Tuesday, May 3, 2016

1971 stories by Michael Coney, Poul Anderson, & Christopher Priest

Let's continue reading The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, the work of DAW Books and its founder, Hugo- and Nebula-winner Donald A. Wollheim.  Are these really three of the best science fiction stories of 1971?

"The Sharks of Pentreath" by Michael G. Coney (1971)

MPorcius Fiction Log superfans will be well aware that I recently aquired a copy of Charles Platt's 1980 book Dreammakers, a collection of what you might call "New Journalism" interviews of SF authors.  This book is a treasure trove for the reader of 20th century SF.  One of the interviewees is Hank Stine, who currently goes by the name Jean Marie Stine and identifies as a woman.  Stine's interview is fun in part because he was not afraid to take a hatchet to many individuals, from Dean Koontz and Piers Anthony to Lin Carter and John Varley, as well as wide swathes of the American population, from Catholics to the middle class to those who think science can solve our problems.  Stine picks out Michael Coney for particular criticism when he suggests that too many SF novels of the 1970s are based on outlandish, "unworkable" premises; he uses Coney's Friends Come in Boxes as an example.

Stine's opinion does not appear to be a consensus one: Theodore Sturgeon, Brian Aldiss, tarbandu and Joachim Boaz all seem to have a soft spot for Coney--Joachim praises Friends Come in Boxes specifically.  I read some Coney stories myself in the period before I started this blog, and while I have to admit I don't remember them at all well, my notes suggest I thought them acceptable.  Stine's interview has got me curious not only about Stine herself, but about Coney, so I'm eager to see what's up with "The Sharks of Pentreath."

Like the novel Friends Come in Boxes (which I myself have not read),"The Sharks of Pentreath" is about a drastic societal response to the problem of overpopulation. Reminding me a little of Philip José Farmer's novel Dayworld and the story upon which it was based, 1971's "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World," in Coney's story the human race has been split into three groups ("rotations" or "shifts.")  Every two years out of three, people are confined to steel cabinets and survive on an IV drip; this period is called "Stilllife."  During Stilllife people are conscious, and control robots called "remoters."  Through the remoters people act as tourists, travelling as widely across the world as their budgets allow.  During their "Fulllife" periods people work at jobs, accumulating the money they will spend on trips during their next Stilllife period.

Pentreath is an English seaside town which survives on the tourist trade.  Our main characters are a married couple; the husband, our narrator, is one of the "sharks" of the title, one of the not-quite-scrupulous small businessmen who take advantage of the tourists.  (His wife acts as a foil, being generous and kind, "putting people before profits" as the pinkos propose.)  Over the course of the story we learn the background of this future world, and get to know the protagonist, who is kind of a jerk, and the other "sharks."  An encounter with an elderly couple (who are visiting via remoters) works a change in our callous and misanthropic narrator; we have reason to believe that in the period after the story he will turn over a new leaf and endeavour to have a warmer and more human relationship with his wife and with his community.

Coney's style is good, and the physical settings and all the characters are believable, so I enjoyed the story.  "The Sharks of Pentreath" is certainly vulnerable to the charge Stine lays against Friends Come in Boxes, that its premise is unrealistic--I don't think people in a free society (and the England in the story still has freedom of association and private property and all that) would accept the system it describes--but this didn't diminish the pleasure I derived from reading it.

Another possible criticism is that the science fiction element of the story is superfluous--this is a story about how the example set by another couple opens a man's eyes to how to better interact with his own wife and community, it is a conventional piece of fiction about "the human heart" with an unnecessary SF element just laid on top of it.  Again, while a valid criticism, this "problem" didn't stop me from enjoying the story.  

"A Little Knowledge" by Poul Anderson (1971)

I compared an earlier story from The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, Stephen Tall's "The Bear with the Knot on His Tail," to a weak version of a Poul Anderson tale.  Well, here's the real deal!  Our buddy Poul starts us off with a two-page astronomy lecture.  (If you don't already know what Roche's Limit is, Anderon provides you incentive to look it up on google.)  You see, there's this big planet, which under ordinary circumstances would be an uninhabitable "subjovian," but it's got this oversized moon in a lopsided orbit, see, that has been scooping away at the atmosphere for millennia....
This is a fun, entertaining story that comfortably fits in the classic SF template of hard science, engineering, space ships, blasters and aliens embedded in an adventure plot.  And if you are wondering what interstellar trade might be like (I know with the election going the way it is going some of you businesspeople out there are scrambling for a way to get off the planet), "A Little Knowledge," like Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession" in this same volume, presents some ideas.

Three human career criminals hijack a space ship piloted by a single small alien, a member of a sophisticated, artistic, and ambitious culture.  (I thought Anderson had perhaps based this alien society, with its elaborate courtesy and embrace of Terra's high technology, on Japan.)  The pirates have a scheme to get rich using the ship as the nucleus of a space navy they will build among belligerent aliens who are at a pre-hyper drive technological level.  The short alien triumphs over the pirates and spares galactic civilization a border war through his superior knowledge of the hard sciences and engineering.

"A Little Knowledge" first appeared in Analog, and is set in the period of Anderson's Polesotechnic League--Nicholas Van Rijn, whom we have read about several times during the course of this blog's life, even gets a mention!

Just the right length, density and tone--I liked it.

"Real-Time World" by Christopher Priest (1971)

I liked Priest's Inverted World (check out tarbandu and couchtomoon's laudatory reviews of that BSFA-winning novel), but the ending disappointed me, partly because I couldn't understand the science behind it, partly because it undermined the exciting setting the first part of the book had so evocatively described.  (Sometimes I regret finding out what the man behind the curtain is up to.)

"Real-Time World," which first boggled the mind in New Writings in SF19, is reminiscent of Inverted World in a number of ways--people in an enclosed structure discover they have been deceived about the nature of the outside world, and that their perceptions are perhaps not to be trusted.  There is also some science which I couldn't quite wrap my brain around.

The setting is what the narrator calls an "observatory."  He tells us that mankind has developed a time machine (hooray!) but it can only send you back in time a nanosecond (awwww....)  But don't be discouraged--if you are a nanosecond back in time you are invisible to everybody else!  This invisibility can negate the observer effect (sometimes colloquially called Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) and so one of these time machines, this very observatory, was deployed on an alien planet where a bunch of scientists can observe the life and environment there surreptitiously.

But studying the alien world isn't the only research going on in the observatory!  The researchers themselves are the subject of an experiment!  "Real-Time World" is, in part, about "the news."  In an effort to figure out how much "the news" affects a person's life, the people running the experiment only dole out a small, carefully selected, portion of the news from Earth to the observatory staff.  (There is a lot of exciting news from Earth because of all the Cold War tensions, food shortages, pollution, race riots, and other 1970s obsessions going on.)  Of the observatory staff, only our narrator is in on the experiment, and he carefully records the effects of the lack of news on the scientists.  In a way I didn't understand, the change in their diet of news gave the scientists the ability to predict the future.  As the story draws to a close, they reveal their most shocking prediction: that a catastrophic war between East and West has erupted on the Earth's surface!

The scientists have also realized what the narrator already knows, that the observatory is not on an alien planet at all!  The researchers were hypnotized into believing this lie, a deception bolstered by prerecorded films played on their viewscreens that simulate views of the fictional alien planet.  But there is something the narrator and the eggheads disagree about.  The narrator believes the observatory is on Earth's moon. The boffins are sure they are in fact on Earth.  Who has been conditioned to believe an illusion, and who recognizes the truth?  The stakes in this dispute are high because the scientists insist on opening the airlock and going outside!  They have no space suits, so if the airlock opens onto the surface of the moon they will be killed at once! As the story ends, the narrator sits safely in his office, and we can't be sure whether the scientists are dead on the lunar surface or exploring an Earth ravaged by atomic war.  In fact, we can't be sure anything in the story was true and not simply an illusion inflicted on our narrator.

I wanted to like this story because I liked the claustrophobic setting described in the first few pages (for example, the observatory is apparently beset by dangerous cracks that could let in the outside vacuum) and that the narrator was the sole non-scientist among a group of scientists, and thought of himself as the only sane man among a multitude of insane people.  I've often found myself the only grad school drop-out among college professors, the only Easterner among MidWesterners, the only white person among nonwhites, the only American among foreigners, and so forth, and identify with this kind of situation (in our modern world of diversity, nonconformity and cheap travel I think many people have these kinds of experiences.)  But Priest doesn't do much with these themes, instead moving on to many other ideas (I guess those cracks were just an illusion seen only by the narrator.)

These stories which end with you doubting every single thing that happened in the story make important philosophical points (our senses are not to be trusted, free will is a myth, maybe you should have paid more attention to the lectures on Descartes and Hume back in Philosophy 101) but are not necessarily fun to read.  In our last episode I gave the "doubt everything" story by Joanna Russ in The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, "Gleepsite," a sort of guarded passing grade, but her story was short and tight, and made me furrow my brow as I tried to figure out the puzzle.  In comparison, "Real-Time World" seems long and unfocused, full of extraneous matter, and made me roll my eyes; I think I have to give this one a marginal thumbs down.


Taken as a group, not bad; I enjoyed the human-centric Coney and the meat and potatoes hard SF Anderson, and I am sure lots of people are keen on the Priest.

In our next installment, three more pieces from The 1972 Annual World's Best SF: we've got one-of-a-kind scribe R. A. Lafferty, movie-tie-in machine Alan Dean Foster, and Leonard Tushnet, about whom I know nothing.


  1. "The Sharks of Pentreath" by Michael G. Coney (1971) -- ah, I can add it to my overpopulation list! As for ridiculous premises, my rebuttal of that criticism is simple -- allegory can be a powerful tool to tackle human themes. For example, I doubt they would critique Borges' short story The Library of Babel. What matters is what they do with said premise... I mean, some Christopher Priest pulls one off in the stunning The Inverted World (I know, I know, you critique his story here -- I have it in his collection by the same name as the story)...

  2. Hi! I would like to ask you some questions about new wave sci-fi. How can I get in contact with you?

    1. You can e-mail me at mporcius "at" gmail .com.