liberation and the question of whether life and death are really so different) reminded me of Eliot's unfinished verse drama, Sweeney Agonistes.  Charnock even includes an unsavory Jewish character (the kind of character the kids call "problematic,") reminding us of the numerous questionable Jewish characters in Eliot's work.

*This "THINK" sign provides anexample of why I suspect people might find the story "showy" or "too obvious;" Charnock doesn't just mention the "THINK" sign once or twice, but again and again, with characters talking about it, staring at it, ruminating on it, etc.

I read "The Chinese Boxes" hoping for T. S. Eliot material, and Charnock's story is chockablock with Eliot material; I am more than satisfied.  For his part, Joachim proclaims this one "good" and laments that Charnock hasn't published more fiction.

"The Chinese Boxes" reappeared in a French collection of SF stories about doctors.  Charnock has like 14 short fiction credits at isfdb, most of them appearing in the various iterations of New Worlds, and is a very active SF fan; at his website you can find many issues of his fanzine, Vibrator, which appears to be deliberately written with an eye to offending people.  Sample quote from the September 2013 issue: "Please feel free to send me shit in the post if you disagree with this. I’m used to being Mr Unpopular."

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I think today's episode of MPorcius Fiction Log has been a worthwhile exploration of some minor SF writers--next week I may be scouring the Internet Archive for more stories by Graham Charnock. But first we'll be finishing up our ERB Moon project and reading the three final stories in Orbit 8, stories by people at the very epicenter of literary SF!