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!

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