Wednesday, August 31, 2016

1979 stories by John Varley, Tanith Lee, Joanna Russ, and Larry Niven & Steve Barnes

Let's check out stories from 1979 by writers I have some familiarity with: John Varley, Larry Niven, Steve Barnes, Tanith Lee, and Joanna Russ.  The stories we'll read today were selected by Donald Wollheim for inclusion in DAW's 1980 Annual World's Best SF.  My copy of the anthology features a front cover by Jack Gaughan (is that the Death Star?) and a back cover blurb from The Cincinnati Post (The Post went out of business in 2007), and was previously owned by a Shelia K. Wise (if I am reading her name rightly), who dated it "May, 1980."

Fellow SF fan Shelia K. Wise, we salute you!
Wollheim's intro to the volume includes a fun little mystery.  Wollheim tells us that he recently "spent an evening with a well-known science fiction writer and his wife whose hobby is world travel."  Another couple "with the same itching foot" was also there.  Wollheim doesn't name the couples, but I am going to put forward as my guess that he is talking about the Vances and/or the Andersons.  (Check out other SF mysteries I have hoped to solve here.)

These couples described to Wollheim visits to "primitive communities," and Wollheim reports that he told them that he thinks visiting primitive people would get pretty boring after a while, one bunch of primitives being much like another. (Microaggression!)  Then he switches gears and warns us readers that if we don't accelerate our development of nuclear and solar energy we will all be living "in mud huts" when the oil runs out.  Wollheim predicts that nuclear power plants on the moon and "solar power accumulator satellites" will arise to keep us all from reverting to primitivism; either that or it's "back to the jungle."  (How does the energy get to Earth from Luna or those satellites?  Wollheim doesn't say.  Let the boffins suss out the details!)

"Options" by John Varley

I read Varley's novel Titan shortly before I started this here blog; I enjoyed it as a sort of Rendezvous with Rama hard SF thing with added sex and violence, but I didn't enjoy it so much that I have ever felt the desire to read the sequels. "Options" is (according to isfdb) set in the same universe as "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" and Ophiuchi Hotline, both of which I also read before starting this blog and thought were not bad.

"Options," which first appeared in Terry Carr's Universe 9, is about topics we regularly see discussed in the news in 2016: sex changes, body modification, gender roles, homosexuality, women and mothers in the workplace.  It is set on the moon, a moon that has been colonized for over a century but still has a strong kind of pioneer spirit where everybody is expected to pull together as a unified community, perhaps because Luna is in some kind of cold war with the Earth government.  Everyone on Luna is required to work, so there is no slack in the labor pool to take up babysitting duties, so mothers bring their young children into the office with them, which causes some disruption in the workplace. The 28-page story follows a middle-class family of smarties (Cleopatra King, an architect who is currently managing the construction of a food factory, and her husband Jules La Rhin don't watch TV, instead spending their free time reading books) with several kids as they grapple with a rough spot in their relationship.

Sex changes have been available on the bustling moon colony for decades, but few people of Cleo and Jules' generation have taken advantage of this wonder of modern science; 99% of people are content to stick with the sex they were born into, even though the means of changing your sex is safe, easy and reversible.  In Varley's tale sex change doesn't involve surgically reshaping your genitals or pumping you full of chemicals; instead, a brainless clone body of you is grown, a clone with the X or Y chromosomes altered so that the clone body is like a twin of the opposite sex.  They can pop your brain into this clone body and you can explore life as a different sex while your original body waits in storage; if you find you don't care for life as the opposite sex, they can just put your brain back into its original vessel.

While Cleo and Jules' generation has essentially rejected this opportunity, the younger demographic is beginning to embrace it (a newspaper which apparently did not suffer the fate of The Cincinnati Post reports that 33% of people under 20 have experimented with sex changes.)  Cleo becomes intrigued by the idea of she and Jules both switching sexes; as the story progresses it becomes clear that Cleo is at least a little dissatisfied with the traditional female role she plays in the marriage--she does most of the child rearing (including breastfeeding) and she usually is on the bottom when she and Jules have sex, to cite some examples.  She gets breast reduction surgery (symbolically becoming less feminine and more masculine), experiments with lesbianism, and has a male clone body grown for her, a process which takes six months.  Jules resents and resists these changes, and they struggle to keep their marriage alive after Cleo has her brain put in that male body and changes her name to Leo.

"Options" is well-written and well-structured, and reasonably interesting and entertaining.  A story on these topics could have been a horror story that focused on the "eternal battle of the sexes" and the natural fear of radical social and physical change (and, with the character of Jules, Varley does address this angle); instead "Options" is an optimistic piece that embraces all those liberal pieties you heard in college: gender roles are largely socially constructed, change is good, you should broaden your mind and look at things from a new perspective, etc.  Varley asserts that people who have experienced life as both sexes are superior to "one sexers," so I guess the story fits more or less comfortably in the current (2016) zeitgeist, over 35 years after it appeared.

"The Locusts" by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes  

I really liked the last Niven story I read, "Fourth Profession," and I thought all the famous Niven novels, with or without Pournelle (Ringworld, Integral Trees, Mote in God's Eye, Footfall) I read in my youth had cool science ideas and cool settings, but when I reread them as an adult they seemed a little light when it came to the literary virtues, like style, plot and character.  Let's see what's up with "The Locusts," which first was published in Analog.

An overcrowded Earth makes its first efforts to colonize extrasolar planets! A small group of Earthlings lands on barren but habitable Tau Ceti IV, their ship full of frozen bacteria, seeds, and animal embryos with which they will create an Earth-like ecology on the rocky desolate world.  All goes well for two years: grass, trees, fish, and other Earth life spreads across the landscape.  But when the colonists try to create their own families disaster strikes--their kids are stupid hairy apemen!  Heartbroken, parents begin committing suicide in dramatic ways, including blowing up their orbiting space ship!  When the kids (who can only learn like a dozen words of English and are too dim to make their own beds) become sexually mature at age nine and start having sex, the colony is shaken by a violent dispute over whether the children should be allowed to breed, or should be sterilized.

I feel like I am always pointing out how elitist and anti-democratic classic SF is on this blog, and here is another chance for me to do so.  The colonists hold a meeting, and the mass of them favors having the kids sterilized, but the most educated person among the colonists (everybody calls him "Doc") refuses to let this decision stand, taking matters into his own hands and doing the right thing. Doc steals the colony's aircraft and flees with the children to an inaccessible part of the planet, where, to figure out if the kids are truly human, he has sex with one of them and raises a big family.  (Classic SF also has its share of outre sex!)

Larry Niven is a hard science guy; here's the speculative science he and Barnes are serving up for us.  Doc's research in the microfiche library suggests the colonists' children are Pithicanthropus erectus--why are all the kids born on Tau Ceti IV these "small-brained Pleistocene primates?"  Were the colonists infected by a germ from Earth which mutated due to exposure to space radiation on the long trip from Earth, or a germ native to Tau Ceti IV?  Did the planet's greater-than-Earth gravity or longer -than-Earth day cause the change?  In the end of the story a laser message with the news from the Earth of six or seven years ago explodes all these theories--all the babies now being born on Earth also resemble Pithicanthropus erectus!

Doc points out that when grasshoppers have used up the resources in their current environs they give birth to a generation of locusts, a form more adept at colonizing new territory, and opines that the human race, having used up the Earth, has gone through a similar transformation!  Clever and aggressive homo sapiens, with its risky wars and environment-threatening technology, is perhaps less suited to colonizing new worlds than simple-minded, quick-breeding, unaggressive Pithicanthropus erectus!

This story is alright.  The ideas are good, but Niven and Barnes fail to make the characters engaging--they are just names without any personality--or to generate any emotion in the reader, even as the characters experience all kinds of deep primal emotions (the desire to have children, the desire to protect children) and extreme psychological problems (suicide, being disgusted with your own children, knowing you have wasted your life on a doomed mission.)  Moderate recommendation.    

"The Thaw" by Tanith Lee

Regular readers of this here blog will know I am a big fan of Lee's short stories, and "The Thaw" does not disappoint!

"The Thaw," which first appeared in Asimov's, is a first person narrative, written by an insecure young woman, Tacey Brice, a failed artist living in the socialistic future of 2193, when everything from housing to water to clothing is rationed and people who aren't very productive, like our narrator, live more or less comfortably on the dole. Lee writes in a smooth, unpretentious, colloquial style imbued with Tacey's anxiety and lack of confidence; Lee succeeds in making Tacey seem like a real person.

"The Institute" has contacted Tacey: for the last two centuries people of means suffering from incurable diseases have had themselves cryogenically frozen, and the government has decided to revive them. The first test case will be an ancestor of Tacey's from the late 20th century, Carla Brice, "my great-great-great-great-great grandmother.  Give or take a great."  The Institute will provide Tacey a grant if she will serve as a kind of liaison between Carla and the world of 2193, and there is also the possibility of making easy money off the publicity, so Tacey agrees.  (It is significant that Tacey agrees to participate in this project not out of a love of her family, curiosity about the past, to gather inspiration for her art or to further the cause of science, but out of a selfish desire for easy money.)

At the clinic where Carla is revived Tacey meets a young black doctor ("black as space and as beautiful as the stars therein"), with whom she falls in love (though she never tells us his name.)  The "medic" only has eyes for tall, beautiful and confident Carla.  Tacey finds Carla intimidating, and when Carla moves into Tacey's little apartment, Tacey is psychologically dominated by her ancestor--Carla makes a servant of her, and Tacey does all the cooking, cleaning, running of errands, etc, for the 20th-century beauty.  I felt like Lee was suggesting parallels between Carla and some of our traditional ideas about vampires or witches; for example, near the end of the story Carla seduces the black medic, at which point Tacey applies to him the nickname "The Prince of Darkness."

We learn the almost unbelievable truth about what is going on at the end of the story, after Tacey discovers that Carla has murdered and eaten the black doctor. Early in the story, the medic had told Tacey that religious people of the past had worried about what would happen to the human soul during cryogenic storage, but of course 22nd-century people have abandoned such silly beliefs. Well, maybe such beliefs were not so silly! Evil noncorporeal space aliens have found that they are unable to take over the bodies of living humans, but that during cryogenic storage something (the soul, perhaps?) leaves the body, making room for an alien tenant. "Carla" is the vanguard of the alien invasion force!

Full page ad for Tanith Lee novels
from my copy of
1980 Annual World's Best SF
Now that Carla has been given a clean bill of health, the rest of the cryogenically frozen people, over 4,000 of them, will be revived!  Each is inhabited by an alien, and since each alien, when ensconced in a human body, can hypnotize hundreds of humans in the way "Carla" hypnotized Tacey and the black doctor, the E.T.s will be able to enslave the entire human race!

Very good; "The Thaw" is a horror story founded on the very real feelings many of us have around people who are taller, more attractive, smarter, or otherwise superior to us--feelings of insecurity and inadequacy--and on our knowledge that all too often such superior people use their superiority to manipulate and dominate us. As well as Lee's fine writing style, I enjoyed the SF ideas and the religious overtones. I seem to recall that Lee's novel Don't Bite the Sun also depicted an atheistic and decadent future (though that future was one of plenty while "The Thaw's" is one of scarcity) in which a female protagonist discovered hints that the forgotten religions of the past told valuable truths. Another interesting aspect of "The Thaw" is the possibility that Tacey is an unreliable narrator trying to manipulate the reader. In the last few pages of the story it becomes apparent that part of Tacey's project in writing this narrative is to assuage her survivor guilt (the aliens kill humans on a whim, but Carla has promised to protect Tacey, her pet human) and to beg forgiveness from mankind for being a tool of, practically a collaborator with, the alien invaders (continuing the religious theme, Tacey twice suggests that the human race considers her a "Judas.")  Could Tacey, who goes on and on about her shortcomings, be trying to win our sympathy, and diminish her own responsibility for the catastrophe the human race has suffered, by exaggerating her faults?

Highly recommended.

"The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand" by Joanna Russ

As you can see, Russ's story got the cover
of the issue, an homage to Magritte by
Ron Walotsky
I'm sure we all remember Joanna Russ, the socialist feminist lesbian college professor. Even though I'm one of those people who think that humanities and social science professors comprise a hypocritical and parasitic priestly overclass which brainwashes students in hopes of constructing a North American Soviet Union in which they will be the commissars, I can't deny that Russ is an able writer and that I have enjoyed some of her stories. Maybe "The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand" will be a good one.

In his intro to the story Wollheim laments that, while Jules Verne's 150th birthday in 1978 was celebrated enthusiastically (among other things, there was issued "a set of commemorative dishes"!) in Europe, Americans did nothing to mark this momentous date. Russ was the exception; "The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand" was written in 1978 on the occasion of the anniversary, and published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction with the dedication, "Hommage a Jules Verne" in 1979.

I have to admit that I have little direct familiarity with Verne's work (embarrassing, I know), though I have seen the various movies based on Verne's books showcasing the talents of James Mason, Vincent Price, Kirk Douglas, and Ray Harryhausen, and so have a vague idea of the plots and themes of some of his writing.  Presumably I will be missing all kinds of allusions and references to Verne's oeuvre as I read Russ's story.

I feel like it is likely I missed something, because "The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand" feels like a pretty pedestrian tale.  Our narrator is a Frenchman in the 1920s.  Walking through a passageway that links different sides of a train station, he has a bizarre vision of a jungle.  A woman snatches his arm and tells him that at a certain time of day (this very time!) if one enters the passage he or she will be transported to one of many other, alternate, realities.  The woman, the Amelie Bertrand of the title, describes briefly her various trips to a dozen or so other universes, where she spends years having adventures, only to return to this train station at the same moment she left, unaged.  The narrator determines to go on just such adventures himself.  The End.

This is a very ordinary story--while not bad, it is slight; there have been a million "doorway to other universes" stories, and this one doesn't describe the adventures in those other universes, just devotes a few lines to describing each of the other worlds.  Does Russ bring anything new to this shopworn genre?

Well, there are "meta" elements.  These include a direct reference to Around the World in Eighty Days and an oblique reference to George Orwell (it is suggested that "Airstrip One" may be one of Mrs. Bertrand's otherworldly destinations.)  The Airstrip One reference made me wonder if Russ was suggesting that Bertrand was travelling to worlds that were based on famous books, an idea used by Robert Heinlein in Number of the Beast and A. Bertram Chandler in at least one of the later Grimes stories.  I also wondered if the "real" world of the narrator and Bertrand might be a fictional world and not our own.

The story has some feminist and diversity politics overtones.  Bertrand has exciting adventures (e.g., working as supercargo on a whaler in the Pacific for two years) in the alternate universes, adventures she, as a middle-class woman, can't have in the "real" world.  She also shows no regrets about leaving her husband for years at a time.  It is also perhaps significant that Russ's narrator describes the heroine as "plump" and "by no means pretty," a contrast to most SF heroines.  One of the most extensively described alternate universes, a moon colony in 2089, is a sort of identity politics utopia--the finest mathematician of the time is a woman, and her colleague, a black man, is a leading physicist.

Acceptable, but no big deal.  Verne experts and Russ's devoted fans will probably get more out of it than I did.


While the Russ is leaving me a little cold, super-editor Wollheim made good choices with the other three tales.  The Lee has the most literary and entertainment value--style, character, human feeling, and a wild surprise ending--but the stories by Varley and Niven and Barnes both have solid speculations about science and make an effort to explore the psychological and sociological ramifications of those ideas and present human drama.  And all four of these stories are ripe for some kind of gender analysis, each touching directly on women's relationships with their families and/or with society.  

In our next episode more stories from DAW's 1980 Annual World's Best SF; this time by writers with whose work I am not very familiar.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel

The Old Un was white in the face: "Let us promise each other that those of us, or the one of us, who escapes alive from this will write a book about this stinking mess in which we are taking part.  It must be a book that will be one in the eye for the whole filthy military gang, no matter whether German, Russian, American or what, so that people can understand how imbecile and rotten this sabre-rattling idiocy is." 

Remember when I read war fiction by a British Army officer who fought in the First World War and by Royal Navy officers who served in the Atlantic during the Second World War?  Well today we are going to the other side of the hill and reading war fiction by a Dane who joined the Wehrmacht and spent years  serving with the fighting forces of the diabolical Axis powers!  My edition of Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel (birth name Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen) was printed in Great Britain by the Orion Publishing Group, apparently relatively recently, a translation from the Danish by Maurice Michael.  I got my copy at the Old Worthington Library's book sale.  (Worthington is this charming town with cute shops and an elaborate weekend farmer's market just north of Columbus.) The novel first was published in 1957.

There is quite a bit of controversy about what exactly "Hassel" did during the war--maybe he fought on the Eastern Front and maybe he was a uniformed collaborator in occupied Denmark who learned about the Eastern front from real Danish Waffen SS combat veterans.  I don't feel like examining all that very closely--Wikipedia will clue you into to some of that if you are interested.  I am going to read Legion of the Damned first and foremost in hopes of finding an exciting adventure story, and secondly with hopes of getting some kind of insight into what it was like to fight in World War II in Eastern Europe, as well as first-hand impressions of National Socialism, Soviet Socialism, and German and Russian racism, anti-Semitism and imperialism from somebody who wore an Axis uniform during the 1939-1945 cataclysm.


I'm going to have to say that Legion of the Damned has been a disappointment. Rather than an adventure story or a realistic and detailed description of service in the Second World War, it is an impressionistic and emotional parade of incidents, a catalog of horrors, intended, ostensibly, to "oppose all war" and persuade the reader of "the need not only for revolt but for organised revolt against war."  While the narrator serves in the German Army and kills countless Red Army personnel, he is bitterly opposed to Nazism and is sympathetic to the Soviet Union, and almost all the book's characters share his attitude.  (There is no discussion of why or how Hassel, "an Auslands-deutscher...called up in Denmark" joined the German military in the first place.)

Like Proust's In Search of Lost TimeLegion of the Damned is a first person narrative that purports to be the memoirs of a protagonist with the same name as the novel's author.  The first scene is set at a court martial.  Caught trying to desert from the "11th Regiment of Hussars" (the names of units in the book appear to be fictional; according to Wikipedia the German Army's 11th Regiment of Hussars was disbanded in 1918), Hassel is sentenced to the "SS and Wehrmacht's Penal Concentration Camp, Lengries," where sadistic SS men torment, torture, and murder the prisoners for fun. Transferred to "Fagen Concentration camp near Bremen," the narrator is put to work in a quarry, and then defusing the unexploded British bombs that litter the surrounding German countryside.  (Wikipedia is telling me the RAF dropped over 12,000 tons of bombs on Bremen over the course of WWII--get to work, Hassel!)  When Hassel gets sick he is subjected to horrible medical experiments.

All this concentration camp stuff only takes like 20 pages, then Hassel is inducted into a penal battalion and we get 20 pages of anecdotes about how brutal the training is--much harder than the training of the regular troops.  Finally our narrator is assigned to the "27th Tank Battalion (Penal)" and meets the four friends with whom he will serve through many nightmarish hardships.  All four of these guys, like Hassel, are penal soldiers who are opposed to Hitler ("an untalented little bourgeois") and National Socialism ("a cause that we abominated"); they are also just the kind of broad and exaggerated characters we see in war movies all the time:
The Old Un, the tank commander, who is never afraid and is "almost like a father" to the rest of the tank crew,
Porta, the tank's driver, a sophisticated Berliner and a communist, an expert comedian, musician, sniper, and story teller who also excels at cheating at cards and seducing women, 
Pluto, the gunner, a "mountain of muscle" who ended up in the penal battalion as punishment for his career as a thief,
and Titch, the loader, a short man who worked in the perfume industry before getting in a brawl or something and falling into the clutches of the law and ending up in the penal battalion.
Our narrator operates the tank's radio ("wireless" is the word used in this British publication) early in his career as a tank crewman but for dramatic reasons sometimes mans the main gun or flamethrower.  As the penal battalion suffers casualties Porta and Hassel rise in rank and are given command of their own tanks.
These five cut ups do the kinds of things you see in service comedies and irreverent anti-war fiction all the time: stealing food, getting drunk, playing cards, adopting a child or animal as a mascot and giving it an ironic name ("Stalin," a cat, in this case,) humiliating the squares who take regulations seriously, murdering an abusive officer (a "bourgeois swine"), getting mixed up with the local women and getting in trouble with the military police.  Most of this stuff felt tired and was boring.

I thought it a little odd that the National Socialist government was issuing its precious tanks to the communists, thieves and deserters of the penal battalion, and I also thought it odd that Hassel, convicted deserter, was given a pass and allowed to ride a passenger train unguarded from the Balkans to Vienna to meet his long term girlfriend Ursula, whom he never mentioned during those months in the concentration camps. And if I thought hearing about Porta stealing Romanian civilians' geese and cheating a Romanian baron at cards was boring, I thought Hassel's little vacation with Ursula even more boring.  Hassel (the writer) includes these chapters with Ursula so we will be moved when, a hundred pages later, character Hassel receives word she was executed by the Nazis for participating in a political protest, but since she is so uninteresting the reader just shrugs off yet another execution; by then we (along with Hassel the character) have witnessed several.

(Writer Hassel is not averse to reusing ideas; late in the novel narrator Hassel gets a second girlfriend who gets killed in an Allied air raid, and our heroes murder a fanatical chaplain in much the same way they murdered that abusive officer.)    

Our protagonists leave the Balkans for North Africa, but their troop ship is sunk by Allied aircraft, and after they are rescued from the sea by an Italian destroyer they are sent to the Russian Front via train.  When the train stops next to a German concentration camp in occupied Poland the soldiers of the penal battalion link their belts to produce a makeshift rope and liberate three women from the the other side of the fence and somehow contrive to get them on a train going to occupied France.

Finally, on page 115 of this 249 page book, comes what I was waiting for: a combined arms attack on the Red Army in late 1941!  The Old Un's tank is right in the thick of things, battling Soviet armor and infantry.  After eight weeks of success, however, bad weather and supply shortages halt the German advance and the penal battalion has to blow up its own tanks and retreat, Hassel and friends fighting a rearguard action as infantry.  By page 123 Hassel is a prisoner of the Soviet Union!

As a prisoner in Russia, Hassel is beaten and sees scores of people--men and women, natives and invaders--tortured and executed by the communists, but he warns the reader not to let this color his attitude about Stalin or socialism. While he draws direct parallels between his treatment in the USSR and Nazi Germany ("...a GPU officer received us with well-directed blows of his fist, exactly the same fare as the SS had given me in Lengries"), he rejects "...the easy view that Nazism and the People's Democracy were one and the same thing, and that Stalin and Hitler were of the same kidney."  Hassel bases this assessment on a study of representations of the dictator's faces(!): "One look at their portraits will show that that is nonsense....Hitler and Stalin were as far from being alike as two men can be."

At times the incongruity between Hassel's descriptions of life in communist Russia and his defenses of the Soviet regime made me wonder if there was a chance he was being sarcastic, or was satirizing Western Soviet apologists.  After spending page after page describing how murderous, corrupt, class-ridden ("He [a minor character, a committed Bolshevik] was well-off, had a good salary and enjoyed all the privileges of the upper-class Soviet citizen, including being able to shop in the big party stores..."), and unpopular the communist party is, and how inefficient the sectors of the Soviet economy he witnessed are, he feebly suggests that things in other parts of the USSR were probably going just fine and what he saw shouldn't lead to suspicions about socialism in general or the USSR in particular.

After being held in various prisons and working in various factories in Russia, Hassel escapes and rejoins the penal tank battalion.  There are some interesting scenes of fighting in the last hundred pages of the book; these include tank battles, but since the 27th Battalion's tanks keep getting knocked out, Hassel and his buddies must often serve as infantry and defend trenches and go on night patrols in no man's land where they map enemy minefields and cut openings in the enemy wire.  At one point the Old Un is assigned command of a train car ("a coach") on an armored train mounting 120mm guns; the train does battle with Soviet tanks which "gradually closed in on us like ghastly attacking insects."  Then our heroes are issued armored cars and serve in a recon platoon.  (The author seems so determined to showcase as many facets of the war as possible that I began to wonder if Hassel might find himself manning the machine guns on a medium bomber or a submarine.)  There are chapters in hospital when Hassel is seriously wounded, while some of the most interesting and amusing chapters are those describing Soviet propaganda and other methods of inducing Wehrmacht soldiers to desert.

While a few chapters are effective, Legion of the Damned doesn't really work as a story.  The novel is episodic and flat, just a series of bloody incidents with very little plot, no climax, and little tension.  The characters aren't interesting enough for us to care when they get killed or lose family members to the war, and they do not evolve; Hassel is against the war and hates the Nazis and sympathizes with the Soviets at the start of the book and feels the same way at the end, and everybody agrees with him. (In a conventional narrative characters accomplish some goal or learn something about the world or themselves, but not in this one.)  The book rings the same notes again and again, depicting one gruesome death after another, one act of German or Soviet government cruelty, callousness or duplicity after another.  The style is bland (though that very well could just be a deficiency of the translation) and the jokes are banal and vulgar--two examples:
Before he [Porta] fell asleep he broke wind and said: "Take a sniff, dear children.  There're vitamins in the air."
Porta blew his nose in his fingers and spat at the wall, hitting a notice announcing that spitting was forbidden.
So, the book is not particularly entertaining.  But did I learn anything?  I have to say, not really.  I was hoping to learn all about combat tactics and the maintenance and use of equipment and weapons, and to hear characters from different demographics (social classes, religions, regions) talk about why the NSDAP appealed or failed to appeal to them, and maybe even hear Slavic characters talking about how Marxism and the Communist Party appealed or failed to appeal to them.  The combat scenes are vague and impressionistic; for example, Hassel and his buddies operate and lose numerous armored vehicles, but we are only told the model name of one, a Panther.  One tank they crew is armed with both a 105mm gun and a flamethrower, and I doubt such a vehicle really saw service in the German Army in WWII--at least I'm not finding anything like that in my copy of Chamberlain and Doyle's Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two.  (Woah, this book is worth 5 or 10 times what I paid for it in 2001.)

The sympathetic characters and narrator do talk about politics a bit, but they all speak with the same voice, a sort of conspiratorial leftism that detests the Nazis and hopes for world revolution; the author makes no effort to investigate the thinking of Nazis or to understand Nazism's appeal, and all the Nazi characters are despicable sadists, like movie villains.

In a chapter about Romania Hassel lays out his view of the war's causes.  Romania's leaders, Hassel asserts, allied with Germany not out of fear of the USSR but so that the German military would augment the Romanian police force and protect "oil wells, mines...and infinitely other monopolies" from being nationalized.  Hassel claims that the entire war was caused by the "indecently rich" to prevent just such "nationalisation": "The point of it was that we were to pull certain chestnuts out of the fire."  In a later chapter The Old Un suggests that Hitler was merely the puppet of other (unspecified) forces:
"Hitler and his dregs will be slaughtered, of course, and the sooner the better, but what are they but filthy puppets?  And it's not making a revolution if you just smash the puppets and let the director run off with the takings."            
Hassel has contempt for ideas of democracy and individual freedom, and thinks that to create a world of peace and plenty will require mass compulsion and an abandonment of traditional ideas of liberty:
I will willingly submit to even the strictest compulsion, if that be necessary, in order that we may live our lives in peace....there has to be an assertion of will; somebody has to see that all get enough to eat...and it will call for considerable toil...the need to subordinate oneself to the requirements of the general weal...that people forget self...." 
Legion of the Damned contains almost nothing about German anti-Semitism and racism or the Nazi regime's plans to exterminate the Jews and expel and enslave the Slavs.  The novel is full of victims of the Nazi regime but the foremost of these victims are German soldiers; it feels like one of Hassel's sub rosa aims is to distance the servicemen of the German armed forces from the Hitler regime and its evil and catastrophic policies, to portray them as victims instead of perpetrators, even though the armed forces were the instrument of those policies.  (This is the book in which German soldiers liberate women from concentration camp instead of imprisoning them in them.)

One of the things which made the war fiction I alluded to earlier (Sapper's No Man's Land, Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea) engaging was how their authors, included in their books ideas that were challenging, surprising, or counterintuitive.  Sapper tried to convince us that World War One, which we've always been told was a stupid waste, had a positive side, MacLean portrayed the Royal Navy, which we usually see portrayed in an heroic light, as a bunch of fuck ups, and in his book Monsarrat bitterly complained about how civilians, like women and labor union workers, refused to pull their weight during the 1939-45 war and failed to treat British servicemen as well as they deserved.  There isn't much like that in Legion of the Damned.  Sure, it's crazy that a Dane would join the German Army, but Hassel never explains how this happened.  Instead he spends the whole book trying to convince us that war is bad and Nazism is bad, things we already believe and have already been told a hundred times (and more compellingly.)  In a just world, Hassel's apparent sympathy for the communist party of the Soviet Union and its leader, Josef Stalin, would be surprising and challenging, but during a career in academia and a life among arty people I have read and met plenty of Marxists and Soviet apologists.

Legion of the Damned didn't really hold my interest; in fact, I found myself putting off reading it to instead play a seven-year-old PC version of Games Workshop's "Blood Bowl."  So, gotta give this one a down vote.  Too bad.  People interested in anti-war literature which tries to shock you with depictions of atrocity and gore, and people interested in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union of the Stalin era may find Legion of the Damned a worthwhile read, but I believe it fails as a novel, and that people already interested in its topics will learn little from it.


I actually own a rusty old German helmet in the style of those worn during the World Wars, though I have no idea how authentic it might be. A kid living next door to my maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I would play Games Workshop games in the late '80s and early '90s, brought it over once, having found it in his basement, where it had accidentally been spotted with silver spray paint. He never took this artifact back home, and when my grandmother died and my parents cleared out her house I ended up with it.  I sometimes wonder if Gefreiter Franki or Franzki, or whatever it is that the inscription signifies, was a real soldier and if he survived the war to lead a normal life or if he died in some dreadful circumstances in a battle or some kind of internment.

[Update 8/29/2016: Text of paragraph about North Africa and Poland amended at suggestion of commenter SK.]

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt

"He's come back after ages of being merged with the race.  Look closely!  His face!  Like the statue in the temple."
A. E. van Vogt's The Book of Ptath was first published in the October 1943 edition of John Campbell's fantasy magazine Unknown, the commercially unsuccessful sister publication to the venerable Astounding.  Because it is widely regarded as a fantasy, and because the Paperback Library editions have cover illustrations by Jack Gaughan and Jeff Jones (I own the 1969 Jones edition) that depict swordsmen, I expected The Book of Ptath to be about a world of elves and wizards and dragons and guys who hit each other with swords.  In fact, there are no such well worn fantasy elements in The Book of Ptath; it is exactly the kind of story we expect from our man Van--a guy is plucked from our world and set down in another where elites with crazy abilities are fighting each other, and there he develops mental powers and becomes a superbeing who saves the world; along the way people impersonate and manipulate each other in ways that may strain the reader's ability to follow.

It is 200 million years in the future on an Earth unrecognizable to us 20th-century types, a world with different continents, different seas, different cultures and creatures.  In a dungeon beneath the royal palace of the kingdom of Gonwonlane, lies a dark-haired goddess, bound in enchanted chains.  The good goddess L'onee has been held thus for ages, taunted by the evil blonde goddess Ineznia, ruling Queen of Gonwonlane.  Both goddesses await the return of that greatest of deities, invincible Ptath, who has been away, in the ancient past, for untold generations, "merged with the race," his divine soul reincarnated again and again in the bodies of a nearly endless succession of mortal men.

The goddesses expect Ptath to free L'onee and chastise Ineznia, so in hopes of thwarting this destiny Ineznia has used her magic to trigger the god's return prematurely; when Ptath appears his invincible body is intact, but he has less knowledge than a child--he doesn't even remember what clothes, food, and water are! Ineznia's plan was for him to appear in her palace in this vulnerable state, but with the last reserve of her own sorcerous power L'onee has mitigated Ineznia's spell--Ptath materializes a thousand miles away.  L'onee further contrives to retain in the god's body, along with Ptath's own amnesiac consciousness, the mind of one of the men whose physical form he tenanted in the distant past, that of Captain Peter Holroyd of the United States Army, who was killed fighting in Germany in 1944!

As I have told readers of this blog before, I love stories in which people's souls or brains or whatever get switched into other bodies, and stories in which multiple personalities inhabit the same body.  (I suppose I love these kinds of stories because they seem to defy the inevitable death and inescapable loneliness of our lives.)  The Book of Ptath is all about these kinds of shenanigans, with four (three?) main characters who shift from one body to another more times than I can remember!

...and something totally wack.
Holroyd, in Ptath's body, travels across this future world (as befits a fantasy, this future world isn't the kind in which robots do the work and people fly air cars and shoot each other with ray guns; here peasants do the work and soldiers and the upper classes fly on oversized birds and shoot each other with arrows) trying to get the magic items that will allow him to awaken the full power of Ptath and defeat Ineznia.  The goddesses Ineznia and L'onee send forth their souls to inhabit and control the bodies of women Holroyd encounters, drawing him into traps or offering guidance--in one memorable episode, fearing Ineznia has tricked Holroyd into committing a terrible crime, L'onee animates a drowned corpse and tries to assassinate Holroyd with a magic weapon!  The behavior of the goddesses reminded me of Athena, who, in Homer, appears in the guise of various mortals to advise Odysseus or Telemachus or callously manipulate Hektor or Pandarus.

The diabolical Ineznia, seeking to become master of the world, conspires with the rulers of the kingdom of Accadistran to breed an irresistible air force of giant birds. Ineznia helps the Accadistranians kidnap her own citizens, innocent people from Gonwonlane; in Accadistran these poor souls are warehoused by the thousands in concentration camps, where they are thrown into the arena as fodder for the squadrons of giant birds!  When the feathered Accadistran luftwaffe attacks Gonwonlane, millions of Gonwonlanian civilians are devoured by the ravenous man-eating birds.  (Presumably these scenes of horror were inspired by German aggression and atrocity in the period of the Second World War.)

Ineznia's evil backfires on her, and we learn exactly how in the final chapter of the novel.  (Van Vogt loves to present the reader with a convoluted and bizarre plot and then explain how all that crazy shit happened in a few lines on the last page of the book.)  The horror of the murder bird invasion inspires a religious revival in Gonwonlane, and the prayers of the besieged Gonwonlanian people strengthen Ptath, giving Holroyd powers that rival Ineznia's and allow him to turn the tables on her, liberating the world from her oppression and ushering in an era of more responsible government.

These covers actually convey some of the content and tone of the novel.
Plus...praise from Damon Knight?!? 
Women play prominent, critical, roles in The Book of Ptath.  For long stretches of the novel Holroyd, who finds everything in the year 200,000,000 AD bewildering, is worked like a puppet by the two goddesses, and relationships between minor characters include a monarch who is more or less controlled by his wives and a lord managed by his daughter; the theme of woman as manipulator is a strong one in The Book of Ptath.  It is also women who dominate the religion of Gonwonlane, with priestesses in charge of the institutions and common women doing all the worshiping and sending all the prayers--it is from women that Ptath ultimately derives his world-saving power.

The relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and how untrustworthy and exploitative rulers can be, is another theme of the book.  We learn that Ptath took the risky move of leaving the normal world to "merge with the race" (giving Ineznia the chance to take over and murder millions of people--oops!) because he felt that his great power and distance from the common man was corrupting him:
"As for merging with the race [L'onee explains to an inquisitive Holroyd] in one sense that does seem to have been disastrous. But he said he could feel in himself dark, alien, inhuman urges that he must purge by a return to the spring source of decency--the life force of the people."      
Van Vogt stories are generally pretty elitist (in this story parliamentary government is judged too unwieldy for the Earth of Year 200 Million), and I seem to recall that one of Damon Knight's many gripes about him was his apparent anti-democratic attitude. So I think it significant that, in The Book of Ptath, both power and goodness literally come from the people.

On the topic of criticisms of van Vogt, one of the memorably odd things about The Book of Ptath, and I think something van Vogt's detractors have mentioned when attacking his work, is how he tries to use big numbers in a childish sort of way to increase the drama of the story.  The world Holroyd finds himself in isn't just two thousand or two million years in the future, but 200 million!  The armies of Gonwondlane are made up of billions of soldiers, and it is hundreds of millions of innocent people who are eaten by the giant birds.  

I enjoyed The Book of Ptath.  The pace never lags (the philosophical asides about government and religion are not too long or frequent, like they were in Anarchistic Colossus), the characters are interesting, the mysteries of the plot induce curiosity instead of frustration, and there are scenes which are surprising and scenes which are horrifying.  I'm glad I could end this Van Vogt Marathon on a positive note!     


The people at Paperback Library apparently think that if you read A. E. van Vogt you must be the kind of person who believes in the lost continent of Mu; the last page of my edition of Book of Ptath is an ad for a whole freaking library about "The Ancient Civilization of Mu" and its "Cosmic Forces."  As a kid I loved reading about sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster and UFOs, but I always thought stories about sunken continents were silly, so I know almost nothing about Mu.  Is Mu just another name for Atlantis, or is Mu Atlantis's rival, a Carthage to its Rome?  Do people who believe in Mu also believe in Atlantis, or do the Atlantis believers and Mu believers scoff at each other for being gullible dupes?


So ends MPorcius Fiction Log's 2016 Van Vogt Marathon.  Is that a tear I see in your eye?  Don't worry--I own enough unread material by the Grand Master from Manitoba that, barring death on the highway, a 2017 Van Vogt Marathon is an inevitability!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Planets for Sale by A. E. van Vogt

"So Artur Blord has the reputation for saving himself from apparently insoluble difficulties with some last minute, brilliant action, which, it is said, leaves his enemies no recourse except surrender or flight.  I'd like to see the single idea that can both save him, and, at a stroke, defeat us on more than two hundred planets." 

In our last episode we met Artur Blord of the Ridge Stars, the greatest of the many tycoons and self-made billionaires of that rough-and-tumble, semi-lawless, region of space far from Earth, in the 1943 story "Invisibility Gambit."  The novel Planets for Sale, first published in 1954 (I have a 1975 paperback released by Tempo Books), is a fix-up of five further Artur Blord tales published in the 1940s in Astounding under the byline E. M. Hull, a pseudonym based on the name of van Vogt's first wife, Edna Mayne Hull.  At various times the Blord stories have been credited entirely to Hull, or credited to a collaboration between her and her husband, but documentary evidence published in the 1990s indicates that Hull probably had little to do with the content of the stories.  (Van Vogt expert Isaac Walwyn discusses this at his terrific website here.)

At the end of "Invisibility Gambit" Blord moves to Earth and gets married to a woman scientifically determined to be perfect, so I guess the adventures in Planets for Sale took place earlier in his career.  Blord's headquarters is in a city on planet Delfi II. Sharing an orbit with Delfi II is Delfi I, a desolate world covered in the ruins of a lost civilization, the Skal, a reptilian people who were more intellectually and technologically advanced than the human race.  One Skal remains, living in an impregnable fortress equipped with irresistible energy cannon; this creature looks down upon human beings the way we might look down on ants or worms, and takes pleasure in using its tremendous mental powers to observe and manipulate the Earthlings who have colonized the Ridge Stars.  His human agents kidnap beautiful women to work as sex slaves in his fortress, which the Skal rents out as a bordello and secure meeting place for interstellar criminals.  The police forces of humanity have attacked the Skal's fortress repeatedly, losing almost one hundred ships in the process without even denting the fortress's walls!

I love the logo on the spine
The Skal is a pretty good villain, and the book has other interesting villains, like the zilth, hideous human mutants with super fast reflexes who carry a disease which can turn normal humans into zilths. (I'm guessing the zilth are supposed to remind you of, or are based on, Dracula.)  The zilth think they are a superior race which should supersede the current strain of humanity, and two of them escape the star system to which they have been quarantined by the government, hoping to found an empire far away, breed a huge army, and then return to human space to take over.  Then there is Professor Brian Emerson, the most famous scientist in the galaxy, who abandons his lab on Earth to become the crime lord of the Ridge Stars and then infiltrate the Ridge's space patrol with his agents so he controls both the demi monde and legitimate authorities of the 200-planet region!  (I've been warning people not to trust those college professors for ages!)

These villains, all of whom Artur Blord tangles with and outwits, are more interesting than Blord himself.  Blord is a guy who never fails--he always has a trick up his sleeve, and has at his disposal tons of money, an army of scientists and spies, and innumerable gadgets.  Reminding me of the Nexialism practiced by the protagonist of the book-length version of Voyage of the Space Beagle (Nexialism synthesizes all the sciences and is thus more powerful than the individual sciences), Blord is a master at coordinating technologies; he has a huge storehouse of gadgets and can intuitively figure out how the various devices can be used in a complementary fashion to achieve spectacular results and further his many schemes.

An interesting facet of Blord's character is his vigilantism.  Blord executes criminals in large numbers, and when I say "execute," I mean execute--he doesn't just kill enemies in desperate firefights, he actually captures criminals, makes a conscious and deliberate decision to not turn them over to the police for a fair trial, and then murders them in cold blood.
"You don't think," Blord said grimly, "that we'd let that gang stay alive, particularly in view of the fact that there was no real evidence against them."
This vigilantism suits the Ridge Stars setting, a setting which, I suspect, will warm the hearts of you rugged individualists and libertarian types out there.  The Ridge sector, according to Blord, is where "For the first time in history, the lust to build, to create and to enjoy can be experienced simultaneously, not by a few privileged, but by all." Van Vogt waxes poetic over the idea of a place where men build new cities out of the wilderness, take risks and build fortunes, where men are unconstrained by traditional morality about things like sex and gambling.  (A magnificent casino figures in the novel.)  This is in contrast to the stifling conformity of an overlegislated and overregulated Earth:
Blord laughed.  "Earth is trying to keep its population.  Therefore, practically everything is illegal.  There are no easy ways to make money." 
At the same time van Vogt romanticizes the freedom and possibilities of frontier life, he also portrays the Ridge region as full of every kind of crook.  On the less outrageous end are the fraudulent star liners that sell tickets to a dozen systems and then abandon all of their passengers together on a single planet.  At the other end are the slavers and murderous pirates ("Kill all the men and bring all the women to me!") One of the most oft used tools in Blord's toolkit is bribery; people in the Ridge region are greedy and untrustworthy, and even at the highest levels of Blord's own organization are people who commit graft and embezzlement.  The frontier is very dangerous: Blord tells a newcomer to the Ridge Stars: "Fear of death is the most dangerous of all phobias out here.  One thing you've got to be prepared for is to die any minute."

The plots of the episodes that make up this "novel" generally revolve around somebody getting kidnapped (Blord himself gets captured a few times) and/or forced to commit some crime ("I just poisoned you; you have seven days to do this thing and get back here for the antidote") and Blord using a trick or some piece of technology to rescue the captive.  There are lots of disguises and impersonations, lots of people and space ships sneaking around behind invisibility devices.

Van Vogt tries (a little) to give the novel a few overarching plot lines, so it feels like more than a collection of short stories.  As the novel progresses we see the Ridge Stars evolve, becoming somewhat more civilized and stable, and near the end of the book Blord admits "Rampant industrial capitalism has proved itself effective in a fast-growing economy, but here in our area of space, it's just about run its course."  A relationship also develops between Blord and one of his female employees which culminates in marriage on the last page.  (What happens to this woman between the time of this book and "Invisibility Gambit?")

Since everybody nowadays looks at everything through the lens of identity politics, I suppose I should note that van Vogt stresses that Blord has many female employees (the head scientist of the vital coordination department is a woman, for example) and finds women more trustworthy than men.  In one of the later adventures described in the novel it is a woman (the one Blord marries at the end) who puts on a disguise and infiltrates a criminal enterprise and achieves a notable success, something she does totally on her own initiative (though after years observing Blord pull such capers.)

Blord and the Ridge region reminded me a bit of some of Jack Vance's books in which a super competent man takes the law in his own hands in a crime-ridden frontier region.  I'm thinking of the Demon Princes books, the Magnus Ridolph stories, and to a lesser extent the Cadwal Chronicles.  As we do in many Vance stories, in Planets for Sale we also meet a race of humans who, in isolation, have evolved into strange creatures, and there are also lots of private space yachts, another common element in Vance's work.  Is there any chance Vance was influenced by the Blord stories?  The theme of the frontier as a place of freedom that gradually loses that freedom as it becomes integrated into the metropole reminded me of Heinlein (Hazel, if my memory is to be trusted, talks about this in The Rolling Stones.)

Planets for Sale is entertaining, though a little slight.  It doesn't have the crazy ideas or the confusing plots we often associate with van Vogt.  (Going simply by the text itself, it is easy to believe it was written in collaboration with somebody else--maybe van Vogt deliberately affected a different style for some of the stories that first appeared under the Hull byline.)  And while it is all about people betraying, kidnapping, escaping from and killing each other, it doesn't generate any thrills or suspense the way the best adventure or horror stories do--you know Blord is going to survive and that he isn't going to suffer PTSD or be reduced to penury or anything like that.  So, I'll be giving Planets for Sale a mild to moderate recommendation.  


In our next episode, the final installment of MPorcius Fiction Log's 2016 Van Vogt Marathon!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Four Mind Benders from A. E. van Vogt

Added this baby to my collection
in Carolina in Dec 2014
Our last three slantastic selections were novels by A. E. van Vogt which erupted into the public consciousness in the wild and crazy "Me" Decade, and perhaps the preoccupation with sexual promiscuity and Kirlian phenomena we saw in those books reflects the 1970s milieu.  Today we're looking at four stories from the period of World War II and the Korean War, collected by the Paperback Library in 1971's The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders.  The people at Paperback Library assert that this volume represents "A Six-Star Triumph!"  

Not everybody is as sanguine about our favorite Canadian as are the good people at Paperback Library; van Vogt has many detractors, probably most famously esteemed critic and editor Damon Knight.  (By the way, the interview of Knight and his wife, Kate Wilhelm of Killer Thing fame, in Charles Platt's Dream Makers is amazingly snobbish, self-pitying, self-important and arrogant.  I think the fact that they read their answers onto a tape while Platt was not present may have relaxed their inhibitions or something.)

We defenders of van Vogt can take comfort in the knowledge that Angus Wilson, important British man-of-letters, is among our ranks; his ringing endorsement of the abilities of the mad man from Manitoba is to be found on the first page of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders.  Now, I've never actually read anything by Angus Wilson, and it sort of sounds like Angus Wilson is one of those novelists whom nobody reads anymore, but I won't let that stop me from cherishing these musical lines:


"Rebirth: Earth" (1942, as by E. M. Hull)

This story first appeared in Astounding, in the same issue as van Vogt's famous story, "The Weapon Shop."  It was printed with the title "The Flight that Failed" and appeared under the byline of van Vogt's wife Edna Mayne Hull.  Here in The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders we are told it was written in collaboration with Hull.  According to van Vogt scholar Isaac Walwyn, van Vogt probably wrote this story himself with a minimum of input from his wife--the "E. M. Hull" byline was most likely just a pseudonym based on her name.

This is a World War II story, written and published, of course, during the actual war. An American transport plane is carrying a valuable cargo across the Atlantic to England, a cargo so important the result of the war hinges upon its arrival!  A mysterious man as if by magic appears on the plane, saying the air crew needs his help if they are to succeed in their mission.  He carries with him a book apparently published 700 years in the future, a book which indicates that the Krauts won the war and Hitler conquered the world because the Luftwaffe shot down this very plane! When the German aircraft attack, the future man somehow turns the 1940s aircraft into a space ship with devastating ray guns and powerful engines which get it safely to Blighty lickety split!

This is a pretty straightforward story which includes lots of additional layers and complications: the future man isn't from a settled future but from a possible future (it seems like the Nazi-dominated future is the "real" future the visitor is trying to prevent); the future man can only appear if the people on the plane believe in him (like a fairy or something); the future man uses moonlight to get to the 1940s and there are lots of literary-type descriptions of the moonlight glittering off the ocean, being refracted by clouds, coming through the cockpit window, etc; the plane carries not only the (unspecified*) MacGuffin but all kinds of extraneous people like British diplomats and American scientists.

This story is alright, but no big deal.  It reminded me of Terminator and that whole Harlan Ellison brouhaha about it, and also those Roman stories about Castor and Pollux appearing to fight alongside the Roman army.

*I can hear all you comedians suggesting that the secret cargo was the $400 million cash ransom demanded by Mussolini for Albania.

"The Invisibility Gambit" (1943, as by E. M. Hull)

Another Astounding story initially credited to Hull; this one's original title was "Abdication."  It is a sort of crime caper about double-crossing mobsters and business tycoons, told in the first person and set in the far future in the "Ridge" sector of the galaxy, a frontier area where there is much less law and order than on Earth but where ambitious men can make a fortune exploiting newly discovered uranium mines on desolate virgin planets.

The coolest thing about this story is the invisibility suits people on the frontier use to sneak around, and the dangerous frontier setting is also pretty good.  The plot is kind of confusing, with the narrator, Artur Blord, manipulating another Ridge uranium mine tycoon into abandoning plans for retirement and doing Blord's dirty work for him, stealing that guy's girlfriend (scientific tests have certified that she is a perfect female specimen with a 140 IQ), and tricking gangsters into thinking some other guy is Blord with crafty space telegrams.  Maybe we should call this a space noir.

Entertaining, and reflecting van Vogt's interest in psychology at an early date ("...I used my knowledge of the psychology of spacemen...once those kind of forces are set in motion, they can't be stopped"), but not particularly remarkable.

"The Problem Professor" (1949)  

World War II Army Air Force veteran Robert Merritt has a dream: that man conquer outer space!  His wife also has a dream: that Merritt bring home a big fat paycheck! This is a story about how Merritt tries to infect others with his passion for space flight and how he finds that people just don't care.  (This reminded me a little of Barry Malzberg's various novels, like 1971's The Falling Astronauts, in which astronauts are depressed to learn the public doesn't give a shit about the space program.)

Anyway, Merritt, whom his wife compares to a "Washington lobbyist" (it is interesting to see that people in 1949 were apparently as familiar with the phrase "Washington lobbyist" as we are today) tries to gin up support for the space program among Hollywood actors, business people, and scientists, in hopes they will in turn generate interest in senators and the president.  He and his fellow dreamers use various tricks and psychological manipulation to get attention and endorsements.  In the end success is achieved, the government approves funding, and the story's action scene has Merritt becoming the first man in space.  The story ends on a hopeful note, with Merritt confident mankind will soon visit the stars and that even sooner he will be bringing home the dough his wife so earnestly desires.  This is a much more positive and optimistic story than those Malzberg stories, and, with its science lectures and jokes about how ignorant of the hard sciences the average person is, sits comfortably in the classic tradition of pro-science, pro-engineering, elitist hard SF.    

Not bad.  "The Problem Professor" was originally titled "Project Spaceship" when it appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories; that is a better title because the drunken and disillusioned (by his role in developing the atomic bomb) academic is not as prominent a character as the later title implies.  The story is perhaps interesting because while it acknowledges the fears of atomic power felt by many (with its example of the depressed prof), it remains firmly optimistic about atomic power--Merritt has no regrets about the atomic bombings of Japan, having served in the Pacific and thinking those bombings prevented his own death, and he is sure that it is atomic-powered rockets which will carry humanity to the stars.  "To me atomic energy is open sesame to the future."

"The Star-Saint" (1951)

This story has a terrific central idea: it is about a superhero, a superman, but told from the point of view of a mere mortal who envies the superman's powers and is jealous of the way he effortlessly makes women swoon!

Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who have just arrived at their destination after a two-year space flight.  Everybody is already a little on edge because the space ship crew has contempt for the colonists, and then when they get to planet Ariel they find that the colony they have come to join has been mysteriously wiped out, the buildings toppled, the colonists who preceded them physically crushed into the soil.  The space ship's captain calls for help, and Mark Rogan arrives.  Rogan is an "alien communications expert," a member of the Space Patrol and a mutant who can fly through space without benefit of a space ship, crossing interstellar distances in the blink of an eye.

Hanley and Rogan take a shuttle to the surface to investigate what happened to the first wave of colonists.  Hanley is wounded in an attack by natives and has to be sent back to the ship; instead of showing concern for her injured husband, Hanley's wife frets that Rogan (a goddamned superman!) might get hurt while all alone on the surface! Hanley becomes determined to solve the mystery on his own without the help of the superman.

I'd like to report that the ordinary man solves the problem without the help of the super-powered mutant, but we all know how elitist these old SF books can be.  (And I bet the new ones, too--I haven't read any Harry Potter books, but I'm pretty sure its the Chosen One born under the Sign of the Whoozit and bearing the Mark of the Wyrm whose coming was foretold in the Sacred Ledger of Legerdemain, and not the school janitor and the lunch lady, who saves the universe from the evil dark one and his minions.)  Hanley screws things up even worse, further angering the natives and inspiring more attacks, and it is Rogan, using his super cross-species communications powers, who makes peace.

As if that wasn't bad enough for our man Hanley, Rogan solves the problem of fostering communication long term between the natives and the human colonists--after all, Kal-El, I mean Rogan, can't stick around Ariel, what with the galaxy being so full of Lois Lanes and Jimmy Olsens, I mean dopey colonists, who need his help.  (The natives of Ariel are rocks and trees who have achieved sentience and the ability to move, and so it's not like ordinary humans can just learn their spoken or written language so they can deal with them--you have to have Mark Rogan-type psychic powers!)  Without coming out and saying it (this is 1951, not 1971) van Vogt makes it clear that Rogan impregnates Hanley's wife so she will give birth to a child with those much-needed communication abilities.  Of course it's not Rogan who will be tilling the fields to feed this little half-mutant brat, but poor cuckold Hanley!

Because it is "out there," includes a super being and psychic powers and excuses a guy's love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle, I think this is the most characteristically van Vogtian of the four stories we're talking about today.  It is also my favorite, because it is the most surprising and weird, and at the same time showcases that most ordinary and universal emotion, envy and jealousy because your spouse has a crush on a famous person with whom you cannot possibly compete.

"The Star-Saint" was first published in the famous issue of Planet Stories with Leigh Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars."  A good issue!


Four entertaining classic SF stories.  The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders is a good collection, even if the ones we read today aren't all exactly "mind benders."  The other two stories in the collection, "Proxy Intelligence" and "The Gryb" I read years before this blog was hatched; they were both integrated into fix-ups, the former into Supermind, the latter into The War Against the Rull.


In keeping with our theme of commoners going ga ga for their society's celebrities, the last page of my copy of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders has a full page ad for a biography of Jackie Kennedy.  Is there a big overlap between classic SF nerds and Kennedy-worshippers?  

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Man with a Thousand Names by A. E. Van Vogt

He said, in effect, that truth was best.  That the punishment for a harmful act or lie was automatic.  You remained psychically connected to the harmed or lied-to person, and to that extent were not free. 

Van Vogt Marathon 2016 continues!

One of the reasons I enjoyed Quest for the Future more than The Anarchistic Colossus was that the former had at its center a human character with an evolving personality who was driven by personal goals, while the latter was really a story about a system, to which was appended a bunch of bland, almost lifeless, characters.  The plot of The Anarchistic Colossus is weakened by the fact that the actions of the characters are basically moot: Chip and the psychiatrist go to great lengths to make sure there is an Earth space fleet ready to oppose the Ig, but the Earth is saved not by this fleet, but by the anarchistic system itself, which is so enticing that it inspires revolutionary reform among the Ig, reform that renders them pacific.  This makes an interesting philosophical point about foreign policy, but a story is generally more satisfying when its characters' personalities and decisions determine or at least affect what happens.

It is with such thoughts that I began The Man with a Thousand Names, the very title of which gave me hope that this novel would focus on the personality and adventures of a single character.  The Man with a Thousand Names first came under the gaze of the public in 1974 as a DAW paperback, #114.  I own just that edition, complete with its static, collage-like cover illo and far more fluid and dynamic frontispiece, both by Vincent Di Fate.  On the cover we see the celebratory tagline: "A NEW MASTERPIECE BY A SCIENCE FICTION TITAN."  Heady words!  Can the text live up to this adulation and my own hopes?

In the later stages of his long career Van Vogt developed a strong interest in psychology, and especially the psychology of "the violent man," and this is reflected in this novel's protagonist, Steven Masters, the amoral and decadent son of a New York business tycoon, the world's richest man.  Steven is solipsistic, vindictive and deceitful, quick to anger and to inflict violence on others, a serial abuser and exploiter of others.
In his mind had been a very simple, pure thought.  The thought was that these people didn't count, and he did.  By definition, it was impossible to do a harmful act to someone who didn't count. 
Over the course of the novel we witness this 22-year-old man rape a woman and act with a reckless negligence that causes three of his comrades to be killed, while in flashbacks we learn of his earlier escapades--his mistreatment of employees, pursuit of an unjust legal vendetta against an innocent man, and habitual physical abuse of young women he seduces and discards days later.

Bored, with no direction in life, and totally uninterested in art, culture, or business, Steven joins the crew of a space ship on a mission to explore the planet Mittend. Steven doesn't care about science or adventure or anything like that--he doesn't care about anything besides having sex and playing tennis--but he felt compelled to go on the mission to save face after stupidly bragging, while inebriated, about how he could.  Acting with his routine irresponsibility, as soon as the ship lands on Mittend he wanders off alone and unarmed into the uncharted wilderness, and is promptly captured by natives who look just like humans.

When touched by the aliens Steven suddenly finds himself back on Earth, in the body of another man!  It is the body of a former servant of the Masters family, a man Steven callously mistreated and got sacked when he (Steven) was a teen.  Steven has mistreated many people over the course of his life (a thousand!), and as the story progresses his consciousness shifts from one such person to another.  At the same time, a mysterious power is also hypnotically directing people, those who have suffered at his hands and at the hands of those whose bodies he possesses, to try to murder him.  Steven's consciousness zips back and forth between bodies and his bodies blast back and forth between Earth and Mittend on human and alien space craft; all the while willfully ignorant Steven and we poor readers are in perplexity--what the hell is going on?

In the final third of the book it is revealed that Steven has been drawn into a war between an innocent race of shape shifters, the descendents of ancient Greeks who left Earth four thousand years ago, and a sinister extragalactic being known as Kroog, also a shape shifter.  The leaders of the space Hellenes, who share a single collective soul and are in intimate psychic contact with beings all across the universe, tell Steven that "Our race attained perfection too soon....We had reached a level of inner purity where we could not kill, or do a harmful thing."  Because they can't fight back they have been preyed upon by less advanced peoples for centuries, severely reducing their numbers.  What they need is an influx of genetic material of a coarser type, so their children will be able to fight back.  Kroog took up this delectable task, but the children produced, called "Gi-Ints," are too crude and violent.  So the space Hellenes have selected Steven to replace Kroog, but the extragalactic monster won't make way for Steven without a fight!  If Steven wants to play sperm donor to Mittend's 886 fertile women he'll have to defeat Kroog and the Gi-Ints, who have infiltrated the highest levels of Earth society!

(I'm guessing the name "Gi-Ints" is meant to evoke the famous Gigantomachy, the war between the Olympian gods of Greece and the Giants which is so stirringly depicted in ancient sculpture.  Maybe we are supposed to think the stories of the Greek gods were inspired by the travails of these perfect people who fled to Mittend.)

English-speaking SF fans may recognize this
cover painting by Robert Foster--it appeared
on William F. Nolan's 1971 anthology
A Wilderness of Stars
The book has another 58 pages to go after this revelation, and there are all kinds of weird shenanigans and plot twists (some of which I must admit my little brain and I had some trouble following) as Steven is pursued by Kroog and the Earth government and military (they have been infiltrated by the Gi-Ints, remember.)  Here we'll just say Steven, with help from his long-suffering father and his father's lawyer, manages to retain his life and his freedom.  There's a battle scene in which the Gi-Ints transform into eagles and battle an Earth military aircraft in which Steven is a passenger--it turns out eagles are no match for machine guns (too bad they couldn't transform into F-15s.)  In the end Kroog and his brood are vanquished and Steven moves into the 886 women's city on Mittend to enjoy a lifetime of making daily donations of his genetic material.

The Man With a Thousand Names has some elements of a Twilight Zone-style fantasy, a fable about justice.  (You'll remember all those Twilight Zone episodes in which a Nazi in Hell experiences life as a Jew in a death camp or an innocent civilian on a torpedoed freighter or whatever.)  Early in the story we learn that Stevens' father once told him that bad acts create a strange and horrible bond between the victim and the perpetrator (see epigraph above), and Steven, thanks to the aliens, experiences that bond in literal, terrible fashion.  But Van Vogt's is a modern fable grounded in cynicism and psychology instead of Judeo-Christian ethics or liberal Western values--we are told and shown repeatedly that [a significant proportion of] women find Steven's dismissive treatment and boorish attitude attractive, and in the end Steven, despite his crudity and crimes, triumphs to live the dream of enjoying a harem of over 800 gorgeous girls and fathering thousands of children.

I think we can see this novel as claiming that the traditional sex roles (aggressive dominating man and pure submissive woman), that the fashionable cognoscenti have been telling me for my entire life are nothing but inimical bunk, are, in fact, not only a genetic reality but actually complementary.  The brutish sex machine, Steven, and the so-pure-they-can't-defend-themselves alien girls, together, a sort of yin and yang, will create a race of high moral and intellectual ability that is rugged enough to endure the cruel realities of the universe.  From two flawed theses we get a miraculous synthesis (yeah, somebody talked to us about Hegel for five minutes back in my Rutgers days.)

I doubt I have to point out the similarities between The Man with a Thousand Names and the last two 1970s Van Vogt novels we read this month, Quest for the Future (asshole "playah" is the savior of the race) and The Anarchistic Colossus (aliens use hypnosis to direct attacks on our protagonist.)  Like The Anarchistic Colossus, The Man of a Thousand Names also includes mention of that all that Kirlian chicanery.

(The Man with a Thousand Names was also the inspiration for a little classic SF inside humor from Fred Kiesche on twitter, back in April on the occasion of our man Van's birthday.)

Fast-paced and full of crazy ideas, I thought The Man With a Thousand Names was pretty good.  I very much appreciated that Van Vogt put so much effort into describing Steven Masters' personality, and based what happened in the story on that personality, even if said personality was repulsive.  Of course, some will find the book's (apparent) view of the world ridiculous and/or offensive, and the novel is hardly a model of clarity or style.  I'm giving The Man With a Thousand Names a thumbs up while at the same time recognizing that many (most?) of the people who read this blog will probably not like it.


In our next episode the sevagram steam train rolls on with four stories by Van Vogt which appeared in SF magazines in the 1940s and '50s.