Saturday, May 24, 2014

The New Mind and new (to me) authors: Bauer, Effinger, and Sohl

Today we are exploring new frontiers at this here blog.  New to me, at least.  I'd read four stories from Roger Elwood's 1973 collection of original science fiction stories, Frontier 2: The New Mind and liked them all, so I decided yesterday to press my luck and read three more, all of them by writers I had never read before.

"From All of Us" by Gerard M. Bauer

In his intro to the book, editor Roger Elwood informs us (warns us?) that Bauer is 19 years old and that "From All of Us" is his first sale.  The story is full of odd word choices that I think an editor should have done something about.  The very first lines of the story are, "I was born insane.  Mad.  Or to use the erudite term, 'mentally retarded.'"  Do educated people ever use "mentally retarded" as a synonym or euphemism for "insane?"  On the second page the word "acknowledge" is used in an unusual and off-putting way, and the third page "repulsively."  This story had me itching for my red pen. 

Jim, our first person narrator, is from the Twin Cities, which, in real life, is home to perhaps the finest SF bookstore in the world, Uncle Hugo's, which I have visited once and highly recommend.  Jim and his parents are on a road trip through Montana; I don't think I've ever been to Montana. 

Jim is twelve years old, and a genius, but, because he is mute and his arms are too weak to write, he is considered mentally retarded.  He receives a telepathic call, and escapes his dreadful and pathetic parents to join a secret community of people with physical birth defects and astounding mental abilities.  Their leader is a biracial ("mulatto" is the word used) scientist who has built a machine that can cure Jim's physical problems, a second machine that can telepathically teach him a library's worth of knowledge in a few week's time, and a third machine that can teleport everybody to another planet.  In no time Jim has the body of a healthy 25-year old and is having marathon sex sessions with a beautiful 20-year-old woman whom the mulatto assigns to him as his "mate."  

The National Guard detects the nuclear reactor the mulatto secretly built and, along with some local ranchers, attacks the fortress of the mute geniuses.  The mute geniuses teleport to a planet with perfect weather and live happily ever after.  The last lines of the story express Jim's contempt for those of us stuck on our "dead and stagnant" Earth.

This is a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy, silly enough to be interesting and amusing, though perhaps not in the way the author intended.  Perhaps it has value as a kind of window into the 1973 zeitgeist, or into the mind of an alienated teenager.

I didn't look up Bauer on isfdb until after I had read the story; when I did, I found this was his only published SF story.  In 2003 he signed a letter from the SFWA urging the powers that be to continue exploring space despite the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, so I guess he was still an active part of the professional SF community 30 years after his single sale.      

"New New York New Orleans" by George Alec Effinger

Every day I find a new reason to miss New York.  I recently learned that the institution that owns the house we are renting expects us to mow the lawn.  I haven't mowed (or mown) a lawn in like 25 years!

I've been to New Orleans.  I wasn't crazy about it.

"New New York New Orleans" is a well-written example of what I call "a Twilight-Zone-style" story.  Two guys living in New York City notice that characteristic elements of New Orleans are popping up in the Big Apple; Louisiana cooking, a huge paddleboat in the Hudson, tourists carrying New Orleans souvenirs who actually think they are in New Orleans, etc.  There has been a wrinkle or warp in the fabric of reality, and it is getting worse all the time.  Eventually it becomes clear that the entire country, or maybe the entire world or universe, is descending into chaos, with people and things appearing and disappearing.  There is no explanation for this, or resolution of the plot; the characters can only accept this strange new state of affairs.

The tone of the story is basically humorous, though with an undercurrent of fear and alienation (of millions of people in New York, only three of them seem to notice what is happening; the changes seem to be affecting most peoples' brains or psychologies.) 

This story is sort of "meta"--one of the two characters reads SF novels--and includes pop culture references--the other character watches lots of TV.   People familiar with Manhattan and/or The Big Easy may appreciate all the references to streets and landmarks from those towns. 

This sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea (there was nothing to make me intellectually or emotionally engaged, and the jokes didn't make me laugh), but I can see it is a good specimen of its type and the style is good.  I'm not averse to reading more Effinger stories, should I encounter any in other anthologies I buy for other reasons.

This story was expanded into a short novel that I do not plan on reading.
"I Am Aleppo" by Jerry Sohl

I haven't been to Syria, so no personal reminiscences this time. 

"I Am Aleppo" is a confusing and ridiculous story.  I also thought some of the sentences were poorly structured.  As I was reading it I kept checking to see how many pages I had left, I was so eager to put it behind me.

Scientists get the idea from some primitive and peaceful natives that crime, war, and mental illness occur because people don't process their dreams correctly.  So they figure out a way to hook people together with wires so a person who is awake can watch a sleeping person's dreams.

It turns out that when we dream, our souls or minds or whatever travel to another dimension, or maybe that when we dream people from another dimension who share a collective consciousness can enter our minds.  Anyway, somehow, these people from another dimension are in our dreams, and can kill us.  In the story, two different scientists die in real life when a weightlifter, in their dreams, strangles them.

Somehow, the scientists rig up a tank attached by wires to the dreaming sleeper, and capture the murderous weightlifter in the tank.  They shut the power to the tank off, so the muscleman from the dream dimension dies.  All the other people in the dream dimension feel their fellow member of the collective conscious die, so one of the dream people who looks like a hooded Arab with a scimitar and calls himself Aleppo vows revenge.  A third scientist gets hooked up and dreams, and he is attacked by Aleppo and fights him hand to hand.  The waking scientists capture the Arab in the tank and unhook their colleague in time to save his life, or so they think.  Somehow, their colleague's soul is in the tank and Aleppo's soul is in the scientist's body-- the dream Arab, animating the scientist's body, massacres everybody in the lab with a butcher knife he found someplace.  The end.

I didn't like the style of the writing, and as for the plot, there was just too much going on that made no sense and was not explained satisfactorily for the story to be at all convincing or enjoyable.  The waking person hooked up to the dreamer doesn't see the same images as the dreamer, he sees a third person perspective on the dream, like he is another person in the dream, but one the dreamer is not aware of.  I didn't understand how the people from the dream world got into the tank either.  It also seems like most of our dreams come from our own minds, that only some of the components of our dreams come from the dream dimension, and somehow the scientists could tell with their instruments when a dream world person had invaded an Earth human's dreams.  There is also a hint that the dream people are the souls of Earth people who have died, and that they can return to the Earth as the souls of newborns.  Maybe all this stuff is better explained in the novel I, Aleppo, published three years after The New Mind.

Anyway, I didn't like "I Am Aleppo."


Exploring new frontiers is not always profitable. 

1 comment:

  1. I read one Sohl novel, Costigan's Needle and it was one of the worst pieces of crud I've encountered. A bunch of pretty stupid people get suck in an alternate universe which is devoid of cities etc. And then, they build over 15 years, FROM NOTHING, a device that allows them to get back. While the men are slaving away at the contraption the women go looking for natural substances that will serve as makeup. It made no sense.

    As for the Effinger, I hope one of his works will spark your interest. I am intrigued by the collection Irrational Numbers, but haven't delved in yet. (I like the meta, if it's done well!).