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."


  1. If you’re in the mood for a Tom-Disch-wants-to-break-your-heart story then try to lay your hands on his ironic weepie "Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”.

    A good variant on his stupid-people-live-among-us matter is “The Joycelin Shrager Story” which is online at:

    Disch was so inspired by his Joyceline Schrager character he even published separately a series of poems (or un-poems so deliberately slack are they, satirising poetry as self-help workshop material), reprinted in:

    Unfortunately that reprint doesn’t include the fake intro by her poetry teacher “Andy Lowe” but you can read it excerpted in an essay by a poet friend of Disch’s:

    - matthew davis

    1. Very cool links, thanks!

      I've attended a few poetry readings and sat in on a few poetry workshops in my time....