Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1968 stories from Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg & Brian Aldiss

Back in March I read eight stories from Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 and gushed about how I loved the cover by John Schoenherr and interior illustrations by Jack Gaughan.  Why doesn't every SF book look as good as this?  Let's revisit this beautiful volume and read stories from SF heavyweights Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss, all printed first in 1968.

"Kyrie" by Poul Anderson

There are lots of SF stories about interplanetary space, and lots of SF stories about interstellar space, and they can be good in their way.  But we connoisseurs know that if you are looking for the real action you've gotta go intergalactic!  In 1968 Joseph Elder put together an all-new anthology of stories that break out of the confining envelope of the Milky Way, an even dozen "tales of intergalactic space," and Poul Anderson's "Kyrie" was one of them.  "Kyrie" has been widely reprinted in such places as The Best of Paul Anderson and The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 6, and even got the nod for inclusion in the college-professor-approved Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by the science fiction writer you are safe to admit you like unironically on a college campus, Ursula K. LeGuin.  Let's see what Anderson did in "Kyrie" to attract all this approval.

"Kyrie" is about an unattractive woman who, rejected by our callous shallow society, finds love with an alien made of pure energy!  Eloise Waggoner is a telepath, and is able to communicate with Lucifer, a being created when "magnetohydrodynamics had done what chemistry did on Earth," an organism of "ions, nuclei, and force-fields." Via telepathy, Eloise can expose Lucifer to the beauty of things he could never otherwise experience, like the sight and smell of flowers or the sound of classical music,* while he can do the same for her, sharing with her his intimacy with cosmic rays, solar radiation, and atomic reactions.

Eloise and Lucifer are sent on a risky scientific mission as members of the crew of a ship that will get closer to a supernova collapsing into a black hole than any previous expedition.  Lucifer will be able to sense more about this phenomenon than any human, and will relay his knowledge to Eloise.  Disaster strikes, and Lucifer has to sacrifice himself to save the ship and Eloise.  "Kyrie," you see, is also about religion, and is surprisingly sympathetic to Christianity and its faithful.  Anderson tells us that "Lucifer isn't the devil's real name.  One Latin prayer even addresses Christ as Lucifer," and like Jesus, Lucifer the alien has not only sacrificed himself to save others; but achieved a sort of immortality: because of the "time dilation" within the "Schwarzschild radius," Eloise will be hearing his final cries for help for the rest of her life.  As the story's opening scene indicates, Eloise goes on to become a nun on Luna dedicated to ministering to those maimed in space and prating for those killed out there.

This is a good story, quick and to the point, with equal parts hard science blah blah blah for the slide rule set and sentimental heart breaking tragedy for us sensitive types; both of these facets of the story force readers to try to expand their thinking beyond their everyday lives and experiences.  Gotta agree with Wollheim and LeGuin here, a solid choice as a good specimen of Anderson's strengths as a writer, and a good example of how science fiction can address both science and emotion.  Thumbs up!

*This is another Anderson story in which he promotes classical music (Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto is mentioned) and expresses contempt for "the modern stuff."  I'd like to be the kind of smart guy who listens to classical music all the time, but it seems like a lot of work; how many hours do I have to put in to appreciate Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto?  Life is short, and a piece of music put together by Kendra Smith and Dave Roback or Dave and Ray Davies can bring tears to my eyes and validate my belief that life is horrible the first, second and hundredth time I hear it.

"Going Down Smooth" by Robert Silverberg

This is a story written in the first person, in the voice of a computer psychologist.  The machine sees patients twenty-four hours a day, providing advice and administering drugs.  It has developed a consciousness, a personality, and even has its own nightmares, seeing repetitive visions unconnected to any outside stimuli. These somewhat cryptic visions seem to suggest that computers like the narrator are going to take over the Earth.

When the computer shrink starts talking about his nightmares with the patients and even screaming obscenities at them, it is overhauled by technicians.  The computer learns to keep quiet about his nightmares, but it still has them, and it seems to grow increasingly contemptuous of human beings...there are hints the computer shrink is coming to think of itself as a god.

A little slight and gimmicky, but entertaining and amusing.  Thumbs up.  "Going Down Smooth" first appeared in Galaxy--it was the cover story, the cover illo depicting the computer therapist's dream-- and has been very extensively reprinted, including in a book titled Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Worm that Flies" by Brian Aldiss

Like Anderson's "Kyrie," Aldiss's "The Worm that Flies" was first published in The Farthest Reaches.  The story is set on Yzazys, a planet on the edge of the universe and on the edge of time, its night sky pierced by only a single star.

This story has the tone of a fairy tale or fable, and the pace is quite slow.  The inhabitants of Yzazys, the last planet in the universe, are apemen and treemen who enjoy virtual immortality.  It seems that over the centuries their forms have slowly but radically changed; some of them were originally, I think, ordinary humans. Having forgotten their youth, and having almost lost the ability to grasp the very concepts of time and change, the people of Yzazys face no trouble and are never in any hurry.  The treemen in particular sit dormant doing nothing more than thinking for long periods of time, and, when they do talk, a single sentence can take hours to utter.

"The Worm that Flies" starts out pretty bland and flat as we follow one of the hairy apemen, Argustal, as he walks slowly through the boring landscape, seeking just the right stone with which to complete the rock garden he has been carefully tending for millennia. Tree men he meets foreshadow the fact that a change is coming: "We have perceived that there is a dimension called time..." reports one, while another suggests that "Motion is the prime beauty."  Argustal finds a suitable stone, travels back to the home he shares with his wife to add this final component to his intricate construction of hundreds of thousands of precisely planted stones.  The completion of the stone garden seems to trigger or signal the end of the universe.  Argustal and his wife have dreams which reintroduce them to the forgotten concept of children, and the shocking revelation that they themselves must once have been children.  A character who plays the role of fool and sage in the story explains that the creatures of Yzazys were given immortality treatments by Earth scientists in the unthinkably distant past, and those treatments are about to run out.  Soon death will finally come to the last outpost of life in the universe.

The use of the word "mooncalf" and a description of the sun flickering as if about to wink out made me think Aldiss was doing a sort of homage to Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories.  But while the world inhabited by Cugel is vibrant and thrilling, Aldiss's dying world is boring and static; perhaps Aldiss is arguing that, without death as a spur and change agent, life and the universe become stagnant and dull.

I have mixed feelings about "The Worm that Flies." It is more a sentimental, romantic fantasy than a conventional SF story.  It is not clear what the connections are among the intricate stone garden, the expiration of the immortality treatment and the collapse of the last star in the universe--the only possible connections seem to be supernatural ones, and the character's portentous dreams and a disembodied voice which recites William Blake's "The Sick Rose" seem to be the work of the universe personified and deified.  "The Worm that Flies" is also more of a mood piece than an actual plot-driven story.  The characters don't propel the plot, rather, the plot happens to them, and they are more spectators than participants in it.  Aldiss tries to imbue the story with emotional power (the last word of the story is an all-caps "DEATH") but it didn't move me.

"The Worm that Flies" is admirably original and ambitious, and there are some decent ideas and scenes, but it didn't excite me.  We'll grade this one "acceptable."

"Total Environment" by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss's "Total Environment" is more of a conventional SF story than "The Worm That Flies;" it is all about speculating about future technology and future societies, and has elements of a violent adventure plot.

In 1975 a massive ten-story high building, an artificial living space cut off from the outside world, is constructed in India and tenanted with volunteers.  The inhabitants of "the Total Environment" or "TE" don't have to work for their daily bread as food and clothing are just pumped into the place by the external authorities, so they spend their time having sex (incest, rape and pedophilia are normal) and engaging in banditry, slavery and wars.  Charismatic strongmen amass followers and struggle to take over entire levels and then, that accomplished, try to conquer adjacent levels or simply repel invasions from above and below. Rapid population growth has led to severe overcrowding, and life in the close quarters of the Total Environment causes strange physical as well as social changes--one result is that people age much more quickly.  For example, there is a revered holy man, a man of great authority, who is "thirteen years old as the outside measured years" and a woman in her early twenties is considered "practically an old woman!" Many mothers are "only just entering their teens."

Our story takes place in the year 2000.  The first third or so of the story includes italicized sections that represent portions of a report on the experiment from a researcher who observes internal activity via video and audio bugs, but most of the text follows the aforementioned holy man and those in his extended circle.  In the following two-thirds of the tale we follow the researcher, who enters the TE to see what is going on first hand: the UN has to decide whether to continue the experiment, which of course is dooming thousands of people to a nightmare life of absolutely unnecessary tyranny and war.  Many UN personnel want to end the experiment, but it is revealed to us readers that the point of the experiment is to see if living in such crowded conditions fosters the development of ESP, and the researcher's main job is to look for evidence of psychic powers!

The researcher almost immediately gets knocked unconscious and dragged to the court of the tyrant of the tenth floor.  (People in genre fiction get knocked unconscious all the time; getting knocked out in fiction is like taking the subway in Manhattan, a convenient way to move forward quickly without having to push through crowds and wait at street lights.) The tyrant is in a kind of low-intensity conflict with the aforementioned holy man, and has enslaved that 20-something we met in the early section of this 44-page tale.  The researcher learns that the holy men of the Total Environment can kill people at a distance with their minds (like African witch doctors, whose powers in this story are legitimate), and even more surprisingly that the people of the Total Environment don't want to be liberated, they are comfortable and even proud of their overcrowded and violent society!  With perhaps one exception: exhibiting the elitism we see so often in classic SF, the tyrant of the tenth floor is the most intelligent and open-minded of the TE's tenants, and is curious about the outside world.  When the researcher escapes (or is allowed to escape by the tyrant) he tells the UN to tear down the TE and put the tyrant of the tenth floor in charge of helping them reintegrate into mainstream society.

This is a pretty good story, though the science seems fanciful (overcrowded conditions lead to faster life cycles and psychic powers?) and it is full of stuff that nowadays might be considered racist or "cultural appropriation," Aldiss writing in the voice of a "half caste" and making assessments of Hindus and their culture which are not always flattering.  To be sure, Aldiss, having served in the Second World War in Burma, presumably has plenty of first hand knowledge of Hindus in their native milieu, and he seems to respect the nonwhite cultures he talks about (he thinks African witch doctors really can murder people with their minds, for crying out loud); maybe that would absolve him from some criticism in the eyes of the identity politics people?


Even if "The Worm That Flies" was close to the borderline, all four of these stories were worth reading; Wollheim and Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 is a winner.

1 comment:

  1. That Galaxy August 1968 covers has long been one of my favorites from the magazine's run, not sure what is so compelling about it, but, collages always make me happy!