Tuesday, August 12, 2014

1950s stories from Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon

Triskaidekaphobics beware!  Today we are looking at Groff Conklin's 1960 collection of 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction!  It doesn't say so on the cover (sneaky, sneaky), but this is a themed anthology.  In his introduction to the book Conklin tells us that the stories in this volume are all about inventions of one kind or another.  But he assures us that there are no stories about time machines, which Conklin thinks have "become almost tiresomely commonplace in recent years."

13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction, Gold Medal number d1444, includes stories by writers I have never read, or even heard of, before, but I thought I'd start with three major SF figures: Algis Budrys (author of Rogue Moon, and, as Thomas Disch put it, late in his life a full time employee of Scientology), Arthur C. Clarke (one of the "Big Three"), and Ted Sturgeon (famous for his stories about homicidal bulldozers, collective consciousness, and incest.)

"The War is Over" by Algis Budrys (1957)

Budrys receives considerable acclaim from his fellow science fiction writers, but I was quite disappointed in his famous Rogue Moon.  Maybe this story will help change my mind about Budrys?

"The War is Over" first appeared in Astounding in February 1957.

This is a pretty good story.  We witness a race of aliens building a space ship at terrible cost; they spend all their resources constructing the vessel, even though they barely know what they are doing or why they are doing it.  Workers are dying from exhaustion in droves building this thing!  These people seem to instinctively, but not intellectually, know how to build a ship; after many generations have passed and the ship is built, one of them pilots it purely on instinct.  He encounters the Terran Space Navy, and we learn that the entire race of aliens is descended from a single genetically engineered courier creature developed by Earth scientists centuries ago.  This creature was programmed to deliver messages at any cost, and, hundreds of years behind schedule, its descendants have finally gotten the message through to Earthmen.  Unfortunately, nobody cares about the message, which is the report of the signing of a peace treaty ending a war none of the Earth naval officers even remember.


"Silence, Please" by Arthur C. Clarke (1950)

Cronklin tells us that this story, published under a pseudonym in the British magazine Science Fantasy, was later reworked to be the opening story of Clarke's 1957 collection Tales from the White Hart.

This story is OK.  It is about scientists and businessmen in a late 20th century England with aircars and that sort of thing and centers on the rivalry of two firms that make money by developing and/or manufacturing electronic inventions.  The antagonist firm, Sir Roderick Fenton's Fenton Enterprises, gets a hold of a valuable patent for a calculator that the protagonist firm, Electron Products, wants.  To get the calculator patent back and achieve revenge, first, the lead scientist at Electron Products (he is known as "The Professor") develops a device that cancels out soundwaves and thus causes silence in a certain radius.  (The radius depends on the size and power of the device, and in theory is very extensive.)  Without letting Fenton know who invented it, the Professor makes sure Fenton buys the silencer device's patent, and then Electron uses that money to buy the calculator patent from Fenton.        

Then comes the revenge part of the plan.  By consulting a social psychologist who, suspiciously like Isaac Asimov's Hari Seldon, can use math (he's got a "square matrix with about one hundred columns" that "express the properties of any society") to predict societal developments, the Professor knows that the silencer will be used for anti-social purposes and become a PR nightmare for its manufacturers.  Fenton mass produces the silencer, its prestige and stock valuations plummet, and eventually Electron Products buys the patent for the silencer for cheap; the Professor knows he can manufacture it in such a way that criminals and malcontents won't be able to abuse it.

Not bad.  This is one of those SF stories which is really about science and technology, glorifies science and scientists.  Clarke tries to make it funny (I wonder if the competitor is called "Sir Roderick" as an homage to the Rodericks who serve as foils for Bertie Wooster), and while I didn't actually laugh, the jokes were understated and were not annoying.  

Cover illustrates some other story
"The Skills of Xanadu" by Theodore Sturgeon (1956)

Ted is the kind of guy that writes utopias that denounce our society for being too individualistic or having too many taboos.  "The Skills of Xanadu," which first appeared in Galaxy, is just such a story.  It is the far future, Sol has gone nova and the human race is spread all over the galaxy, developing into different cultures.

A man (from planet Kit Carson) loaded down with armor and concealed weapons lands on a planet (Xanadu) inhabited by people who run around practically naked, and Sturgeon uses this scenario to tediously contrast the two different societies.  The bad imperial society has skyscrapers and walls, locks and doors; in the good native society people live in transparent forest huts with no interior walls.  On Kit Carson people don't just have sex and take a dump in private, they actually eat alone; on Xanadu the people urinate and evacuate in full view of everybody.  The Xanadu people are in constant telepathic contact with each other, they all have the same skills and social position, and they have practically no government.  There is no scarcity on Xandau; the people just effortlessly produce whatever they want whenever they want it; they build the Kit Carson guy a house to his specifications in minutes.  

Eventually the man from Kit Carson learns that the miraculous abilities of the natives come from their belts.  He obtains a belt and returns to Kit Carson, where the belts are duplicated and mass produced; the Kit Carson government hopes to use the powers of the belts to conquer the galaxy.  But when the people of Kit Carson put on the belts and gain all the skills of the people of Xanadu their whole social structure peacefully collapses to be replaced by a Xanadu-style culture of anarchistic collectivist egalitarianism.

This story is lame; there is little plot or character, no tension or surprise, it's like a three page essay on what Ted thinks the perfect society would be stretched out to 26 pages, or like a Dr. Suess book with no whimsical rhymes or drawings.  I recently praised Vonda McIntyre's story "Only at Night," which I think could be read as an attack on, or at least a lament about, aspects of our society, for showing instead of telling.  "The Skills of Xanadu," which is like seven times as long as "Only at Night," feels like telling, telling again, telling some more, then telling you one last time just in case.

I might also note that, if my memory is not failing me, the structure of this story is almost the same as Sturgeon's novel Venus Plus X and his story in Dangerous Visions, "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

I generally find these kind of hortatory and tendentious stories irritating, but people must like them; Sturgeon got top billing in Galaxy for this tale and his name is top of the list on this edition of 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction.  (British editions have Wyndham and Clarke at the head of the list.)


Well, I wouldn't call any of these stories "great," but two of them were pleasant.

In our next episode, I'll take a look at fiction in 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction by authors who are more obscure than the Hugo and Nebula winners and nominees who wrote today's tales.


  1. It's amazing how the age and developmental stage one is at when reading a story affects the impact of the story. I remember reading "The War is Over" in middle school. I was very struck by it, finding the idea profound, but the writing style unremarkable. I read Tales From the White Hart when I was a sophomore in college, and full of sophomoric disdain for all things (especially those perhaps cleverer than I was). I may have loved the stories, but found them predictable and dismissed them. I did read all the White Hart stories and Asimov's Tales of the Black Widowers on the same afternoon. In retrospect, I think it may command greater respect.

    I read "The Skills of Xanadu" in some short story collection when I was in my late teens and full of Utopian fervor. I loved the story and found it a blueprint for my Utopian visions (along with Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed). Then just a few years ago, I came across Stanislaw Lem's book The Cyberiad which is a collection of uproariously funny stories about the adventures and misadventures of two android "constructors" in a completely cybernetic universe. One of the early stories, "The First Sally, or The Trap of Gargantius" uses the exact same plot device as "The Skills of Xanadu" but to opposite (or perhaps identical, but with an opposite point of view) effect. The story, rather than a Utopian paean to the peaceful elements within human nature, is an enormous farce. Yet the mechanism and the shared skills are identical.

    Now, I still really dig Sturgeon, but after a 30 year hiatus between readings of the story, it now seems more clever than profound, and his villain seems more of a cardboard cutout upon which to hang criticisms of our societal norms.

    Thank you for your reviews!


  2. I'm glad you enjoy the blog, and thanks for your insightful comments.

    A story attacking our society and advocating a collectivist anarchistic society could definitely work if it acknowledged and addressed possible criticisms, trade offs, and drawbacks to such a society. Even a post-scarcity society might have some kind of psychological or cultural drawbacks. Also, it would have to include some kind of logical arguments and evidence. One of the reasons the incest story from Dangerous Visions is so much better than "Skills of Xanadu" is that Sturgeon tries to marshal arguments and evidence to show the incest taboo is a problem. In "Skills" Sturgeon just asserts that Xanadu is perfect with zero problems, and doesn't do anything to convince you.

    1. Looking at it that way, you're kind of right. Sturgeon sets up Xanadu as a cardboard Utopia--a perfect society that has no explanation beyond just saying it's perfect. This would serve as a great foil for a plot driven around the culture that encounters it, but does not provide much narrative dynamic when used as the central element of the story.

      In retrospect, I think Sturgeon was using this story as a thought exercise to express an optimistic opinion of human nature--essentially that if you mix all the elements of human nature together in a great big communicative stew and stir, the good elements will cancel out the bad, and we'll have a lot of good left over to dominate.

      On that note, I'd love to see your take on Ursula K. LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," another thought exercise story which offers a criticism of a utopian society, and refuses to offer solutions--in a way the opposite of your description of "The Skills of Xanadu" where he offers the utopian society without criticism.

      For that matter, Sturgeon here takes the exact opposite view of Utopian society than Lafferty does in Past Master, a book I deeply love (and really enjoyed your review of).

      Having read "The Skills of Xanadu" I do hope you someday soon get your hands on a copy of The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. I'd love to see you compare "Xanadu" to "The First Sally: The Trap of Gargantius" which uses the same mechanism with the opposite comment on society.

      Thank you again.

  3. I just read Venus Plus X and had serious trouble with the novel... I found that it tried desperately to advocate a "gender is more fluid" than we might want to think society but the flaws of the hermaphroditic society (revealed at the end) were so egregious that a lot of the import of the vision was weakened. I've had so much trouble figuring out exactly what Sturgeon's point was that I've given up trying to review it...

  4. Too bad we won't be seeing a review from you of Venus Plus X; I enjoy reading reviews of books I've read already. And since I read it 14 years ago and things are a little hazy, your review might spark some memories.