Thursday, November 6, 2014

1981 stories by Vonda N. McIntyre, Gordon Eklund, and Jack Dann & Barry Malzberg

On November 2nd the wife and I went to a flea market held in the 4-H building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.  Many vendors had box after box of romance novels, and box after box of Westerns, but one vendor had about a dozen boxes of SF paperbacks.  My poor wife waited patiently while I went through each box; unfortunately, almost all the books were recent, less than 25 years old.  I purchased only a single book, 1981's New Dimensions 12, edited by Marta Randall and Robert Silverberg.  (Randall's introduction seems to suggest that she did all the editing, and Silverberg's name is on the cover to help sell copies.)  I bought it because Barry Malzberg and Vonda McIntyre's names appeared on the contents page, and today I read their contributions, as well as a story by Gordon Eklund.

"Elfleda" by Vonda N. McIntyre

I was impressed by McIntyre's early '70s story "Only at Night," a primary reason why I purchased New Dimensions 12.

Through elaborate surgical techniques unscrupulous scientists have recreated mythical creatures like centaurs, unicorns, and mer-people, apparently by grafting the torsos of human accident victims to the bodies of animals.  These half-human, half-animal creatures are kept in a park, and are periodically visited by normal humans who use them as sex slaves.

The sixteen page story is a first person narrative by a centaur, Achilleus, and its theme (beyond callousness and cruel exploitation) is disappointment and unrealized desire. Achilleus is in love with a unicorn, Elfleda, a human woman whose torso is attached to a quadruped body and has a horn implanted in her skull.  Elfleda has always rejected Achilleus's advances; his love is unrequited.  Most of the creatures in the park are obedient to their human masters (due to some kind of brain implants or something) but Elfleda is allowed her freedom, and doesn't have to participate in the orgies organized by the normal humans.

One day the "creators" trick Elfleda, using an unwitting boy as bait, and try to capture her with nets and ropes.  Achilleus tries to rescue her, and breaks his leg in the process. As per time honored equestrian tradition, Achilleus is euthenized as Elfleda is led away.

"Only at Night" was also about the callousness of people towards their unfortunate fellows, but while I found that story powerful, "Elfleda" is just OK.  Despite the strange sexual content of the story (for example, Achilleus and Elfleda have two sets of genitals each, their human ones and the set from their animal bodies, which permits some outre erotic gymnastics) there is nothing about the story that makes it stand out to me. "Elfleda" gets a passing grade, but I didn't find it special.

"Elfleda" is afforded an unmemorable illustration by Wendy Rose.

Gene Wolfe wrote two stories on a similar theme and topic, 1979's "The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholos" and 1981's "The Woman the Unicorn Loved," which I read over seven years ago, according to my notes, and do not remember very well.  My notes suggest I wasn't thrilled with them, either.

"Pain and Glory" by Gordon Eklund

I gave Gordon Eklund's novel A Trace of Dreams a marginally negative review, and I described his story "Home Again, Home Again," as "lame" and "poor."  But as people who watch sports might say, let's give him another swing at the plate, or chance at bat, or something.

In "Elfleda" we had a woman writing a first person narrative in the voice of a man, and here we have a male writer writing a first person narrative in the voice of a 16-year old girl.

Kelly Cohen of San Francisco is the youngest of the seven children of Isaac Cohen.  The Cohens have the power to relieve the pain and anxiety of people they touch.  Kelly regularly visits the poor neighborhoods and eases the pain of a catalog of unfortunates: the 12-year old black girl with a birth defect who is molested by a 14-year-old boy, the gullible hippies who are trying to live off the grid and are adherents of the guru Matthew Samson (does that rhyme with "Charles Manson?"), the old woman who is so poor she eats dog food, a blind man, a deaf girl, a drug addict.

Isaac Cohen is dying, and his kids, among them a high-powered lawyer, a sociology professor, and a Berkeley student, gather round.  (The Berkeley student, an aspiring poetess, is always urging Kelly to lose her virginity.)  Isaac tells Kelly the story of how his Ukrainian village of psychic Jews was massacred by the SS.  Kelly learns that many of her siblings have lost their power to relieve pain, perhaps because they have lost the ability to love, or because they got sick of the responsibility their talent brought and were tired of being different.

This is a pedestrian story, I guess an allegory for the burnout experienced by social workers and doctors and for the idea that Jews are an "other" wherever they go and/or a "chosen people" with special abilities and responsibilities.  There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it.  I'll judge this one barely acceptable.

"Parables of Art" by Jack Dann and Barry N. Malzberg  

Attention Malzberg completists: according to isfdb, "Parables of Art" has only ever appeared in this volume.

I enjoyed "Down Among the Dead Men," a Dann collaboration with Gardner Dozois, and I generally like Barry Malzberg, so after reading the mediocre McIntyre and Eklund selections, I expected this to be my favorite of the three.  My expectations were realized.

Fans of Malzberg will not be surprised to hear that this story is four pages long but is divided into three chapters.  Nor that it begins, "Walter Taplin was forty-five and a failed artist."  Taplin is "enormously fat," as is his wife.  We are told that the couple has lots of sex.

Taplin discovers a secret room at the back of his house; within this room he has the ability to create exciting paintings that are sought after by gallery owners and collectors!  (The authors tell us Taplin's early work was like that of Rosa Bonheur, while his work in the secret room is reminiscent of Bosch.)  Taplin enjoys critical and financial success, and loses weight! But he has less time for sex!

Taplin's wife is envious of her husband's success, and jealous that he spends less time with her, so she seals the secret room with concrete.  Life returns to normal (meaning: lots of sex!)

This story is crazy, feels new, and made me laugh.  Winner!


For me, Dann and Malzberg deliver, but the McIntyre and Eklund just sit there inoffensively.  Still, I can see people embracing the McIntyre and Eklund for their conventional earnest liberalism, and finding "Parables of Art" offensive for its selfish and obese female villainess.  (But is she really a villainess?  If we view a happy love relationship as more important than fame and fortune, maybe we should see her as a heroine!)


The final page of New Dimensions 12 is an advertisement for "science fantasy" novels.  Of the seven books listed, I have only read the two Jack Vance books, The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld.  I think The Dying Earth is overrated, but I love The Eyes of the Overworld to death, and consider it one of the most fun books I have ever read.  I'd probably give the Poul Anderson and Theodore Sturgeon selections a try, but I'm weary and leery of L. Sprague de Camp.  William Barnwell I've never heard of.  Cecilia Holland's Floating Worlds is widely discussed and apparently sui generis, so I am intrigued, but I've heard it is over 600 pages, which is an investment I am reluctant to make.                  

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