Friday, July 29, 2016

The Anarchistic Colossus by A. E. Van Vogt

Hal said slowly, "An anarchist society, Mike, has a problem in basic survival.  The original anarchists believed that anarchism would naturally have a socialist framework in which everybody joined together in professional or trade unions and that way helped keep things going by agreement.  But when anarchism finally came it was a product of extreme rightist individualists and the technologists.  The Techs worked out the Kirlian thing, and the rightists set it up so that each person could do as he pleased-- except no forcing anybody to do anything."

I had such a great time with Quest for the Future in our last installment of MPorcius Fiction Log that I feel another Van Vogt marathon coming on!  (We had a Van Vogt marathon back in early 2015, you'll remember, perhaps with a song in your heart, perhaps with a scowl on your face.)  Today we have 1977's The Anarchistic Colossus, published by Ace, with a great cover by Bart Forbes.  (Van Vogt's Future Glitter also had a Forbes cover I admired.)  I love the penciled look of those two little images on the sides, the sad eyes, and the powerful lighting effects.  Very good!

As he describes in the intro, in The Anarchistic Colossus Van Vogt tries to envision an anarchist society (one without government or police), taking into consideration the fact (according to Van Vogt, at least, who spent time studying and thinking about psychology) that men are violent jerks always ready to abuse and exploit others. (Quest for the Future, you'll remember, also was, in part, about trying to create a peaceful society and having to resolve the fact that so many people are "paranoid" and exploit others.)  Van Vogt's formula for workable anarchism involves computers and Kirlian photography.

You probably know what a computer is, but in case you don't know what Kirlian photography is, wikipedia informs us that it is photography that records the "phenomenon of electrical coronal discharges" around objects.  Believers in the paranormal, starting with Soviet electrical engineer Semyon Kirlian and his wife Valentina in the World War II era, thought the color (or whatever) of your "Kirlian aura" indicated your emotional state.  So in Van Vogt's book, on every street corner are pillars or posts equipped with Kirlian cameras and energy projector guns, filled with computers and all connected to a massive central computer.  The pillars (the novel's characters just call them "Kirlians") observe your behavior and read your aura to see if you are in a violent or duplicitous or other antisocial mood, and zap you unconscious if you misbehave.

If you are saying, "That's not anarchism, that's just letting a computer be the government and the police," I'm inclined to agree.

I associate anarchism with libertarian types like David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman, who was, like me, an alumnus of Rutgers University.  (For some reason, when I was at Rutgers nobody ever talked up Milton Friedman, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, and championed human freedom.  We did hear a lot about Rutgers alum Paul Robeson, who threw a ball, sang a song, and championed Josef Stalin.)  But the anarchism of the year 2102 in this book, in some ways at least, is less libertarian than our own pre-Trump era / pre-Rodham-Clinton era America of 2016:
"People who won't flush toilets, who pinch or slap, open other people's mail, violate another's privacy, never bathe, cheat at cards, make fun of someone else's religion, and...people who spread misleading, or lying, or intent-to-harm-or-deceive gossip.  I could get a dose of unconsciousness from ten minutes to several hours for any one of those."     
This doesn't sound like a society which puts much value on freedom of speech--the anarchistic society Van Vogt cooked up for this book is not passing the purity test! Still, there are no taxes, no welfare state, and no government regulations, so I guess it is a society on the spectrum of capitalist or right-wing anarchism.  Maybe the "extreme rightists" who "originally forced anarchism upon the world" had to compromise with the socialist anarchists, who are represented in the novel (though they seem ineffectual and I suspected Van Vogt was poking fun at them.)

I must report there are no horses in this book.
The strength of the novel is how Van Vogt tries to depict how this anarchist society, a society in which people are permitted to do what they want as long as it doesn't infringe on others, might work.  What might an anarchist mass transit system be like?  What about an anarchist restaurant?  Prison for repeat offenders?  Marriage and courtship?

David Friedman, at this webpage, admits that the "hardest problem" in making an anarcho-capitalist society work would be defense against a powerful external foe.  (In the 1970s when he addressed the issue he doubted an anarchist USA could contain the Soviet Union because few people would be willling to pay for a powerful defense establishment.)   Van Vogt's plot directly addresses this issue; The Anarchistic Colossus depicts an anarchist Earth at war with an aristocratic society of space aliens, the four-legged Ig of planet Slua.  In fact, we readers learn about Earth society alongside an Ig spy, a Baron who resides on Slua and casts his consciousness across the black vastness of space to piggyback on the "neural equipment" of young space navy veteran Chip.  The alien can perceive everything around Chip (using a psychic potential all humans have but which no human has yet tapped), and implant suggestions in Chip's mind, guiding Chip to areas it wants to explore.

The Ig attack on the Earth is part of some elaborate ritualistic game played by the aliens, who customarily explore the galaxy, discover civilizations and wipe them out as a sort of sport.  (The Ig barons are inveterately devoted to blood sports and high risk games, and, if they didn't direct their violence outwards, internal duels and feuds would destabilize their society.)  Part of the game is to closely study the victim civilization before exterminating it, so the Baron is as much an anthropologist as an espionage agent.

The Earth opposes the Ig space fleet with a fleet of its own; a private space navy in which the servicemembers elect their own officers from among their ranks.  (Didn't they try this in Revolutionary France and Russia?)  Many of the novel's characters, including Chip, are spacemen who have just returned to Earth bearing news of a glorious victory over the Ig.  Except there really wasn't a glorious victory--the Ig captured the Earth fleet and brainwashed every human survivor of the engagement into believing that they had won.  As the novel begins, in a matter of days the Ig are going to wipe out our civilization and the people of Earth have no idea!

Luckily, a psychiatrist who has taken up the role of defending Earth and can dig up the memories of the space crews knows the truth and he and Chip and a few other people in the know scramble to prepare Earth to resist, while the Ig spy uses its mind control powers to direct other space navy vets against them.  I had flashbacks to Killer when Chip found himself in a prison in Antarctica and watched a killer whale attack a seal.  In an anticlimactic twist ending the Earth is saved by a palace coup back on Shua--inspired by the example of Earth's anarchist system, revolutionaries impose on the people of Ig just such a system.  The obsessive game playing aristocrats will have to stifle their love for blood sports or be zapped by their own Kirlians.

In some ways The Anarchistic Colossus is like Computer Eye, another novel in which computers see all and can chastise people with laser guns, and in which we observe much of the story through the eyes of a nonhuman character. The Anarchistic Colossus also features such Van Vogt staples as mental powers, mind expansion, and secret ubermensch elites working behind the scenes for the benefit of mankind (that psychiatrist has figured out a way to avoid Kirlian scrutiny and do whatever it takes, including blackmail and murder, to save the Earth.)      

When I first started The Anarchistic Colossus I didn't think I would be able to enjoy it.  The characters are terrible, just a dozen or so guys with short names like Hal and Hank and Mike and Chip and no personality whatsoever.  And the style in which the book is written is lame, clumsy with lots of goofy colloquialisms; at times it feels like a stream of consciousness draft that was never polished.  But the little lectures on anarchism, psychology and hypnosis, and the way Van Vogt steadily revealed new and different aspects of the Earth and Ig societies, kept me curious.  So I, who have a particular interest in Van Vogt, and in libertarian thinking, found the book worthwhile.  I doubt I can recommend it to others who do not share these interests.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Quest for the Future by A. E. Van Vogt

Caxton was parting his lips to continue with another association of his own, when it occurred to him:  What this guy just said makes no sense. In fact, for several minutes I haven't understood anything he said.

Recently, to commemorate the birthday of John Schoenherr, I dug out from my totally disorganized shelves some of my Ace A. E. Van Vogt paperbacks with covers by Schoenherr.  The particularly good cover of 1970's Quest for the Future inspired me to keep the novel easily accessible, and last week I read it.

The back cover (which invokes the name of Forrest Ackerman, Van Vogt's literary agent, among other things) and the ad copy on the first page repeatedly declare Quest for the Future to be a "new novel," but the very first page of Chapter I felt mighhhhhhhty familiar.  Quest for the Future is, in fact, a fix-up of three stories which first appeared in Astounding in the 1940s: "Film Library," "The Search" and "Far Centaurus."  I had already read all three of the stories, two in my Berkley paperback copy of the collection Destination: Universe! and the third in a copy of Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt which I had borrowed from the Des Moines Public Library, but since I had read them so long ago, and I remembered them being pretty good, I decided to go through with reading Quest for the Future anyway.

Our protagonist, Peter Caxton, is a man in his early forties living in the late 1970s, and he is a real jerk!  Caxton is an ambitious high school teacher, and you and I both know those are the worst kind!  His current aspiration: to replace the principal, Mr. Varney, whom he derisively calls "Old Varnish" behind his back!  Caxton is also cheating on his wife with one of the female teachers, Miss Gregg, an act of knavery which Caxton finds all the more amusing because his rival for Old Varnish's job, Mr. Dorritt, has a crush on Gregg.  Caxton finds it satisfying to have stolen some heartsick puppy's dream girl!

Don't worry, this isn't a soap opera--here comes the SF content.  Every day Caxton shows films to his classes.  (Being a teacher is very hard work, as we've all been told a thousand times.)  One week he finds that his boring educational films have been replaced by weird shorts with high-production values and amazing special effects, like a nature film about the aquatic life of Venus (that's a Venusian squid on the cover of Quest For the Future) and a guide to how to repair your atomic ray pistol.  Caxton, who is quick-tempered and paranoid, is furious, thinking the kids have replaced the school's films with gag reels, but when he can't pin the substitution on any of the students he figures it must be Dorritt who is sabotaging him.  So then he tries to get his revenge by going to Old Varnish and accusing Dorritt of meddling with the films, and, for good measure, accusing Dorritt of carrying on an affair with Gregg!

This idiotic scheme backfires and Caxton is terminated from his teaching position and divorced by his wife.  Caxton does a little extracurricular experimenting and discovers that the school's mundane films are being transformed by the projector into films from the future.  He steals the queer projector and all the films it has affected and begins a search of the United States for the origins of the unique device.

The next part of the novel, drawing from "The Search," is a convoluted thing involving amnesia and Caxton's career as a travelling salesman for Quik-Photo Supply Corporation, from whom the school got the weird projector. On the train he encounters a salesgirl named Selanie Johns whose wares seem as futuristic as those bizarre films.  When she disappears, Caxton investigates, and learns Selanie is pursued by an old man, Kameel Bustaman, who uses hypnotic powers to divest people of the gadgets they have bought from Selanie.  This guy leads Caxton to another dimension, the vast Palace of Immortality, headquarters of the immortal Possessors, who travel back and forth through time, manipulating people and events to create new dimensions ("probability worlds") which are better than the original violent and unhealthy course of history on Earth. Eventually they hope to create a peaceful universe and to shift to it every person who has ever lived (violent people having been manipulated in such a way that they will be "transformed" into "peaceful types.")  Selanie's father is a leader of this beneficent group, while Kameel Bustaman is some kind of rebel who is trying to gum up the works.  Besides suffering amnesia during this adventure, Caxton also makes his way from the Palace to a metropolis of the year 2083 and back.

Caxton is eager to join the Possessors in order to become immortal himself, but the Possessors give him a personality test which he fails:
"...we were willing for you to become associated with us.  But--" He broke off.  "Tell me, when did you become so worldly wise?  Another word for it would be cynical."          
So Caxton goes back to his work as a salesman in 1979, but bubbling with the determination to figure out a way to get back to the Palace of Immortality and become immortal!

Our man Van Vogt then begins integrating the text of "Far Centaurus" in a way that had me laughing out loud.  A few weeks after being driven out of the Palace of Immortality, Craxton is reading the newspaper and sees that a wealthy playboy is financing the Earth's first interstellar rocket flight.  The playboy is bringing a crew of three along with him to Alpha Centauri, but doesn't yet have anybody to fill the physicist spot--it seems that there are no physicists in the English-speaking world willing to leave their friends and families forever to go on a 500-year trip which they will endure in suspended animation.  Caxton has a masters in physics, and when he calls up to apply, the rich playboy welcomes him with open arms.  He probably wouldn't if he knew Caxton's diabolical plan--to hijack the spaceship and bring it back to Earth, timing his piracy so that he returns to Earth in 2083 to meet himself and help himself sneak back into the Palace of Immortality!

When Caxton tries to put his plan into action, waking up after fifty years of flight to turn the ship around, he discovers that the controls are locked to prevent anybody from doing just such a thing.  So he has to go through with the trip to Alpha Centauri. On their arrival the space crew from 1979 discover that, during their 500-year journey, human technology has advanced to such a point that the system already has long been colonized and space ships exist which can travel between Earth and Alpha Centauri in three hours.  Bummer!

After some time out in Alpha Centauri learning about this future society, Caxton and his fellow astronauts return to Earth, where Caxton meets Bustaman again. Bustaman, using his hypnotic powers and promising to get Caxton into the Palace, convinces Caxton to aid him in sabotaging Selanie and her father.  Caxton agrees and is transported back to 1979, where he infiltrates the Johns' time travelling vehicle (it is disguised as an ordinary trailer) and monkeys things up for those two, and for himself--his interference gets the three of them stuck in the middle of the 17th century in the middle of the American wilderness.  For a few months they think they are stuck there for the rest of their lives, but then the Johns figure out a way to return to the future by merging with some of their selves in other probability worlds.  Caxton can't do this, so the Johns leave him a cryogenics setup; Caxton hides himself and the trailer in a cave and freezes himself until 2476, when he wakes up and rejoins the rich playboy.  (That's right, for 800 years nobody thought to explore that cave.)

The playboy buys a space ship, one of those ones which can fly to Alpha Centauri in three hours, and they explore the universe.  (The extrasolar universe turns out to be boring, with no intelligent life.)  For over a hundred pages astronauts from Earth and psychologists from Alpha Centauri have been suspecting that leaving his cushy 1970s life might drive the playboy insane, and Caxton finds these fears were all too justified when the playboy ties him up and drives the ship right into a dangerous time warp created by a "bachelor star."  He may be crazy, but the playboy can sure use a sliderule--the time warp gets him and Caxton back to 1981, less than two years after they left the Earth!

(What is a bachelor star?  Quest for the Future includes a whole new theory of physics and astronomy based on the idea that atomic particles have a "psychology."  Like half the stuff he is exposed to, this theory is too complicated and counterintuitive for Caxton to understand, and your humble blogger is right there with him.)

Caxton goes right back to the good old USA and his hunt for the Palace and is quickly in the grips of a struggle with the duplicitous Kameel Bustaman!  In the final 30 or so pages of this 253-page saga we learn the shocking origins of the Palace of Immortality, how those films got from 2026 to 1979, and the roles of paranoids Kameel Bustaman and Peter Caxton in these events.  It is Caxton himself who will create the Palace of Immortality and set the entire Possessor effort in motion, redeeming himself and sparking the successful effort to redeem the entire human race. (This circularity will perhaps be no shock to those familiar with other of Van Vogt's works.)

Quest for the Future is a lot of fun.  Besides the wild plot twists there are plenty of crazy scientific speculations about time travel and atomic physics and a bounty of cool SF devices, including several different flying machines and various non-lethal weapons. There is a good horror scene when Caxton discovers that the animation suspension process has failed one astronaut and Caxton has to clean up the mess.  Amusing are the scenes in which, apparently trapped forever in the American wilderness, Caxton hopes to seduce Selanie.  Caxton is what the kids call "a playah" and has always had a lot of success with women ("He was charming with women, and quite a few had loved him, mistaking his selfishness for firmness of character.")  But Selanie is a morally upright individual and a genius with over 400 years of experience behind her, and she doesn't need a man for anything, especially not a man who was the cat's paw of her worst enemy and who smells bad. (The fact that people from the future find 20th-century people to smell repulsive is one of the book's recurring jokes, and a major obstacle to horndog Caxton: "Boy, he thought, there's got to be sex.  Without that I'll kill myself.")

Psychology plays a major role in the book, and part of the book's charm is watching the selfish loner Caxton evolve as a person, acting like a jerk early on, then striving to present excuses for his misbehavior, and then, for the first time in his life, feeling empathy and making friends.

I also liked the book's ultimately hopeful tone, its assertion that people and societies can change for the better, though like so much classic SF, Quest for the Future is thoroughly elitist and anti-democratic: sure, in the end we will all live happily at peace, but only after a tiny secret elite of geniuses manipulates our every move and crafts our minds to suit their selfless agenda!  And then there is the irony that Caxton's paranoia, the very kind of mental problem which the Possessors are trying to extirpate from humanity, is what allows him to actually create the Palace and the peaceful universe that is their goal.


In hopes of burnishing my bona fides as a Van Vogt scholar, I decided to crack open my copy of Destination: Universe! and reread "The Search" and "Far Centaurus" and see what our man Van added to those texts to create Quest for the Future.  (I'd have reread "Film Library" as well, but the Columbus Metropolitan Library doesn't have a copy of Transfinite--score one for the hawkeye over the buckeye, I guess.)

Click to enlarge and take in all that
Richard Powers goodness
"The Search," from 1943, includes the basic background features of the 1970 novel--the salesman who meets Selanie Johns and arrives in the Palace, learns of the Possessors and their campaign to create a perfect probability world of peaceful people, and is sent to sabotage the Johns in their trailer.  However, in this short story Selanie's father is opposed to the Possessors rather than being their leader--he thinks they are "acting like God," committing "sacrilege" by altering "the natural course of existence"--and it is the Possessors who enlist the protagonist to attack Johns.  (Selanie herself is a Possessor supporter; this is a dynamic I have seen repeatedly in my own life, children rejecting their parents' political and religious beliefs.)

Reading "The Search" has exposed to me some weaknesses in Quest for the Future.  In this short story it is clearly explained why the Johns are selling the gadgets; I can't recall any reason being given for this activity in Quest.  Also, there is some recognition of the moral dilemma presented by the Possessors; in the 1970 novel opposition to the Possessors and their elaborate campaign to engineer people and societies is presented as irrational paranoia.

"Far Centaurus," from 1944, covers that 500-year trip and has that horror scene I liked and the plot about the leader of the expedition going bonkers and flying a second ship into the time warp, as well as all that jazz about atomic particles with a psychology and how 20th century people smell repulsive to 25th century folks.  Interestingly, it is also written in the first person, which Quest is not.

"The Search" and "Far Centaurus" are pretty short; Van Vogt added a lot of text to build the brief 1940s stories into the long 1970s novel.  Most importantly, he constructed the character of Caxton, who evolves from paranoid amoral creep to world savior, and his relationship with Selanie.  When I realized Quest for the Future was a fix-up, I expected to have to report that the material was better in its original form, that Van Vogt had just added some gunk in order to hold the stories together and sell people a "new" novel.  But I was wrong; the Canadian Grand Master actually did a lot of rewriting and expanding, and I believe added considerable value to the story.  I am happy to recommend Quest for the Future to classic SF fans, even those already familiar with the Astounding tales which are its basis.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Resurrection Days by Wilson Tucker

With bewilderment she said, "But you spoke to me--are speaking with me." 
"I talk to everybody.  I'm made that way." 
"You are...different?" 
"In more ways than one, cupcake."
I have written some pretty harsh reviews of novels and short stories, but I'm a softie compared to my man tarbandu of the famed PorPor Books Blog.  Recently he awarded a mere one star (of five) to Wilson Tucker's 1971 revision of his 1953 novel The Time Masters.  Reading tarbandu's review reminded me that I owned a Tucker paperback myself, one from later in the writer's career titled Resurrection Days.  I had purchased it because it promised to be one of those books about how crummy it would be if the world was run by women, like Edmund Cooper's Five to Twelve, and Gender Genocide, or A. E. Van Vogt's Renaissance.  These sorts of stories have a particular appeal to me.  So let's see if Resurrection Days, first published in 1981 and (it seems) never published again (not a promising sign, is it?) is any good.

Immediately upon starting the 191-page novel I was reminded of the work of Philip Jose Farmer, especially "A Bowl Bigger than Earth," but also the famous Riverworld books.  Like the guy in Farmer's "Bowl," Resurrection Days protagonist, Owen Hall, wakes up in a conformist and totalitarian world that is sort of a parody of 20th-century life.  The world in Tucker's novel is, in some ways, very technologically advanced. There are those moving walkways we see in so much SF, and factories full of machines which can manufacture goods practically out of thin air at the direction of their operators' minds.  Press your forehead to the concave plate on the machine, think of bacon, or a necktie, or a cigar, and voila, it appears inside the machine, on the other side of  a window.  Push a button and robotic hands wrap up the item for shipping. (On the other hand, the people here lack electricity and light their way with candles and torches.)

This world is stiflingly conformist; all the houses and yards look exactly the same, and everybody wears the same clothes.  The men who commute to and from those factories each day on that moving sidewalk (the town is a perfect circle and the single slidewalk, along which are all the homes and factories, marks its perimeter and travels only one way in an endless loop) do so silently, dully staring at their feet and obeying all commands without question.  Hall calls them "zombies," (which turns out to be very appropriate.)  The women he meets are astonished to hear Owen Hall speak, and to find him disobeying women's orders.  For it is women who run this world--all the cops and managers are pink-clad women, and at the top of the organizational chart sits "the Mother," apparently far off in another town--and the mindless men never dissent.

Besides being crushingly uniform, everything in the circular town (like the male workers it has no name, only a number) is shoddy, from the bad-tasting food to the poor construction of the cookie-cutter houses--most of the zombies who make everything in the "think-and-do" machines do a pretty poor job of visualizing what they are directed to create.  "The slave labor hereabouts may be cheap and compliant, but it wasn't worth a damn when it came down to quality workmanship; somebody just wasn't fitting the man to the job," is Owen's assessment.  I thought with this Tucker was perhaps making some kind of commentary on, or perhaps influenced by knowledge of, life behind the Iron Curtain--bolstering my theory is the fact that there is no money in this world, everything being rationed and distributed by the city government from a central storage facility via tubes (these tubes are visible in the cover illustration.)

At first Hall's memories of his previous life are very cloudy, but over the course of his first day in this strange new world he gradually remembers more and more things. He is "a New Deal Democrat" and a strong supporter of FDR and labor unions, and a proud citizen of Indiana, where he worked as a carpenter.  He was killed at age 28 in a road accident when the truck he was driving slid on the icy roads in the winter of 1943 and collided with a train.  Owen wonders if the fact that he is dead indicates that he is now in heaven or hell.

At the same time Owen gradually recovers his memories, he explores and puzzles out the weird realities of the world he has found himself in.  It is the far future, the women are all the product of parthenogenesis, and the men, including Owen, are the reanimated dead (the women call them "ambulatory recoveries")! Bones are dug up from 20th-century cemeteries and the men recreated in home versions of the think-and-do machines by women.  The women are careful to not allow the men much will or memory, but the woman who put Owen back together was drunk and accidentally restored his intelligence and personality (or deliberately made him more canny because she wanted to have sex with him--sex in this world is more or less outlawed.)  Once they get wind of him, the city government wants to toss Owen back into a machine and turn him into a zombie.

Owen spends much of the book in disguise, on the run, or in hiding.  Through charm and the application of alcohol he develops relationships with two women.  When he is captured in the end of the book he is dragged before the city government for a hearing, and they decide he is so dangerous that he must be executed and reinterred. Luckily for Owen the woman in charge of the cemeteries, who is given the task of killing the pesky Indianian, is one of the women he has managed to charm.  Instead of killing him (this would have been the first killing of anybody in centuries, as there has been no war or violent crime for ages) she severs his bonds and the two of them flee to the wilderness to live happily ever after.      

Resurrection Days is not very good.  Let's start with the elements I liked, however.

Most SF books are about bourgeois professionals (scientists, engineers, military officers or merchants), intellectuals, superheroes or aristocrats, so it was interesting to see a working class protagonist whose main topics of conversation include how great the New Deal and its architects are.  This portrait is not necessarily, or not wholly, a flattering one, as Tucker includes references to Democratic corruption; one example:
"The old Mother stories are true," Paoli exclaimed.  "Gods did walk the sky in ancient times." 
"We called them fly-boys." 
"Are you an ancient fly-boy?" 
"Nope, I'm an ancient Democrat--vote early and often."
Resurrection Days also has "meta" or self-referential elements that will please the longtime SF fan.  Owen, back in the '30s and '40s, was a dedicated reader of science and science-fiction magazines (he subscribed to the fictional Amazing Mechanics) and aspired to be a dirigible pilot.  The book is also a sub rosa celebration of Robert Heinlein.  When he first sees the moving sidewalk, Owen uses the phrase "roads must roll," a winking reference to Heinlein's 1940 short story, since inducted into the SF Hall of Fame, "The Roads Must Roll."  ("The Roads Must Roll" was the Heinlein story assigned in the class I took on science fiction at Rutgers University back in 1990.) When Owen sees the robotic hands in the think-and-do machines, Heinlein, though again not named, is referenced a second time:
Owen recognized those fingers as a form of waldoes.  They'd been invented by the same man who invented the rolling road, and both inventions were duly reported in the science-wonder magazines.  
So there are these nice little touches, but as a whole Resurrection Days is weak.  It feels slow, with scenes that are too long and which don't advance the story very far. The whole tone of the novel is faintly humorous, so even though the material (death, slavery, tyranny, one man struggling against a vast system) should be exciting and suspenseful, there is no tension or fear.  Owen takes everything in stride, never losing his aggressive confidence, always cracking a joke.  The novel is brimming over with little jokes which are not funny.  Way too many of the jokes revolve around Owen's use of early 20th-century slang, which, of course, the women don't understand. You've seen these sorts of jokes on TV a billion times; a kid says "groovy" and an adult doesn't understand, a black person says "that's bad" and a white person doesn't realize "bad" means good, etc.  Again and again Owen says something like "go fly a kite" or refers to "booze" and the future-born character asks "What is booze?" or says "I don't understand you," and again and again it is neither amusing nor interesting.

In case you were wondering, this is what
the Canadian printing looked like
Another problem is the book's theme.  I bought the book thinking it was likely a criticism of feminism or a defense of traditional gender roles.  (Over the course of this blog's life we've seen Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, and Andrew Offutt make such arguments, some subtly, some not so subtly.)  But Tucker doesn't doesn't do anything of the kind.  There is nothing particularly feminine about the town or government or even the female characters (they aren't flighty or emotional or gossipy or any of the other negative stereotypes of women, neither are they mothering or generous or any of the stereotypical virtues we associate with women), nobody gives sexist (misandrist or misogynist) speeches, it is never explained why the entire government is made up of women and why sex is outlawed or how the government, culture and economy got to be the way they are.  The Mother doesn't appear.  There isn't even a narrative reason for the gender divide in the story; the plot would work just as well if half the sentient people were men and half the zombies were women. Resurrection Days feels more like a tepid criticism of collectivism or an examination of management-labor relations than a critique of feminism or women, which was disappointing!

It wouldn't be fair to say Resurrection Days is bad, but I can't recommend it--it kind of just sits there, inspiring little intellectual or emotional excitement.  Too bad.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Killer by Peter Tonkin

"What've we got to fight them with?" asked Preston. 
"Fight them?" said Job, almost shocked at the idea. 
"Rifles," said Quick. 
"Not big enough," said Preston with a shudder.
"Dynamite," said Warren.  "We have dynamite."

I bought 1979's Killer, British thriller writer Peter Tonkin's first novel, because of the arresting cover painting, which depicts people in some Arctic hellscape fighting a killer whale of alarming proportions with, of all things, a bundle of dynamite!  I don't usually read mainstream bestsellers, but I couldn't resist the gonzo promise of over the top action presented by the cover, and I often like those silly animals running amok movies like Jaws, Grizzly, Frogs, Orca, et al, the bastard children of that greatest of American novels, Moby Dick.

(Killer came out two years after Arthur Herzog's novel Orca, which Wikipedia is telling me was the basis of the 1977 film.  In my youth I read Herzog's Make Us Happy, but all I can really remember of it are the scenes about the Sex Olympics.)

Killer (for days I haven't been able to stop singing that Van Der Graaf Generator song about a depressed fish to myself) starts with a page full of excerpts from newspaper articles and Congressional testimony that purport to describe how the U. S. Navy trained dolphins to kill communist frogmen during the Vietnam War; lacking the opposable thumbs that have made us primates masters of the world, the dolphins killed Charlie using bayonets, “gas guns,” and “hypodermic needles connected to carbon-dioxide cartridges” that the Navy had helpfully strapped to their noses.  Then comes a prologue (titled “Prelude”) in which a scientist explains in exacting detail (“He has a bite-width of three feet seven and a quarter inches.…He can swim at a top speed of twenty-five point eight knots….he’s six feet longer than a Spitfire...”) his work training a killer whale to a visiting admiral.  The whale in question jumps out of the bay it is being trained to protect for Uncle Sam and devours the admiral (whose last thought is a regret that he quit smoking three weeks ago) and then escapes into the open sea. Then Tonkin gives us a page of quotes from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship.

I bought Killer hoping it would be a harrowing adventure story and/or a crazy horror story, so it was with some disappointment that I began to suspect I was in for 232 pages of silly jokes and denunciations of American foreign policy and Western meddling with sacred Mother Nature.  Fortunately, the tone of the main narrative is quite different from the almost totally superfluous and unnecessary "prelude;" Killer is a blood and guts tale of sickening violence and sudden death, just as I had hoped.

Katherine Warren is a 25-year old Englishwoman, a genius botanist and a striking beauty. Her father is also a genius botanist, but she hasn’t seen him in a decade because he’s always off at some exotic locale studying plants. Daddy doesn’t even know that Kate’s the #2 grad student in botany in the whole history of Oxford (Daddy himself is #1!)  In hopes of finally getting to know her own father, Kate joins his expedition in Alaska, under a pseudonym, so she can surprise him. While the Warrens and the other members of the team are flying to their base camp from Anchorage, the private jet provided by their employers crashes mere yards from the icy Arctic seas, within sight of the killer whale who went AWOL in the prelude!

Also surviving the plane crash are Job the Eskimo, Colin Ross the expert on weatherization, Simon Quick the Arctic guide, and Hiram Preston the American co-pilot. Quick hates Ross because years ago his brother Robin (as well as Job's brother Jeremiah--the world of people who explore places that are fucking cold is a small one) was on an Antarctic expedition commanded by Ross, and the venture met disaster--Ross was practically the sole survivor!  (Jeremiah also survived, but lost his legs and "manhood" and died soon after returning to civilization.)  Quick's sister Charlie, who was married to Ross, fell into depression after this tragedy and committed suicide. Quick blames Ross for this devastating body count ("That's my whole family you killed") and the Antarctic fiasco is the topic of much conversation, Ross's nightmares, and flashbacks throughout the novel.

The stranded researchers expect help to come along soon, but then the plane explodes and this causes the ice sheet they are on to break off and start floating away from their last known position at like ten miles an hour.  They are trapped on a twenty-acre ice raft, where for almost 200 pages and six days they struggle to survive as various Arctic animals (most prominently a pack of killer whales led by that rogue U. S. Navy veteran) threaten them, as well as an iceberg, rain, and warm water which whittle their raft down to size until it is almost too small to carry them.  The characters utilize every weapon and piece of equipment at hand in their desperation, and, like in a slasher movie, they are gradually killed off until only Kate and Ross, who have of course fallen in love, are left alive!

Killer is marketed as a horror story, and includes plenty of gore: we get lots of spurting and dripping blood, cracking bones, and dramatic deaths.  The pilot of the crashed plane, for example, is impaled on a tremendous icicle (I can't encounter that word without suffering the compulsion to sing that Tori Amos song about masturbation to myself) that penetrates the cockpit, and Kate, unconscious at the time, is bathed in his gushing blood.  The bizarre deaths are not limited to us bipeds--when the pack of killer whales attacks a blue whale, the hunters try to get inside the blue's mouth to rip out its tongue, and the blue closes his jaws, trapping one orca and crushing the life out of it.  (One entire chapter, and several sections of other chapters, follow the killer whales' point of view as they fight other marine mammals.)

Besides the bloodshed Tonkin keeps the story interesting with lots of psychological jazz.  Simon Quick can't forgive Ross and is always competing with him, though it is clear the author wants us to sympathize with Ross and see him as the better man.  (Of Simon, the author tells us: "Like many people, his ability to convince himself that he was the true hero of every situation he was involved in, and to explain his mistakes and meannesses to his own satisfaction, was almost infinite.")  Quick is also a sexist horndog who keeps staring at Kate's chest.  Kate has her own daddy issues, and she also blames herself for the crash and explosion.  Daddy Warren doesn't much care about his daughter, being a man of driving ambition who hides his will to power behind an absent-minded professor facade; he also suffers from agoraphobia.

As the novel proceeds, Tonkin springs on us shocking revelations about the characters.  For example, when we meet Ross on page 19 we see he has a black glove on his left hand that he never takes off, even when he removes the matching glove from his right hand.  During a polar bear attack on page 85 we discover Ross has an artificial left arm, reminding us readers of Ahab (you'll recall he had an artificial leg) and reminding Job of one of the more prominent gods of the Inuit.  Job, by the way, gets the role we so often see non-whites play in popular fiction, that of the calm and wise guru, a sage who is "close to the nature" and is not only willing to share his knowledge of the Arctic and the legends of his people with the palefaces, but actually sacrifices himself to help them.

Its brisk pace, explicit and extravagant gore, interpersonal melodrama, and voluminous trivia about the Arctic and Antarctic make Killer a smooth and entertaining read (if you aren't too squeamish!)  


Bound in my copy of Killer was an ad with order form for the Doubleday Book Club. Click on the scans below to get a look at what books Doubleday was pushing back in the late '70s.  (And admire that sweet tote bag!)  Maybe I'm crazy, but while I would expect Killer to appeal to male readers, this ad seems to be targeting women readers.

The only books displayed with which I have any personal familiarity would be the Betty Crocker cookbook (a later edition, however) and the Richard Scarry books.  I loved Richard Scarry when I was little, especially his drawings of weird aircraft and automobiles, like an insect-scaled bulldozer and a car shaped like an alligator.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Lord Barbarian by Andrew J. Offutt

"Sword-armed men...barbarians indeed!  But all of us, not just we of Branarius, so long called the Barbarian World.  Sword-armed men, Jheru, concerned with their mail-coats, counseled by so-called wise men called Elders--for we are really stupid men indeed--living under ages-old lights and riding from world to world in ships built in the mists of pasts. Ships whose mechanisms we understand not at all."

Followers of my thrilling twitter feed may recall that I have been buying up Andrew J. Offutt paperbacks.  Well, here's one with a title that makes you wonder why Fabio isn't on the cover: My Lord Barbarian, from 1977.  Maybe my copy has suffered sun damage, or maybe it's because I'm sitting under a fluorescent light, but it looks, to me, like our hero has a green face and purple hair.  Maybe he's some kind of human-alien hybrid?  We see those from time to time in our science-fiction wanderings, don't we?

Our tale takes place in the future, in a region of space colonized by Earth in a distant age.  For centuries now the planets here, forming the Empire of Seven Worlds, have been cut off from the rest of the universe, and while the spaceships of the Ancients and a small number of other artifacts still operate, for generations people have been reduced to writing with quill pens, fighting with swords and riding horses around.

As our story begins, Valeron of planet Brasarius has just pacified and united that previously war torn and anarchic world, most primitive of the Seven, making himself King of Brasarius.  The Emperor of the Seven Worlds invites Valeron to the capital planet, Carmeis; he thinks Valeron, a fellow fighting man, would make a great husband for his daughter, Princess Aleysha, and a great heir to the imperial throne. The bookish prime minister, Darcus Cannu, however, begs to differ, and when Valeron arrives at the palace the PM murders the Emperor and has Valeron framed for the crime!

The slender and sexy princess, now Empress (though merely a figurehead under the thumb of Darcus Cannu, who even has the temerity to start planning their wedding!), met barbaric hunk Valeron when she was 13 and has been nursing a crush on that heroic slab of beefcake for the six years he's been away unifying Brasarius by cracking skulls, so she helps Valeron escape the dungeon.  Then Aleysha's curvaceous and sexy slave girl, Jheru, helps sneak Valeron into Aleysha's bedroom (where he relieves Aleysha of the burden of her virginity) and then helps him steal a spaceship and get the hell off Carmeis.  While elegant Aleysha's aid came in the form of her slipping him a dagger through the bars of his cell, lusty Jheru gets her hands dirty in hand-to-hand fights at Valeron's side.

Valeron and Jheru travel to one of the other of the seven planets, where a council of the kings of all the lesser planets is convened.  Our heroes convince the council of Darcus Cannu's guilt, and Valeron and Jheru then lead them and their armies to Carmeis to overthrow and punish Darcus.  All you due process types out there will be happy to know Darcus is afforded a trial before the council, where he gets a chance to use his silver tongue to explain all his good selfless reasons for murdering the Emperor and putting the blame on war hero Valeron.

This is an entertaining adventure story with all the elements we've seen a million times: guys (and Jheru) swordfighting, getting captured, escaping, putting on the uniforms of the enemy to sneak around the palace, plotting sneak attacks and pincer moves, etc.  One way Offutt adds some interest is by introducing some superficial but colorful characters, like the Elders who worship the god "Siense" and try to figure out the lost technology of the Ancients, the hairless savages known as the Sungoli who formerly terrorized Brasarius but now follow Valeron, and the various Kings of the Seven planets, one fat, one a religious fanatic, one a tested fighting man who earned his throne on the battlefield much as Valeron did, etc.  Offutt tries to create the impression of a vast and diverse world with a small number of short strokes.

As the title and cover illustration hint will be the case, and the ad copy on the first page promises (for some reason Del Rey decided to forgo inclusion of glowing blurbs from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times on this page), love and sex ("ROMANCE!") play a prominent part in My Lord Barbarian.  We learn early on that Valeron has had multitudes of women and has left a trail of illegitimate children (fifteen according to rumor) behind him during his campaigns across Brasarius. Offutt expends lots of ink describing Aleyasha's and Jheru's bodies, how their breasts move when they brush their hair and so forth, and while there are no explicit sex scenes, there is a lot of aggressive, flirtatious, S&M-tinged play between Valeron and Jheru; the barbarian warlord smacks her bottom, twists her arm painfully while they act out a kidnapping, and jovially talks about raping her, treatment Jheru seems to relish.  (Could Offutt have been inspired by, or be catering to the fans of, John Norman's Gor series?)  One of the plot's threads is how Valeron is torn by the choice between Empress Alyesha, who represents ultimate power and civilization, and Jheru, who, like him, is boisterous and lusty, and more than willing to slip into a suit of mail, slap on a helmet and fight the Empire's enemies up close and personal.  In the last pages of the book Valeron passes up the chance to marry Aleyasha and become Emperor and instead returns to Bresarius with Jheru as his bride.

The contrast between barbarism and civilization and the uneasy relationship between the barbaric and the civilized are the main themes of the book.  Valeron, like Tarzan, was raised in an alien and savage environment (by the Sungoli), and after mastering that environment left it for a more sophisticated milieu, where he again emerged as a leader, in part because of the skills he learned from his adoptive barbaric culture. Valeron is motivated by a need to prove to sophisticated people, and to himself, that, despite his upbringing among the lowest savages on the most primitive of the seven planets, he is as good as any civilized man.  One of the novel's plot threads concerns the attitude of the Empire's leaders towards Valeron; Darcus Cannu commits the crimes he does because he thinks a barbarian unfit for the role of Emperor, and while Valeron wins over the kings of the five civilized planets and they accept his leadership of the army that overthrows Darcus Cannu, there is always an undercurrent of skepticism and fear about the unsophisticated, almost alien, Valeron, and the other kings are relieved when he declines the Imperial throne.

Paralleling how he contrasts barbarism and civilization is how Offutt presents a contrast between the low technology of the Empire of Seven Worlds and the high technology of their ancestors.  Some of the most memorable scenes of the novel concern Valeron and Darcus Cannu's explorations of the robot- and computer-inhabited elevators and control rooms that lie beneath the palace on Carmeis; they are the first to tread those corridors since the Days of Wrath that led to the collapse of the ancient technological civilization centuries ago.  Offutt paints a mixed picture of high technology; the characters all marvel at it and many covet the advantages of mastering more of the Ancients' knowledge and equipment, but most are aware that it was just this technology that destroyed the Ancient civilization, and when Darcus Cannu attempts to defeat Valeron with advanced weaponry he has found beneath the palace, it backfires on him.  As the novel ends it is clear that under Empress Aleyasha (who seems slated to marry a king who is uniquely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Ancient technology) that the Empire will embark on a campaign of major technological and societal change.

My Lord Barbarian is a diverting sword and planet story I can recommend to fans of the genre.  In his dedication Offutt invokes the names of Poul Anderson (remember when I detected similarities to Anderson's work in Offutt's Chieftain of Andor?), Leigh Brackett and Alfred Coppel.  My Lord Barbarian actually reminded me quite a bit of Philip Jose Farmer's The Green Odyssey: both are "swashbuckling" tales set on planets littered with mysterious high-tech artifacts and both feature capable female characters who save the hero's life as well as themes of sexual dominance.

Finally, I know all of you are wondering about Valeron's hair.  Well, on page 72, Offutt does refer to  Valeron's "mass of long purple-red hair"!  It looks like Boris Vallejo actually read the book!  (I still can't figure out the green face, though.)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Stories from 1960s New Worlds by Thomas Disch, Langdon Jones, Brian Aldiss and three other "top" authors

It feels like it was just last month that I was reading and passing a merciless judgement on stories selected by Judith Merril from New Worlds, the flagship periodical of the New Wave, brought to you by the British taxpayer. Let's do it again, this time with stories chosen by New World's famed editor and creator of Elric of Melnibone and sundry other doomed heroes, Michael Moorcock, as representative of the best work published in that magazine.

I read all of the tales described below in my 1971 copy of Berkley Medallion's Best SF Stories from New Worlds 4.  The anthology first appeared in 1969 in the UK, published by Panther.

"Linda and Daniel and Spike" by Thomas M. Disch (1967)

The US edition of the anthology declares this story "a disturbing fable" and when it appeared in New Worlds the title was written on a woman's bare back!  I actually bought this whole book for two smackers at Half-Price Books because I didn't already own this story and I am a Disch fan.  That's a lot of hype and hope to live up to!  Can Disch do it?

This is a sad story!  Disch, you are going to break people's hearts with this thing!

Linda is an unattractive secretary living in New York City who thinks of herself as an intellectual type but never went to college and is in fact a little dim.  (Disch, a smart guy who was very well-read, likes to laugh at dolts; remember "Problems of Creativeness"?)  She is so lonely that she has an imaginary boyfriend, Daniel.  Linda develops uterine cancer, but, in her delusions, thinks she is pregnant with Daniel's child. She gets a dog (that's Spike) and pretends/believes it is her child.  (Spike bites people, including Linda.)  When she dies of her cancer, the hospital puts Linda's tumors on display--they are of record-breaking size.  As all parents hope, Linda's memory will live on thanks to her offspring!

Sad, but with some laugh-out-loud moments of black humor, Disch scores a hit with this brief (seven pages) story and justifies my purchase and all the hype.

"Transient" by Langdon Jones  (1965)

This was a New Worlds cover story.  (Look how classy and serious this '65 cover is compared to the '67 collage cover by Charles Platt and Christopher Finch.  One looks like the bulletin put out by a staid art museum and the other looks like a zine handed out on a street corner by stoners.) Moorcock in his intro to the six-page piece says it is "transitional," a break from Jones' earlier work that shows some similarities to his later work, like the triptych "Eye of the Lens," which I (and Joachim Boaz before me) wrote about recently.

Our narrator wakes up in a hospital bed.  Jones has cleverly primed us to think that the narrator has been revived from death, but this is only metaphorically true--halfway through the story we learn that the narrator is a chimpanzee who has been operated on so as to have human-level intelligence and has had implanted into his brain facility with spoken English.  The story is a tragedy, because the treatment only has effect for two hours, and our narrator spends those two hours in misery, knowing he will soon lose his miraculous intelligence and return to his natural "state of mindless half-life."

(Compare with Daniel Keyes' famous Flowers for Algernon, which I had to read in school.)

Like the Disch story, "Transient" is a short and touching story about the mind and psychological anguish.  So far this collection is living up to its back cover promise to "blow the mind."

"The Source" by Brian Aldiss (1965)

In the far future mankind has colonized the universe and founded innumerable complex and sophisticated cultures.  People live so long that their brains fill up with trivia and periodically "the Machines" have to "expunge the dross" from your brain or you will start going a little bonkers.  In this story Kervis XI leads an expedition of "Seekers" to Earth, cradle of humanity, in quest of "the peak of man's greatness."  The Seekers are disappointed to find Earth's cities in ruins, and Earthlings living like primitives.  But Kervis XI, who has been skipping his brain-cleaning treatments, isn't ready to give up on Earth yet.

In a series of increasingly surreal scenes (it is often not clear if he is seeing reality, having spiritual visions, or just going cukoo) Kervis XI crosses a forest, enters a walled city, navigates a maze, and meets a woman who (I think) warns him that technology and sophistication are yokes that limit you even if you don't realize it.  In the end of the story Kervis XI decides to stay on Earth with the primitives and live the simple life of subsistence agriculture, playing pipes and dancing around a fire.

This story is just OK.  The start is good, but I find long dreamy sequences boring and I feel like I've been exposed to this "back to nature" message way too many times, and it is a message that is not that convincing.  Sure, I like to go to the woods and see birds and turtles and all that for a few hours, but then I like to go home to the air-conditioning, running water and my books.

"Dr. Gelabius" by Hilary Bailey (1968)

Way back in 2014 I declared Hilary Bailey's "Twenty-Four Letters from Underneath the Earth" to be the best story in the wacky experimental anthology Quark/3.  Bailey was married to Moorcock from 1969 to 1978, and seems to be into that thing where you write a sequel to a famous literary work; she has produced sequels to Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, and Goodbye to Berlin, as well as a book about Sherlock Holmes' smarter sister Charlotte and her colleague, Mary Watson.

In this three-page tale we meet the title doctor, in his lab, surrounded by scores of live human fetuses in jars full of amniotic fluid.  Dr. Gelabius is part of a decades-old joint American-European project to improve the human race!  The babies in the transparent artificial wombs are the product of sperm and ova from the finest human specimens, carefully selected.  After birth they will be placed with equally carefully selected couples.  As adults, they will enrich the world with their good works and by spreading their superior genes.    

Well, not all of them.  The doctor examines each jar in turn, notes ten defective specimens, disposes of them.  Then a woman bursts into the room and, crying out "You killed my baby," blasts him with a pistol.  It seems not everybody is onboard with this whole race-improving program!

Bailey's images and style are good, but there's no real story here, just an idea.  This thing is almost like a prose poem.  Of course, if it been presented to me by one of the poets I know as a prose poem, I would have said, "This is a great poem, it's almost like a SF story!"

"The Valve Transcript" by Joel Zoss

Here we have another of the unspecified "six top authors" mentioned on the cover of the US edition of Best SF Stories from New Worlds 4.  In his intro to the story Moorcock warns us that this comic piece might take two readings to figure out.  It appears that Zoss achieved greater success as a musician and songwriter than as a science fiction author; he only has four entries on isfdb.

This story, four pages, is the transcript of an interview of a guy who works on big underground pipes that carry natural gas. The interviewer's questions are brief and straightforward, while the worker's answers are long and digressive.  It appears that the worker was sent into a pipe to repair a valve, and instead of returning to the surface via the hatch at which he was awaited, he walked further along the pipe, to egress at a hatch closer to his favorite diner.  (There are hints that the worker prefers to walk in the pipe rather than on the surface because it is cooler and the sun hurts his eyes outside.) Because his supervisors could not find him, they assumed he was still in the pipe, and so couldn't restart the flow of gas, with the result that the company lost vast sums of money.

This story is OK, I guess.  I didn't laugh, but I wasn't irritated, either.

"In Seclusion" by Harvey Jacobs (1966)

Moorcock in his introduction tells us that Jacobs works in American television, and this story is a sort of satire of Hollywood.  An actor and an actress fall in love while on the set of their big film, Beowulf, and break up with their spouses to pursue their relationship.  As a publicity stunt, or something, their studio sends them to a secluded building (an abandoned abbey) on the coast for a sort of retreat.  There they bicker and their relationship approaches collapse.  There are lots of jokes about how the main characters are sexually unfaithful to each other, narcissistic, and poor actors who get by on their looks, jokes which are not funny.

A kaiju-sized sea monster attacks.  The monster, an absurdist joke, is like an amoeba with many different pseudopod-like tentacles; some have fins, some have eyes, some have claws, etc, but also has memories and a personality and a sex drive.  The monster envelops the abbey, and reaches inside with its tentacles to try to devour the actor and rape the actress. For reasons that are supposed to be amusing but which are not, the movie stars survive the attack and one of their enemies, a gossip columnist, is killed instead.  (A bigtime Hollywood story has to have a sinister gossip columnist or theatre critic in it, right?)

Weak.  (Maybe people steeped in Hollywood lore will like it?)  


The Disch and Jones are quite good, actually moving, and the Bailey is good; Best SF Stories from New Worlds 4 was a worthwhile purchase.  The Aldiss and Zoss are not offensively bad, but the Jacobs is the kind of absurdist nonsense that I don't care for, and furthermore is based on a topic (studio-system-era Hollywood) that holds limited interest for me.  (The Leiber, Sladek and B. J. Bayley stories I am passing by for now with tentative plans to read them for single-author blog posts in the unspecified future.)

That's enough highbrow avant garde stuff for a little while; in our next installment I think we'll be seeing some "swashbuckling sword-and-planet adventure."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Horizontal Woman by Barry Malzberg

“You see, Miss Moore,” Mandleman says, “let me, if I may, explain to you a few basic facts and so on and then your mind will be set at ease and there will be no difficulty. It is impossible to maintain these buildings properly. These people are pigs; the way they live is indescribable. They are not like you and me but are rather totally undisciplined and on a level of savagery.”
In our last episode we talked about a sex novel by Barry Malzberg which, instead of glorifying sexual promiscuity and celebrating sexual liberation, portrayed sex as degrading, unfulfilling and exploitative. Well, here's another Malzberg paperback sex novel, this one from 1972 and available currently as an e-book from Prologue Books, Horizontal Woman.  Let's see if our buddy Barry takes a different tack in this one.

(Check out the blog Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books for a different take on Horizontal Woman and an idea of what the 1972 edition, and a 1977 reissue under the title Social Worker, looked like.)

Elizabeth Moore is a 23-year-old in 1964 who, after college (at "Beloit University") moved from the MidWest to Brooklyn to work for the New York City welfare administration. An "investigator" who visits recipients of public aid in their homes and throws around a lot of Freudian theory and jargon ("decompensated" seems to be her favorite word), she has her own theories and methods of how to lift her clients out of poverty--she has sex with them to raise their self esteem!
...helping her clients to get better so that they could recover their self esteem and get off relief and assume a higher socio-economic level and begin to lead normal middle-class lives.
Three clients who receive this innovative and much-welcomed service from the comely Miss Moore are the focus of the narrative. We've got Puerto Rican father of about a half dozen kids, Felipe Morales, who hasn't worked for fifteen years due to a self-diagnosed heart condition (no doctor has ever been able to diagnose this condition.)  There's 18-year old African-American (the text says "Negro") William Buckingham III, who starts pimping Moore out to his friends after his third or fourth bout of intercourse with her. And there's Rabbi Schnitzler, a Lubavitcher and father of 13, who becomes ridden with guilt after his first session with Elizabeth and actually confesses to his wife (who, incidentally, is pregnant with number 14.)

Another important character is Elizabeth's supervisor, James Oved, a black man who, when he isn't upbraiding her for being too soft on the clients ("you letting those cats take you over the coals with a lot of lies and old bullshit")--which is most of the time--is always aggressively asking her out and calling her a "prejudiced chick" when she turns him down.

Horizontal Woman is an exploration of liberal guilt and an indictment of the welfare state. And in the same way you might say that Everything Happened to Susan was about gender and relationships between men and women, Horizontal Woman could be said to be about race and ethnicity and relationships between blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, etc.

Malzberg does not paint Morales, Buckingham (Moore calls him "Willie"), and Schnitzler as sympathetic; they are obviously poor due to laziness and foolishness and not due to racism or oppression or bad luck or whatever. They are not above lying to Moore or any other government agent to get more benefits, and we witness other welfare recipients ("the relief class") casually throwing trash around their neighborhoods and acting boorishly. Willie, apparently, is a burglar, among other things. For her part, while Moore claims to care about them, she (like the entire government apparatus) treats the poor not like equal citizens, but contemptuously and condescendingly, like they are "retarded" children ("at this socio-economic level, how subtle can you be?" she wonders at one point.)  She tells Schnitzler his religion is silly and should be abandoned, and when confronted by a gang of Willie's friends, admits to herself that black youths all look the same to her.

A pivotal scene in the middle of the novel is a flashback that shows why Moore has taken up her bizarre and risky policy of having sex with her clients. When she confronted a Jewish landlord, Holocaust survivor Irving Mandleman, over the terrible conditions in which his welfare recipient tenants live, Mandeman explains that the tenants are to blame for their poor living conditions because they are savages and pigs (see above) and that the only person who really cares about these people is Mandleman himself!  He keeps them alive even though he loses money by sheltering them (the taxpayers pay their rent, of course, but it doesn't cover Mandleman's bills.)
"The Mayor's office is not populated with people who would take them into their homes for bed and board.  The liberal politicians are for relief only because giving them relief will keep them at a distance and keep the society from crumbling."
Mandelman asserts that even Moore doesn't really care about the poor: "you are so industrious and so dedicated but the fact is that you are only reacting to your own disgust.  You have no more feeling for these people than the office of the Mayor, believe me."  Moore starts her insane policy of having sex with her clients that very day as a way of proving to herself that she does care.

In the final third of the book, Oved, calling her a "dirty little Jewish cunt," tells Moore she is being transferred to the Bronx.  Her last visits to her clients are disastrous. Morales, crying out "Morales not a pig or a chicken, he a man," rapes her, Willie's mother threatens her with a broom ("You smart white lucky I don't take a knife to you") and Willie reveals to her he has "the clap."  When she gets back to the building where her office is she finds that hundreds of Hasidim have laid siege to the place, looking for her; the last sentence of the book leaves you to wonder if she escapes with her life.

This is another Malzberg book about which I have to warn readers who may be easily offended, it being full of unflattering stereotypes. There's the vulgar and oversexed Negroes, religious people who breed like rabbits, the ethnocentric ("there are a few orthodox Jews in these tenements which, I agree, somewhat lifts the level of tenancy") Jewish slumlord, and the white liberal who has jungle fever (though Elizabeth claims "her passions in fornication with the clients have been purely on the professional level....")

Horizontal Woman is not as funny as Everything Happened to Susan, but it is a better novel. Elizabeth Moore is a better character than Susan; not only does she have an interesting psychology, but she has agency and makes important decisions that drive the narrative, whereas Susan was just a passive victim.  Morales, Willie, Schnitzler, Mandleman and Oved all inspire some feeling in the reader, unlike the flat caricatures we found in Everything Happened to Susan.  I actually think Malzberg's little work here fits into the same genre or tradition of Jewish-American writing that addresses the issue of Jewish and African-American life in the New York-New Jersey area in which reside Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. And there are some good jokes, and it is also just possible someone might find the sex in this book to be titillating, particularly someone into exhibitionism, group sex, voyeurism, and/or interracial sex.

A quick read that is worth a look for Malzberg fans and those interested in subversive (what today we would call "politically incorrect") vintage paperbacks.