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.

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