Saturday, November 22, 2014
Five Fates, Part 1: Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert, & Gordon Dickson
At the big antiques mall just off Route 80 in Des Moines I spotted Five Fates, a 1971 paperback. Having a big pile of unread books at home I hesitated before purchasing, but the odd gimmick behind the book was too compelling to resist, and I had never seen, or even heard, of this book before; if I left it behind would I ever see it again? Besides, Five Fates would provide an opportunity to read some important SF authors I had been avoiding due to lukewarm experiences with them, authors I should probably be more familiar with if I want to have a comprehensive view of the field.
I paid $1.50 for my copy of Five Fates, which was previously owned by a Paul Bradly or Blakely or Bealdy or something like that. The book is 272 pages long. I think the illustrations on the front and back covers are interesting and eye-catching, if not exactly beautiful.
The clever conceit of Five Fates is that five Hugo-winning SF authors were each given the same one-page prologue, and challenged to write a story from that little kernel. In this prologue William Bailey goes to the Euthanasia Center where a brusque functionary injects him with something and directs him to his "slab." First up is Poul Anderson.
"The Fatal Fulfillment" by Poul Anderson
William Bailey is a sociologist living in a world faced with an epidemic of mental illness. How will the government and society deal with this terrible plague? (In some ways, the idea behind this story is similar to the basic idea of Anderson's 1953 novel Brain Wave, in which the people and animals on Earth suddenly have greatly increased IQs. In "The Fatal Fulfillment" the number of people who are insane suddenly increases.)
"The Fatal Fulfillment" is a series of vignettes, exploring various governmental/societal responses to the insanity epidemic. The vignettes come off largely as conservative or libertarian satires of leftist or welfare-state liberal thinking; one depicts an authoritarian US government which tries to suppress mental instability by taking absolute control of the arts, limiting what books people can read and art they can see, and setting up public televisions which spit out vacuous pro-diversity propaganda. Another depicts a society of pacifist environmentalist hippies; in another minorities strive to be categorized as victims by the government so they will be eligible for free benefits and exemptions from various taxes and regulations. Anderson hits lots of the hot button issues you still hear about from small-government advocates today, like how the commerce clause is used to justify government overreach, public schooling stinks, and taxes inhibit economic growth.
In the end it turns out that each of these vignettes (including the prologue at the Euthanasia Center) is a simulation--William Bailey is hooked up to a computer and is examining different theories of how to deal with the mental illness epidemic. (He's been in "The Matrix!")
I'm sympathetic to Anderson's politics, but as a story "The Fatal Fulfillment" is not very good. There is no tension as soon as we realize Bailey is just in a dream world, and is not really in danger of being tortured or killed. The characters are flat stereotypes, props to illustrate Anderson's arguments. This is a story with no human feeling. (A good contrast is Jack Vance's Wyst: Alastor 1716, also a satire of left-wing utopianism, but quite funny and a good adventure story.)
In my youth I started Dune but abandoned it very quickly, and since then have never even tried anything by Herbert. I tentatively plan to give Dune another try next year. As I started "Murder Will In" I wondered if it might be so great that I would be inspired to shift Dune to the top of my schedule, and in fact the story is quite entertaining--I may be joining the ranks of Frank Herbert's fans!
William Bailey lives in a world in which man has surrendered much of his individualism to the collective and to machines. Bailey is also the host of a parasitic non-corporeal extraterrestrial entity; this creature, the Tegas, has been on Earth for thousands of years (it recalls the Roman gladiatorial arena, for example), moving from host to host, leaving a host as it dies. For untold ages before its arrival on Earth the creature lived in hosts on other planets.
Herbert comes up with various rules that govern the Tegas's ability to move from one host to another; the new host has to be within 20 meters, the Tegas can only survive in a dead host for a certain number of seconds, the new host can only be accessed if it is experiencing a certain level of emotional activity, etc. Like the rules about sunlight and silver and garlic and running water in a vampire story, these rules introduce danger into the life of a potentially invincible creature, and the Tegas runs into some real trouble in the Euthanasia Center in which William Bailey dies. The Tegas has still more trouble when it becomes apparent that the technocratic ruling class of Earth suspects its existence, and tries to hunt it down.
"Murder Will In" reminded me of a Van Vogt story, in which secret forces struggle and a guy has weird powers and grows into those powers, though Herbert's writing is more clear and elegant than my man Van's sometimes tortured prose. Herbert also manages to pull off the "sense of wonder" ending so many classic SF stories strive to achieve; at the end of "Murder Will In" the Tegas has survived the challenges posed by the Euthanasia Center and Earth's rulers, learned a lot about its abilities, and decided to use its power to change Earth society, to revive individualism. The story leaves us not with a sense of finality, but of exciting, perhaps endless, future possibilities.
"Maverick" by Gordon R. Dickson
Gordon Dickson's version of William Bailey is a kind of trouble-making individualist in a caste-bound, technocratic world. It is a world in which there is no war, poverty or crime, but also no freedom, and Bailey has "broken the Self-Protection rules, time and again." He's lost caste and wasted all his money, so the powers that be want to put him in an institution or execute him. (So far all the stories have been attacks on overbearing government and collectivism--none of these authors seems willing to embrace all the wonderful possibilities of having a local Euthanasia Center!)
The authorities give Bailey one last chance--if he can accomplish a dangerous mission they will restore his caste and give him a sizable pension! It seems that the New Orleans Euthanasia Center keeps having its dead bodies stolen in some way nobody can figure out. The government wants Bailey to go to the Center, and be poisoned and put on a slab so everybody will think he is dead. He will be supplied with an antidote pill, and after he takes it in the privacy of the morgue he can maybe figure out what is happening to the corpses.
Bailey learns that what is happening is that aliens from a planet hundreds of light years away have opened a portal between their planet and Earth, and are taking the cadavers. These aliens are similar to humans, but have wings and hollow bones and different sized eyes and different numbers of fingers and toes. Perhaps most important, their society is based on honor and loyalty, not authority and planning like Earth's. Bailey's consciousness leaves his Earth body and ends up in the body of a birdman gladiator, after a brief stint in the body of a birdman troublemaker who, like Bailey back on Earth, has squandered his resources and been a disappointment to his caste.
This story is pretty boring. It feels slow and tedious, even during the fight scenes. There are many scenes consisting of bird people talking, including a long hearing before the avian people's advisory council that is supposed to be the climax of the tale. At the hearing everybody tries to figure out if Bailey is really from Earth and how his mind has been moving across space and between bodies, and Dickson even includes three charts made of boxes and arrows to illustrate the course and final destination of various people's minds and bodies. They look like a decision-making flowchart or something from a political science journal article. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Dickson's writing style is not good. Dickson spends too much time on boring descriptions of rooms and on how people's facial expressions or eye movements indicate their emotions. Dickson uses the same words and phrases again and again instead of varying them; for example, every time a character abruptly stops walking or talking, the author uses the verb "to check." This is distracting, and makes the story feel like a draft that was not revised.
There are a few clever things in the story. The winged people think life on Earth must be horrible because Earthlings can't fly, so they call Earth "The Planet of the Damned" and christen Bailey "Bill duDamned," which I found amusing. The scenes in which Bailey learns to fly are not bad.
Dickson tries to do a Van Vogt "sense of wonder" thing, like Herbert does. Bailey in a way that is not explained develops super-vision that allows him to detect if a body contains a different identity than it started out with, and he can also see through walls. In the end of the story he sets on the course of reforming both Earth and bird people societies, tempering the collectivism of the former and the extreme individualism of the latter. He also reveals that he has the power to travel to any of dozens of planets in the universe. Unfortunately, the story is so lame that at the end I didn't feel a thrilling sense of limitless possibilities, but rather relief that the story (75 long pages) was finally finished.
The components and themes of "Maverick"--individualism and freedom, exploring a new world with a different society and a new body that enables you to fly--could definitely be the basis of a good story, but Dickson's sluggish pacing and poor style ruin the whole thing.
Frank Herbert delivers the goods, but Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson have let the team down. Hopefully Keith Laumer and Harlan Ellison can put in winning performances and leave use with a score of 3-2. (And maybe in Ellison or Laumer the under-appreciated Euthanasia Center will find a supporter?) We'll see in Part 2.