Friday, February 12, 2016

Four stories by Thomas F. Monteleone

Thomas F. Monteleone's name is one I have seen in anthologies and magazines, and at blogs like tarbandu's and Will Errickson's, for years, but I have never seriously looked into his work.  (I did read a single short short by Monteleone a while ago.)  This week I decided to pull down from my shelves four publications containing stories by Monteleone and check them out in chronological order.

The terrific cover to the Italian
edition of Future City.
"Chicago" (1973)

This one appears in Roger Elwood's anthology Future City.  Both Joachim Boaz and tarbandu have read Future City in its entirety and written about it at their great blogs.  I've actually read most of Future City myself (in Joachim's comments section I gush about the Lafferty story and also praise the Malzberg and the Silverberg) but for whatever reason I didn't read Monteleone's "Chicago" until this week.

"Chicago" is a pretty traditional SF story, but it is well done, so I enjoyed it.  (Who am I kidding?  I love traditional SF stories!)  Millions of years in the future the domed city of Chicago, run by computers and robots, continues to function smoothly, lights coming on at night and going off at dawn, mass transit operating, and so forth.  But there are no human beings in the buildings or on the streets!  The only people in the city are those cryogenically preserved back in the 2nd millennium because of their incurable diseases.  When a malfunction results in one of these individuals being accidentally revived, the 70-foot tall maintenance robot who discovers her becomes curious about the history of mankind.  (He is also fascinated by her breasts and genitalia.)  Through research in the library, and then firsthand when he goes AWOL beyond the dome in search of our descendants, the robot learns that the human race is a bunch of violent, racist, environment-wrecking jerk-offs!

"Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" (1975)

This tale appeared in another Roger Elwood feel-good production, Dystopian Visions, and is in the same Chicago-centered fictional universe as "Chicago."  In 1977 a fix-up of Monteleone's four Chicago stories would be published under the title The Time-Swept City.  I read "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" in my copy of Nebula Winners Twelve, edited by Gordon Dickson.  The story takes its title from an A. E. Housman poem, "Reveille."  (Dickson had a poor editor; in my copy of Nebula Winners Twelve Housman's name is misspelled and we are told the poem is titled "Rebellion.")  Like everybody, I love "When I Was One-and-Twenty," and so did not hesitate to read "Reveille" in preparation for experiencing Monteleone's story. Housman's poem seems to be telling me that I should have devoted my life to going on adventures instead of reading books and taking naps.  Too late!

"Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" takes place millions of years before "Chicago."  In the interests of efficiency, the computer which runs the authoritarian Chicago society has totally alienated the human race from the physical realities of sex.  People don't have sexual intercourse, but satisfy their natural urges via drugs and what we would call virtual sex in the entertainment quarter or cybersex with their spouses.  We see the protagonist, Benjamin, have sex with his wife by laying next to her in bed, not touching her, each of them hooked up via electrodes to a machine which synchronizes their orgasms!

Physical sex has been outlawed to prevent the birth of "randoms."  As in an insect colony or some kind of factory, the central computer only authorizes the birth of genetically engineered people of specific types for which there is specific need.  (As in Brave New World, every person born is a member of a specific caste with specific functions in society.) People are born in the wombs of huge mutant women who live in vats, host mothers that look like amoebas and can carry thirty children at a time.  These host mothers have no eyes or ears, and communicate with the men who maintain the vats via telepathy.

Benjamin is one of the men who monitors the vats, using a helmet to hold telepathic conversations with one of the host mothers, Feraxya.  Something goes wrong--the thirty fetuses to whom Feraxya is playing host are not going to come out as engineered, but as "randoms."  (Just like you and me, reader!)  The government, of course, orders the fetuses aborted, but Feraxya rebels, insisting that her thirty children "have as much right to live as you or me."  Unbeknownst to anyone, Feraxya has developed telekinetic powers that allow her to attack the abortion team with deadly force!  Who will live and who will die?  Will totalitarian Chicago survive or fall to some kind of revolution?  

It is easy to see both conservative and feminist themes in this story; women relegated to being breeding machines for the totalitarian state, skepticism of abortion and genetic engineering, the dangers of divorcing sex from procreation via medical technology and pornographic entertainment.  The story also has good human relationship and horror elements.  I like it!

"Spare the Child" (1982)

This is a good horror story with disturbing erotic and cross-cultural overtones.  It is also one of those stories in which women cause men nothing but trouble.  I know it is hard to believe, but men used to think that way!  Thank heavens we have people nowadays dedicated to making sure such thinking remains a thing of the past!  I read "Spare the Child" in my copy of the January 1982 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Russell lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife Mitzi and works in Manhattan. Mitzi always has some little project she is working on, and, in response to an ad in the New York Times, her current project is to "be a foster parent" to a child in the Third World.  "Be a foster parent" is a euphemism for sending 15 dollars a month overseas.  Russell is the one who writes out the checks, and so it is to Russell that their foster daughter, a prepubescent girl named Tnen-Ku who lives on a Pacific island, addresses brief letters thanking him and calling him "second papa."  The first letter is accompanied by a surprisingly provocative topless photo of the black-haired, black-eyed girl.  After a few months Mitzi grows tired of being a foster mother to a girl (whom she has come to think of as a "tart") who never uses Mitzi's name in her insultingly short letters, and so asks Russell to cease payment; besides, she wants to use the money on new curtains, her next project.

Russell stops sending the money, and Tnen-Ku, with her eyes that seem "like empty holes in her face" and her "deeply tanned flesh" begins haunting Russell, alternately seductively and terrifyingly.  Monteleone's depictions of the many creative ways the girl terrorizes Russell are effective; I particularly liked the appearance of a box of little animated bones which spell out threatening messages.

Good solid horror.  Social sciences and humanities students could write reams about the way women and foreigners are depicted in the story--they nag you, waste your money, use their bodies to manipulate you, and then when you resist them they threaten you with prison and/or death!

"Triptych di Amore" (1994)

This one I read in my copy of Poppy Z. Brite's anthology Love in Vein, which I acquired recently.  The cover of the book really pushes Brite as an exciting new personality, from text declaring her "America's new bestselling dark fantasy author" on the front to a gushing blurb about her from Dan Simmons, and a photo, on the back. (I have to admit she looks pretty adorable in that photo.)  A little disappointingly, none of Brite's own stories appear in the anthology.  However, I am looking forward to the included Koja/Malzberg story, and the story by the Tems, as I have liked horror stories in the past by Kathe Koja, Malzberg, and Melanie Tem. (There is a Wolfe story in Love in Vein, "Queen of the Night," which I read multiple times before the birth of this blog and definitely recommend.)

But first the Monteleone story, "Triptych di Amore."  I'm afraid this story was a little too goofy for me, goofy and obvious.  I thought Monteleone did things that were creative and thought-provoking in "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" and "Spare the Child," but "Triptych di Amore" feels like pornographic fanfic.  If you ever wanted an excuse to visualize Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Vincent Van Gogh performing cunnilingus on a blonde with pubic hair as "fine and wispy and soft as the down on a newborn chick," well, here it is!  

As the title suggests, "Triptych di Amore" consists of three related episodes.  Each episode relates an adventure of a beautiful green-eyed blonde named Lyrica who is virtually immortal and seeks out great artists to seduce.  The first episode is a third-person narrative about Lyrica's torrid affair with Mozart.  Sample goofy oral sex line: "He had never imagined a woman could be so clean."   The second episode consists of Van Gogh's secret journal--while sharing a country studio with Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh has an affair with Lyrica.  Sample goofy oral sex line: "A month has passed and I am truly mad for her touch and the lingering smell of her cunt in my beard."

Both Mozart and Van Gogh find that Lyrica is the most beautiful woman they have ever met, and the best lover they have ever had.  Sex with Lyrica energizes them initially and inspires them to produce their greatest work, but after a few months of feverish coupling with Lyrica she tires of them and the artists fall physically and/or mentally ill and die.

In the third section of the story Lyrica falls into the clutches of an Italian exorcist.  She transforms into a giant snake (the exorcist calls her a "lamia") but the priest stuns her with a glowing communion wafer.  Lyrica is entombed under an altar, the priest and his friends hope for eternity, but in a coda Monteleone suggests that an errant bomb dropped from a B-17 in 1944 may liberate the seductress.

The first two sections seem like a sincere but clumsy attempt at writing erotic material, while the last two sections come across as jokes.  However serious or silly Monteleone is being here, I felt like this story was a waste of my time, so I will have to give it the thumbs down.


Looking back on these four stories, I think I can detect some common themes, even though they span a period of over twenty years.  In all of them, woman, in particular woman's sexuality, is a destabilizing force, putting individuals, and sometimes entire societies, in danger.  More generally, these stories strike me as having themes of interest to Christians.  I'm no Biblical scholar, but doesn't a desire for knowledge lead to Adam being cast out of Eden?  And isn't that what happens to the robot in "Chicago?"  "Triptych di Amore" has a juvenile horror movie Christianity, what with the crusading priest who uses the Eucharist to defeat the satanic monster, and "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" addresses issues that have been important to post-war Christians in America, like abortion, pornography and recreational sex.  "Spare the Child" is about charity; Russell even gives Mitzi a little virtue-is-its-own-reward speech about how they shouldn't expect any kind of benefit for helping Tnen-Ku.  

While I was disappointed with "Triptych di Amore," I thought "Chicago" pretty good and "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" and "Spare the Child" quite good.  I'll keep my eyes open for more Monteleone in the future.

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