Wednesday, April 27, 2016

1971 stories by Larry Niven, Joanna Russ and Stephen Tall

I recently purchased a coffee-stained copy of the hardcover edition of Donald Wollheim's The 1972 Annual World's Best SF.  This Book Club Edition has a Frazetta cover with a weird color scheme that celebrates the beauty of the human body, exudes confidence, and includes a wacky robot in the background.  Let's check out some stories first published in the year of my birth!

"The Fourth Profession" by Larry Niven (1971)

This story first appeared in Quark/4, which I also purchased recently. Wollheim, in his intro to "The Fourth Profession," calls Quark "probably the farthest out of the 'New Wave' original collections."

As Wollheim hints, "The Fourth Profession" isn't really very New Wavey.  It is a very good traditional SF story, with aliens, science, a guy developing super mental powers, and a "humanity is on the brink of exploring the stars" sense of wonder ending.  I really enjoyed it.  Niven writes it in an economical style, without any extraneous distractions, but still manages to include clues and foreshadowing and interesting astronomy, chemistry, psychology, and religion, as well as speculation on how interstellar merchants might behave.

"The Fourth Profession" has a sort of detective story structure, beginning in medias res, the morning after a bartender, our first person narrator, served an alien at his bar. Through flashbacks and an interview of the bartender conducted by a Secret Service agent curious about the extraterrestrial, we gradually learn what happened last night at the bar.  The aliens are purveyors of pills that alter the brain chemistry of those who eat them, giving them memories--by eating the correct pill you can, almost instantly, become an expert in a complicated topic like a foreign language or the history of a civilization, or learn a complex skill, like how to pilot a spaceship or how to build a fusion reactor.  The pills can also alter your personality.  The alien fed the narrator and the bar's waitress some pills, and the three main characters, bartender, waitress and government agent, scramble to figure out what the pills did to them and what the alien's purpose in giving them out was.  They begin to suspect the aliens are absolutely merciless (considering civilizations like our own that have not achieved interstellar flight to be no better than animals) and that the human race is in grave danger!  In the final part of the story the bar is again visited by an alien, and our narrator uses his wits and the abilities he has gained from those earlier pills to save the day and set the human race on the course to an heroic future.  

The story I read before this one shook my faith in the written word, as I chronicled in my last blog post.  But Larry Niven has restored that faith!  "The Fourth Profession" is a very entertaining, well-structured and well-executed tale--Wollheim (and Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker, editors of Quark) were wise to publish it!  

"Gleepsite" by Joanna Russ (1971)

I've spent way too much time (in what the kids call "meatspace") with leftist college professors to relish reading fiction by one.  But when I took a chance on Joanna Russ's Hugo-winning "Souls," I found it was actually a pretty good story!  Let's see if lightning strikes twice.  "Gleepsite" first appeared in Orbit 9, and in his intro Wollheim suggests we read it multiple times.

This five-page story is a little opaque, but let's try to figure it out.  (I did read it twice!)

The setting: a future Earth in which the air is a deadly acid poison, and people now live in buildings retrofitted to be airtight.  Ninety-seven percent of the population is female because the authorities deemed men to be "inefficient."

The characters: Two middle-aged women, twins, who work in a travel office on the 31st floor of a skyscraper, and our narrator, some kind of shape-shifting creature who can breathe the poison air.

The plot:  Our narrator, at night when few people are in the skyscraper, accosts the twins and tries to sell them a device.  This device, consisting of a ring and a necklace, allows you to experience preprogrammed daydreams and even (I think) transmit your own daydreams to others; in practice the device seems to conjure up vivid and realistic illusions.  The narrator convinces the women to purchase the device, and then opens an airtight window and, sprouting bat wings, flies out into the deadly atmosphere.

"Gleepsite" is all about illusion and deception and how forms and identities are malleable and names are changeable, are arbitrary.  (As Wollheim indicates in his intro to the piece, there is no clue what "gleepsite" means.)  The narrator creates illusions and peddles an illusion-generating device, deceives and manipulates her customers, and starts calling them by names that are not their own, but which she thinks appropriate.  Thanks to the narrator, the twins will soon be creating illusions of their own and themselves acting deceptively (breaking the law in their use of the device.)

The narrator seems to have a lot in common with traditional depictions of the Devil: her bat wings, her shape-shifting nature, her seductive and dishonest bargaining, the way she corrupts the twins, and the use of the word "hell" to describe the post-apocalyptic Earth.  If we accept the fire and brimstone apocalypse at face value, it certainly makes sense for the Devil to be there, right?

But in a story about illusion, deception, and daydreams, does it make sense to accept the setting (or anything?) at face value?  Especially when we remember that one of Russ's most famous stories, "The Zanzibar Cat," is a nonsensical story in which the story itself is a fabrication of one of its characters?  I am boldly going to suggest that the setting and plot of "Gleepsite" are the daydream of a person who might find a world with almost no men congenial.  Russ herself may be such a person-- consider that (Wikipedia is telling me) she was a lesbian and anti-pornography activist, and that in "Souls" she portrays men as creeps and heterosexual sex as something disgusting. The text of "Gleepsite" itself paints men in a pretty negative light, not only suggesting they are "inefficient" but, by referring to how women in pre-apocalyptic days would dance on tables for the pleasure of male viewers and engage in prostitution, portraying the typical man as an exploiter of women.  A clue that suggests to me that the setting is not "real" but a fictional construct conceived by the narrator for her own gratification is that parts of it read like an incomplete draft of a story, with dates and minor characters' names yet to be filled in ("In the year blank-blank, when the great neurosurgical genius, Blank, working with Blank and Blank, discovered in the human forebrain....")

"Gleepsite," appears to be, in whole or in part, an insoluble puzzle.  It is hard for me to recommend it based on conventional criteria; I can't tell you it is fun or entertaining or beautiful or anything like that.  But as an unusual, mysterious, dense and thought-provoking piece, I think reading it has been a worthwhile experience.

"The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" by Stephen Tall (1971)

I didn't recognize Tall's name; isfdb indicates he published something like 20 stories and a single novel. ("Stephen Tall" was the pen name of biology professor Compton Crook.) "The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" is one of Tall's series of stories about the exploration ship Stardust.  One collection of Stardust tales, The Stardust Voyages, has the phrase "In the great tradition of Star Trek" emblazoned on its cover.  Even though I had never heard of its author, "The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" was a cover story for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and this wasn't the only time Tall's name would appear on the cover of a magazine like F&SF or Worlds of If.  I guess editors considered him a draw.

I wanted to like this traditional first contact story, and the plot is fine, but I found the story poorly structured.  There are too many boring scenes of people sitting around having boring conversations, and too much time is spent introducing these characters and setting the scene.  The beginning feels like the start of a novel.  It makes sense to spend a dozen pages introducing us to characters and setting in a full-length novel, but this story is less than forty pages, so those 12 pages feel like too big of an investment, especially since there is really no payoff--the characters' personalities don't have any real impact on the plot and they don't change over the course of the story.

Speaking of personality, the characters feel a little silly, too flat, too stock, too obvious.  There's the sophisticated English gentleman who has impeccable taste in clothes and always keeps a stiff upper lip; the gruff and cynical guy who lost a leg on an earlier mission; the sexy wife of the narrator who is a talented musician as well as a scientist; and the eccentric artist who has a "sixth sense" which provides her with uncanny insights.  The Stardust is staffed with the best scientists in the galaxy, and we hear again and again how each member of the crew is the best in his or her field--every character in this story is a genius!

The plot: Stardust is in orbit near Luna, listening to a mysterious and untraceable transmission of alien music.  None of the ship's technology can figure out where the transmission is coming from, but the crazy painter has an intuition that she expresses in her latest painting, a canvas depicting the constellations.  The evocative music is, she senses, coming from the direction of Ursa Major's tail, so thither flies the Stardust. The transmission turns out to be the swan song, dirge and S.O.S. of an alien civilization whose sun is about to go nova--the Stardust arrives just 33 hours before this intelligent species is about to be exterminated!  The narrator's sexy wife communicates with the aliens via the universal language of music (she is a guitarist) and the Stardust takes aboard the recorded history and culture of the doomed aliens, and a box full of tiny larval aliens, to be planted on a suitable planet so this noble race will not truly expire, but be reborn on a new world.

This story isn't exactly bad, but it stretches 15 or 20 ages of material to double that length--there are no villains or challenges for the geniuses to use their genius to overcome, so we end up with an  idea/mood story whose idea/mood is "how would you act if your civilization was doomed?" with lots of superfluous character descriptions appended to it.  (This story would work at least as well if the Stardust was a one-man rocket.)  Maybe the story works better as part of a body of linked stories?  I sure hope every single Stardust story doesn't spend the amount of time introducing the characters and the ship that this one does!

"The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" reminded me a little of something Heinlein or Anderson might do (supercompetent people, themes of nobility in the face of adversity, a sense of the tragic, a "liberated" attitude about sex) but lacks any style or intellectual or ideological commitment: Heinlein and Anderson usually use a story to speculate about the future, give you advice on how to run your life, and/or express their beliefs about society, economy, religion, or the government.  Tall's story doesn't do anything like that.

Acceptable, but I don't think it belongs in this book of "Best" stories alongside the well-crafted Niven or the challenging Russ.  Maybe Wollheim thought he needed a space ship story to balance the volume's more experimental content?


None of these stories is actually bad, and the Niven is a gem, so we have a good start to The 1972 Annual World's Best SF.  Three more selections from the volume (by Michael Coney, Poul Anderson and Christopher Priest) in our next episode!

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