Sunday, February 28, 2016

1968 science fiction stories by Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty & Samuel R. Delany

Last week I went to one of the many Half Price Books here in central Ohio (land of the mind-blowingly difficult driving test) to sell a stack of 2nd and 3rd edition AD&D rule books I had never used, and while there I took a look at the science fiction and "nostalgia" shelves.  When I saw Ace 91352, World's Best Science Fiction 1969 edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, I was in love.  The cover by John Schoenherr and the interior illustrations by Jack Gaughan were great, and the anthology included many stories by writers I care about.  Here was one I had to have!

The introduction by the editors is fun, with Wollheim and Carr subtly criticizing the other yearly "best of" SF anthologies and pointing out what makes their own series distinctive.  Wollheim and Carr tell us they don't include fantasy stories in World's Best Science Fiction, and they don't include old stories like some of the other anthologists do ("we don't ring in stories by, say, Alfred Jarry or James Thurber that were originally published in 1930 or 1940.")  My research at isfdb indicates that editors Harrison and Aldiss included James Thurber's 1941 story "Interview with a Lemming" in Best SF: 1967, while it was Judith Merrill who included an Alfred Jarry story in 1966's 11th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, almost 60 years after Jarry's death in 1907.  Wollheim and Carr also claim to try to read every SF story published in the world.  Ambitious!

While I lack the ambition and work ethic of Wollheim and Carr, this weekend I did read three stories from World's Best Science Fiction 1969, the contributions by Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty, and Samuel R. Delany.

"Masks" by Damon Knight

"Masks" first appeared in Playboy, and has been widely anthologized, and was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo.  Will I like this popular favorite?

"Masks" is about the psychological issues of the first man to have his brain transplanted from a ruined human body into a robot body.  As I have said before, I love stories about immortality and minds and brains being transplanted; this is perhaps a product of my fear of death.  So I was on this story's side from the get go.

The guy in the robot body, Air Force veteran Jim, isn't too happy.  The scientists and engineers who are running the experimental robot body program think he's unhappy because he doesn't properly dream, or because his robot body doesn't look human enough.  These eggheads strive to help him have dreams that will stabilize his psychology and to construct him a body, a face in particular, that looks as human as possible.

It seems to me that Jim's "problem" is, in fact, that he is now disgusted by, perhaps even feels contempt for, humanity and all other living things, thinking himself beyond them because he is essentially immortal.  Knight drives home Jim's hatred for life by pointing out how he has had his quarters in the lab protected from germs with special ultraviolet lights and air conditioning systems, and by including an episode in which he murders a canine.  There is a also a cool scene in which Jim broods over people's pimples and saliva and the oil of their skin.  And there is the fact that he habitually wears a blank metal mask over his artificial human-like face, and makes visitors wear surgical masks.

Jim doesn't want to fit into human society by wearing an artificial body that looks just like a normal human body--since he doesn't have adrenal glands and all those sorts of organs he no longer experiences human emotions like fear and love, and so he doesn't have any interest in friends or sex partners.  Instead, he wants to be alone, and sketches designs of four-legged exploration and mining vehicles that he hopes his brain will be installed in so he can live in sterile extraterrestrial environments, far from all life.

A good story with some clues to puzzle over.  What does Jim mean when he compares the eggheads maintaining him to cancer patients?  What emotion is Knight referring to when he writes "there was still one emotion he could feel."?  I like it!  If you were in some college literature class you could compare it to Poul Anderson's classic 1957 story "Call Me Joe," in which a crippled guy wants his consciousness installed in a monster body that is used to explore the surface of some inhospitable moon.              

"This Grand Carcass" by R. A. Lafferty

This one was first published in Amazing Stories; at the time our buddy Barry Malzberg was editing that venerable magazine.  "This Grand Carcass" feels more accessible than most of Lafferty's work that I am familiar with, and even has a sort of traditional horror story structure.

In some interstellar civilization of the future one of the galaxy's most successful businessmen, Juniper Tell, is approached by a similarly successful magnate, Mord. Saying he is all "sucked out" and will soon die, Mord sells Juniper Tell a super robot, the first of the level ten robots, a machine vastly superior to the many robots already in Tell's employ.  In a matter of days this superior machine crushes almost all of Tell's business rivals and vastly enriches Tell, utilizing strategies that are so sophisticated that no human could have thought of them, but which are also amazingly efficient, so efficient that after having been developed, these methods seem like the only way the deed could have been accomplished.

Despite the spectacular successes of his partnership with the super machine, Tell finds himself feeling weak.  Investigation of the new robot reveals that it is not powered by batteries or outlets, like conventional robots, but is living off of Tell's life force, sucking him dry.  Like Mord before him, on the brink of death, Tell sells the vampire machine to another robber baron type.

The style of the story is brisk and silly fun, the little jokes and suggestive names of the various human and robot characters amusing.  Should we furrow our brows and seek a deeper meaning to "This Grand Carcass?"  I think we can see a skepticism of mechanization; Tell derives little satisfaction from business successes derived wholly from letting the machine make all the decisions for him.  In fact, the machine "sucks the spirit and juice" out of the businessmen who employ it.  Perhaps this is Lafferty's commentary on our modern world in which few of us raise our own food, do math without a calculator, or walk when we can ride motor cars everywhere, a world in which we are so reliant on machines it seems ridiculous to try to get things done without using them (how would your friends react if you told them you walked to the grocery store three miles away or calculated your taxes longhand?)  Maybe the story is a warning that if we contract out our very thinking to machines, we will lose our souls.

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

This is a revised version of the story originally published in New Worlds, the famous British flagship of the New Wave. "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" won a Hugo and a Nebula, is specially highlighted on the back of this anthology, and has been reprinted a zillion times, so provides another chance for me to see if I am on the same wavelength as the SF community.  

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" quickly strikes one as a New Wave-ish story, a first person narrative that is full of "word play" ("I hear the breast has been scene [as opposed to obscene] on and off since the seventeenth century"), expresses contempt for "the establishment" (police and businesspeople, for example) and has somewhat absurdist images, like a vast mechanized dairy farm and a gangster who owns and operates an ice cream shop.  In the first few pages the narrative even slips into the present tense, but mostly sticks to past tense.

Our narrator is a young thief and master of disguise who shifts easily from one identity to another, living in a future in which much of the solar system has been colonized and people have constant access to the media via little ear pieces.  In New York City (the Pan Am Building and Grand Central Terminal, buildings I saw every day for years, figure prominently) shortly after getting out of prison on Mars, our hero is approached by a representative of an elite branch of the police force and learns that, through the collection of what we might now call "metadata," the government's computers can predict people's future moves with considerable accuracy.

The narrator is friendly with some of the famous pseudo-bohemian artists known as Singers, and accompanies one to a party in a luxury apartment in upper Manhattan. The Singers and their popularity, we are told, are a response to the alienation from real experience caused by the pervasiveness of mass media; like Homeric bards the Singers are poet-actors whose powerful art can only be experienced at close hand, it being illegal to record their performances.

I guess, with the Singers, Delany is romanticizing the role of the creative performer in pre-mass media days, when art was an intimate personal expression and not (as Delany perhaps sees it) the commodity churned out by organizations as it is today. (Delany wants us to compare the mass-produced milk at the dairy farm where the narrator briefly worked with mass-produced media.)  I don't really take that line myself, and I'm not sure the Singers really work at promoting this sort of democratic, populist idea.  The Singers are like rock stars, adored by the public and catered to wherever they go, but how do they get so popular if it is impossible for ordinary people to access their work via broadcast or recordings?  Delany suggests they are bohemian individualists, but they are in reality creatures of the elite: they benefit from what amounts to a government monopoly or a powerful and exclusive guild system: not only will the government crack down on you if you try to record their performances, but each political division is allowed only a small number of Singers (four for all of New York City) and when a Singer dies a new Singer is selected by the surviving Singers.  (Maybe Delany means to paint the Singers as hypocrites or a sham?)

At the party our narrator sells some stolen goods to a famous gangster known as "The Hawk," the police raid the party, and our narrator escapes because one of his Singer buddies, a disheveled man known as "Hawk" (there's that clever wordplay again, two characters with almost the same name), creates a distraction by giving an impromptu performance that starts a dangerous conflagration and draws a crowd.  The narrator ends up on Triton, where he starts an ice cream shop and pursues illegal activities, becoming a rival to The Hawk.

This story is just OK.  I guess I'm too old or too conservative to find smart alecky thieves and neurotic self-important artists who are members of a tiny elite but pretend to be poor down-and-outers (Hawk wears ratty clothes and walks around barefoot and has some kind of masochistic streak and so is covered in scars and has memorized how he got each scar) inherently interesting or sympathetic, and Delany doesn't do much to make the characters special (are they meant to be archetypes of The Artist, The Cop, etc?)  I couldn't get myself to care whether the cops caught our narrator or that Hawk had sacrificed himself for the narrator.  The story's ideas (mass media is alienating; with statistics you can predict and control society; and politicians, police, gangsters and artists are all part of the establishment and fabric of society and all are equally corrupt and menacing) are OK, I suppose, but not surprising or moving.


None of these stories is bad, and all three say something about man's (potentially dangerous) relationship with high technology.  What do radically improved convenience and efficiency do to the human psyche and human spirit?  But while the Knight has emotional drama and the Lafferty is fun, the Delany reads like a cynical hipster's exercise in style; Delany denounces bourgeois society and romanticizes criminals and creative types, but not in a way that is very entertaining for somebody who doesn't already share the author's sentiments.

In this episode we looked at stories by authors I have had some experience with; next time we'll look at stories in World's Best Science Fiction 1969 by authors with whom I am totally unfamiliar.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there. My name is Kelly and I write the 2 Warps to Neptune blog. I'd like to talk to you about contributing to a potential online magazine focusing on Cold War-era popular and outsider culture, with a strong emphasis on speculative, genre (including sci-fi, obviously), cult, and early geek media: books, comics, film, TV, games - the works. I don't see any contact info on your site. If interested please email me at 2warpstoneptune [at] gmail [dot] com. I'm on Facebook too.