Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Poul Anderson: "Tiger by the Tail," "Sargasso of Lost Starships" and "The Star Plunderer"

Having read three stories by 1996 Grand Master A. E. van Vogt in our last episode, let's read three stories by 1998 Grand Master Poul Anderson today.  I find Anderson's bibliography a little confusing (though not as confusing as van Vogt's, of course) but I am pretty sure these three stories are all set in the same universe as that inhabited by overweight space merchant Nicholas van Rijn, van Rijn's protégé David Falkayn, and agent of the decadent empire which succeeded the vigorous growing civilization of which van Rijn and Falkayn were exemplars, Dominic Flandry. All three first appeared in Planet Stories in the 1950s; I am reading them in scans of the old magazines available for free at the world's greatest website, the internet archive. 

"Tiger by the Tail" (1951)

If you recognize the brunette with the blingy coif on the cover of the issue of Planet Stories in which "Tiger by the Tail" first appeared, maybe it's because back in 2018 we read the other Poul Anderson story that was printed in this issue, "Witch of the Demon Seas," which appeared under a pseudonym. 

Captain Dominic Flandry of the intelligence service wakes up after a night spent drinking in the demimonde of planet Lynathawyr building up contacts for his current mission to find he has been kidnapped and is aboard a space ship crewed by barbarians; they wear kilts and from their belts hang the scalps of their enemies as well as blasters.  These jokers, the Scothani, have seized Flandry to pump him for information about the Terran Empire and in hopes he will turn against the decadent and corrupt government of the human race and join them in their conquests.  In Flandry's conversations with the barbarians, Anderson presents his themes of how an overly sophisticated empire preoccupied with petty internal squabbles and populated by selfish pleasure-seekers is vulnerable to attack from honest and vigorous barbarians who lack polish and culture but have energy and ambition and are eager to embrace risk and take one for the team.

As well as a respectable space fleet, the Scothani have built up an empire of scores of systems and alliances with other species of spacefaring barbarians, and plan to invade the Terran Empire in a year or two.  The Terran Empire is so poorly led and its people so soft that the Scothani and friends have a real chance of doing some real damage.  Fortunately, over the months, the charismatic Flandry worms his way into a position of confidence with several barbarian nobles and gives them advice that turns them against each other.  Flandry also seduces the young and beautiful queen of the Scothani, whose marriage to the old and neglectful king is a purely political one--she is from a rival ethnic group from the south that doesn't really care to be under the thumb of the king's northern people.  (The Scothani are not human, with their pointy ears and little horns, but they are sexually compatible with humans, and Flandry follows in the footsteps of John Carter who was getting it on, as the kids say, with an egg-laying Martian princess, though Carter was a gentleman who married Dejah Thorus of Helium while Flandry is strictly the love 'em and leave 'em type.)  Thanks to Flandry, the Scothani fall out with their allies and their empire erupts into civil war, short circuiting their invasion of Terran territory.  

In the story's climax the Queen is having mixed feelings about starting a civil war among her people out of love for an alien, and she pulls a gun on Flandry and forces him to swordfight with the Scothani prince who first captured him, her stepson, I guess in hopes the Terran agent will prove himself a real man and not just a conniving spook.  Fortunately Flandry has studied fencing and boxing scientifically and outfights the barbarian in single combat.

An acceptable entertainment with a space battle, a sword fight, and a tragic love story that straightforwardly presents the historical and sociological theories that Anderson presumably based on his reading about the Roman Empire, plus denunciations of racism and a celebration of free trade--Anderson covers all the bases in this one, like he's trying to brew up a microcosm of his entire career.  "Tiger by the Tail" was included by Donald Wollheim in an anthology in 1963 and by Valentino de Carlo in another in 1967, but since then has appeared almost exclusively in collections of Flandry stories. 

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" (1952)

The cover of this issue of Planet Stories features a blonde fighting for her life against some horrendous alien.  Good luck young lady, we are pulling for you!  Inside we find a letter from Chad Oliver in which old Chad tells fellow SF fans that he is finishing up his MA in anthropology--Chad also performs an act of magnanimity towards a former antagonist.  And of course the story that brought us here, Poul Anderson's "Sargasso of Lost Starships."  This story doesn't seem to have set the SF world afire--it wasn't reprinted until the 21st century!

Planet Ansa, an independent colony of humans with an aristocratic culture of landed nobles and a peasantry tied to the land, recently was conquered by the Terran Empire--the town the story starts in is still in ruins and the streets are patrolled by Terran soldiers.  Ansa's most adventurous space captain, Basil Donovan, the Earl of Lanstead, survived the war.  An arrogant aristocrat as well as a skilled naval officer, he considers the Terrans who have conquered his planet to be mere peasants.  Donovan is summoned to the ship of Captain Helena Jansky of the Terran space navy.  Jansky has been given the job of exploring the mysterious Black Nebula; superstitious spacefarers think the nebula is haunted and those planet-bound barbarians whose systems lie in sight of the nebula worship it as an evil god.  The Terran intelligence apparatus has determined that Donovan knows more than anybody about this creepy light-year-wide cloud of dust, so, when Jansky's ship blasts off, Donovan and his alien slave Wocha, a big muscular brute like a rhinoceros centaur, are aboard.

Donovan is reluctant to tell Janksy about his adventure in the Black Nebula, but as the ship approaches the ball of dust the truth becomes clear to us readers.  Inside the nebula lies the planet Arzun, which is inhabited by a decadent alien race of immortal psychopaths who look like humans but have god-like powers--they can teleport between planets, for example, and manipulate matter with their minds.  Among other high crimes and misdemeanors, they use these powers to drive human space travelers insane; as Jansky's ship enters the region of the nebula the ship's lights turn on and off, the men hear scary voices, they see things that make them draw their weapons and accidentally shoot themselves, etc.  When Donovan came to the nebula as captain of an Ansan ship before the war with Terra, many members of his crew died or lost their minds, but he met a gorgeous Arzunian woman, Valduma, and fell stupidly in love with this evil creature.

The psychic aliens cause Janksy's ship to crash on Arzun, killing half the crew.  The survivors march across the bleak planet for weeks, fighting monsters as they go.  Donovan and Janksy become an item, as the kids say, and Donovan has to choose between the essentially decent Terran captain and the goddess-like but evil Valduma, who can provide him sexual pleasures no human can.  Valduma offers her erotic talents in return for Donovan's help capturing the Terrans--the few remaining Arzunians, who are like ten thousand years old, want to leave the Black Nebula and conquer the Terran Empire, but their teleporting powers don't operate more than a light year or so from the Nebula and they need to kidnap the Terran spacemen and make them operate a ship for them.  (Because they are decadent and never developed technology beyond swords and mail, they can't figure out how to crew the spaceships they have captured over the decades themselves.) 

Donovan chooses to side with his fellow humans instead of becoming valduma's boy toy, and there follows a long, perhaps too long, series of scenes of hand-to-hand battle; the aliens may have their psychic powers, but the humans are disciplined fighting men and have the aid of Donovan's hulking slave, who is as strong as several men; eventually the Terrans triumph over the selfish and ill-disciplined psykers.  

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" is a decent space opera/planetary romance kind of thing with a love triangle involving an evil femme fatale and plenty of monsters and aliens.  And again we have Anderson's themes of clashes between different sorts of societies, societies in a state of radical change, and a celebration of cultures in which people work together across borders of class and biological identity.  Some might claim the Arzunians' abilities are inconsistent and contrived, that the psykers switch between being surprisingly powerful or surprisingly weak depending on what Anderson wants to do with the plot or what atmosphere Anderson is trying to create, and I think there are too many repetitive scenes of people fighting with swords and spears, but otherwise "Sargasso of Lost Starships" works.     


"The Star Plunderer"
(1952)

I recognized "The Star Plunderer" immediately as I began reading it; I must have read it as an adult but before I started this blog in my copy of 1986's The Stars at War, edited by John F, Carr and Jerry Pournelle, which I have had since I was a kid.  For the purposes of this blog post I read the magazine version.

"The Star Plunderer" is a first-person narrative, part of an unpublished book written during the founding of the Terran Empire and discovered by archaeologists centuries later.  After a little intro by an archaeologist, the narrative starts with Mother Earth at her lowest point--our big blue marble is being sacked by six-limbed aliens with super strength!  

I guess the conventional wisdom is that SF before some date or other was irredeemably sexist, but here in "The Star Plunderer," as in "Sargasso of Lost Spaceships," we have a woman who fights the enemies of Terra with a gun and when her gun stops working she fights the aliens hand to hand.  In the first section of the story our narrator, John Reeves, and his fiance, Kathryn O'Donnell, are overwhelmed by the Gorzuni raiders after killing many of them and enslaved.  

The Gorzuni are one species among those that make up the Baldic League, an alliance of barbarians (humans who have betrayed Terra among them) who have defeated the decadent Terran Commonwealth's space fleet and have been looting the Solar System for years.  These barbarians can use modern equipment like space ships and firearms, but they aren't too good at building or repairing them, so John and Kathryn, trained engineers, are plucked from among the scores of human slaves packed into the hold of a rundown Gorzuni star ship to become the assistants to the senior human slave who is responsible for maintaining the captured human-built vessel.  That senior slave's name is Manuel Argos, and readers of "Sargasso of Lost Starships" (which takes place a century or two after "The Star Plunderer") will recognize that name as that of the first Emperor of Terra!  He may be a slave now, but he is brave, ambitious, a keen judge of character and a master manipulator, and he is determined to take over this ship and then lead humanity to victory over the barbarians, and he wants John and Kathryn to be his right hand man and woman!

The second half or so of the story follows Manuel, John and Kathryn's plotting, successful mutiny, liberation of the three hundred slaves on the ship, and then their development of the ship into an efficient machine and the slaves into a skilled space crew with which they raid the Gorzuni home system.  While all this happens Kathryn is falling in love with the larger-than-life hero Manuel, leaving the oblivious John in the lurch!  In the final scene, back on Earth, she tells John she is leaving him for Manuel and our heartbroken narrator bitterly tells us that he knew then that Manuel and Kathryn would succeed in setting up a space empire and a dynasty, but he didn't give a damn!   

"The Star Plunderer" is the best of the three stories we are talking about today.  It covers much of the same territory philosophically, comparing aristocracy with democracy and monarchy with republicanism and decadence with youthful vitality, and like Flandry in "Tiger by the Tail," Manuel gives an anti-racism speech.  And yet again we've got a guy getting captured and winning a position of influence among his captors, and yet again we've got a love triangle.  But the decrepit space ship is a more interesting setting than those of the earlier stories, the fight scenes are more exciting and the machinations of the hero more believable, and the love triangle story more powerful.  I can recommend this one without reservation.

Besides all the Poul Anderson collections it has appeared in, "The Star Plunderer" has been reprinted in three anthologies: the aforementioned The Stars at War, Brian Aldiss's Galactic Empires, and Martin H. Greenberg and Charles Waugh's Commando Brigade 3000.  

   

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All three of these stories are entertaining, but they all do follow a similar template: a guy gets captured by people who are, in his opinion at least, culturally inferior, and this gives Anderson a chance to compare and contrast different societies.  They all include love triangles that betray a sort of cynicism about sex, and contrive situations in which people in a milieu full of nuclear weapons and firearms kill other people with swords.  To avoid any chance of getting sick of Anderson's early work, I'll take a break from reading him for a while, but I think you can expect to hear more about Planet Stories in our next episode.    

Sunday, April 11, 2021

"Not Only Dead Men," "The Rulers" & "The Harmonizer" by A. E. van Vogt

In the last installment of MPorcius Fiction Log we read a novel and a short story by A. E. van Vogt I'd never read before.  Looking over the catalog of the Canadian madman's prodigious body of work over at isfdb, a number of titles came to my attention that I have not read since this blog was brought forth upon this continent, conceived in error and dedicated to the dubious proposition that I should keep track of the fiction I read and record my opinions of it.  Let's read three of them that first appeared in Astounding in the 1940s.

"Not Only Dead Men" (1942)

This is a pretty straightforward old-fashioned SF tale with aliens, violence, trickery, engineering, and a sense of wonder ending.

A whaling ship is cruising the Northern Pacific when the crew spots what at first is believed to be an Axis submarine but which turns out to be an alien space ship!  When reptilian aliens with six libs emerge, the whalers shoot at them with the weapons they have been issued by the US government, a three-inch deck gun and several machine guns.  The aliens are impervious to this fire, and luckily they are not hostile, though they do act mysteriously, repeatedly boarding the whaler and then leaving hastily.

The first part of "Not Only Dead Men" is written essentially from the whalers' point of view, but in a brief second part we watch the aliens and all is explained.  This alien ship was attacked by a space monster, and in the fight the ship and the monster were both crippled and forced to splash down on Earth.  The monster is no doubt homing in on the ship, and the space crew won't have the vessel's high tech energy weapons repaired in time to fight it off.  When they took a look at the Terran whaler the stranded spacefarers realized they could quickly replicate its harpoon gun, and even upgrade the one on the Earth whaler and manipulate the humans into helping them fight off the hundred-foot long space monster.  

The lizard people's scheme is a success; fighting together, human and alien vanquish the huge monster.  Then comes the twist and sense-of-wonder ending.  Galactic law states that planetary civilizations as primitive as ours cannot be allowed to learn of Galactic civilization.  So the crew of the whaler are put to sleep with gas and brought aboard the space ship to be settled in the Wodesk system.  Human beings are actually not native to Earth--we are the descendants of a lost Wodesk colony, so the whalers will be comfortable in the Wodesk system, and because (as we learned early in the story) the whalers have little connection to ordinary society ashore, this trip across the galaxy to an alien world is not going to be a sad exile but a tremendous adventure and an improvement in their lives.

A pleasant little story.  "Not Only Dead Men" has been reprinted in several anthologies as well as in the van Vogt collection Monsters, which has been reissued many times in several languages. 

"The Rulers" (1944)

"The Rulers" has not been anthologized in English, it appears, but was included in some foreign publications and in the many printings of the van Vogt collection Destination Universe!  For this blog post I read the story in my crumbling paperback edition of Destination: Universe!, Berkley Medallion N2814, which has a price tag of 95¢ and a black and red cover by Richard Powers.

Writing during World War II, van Vogt depicts a postwar world of high technology (air cars, public video phones) and amazing scientific techniques.  "The Rulers" has a frame story that takes place at a Washington D.C. dinner party, at which Dr. Latham, a "psychomedician," tells the story of a recent adventure in which he foiled an international cabal that had taken over an American city by feeding an hypnotic drug into the water supply.

As a top psychomedician with excellent eyesight, Dr. Latham can discern an individual's changing moods and feelings just by observing the way the muscles in his face move and the subtle changes of color in his skin--Latham can practically read your mind just by looking at you!  These skills are one reason he was chosen by Congress and the president to participate in an investigation of rumors that U. S. hospitals that cater to international patients were being used by hostile foreign agents as a base for some major operation.  Latham was given the task of investigating a hospital in some unnamed American city.

The main text of "The Rulers" describes Latham's ordeal as he, and his beautiful blonde assistant, whom he later married, are pursued and then captured by the thirteen men of the aforementioned cabal, a tale featuring air car chases, ruthless hand to hand combat, and demonstrations of Latham's "mind-reading" abilities as well as the cabal's ability to control the mind of almost everybody in the city.  While I mentioned the cabal and the hypnosis drug in the very start of my summary, van Vogt endeavors to disorient and surprise the reader by showing the effects of this terrible reality first and then gradually revealing the truth to readers.

An acceptable entertainment, with characteristic van Vogtian themes of psychology and intellectual/mental powers.  Perhaps noteworthy is how patriotic the story is, the good things it says and implies about the people and governments of the United States and Great Britain, I suppose a reflection of wartime attitudes.  For example, the mind-blowing ending of the story has Latham's captors telling him that their cabal has existed since 3417 B.C. (that's B. C. E. to all you kids out there) and that for centuries all the big political developments and wars and so forth were the result of their manipulations.  But since the 18th century Great Britain and then the United States have been independent of them and stood in the way of their plans, and this is why the cabal has targeted this American city and now hopes to hypnotize Latham so that when he gets back to D. C. he will inject federal officials with the drug and render them, and all the U.S. government, pawns of the cabal.  


"The Harmonizer"
 (1944)

"The Harmonizer" made its debut in the same issue of Astounding that saw first publication of Theodore Sturgeon's "Killdozer" and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "When the Bough Breaks," classic stories I wrote about when this blog was just knee-high to a grasshopper.  I particularly recommend "When the Bough Breaks," which addresses favorite MPorcius themes, like difficult and demeaning family relationships and how people with superior abilities tend to use those abilities to exploit and oppress others.  

In 1950 van Vogt published "Process," a story about an alien plant.  Well, "The Harmonizer" is another story about an alien plant; it is also one of those stories in which, despairing of the human race and its propensity for violence, a SF author fantasizes about extraterrestrial interventions that will make us behave.  

The opening section of the story describes how a plant in the garden of a soldier who is leaving for the front tomorrow first sends shoots above the surface.  Van Vogt describes the growth of the psychic intelligent plant, which can mimic other plants in order to escape notice.

Then, flashback to the age of dinosaurs!  An alien space ship, a mile long, crashes on the Earth.  All the people on the ship die, but some of the plants on it survive and thrive in the Cretaceous soil.  They grow and multiply.  Then one day a Tyrannosaurus Rex kills a brontosaur nearby.  The plants hate violence, and van Vogt dwells on the brontosaur's agony and wounds and on how the psychic plants are affected by the "blasts" of powerful "thought waves" of "palpable lust" emanating from the brain of the carnivore.  (Van Vogt not quite convincingly suggests that the plants don't mind snakes eating fish or lizards eating bugs because these tiny creatures don't have as complex minds or feelings as sauropods and therapods.)  In response to this dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence, the plants send out spores that, when breathed in by the tyrannosaur, cause it to eschew violence and starve to death.

Thousands of years pass, and another alien ship arrives to retrieve the wreckage of the crashed liner and remove all the alien plants.  However, one plant has been covered up by seismic activity and is left behind by the aliens.

In the last brief section of the story we find the soldier returning home from the front to find his house has been bombed--it's revealed he is a German and he curses the Americans who wrecked his home.  The plant detects his blood lust and releases the pacifying spores, and--sense of wonder ending--we are told soon the entire human race will become peaceful thanks to the spreading of the spores throughout the world.

While I was reading "The Harmonizer" I found the descriptions of plant biology in action a bit tedious, but the aliens and the dino violence are fun (like so much ostensibly anti-war or anti-violence fiction from Homer to this day, "The Harmonizer" revels in entertaining depictions of bloody fighting) and looking back on it the whole idea of the thing is pretty audacious and memorable.  Mildly good, and perhaps of special interest to students of depictions of dinosaurs in popular culture.  (After eating the brontosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex goes to sleep in a mudhole and farts and shits while it sleeps, which I found a surprising detail for our man Van to throw in there, I guess part of his project of making us feel some of the disgust with the violent carnivore felt by the alien plant.) 

"The Harmonizer" was included in Away and Beyond, a van Vogt collection I do not own, but has not been widely anthologized--the only reprinting listed at isfdb apart from those in van Vogt collections is in a 1966 German magazine.  Did the editor of Die galaktische Prüfung und andere SF-Storys gravitate to "The Harmonizer" because of the Germano-centric twist ending? 

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Three decent stories from our favorite Canadian that reflect in interesting way their composition during the Second World War and include all kinds of traditional SF elements: aliens, dinosaurs, sentient plants, conspiracies, terrible fighting and paradigm shifts that change utterly and almost unimaginably the lives of individuals or the entire human race.  Worth the time of the Golden Age SF fan.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Mind Cage by A. E. van Vogt (and "The Great Judge")

A week or so ago, at Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD (a store I recommend to all classic SF fans), I found myself in the presence of four different editions of A. E. van Vogt's The Mind Cage.  Spurred by this encounter, I decided to read the 1957 novel, an expansion of a 1948 story, "The Great Judge," but I had no need to buy any of the copies I saw there in Hagerstown, because I already owned yet a different edition of the oft-reprinted book, the 1965 printing by Tower.

The year is 2140, a little over twenty years after the Third Atomic War.  That devastating world-wide conflagration swept away existing political entities, and in their place arose a bewildering array of 1000 states.  The most powerful of these states is that ruled by Ivan Prokov, the man known as the Great Judge, and his government has been steadily conquering the smaller and weaker countries, ostensibly to create a one-world government which will render war impossible; in the current year only a hundred of the lesser nations survive.  The protagonist of The Mind Cage has played a leading role in the absorption of all those small countries; he is General David Marin, veteran of many battles and much intrigue, the head of the Great Judge's military forces, a diplomat and member of the ruling council.  For years he has been in command of the operations that have expanded the Great Judge's empire, and Marin is a master not only of military tactics and strategy but of exploiting divisions within nations, of empowering local pro-Great Judge rebels and fomenting revolutions that deliver states right into the Great Judge's hands.

The Great Judge's society is organized under an ideology that "combines group living with free enterprise."  One of van Vogt's narrative strategies is keeping us readers in the dark and then successively springing new information on us; sometimes we share Marin's surprise as he learns something new about his associates or the history of the Great Judge's carefully crafted authoritarian society, but other times van Vogt casually informs us of things that are common knowledge in Marin's world but which have been kept from us, forcing us to revaluate our view of what is going on and what kind of people the characters are and why they are doing what they do.

So, when we first hear the phrase "the group-free-enterprise idea" we have little notion of what this means, but as the novel progresses additional puzzle pieces fall into place and we get a picture of this strange and terrible society, in which the traditional family, purportedly for feminist and eugenic reasons, is being stamped out and replaced with a system in which only the thirty percent of men who can excel in athletic competitions ("the mating games") have the right to procreative sex, and fathers never again see their mates or their children, who are raised partly by their mothers and partly during periods of mandatory attendance in government facilities.

The capital city of the Great Judge's empire is an symmetrical ultramodern series of blocks, each block an outer ring of skyscrapers surrounding a green park, designed to contain a nuclear blast within it should another atomic war erupt.  Each block is home to a self-contained "Group" with its own little ruling council.  Beyond this model of urban efficiency and beauty sprawl the smoky suburbs where reside and toil this society's working class, the mutants who are forbidden, on pain of death, from leaving their reservations.  Reflecting the novel's themes of hidden pasts, unknown origins and mysterious identities, the mutants bear physical resemblance to more primitive lifeforms, like scaly skin or animal life faces, and have dream-like racial memories of prehistoric life.  The mutants have a reputation for violence and treachery, but the Great Judge himself lives among them in a mansion in these suburbs, with a personal bodyguard and staff of servants made up entirely of mutants. 

One source of interest and tension in the narrative is the fact that Marin is a loyal supporter of the Great Judge and his policies and goals; Marin has no compunction about murdering and torturing people for the government and van Vogt describes the revolutionary changes wrought and the atrocious crimes committed by the Great Judge's government in a way that is matter of fact rather than a condemnatory or broadly satirical, while at the same time providing plenty of examples of the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling council and of human nature recoiling at the way the Great Judge's social policy destroys what mid-century English language readers would consider ordinary family life.  Rather than telling readers what to think or simply endorsing their preconceived ideas, van Vogt seems to be challenging readers to consider how many of their traditional liberties they would be willing to sacrifice in return for a guarantee of safety from international war in a nuclear-armed world.

The plot of The Mind Cage follows the many twists and turns in Marin's life over the course of a week as events unfold that shake the Great Judge's empire to its core, revealing its true origins and nature and introducing a radical paradigm shift.  The ball gets rolling when leading scientist Wade Trask, whose inventions have been very useful to the government and Marin's campaigns of conquest in particular, has been found to have uttered seditious statements and is sentenced to death.  (One of the first things we learn about the Great Judge's society is that there is no respect for free speech!)  When Marin counsels leniency. he arouses the suspicions of the Great Judge and his colleagues on the ruling council.  And when he goes to see Trask to give him the bad news, Trask pulls a fast one on Marin, using his latest, secret invention to swap bodies with the general.  Now it is Marin who has only a week to live!

All citizens of the Great Judge's empire have a "pain circuit" imbedded in their flesh.  At the security service's HQ is a transmitter so the secret police can just dial up your circuit and inflict upon you a pain that will gradually increase/  Convicted political criminals like Trask are free to move about the city to say their good-byes and settle their affairs for one week (in fact, Trask's Group leaders send over a prostitute to comfort him in his last days), but after that week, if a condemned man hasn't shown up to the executioner as scheduled, the pain will start and get steadily worse.  So Marin, in Trask's body, only has a week to sort things out.

For most of the novel's 245 pages Marin is running to and fro, living out both his own life (a high-tech disguise allows Trask's body to pass for Marin's) and Trask's life (after Trask in Marin's body gets temporarily incapacitated.)  He pursues his own duties as leader of the Great Judge's diplomatic and military efforts to take over the Kingdom of Jorgia (the successor state to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and the birthplace of the Great Judge, I suppose van Vogt urging us to think of the Great Judge as Stalin) and in his off-time tries to figure out how to get back in his own body or at least avoid execution.  In the process he learns about the rumored supercomputer known as "the Brain" that may or may not have been destroyed during the Third Atomic War, a machine which, if it indeed survived the war, may be the Great Judge's harried enemy, hiding in the vast fallout shelters beneath the city, or actually the grey eminence behind the Great Judge and the true architect and ruler of his totalitarian empire.  

What with all the body-switching, disguises, people alienated from their origins or concealing their origins, people under the control of others and people pretending to serve one master but in fact serving another, a major theme of The Mind Cage is identity and the roles we play--how we present ourselves to others, what place we have in our community and whether we choose to embrace that role, sullenly inhabit it, or rebel against it.  All the characters are inauthentic in one or more ways--deceiving others, deceived by others, stifling their true feelings--and are denied the opportunity, by the government or by themselves, to be themselves or even know who they really are.

Military aircraft do figure briefly in The Mind Cage, but Karel Thole on the 
later Urania printing of the novel does a better job capturing the book's
tone and themes when he depicts newly-minted citizen of the Great Judge's empire,
the Queen of Jorgia, having her pain circuit installed.

I liked the way van Vogt handled all the themes I've been talking about, and there are lots of high tech devices and weird images and wacky theories (for example, we again find van Vogt expounding alternative theories about poor eyesight, as we saw in "The Chronicler" AKA "Siege of the Unseen" AKA "Three Eyes of Evil") that I found entertaining.  So I am giving The Mind Cage a thumbs up.  But I have to warn you normies out there that The Mind Cage has many of the characteristics of van Vogt's body of work, and perhaps of classic SF in general, that people find off-putting.  The meat of the book is ideas, not characters you can identify with or even like, values you can comfortably endorse, emotional catharsis or skillful wordsmithing; the plot can be confusing, and the protagonist resolves it via trickery and technology.  There is lots of psychology stuff and several action scenes, but it is all related in a detached, clinical, bland fashion, not in a way that will move or thrill a reader.  The Mind Cage is not for everybody, but if you are a van Vogt fan, as I am, this is a decent one.                   

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At the back of my copy of The Mind Cage (Tower 43-503, 60¢) are two pages of ads, but they are not for SF books; instead they are for a sex book, The Wandering Husband by Dr. Hyman Spotnitz and a men's magazine, Cavalcade.  You'll be happy to hear that you can read both The Wandering Husband and four or five different (NSFW) 1960s issues of Cavalcade at the internet archive.  Hubba hubba.

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Curious, I read the 1948 short story that was the basis for The Mind Cage, "The Great Judge," which first appeared in Fantasy Book.  Just four pages, it is a fun vignette that addresses none of the issues of the novel and is instead focused on conventional thrills.  A scientist is going to be executed for expressing mild criticism of the Great Judge's rule, but he uses his new mind-switching device to shift his consciousness from his own body to that of an investigator that comes by, and then switches his mind from that investigator to the body of the Great Judge himself.  As Great Judge the scientist plans to, with deliberate speed, reform this police state into a free state.  The final paragraphs pf the story amusingly describe the efforts of the great Judge, now in the scientist's body, to escape execution.  A fun little story.   

"The Great Judge" would be reprinted numerous times, including in the van Vogt collection Away and Beyond and multiple anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover above those of such people as Groff Conklin, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander.

 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Doris Lessing: "One off the Short List," "The Story of Two Dogs," and "The Sun Between Their Feet"

In early 2016 I went to a poetry reading in Pittsburgh and, while in the City of Bridges, I purchased a boxed set of Doris Lessing paperbacks.  I kind of bought it because I liked the design of the box and the cover illos of the four books, and kind of because it seemed like the stories might be full of sex.  Unpacking and shelving a box of books in MPorcius Fiction Log's new HQ earlier this week, I came upon the set and decided to read a few stories from the collection A Man and Two Women, which was first printed in 1963.  Having no clues about any of the stories, I just decided to read the first three.  

"One off the Short List" 

This is a feminist story in which a middle-aged guy who has failed to fulfill his potential pursues a young woman who is achieving her potential and she shows contempt for him, humiliates him.  He hovers and zig zags between desiring her and hating her, between jealousy because other men have had her and envy because she is living the life he might have lived but couldn't quite grasp.  

Graham Spence is a writer who had a successful book but has been unable to replicate that success; now he writes book reviews and interviews people on the radio--he is essentially a journalist, but finds that fact degrading and tries not to think about it.  His marriage is similarly of mediocre quality, at least from his perspective; he and his wife have cheated on each other and come near to divorce, but stuck it out and stuck together.

The literary and artistic set of London is a small world, and at parties Spence often sees, from across rooms, Barbara Coles, a set designer for the theatre.  His feelings for her fluctuate over the years and over the course of the story, with him sometimes finding her attractive and other times finding her plain and uninteresting.  He tentatively decides he will seduce her, not because he is in love with her or finds her particularly sexy--he isn't and he doesn't--but, I guess, to prove something to himself or just add interest to his unsatisfying life.  Over time he learns more and more about her from mutual acquaintances and from the press, as her career progresses and she becomes more famous and successful.  

Finally a chance to get into close contact with her arrives--he is to interview her for the radio.  When he goes to the theatre to collect her to take her to dinner before the interview there comes the scene I consider pivotal.  Spence is a lonely self-contained individualist who has become jaded and cynical about life and his creative work, and at the theatre he witnesses Coles with her colleagues, working on the set design for a play, and is thrown for a loop by how passionate everybody is about their art and how comradely they all are to each other, showing each other good-natured and light-hearted respect as they work as one in pursuit of their noble goal.  (Lessing was, I guess in the early 1950s, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and her description of Coles's workplace and relationships with her colleagues is like a Bolshie's propagandistic dream of what life will be like after the revolution has achieved utopia.)  Coles has the kind of attitude about art and is enjoying the kind of career and friendships Spence wishes he could have, and, like in that Cure song, he not only desires Coles he, in a sense, desires to be her, and both desires are driven by hate and envy more than anything else. 

Most of the 25-page story's text consists of a blow by blow description of their evening together as Spence pursues his campaign to have sex with Coles.  I think we are supposed to think Spence has seduced many women, and he certainly has lots of tactics and strategies and assesses his advances and reverses with a cold eye, but Coles is much smarter than Spence, and at times Spence's emotions get the best of him, and he is humiliated by Coles again and again, who sees through all his maneuvers and treats him as a pathetic nuisance, an exasperating child who must be indulged so he'll stop being such a pain in the neck.  In the last scene of the story Coles is back at the theatre with her comrades, acting as if Spence's outrageous treatment of her has had no effect on her whatsoever.  To the tight-knit democratic group of successful creative people, Spence, the artistic failure, is as nothing.

If you think your work life is more important than your sex life and you want to see a man humiliated by a woman, here is your story.  People with particular fetishes might enjoy the scenes of Spence kissing and licking Coles as she stands there limp, totally uninterested but not actually putting up a fight because she doesn't consider him any kind of threat, and in which Coles, because Spence is determined to fuck her but can't maintain an erection because he doesn't really find her attractive, squats beside him and "administers" to him, "like a bored skilled wife...or like a prostitute" in an effort to get it all over with so she can sleep so she'll be in tip top form tomorrow at the theatre.

"The Story of Two Dogs" 

As the title indicates, this is a long (like 23 pages) series of anecdotes about two canines; it is also a story about freedom and perhaps heredity.  Our narrator, a white woman, grew up on a farm in Africa, and tells us all about the two dogs her family had while she was a kid, living sometimes at home and sometimes at a boarding school, and the dogs' relationships with each other and with people.  

In theory, farmers have dogs to help them hunt and to protect the farm from criminals, but in practice the dogs in the story are useless at these tasks or actually a hindrance; their true role in the family is to be the objects of the love of the narrator and her mother, and so, as a result of what observers might consider negligence, the dogs are not well-trained and are totally ill-disciplined.  The older dog is babied by the narrator's mother, and the young dog is specifically selected by the narrator when she is a little girl because of his charming misbehavior, like barking at the moon for hours, night after night.  This little puppy is the offspring of a dog that went feral, and is thus said to have "bad blood," a phrase repeated throughout the story.  From the word go this younger dog is always getting into trouble, eating the eggs from the chicken run or breaking into the storage and eating preserved food, for example, and it is even suggested by some characters that this young dog corrupts the older.  Both dogs take to leaving the farm for days at a time, killing wild animals, running afoul of the traps set by blacks for catching small game, interfering at other farms, etc.  Eventually the risks the dogs take catch up to them and they suffer painful injuries and eventually get shot.

The tone of "The Story of Two Dogs" is sad, and relationships among people and between people and animals are all described in ways that highlight their inherent asymmetry.  The mother smothers the older dog because her children don't give her the attention she wants, and the freedom-loving dogs don't return the (possessive) love the human women feel for them.  There seems to be no middle ground between stifling a dog by keeping it disciplined and making it contribute to the farm, and letting the dog roam free to steal from other farmers and face a multitude of dangers.  Maybe this is all a metaphor for the relationship of the individual to society; the life of love and security is stifling and emasculating, while the life of freedom and adventure turns you into a thief and a trespasser and leads to injury, illness, and an early violent death.  

Perhaps significantly, the only relationship in the story that "works" is that between the two dogs, who work together as a team to bring down game, save each other's lives when they get into scrapes, and care for each other when one or the other is sick or injured.  Like Barbara Coles's theatre crew in "One off the Short List," the two dogs together form an oasis of comradeship in the world of loneliness and exploitation created by the white man.

"The Sun Between Their Feet"

Another African story about animals, this one a description of dung beetles trying, and failing, to push a ball of dung up a slope.  Perhaps a reflection of the futility of life meant to remind you of Sisyphus.  The narrator tries to help the beetles, tries to nudge them into following an easier path, but they always return to the insurmountable slope.  Perhaps a metaphor for the impossibility of middle-class people to teach poor people to change their apparently self-destructive behavior or colonizers to do the same of the colonized. 

This one borders on the tedious; fortunately, it is only like six pages long.

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So there we have the first 55 or so pages of A Man and Two Women.  These stories are more or less what I would expect of mainstream literary fiction; they are well-enough written, full of psychology and descriptions of colors (a woman's green eyes, the sun and sky of Africa, etc.), and remind you that life is crummy.  "The Sun Between Their Feet" is sort of a waste of time, but "One off the Short List" and "The Story of Two Dogs" are engaging and have an obvious appeal to certain audiences.  I may read more stories from A Man and Two Women in the future, but it's back to SF for a while here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Edmund Cooper: "The Menhir," "M 81: Ursa Major," and "The Enlightened Ones"

Let's read the first three stories in my 1969 American edition of Edmund Cooper's News from Elsewhere, Berkeley Medallion X1696, which has a pleasant Kelly Freas cover.  The first edition of News from Elsewhere came out in the U.K. in 1968 with a modified version of a Paul Lehr cover which first appeared on an anthology ostensibly edited by Arthur C. Clarke but perhaps ghost-edited by Robert Silverberg.  (So here is something Robert Silverberg and I may have in common--I once edited an anthology of academic papers which my boss took credit for editing; of course the book I edited was full of execrable drivel penned by my boss's hack friends that no other person would ever read after I had suffered through them, while the Clarke anthology is full of stories by giants in their field like Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance and Isaac Asimov.)

"The Menhir" (1968)

It looks like "The Menhir," which is just seven pages long, made its debut in News from Elsewhere and would go on to be reprinted in two more Cooper anthologies, Unborn Tomorrow (1971) and Jupiter Laughs (1979)--I bought a copy of Jupiter Laughs in South Carolina back in 2015.    

"The Menhir" is one of those post-apocalyptic stories in which Stone Age tribes eke out a parlous existence and are in a constant war with mutants and always on the lookout for signs of mutation among their young.  Every year Runa's tribe travels into the radioactive desert, where everything glows, to present all their children, naked, to the priests who await them under the monument known as the Sightless One.  Any child deemed to be a mutant is slain and its body added to the giant pile of bones that looms next to the Sightless One.  Runa, earlier this year, was captured by mutant raiders; she escaped, but not before being raped and impregnated.  So as her tribe marches to the Sightless One this year she carries with her a little baby with weird growths on his back--she has hidden these growths, a sure sign her son is a mutant, from tribe,  but she won't be able to conceal them from the priests.  So, on the night before they are going to reach the Sightless One, Runa sneaks away with her baby, even though these is no hope of surviving alone in the glowing desert.

Runa falls into a crevice and fears her baby has been crushed.  When she manages to get out of the crevice Runa finds that, in the dark, she somehow wandered right up to the Sightless One.  Another surprise--her baby survived the fall, and being pressed hard against the rock wall scraped off those queer growths of hair and horn and revealed healthy skin.  The baby is saved!  There are even vague hints that maybe the baby will become a leader who will make peace or something.  (In all three of today's stories Cooper tries to generate a sense of wonder in the last few pages by vaguely hinting at some amazing, world-shattering, events in the future.)  

More clear is the story's closing zinger--the radioactive desert is a London that was leveled by nuclear attack and the Sightless One is the statue atop Nelson's column, which has somehow survived, even though the lions around it have been buried.

Acceptable. 

My copies of News from Elsewhere and Jupiter Laughs

"M 81: Ursa Major" (1956)

This one first appeared under the title "M 81: Ursa Major" in the paperback collection Tomorrow's Gift, which has a good Richard Powers cover, but it originally was printed in Fantastic Universe under the title "The End of the Journey."  Like "The Menhir," it would reappear in Unborn Tomorrow and Jupiter Laughs.

Captain Mauris commanded the first space vessel to use the interstellar drive.  That was years ago--today he is commanding the first ship to use the intergalactic drive.  But he is not really in charge--running this mission is the squad of physicists who designed the new propulsion system and will be at its controls on this first history-making first voyage.  Mauris has contempt for the scientists, comparing them to robots, suggesting they have no souls.

One of Cooper's vague and hard-to-pin-down themes in this story is the idea that motion is not harmful but stillness can be.  When the intergalactic drive is activated, the scientists tell Mauris, the ship and its passengers will be perfectly still and almost cease to exist.  (There's a lot of thermodynamics talk about how matter and space are just energy in a different form and so forth.)  Ruminating on this, in a way i was too dim to follow Mauris comes to the conclusion that the jump is going to be dangerously cold--maybe not physically cold, but rather spiritually cold; right before the new drive is to be activated he fortifies himself by donning extra clothing and drinking booze and taking glucose pills.

During the jump all is black and Mauris hears a woman's voice that says cryptic things about him being unborn and needing to learn to wait and how he is everyman, including Adam.  When he wakes up he finds everybody else on the ship has died, and everything is in reverse--the apparatus on the port side of the bridge is now on the starboard side, the legends on meters and gauges are now printed backwards, etc.  He tosses his former comrades out of the airlock and waits for death.  But death does not come; before the ship's food or air runs out it approaches a beautiful green and blue planet and Mauris activates the auto landing system.  The planet has an atmosphere Mauris can breathe, and he takes his clothes off and bathes in a stream.  When he looks back from the stream the space ship is gone.  I guess we are supposed to think the drive sent him back in time to prehistoric Earth and he is Adam and eventually the woman of the voice will appear and be his Eve.

This is a barely acceptable filler story.  Many of Cooper's various themes and ideas in "M 81: Ursa Major"--stillness is more dangerous than motion, you lose your humanity if you overcommit to science and technology, the galactic drive reverses everything, a guy from the future goes back in time to become father of the human race--don't seem to go together particularly well and aren't explained in a way that makes sense or moves the reader.  Did Mauris really survive the jump because he put on an extra sweater and drank whiskey, or are those actions just symbols that demonstrate the fact that he has maintained his humanity when everybody else has lost his soul to science and technology?  Does the way the use of the galactic drive reverses everything signify anything, or is it just there because it is a cool visual?  The voice during the jump and the disappearance of the ship we can only ascribe to divine intervention, or insanity.  Instead of a smoothly operating whole, Cooper's story is a bunch of ideas that might be interesting individually but which are not quite compatible and have been jammed together regardless.        

It is possible I am missing something; in "The Menhir" Cooper doesn't actually say that Runa is in the middle of London at Nelson's column, he just gives lots of clues, and I can imagine somebody who has never been to London or heard of Horatio Nelson missing it.  So maybe I am missing something here in "M 81: Ursa Major."  

"The Enlightened Ones" (1958)

It looks like "The Enlightened Ones" was published first in the collection Tomorrow's Gift and then shortly after in the January 1959 issue of Fantastic Universe.  

"The Enlightened Ones" is like 29 pages long, and it feels long, as it lacks any emotional punch or intellectual stimulation and just drags on to a conclusion you more or less expect.

A spaceship with four human crewmembers lands on a planet; the crew works for a mining firm, Trans-Solar Chemicals, and is searching for valuable minerals.  On the planet they make a discovery that no other human expedition has yet made--they encounter intelligent alien life!  The natives are ape-like primitives with a smelly ugly village of huts.  These primitives are friendly, and over a period of days the explorers achieve some progress in their efforts to learn how to communicate with them.  Gifts are exchanged--to the amazement of the Terrans the locals present them crude bowls made of platinum.  Further exploration proves that there are major deposits of platinum and other valuable minerals on the planet.  The Earthmen figure the natives can be hired as labor to mine all this valuable ore and in the process can be civilized, taught sanitation and hygiene and so forth.  Some members of the crew wonder if perhaps it would be immoral and exploitative to change the natives' society in such a radical way; others think that their first duty is to the human race, and that almost any act that benefits terra, no matter how ruthless, is justified. 

As the story progresses, the humans discover clues that suggest that the natives are not as unsophisticated as they seem.  Finally, the truth is revealed--the natives are superbeings who are at one with the universe, members of the holistic interstellar community or creatures who have put aside all individual ambition and transcended all material needs and acquired the ability to alter matter with their minds.  They have been testing the Earthmen by creating all that platinum; now they know humans are still like children, still slaves to their physical bodies and still driven by dreams of wealth and conquest.  The superbeings erase all accurate memories of their time on the planet from the minds of the four explorers, implant in them false memories of a barren useless world, and hypnotize them into returning to Earth.  Someday the human race may abandon its youth and join the interstellar community of psykers with no material needs or desires, but not today.

Gotta give this one a thumbs down; I generally dislike these stories about wise aliens showing how lame we humans are, and "The Enlightened Ones" is a particularly boring example.  

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All three of these stories do things that other SF stories do, and Cooper doesn't bring anything special to these traditional themes and ideas--he doesn't tell funny jokes, he doesn't write beautiful sentences, he doesn't teach you anything interesting, he doesn't generate any emotion.  Cooper also has a tendency to include in his stories metaphors or philosophical ideas that are not very easy to figure out, and which don't necessarily make common cause with the story's surface themes.  Bland and disappointing, even frustrating.

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You can hang up your vacuum suits and energy pistols because it looks like next time we'll be looking at some mainstream literary fiction.   

Sunday, March 28, 2021

1977 SF novellas about the arts by Richard Frede, Charles L. Grant and Barry N. Malzberg

I haven't read anything by Barry Malzberg lately, so when I was poking around the internet archive and came upon an anthology of three novellas Malzberg edited with Edward L. Ferman in 1977, Graven Images, I decided to read the piece Malzberg contributed, "Choral."  (Presumably this novella, like 47 pages in Graven Images, is the basis for the 1978 novel Chorale.)  Then I figured I'd just read the whole thing, you know, see what it was all about.    

Graven Images, Malzberg tells us in the introduction to the anthology, has as its theme the arts.  Malzberg claims that before 1950 or so science fiction was too focused on technology to discuss the arts, and suggests that, while there have been some good SF stories about the arts since then, this anthology is something new, a precedent.

"Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" by Richard Frede

Richard Frede has only four credits at isfdb, and no wikipedia page.  Apparently he wrote a novel about the medical profession that was made into a TV show starring that hero of kaiju movies Nick Adams and sexy sexy Suzy Parker.  In his intro to "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" Malzberg lists Frede's novels (up to 1977, I guess) and says the man has published three mystery novels under a pen name.    

For like 30 or 35 pages of its 42 pages, "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" is a competent conventional mainstream story.  An Air Force colonel on maneuvers flies his jet fighter over a storm front, and finds the colors of the clouds as they filter the light of the setting sun to be quite beautiful.  His wife is rich, so when she hears him talk about it she commissions a landscape painter to paint this image for him.

The painter, Clarence, is our main character.  He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and four-year-old daughter.  He is bored of his wife and often fantasizes of having other women.  The Colonel wants him to fly with him over a storm front at sunset so he can get an idea of what to paint, and we follow Clarence as he spends long days at military bases receiving safety training and then just waiting for his flight with the Colonel.  There is so much detail about the training and the experience of flying in a jet fighter that the story feels like a journalistic account, which maybe it sort of is, as Frede (Malzberg tells us in the intro) flew with a U. S. A. F. officer doing research for a novel, The Pilots.  (The cover blurb of the paperback calls it "A scorching new heart-stopping drama.") 

Anyway, when Clarence is up in the F-106 seated behind the Colonel he accidentally activates his ejector seat.  He lands safely, and goes to a house.  Then the story takes a fantastical turn, as he meets an attractive woman who claims he is a knight who won her heart her years ago but, when she refused to give him her maidenhood, instead had sex with her sister.  After the knight left, the woman put her sister in an ice cave where she froze and still lies, perfectly preserved.  The woman forces Clarence into the cave, where he falls asleep.  When he wakes up he escapes the house and is rescued by an Air Force helicopter responding to the signal from his survival kit.  Clarence has a long beard, and it soon becomes evident, to the amazement of everybody, that Clarence was lost for seven years.  The Air Force looks for the house of the woman, which the chopper pilot saw, but the house has vanished.  Clarence learns his wife has had him declared legally dead, remarried, and moved to California.  The End.  

Acceptable.  The mysterious woman says things that may be allusions to some piece of literature I am not familiar with.  I was totally surprised when Clarence activated the ejector seat due to a boneheaded mistake, which is a plus--I always appreciate when a writer can surprise me without making me feel like I was blindsided, and Clarence's dumb mistake is totally logical.  Even the crazy medieval fairytale scenario he finds himself in is foreshadowed, so it doesn't feel too much like it came out of left field.  

I guess a noteworthy thing about the story is the respect shown to the Air Force personnel; there is nothing cynical or sarcastic about the story's treatment of the U.S. military.  Two nonwhite servicemembers are portrayed in a way that foregrounds the military's openness to diversity. 

This story hasn't been reprinted anywhere. 

"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" by Charles L. Grant  

Grant of course is famous for being the writer of "quiet horror," and this story was reprinted in a 2012 collection actually called Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant.  It also won a Nebula Award, and was the title story of a 1981 collection.  So here, presumably, I have a chance to experience Grant running on all cylinders, as people who know about automobiles say.   

It is the future!  Humans live on the moon and Mars; Philadelphia and New York are just two ends of one colossal metropolis, Philayork.  Gordon Anderson, as a child, fell in love with the theatre and the cinema, and so became an actor.  But the entertainment industry is going through a period of decline and there isn't much work for actors.  As the story begins (after a vague and gushy speech written by Anderson which serves as a kind of prologue) we find Anderson performing in a sort of vignette about surviving a disaster--he is attacked by a robot tiger and nearly drowned in a special effects flood.  Anderson's improvisational antics are being recorded for "dream-tapes for children," a new means of teaching kids life lessons about being brave and having perseverance and so on that doesn't put the kids at any real risk, a sort of short cut to adulthood.  The point of these scenes is, I suppose, to show how directors and "the industry" treat actors like shit--the robot tiger draws blood and the artificial flood almost kills Anderson, and none of the crew seem to care.

Anderson hates directors, and seems to put a lot of blame on them for the poor state of the entertainment industry.  In fact, he lives in fear that the police will catch up to him and he'll be imprisoned for, just a week and a half ago, hunting down and assaulting three directors.  When he hears the news reports about the attacks he is surprised to learn all three of his victims have survived. 

Anderson has two friends, fellow actors, a fat guy Phillip and his attractive girlfriend Helena.  Anderson steals Helena from the fatso, and Anderson and his new inamorata try to figure out the big picture--why aren't people going to the theatre anymore?  One possibility is that plays are all improvised now; they don't have scripts.  In fact, when Helena tells Anderson she has some scripts by Shakespeare, Miller, and Chekov, she talks about them as if they are rare artifacts.  

Phillip figures out Anderson beat up those three producers and contacts the police; Anderson and Helena fight their way through a police cordon and drive out of the megalopolis to live as fugitives in the countryside.  They start a traveling theatre troupe and become popular.  When the police finally catch up to them they are, in a way that struck this reader as unconvincing, pardoned for their crimes, which include shooting a cop with his own weapon.  The ending of the story is supposed to be sad, as Anderson tells us Helena died at age eighty and says he'll always remember her because he has a toy unicorn she gave him which she found in an abandoned house while they were on the run--it is not sad because Anderson and Helena are not interesting or even likable characters, and a toy unicorn is laughably saccharine.    

"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" is cheap, sappy, and sort of tedious; Grant expended too much energy on failed efforts to make the individual sentences feel poetic or literary and too little effort on making us care about the characters and such lame symbols as a toy unicorn or even making clear exactly what was causing the decline in interest in the theatre and what Anderson and Helena, out in the country, did to get people excited about theatre again.

So why did this mediocrity win a Nebula?  Remember, Nebulas are awarded by professional writers; presumably Grant's trying-too-hard prose, his grandiose vision of the importance of writers and his self-pitying and self-aggrandizing depiction of the plight of the creative class struck a chord with the Nebula voters, flattering their self-importance and powerful sense that they don't get the respect they deserve.


"Choral" by Barry N. Malzberg

In the intro to his own novella, Malzberg admits that he enjoys playing the violin far more than he ever has enjoyed any aspect of his career as a writer, and discusses his admiration for Beethoven.  The Ninth, he tells us, is in his opinion the greatest piece of music ever written.

(As an aside, I want to note that some of the plot elements of "Choral" are uncannily similar to those of another 1977 story, which I read in 2016, Carter Scholz's "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs.")  

It is the 23rd century.  In the 22nd century time travel was invented, and a mentally unstable genius, the physicist Karl Kemper, came up with the theory that history was malleable, that the past had been curated by time travelers to create the present.  People of influence and power found this theory persuasive, and a government project--the Department of Reconstruction--was founded to make sure that formative events of the past proceeded as the history books said they did.  The Department trains and sends Travelers, disguised as important personages--for example, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Adolf Hitler--back in time to play out the critical events that created the modern world and ensure they go off as expected, lest the rug be pulled out from under everybody living in the present.

Our protagonist Reuter is one of these Travelers, a relatively young man who has been on a few relatively minor missions as various politicians, but who is now in the middle of a big assignment: Beethoven.  Reuter must make sure Beethoven's monumentally influential works are created in the first place, and that they match the versions known to the 23rd century.  His masters transmit him from Department HQ in Buenos Aires to various critical moments in the life of ol' Ludwig van, points when his career might have gone off course or his work altered.  For example, we see Reuter at a rehearsal in 1808 when a conductor and some musicians object to the first four notes of the Fifth and implore Beethoven to change them--Reuter ferociously overrules their objections.  Between each trip, back in Buenos Aires, Reuter's handlers change his clothes to match the milieu of his next mission and his superiors debrief him.

Malzberg's body work is full of depictions of government agencies, like the space program in his famous SF work and public welfare agencies in his putatively erotic work like Everything Happened to Susan and Horizontal Woman, as institutions that are absolutely inefficient, incompetent and corrupt, and from the very start of "Choral" Mazlberg gives us clues that the Department of Reconstruction is very bad at its job and that its job is unnecessary or even inimical.  Reuter's interactions in the early nineteenth century are absurd, and he commits many blunders, and doesn't even seem up to the job (he doesn't care about music, for example.)  The Department is controversial and has detractors in government and amid the public.  And then there is the fact that the world you and I live in (the one with Thomas Alva Edison) is apparently not the world in which Reuter lives (in which there is an important figure by the name Thomas Alva Guinzaburg.)

Of course, the whole matter of whether these Travelers are "reconstructing" the past in order to preserve the present or are actually creating the past is hopelessly blurred--if the Department sends a man back in time with instructions to play Beethoven as a man with psychological issues, because the history books say he had such issues, isn't it possible, probable, or even certain that the reason that Beethoven is said to have psychological problems is because the man sent back to play him was told to exhibit those problems, or actually suffered from them himself?  This is the kind of time paradox we see often in SF, with people having sex in the past and becoming their own ancestors, for example.

Traveling is a psychologically trying task, and Beethoven, who has a simple personality, is an unsatisfying role for Reuter to play, and his superiors at the Department of Reconstruction in Buenos Aires suspect he is burning out.  Reuter begins to doubt the value, the necessity, of his work, and then Malzberg does something he rarely does--he holds out to us the possibility that the story has a happy ending!  After discussions with the mad physicist Kemper, who died over a century ago, about whether or not we have free will and whether or not life is meaningless, Reuter turns renegade, seizing control of the time travel system and transporting himself wherever he wants and, instead of following the script, doing whatever the hell he wants as Beethoven.  Instead of having an unhappy life Beethoven has a happy life, and all of history and the whole world are changed.  Of course, it is likely this campaign of rebellion is just Reuter's delusion--after all, how could he take over control of the time travel apparatus?    

A pretty good piece of Malzberg.  In particular, all the stuff about Karl Kemper, like how he put all the important stuff in the footnotes and committed suicide by inhaling seventeen thimbles, is fun.  Thumbs up for "Choral;" maybe someday I'll read Chorale.

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The critically acclaimed "A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" appears elsewhere, so it is hard for me to recommend Graven Images to anybody but Malzberg fans (like myself) and Richard Frede fans, if such people actually exist.  (If you are a Richard Frede fan, write the poor guy a wikipedia page!)  

Friday, March 26, 2021

From the August 1958 Fantastic Universe: de Camp, Harrison and Cooper

Let's look at another magazine sitting on the SF magazine shelves here at MPorcius HQ, one in such bad shape I will probably end up reading the scan of the issue at the internet archive for fear of my hard copy crumbling to dust in my hands, the August 1958 issue of Fantastic Universe, which features a cover by Virgil Finlay.  Now, we've already read one story that debuted in this issue, Harlan Ellison's "Back to the Drawing Boards," which I read in 2016 in the Belmont collection From the Land of Fear.  The other three stories in this magazine that are piquing my interest are those by L. Sprague de Camp, Harry Harrison, and Edmund Cooper; let's take a trip to the year Nikita Khruschev took over Communist Russia, Charles DeGaulle took over France, and Gigi took over the silver screen by checking them out!

"Ka the Appalling" by L. Sprague de Camp

I read a bunch of de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias stories years before I started this blog, and found them mediocre, but I am still willing to read the guy--you know, every few years.  "Ka the Appalling," isfdb is telling me, is the seventh of nine stories in the Pusadian series, and would later be reprinted in a few anthologies and de Camp collections.

It seems the Pusadian series is set in one of those Conan-like prehistoric fantasy milieus in which civilizations now forgotten erected big cities and built empires inhabited by wizards and priests and the men who confronted them with swords; Pusadia is the native name for Poseidonis, which is a region of Atlantis.  The theme of this story is that religion is a scam, though told sort of metaphorically--in the world depicted magic and demons are truly real, but gods are merely the product of people's belief in them.  (Fritz Leiber uses the same idea, that gods rely on their worshipers' adherence to maintain their own strength, in his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, in particular 1959's brilliant "Lean Times in Lankhmar.")  

Gezun is a young, tall, strong, good-looking Pusadian whose adventures have brought him to the city of Typhon.  He didn't realize Typhonians consider cats sacred, so when he sat down to eat at a tavern and a cat jumped up and stole his main course, he struck the felonious feline dead with his staff and retrieved his entrée.  So our story begins with Gezun being chased through the labyrinthine Typhonian streets by a murderous lynch mob.  He is rescued via a secret door in an alley by Ugaph; Ugaph is a minor wizard, a thief, and a skeptic who doubts the existence of the gods.  Ugaph blackmails Gezun into becoming his assistant.

Ugaph regularly summons a small demon that looks a little like a fox; the demon knows what goes on in all the temples in Typhon and gives Ugaph advice on what jewels and gold decorations and so forth in the local houses of worship are ripe for theft.  To summon the demon, Ugaph requires copious supplies of bats' blood, and Gezun's primary task is to hunt for bats in the neglected pyramidal tombs of forgotten Typhonian royal dynasties, a labor heretofore underttaken by Ugaph's attractive daughter Ro--Ugaph wants Ro spending her time hunting for a rich husband, not for bats.

Searching the tombs for bats is risky because the tombs are full of traps, and robbing temples obviously carries its own risks, so Gezun and Ugaph come up with a safer scheme for making money--starting their own bogus religion and taking in donations.  

The rest of the story is about how Gezun's lust for Ro, the demon's lust for bat's blood, and Ugaph's lust for money interact and lead to backstabbing, death, and the spectacular rise of the god Ugaph and Gezun make up out of whole cloth, Ka the Appalling.

In contrast to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard, de Camp doesn't write his sword-swinging adventure stories in a romantic, epic, or poetic fashion, with larger than life heroes who can fight off a dozen enemies at once, are driven by powerful passions and shake the foundations of nations.  Instead de Camp strives to make his stories realistic and mildly comic, and maybe a little cynical.  For example, Gezun is not deeply in love with Ro, he is just at the mercy of his hormones, and Ro isn't deeply in love with Gezun--she resists Gezun's ardent advances and after he takes her virginity she cries; Gezun doesn't hear her weeping because he fell asleep after deflowering her.  De Camp describes people's decisions and actions in a rational, business-like manner which feels a little cold and emotionless.

Still, I enjoyed "Ka the Appalling" more than I expected to.  The plot is good and it runs smoothly, like a clock; everything makes sense and there is a minimum of unnecessary verbiage.  So, thumbs up for "Ka the Appalling."

"Arm of the Law" by Harry Harrison

It is the future, in which mankind has colonized the solar system.  Nineport is a tiny little mining town and spaceport on Mars with a corrupt government; organized crime runs the whole town, from the gambling dens and bars that cater to the miners and spaceship crews to the police station, which has a complement of four cops.  The chief and the two beat cops are basically incompetent, but our narrator, the serjeant, was a big city cop on Earth for ten years before he was sent to Mars as punishment and he more or less knows what he is doing.

One day a robot cop arrives and joins the little force.  Chaos and hilarity ensue when the robot insists on enforcing the law, enraging the local organized crime boss, who tries to destroy the robot with a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon.  The robot and our narrator triumph over the criminals and make an honest town out of Nineport.

This story is perhaps a little slight, but it is entertaining and the jokes are actually amusing.  Thumbs up for "Arm of the Law."

"Arm of the Law" would reappear in Harrison's oft-reprinted collection War with the Robots and the 2001 career-spanning collection 50 in 50.

"The Lizard of Woz" by Edmund Cooper

"The Lizard of Woz" was reprinted in the 1963 collection Tomorrow Came and the 1968 collection News From Elsewhere, among other places.  I actually own a copy of the 1969 US edition of News From Elsewhere, and will read "The Lizard of Woz" from it in recognition of the possibility the story was revised for book publication.  "The Lizard of Woz" appears to have been considered a big selling point of the book, it being mentioned on the back cover and the very first page.  These come-ons make clear that "The Lizard of Woz" is a joke story, if the title hadn't already clued you in.


Despite its prominence in the advertising material for the collection, "Lizard of Woz" is a silly filler story.  Ynky (short for Ynkwysytyv) is a lone scout from a powerful intergalactic empire of lizard people that regularly exterminates or enslaves the intelligent species it encounters.  As punishment for trying to seduce a superior's daughter, Ynky has been sent to Earth to assess what should be done to the human race.  First he talks to an American who owns a lonely diner; this guy reads SF magazines and so is psychologically prepared to deal with an alien.  When Ynky lets this Yank know that he is all alone and is going to recommend that the human race be exterminated the Earthman tries to prevent the delivdery of this report by shooting Ynky with a shotgun; Ynky escapes with flesh wounds.

Yhnky proceeds to the USSR where he talks to a minor Communist functionary who manages a lonely train station.  Initially this Bolshie thinks Ynky is a commissar in disguise come to test his loyalty to the socialist project, and so is on his best behavior.  When he realizes Ynky is a real live alien from what he takes to be a capitalist society he cunningly sabotages the lizard's flying saucer.  Forced to crash land on an island in the South China Sea, Ynky meets a female Komodo dragon and falls madly in love, and the Earth lizard kills and eats him.     

"The Lizard of Woz" is not exactly bad, and of course I'm always happy to see somebody slag the Soviet Union and communism, but I consider this sort of story to be a waste of time unless it is very funny, and this piece is just barely entertaining.  The de Camp and Harrison stories we have read today are also meant to be funny, but they are also servicable adventure stories with plots that make sense, and their humor is based more on human personality and less on dumb puns.  Barely acceptable. 

Despite my dim view of this one, I am tentatively planning to read more stories from News From Elsewhere.  Until then, if you want more MPorcius coverage of Edmund Cooper, click these links for my blog posts on novels by Cooper that tackle such topics as race relations and relations between the sexes: 

Gender Genocide

A Far Sunset, Five to Twelve, and The Last Continent  


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Not a bad crop of stories.  Expect to see more discussion of stories by L. Sprague de Camp, Harry Harrison and Edmund Cooper in future installments of MPorcius Fiction Log.