Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vengeance of Quark/3: Dangerous Visions from Sallis, Saxton, and Hill

Back in June I read Quark/3, a 1971 anthology full of challenging speculative fiction by writers I had limited familiarity with.  This week I opened up my 1972 hardcover of Again, Dangerous Visions, to sample a second time the work of three Quark/3 contributors: poet and crime writer James Sallis, feminist and committed gardener Josephine Saxton, and journalist and novelist Richard Hill.

"Tissue" by James Sallis

On this here blog I called Sallis's story in Quark/3, "Field," a "prose poem" that was "not good."  Of the 13 pieces of fiction in Quark/3 I ranked it 11th, and declared it a "certifiable disaster."  Ouch.

Harlan Ellison, editor of Again, Dangerous Visions, includes a five page introduction to "Tissue" in the anthology.  Sallis, we learn, "is clearly one of the most important writers produced by our genre in some time," and Ellison compares him to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky, suggesting Sallis is a genius with an unstable, even self-destructive, mentality.  Fun fact: like my wife and I, and Thomas Disch, Sallis has lived in both Iowa and in New York.

"Tissue" is in fact two stories, whose titles are not capitalized.  These tales have been reprinted separately in Sallis collections in 1995 and 2000.  The first is "at the fitting shop."  This story, four pages, consists entirely of dialogue and includes no quotation marks.  It is an extended joke about how easy it is to get lost in a large department store.  (In my head the characters had the voices of Jack Benny and Frank Nelson.)  The punchline of the joke is that this is an alternate universe in which at puberty young men go to a store's plumbing department to buy a penis.  There are various models to choose from, each with evocative names, like "Polish Sausage" or "Mandrake Special."  I guess this is a satire of American consumerism and morality (to purchase a penis you are legally required to produce a note from your minister, priest or rabbi.)

"at the fitting shop" is alright; it gets my coveted "acceptable" rating.

The second story is the four page "53rd american dream."  This is a surreal story about a monstrous family; the children (Tom, Tim and Jim) regularly murder and devour the maid, the father (Bruce) has sharp teeth and detachable facial features, the mother (who I guess is some kind of huge arachnid or insect) can be disassembled alive--her cast off limbs are capable of independent movement.  The joke is that the mother and father try to be good parents, following advice from a book on parenting; part of this advice is to not make a mystery of their sex life, and so the kids get to watch and cheer on dad as he flagellates their mother until she achieves orgasm.  The story is full of brand names like Brillo, Beautyrest, and Neiman Marcus, I suppose some kind of reference to American consumerism.  Maybe we are supposed to see the family as representative of rich WASPs (Neiman Marcus is upscale, isn't it?) who exploit poor ethnics (the murdered maids have names like Olga and Griselda.)

"53rd american dream" is OK; the more surreal passages are a little hard to visualize, which makes the story seem long.  I think I prefer the snappier "at the fitting shop."

Both tales are much better than "Field," a pleasant surprise.

Emshwiller's illustration for "at the fitting shop"

"Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" by Josephine Saxton

I liked "Nature Boy," Saxton's story in Quark/3, and rated it the #4 story in that anthology.

After a page and a half of Ellison's jokes we get Saxton's page and a half autobiography.  She never watches TV, she loves to cook, swim, read, write, garden and paint and she is fascinated by religion, psychology and the occult.

The story itself is 13 pages.  Elouise is a healthy young woman on a planet where everybody, by law, is required to have some kind of disease or birth defect.  Elouise is dragged onto a stage to be examined by a legion of doctors--Saxton presents us with a scene which all you gynecology students out there may enjoy.  Then a mob of people even less healthy than the average citizen of Pergamon storm into the theater and demand Eloise; do they want to worship her, or sacrifice her?  Elouise manages to escape, in the process killing almost everybody in the building (over a hundred people) with poison.

The writing is fine, but the story feels long.  We learn on the second page that on Pergamon people are required to be ill and Elouise is healthy; there isn't any subtle buildup to this bizarre fact, and it isn't sprung on us as a surprise.  The illnesses of the many incidental characters are described in lengthy detail; I wasn't sure if this was supposed to be funny or disgusting or both.  (The whole story has a jocular tone, with jokes about how the doctors love to play golf, for example.)  I'm afraid I was neither disgusted nor amused.  Saxton's focus is, perhaps, Elouise's own psychology; she wants to be among people like herself, and alternately wishes she was on a planet of healthy people, or was ill like her fellow Pergamonians.  Unfortunately I didn't find Elouise's psychology very compelling. 

In the Afterword to the story Saxton tells us that "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" is about the struggle for freedom and how politics is not a means to achieve freedom, the dangers of identifying with people in the mass, the importance of accepting yourself, and the fact that nothing gained at the expense of others is legitimate.  All that sounds more interesting than the actual story, which didn't do anything for me; it wasn't bad, but didn't excite any pleasure or admiration either.

A little disappointing; inferior to "Nature Boy."  

Emshwiller's illustration for "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon"

"Moth Race" by Richard Hill 

When I read Quark/3 I thought Hill's "Brave Salt," a bizarre farce, was even worse than Sallis's "Field."  So I didn't start this story with much enthusiasm.  I was relieved to find "Moth Race" was a traditional story with a plot, images, and emotion.

In the future the world is run by a mysterious totalitarian government that enforces order and material equality.  Everybody has to take pills that dampen aggression (as well as racial prejudice.)  Intelligence test results guide the government in assigning people jobs; a small number of people who do well on the tests are permitted to travel and/or have children.  Everyone is provided (bland) food and health care, and government-provided TV transmits not only sound and images, but taste and physical sensations, such as having sex with a famous actress or eating lobster, to liven up everybody's drab constricted life.

Once a year comes The Race, a day on which people do not need to take the "easypills."  Brave people volunteer to ride in a car on a track; if someone can survive two laps around the track, he or she becomes the Champion, and will be permitted to eat luxury food and travel the world.  (It is the Champion's erotic and culinary experiences that are transmitted to the populace via TV.)  The Race, however, is no test of skill: the car goes at a set speed, and traps appear so unpredictably and so quickly that it is impossible to dodge them.  The Race is either totally random, or rigged, and only one person of the multitude of volunteers has ever survived The Race to become Champion.

In the story the Champion, perhaps bored with life or fed up with societal corruption, volunteers to ride The Race again, and is killed.  We are invited to speculate as to the long term effects of this action; will it destabilize the static dictatorial society?

There have been lots of science fiction stories with this kind of setting and plot, but "Moth Race" is well-written and has a slightly different point of view: the main character is a spectator at The Race, (not the Champion, whose motives remain a mystery), and The Race is a refutation of ideas of free will and merit, not a vehicle for an adventure story.  So I enjoyed "Moth Race," and think it a worthwhile read.  Like Sallis's contribution to Again, Dangerous Visions, Hill's story is a pleasant surprise.


I was a little disappointed with the Saxton, but revisiting these three writers has been a good experience.  I'd be willing to read shorts by all of them again.

I should also note that one of the nice things about Again, Dangerous Visions is Ed Emshwiller's illustrations for each story; many of them are quite good. 


  1. My only experience with Saxton was her near masterpiece The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. A fascinating allegory in a very unusual landscape. I have yet to read any of her other work. Her story sounds the most interesting of the bunch.

    As for Sallis -- I've wanted his collection A Last Few Words (1970) for a long time. Although, your reviews are not the most encouraging.... still intrigued.

  2. My only experience with Saxton was her near masterpiece The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. A fascinating allegory in a very unusual landscape. I have yet to read any of her other work. Her story sounds the most interesting of the bunch.

    As for Sallis -- I've wanted his collection A Last Few Words (1970) for a long time. Although, your reviews are not the most encouraging.... still intrigued.