Saturday, February 28, 2015

Three stories by Kris Neville about democracy

I was pretty keen on the three Kris Neville stories from the 1950s I read recently, so I just read three stories from later in his career, published in those SF anthologies I have been going through.  I found them to be quite different than those earlier stories I was raving about.

"Shamar's War" (1964)

I read "Shamar's War" in my copy of Seven Trips Through Time and Space, a 1968 anthology edited by Groff Conklin.  My copy of Seven Trips  was previously owned by Ellen Kennerly Dallis, a woman with breathtakingly good handwriting.

Fellow SF fan Ellen Kennerly Dallis, we salute you!
Groff Conklin's introduction to the anthology touches upon the New Wave; Conklin not only opines on the phenomenon ("many of the avant-garde S.F. writers have little to recommend them except their shock value...") but also refers to a piece in The New Yorker which discusses the controversy between old and New Wave SF (New Wave supporters want more sex and drugs in their SF, apparently.)  I thought this intro (just two pages) worth reproducing for the benefit of the curious.

After how much I liked "Special Delivery," "Shamar's War" was a major disappointment.  While "Special Delivery" was a straight and sincere adventure story, and focused on the psychology of the protagonist, "Shamar's War" is a big joke. "Shamar's War" is one of those cynical satires that argues that there is no real difference between the representative governments of the West and the one-party dictatorships of the Soviet Union and Communist China, no difference between a free market economy and a planned economy, no difference between Christianity and socialism--all those systems are corrupt scams run by crooked elites and all those beliefs a stupid fantasy that only dangerous fanatics believe.

Perhaps even more disappointing, the basic plot of "Shamar's War" is quite like that of "Special Delivery," but played for laughs instead of to generate suspense and excitement.

Captain Merle Shaeffer commands a civilian interstellar transport ship.  He is enlisted by a general (a drunk) and the head of the space transport company (a Christian fanatic) to go on a secret mission to the planet Itra.  The Earth's democratic government tried to set up a trade deal and political federation with Itra's one-party government, but was rebuffed.  So the Earth government and Earth's big businesses want Shaeffer to sneak onto Itra and build up a resistance movement to the ruling Party and set off a pro-Earth revolution.

After three years of studying the language of Itra, Shaeffer, taking the Itran name "Shamar," sneaks onto Itra and quickly starts a romantic relationship with an attractive Itran woman.  There are all kinds of hi-jinks with lawyers and Party officials that serve to show the reader that the planned economy and despotic rule of Itra is in fact quite similar to the allegedly free market economy of Earth (which is in fact run by monopolies in league with the government) and representative government of Earth (because the two political parties pursue identical policies the elections don't matter.) Shaeffer does set into motion the overthrow of the tyrannical Itran government and reforms of its sclerotic command economy, but this does little to improve the lot of the Itran people.  At the end of the story Shaeffer is back on Earth, and starts to destabilize the Earth government, using the same tactics he learned on Itra.

With its banal message, tired jokes, flat characters, and total lack of emotion, "Shamar's War" is pretty forgettable.  It is not offensively bad, but it just kind of sits there, occupying 36 or so pages.  Too bad.

"Ballenger's People" (1967)

Like "Shamar's War," "Ballenger's People" is about democracy, and like the Neville stories I was praising in earlier blog posts, it is about psychology.  The story takes place in the future (there are private personal helicopters, personal computers, VHS tapes and voice recognition software) but the setting is incidental to the story.

Bart Ballenger is mentally ill.  A minor aspect of this illness is that he falls in love with pop stars he sees on TV and hears on the radio and has no real-life friends.  A major aspect of it is his fetishization of democracy.  Ballenger imagines that each human being is a nation, that he has within himself a multitude of people, ranging from the common citizens to aspects of his personality that play the role of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.  For example, when he goes over his accounts he imagines he is having a conversation with his finance minister.  Whenever he makes a decision he pretends to consult polls.  People he does not like he believes to be tyrannical states with no respect for democracy.

Ballenger has fallen in love with a different pop star (this one has bigger boobs) and so decides he doesn't want to pay the bill for the tapes of the last musician to win his admiration.  He receives collection notices for the bill, and goes to the office whence the notices came, where he ends up "going to war" with a lawyer there, murdering him with a pistol (which he thinks of as an ICBM launcher.)

This story is OK.  Is it suggesting that we in the West overrate democracy, or that democratic states can be just as aggressive and behave just as irrationally (or maybe even more so?) than dictatorial states?  I'm not sure.  It is certainly tempting to see a pattern in "Shamar's War" and this story; in both self-professed democratic states act belligerently towards what they claim are tyrannical states.

I read "Ballenger's People" in the 1970 anthology On Our Way to the Future, edited by Terry Carr.  It first appeared in Galaxy.

"Survival Problems" (1974)

I purchased the 1976 paperback edition of Terry Carr's Universe 5 last month and its striking cover by Patrick Woodruffe became something of a leitmotif of my twitter account for a few days.

This story is set in the Research Department of the American Mortuary Society, and is all about efforts to cheat death. A satire, the story shows all such efforts to be failures, and, in fact, to diminish or destroy life instead of preserving it.

One character takes drugs which prolong life, but which also slow all physical and mental processes so the user becomes a vegetative dolt. Another character wins a government lottery; he and a young woman will be put in suspended animation underground and revived automatically in five thousand years; this is a way of ensuring the human race will endure the nuclear war with the communists which is expected any day.

The third topic the story treats is an innovative method of preserving corpses in a clear plastic so they can be put on long term public display.  I assume this is meant to set up a moral equivalency between the U.S. and the Soviet Union--Lenin has famously been on display in Moscow since his death in 1924. The effort to preserve the president (who recently died in an accident at a munitions plant) with this new technique is a disaster, largely because it was the originator of the method who won that lottery and is asleep in a vault a mile underground.

As in the other stories discussed today, Neville repeatedly uses the word "democracy" sarcastically in "Survival Problems" and portrays the leaders of the democratic country in the story as goofballs.

I guess this story is OK; it doesn't generate much feeling and there is little by way of plot or character, but it has some peculiar ideas going for it.


I'm disappointed in these stories because they lack the human feeling, vivid characters, and spot-on pacing and plotting of "Old Man Henderson" and "Special Delivery."  I'm also not a very receptive audience to the suggestion that the U.S. and its founding ideas are no better or different that Leninism or Maoism.
On the other hand, "Ballenger's People" and "Survival Problems" have their unique ideas to recommend them, and it is not fair to harshly judge a story for not being what you wish it was.  These stories probably succeed on their own terms, probably accomplish what Neville wanted them to accomplish, so I can give at least the second and third some kind of lukewarm endorsement.


  1. I have to admit that I am intrigued by the idea that their are many similarities between the US and the USSR, both such dominating, globally combative and inustrially powerful nations in the 20th century. Perhaps Neville was a student or participant in the far left? After all Bettyann reads at least the first volume of Marx's Capital in Neville's short story. Which I just read and loved, by the way.

    1. I'll buy BettyAnn when I see it. Joachim liked it.