Saturday, April 23, 2016

Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison, and Virginia Kidd tackle The Future Now

Are you ready for some weapons-grade pessimism?  Well, that is what the cover of the 1977 anthology, The Future Now, edited by Robert Hoskins, promises.  Let's crack open the brilliant Richard Powers cover and see if Hugo and Nebula winners Poul Anderson and Harlan Ellison, and literary agent to the stars Virginia Kidd, can deliver the gloom and doom our black hearts crave!

"Home" by Poul Anderson (1966)

This story originally appeared in 1966 in the first of Damon Knight's Orbit volumes, under the title "The Disinherited."  Joachim Boaz wrote about the story last year when he read the entirety of Orbit 1.  I think he liked the story more than I did.

Dutch edition
Each piece of fiction in The Future Now has a new introduction by its author.  Anderson's intro to "Home" is mature, calm, even optimistic.  Sure we got problems, our buddy Poul admits, but people have always had problems.  And people have also always had love, beauty, even heroism, even as we do today.  Poul, this is not the pessimism we are looking for!

The story, however, is suitably pessimistic.  In the future mankind has achieved the ability to travel to alien planets and deploy long-term scientific teams on them.  After a century or so of exploration the Earth suffers from overpopulation and a stifling government, and the interstellar program is shut down.  The story chronicles the reaction of a colony of scientists on the planet Mithras when an expeditionary force arrives from Earth intent on taking them back.  The colonists, having lived on Mithras for three or four generations, have almost no emotional connection to Earth and refuse to leave.  The leader of the force from Earth argues that the boffins must return to Earth, because if they stay on Mithras and multiply they will abuse the native Mithrans, who, though friendly, have a radically different culture than the humans', making conflict inevitable.  The mission commander employs force to get the human colonists to comply with the order to return to Earth.

This story is acceptable, but no big deal.  The plot and characters primarily serve to get across two of Anderson's ideas: that it would be a false economy to cancel a space exploration program, and that different cultures inevitably come to blows.  To make his latter point Anderson piles on all kinds of historical examples: European colonization of the New World, European imperialism in Africa, the long history of Jews living as minorities among other cultures, etc.  While Anderson's arguments are generally persuasive, the story is bland; there is no excitement and I didn't really care what happened to the opposing factions of humans or the unambitious natives who have no concepts of money or property.  

(An aside: "The Disinherited" seems like a better title to me than "Home."  The human race is being disinherited because the space program is cancelled--we deserve to learn all about the universe, that knowledge is our legitimate inheritance.  The humans born on Mithras lost touch with Earth culture; they were disinherited of the many achievements of their race.  They were also disinherited when they had to leave the planet they grew up on, Mithras, and abandon their friendships with the natives.  And if they had stayed their descendents would have disinherited the Mithrans when the inevitable war broke out, a war the more aggressive and efficient humans would be sure to win.)      

"Silent in Gehenna" by Harlan Ellison (1971)

I currently reside in Ohio, where, it turns out, Ellison was born and spent much of his youth.  Near Columbus is a town called Gahanna, which never ceases to amaze me; apparently "Gahanna" is an Indian word for the confluence of three rivers, but you'd think the founders of the town would have shied away from a name which sounds so much like a word used as a synonym for Hell and which was first applied to a place of human sacrifice.

(Perhaps appropriately, my dentist's office is in Gehenna, I mean Gahanna.)

In his intro to the story Ellison praises Robert Heinlein and brags that he (Ellison) was spied upon by the Johnson and Nixon administrations ("I put my body on the line") for his commitment to social change.  He warns that if we pay too much attention to the common people (they are "frightened masses" who have a "beast mentality") that dissenters will be burned at the stake.  He laments that the 1970s are a period of "Fifties-style apathy."  Now this is the elitist pessimism we are looking for!

"Silent in Gehenna," which first appeared in The Many Worlds of Science Fiction, an anthology edited by Ben Bova, is a sort of polemical fable with jokes and a few experimental literary techniques.  I'm not crazy about fables and satires.  I like a story which has some kind of emotional resonance, and I am rarely moved by a story which is full of absurd exaggerations and surreal nonsense, a story which makes no effort to create a believable world.  I'm the only person who doesn't like Ellison's universally beloved "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"--besides being a silly and extravagant fable, it is based on a weak and solipsistic premise, that premise being that Harlan Ellison is too important to have to meet deadlines.  I have a similar attitude about "Silent in Gehenna."  The premise of this one is that nobody really listens to Harlan Ellison as he points out the world's injustices; if they did, maybe they would do something about those injustices!  I think "Silent in Gehenna" is a little more sophisticated than "'Repent, Harlequin'" because it integrates the criticism of welfare state liberalism you hear from hardcore leftists, that efforts to ameliorate the problems of the downtrodden of society (with food stamps and housing vouchers, say) make it harder to radically change society (e.g., by nationalizing and collectivizing farms and real estate) and solve the downtroddens' problems once and for all.  (I don't agree with this view, but I find it thought-provoking.)

In the dystopian future college campuses are like POW camps in which the students are held behind electrified fences, watched over by armed guards, trained only to serve the evil corporations!  One-man guerilla army Joe Bob Hickey sneaks into college campuses and blows up buildings and tries to inspire the students to revolt. But do people want to revolt?  No, the foolish masses do not want to revolt, they are suffering from false consciousness, blinded by patriotic propaganda and a timid desire for law and order!

In the crazy symbolical ending Joe Bob is spirited away by aliens, conscripted to act as the conscience of this alien society, in which one race of creatures lords it over a smaller and weaker worker race.  When the strong abuse the weak, Joe Bob yells at them.  Joe Bob's yelling does nothing to change the iniquitous society; in fact, Joe Bob may merely be helping the oppressors assuage their guilt, unwittingly buttressing the immoral society by relieving the pressure that might lead to radical change!          

Joachim wrote about "Silent in Gehenna" in 2013 when he read the Ellison collection Approaching Oblivion.  I'm sure he liked it a lot more than I did!

"Flowering Season" by Virginia Kidd (1966)

Kidd served as literary agent to some of the most critically acclaimed SF writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, R. A. Lafferty, and Gene Wolfe, writers who have received accolades beyond the SF ghetto.  This story first appeared under the title "Kangaroo Court" in the first Orbit; Joachim reviewed it when he discussed that volume.   (It seems like I'm stalking Mr. Boaz today, doesn't it? I assure you, and the authorities, that this is purely a coincidence!)

British edition
Joachim and I agree on this one--it is bad. Long (45 pages!) and tedious, poorly structured and paced, full of extraneous gunk but no interesting characters or compelling events, it is a real waste of time.  I try on this blog to make a distinction between stories that are not for me, either because they are not to my taste or offend my sensibilities in some way, and stories which are just incompetent. "Flowering Season" is the latter, a poor piece of work with almost nothing to recommend it to anybody.

In the future the Earth has a world government and a class-bound society; this arrangement has brought universal peace, but there is little or no competition or ambition and civilization is sterile, static, stagnant.  Aliens that look like kangaroos arrive, and negotiate with the Earth government.  Kidd's story is, in part, about office politics, and a government official who suspects the aliens are inimical and must be destroyed keeps all data about the aliens from the official who is supposed to negotiate with the ETs; negotiator guy is just coming off a six-month vacation studying Eastern mysticism.  (Talk about Eastern mysticism is some of the extraneous gunk I mentioned earlier.)  I guess it is supposed to be funny when the negotiator bungles his meeting with the visitors, and I guess the six pages of intelligence reports we read along with him are also supposed to be funny.  None of this is funny.  The negotiator gets his act together and we readers endure page after page of human-space kangaroo dialogue that is so boring I wonder how Kidd kept awake at her typewriter while writing it.

We get what amounts to a happy ending when the kangaroo aliens capture the single belligerent human and leave with him, and we are assured that the encounter with the aliens will inspire human civilization to again embrace risk and the adventure of exploring the universe.

"Flowering Season" is a strong contender for the worst story I have read during the period I have been writing this blog.  It is not bad in a funny or spectacular way, it is bad in a way that deadens the soul and makes you consider abandoning the written word entirely and embracing the idiot box as your sole source of entertainment.  I don't know why Hoskins thought it worth including; it only barely meets the volume's "the future is going to suck!" theme.

Kidd's intro isn't bad.  She laments that Earth's space programs were prodded not by pure motives but Cold War competition, and predicts that they will be abandoned in the future due to considerations of cost and safety.  Kidd also lays on us some of the elitist attitudes we saw in the Ellison selection: "The pollster's man in the street cannot see any point in space exploration...."  This introduction provides no warning of how dreadful the story is going to be.


These three stories are about ideas more than they are about people.  I am able to enjoy an "idea story" which lacks good characters and plot if the idea is new and exciting, but the ideas in these stories (space exploration is good, different cultures don't get along, people are apathetic) feel sort of obvious, even tired.  Anderson tries to give us touching characters and human emotion and just reaches the finish line (in fact, compared to the broad allegorical caricatures in Ellison's story and the flat zeros in Kidd's, Anderson's people, which I thought bland, look deep and rich.)  Ellison gives us literary fireworks, but, in my opinion, doesn't quite make it.  Kidd never leaves the starting gate.  I have to admit that I haven't enjoyed The Future Now as much as I had expected.

Among its stories The Future Now also includes Edward Bryant's "Shark," which I read in 2014 and liked, and Barry Malzberg's "Final War," which I remember finding limp when I read it long ago.  Bryant's intro to "Shark" in this book is quite fun; he talks about the genesis of this story, about the prevalence of nice dolphins in SF, and derides Peter Benchley, author of Jaws.  Malzberg's introduction to his story is also worth reading; he talks a little about the conditions under which the story, which was pivotal for his career, was written, and about its reception.  "I remain grateful for the sale and the career it made me," he tells us.


Finally, let's take a look at one of the ads in the back of The Future Now, a page which has a fun graphic, promises "The Universe of Science Fiction" and lists twelve books, several of which seem worthy of comment.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, is a feminist anthology; the text on the cover, "Amazing Tales of the Ultimate Sexual Revolution," it seems to me, hopes to seduce potential purchasers with a promise of erotic content.

Joachim warned us against Cloned Lives back in late 2013.

I own Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting but have not read it yet.  I think Joachim owns this, but I don't think he has written about it.

I thought Stochastic Man was a weak Silverberg and said so at Amazon in 2007.

Ghosts, Castles and Victims is a huge (over 500 pages) anthology of excerpts from classics that fit into the "gothic" category (including Walpole, Poe, Dickens, Blackwood, Stoker) plus short stories stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Edmond Hamilton and essays about the gothic by the editors.  I'd probably buy this if I saw it at a store for the prices I usually pay for old paperbacks (2 bucks or less.)

The Late Great Future is another anthology about how the future is going to suck--it has bigger "name" writers than does The Future Now, like Ray Bradbury, Daniel Keyes, C. S. Lewis, John D. McDonald and Roald Dahl.  I'd probably pay a buck or two for this.

And of course I have fond memories of H. G. Wells' Time Machine and War of the Worlds--I believe this Fawcett omnibus edition of the novels has an intro by Isaac Asimov and a cool red cover by Paul Lehr.

As always, readers who have read any of the advertised books, or anything out of The Future Now, are invited to share their insights in the comments!

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