Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Back in April I read a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the innumerable famous and important authors I have little familiarity with.  It was a good story, and, in the comments to that blog post, Jesse praised Stevenson's writing style.  So on the weekend I picked up a copy of Treasure Island, complete with the famous 1911 N. C. Wyeth illustrations, at a university library, and this week read it.

Treasure Island first appeared as a serial in a children's magazine in 1881-2.  It includes a poem as a sort of epigraph, admitting that it is an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned way.  Many of our traditional views of pirates seem to come from Stevenson's novel: the parrot on the pirate's shoulder, the song "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum," phrases like, "Shiver me timbers!" etc., and I wonder how many of these ideas were new with Stevenson, and how many he was appropriating from earlier works.  One of the characters in the novel is a Captain Smollett, and I wonder if this name is used to honor Stevenson's fellow Scotsman, novelist Tobias Smollett.  Last year I read Smollett's first novel, Roderick Random (1748), and the metaphorical way some of the characters in Treasure Island use nautical terminology reminded me of the similar practice of a character in Roderick Random.

Treasure Island has been made into many films, but somehow I have never seen any of them, so I had only a vague knowledge of the plot.

Stevenson sets his story in the middle of the 18th century, over a century before he sat down to write it. Our main narrator is Jim Hawkins, a teenage English boy who works at his parents' tiny inn. He comes into possession of a map to buried treasure, which is sought by a party of ruthless pirates.  After evading these pirates (though the inn does not escape being ransacked), Jim teams up with solid establishment figures Dr. Livesey and local squire Mr. Trelawney, and they purchase a ship, hire a crew (including Captain Smollett) and set out to get the treasure. Unfortunately, Mr. Trelawney bungled the hiring, and most of the sailors he has signed on are pirates who are also out to get the treasure; these creeps are led by the charismatic but unscrupulous Long John Silver. Once on the island it's mutiny time, and the middle class types and the minority of decent sailors who remain loyal to them are in a fight to the death with the more numerous pirates. They fight with swords, knives, muskets and pistols; the pirates even bombard our heroes with a small cannon. Jim is right there in the thick of things, enlisting the help of a man who was marooned on the island years ago, firing off pistols and swinging a cutlass in close combat, sneaking aboard the ship and liberating it from the pirates, later getting captured and held as a hostage.

In recent years we've been subjected to a lot of pirate revisionism, with academics trying to convince us to admire pirates because they (allegedly) were democratic and resisted gender norms and practiced racial tolerance. Stevenson isn't trying to sell us any of that; in Treasure Island the pirates are pure evil (Jim at one point calls them "demons") and the most admirable character is a middle-class professional, Dr. Livesey, a physician, magistrate, and British Army combat veteran.   It is true that the pirates in the novel elect their leadership and have various rules and procedures for airing grievances and replacing bad leaders, but the scene in which this is showcased reads like a satire of democracy.  In the course of their "democratic" practice the pirates lie, double deal, deface a Bible, and are easily swayed by the more ruthless and intelligent of their number.

Throughout the book pirates are shown to live anarchic lives, all of them selfish back-stabbers with no respect for authority, no discipline and no thought for the future, while their leaders manipulate them, betray them, even murder them without a second thought.  Their behavior reads like an illustration of the adage, "no honor among thieves."  In contrast, the middle class heroes of the novel, pillars of the establishment with kind words for King George, may make mistakes, but they are honest, disciplined, and always eager to lend a hand to each other and even give individual pirates a second chance.

The pirates commit all manner of mayhem, and all pay for their crimes against humanity, getting shot, trampled by horses, stricken with malaria, or abandoned on the island.  The exception is Long John Silver, who escapes.  Should we doubt that justice will be served, Jim assures us that Silver will almost certainly spend eternity in Hell.

This is a solid and entertaining adventure story, well-written and well-paced.  Stevenson's other novels are definitely on my to-be-read list.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quark/3 (Part3): Harrison, Stanley, Veitch, Bailey, & Vickers

Here we have the concluding episode of my epic reading of Quark/3, a 1971 anthology of experimental SF edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.  Delany and Hacker endeavored to present in Quark/3 stories that were not mere "popular entertainment" or "adventure stories" by "commercial science fiction writers," but rather risk-taking work of speculative fiction that was "politically dangerous" and meaningfully addressed "social, psychological and technological crises" evident in the early 1970s.

The first third of the book contained two good stories, those by R. A. Lafferty and Delany himself, while the second third limped along on the strength of an OK story by Kate Wilhelm and a slightly better tale by Josephine Saxton.  What awaits us in this final third? 

"Ring of Pain" by M. John Harrison

I recently read Harrison's first Viriconium novel, The Pastel City, and thought it alright, nothing special.

In "Ring of Pain" a man wanders through a Central England devastated by war, scavenging food from the ruins.  Not a single building is intact, and not a single live person is to be seen.  Is he the last member of the human race? 

No!  He meets a woman, who is overjoyed to no longer be alone.  She talks of having children with the main character, and our protagonist responds by vomiting and fleeing!  He wants no part of continuing the human race, finds abhorrent the idea of being the Adam of a new civilization which will, no doubt, repeat the grim and catastrophic rise to industrialism and then industrialized, world-shattering war.  The woman eventually catches up with him, and he tries to win her over to his view that they must not procreate.  He fails to convince her, and finds himself unable to resist having sex with her.

The brief final scene I didn't quite understand.  I think a military unit, riding tanks and armed with rifles and bayonets, appears, and somehow this leads to the woman cutting off her breasts.  Or perhaps the main character is reflecting that even the sight of an armored squadron would not discourage the woman from wanting to have children, though if she had her breasts cut off then he would no longer desire her.

This is an acceptable story, even though it is written to be intentionally difficult to follow; there are lots of sentence fragments, I guess to convey the feeling of a world that has been smashed to bits, and get you into the mindset of people who have lived through such a catastrophe.  

"To the Child Whose Birth Will Change the Way the Universe Works" by George Stanley

American-born Canadian poet Stanley won the Poetry Society of America's Shelly Memorial Award in 2006.  "To the Child..." is a two page poem, an adaptation of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue. All you classical scholars out there already know that Eclogue IV was widely interpreted in the Middle Ages as a sort of prediction of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Having been indifferently educated myself, I can't read Latin, but, in preparation for reading Stanley's piece in Quark/3, I took my copy of the Penguin Classics 1980 edition of the Eclogues off the shelf and read Guy Lee's translation of Eclogue IV.

Virgil's poem was written around 40 B. C. (or B. C. E., as we are saying nowadays) to express hope that a marriage alliance between the two successors of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), would end the long period of instability and civil wars that had been wracking the Roman world.  Virgil is praising the prospective child of the union between Mark Antony and Octavian's sister: with his birth will come a new beginning which will see the end of fear and the "iron race" replaced by a "golden" one.  

Stanley updates and Americanizes the poem.  The birth of the child will end the "machine age," and where Virgil mentions Achilles, Stanley mentions George Washington.  Virgil suggests that, with the child as his subject, his poetry will surpass that of Linus, Orpheus and Pan; Stanley says his verse will be the superior of Hart Crane's and Lorca's.

Maybe Stanley sees the assassination of JFK as analogous to the assassination of Caesar, and the 1960s, with such contentious events as the Civil Rights movement and race riots, Vietnam War protests and all the trouble around the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, as analogous to the civil wars and other crises suffered by Romans during the Late Republic.  I can't tell if Stanley is referring to any specific person or event as ending the crisis period, the way Virgil does; a clue that isn't getting me very far on google is that this poem is dedicated to a Brian DeBeck.

"A Sexual Song" by Tom Veitch

Veitch has only three credits at isfdb, one of them a story he co-wrote about Greedo of Mos Eisley Cantina fame.  Veitch has written numerous comic books, including Star Wars comics. 

This story is even more surreal and less coherent than Hill's "Brave Salt."  "A Sexual Song" begins "He dressed in moth skins torn from a beaver's diary..." and in the second paragraph we get, "Print culture seems to be dying this morning because the dead men who occupy those zones cannot provide nourishment to tribal electricians...."  The entire story is like this, incomprehensible nonsense, like the product of playing Mad Libs.  I guess the plot is about a sexual encounter in a post-nuclear war world in which everything is mutated and crazy.


"Twenty-Four Letters from Underneath the Earth" by Hilary Bailey

Bailey, when Quark/3 was published, was married to Michael Moorcock.  This is the first thing I've read by her; she seems to have been quite productive, though much of her work falls outside the SF genre.

After some kind of catastrophe the British populace resorts to living in government-built underground complexes.  Each complex is isolated from the others.  A female technician in one complex discovers a secret means of communicating with other complexes, and starts a surreptitious correspondence with an old acquaintance living in another complex.  The entire text consists of their letters, and through them we learn how human beings are reacting to being confined in the sterile and depressing complexes.  There are many women who insist on having children despite the discouragement of the authorities and a lack of resources.  Children and adolescents get into all kinds of mischief, creating extra work for the technicians and mechanics.  Family relationships collapse and there are pathetic attempts by lonely people to secure some kind of human comfort; the long distance love affair of our two main characters is one example.

A convincing and interesting milieu, actual characters and emotion, and a smooth writing style; Bailey brings to Quark/3 some things which have been in short supply.  After some of the pieces I've endured in Quark/3 it is certainly a relief to encounter a well-written story with some genuine human emotion and a clever SF premise that hearkens back to the tradition of the epistolary novel.  I am proclaiming the oasis that is "Twenty-Four Letters from Underneath the Earth" the best story in the anthology!

"The Coded Sun Game" by Brian Vickers 

The isfdb indicates that "The Coded Sun Game," which is the longest story in Quark/3 (over 60 pages!), constitutes 50% of Brian Vickers's SF output.  Under ordinary circumstances I wouldn't devote the necessary time and energy to reading a 60 page story by a guy I never heard of, especially in an anthology which is full of weak stories, but I am on a mission, and I'm certainly not going to give up with the finish line in sight!

"The Coded Sun Game" is convoluted and difficult, and at times I found it hard to attend.  The narrative is a sort of stream of consciousness of a being who is delusional, suffering from "psychotic hallucinations" that are "compounded of past perceptual experiences."  The narrative is full of pop music references (the names of bands and singers, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and lines from songs like the Doors' "Light My Fire" and The Who's "See Me, Feel Me," pop up at random) and lists (of oil companies, of modern artists, of cities) and is periodically interrupted by science lectures (psychology, biology, solar astronomy) and medical reports.

Paul is a young man (perhaps an alien, perhaps a fallen deity) suffering from the aforementioned "psychotic withdrawal visions."  He is living with an English family near the ocean: Clive Noland, a doctor, his wife Barbra, an artist, and their sexy daughter Michelle.  Paul watches TV, walks on the beach, swims in the pool, has sex with Michelle.  His mental problems seem to be linked to solar radiation; a medical report says his symptoms reach their peak at midday, and the text is full of references to color, sunspots, and solar flares.

The story gets more confusing as it goes on.  In the second half more characters are introduced, and, like in a time travel story, Paul seems to be reliving scenes but as different characters, talking to and fighting with younger versions of himself from the first half of the story. 

I've spent some time flipping through this story, rereading passages and trying to figure it out, but I don't really get it.  Still, I didn't find it offensively bad.

Fun fact: Until I read this story I wasn't familiar with the British slang term for transistor radio, "tranny" or "trannie."  You can imagine my initial puzzlement at the phrase, "Beatles strangled by a trannie."


So there we have it, Quark/3.  It wasn't an easy ride, but let's look at the bright side.  I read a pile of stories by writers totally new to me, and among them are Hilary Bailey and Josephine Saxton, whom I will definitely read again (also, it is notable that the Bailey and Saxton stories have never appeared in any other book, so I'd never have encountered them otherwise.)  Richard Hill's and James Sallis's stories are so crazy I am spurred to read their contributions to Again, Dangerous Visions.

Taken as a whole, the stories were less propagandistic and more experimental in style and form than I had expected.  Gordon Eklund's anti-war story and Kate Wilhelm's overpopulation story felt tired, but most of the writers really did try to do something strange and/or new.   

Finally, let's rank the fiction to be found in Quark/3.  Hilary Bailey comes in first, with Lafferty and Delany close behind, and Saxton a distant fourth.  Then we have a pack of OK tales, followed by a mass of weak stories, and then three certifiable disasters.

Hilary Bailey                            "Twenty-Four Letters from Underneath the Earth"
R. A. Lafferty                          "Encased in Ancient Rind"
Samuel R. Delany                    "Dog in a Fisherman's Net"
Josephine Saxton                     "Nature Boy"

M. John Harrison                     "Ring of Pain"
Kate Wilhelm                           "Where Have You Been Billy Boy, Billy Boy?"
Brian Vickers                           "The Coded Sun Game"

Gordon Eklund                        "Home Again, Home Again"
Virginia Kidd                           "Balls: A Meditation at the Graveside"
Joanna Russ                             "The Zanzibar Cat"

James Sallis                             "Field"
Richard Hill                             "Brave Salt"
Tom Veitch                              "A Sexual Song"

Friday, June 20, 2014

Quark/3 (Part 2): Sallis, Dorman, Wilhelm, Hill, Saxton and Kidd

For some reason (dementia?) I decided to forgo my usual practice of reading one or two stories from an anthology and then consigning the book to the inaccessible recesses of my overstuffed bookcase; instead I am reading every page of Quark Slash Three, the early 1971 issue of a quarterly devoted to experimental SF edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.  Unsurprisingly, R. A. Lafferty was the star of the first leg of my journey into Quark/3, though editor Samuel Delany put in a creditable performance as well. I thought Gordon Eklund's contribution was conventionally bad, while college professor Joanna Russ managed to find a special way to inflict a bad story on me.  Who will be today's standouts as I read the second third of Quark/3?

"Field" by James Sallis

James Sallis mostly seems to write crime stories, as well as books about American music (his bio at the end of Quark Stroke Three indicates he was working on a book on country and western music.) I've never read anything by Sallis before.

"Field" is, I guess, a series of prose poems.  First off we get a bunch of bizarre images and sentence fragments in both first and second person.  On the first page we get "Where this morning the charred bodies of all the women I've loved come floating down the stream outside our window," a line I heard in my mind in the voice of poet Jason Irwin.  This flight of fancy made me laugh, but most of the sections aren't that funny, alas.

One paragraph is a "to do" list with most of the items crossed out, another is the instructions of how to convert your snowmobile into a lawnmower ("Tighten bolts 1-8. (See Diagram 3.)")  There are vignettes about sophisticated writers who live in cramped apartments and can't pay their bills and can't stay true to their lovers.

Not good.

"Vanishing Points" by Sonya Dorman

This is a two page poem about the world being destroyed in a nuclear war: "the world winds up into a cloud...into one massive atom / O man of fire."  At least that is what I think it is about.  There's also a lot about fish and animals, the stars, etc.
This poem is listed as "Vanishing Point" on the table of contents, but the title is plural in the actual text. 

"Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" by Kate Wilhelm 

Years ago I read Kate Wilhelm's The Killer Thing, one of those books in which aliens who share the author's politics force evil humanity to behave, putting an end to our racism, imperialism and strip mining.  I haven't exactly been champing at the bit to read more Wilhelm; this must be the first short story I have ever read by her.

"Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" is a series of brief scenes from a dystopic future, with Wilhelm covering all the typical boring complaints like overpopulation, pollution, TV, consumerism, urban terrorism, international war, etc.  The plot is presented to us out of chronological order, and is a little ambiguous, but I think I have pieced it together.

The world is in turmoil, and little Billy's father, a scientist, testifies to Congress that because of overpopulation, humanity will go extinct unless the government kills half the population ASAP.  His plan is rejected by an influential Southern senator, so Billy's dad conspires to poison the water supply (or something of that nature) to prune the population without the government's OK.  Dad gets caught and imprisoned and lobotomized (or something; Wilhelm keeps everything vague.)  Billy grows up and gets a job at a consumer products firm, while things gets worse around the world, with increasing violent crime, war, and overcrowding.  Billy's father is released from prison and moves in with his son, and, before long, hangs himself.  There is also a subplot I didn't quite get about how Bill is hallucinating that he can shift himself to a world without other people.  I'm also not sure if the sections about Billy as a kid caught up in a riot and the parts about Bill leading a pop band are depicting alternate realities or just different periods of Bill's life. 

Not very good, but better than the Eklund, the Sallis and the Russ.

"Brave Salt" by Richard Hill

I've never even heard of Richard Hill before.  A gander at Hill's file at isfdb suggests that he retired from writing SF after he had a story accepted by Harlan Ellison for Again, Dangerous Visions.

This story is a surrealistic farce in twelve chapters (that's right, 12 chapters in ten pages) about a low-IQ hotel pool lifeguard who participates in a sort of Bay of Pigs style attack on Haiti.  It almost reads like Hill made it up as he went along, or perhaps used the surrealist technique of "automatic writing."  "Brave Salt" is full of references to pop culture figures like Jim Backus, Charlton Heston, and Merv Griffin, and feeble jokes about sex and drugs.  The most memorable joke: members of a band are having anal sex on stage while singing "I've Got You Babe," and then somebody bumps into their amplification equipment and the band is electrocuted to death.

Craziest of all, in the intro to his story in Again, Dangerous Visions, Hill floats the idea of expanding "Brave Salt" into a full length novel!

Suddenly Joanna Russ's story isn't looking so bad.

"Nature Boy" by Josephine Saxton

I've read Saxton's odd contribution to The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but this is the first fiction I have read by her.

This is a story about a mentally ill 40-year-old man who lives with his wealthy mother on a country estate.  He suffers delusions and unbidden, obsessive "daydreams," and feels driven to make "sacrifices" to woodland deities. We learn that he murdered a little girl some years ago in the woods; the tension in the story comes when he takes a walk into these very woods and meets another little girl--will he murder her as well?  The theme of the story seems to be human callousness and cruelty; the little girl and the mental case both kill small animals.

This is a moderately good mainstream crime or realistic horror story; the fact that the murderer believes in spirits, including the spirit of the girl he murdered, perhaps counts as SF content.     

Advertisement for The Science Fiction Book Club

Bound in the center of the book is an ad for the Science Fiction Book Club, highlighting the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg, but also offering a dozen other books at low low prices.  One wonders how many of these books would pass the Delany/Hacker test of "meaningfully addressing crises" and "being politically dangerous."  (I have a feeling my man ERB wouldn't be passing this test.)

"Balls: A Meditation at the Graveside" by Virginia Kidd

Kidd is a very important literary agent, but I never have read any of her fiction.   

"Balls" is the biography of a successful Hollywood screenwriter who is obsessed with Walt Disney and Disney productions.  I guess this is a satire of American culture and society, perhaps in particular of Hollywood; at one point the protagonist declares, "I'm a real American success."  It feels tired and tedious, long and boring.  As you expect in a story about a Hollywood habitue the screenwriter has numerous divorces and sees a shrink.  Maybe Kidd is trying to tell us that Americans live in a fantasy world and are disconnected from the real world, that they care more about TV and celebrities than flesh and blood people they know.  Also maybe Americans are obsessed with success and happiness, but work too hard to really enjoy success and achieve happiness.

The SF content consists of the writer having the delusion that the universe is sending him (essentially useless) messages or signals via everyday sounds or hallucinatory images.  For example, the writer tells himself he should be happy, as he has "got it made," and then he sees a vision of a topless girl; this is a "tit maid."  A phone rings unexpectedly in the therapist's office and the doctor answers it, "Hello." Our hero figures this is a message in reverse, that the universe is saying to him, "Oh, Hell."



Cripes, doesn't look so hot, does it?  The Saxton story is marginally good, the Wilhelm is OK, the rest are poor or bad.

Well, there are several more selections in Quark/3, maybe in the third and final leg of my journey the anthology will make a comeback.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Quark/3 (Part 1): Penney, Delany, Hacker, Simpson, Lafferty, Eklund, La Vigne & Russ

I'm always impressed when tarbandu or Joachim Boaz reads an entire anthology or collection and opines about each story.  They have a willpower and open-mindedness I lack.  My standard operating procedure with anthologies is to read the pieces by authors I know I like and then toss them aside.  I have a short attention span, and I am very picky, and scrupulously avoid authors and stories I have reason to expect will be boring or irritating. These "reasons" range from having read the author before, to vague impressions and subconscious feelings that I call "my spider sense" and other people would probably call "irrational prejudice" or "unconstitutional profiling."

I had a good experience reading the entire contents of Novelets of Science Fiction, an anthology of 1950s SF stories edited by Ivan Howard and printed in the 1960s, and so I have decided to read another anthology cover to cover.  To really up the degree of difficulty, as people who watch the Olympics say, I am throwing caution to the winds and have selected Quark/3 to be the subject of this experiment.  Quark/3 is the third in a series of anthologies (styled an "original review" and a "quarterly of speculative fiction") of new stories and art edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker in the early 1970s.  Quark/3 was printed in May of 1971, mere months before my own birth.  I purchased it recently at a used bookstore in Mankato, Minnesota which does not accept credit cards; luckily I was able to get cash across the street at Walgreens.

Quark/3 definitely has my spider sense tingling; is this volume going to be 230 agonizing pages of semi-intelligible denunciations of our sexist, racist, imperialist, consumerist and polluting (pollutist?) bourgeois society?  I bought this book for the Lafferty story, and my instincts are telling me to read that story and then forget all about Quark/3, but on TV they are always telling you to "get outside your comfort zone," and if you can't find wisdom in TV cliches, where can you find it?  So, off we go.

Cover Painting by Roger Penney

I actually like the wraparound cover by Roger Penney, which I guess you could call "primitivist surrealism" or maybe "naive surrealism."  I'm throwing "primitive" and "naive" in there because the painting lacks the polish and technique you see in, say, Salvador Dali.  (It's fun to play amateur art historian.)  A few minutes on Google suggests Penney's oeuvre consists of paintings of buildings that look like women and this piece is no exception.  

Forward by Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker

I don't know much about Wittgenstein.  I like the Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Spinoza, that kind of thing; Wittgenstein is beyond me.  In grad school I knew a woman who was an expert on Wittgenstein; I am terrible at remembering names, and so, in my mind, and when I tell people stories about her, I just call her "Wittgenstein."  Wittgenstein and I would have dumb arguments about Christopher Hitchens, and when she was moving out of the dorms she gave me pretentious hardcover copies of Moby Dick, Don Quixote, and a collection of P. G. Wodehouse stories.  I love Melville, Cervantes, and Wodehouse, but I already had (cheap) copies of these books and tried to refuse them, but she insisted.  Due to a categorically imperative need for cash, I sold them to the Strand.

Anyway, Delany and Hacker start their forward with an epigraph from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which argues that fictional worlds inevitably have something in common with the real world.  Delany and Hacker, apparently participating in a dialogue with those whom they term "commercial science fiction writers" (Delany and Hacker represent "experimental speculative fiction writers") go on to insist that "adventure stories" are useless because they have no chance of inspiring the reader to political action.  In a neat piece of ju jitsu, Delany and Hacker claim that SF writers who say they are not experimenting because they want to entertain the audience are in fact cheating their audience, because they are limiting themselves; if they truly were dedicated to entertaining the audience, they would employ "the full range of aesthetic discipline."  (I said "neat," not "convincing.")  As examples, they point out Uncle Tom's Cabin and Babbit as the two most revolutionary books produced by American authors; neither of them, we are told, is an adventure; they are "social chronicles."  Delany and Hacker further argue that SF writers must be encouraged to experiment as much as possible.

They don't quite come out and say it, but I get the impression that our editors aspire to publish, in Quark/3, stories which are not "popular entertainment" but instead are "politically dangerous fiction" and "view meaningfully the social, psychological, and technological crises present."  I'll keep this in mind as I read the stories, and if you see me next week throwing a brick through the window of a Starbucks, well, you'll know why. 

"Continuous Landscape" by Donald Simpson

Six pages of the paperback are occupied by a drawings of a craggy, stalagmite-like landscape by Donald Simpson.  These are pleasant.  I don't know how they fit into Delany and Hacker's theory that art should make you uneasy and drive you to social action; maybe there are no living things in the landscape because we have despoiled the environment?

"Encased in Ancient Rind" by R. A. Lafferty

Here's the story that I bought this book for.  It has been anthologized and collected in various places, but its first appearance was in Quark/3 and this is the first book I've encountered which includes it.

In its first paragraph we learn the story is about apocalyptic air pollution.  In the second and third paragraphs Lafferty promises us the story is not as banal as we expect:

                          "Aw dog dirt, not another air-pollution piece," you say.

                          Oh come off of it. You know us better than that.

Air pollution kills many people and exterminates many species, but the strongest survive.  The increased carbon in the atmosphere then causes an impenetrable cloud to form around the Earth, what Lafferty calls a "canopy."  In this new environment some species, including the minority of humans who have survived, thrive, growing larger and longer-lived.  Lafferty suggests jocularly that cutting off the Earth from radiation recreates conditions of the past, with lizards growing into simulacra of dinosaurs, horses growing into creatures like the Baluchitherium, and humans changing to resemble Neanderthals.  People, now able to live for centuries, begin to think the new dark world under the canopy is more "efficient" than the 20th century world of blue skies, and eventually forget, willfully, that there was a time when the canopy wasn't there.

Lafferty seems to be saying that whatever the conditions, life will adapt, and that every situation has good and bad points, that every change is good for some and bad for others.  Also, that our view or the world, our attitude to conditions, is largely up to our choice, even if it is beyond our power to control or predict what is going on. 

"Encased in Ancient Rind" is entertaining, throwing a surprising concept and various interesting images at you.  It certainly seems that Lafferty has thought "meaningfully" about various social and technological crises, though I don't think this story is "politically dangerous" or will spur anyone to social action.

"Home Again, Home Again" by Gordon Eklund

I don't think I've ever read anything by Gordon Eklund, though I have a book of his on the shelf.  This story is, unfortunately, the kind of thing I expected to find in Quark/3, a ham-handed story about how war changes a person and makes it hard for him to return to civilian society. 

A nameless soldier, simply called "The Vet," returns from a war in outer space against aliens known as "Bugs" (a reference to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, one presumes.)  The Vet lost his face in battle, and has an artificial face that is not at all like his original face, and cannot express emotion.  He returns to his home town after ttwenty years away, where all the houses look the same and everybody is out of work because of machines.  Nobody wants to talk about the war with him (they'd rather talk about their boring everyday concerns) and The Vet goes bonkers and goes on a rampage.  He stabs his sister with a fork, murders his girlfriend (who had an affair with a musician who read Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann while the Vet was out in space immolating scores of the alien Bugs) sets fire to the local gas station, and kills a dozen other people.  Then the "investigators" with their robot dogs catch up with The Vet, and it is revealed that this was a test to see if a soldier could readapt to civilian life-- all the people The Vet murdered were just androids and the town is just a set.  Having failed the test, The Vet is taken to an asylum.

Eklund lards the story with ambiguity.  The Vet claims to have known the androids were not real people, and says he could have passed the test if he wanted.  It also seems that The Vet didn't just return from the war, that the war ended a century ago and The Vet has been in an asylum all this time.  Everything in the story is open to question, because The Vet is insane and everything the investigators and androids say could be a lie; it seems possible the Bug war is a delusion.    

This story feels tired, both the war-made-this-guy-nutso premise, and the twist at the end.  Maybe I'm being unfair, maybe Eklund was a pioneer of the Vietnam-vet-goes-crazy genre, or maybe this story is supposed to be a subversion of that genre, but nothing in the story felt fresh or interesting, and there's nothing about Eklund's writing style that elevates the story into something engaging or entertaining.


"Dog in a Fisherman's Net" by Samuel R. Delany

I've read a few things by Delany, most recently Empire Star, and my feelings are mixed.  The cognoscenti are much more enthusiastic about him than I am,; there's a lot of talk about hi Nova (which I read and can barely remember a thing about) being one of the best SF novels of all time, for example.

This story takes place in the 1960s, on a Greek island inhabited by fishermen and, up in the hills, pagan goatherds.  In a freak accident, a man is killed while he is repairing a fishing net--a dog gets mixed up in the net, tangling the net around the man and his knife, and when people try to kill the dog all the thrashing around drives the knife through his throat.  The dead man's brother has sad flashbacks that illuminate the lives of poverty and ignorance lived by people on the island.  He decides to leave the island.

This is a reasonably good mainstream literary story; there are interesting characters, things happen which engage your emotions, Delany has a good style.  The SF content, such as it is, is related to the conflict between the Greek Orthodox fishermen and the goatherds, who have some kind of matriarchal society up in the hills where they worship a pagan goddess with a secret name (perhaps she is a Minoan Snake Goddess) and women have multiple husbands.  The superstitious Christians are afraid to swim in a bay where a pagan statue of the goatherd's deity is submerged, and the goatherds have a dance Christians are forbidden to see.  The fisherman whose brother died in the weird accident decides to move to the mainland after swimming in this bay and seeing the black statue of the goddess, fishermen's nets snagged about it.

Is this story "politically dangerous?"  Maybe "Dog in a Fisherman's Net" is about outsiders, the "other," and how such people try to escape their subordinate or inferior condition. The Christians look down on (but also fear) the pagans, women in the fishing village are under the thumb of men, a girl is born with light hair and her parents try to hide this from the dark-haired populace, a teacher humiliates an ignorant student and the student refuses to return to school, British and French archaeologists cart Greek treasures off to Paris, etc.

A good story; paradoxically, it appears to be one of the more conventional stories in the book.

Twelve Drawings by Robert La Vigne  

Twelve pages of the book are taken up by silly doodles by Robert La Vigne.  In this book there is a space between the "La" and the "Vigne," but a few minutes on Google suggests this is some kind of error, and the artist's name is usually written "LaVigne."

"The Zanzibar Cat" by Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ is one of those authors I've avoided despite the praise she receives.  I've spent enough time with feminist college professors in real life; I'm not going out of my way to read fiction by feminist college professors.  So this is my first direct experience of Russ's work.  

"The Zanzibar Cat" is a solipsistic and recursive feminist fairy tale.  I guess it is supposed to be funny, and to remind you that stories aren't real, in the way the famous "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting by Magritte is supposed to remind you that a painting is just a reproduction, not the thing it represents.  Maybe "The Zanzibar Cat" is also supposed to be a celebration of women writers and their ability to write stories that celebrate women writers?  The story is also an homage to British writer Hope Mirrlees, whom I've never read.  (I only know this because of the "The Zanzibar Cat"'s French subtitle.)  Maybe the style is an imitation of Mirrlees's?

Anyway, the story goes like this: the land of Appletap-on-Flat is haunted by a ghost.  An army marches from Appletap-on-Flat's largest city, Appletap-cum-Cumber, over the Merry Marches and the Meaning Mountains to Fairyland, to confront the ghost.  A young woman accompanies the army as a camp follower.  When they meet the ghost the young woman defeats him by willing him out of existence; the young woman, we learn in the last line, is Joanna Russ, author of the story.

As a kid, I never liked the Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the characters knew they were in a cartoon and would complain directly to the animator (I guess I'm thinking of "Duck Amuck" and "Rabbit Rampage") or that Tom and Jerry cartoon, "The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit," that pokes fun at the whole idea of making a cartoon about cat versus mouse violence.  And I don't like "The Zanzibar Cat," either.  When I invest time in reading a story I expect the author to make an effort to entertain me or tell me something interesting, not jab me in the ribs and say, "This isn't real, dummy, why are you wasting your time reading this?"  Besides that, the story felt long, with long sentences and long paragraphs full of lists and extraneous detail.

"The Zanzibar Cat" meets Delany and Hacker's dicta that a story should give discomfort and precipitate action; the action I am considering is refusing to read any more Russ stories.


So, there we have the first 74 pages of Quark/3.  The Lafferty and the Delany pieces are worthwhile stories, while the Eklund is a poor story.  The Russ isn't even a story, but a postmodern trick.  Let's hope the Lafferty and Delany stories are representative of the remaining components of the anthology.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cyrion by Tanith Lee

In 1979 and 1980 British writer Tanith Lee wrote six short stories about a fantasy adventurer named Cyrion who "resembles an angel" with his hair "blonde as ice," face handsome and attire tasteful.  These stories appeared in sword and sorcery anthologies and SF periodicals, and in 1982 were collected by DAW, along with new framing material, a new short story and a new 110 page novella, in a 304-page paperback.  I recently purchased a battered copy of this paperback, Cyrion, DAW No. 499.  It includes a frontispiece map which was apparently drawn by Lee herself.  One wonders if DAW paid Lee extra for this.

Lee's setting appears to be largely inspired by the Eastern Mediterranean during the period of the Crusades; there are white-skinned people from "the West," the people in the coastal cities are olive-skinned, and the people of the desert are swarthy; there is a religious order of knights from the West which wields considerable political influence; the landscape is dotted with ancient ruins of an imperial people famous for their love of bathing and their mighty legions; and so forth.  To this realistic milieu Lee adds wizards, ghosts, and demons. 

Cyrion, our hero, is a pale Westerner who has spent much time among the desert nomads, so Lee can write him as a well-dressed city sophisticate in one story and in the next as a veteran traveler clad in a plain robe and well-versed in desert lore and the aphoristic wisdom of the desert people. Cyrion is a superlative swordsman and extremely fast and agile (again and again he moves "like lightning") but he resolves the challenges he faces in these stories with cunning, quick thinking, and trickery.  He is a genius detective and a master of disguise, and some of the stories have the form of a murder mystery or a traditional gothic novel.

These stories are good and I liked them, but I didn't love them ("One Night of the Year" and "Cyrion in Bronze" come closest to the "love" level.)  The prologues and "interlogues" are meant to be funny and include slapstick, with people spilling wine and tripping and so forth.  Most of the actual Cyrion stories are lacking in tension because Cyrion is so self-confident and insouciant that you never get the feeling that he is in danger.  With a few exceptions, the episodes in the book are light-hearted; I prefer adventure stories that generate tension and fear, and a sense of accomplishment or relief when the plot is resolved.  Cyrion often effortlessly outwits his foes in a way that reminded me of Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker.

So, what actually happens to Cyrion in these stories?  If you are curious, read on!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Derai by E. C. Tubb

In his essay in praise of Leigh Brackett, "Queen of the Martian Mysteries," Michael Moorcock tells us that E.C. Tubb's Dumarest books are "excellent," and were inspired by Brackett's own planetary romances about Eric John Stark.  So when I saw Tubb's Derai at a used bookstore (the 1968 Ace Double, combined with Juanita Coulson's The Singing Stones) I picked it up.  This weekend I read Derai, and was quite pleased with it; it is an entertaining and engaging adventure tale.

My Ace edition has a cover and a frontispiece by Jeff Jones that lead you to expect the novel to be about ancient or medieval people who fight with swords, Conan-style.  This is misleading; there is quite a bit of hand to hand combat in the book, but Derai is set in a high tech civilization with space ships and laser rifles where people cultivate and exploit alien life forms and can manipulate the human brain.

In the far future mankind has colonized innumerable planets.  There is no central government, each planet handling its own business, and most people have either never heard of Earth, or think Earth is just a myth.  Dumarest is a wanderer who travels the universe, hoping to find clues as to the whereabouts of Earth, which he left as a child.

In Derai, the second of the 33 (!) volumes in the Dumarest saga, Dumarest is hired to escort a beautiful young woman on a space flight back to her home world.  This woman, named Derai, is a timorous aristocrat with the ability to read minds.  On Derai's home planet, Hive, Dumarest gets involved in the cloak and dagger conflicts between the world's ruling noble houses and between the prominent members of Derai's house, who are vying for control of the house.  Because of his outsider status and because his abilities are in demand, Dumarest closely interacts with all levels of Hive society: the nobles, the business class, and the workers and peasants.  He also deals with a monk who is part of an interstellar religious order, and a member of the Cyclan, an interstellar group of people who forsake all emotion and physical pleasures to be trained to act as organic computers, capable of predicting future events.

Frontispiece by Jeff Jones
The climax of the novel comes on a third planet, where Dumarest has to enter a gladiatorial race through an obstacle course.  This third section of the book held surprises for me; instead of simply dwelling on the details of the fight through the maze, Tubb uses it as an opportunity for some character-based drama, as Derai and another woman, both of them in love with Dumarest, try to keep him out of the horrendously dangerous competition.

Derai is a good story of adventure and intrigue, full of fights and backhanded plots, but also full of interesting SF ideas-- techniques of space travel, odd human cultures, strange alien animals and ecosystems, a means of prolonging life that has dire side effects, and the Cyclan.  Tubb's style is good, and all the characters are sympathetic or interesting, with motivations that we can understand.  Their relationships and actions all make sense--the characters aren't just cardboard enemies for Dumarest to knock over and female props for Dumarest to rescue.  I actually cared about Derai's relationship with Dumarest, and about who took over Derai's noble house, and I was legitimately curious about what the Cyclan was up to.

This is an entertaining SF adventure; Moorcock hasn't steered me wrong.  I will be keeping my eyes open for more books by Tubb, and look forward to reading more about Dumarest and his travels throughout the galaxy.   

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cycle of Nemesis by Kenneth Bulmer

In early 2013 I read Kenneth Bulmer's 1965 novel Behold the Stars.  At a used bookstore in Lexington, South Carolina I paid one dollar for the 1966 Mayflower Dell paperback, which across the pond, in the mother country of jolly ole England, back in the Swinging '60s, went for three shillings and six pence, guvnah.  Notwithstanding the cover illustration, just about the worst and least ambitious I have ever seen on a paperback, I liked Behold the Stars, it having an interesting take on space travel and space warfare. 

Curious to read more of Bulmer's work, I recently purchased the Ace paperback of 1967's Cycle of Nemesis, which has an exciting Kelly Freas cover.  This week I read the 190 page novel.

Our story begins a few centuries in the future.  The solar system and the ocean floor have been colonized.  The human race is at peace under a world government, but a terrible threat looms, and almost nobody knows about it!

Hall Brennan is a sort of upper-middle class archaeologist adventurer type.  He has discovered that, 7000 years ago, a high civilization flourished in what is today Iraq.  A horrible monster, Khamushkei the Undying, utterly destroyed this civilization, but the last survivors of this doomed society were able to imprison the unkillable monster in a "Time Vault" that would contain it for 7000 years.

Realizing that Khamushkei is about to escape and destroy human civilization a second time, Brennan makes it his life's work to find the Time Vault and deal with the creature.  Brennan is joined in his quest by some other upper-middle class types he meets at an auction at an old aristocratic house in the English countryside.  Khamushkei is aware of their doings, and sends monsters from Mesopotamian myth (lamassu and utukku) to kill them.  When the adventurers easily defeat the monsters with their ray guns (future England has abandoned all that gun control jazz, apparently) Khamushkei uses his powers to snatch the party and transport them through space and time.  Khamushkei whisks them to a series of different eras and locations, one after another, where the British travellers face monsters, aliens, ancient Assyrians, earthquakes, tornadoes, and crocodiles.  (Khamushkei never thinks to transport them a mile up in the air so they fall to their deaths, or a mile under the Pacific so they drown, I guess.)  Finally, one of Brennan's comrades gets to the Time Vault where he reads a spell and Khamushkei is imprisoned for another 7000 years.

This book is quite poor.  The plot is a little weak; it feels like Bulmer carefully planned out the beginning and end, and they do mesh together (our heroes see visions of themselves at the auction in the first chapter, and when they return to the auction at the end of the book they realize what these visions signify) but then just stuffed the long middle of the book with a jumble of disjointed and tedious episodes in order to reach a particular page count.  The characters are boring and I didn't care which of them lived or died.  Most crippling is the style; there are feeble jokes and many of the sentences are long and burdened with extraneous details and clumsy metaphors.  Here are two sentences from early in the proceedings that had me grimacing:

"The shaky old lady against whom I had been bidding turned laboriously in her chair to see her competitor, her silks and nylons and strings of beads hampering her movements, her yellow old face like that of a bird inquiring of the bird table in the garden, and before she could make up her mind whether to go on or not the hammer fell in sonorous sealment."  (30)

"The butter rich slabs of sunshine that lay across the carpet in Pomfret's lounge and dazzled from his windows, the fresh air, the sound of birds, the scents of early flowers drifting in across those sunbeams, all these homely natural comforting things chilled as Brennan began to speak."  (34)

I think I'm a generous reader, willing to forgive weaknesses in a story or novel if it has compensating good points, but with Cycle of Nemesis I couldn't find a single thing to hold on to, so reading it was a boring chore.  I have no choice but to give Cycle of Nemesis a thumbs down; it is unlikely I will be reading any more Kenneth Bulmer novels soon.   

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Last of the Novelets: Blish and Clarke

At this here blog we've been reading Novelets of Science Fiction, a paperback anthology of early 1950s stories published first in 1963 (I have the 1967 printing.)  In a spirit of friendly competition we will be crowning the writer of the best novelet, and so far Poul Anderson is in the lead.  But we have high hopes for today's contenders, James Blish, my fellow Jersey boy and Rutgers alum, and Arthur C. Clarke, writer, explorer, and TV and film icon.

"Testament of Andros" by James Blish (1953)

If you've been following my investigation of Novelets of Science Fiction you won't be surprised to learn, despite claims on the front and back cover of the book, that "Testament of Andros" appeared in a paperback collection of Blish stories in 1961 entitled So Close to Home.

"Testament of Andros" is the craziest and most experimental of the stories in Novelets of Science Fiction.  It consists of five first-person narratives, each told by a male with a name that is a variant of "Andrew," and each in part about the narrator's relationship with a female whose name is a variant of "Margaret."  These narratives all take place on an alternate Earth (among other things, it has 12 continents and its version of Wagner wrote an opera titled Tristan and Messalina) which is devastated by a solar flare that kills the majority of life on the planet.

Each of the stories details human unhappiness, and most of them feature some kind of injustice or depravity.  A scientist believes a grad student is taking credit for his research and having an affair with his wife, so he murders the student.  A working class orphan grows up to be a rapist and murderer and dies in prison when the solar flare hits.  An eight-year-old child who fantasizes about being a space hero tries to come to terms with his unhappy family and school life as well as the solar flare.  Some of the narratives take a dim view of religion, suggesting that organized religion has failed to comfort and guide people, while one of them is written by an insane person who claims to have seen God and has started his own religion.

This is a good "literary" story that reminded me of the kind of experimental work we associate with the New Wave of ten or more years later.  It tackles religion, psychology, gender relations, the family, economics, all that heavy stuff.

"The Possessed" by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

This six page story in which Clarke ponders why lemmings sometimes jump to their deaths en masse is gimmicky and forgettable.   It was included in a 1956 paperback, Reach for Tomorrow.

A non-corporeal life form, parasitic in nature, is floating through space, looking for an intelligent species to serve as its host.  After millions of fruitless years of searching it lands on Earth during the Age of Reptiles.  With no intelligent hosts available, the creature opts for a desperate expedient: it will split in two parts, one portion remaining on Earth, the other half continuing the search.  Should the space-going half find an attractive host species somewhere else in the universe, it will return with the good news.  The two halves agree on a meeting place, which the Earthbound portion of the creature will return to periodically.

The Earthbound portion of the alien colonizes the minds of small mammals in hopes they will evolve intelligence.  Instead, they evolve into lemmings.   Millions of years in non-intelligent hosts takes a toll, and the parasite creature grows weaker and weaker until it is essentially dead.  The lemmings, however, retain an instinctive need to periodically return to the meeting place, an instinct which overrides any thought of safety, and the fact that the meeting place is now underwater.

This story is inoffensive, so I would grade it "OK" or "acceptable," but it has zero feeling and no characters or plot--it is just an odd speculation.


It's time to rate the eight "superlative" stories found in Novelets of Science Fiction and crown a King of the Novelets!

James Blish put in a good showing, but I have to judge him our rummer up--which means Poul Anderson, with his story, "The Chapter Ends," is King of the Novelets!  "The Chapter Ends" has multiple interesting SF ideas, emotional content, characters who make big decisions, and memorable images, and actually made me consider what I would do and how I would feel in the situations he describes.  So, congrats to Poul.

Simak and Clarke's stories are sort of one note idea tales, lacking in plot or feeling, and so they bring up the rear.  Frank Belknap Long's "Night Fear" is also vulnerable to the charge that it is just an idea and not really a story, but I found the idea interesting and I think Long's piece had some added human drama.

Our three violent adventure stories, by Del Rey, Lesser and de Camp, make up the middle of the pack.  Each has its own charm; Del Rey has his ponderings about politics and free will, Lesser his hard-boiled stylings, and De Camp has his mediocre jokes.

Here are our rankings:

Winner                        Poul Anderson              "The Chapter Ends"
Runner Up                  James Blish                   "The Testament of Andros"
3rd place                     Frank Belknap Long     "Night Fear"
4th place                     Lester Del Rey              "I Am Tomorrow"
5th place                     Milton Lesser                "'A' as in Android"
6th place                     L. Sprague de Camp     "Ultrasonic God"
7th place                     Clifford Simak              "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free"
8th place                     Arthur C. Clarke           "The Possessed"  

Novelets of Science Fiction is a good collection; none of the stories were bad.  A worthwhile purchase for those, like me, interested in 1950s SF!    

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Second Wave of Novelets: Simak, Long and Del Rey

The self-proclaimed "Book of the Year" strikes again--here are three more selections from 1963's Novelets of Science Fiction, a collection of 1950s tales from "modern masters of science fiction."  In our last episode, Poul Anderson took the lead in the race to be finest novelet; let's see if Clifford Simak, Frank Belknap Long or Lester del Rey can knock him off his perch.

"...And the Truth Shall Make You Free" by Clifford Simak (1953)

The text on the front and back of Novelets of Science Fiction claims that the stories it contains never before appeared in paperback.  Maybe this kind of claim would go unchallenged in 1963, when this anthology first appeared, but today even lazy people like myself have the isfdb at our fingertips and we can try to  keep the boys in the advertising department honest.  According to the isfdb, this story appeared in Strangers in the Universe, a 1957 paperback collection of Simak stories, but under a variant title, "The Answers."  Very sneaky!

Simak is one of those guys who is always down on humanity.  In his stories, robots, aliens, dogs, ants, whatever, are proven to be superior to humans.  And if there are no bugs or droids to compare us to, Simak will claim that primitive rural or nomadic human societies are better than industrialized urban human societies.  If you aren't buying what Simak is selling, you call him a misanthropic anti-Western luddite.  If you are buying it, you call him "science fiction's premier pastoralist."      

In "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free" a space ship lands near an abandoned village (Simak takes pains to point out that it is not an arrogant disruptive city, but a village) and four beings, representatives of a multicultural galactic civilization, step out.  There is an alien called a Globe, who floats around.  There is a Human, and a Dog (by the time this story takes place dogs have achieved the ability to talk) and a Spider (as with canines, arachnids are also the equal or superior of humans in this story.)  The dog still seems kindly disposed to humanity, but the spider seems to hold a grudge against us, maybe because of all that Raid we've been spraying on his ancestors.

The village was built by a mutant strain of humans who were better than the run of the mill humans like you and me, who, we are told, only just barely qualified for membership in the galactic civilization and are good for nothing but making machines.  His three comrades fly back into space, but the human remains to explore, and eventually finds the superior strain of human beings.  Long ago they deserted the village to live on isolated farms.  They spend all their time working the land, and, in their free time, they sit on their porches and gossip (we are assured this is "kindly" gossip.)  This is Simak's idea of paradise.

The galactic human senses that these people are happy because they know some great Truth with a capital "T."  He lives with them and works the land with them for some time, and eventually they reveal to him this great Truth--that the universe has no purpose and life has no significance.

This is more of an idea than a story.  It is interesting that Simak sees the absolute refutation of religion as the foundation of a stable and happy society instead of as a cause for despair, terror, and chaos, as many others have.  But not very interesting.

Simak is an able writer and he gets right to the point, and the Truth came as a surprise to me (I expected the Truth to be "be kind" or something like that) so I'm going to grade "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free" as "acceptable."

"Night Fear" by Frank Belknap Long (1953)

Frank Belknap Long has a good reputation, but in late 2011 I read his novel Survival World and was bewildered by how terrible it was.  (My one star Amazon review can be found here.)  Maybe that novel is not a characteristic sample of his body of work?

"Night Fear" is based on the idea that Lunar colonists might construct a base with artificial gravity, artificial sunlight, and a whole array of devices to create the convincing illusion they are living on Earth.  The moon colonists in this story go so far as to fool kids into believing they are on Earth until their eighth birthdays.  In the story a seven-year-old is broken-hearted when he figures out the truth.  Long keeps the reader in the dark as to what the secret is until the sixth and final page, and I actually was surprised; I thought they were on Earth and the secret was that the little boy and his mother were aliens or robots living a lie among real humans.

The story works, and the idea that living on the Moon is such a hell that you would keep it from your kids is an interesting contrast to the optimism of Robert Heinlein's work, in which space colonists (in "The Menace From Earth" or The Rolling Stones, for example) quickly develop robust and proud societies imbued with patriotism.  

I liked "Night Fear," but don't ask me how a six-page story qualifies as a "novelet."        

Cover illustrates the Alfred Coppel story
"I Am Tomorrow" by Lester del Rey (1952)

Of all the stories in Novelets of Science Fiction this is the one I faced with the most trepidation.  (I know, First World problems.  The kids are still saying that, right?)  It is long, 45 pages, and when I recently read Del Rey's "Nerves" I found it to be kind of a drag.  You can believe I groaned when I realized this story is about a US politician who aspires to the presidency; I was afraid this story would follow an election campaign.  Fictional election campaigns bore me to death.  I was relieved when the story turned out to be a crazy time travel and civil war story full of horrible violence.

Tom Blake is an idealistic politician who just won election as Governor of an unnamed state.  His brother James is a genius inventor, who has developed a ray pistol with an integrated force field.  Tom and James want to distribute the pistol widely, believing that if every man is armed with one then peace and equality will result.  Did A. E. Van Vogt or Robert Heinlein ghost write this story?

Before Tom even has a chance to celebrate winning the gubernatorial election people from 40 years in the future suck his mind out of his brain and implant it in the body of Jed, a working class schlub who happens to be the fastest shot of the year 2000!  Tom's mind has been captured by the police force of the dictator who rules the entire world 40 years in the future.  Who is this dictator?  Tom's older self!

The rebels who are always trying to overthrow year 2000 Tom rescue Jed without realizing Jed's body is now inhabited by 1960 Tom's mind.  Jed is given the job of assassinating year 2000 Tom during the next uprising.  Tom (1960 version) isn't sure which group is worse, world dictator Tom and his Iron Guard or the rebels, and Del Rey doesn't make it clear which side the reader is supposed to sympathize with.  The uprising fails, 1960 Tom flubs his shot at 2000 Tom, and lots of people get killed.  Del Rey doesn't romanticize the fighting, but rather includes lots of friendly fire incidents and gory wounds in order to make the reader doubt the uprising is worth it.

This story isn't bad.  Besides all the shooting and mind transference and time travel there is quite a bit of talk about time paradoxes and rumination about free will.  If the story has a "point" it seems to be to debunk morality: we aren't really responsible for our actions because everything is determined, and idealism has to be tempered by realism.  Del Rey ascribes both positive and negative attributes to both the dictator and the rebels, and suggests both sides are acting reasonably in response to the circumstances Del Rey puts them in.  One character who admits to being consciously amoral is not denounced, and all the other characters in the story become less moral and idealistic as the story progresses, but we still get a happy ending.

Not a great story, but definitely better than "Nerves."


All three of these stories have some entertainment value, have somewhat odd points of view, and can surprise the reader, so I think all three are worth reading.  But none of them is very good, and I don't think any of them is superior to Poul Anderson's "The Chapter Ends."

In our next installment we look at the final two stories in Novelets of Science Fiction, those of James Blish and Arthur C. Clarke, and make our final determination of who is king of the novelets!