Monday, December 15, 2014
January 1974 stories from Fantastic: Myers, Bunch & Malzberg
The January 1974 issue of Fantastic has a weak cover painting; the dripping knife in the brutish woman's hand actually reminded me of the knife StrongBad likes to include in his own art work. And is that water coming out of her sleeve?
Editor Ted White's editorial is full of minutia that might interest the SF fan obsessed with 1970s inside baseball stuff, like how the number of stories in a SF magazine compares to that of a mystery mag, and whether SF and the mystery are genres better suited to the novel or the short story. White tells us that a traditional (puzzle whodunit) mystery story drawn out to novel length is a drag, while the "most memorable and outstanding" SF stories are long stories or novels. He and other SF editors find that there have been quite few really good SF short stories lately.
At the back of the magazine we have eleven pages of letters. Alexei Panshin praises Ted White to the skies, and White returns the favor. Other correspondents call Alexei and Cory Panshin's novel The Son of Black Morca "brilliantly creative" and "sheer greatness." My man tarbandu read the paperback edition of this novel (retitled Earth Magic for book publication) and called it "one of the worst fantasy novels I've ever read." There is also a lot of discussion of Gene Rodenberry's failed TV pilot Genesis II and a rumor of a Star Trek movie!
I read three pieces of fiction from the issue early this week: a short novel by Howard L. Meyers, a very short story by David R. Bunch, and a story by Barry N. Malzberg.
"The Earth of Nenkunal" by Howard L. Myers
I'm not familiar with Howard L. Myers, who wrote few novels but a substantial number of short stories. Baen has published two collections of Myers' stories recently, and "The Earth of Nenkunal," as I write this, can be read for free as part of the free e-book, the Creatures of Man. "The Earth of Nenkunal" is the first story in what the people at isfdb call the "Econo-War" series, which the people at Baen tell us is part of the "Chalice Cycle." The version of the story in Fantastic is graced with an evocative illustration by Jeff Jones.
The world is changing! The Age of Magic is giving way to a period of religion. This revolution is the doing of spirit creatures called "necromancers" from outer space; they are coming down to the Earth and taking over people's bodies and stealing people's souls and that kind of thing. The necromancers have the ability to lay a geas on people that causes them to worship the necromancers as gods. Among the worshipers, sex is considered dirty, which is a big change from the Age of Magic. Among those still devoted to magic, it is normal for people to have group sex in the middle of a tavern while the other patrons watch and cheer.
Basdon is a swordsman newly arrived in Nenkunal, where magic is still holding on. Basdon is a recovering worshiper, and so he is a little reluctant to climb onto the tavern table and bang a chick while all the farmers watch and wait their own turns with the young lady. But he manages to get into the swing of things.
After pulling up his trousers Basdon is pulled aside by a magician, Jonker. The magic-user tells Basdon that the coming era of religion will only last twenty thousand years, so no biggie, but when the next magical era begins it may be stunted. The magicians of the future will have an easier time of it if Jonker can find a particular magical talisman and preserve it for them in a place safe from the religious. Jonker asks Basdon to accompany him on this quest; the talisman is currently in territory ruled by religious people, and Jonker could really use the help of a fighting man with knowledge of the ways of the religious.
In Nenkunal the croplands are lush and the people friendly; in the lands of god-worshipers there is famine and everybody is a jerk who loves money. Basdon and Jonker have to fight in hand to hand combat with "weredogs" and their master, an evil wizard, and in the ruin where the talisman lies buried kill the musclebound body occupied by one of the necromancer "gods." Basdon also rapes a six-year-old girl. Hey, don't worry! You see, she has a curse on her, and for the last two weeks her body has been growing at the rate of a year a day, so she's legal! And, after Jonker applies a little more magic, the girl isn't calling up Rolling Stone for an interview, she's asking Basdon for more!
"The Earth of Nenkunal" is an ordinary quest adventure with a few crazy pro-sex and anti-religion elements stapled on. Barely acceptable.
"Alien" by David R. Bunch
This story was translated into French and included in Univers 10. Univers 10 has one of those covers that makes us Anglo-Saxons say "Sacre bleu!" or "ooh la la." Bunch is another author I have never read before; I guess it's education time for your humble blogger!
"Alien" is one of those stories that makes us 21st century people say "WTF?" Two pages long, it stars a "little man-not-around" with a "pumpkin-yellow-face" who wants to love everybody and serve as people's "umbrella." But everybody, particularly a millionaire and a woman in high heels with lots of cosmetics on her face, is in too much of a hurry and they push the guy out of the way. So pumpkin-face decides to become a man in a hurry also, and becomes the fastest and hurryingest of all. The moral of the story: we are all trying to get away from something, and we don't spare enough time for love.
In his intro to the story Ted White tells us "Alien" is "a parable" and "a unique offering," but I suspect White included it to serve as evidence of what he says in his editorial: "I have talked with several of these editors and I've noted a common complaint: all are very discouraged by the general state of the sf short story." Editor dudes, I feel your pain!
"Network" by Barry N. Malzberg
This story appears in the 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, and it is pretty good. It includes images, characters, an adventure plot, and traditional SF ideas, things our man Barry doesn't always feel the need to include in his work. Somehow, of the three stories we are talking about today, Malzberg's is the least crazy!
In the future a crumbling big city, I'm guessing New York, has been closed off by the authorities, so the inhabitants can't get out and only tourists and students of the Institute can get in. (Yes, this sounds kinda like Ben Bova's 1976 novel City of Darkness and his 1973 short story, "The Sightseers.") Our story follows two students from the Institute who drive into the city, which is called "Network," to collect information. They act foolishly, get in trouble, and have to fight for their lives.
A decent story, I suppose about urban decay and the callousness of the authorities and intellectual elites in their dealings with the common people. The tense action and danger stuff actually works, so, kudos to Malzberg.
When the wife and I are on some road trip in the Toyota Corolla, and I inevitably get us lost with my incompetent driving or incompetent map-reading, I say things like "hey, this is an adventure!" and "we're explorers!" and "it's always worthwhile to see things you've never seen before!" The January '74 issue of Fantastic is a little like that. Am I going to be seeking out more stories by Myers and Bunch? No, not really. Am I glad I got to experience their 1974 wackiness? That's what I'm telling myself!
(Luckily the Jeff Jones illustration makes the issue worth far more to me than what I paid, and I liked the Malzberg.)
In our next episode I'll explore more fiction from this issue, including Ted White's own story about "a new kind of sword and sorcery hero," Janet Fox's story about a "witch-girl," and the mysterious Susan Doenim's story, which she dedicates to Harlan Ellison!