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.


  1. I have vague memories of reading Quark 3 sometime back in high school, maybe '80 - '81. The image on the cover brings back the tactile memory of standing in front of the wall heater in thermal longjohns with the book balanced on the the end of my trombone case. So perhaps "Encased in Ancient Rind" is the first Lafferty story I ever read--before he became my favorite author. I do love the story, especially the way he addresses the reader at the beginning, almost scolding us for an opinion he imagines, only to deliver on his promise of originality beautifully. Whatever political spin you read into it, it does say that our actions on the environment have consequences. I've always read it also as a cautionary tale about the loss of a sense of adventure and initiative.

    I remember "Home Again, Home Again" clearly, though I have not re-read it since. I remember liking his use of the rhythmic device--kind of pacing the story with a drum-like beat of "home again, home again, jiggety jig." Perhaps it was the first soldier-coming-home-going-berserk story I'd read. I remember thinking it was clever. Oddly enough, I was reminded of its rhythmic device some years later when I first read Alfred Bester's story "Fondly Fahrenheit."

    I remember having trouble slogging through "Dog in a Fisherman's Net"--perhaps I was too young. I reservedly like Delany. At his best, he's magnificent, and his prose styling is unmatched. My favorite of his stories is either "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-precious Stones" or "The Star Pit" I tend not to like his more fantasy-oriented stuff, and I probably should revisit his more mainstream work like "Dog in a Fisherman's Net."

    I remember the title of "The Zanzibar Cat" but I have no memory of the story. None whatsoever. Perhaps I skipped over it. I have found the few Joanna Russ stories I have read to be too dark for my taste, but I have read so few that I can't say I've read a good sample. The one I remember, "Nobody's Home," I remember as masterfully crafted but chillingly depressing.

    The drawings, I also vaguely remember. They were not outre or uncommon for their day, at least not to me, a kid raised on R. Crumb and "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers." They kind of reminded me of a cross between Yellow Submarine and the cover illustrations from books like Another Roadside Attraction which were sitting around the house in those years.

    Again, thank you for your reviews!

    1. As a kid I would have definitely liked "Dog in a Fisherman's Net" less ("What, this is a story about a guy who decides to move? Shouldn't a vampire or sea monster be attacking the fishing village?") and "Home Again, Home Again" more (I would have loved the violence at the same time I thought it a profound anti-war statement.)

      The LaVigne drawings really are reminiscent of Yellow Submarine.

      Thanks for the interesting comments and the kind words!

  2. "The Russ isn't even a story, but a postmodern trick." -- so, like the majority of Malzberg's novels ;)

  3. Malzberg can definitely get solipsistic, and sometimes he certainly does what Russ does in "The Zanzibar Cat" (writes a SF story that is a critique of SF stories) but I don't recall ever feeling like Malzberg had tricked me.