Friday, November 7, 2014
Ten Short Short SF Stories: Niven, Malzberg, Pronzini, Knight & Busby
"Plaything" by Larry Niven (1974)
In The Hugo Winners Volume 3 (1977) Isaac Asimov tells us that hard science fiction, the science fiction about science, is what he likes to read, and that he is relieved that young Larry Niven has taken up this vein while he (Asimov) and Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement approach retirement. Niven has three stories in this collection of short shorts; will they be about science?
In "Plaything," which is over four pages long (lengthy for this book), a robotic Earth probe lands on Mars and Martian children treat it like a piece of playground equipment, climbing all over it, vandalizing it, etc. Niven includes interesting biological details about the Martians (their senses are finely tuned to detect slight changes in levels of heat, and this is reflected in their means of "talking") and interesting speculations about the robotic probe's means of gathering data about Mars. A good story.
Grade: B Sciencey?: Yes.
"Safe at Any Speed" by Larry Niven (1967)
The title is a nod to Ralph Nader, but the plot is a nod to Jonah of "and the Whale" fame. A thousand years in the future a guy is "driving" in an air car over an alien planet. The car is swallowed whole by a huge bird. They crash, and the guy lives in the car (it has a toilet and a food-creating machine) for six months while he waits for the monster to decay sufficiently, lest he be dissolved by its stomach juices. Cleverly, the story is an advertisement written by the driver, explaining how safe the car is. Again Niven includes some biological and some technological details. Not bad.
Grade: B- Sciencey?: Yes.
"Mistake" by Larry Niven (1976)
In the near future, astronauts on long boring solo trips use drugs to get high and thus entertain themselves. (The guy in "Safe at Any Speed" plays solitaire for six months.) The astronaut in this story hallucinates an alien who interrogates him about Earth defenses. The astronaut takes a pill that sobers him up, and the alien vanishes.
The main joke of the story is that the reader is not supposed to know that the alien is a hallucination until the end. Besides being a weak joke, in his one-line introduction to the story (what the copy on the jacket calls "a sly and witty remark"), Asimov, in his infinite wisdom, tells you that the alien is an hallucination. The other big joke of the story is the pun "bad trip."
The best part of the story is Niven's little inside joke that pays homage to his big supporter Asimov, and three other notable SF writers, adventure scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs, hard-SF exemplar Hal Clement, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.
Grade: D- (AKA, "The Peppermint Patty") Sciencey?: No.
"Inaugural" by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini (1976)
I like Malzberg, as I hope I have made clear on this blog. However, I am sick to death of the irrational obsession so many people have with John F. Kennedy. (In fact I experience a childish glee when people like the scribblers at Reason magazine or the gang at Red Letter Media try to poke a hole in the apparently undeflatable Camelot myth.) Malzberg seems to be one of the many victims of this obsession, writing many stories that revolve around Kennedy or presidents getting murdered. So when I saw the title of this story I groaned in anticipation of more Kennedy nonsense.
"Inaugural" is the text of the inauguration speech given by the first woman president ("Carole"). During the speech she quotes JFK's own inaugural speech. It is a little difficult to puzzle out what we are supposed to take away from the story. The new president returned six months earlier from the first manned interstellar flight, of which she was commander. Her second in command ("George"), is now her husband. George appears to be the emotional one, and Carole has to scold him to keep him in line. The vote (of billions of people) to elect them is said to be unanimous. The words "unity" and "union" appear again and again in the text.
Did the new president win election by threatening to bomb the Earth from outer space (such things happen in Malzberg stories)? Is this just a woman's hallucination (people are always hallucinating in Malzberg stories)? Is the swapping of gender roles a joke or some kind of feminist commentary? Are the references to union a sign that, like in so many utopian SF stories, in this one an alien element has transformed the human race into some kind of unified entity with a collective consciousness? Are the references to a unanimous election a suggestion that the USA or the entire world now has bogus elections like in some dictatorship?
This story earns a passing grade, a wrinkled brow, and a shrug.
Grade: C Kennedy?: Yes
"January 1975" by Barry N. Malzberg (1974)
This story is in the form of four letters from writer Barry to his editor, Ben. Barry is suggesting that he write a series about an alternate universe in which Kennedy won the 1960 election and was later assassinated. Barry promises that, while the series will be "in the dystopian mode," he will keep it "cheerful and amusing" and that the portrait of Kennedy as president will be "uplifting and noble." (Ben is worried that "the Secretary" might sue for libel; I guess "the Secretary" is JFK himself.) Ben rejects the idea, and in the final letter, in which Barry says he will sic "the union" on Ben, we learn how dystopian Barry and Ben's world really is: people in their universe attend "Slaughter Games" and "Public Tortures" for recreation!
The idea that people living in a world in which novelists are unionized and there are government-sponsored Roman-style blood sports and executions would consider our world a dystopia is faintly amusing and interesting. So, a passing grade.
Grade: C Kennedy?: Yes.
"I Wish I May, I Wish I Might" by Bill Pronzini (1973)
If we include his collaboration with Malzberg above, Pronzini has four stories in this book! Wow!
I'm not sure I "get" this one. Maybe there is a joke or a twist I am missing.
David Lannin is a 14-year-old boy on the beach. Pronzini carefully describes the kid's appearance, clothes, all the sights and sounds of the beach. There's a lot of "the sonorous lament of the chill October wind" and "the wind swirled loose sand against his body," and "there was nothing but the sound of the tide and the wind and the scavenger birds...." You know what I mean. I thought it was odd to see all this detail in a story that is like three pages long.
Anyway, David finds a bottle, opens it up, and out comes an invisible genie. The genie tells David he can have three wishes. Then he crows that he has achieved his revenge on the mortal sorcerer who put him in the bottle, and leaves. David goes home to his mother. He tells mom that he's got three wishes, and he's going to wish for "a million-trillion ice cream cones," for the ocean to always be warm, and for every boy and girl in the world to "be just like me." The final line of the story is David saying the magic words from the story title; in the short paragraph before that we learn that David is retarded. (Pronzini provides no clue in the first two pages that David has any developmental or mental disorders; his dialogue is in normal English, for example.)
Is the joke that David has just destroyed modern society or even the entire world with his dumb wishes? Or is the joke that David hallucinated the genie? Either way, lame.
Grade: F (student is also directed to attend sensitivity training)
"Dry Spell" by Bill Pronzini (1970)
Kensington, a professional writer on the edge of financial ruin, has had writer's block for weeks. Suddenly he comes up with an idea for a SF story in which aliens are plotting to take over the world. These aliens can read everybody's mind, and if any Earthling figures out what is going on, they erase that info from his mind. In a twist we all saw coming, Kensington's scenario is the truth, and the aliens erase it from his mind before he can commit it to paper. The aliens are the source of his writer's block!
"How Now Purple Cow" by Bill Pronzini (1969)
Again, I think I may be missing the joke here; is it a feeble reference to cattle mutilations?
[UPDATE JUNE 2, 2018: Commenter Geoduck in the comments below directs us to likely source material for Pronzini's (to me) mysterious story!]
A farmer spots a purple cow on his land. He calls the local newspaper to get a reporter to come see it. The reporter, on the phone, mentions recent UFO sightings. Before the reporter arrives, the farmer touches the purple cow, and is turned into a purple cow himself. The end.
Grade: F (student is also directed to schedule appointment with guidance counselor to discuss possibility of repeating this semester)
"Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight (1967)
This is another story I may not be quite grasping. In this case there is a chance my limited knowledge of the Bible is hamstringing me.
(NOTA BENE: I am grading this story as it stands in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories. This story originally appeared in Dangerous Visions, where presumably it is supported by several pages of supplementary matter by the author himself and editor Harlan Ellison.)
It is the Day of Wrath! God, a moving pillar of smoke, accompanied by seven angels, comes to the Earth to find it desolate, apparently due to a nuclear war. The Archangel Michael blames the English, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans. God goes to England, where deep in a pit He finds a message, in all caps, "WE WERE HERE. WHERE WERE YOU?", I guess some English person's lament that God had abandoned them, or maybe Knight's idea of a joke.
I have to admit that these stories that suggest the people of the West were no better than Brezhnev, Mao, and their henchmen rub me the wrong way. And as an atheist unfamiliar with the Bible maybe the power of the story's phrases and images are flying over my head. So perhaps I am not equipped to judge this tale. Still, I must judge, and this story seems melodramatic and bombastic, and not very successful at making its point clear, whether it be an atheist attack on religion, a leftist criticism of NATO policy, or a heartfelt lament that God had failed to intervene in the Cold War.
"Eripmav" by Damon Knight (1958)
A page of embarrassing puns and kindergarten-level jokes. The title is a bad joke, and things proceed downhill from there.
"Maid to Measure" by Damon Knight (1964)
A three-page story with one pun, a pun worthy of a seven-year-old who reads Playboy.
A man is trying to break up with his blonde girlfriend so he can date a brunette. The blonde is experimenting with witchcraft, and by saying, "I'll change into a bikini," she is transformed into a bikini. The brunette stops by, and dons the bikini.
And to think I defended Knight's Beyond the Barrier against Joachim Boaz's denunciations!
Grade: F (student is expelled)
"I'm Going to Get You" by F. M. Busby
I liked Busby's Cage A Man, an adventure/horror novel with strong psychological and social elements about a guy who is kidnapped by solipsistic aliens who don't realize humans are intelligent beings and inflict excruciating experiments on him before he escapes. So I picked him for my tenth short short.
"I'm Going to Get You" is a three page monologue from a crippled man, directed at God. The cripple relates the many disasters of his life (family killed by drunk driver, being beaten up by criminals, etc.) and blames them on God's callousness and/or cruelty. The cripple declares that he will achieve revenge on God by committing suicide.
In some ways this story is comparable to Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee": God's existence and goodness are questioned. But whereas Knight's story is loud and vague and ridiculous, Busby's story has a character and a story, some real emotion and some real thought behind it.
I'm not the audience for sophomoric joke stories or stories with an obvious "twist," and so Knight and Pronzini have been graded harshly. But a short short story can be a decent traditional SF story, as Niven shows with two of his offerings, or a story with real character and heart, as Busby demonstrates.
I will probably read ten more selections from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories next week. Until then, my merciless red grading pencil will rest.