Monday, August 24, 2015

1961 stories by Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, & John Wyndham

Traversing this great land of ours, mountains, forests, railroads, skyscrapers, art museums, birds, amphibians, and my wife's relatives are not the only natural and man made wonders I discover.  I also discover classic science fiction bargains!  One such bargain was a paperback edition of Judith Merril's The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition, printed in 1963 by Dell and covering science fiction and fantasy published in 1961.

In our last episode we looked at stories from Merril's anthology written by two writers on the periphery of the SF community, as well as one by a SF writer whose work has, perhaps, largely been forgotten.  In this installment we'll read stories by relatively well-known SF writers: Fritz Leiber, perhaps most famous for his contributions to the sword & sorcery genre; Cordwainer Smith, celebrated for his Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and John Wydham, author of Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids.

"The Beat Cluster" by Fritz Leiber

"The Beat Cluster" first appeared in the October issue of Galaxy, where it was the cover story.  I've enjoyed quite a bit of Leiber's work, but I cannot deny that Galaxy's cover illustration had me fearing  "The Beat Cluster" was going to be a story about popular music.  I try to avoid stories that tediously romanticize the author's favorite rock band or celebrate his favorite style of jazz or blues musician or whatever.

Merril, in her intro, responds to early '60s claims that science fiction (exemplified by the "space story") was about to be superseded by events, that once "science catches up with science fiction," it will be "dead."  She suggests that "space stories" that are more about people than "rockets and orbits," will have an enduring value and appeal, and that "The Beat Cluster" is an example of just such a story.

I was pleased to find that this was a story about people, as Merril had proposed, and that Leiber didn't overdo the music angle.  The Beat Cluster is a sort of beatnik colony or commune, informally overseen by Fat Jordan, an overweight black man who, following a career as a welder, is now an amateur guitarist and singer/songwriter.  (I agree, he doesn't really look black on the cover of the magazine.  Here's a data point for your master's thesis on the depiction of blacks in science fiction, grad students!) The commune consists of giant bubbles of self-sealing plastic, connected by tunnels to each other and to a proper space station devoted to research.  Large blankets with one reflective side hover around to provide cover from the sun, and the inhabitants spend their time making music and art, gardening, and just hanging around.  Lieber talks a lot about how the lack of gravity fosters lifestyles different from those on Earth, and how people grow food and generate oxygen and so forth in space.

The plot of the story serves to provide opportunities to compare Earthbound life with zero gee life.  The Station has a new Administrator, and he wants to send the beatniks back down to Earth--they are essentially squatters who have no legal right to be attached to the station, and they are dirty, their bubbles smelling horribly.  The beatniks list all the things they won't be able to do on Earth, all the discomforts gravity will inflict on them.  Luckily, the President of the United States and public opinion, on Earth and among the scientists and technicians on the main Station, intervene.  The beatnik colony, in fact, serves a useful purpose, as a pool of surplus labor, a place for the Station's staff to relax, and as the subject of a study of anarchic zero-gee life, and Fat Jordan and his fellow musicians have achieved a level of popularity on Earth via jazz broadcasts.  The deportation order is cancelled and everybody lives happily ever after.

I liked it.    

"A Planet Named Shayol" by Cordwainer Smith  

This is one of the critically acclaimed Instrumentality of Mankind stories; over the course of this blog's life I have enjoyed several stories in this series, so I was looking forward to this one.  Like "The Beat Cluster" it appeared in the October issue of Galaxy, and was promoted on the cover.  A little googling provides a look at the truly disturbing two page illustration by Virgil Finlay that adorned "A Planet Named Shayol;" is this what the kids are talking about when they use the term "body horror?" Yikes!

Merril in her introduction doesn't talk about the story, but rather about Smith's unique and exciting life and career inside and outside science fiction.  (I'm not being sarcastic here, check out Smith's Wikipedia page, he really is a unique figure.)  And there is no need for Merril to tell you anything about the story--it really speaks for itself.  "A Planet Named Shayol" is a terrific piece of work, full of emotion and psychological insight, as well as bizarre and memorable images.  It is also a truly disturbing horror story.  This is the kind of story which really gives you an idea of what science fiction can achieve, how it can be something truly vital, more than an entertaining adventure story set in outer space or a thrilling detective yarn set in a ray gun- and robot-infested future.

Mercer has been convicted of a terrible crime against the famously cruel Emperor, and so he is shipped to Shayol for what is rumored to be "eternal punishment."  After harrowing preparations on an orbiting satellite, where medical specialists alter Mercer's body so it is fit to survive on the surface, Mercer is shipped "downstairs." Native to Shayol is a sort of microorganism knows as the "dromozoa."  A person infected by the dromozoa is kept alive indefinitely by the organism; it provides rapid healing and sustenance for hundreds or thousands of years.  The dromozoa also causes its hosts to grow additional body parts--arms, legs, heads, fingers, whatever. There are hundreds of convicts on the planet, and the population's caretaker, an "homunculus" who was created with the mixed genetic material of a human and a bull, periodically prunes the convicts of their extra body parts for freezing and subsequent use in hospitals around the galaxy.

This whole process is horribly painful, and so the cattle-man keeps the convicts high on a super-powerful drug most of the time.

After Mercer has lived on the planet for over a century there is a change in galactic government, and the new government, once alerted to Shayol's true nature, has to figure out a way to continue the salutary production of body parts for use in rehabilitating accident victims, while ending the use of Shayol as a place of outrageous punishment.  They also have to do something with all these drug addicts.

"A Planet Named Shayol" is full of compelling ideas, touching characters, moving scenes and vivid images; much of this I have not even hinted at here.  (The story is substantial, about 40 pages long.)  Smith's style is unobtrusive but brilliantly conveys all the story's dramatic, intellectual and emotional elements.  I expected it to be good, but the story surprised me by how much if affected me.

Highly recommended!

"The Asteroids, 2194" by John Wyndham (1960)

Alright, so I was a bit disappointed with Re-Birth AKA The Chrysalids.  Let's see if I like this better.

"The Asteroids, 2194" actually first appeared in New Worlds (with the much more euphonious title "The Emptiness of Space")  in 1960, throwing off my whole theme for this blog post: "Stories From 1961."  I guess Merril thought it kosher to include it in the anthology because it first appeared in the US in 1961 in Amazing, as the cover story.

As she did in the intro to the Leiber story, Merril says this tale is a "space story," but focuses not so much on "hardware" as on the effect of life in space on human beings and their culture.

"The Asteroids, 2194" is a first person narrative about a space flight, led by a Captain Gerald Troon,  to the asteroid belt, during which a derelict ship, lost for over four decades, is discovered.  In the derelict is a man in a special space suit which has kept him alive via some sort of deep freeze or suspended animation system.  This man turns out to be Captain George Montgomery Troon, the grandfather of Gerald Troon. George Montgomery Troon is religious, and when he is revived he fears he has lost his soul.

This asteroid belt story (eight pages) is alright, but it is embedded in another seven-page long first person narrative set on Earth that gives a lot of background about a future world in which, after a devastating war in the Northern Hemisphere, Brazil and Australia are the competing great powers and various islands constitute a "third world" over which they compete for hearts and minds.  As a result this story feels too long. Isfdb is telling me this story is part of a series about the Troon family, so maybe all that (here, superfluous) background detail serves a purpose if you read the entire series.

This story isn't bad, but I am skeptical it was one of the best of 1961 or 1960.  Maybe Merril thought its use of religious themes made it stand out from the crowd.


It's the Cordwainer Smith story, "A Planet Named Shayol," that made me sit up and take notice, but Leiber's "The Beat Cluster" is good and Wyndham's "The Asteroids, 2194" is OK.  The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition continues to prove itself a worthwhile purchase.  I'll sample more of its contents in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed "The Beat Cluster" by Fritz Leiber as well (I was surprised I did) -- his SF short fiction in his collection A Pail of Air impressed me.