Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The Weapon Shop" by A. E. Van Vogt

Van Vogt is a strange writer, with a writing style that can be confusing and disconcerting; this often suits Van Vogt’s purpose, as his plots often involve a person discovering shocking and incredible secrets, exploring bizarre worlds that were hidden in plain sight, realizing unusual new powers, and the like.  Van Vogt has some serious weaknesses as a writer, but his wacky, surprising plots and unusual points of view always provide a wild ride, so I keep reading him, and am always willing to forgive his excesses and mistakes the way you forgive a close friend or family member their little eccentricities.

“The Weapon Shop” is one of Van Vogt’s more famous stories; it first appeared in 1942, and I read it in the 1971 collection M33 in Andromeda, with the cover blurb, “Six shattering stories by science fiction’s mastermind” and the exciting plot synopses on the back cover under the heading “AN SF SUPER SIXPACK.”

In the far future the Solar System is ruled by the Empress Innelda Isher, 1180th of her line.  Fara Clark is a loyal subject of the Empress, hard-working, honest, conservative.  Clark has always tried to do the right thing, but his son is a slacker with loose morals whose rank misbehavior leaves Clark vulnerable to predatory businesses owned by the Empress herself.  Disastrously indebted, Clark loses his savings and his small business, and sees no way out other than suicide.

During this crisis there appears in Clark’s small conservative town one of the mysterious Weapon Shops, emblazoned with its motto, “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.”  The Imperial government and its loyal supporters like Clark detest the Weapon Shops, but the Weapon Makers have a technology so superior to that of the Imperial government that they are invulnerable.  Clark investigates the shop, and slowly comes to realize how corrupt and tyrannical the Empress and her government are, and that the Weapon Shops exist in order to provide some measure of relief from the injustices of the Imperial government, and to help to gradually reform the morals of the people of the solar system.   The shops choose not to overthrow the Imperial government, because it is the people who must change if the government is to change; one of the Weapon Makers says, “People always have the kind of government they want.”

This is a fun and interesting story.  The style is less bewildering than some of Van Vogt's work, and the triumph of a decent man over a corrupt government at the end of the story is cathartic.  However, the “Weapon Shop” is also a utopian wish-fulfillment story that ignores much of the complexity and tension of real life that informs good literature.  The idea of an institution of superior power that exists to redress the wrongs committed by corrupt governments is very appealing, and was perhaps particularly appealing in the world of 1942.  But, in the same way the invincibility of Clark Kent detracts from the tension of much Superman material, the invincibility of the Weapon Makers renders the story more of a fable than a drama.

The magic of the Weapon Makers’ technology also serves to undercut the message of responsibility that Van Vogt seeks to convey with the aphorism, “People always have the kind of government they want.”  For one thing, it is clear that the guns the Weapon Makers sell cannot be used to commit murder or other crimes – this removes responsibility from the hands of the gun owner.  Additionally, the guns generate a force field which other ray guns cannot penetrate, removing much of the risk of resisting the Imperial government.  In real life, supporters of the right to bear arms have to face the fact that sometimes weapons get in the hands of evil or deranged people, and those who advocate resistance to tyranny have to face the fact that people who stand up to tyranny often die at the hands of tyrants.  The magical weapons in Van Vogt’s story turn these moral dilemmas into no-brainers.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classic SF Gossip Mysteries: Harlan Ellison and Jack Vance

I find writer’s opinions of each other irresistibly interesting.  The debate witnessed by Bennet Langton between Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke over whether Homer or Virgil was the superior poet (Johnson championed Homer, Burke Virgil) must have been fascinating.  It was interesting to hear that Nabokov looked down on Saul Bellow as a mediocrity, and I was a little dismayed to learn that Heinlein didn’t like Johnson and Boswell.  (In a better world, all the writers I like would like each other, so it is always heartwarming to read Gene Wolfe’s praise of Burroughs and Vance’s praise of Wodehouse.)  Then there are the surprises, like reading Harlan Ellison’s praise in Angry Candy of L. Ron Hubbard, whom I feel people always malign because of his goofy religion. 

And then there are the mysteries, when a writer attacks another writer without naming his target, inviting those of us not in the know to puzzle over the reference.  Two such mysteries are on my mind today.

Case 1: Ellison and the Hendrix Scoffer or “Drop Dead Old Bag said the Hendrix Fan”

Last night, perusing the many free e-texts at Baen Books, I came across a charming passage in Harlan Ellison’s introduction to his collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World:  
There I was, down in Rio, at Hart Sprayger's dinner party, with all those glowing leading lights of sf, and Hart laid some Jimi Hendrix on the tape deck, and I was starting to groove behind it—having heard nothing since arriving in Rio but bad samba and worse bubble-gum music—and up walked the supposedly sharp wife of a science fiction "great," and she wrinkled her snout and said, "Oh, come on, you can't really like that noise?" I didn't answer. Why bother. She'll croak soon anyhow.

So, who is the SF “great” whom Ellison does not think is so great?  Heinlein comes to mind immediately as a great with a celebrated wife (Virginia Heinlein died in 2003, about 34 years after The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World was published) but that is just a guess.  Ellison praises Asimov, Simak, Pohl and Clarke in the same intro, so not any of them.  Ellison is a fan and supporter of A.E. Van Vogt, so not him.  Maybe Poul Anderson or Jack Williamson?  Googling around is not providing me many clues… if only I had a guest list of this Rio party.  

Case 2: Jack Vance and the Grey Lady or “Jack vs. the Jackass”

In July 2009 the New York Times printed a glowing article by Carlo Rotella about Jack Vance.  The article includes the line:
During our conversation he had already summarily dismissed several people, including two celebrated science-fiction writers I grew up reading, as a jackass or a show-off.    
On May 30, 2013, in the wake of Vance’s death, Carlo Rotella took to the pages of the New York Times again, to praise the great man anew.  He provided some additional clues to our mystery:
When I told him about a certain formerly notorious science-fiction writer who had thrown a tantrum on the phone when I called to interview him for the story, Vance said, “Why, he’s nothing but a showoff and a jackass.”
So, which celebrated writer or writers did Vance think were a showoff and/or a jackass?  Who was writing SF that Carlo Rotella (born in 1964) would have “grown up reading,” was alive in 2009, and might conceivably yell at a fellow writer over the phone?  Our prime suspect has to be Harlan Ellison, but again, this is just an educated guess, and why the “formerly” in front of notorious and the hint that there are two or more writers Vance is dismissive of?

So, while we have tentative prime suspects, these cases must remain open.  No doubt many people carry within their hearts the answer to the first mystery, Ellison among others at the Rio party, while only Carlo Rotella and his confidants, if any, know the truth about our second case.  With luck someday those with the knowledge I seek will stumble upon this blog post and then enlighten me via email (mporcius [AT] gmail [dot] com) or in the comments.    

“Rumfuddle” by Jack Vance

“Rumfuddle” first appeared in Three Trips in Time and Space, an anthology of original novellas edited by Robert Silverberg and published in 1973.  Over the last two days I read the version in the 1976 collection Best of Jack Vance.  

In “Rumfuddle” a scientist has recognized that there are an infinite number of universes, and constructed a machine which can open portals between universes at a negligible cost.  By opening portals to universes similar to our own (cognates, he calls them) he has ushered in a post-scarcity society: if petroleum, or lumber, or any other natural resource is required, simply travel to a universe which is just like ours, but in which humans never developed on Earth, and extract all the material you need.  Social problems resulting from population pressure are solved: every family, every individual, if they so choose, can have a cognate Earth of their very own to live on.  Because the machine can also open portals across time, scientific and historical puzzles are resolved: a paleontologist can travel to the Cretaceous of a universe almost identical to ours to observe dinosaurs first hand, a classicist travel to Ancient Rome, and the like.

As he often does, Vance uses his setting to present a tale of bizarre crimes and summary justice, highlighting the failures of the conventional authorities and their rules and the quest for answers and/or vengeance of a determined victim.  As the story proceeds we learn of foolishness and abuses among the new elite raised by the "game-changing" new technology.  The scientist who invented the dimension travel machine has authorized access to it to a group of people, the "Rumfuddlers," who have been using it to stage elaborate and theatrical jokes.  By kidnapping and switching babies between dimensions they have, among other projects, produced the spectacle of Hitler and his henchmen working as staff in a kosher restaurant and Marx, Lenin and Stalin living as servants to Czar Nicholas, and organized a champion football team made up of such luminaries as Machiavelli (as quarterback), Achilles, Hercules and Richard the Lion Hearted.   

This is a good story, combining Vance’s usual concerns with a “sense of wonder” of infinite possibilities and time travel.  Definitely above average when compared to SF stories as a whole, but just average for Vance. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“Goblin Night” by James Schmitz

Yesterday I read James Schmitz’s “Lion Loose” and was disappointed that it did not live up to the accolades SF authorities Malzberg and Dozois had accorded Schmitz.  Today I read Schmitz’s “Goblin Night,” which first appeared in a 1965 issue of Analog, and was pleased: it is better than “Lion Loose” in every way.

Telzey Amberdon is a 15-year-old college student on a camping trip in a vast and thickly wooded park.  Schmitz deftly sketches out an interesting milieu for Telzey and her adventure: before this planet, whose night sky is rarely dark because of the multitude of bright stars in the planet’s vicinity, was colonized by humans this forest was home to powerful creatures the settlers called spooks, dangerous predators which the colonists were forced to wipe out of the area.  Unknown to her fellow students, Telzey is a talented telepath, and her powers bring to her attention the fact that something horrible is going on in the park: an intelligent man, driven insane by a terrible disabling accident, has been using the park as a hunting ground for that most dangerous of game, his fellow humans.  Soon Telzey herself is the quarry in a deadly chase through the woods, contending with the sadistic villain’s both high tech and savagely primitive methods.
This is a hoary old plot, but Schmitz, by adding numerous SF elements, creating in his villain a compelling character, and by setting a fast pace and sticking to it, makes it work, and I quite enjoyed “Goblin Night.”   
I read the free e-text available at the Baen Books website; “Goblin Night” is the fourth chapter of the book Telzey Amberdon, which includes illuminating afterwords about Schmitz’s career and the setting of most of Schmitz’s stories by Schmitz fans Eric Flint and Guy Gordon.

“Lion Loose” by James Schmitz

In his introduction to The Best of Jack Vance, important SF critic Barry Malzberg praised James Schmitz, saying he was “the greatest portrayer of total alienness in science-fiction.”  I could not recall hearing of Schmitz before, and Wikipedia was full of praise from Gardner Dozois for Schmitz’s prominent female protagonists and well-developed , psychologically complex characters.  Sounded good, so I hunted down Schmitz’s Hugo-award-nominated story “Lion Loose.”  I read the Baen Books e-text (a free sample chapter from Trigger & Friends), because it popped up first during my search, but the Gutenberg version, which reproduces the Schoenherr illustrations from the story’s 1961 appearance in Analog, may be preferable to some.   

Broad-shouldered muscleman Quillan, some kind of interstellar G-man in disguise as a space pirate, is staying at the Seven Star Hotel, a space station hanging out in the middle of interstellar space that serves as a trade depot and luxury hotel, when he is approached by Reetal Destone, a sexy blonde he has worked with in the past.  She is a private detective/industrial spy, and, like Quillan, she is armed to the teeth with ray guns and espionage equipment.  Reetal informs Quillan that the manager of the hotel and the head of hotel security are in cahoots with the Brotherhood, a sort of space mafia, and, after making some kind of transfer of illegal goods, they are going to blow up the hotel and the thousands of people in it!  Unbeknownst to the hotel guests, the corrupt half of the security force has already murdered the honest half, taken over the control room of the space station, and planted the bomb nobody knows where.  Quillan, Reetal, and a handful of armed guests and hotel staff have just six and a half hours to retake the station from 70 ruthless criminals before the ship with the illegal cargo arrives.

Quillan easily infiltrates the criminals’ group, and, thanks to his fame in the underworld (the murderers and thieves know him by his nickname, “Bad News”) and his fast talking ability, is soon made one of the leaders of the criminal enterprise.  The head criminals reveal that the illegal cargo is fifty ogre-sized carnivorous monsters that have the ability to pass through solid matter.  The crooks had a sample monster on the station already, but it has escaped and it is now free within the hotel.  Quillan is given the job of recapturing the creature.

The style, characters and tone of "Loose Lion" are bland and pedestrian.  The plot, as Quillan hunts the dangerous monster and sows dissension between the two groups of criminals, isn’t bad, but it isn’t stellar.  Action fans may complain that almost all the fighting takes place “off screen,” and that the resolution of the monster portion of the plot is anti-climactic.  Most of the story consists of conversations. 
So, a middling pulpy story about space pirates, alien monsters and ray guns.  I have to admit that it did not live up to Malzberg and Dozois’s praise. It wasn’t particularly “alien”; in fact the characters sling tired 20th century clichés like “out of my cotton-pickin’ mind” and “it was big as a barn door!”  The woman protagonist gets captured and tortured by one man and then rescued by another.  And I thought the characters pretty cardboard.  Presumably Malzberg and Dozois had other Schmitz stories in mind; hopefully as I read a few more Schmitz tales I will encounter one of them.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

“Abercrombie Station” by Jack Vance and Cosmopolis

Abercrombie Space Station is inhabited by obese people, who can live in comfort in the station’s microgravity.  Earth-dwelling crook Fotheringay hires sexy svelte teenager Jean Parlier to travel to Abercrombie Station in the guise of a servant to seduce and marry Earl Abercrombie, the magnificently wealthy owner of the station.  Fotheringay assures Jean that Earl Abercrombie will soon die, and then Fotheringay and Jean will split up the immense wealth of the Abercrombie estate that Jean, as Abercrombie’s widow, will inherit.  Jean, who was abandoned by her parents and has blood on her hands, claims to have no morals and embraces this get-rich-quick scheme.

This is one of those hard-boiled suspense-thriller things, with various unscrupulous people from various social classes trying to outwit each other in pursuit of the big score, and mysteries hinted at and then revealed as the story proceeds.  Vance does a good job with this plot, and a better job with the setting and characters.  Vance develops Abercrombie Station into a strange but believable place with a strange but believable culture, where obese people are graceful and look down upon thin people as ugly.  Vance’s description of 18-year-old multi-millionaire Earl Abercrombie’s “study,” where he stores his vast museum-like collection of oddities from around the galaxy, and which is decorated by a stained glass window from Chartes cathedral which lets in the brilliant light of the sun unfiltered by an atmosphere, and is the site of one of the most disgusting atrocities I have encountered in fiction, is very vivid.  

Vance’s characters are equally interesting, at the same time both alien and burdened with psychological problems we can identify with and sympathize with.  Chief among them are 16-year-old murderess Jean, who is a fish out of water in a world where she lacks sex appeal, and who acts like she cares only about money but daydreams of having loving parents and sincere friends, and Earl, who is fascinated by the Earth and the other human-inhabited planets, but is forbidden by iron clad rules from leaving the station.  Our view of Vance’s characters evolves over the course of the story as we learn more about them and as they themselves change.

This is a great story, and I highly recommend it.  The writing style is not as fancy or baroque as many of Vance’s later works, but one could say that the story is more “science-fictiony” than much of Vance’s other work, in that Vance has really made an effort to think of how and why people would live in zero gravity.  “Abercrombie Station” also provides me another opportunity to talk about Damon Knight.  I read “Abercrombie Station” in the 1976 collection Best of Jack Vance, which includes short intros by the author to each story.  In the intro to “Abercrombie Station” Vance tells us that the basic idea of the story came from Damon Knight, who commissioned the story from Vance but was unable to purchase it when the magazine it was meant for folded.  Here we have an example of the beneficial role good editors have played in the history of science fiction.


There are people who believe Jack Vance is as great a writer as Balzac or Henry James.  These people have esoteric arguments over what Vance’s attitude towards Christianity is, over whether Vance is a science fiction writer or a writer who uses science fiction “décor.”  From 2000 to 2007 these people produced a magazine, Cosmopolis, and a sort of companion magazine, Extant, both of which are available in PDF form at .  I’ve spent quite a few pleasant hours flipping through them, and I think any Vance fans who have not yet heard of them will as well.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg has been one of the pillars of the SF community for many decades, producing many fine stories and novels and doing important work as an editor of a multitude of anthologies. But nobody is perfect, right?

SF blogger extraordinaire Joachim Boaz yesterday pointed out a great review of Silverberg's Stochastic Man by Max Cairnduff at Pechorin's Journal. Mr. Cairnduff hits the nail on the head when he says that Silverberg writes about people, and that is why we like his work. Cairnduff levels several valid criticisms at the book, but in the end admits he still loves it. This is where we disagree; when I read Stochastic Man in 2007, after reading several really good Silverberg books, I was quite disappointed, as my November 8, 2007 review on pasted below, suggests. Interestingly, while both Cairnduff and I find Stochastic Man to be below par for Silverberg, we focus on different deficiencies.

I like Silverberg's writing style, and it doesn't fail him here, but I have to say this book is in the inferior 50%, maybe even 25%, of the Silverberg I have read. For one thing, too much of the narrative concerns U.S. electoral politics; I don't read science fiction looking for a fictional version of the real life stuff I can read everyday on blogs or in the newspaper, and Silverberg just gives us boring horserace stuff, almost nothing about political philosophy or theory.

There is also a problem with the plot. Again and again the man who can see the future tells the main character that the future cannot be changed, that there is only one possible future, and again and again he is proven right. But, for some reason, the main character keeps thinking that his knowledge of the future can help the politician win elections, which, if the future is immutable, obviously makes no sense. Maybe Silverberg is just pointing out that, even though we have every reason to think the universe is deterministic, we all insist on acting as if it isn't. Even if that is the case, it is still a little frustrating for the reader.

(Maybe the novel is just too long, and would benefit if some of the political race stuff and a few of the examples of the predicted future coming true were eliminated.)

I wouldn't advise people to avoid Stochastic Man, but would let them know that Silverberg has numerous superior books.

Friday, October 25, 2013

“Capturing Vance” by Barry Malzberg (intro to The Best of Jack Vance)

I recently purchased at a used book store the 1976 collection of six Jack Vance stories entitled The Best of Jack Vance, put out by Pocket in their Timescape line.  The great SF writer, critic, and historian Barry Malzberg wrote a two page introduction to the book which is remarkable for several reasons: in fact, this intro is quite like a Malzberg story, weird and certainly worth reading.

1) Malzberg claims to have a theory that the title of a SF author’s first sale is symbolic of his entire career.  Bizarre and funny, and reminiscent of the scenes in Proust in which young Marcel tries to guess what a town is like based on its name on the train schedule.  Malzberg gives examples, such as Heinlein, Silverberg, and, of course, Vance.

2) Malzberg, in a footnote, admits that he has made a mistake, that his analysis of Vance’s career is based on the title of Vance’s fourth published story, not his first, but dismisses any notion that this invalidates his theory or his analysis.

3) Malzberg tells us interesting things about Vance’s career, and why Vance is so great.  Malzberg also highly praises Silverberg, but in a mysterious sort of way that left me wondering what it is exactly that Malzberg admires about Silverberg: “If you look at the genre [SF] as being necessarily one kind of thing close-up, then Robert Silverberg is probably the best the field has ever had.…”  What does this mean?  It is like our pal Barry left out a sentence or phrase just to tease us, or present us with a challenge.  Malzberg goes on to say if you look at SF from a different and equally viable point of view, then Vance is the best.  What Vance does so well, says Malzberg, is present alienness, how the people in a SF world will have totally different attitudes and values than we do.  Does this mean that Malzberg feels that Silverberg’s strength is that he writes about our own 20th century Earth values and attitudes in a SF context?  Looking at Silverberg’s body of work, this seems plausible.

4) Malzberg compares Vance to a James Schmitz, saying that Vance is Schmitz’s logical successor, and that only Schmitz can even touch Vance.  I have never even heard of Schmitz before (my education is plagued with embarrassing lacunae) but, based on Malzberg’s praise, I will soon be hunting down free e-texts of Schmitz’s short stories.
Do people give stars to the intros of collections?  Malzberg’s “Capturing Vance” deserves 5 out of 5: Best introduction of all time.


My copy of The Best of Jack Vance presents many mysteries.  The very last page is an advertisement for the Pocket line of “Best of” collections.  A previous owner has marked the Vance volume, and two others, with “X”s, presumably because he has purchased them.  Two other collections are left unmarked, and two more have an “O” in the appropriate space.  What does the “O” mean?  That he was making a point to avoid those authors?  Or are the “X”s and “O”s thumbs up and thumbs down reviews?  Here is a mystery that I will never solve.     

“The Man Who Would be King” and “At The Pit’s Mouth” by Rudyard Kipling

In grad school in the '90s I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, and thought it pretty good, and some months ago I read The Light That Failed, which I also enjoyed.  So today, while hanging around at the library at Simpson College, I decided to see what Kipling books they had, and took up The Best Fiction of Rudyard Kipling, a 1989 collection with an introduction by a John Beecroft, and read two stories.

“The Man Who Would Be King”

This is a famous story, and the basis for a movie I think I saw parts of when I was a kid.  It is quite a good story, with many interesting elements, and worthy of its fame.

A journalist in India narrates the tale, the meat of which is told to him by an unscrupulous adventurer, Peachy Carnahan.  Carnahan and his comrade, Dan Dravot, are vagabonds who have been living by their wits, traveling across India working various jobs and working various scams.  They come up with and execute a daring scheme: they make their way through difficult terrain to a region of Afghanistan as yet unexplored by Europeans.   Equipped with a small arsenal of modern firearms and their British army experience, they are able to set themselves up as kings among the local natives and then found an empire, maintaining order among various tribes and making improvements to agriculture and bridges in the area.  By a stroke of luck the natives see them as gods, which also smooths the way for them, as does their “contract” with each other: Carnahan and Dravot have sworn to each other, in writing, to not get distracted by women or alcohol during their dangerous enterprise.

Disaster strikes when Dravot, the better educated and more reckless of the pair, decides to break the contract and take a wife.  The natives realize the two British adventurers are not gods after all, leading to a rebellion in which their empire collapses, their supporters among the natives are killed, and the two English adventurers are tortured.  Dravot is thrown off a cliff to his death, and Carnahan is crucified, but survives.  Carnahan, physically and mentally broken, drags himself to the narrator to relate his tale, and dies soon after.

This is an exciting and tragic adventure story, and Kipling uses it as a vehicle to comment on numerous issues: the risks of imperialism, the folly of hubris, the responsibilities of leadership, the importance of keeping your word, relationships between men who face danger together and the stress women can put on such relationships.  As is often the case with Kipling’s work, “The Man Who Would Be King”  can provide the 21st century reader insight into life in British India; there is much talk of the class distinctions on a train, the different types of firearms available, the Indian climate and what it was like to run a newspaper in 19th century India.   The story also includes the kinds of weird and grisly elements you might expect to find in a science fiction or horror story:  the natives discovered by Carnahan and Dravot are described as white and fair haired, a “lost tribe,” and Carnahan retrieves his friend’s severed head and drags it back to the narrator, shockingly revealing it after completing his tale.

A classic, highly recommended to anyone interested in adventure stories or British and Indian history and literature.
“At The Pit’s Mouth”

This is one of those short (just 5 pages in this edition) ironic surprise ending stories whose ending is easy to predict, but it still is a diverting tale.  A selfish greedy woman lives in an Indian town while her husband is away for months at a time, working hard to finance his wife’s luxuries.  The wife is cheating on her husband shamelessly; her lover will sit with her and read over her shoulder and laugh while she writes love letters to her husband.  The people of the town start to talk about seeing these two adulterers together all the time, so the lovers decide to spend their time together in a place people rarely go: the local cemetery.   They watch native laborers dig a grave, and then the next day the lover has an accident while riding with the cheating wife – he is killed and buried in the grave they watched being dug.  The unfaithful wife goes temporarily insane.

Kipling stories will often provide interesting hints about life in colonial India; for example, in this one, we are told that one reason the cemetery in the story is rarely visited is that British people in India do not stay in one place very long, but “shift and are transferred so often that, at the end of the second year, the Dead have no friends….”  Of course, this story also provides a glimpse into late 19th century attitudes about gender roles, and would be a good story to read if you wanted evidence with which to condemn Rudyard Kipling or his society for being sexist.  The story also provides a reason to look up the Latin phrase “Tertium Quid,” which, being indifferently educated, I had never encountered before.  So those five pages were well worth my time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Last of Mr. Norris (AKA Mr. Norris Changes Trains) by Christopher Isherwood

The Last of Mr. Norris is a sort of character study of the wacky title character, an Englishman in his 50s living in Berlin in the early 1930s, and Norris’s relationship with the narrator, a younger Englishman, also living in Berlin.  They first meet on a train, where the narrator, William Bradshaw, quickly becomes familiar with some of Norris’s idiosyncrasies; his vanity, for example, evident in the wig he wears and the arsenal of cleansers and cosmetics he uses daily, and the fact that he always seems to be looking over his shoulder, as if he is being pursued.  Norris also has a collection of sadomasochistic books, and pays prostitutes to whip him and verbally abuse him.

Norris is a mysterious and apparently unscrupulous exporter/importer who lacks business sense and often fails to pay both his creditors and his employees. After those rare times when he makes a successful deal, he immediately wastes his profits on trifles.  Oft times he has to resort to pawn shops and loan sharks to make ends meet, and in the first third or so of the novel he joins the German Communist Party in hopes that the Party will prove a lucrative employer for one who has the sort of contacts he claims to have.  (The best joke in the book is when Norris, on his first mission for the Communist Party, must go to Paris, and books himself a first class trip, assuming the Party is going to reimburse him in full.) 

The crisis of the story comes when Norris asks Bradshaw’s help in setting up a business deal, requesting that Bradshaw lure a German aristocrat and government functionary into an ostensibly chance meeting with a colleague of Norris’s at a Swiss ski resort.  Bradshaw, inordinately fond of Norris, obliges, only later to learn that this was no business scheme, but an espionage operation in the interest of the French government: Norris has betrayed the Communists and is now accepting payments from France to spy on the Party and on the German government.  It turns out that the German government and the Communist Party are well aware of Norris’s perfidy, so Norris flees the country for Latin America, only to be pursued by one of his former employees, a vengeful blackmailer.

I read the novel in a 1945 U.S. edition of Berlin Stories; where it appears under the title The Last of Mr. Norris.  I’m glad I didn’t know the original UK title was Mr. Norris Changes Trains, which eliminates any doubt that Norris is going to betray the Communists.  I knew almost nothing about Isherwood or his work before starting the book (I have never seen “Cabaret,” though my wife will sing those songs on occasion) and one of the things I enjoyed most about the novel was the mystery of what the Switzerland trip was all about and how dedicated to the Communist cause Norris really was; all along I thought there was a chance that Norris was going to turn out to be a real self-sacrificing Red hero.

I thought the novel was just OK.  The style was flat and bland, and I didn’t really understand the tone; was the novel trying to make me laugh, or was it trying to tell me something about decadence, revolution, and/or the difficult lives of people pursuing what we now call alternative lifestyles?  Was I supposed to be amused by Norris and his unconventional and irresponsible behavior, or feel for him and worry that his creditors, the communists, the Nazis, or the police were going to get him?  The three or four pages about street fighting and Nazi oppression made me think I was supposed to take the book seriously, and then the last few pages, which make light of the fact that Norris has been caught by his vengeful employee, were a letdown – the book was just a big joke after all.

After finishing the book I read about it on Wikipedia, and how the book was composed and the changes it went through help explain some of my problems with it.  Also, if I had seen the silly cover to the first British edition I would have not been confused about the tone, but I also wouldn’t have even read the book; I’m not actually seeking out books of humor about radical politics and boot fetishism.

I guess I am giving this one a very marginal thumbs up.  Here I disagree with the critical consensus, which is enthusiastic, and with David Bowie, who counts Mr. Norris Changes Trains as one of his favorite 100 books.