Friday, December 9, 2016

"Ultimate" SF stories by Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Joanna Russ & Harlan Ellison from 1974

My wife found this cover so disturbing
that when she saw it on the kitchen
counter she hid it under a dish towel 
On the same early evening walk that yielded Harlan Ellison's From the Land of Fear, I picked up from the local Half Price Books a copy of Penguin's 1975 paperback edition of Final Stage, a collection edited by Ed Ferman and MPorcius fave Barry Malzberg.  Final Stage in its 1974 first edition was heavily rewritten by a busybody at the publisher, but the text of this Penguin edition, I am told, represents a full restoration of the stories to the form intended by their authors.

Malzberg apparently had the idea for this anthology: that he and Ferman would commission appropriate writers to compose the "ultimate" SF story on classic SF themes, Asimov writing the "ultimate" robot story and Harry Harrison producing yet another parody of space operas, for example.  Whether this is a genius idea or a silly gimmick I'm not sure--let's investigate what four writers with whose work I have some familiarity came up with: Poul Anderson, whose story is about "The Exploration of Space," Brian Aldiss, who was enlisted to write about "Inner Space," and Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, both commissioned to write on the topic of "Future Sex."  (Hubba hubba!)  

"The Voortrekkers" by Poul Anderson

This is a story about exploring the galaxy without a FTL drive.  Rather than launching a manned ship into interstellar space (the world's governments lack the budget for such an ambitious project and the authorities suspect being cooped up in a spaceship for such a long time will drive people nutso) the scientists come up with a way to scan a person's brain and upload his or her memories it into a computer.  Two people, Joel and Korene, are chosen to have their brains scanned and their personalities implanted into a space ship which will travel at an average velocity a fifth of the speed of light--they will be "turned on" only when necessary, to avoid the psychological dangers of a monotonous twenty-year trip.

The space ship contains apparatus to create artificial humans, and when an Earth-like planet is found the newly awakened software personalities bring to life two android, a male with a duplicate of Joel's personality and a female with Korene's.  These artificial people attempt to settle on the new world, only to find it poisonous, dooming them to tragically short lives.

The ideas that are the foundation of this story are good, and the plot is fine in outline. Instead of concentrating on adventurous stuff in which the disembodied and re-embodied astronauts tackle technical problems, Anderson's primary focus is on human drama--for example, on the angst people suffer when deciding if they want to have their brains scanned and on the relationships of Joel and Korene with their spouses and with each other; Joel and Korene, didn't know each other well on Earth but their recorded personalities explore the galaxy together as the "souls" of machines and in almost-human android bodies.  This is a good idea in theory, but somehow Anderson fails to bring the characters of Joel and Korene and their spouses to life, rendering the story boring.  In the 1968 short story "Kyrie," Anderson wrote a sexless love story, one between a human psyker and an alien made of energy, that I thought was successful, but the relationships in "The Voortrekkers" did not work for me, and they are the core of the story.

Anderson also tries to use elevated, poetic language to convey emotion, and it comes across as overly verbose and overwrought; here is android Korene describing the new planet:
The sun is molten amber, large in a violet heaven.  At this season its companion has risen about noon, a gold-bright star which will drench night with witchery under the constellations and three swift moons.  Now, toward the end of day, the hues around us--intensely green hills, tall blue-plumed trees, rainbows in wings which jubilate overhead--are become so rich that they fill the air; the whole world glows.  Off across the valley, a herd of beasts catches the shiningness on their horns.  
This kind of prose lulls me to sleep, a repose rudely interrupted by the jarring appearances of such words as "witchery," "jubilate" and "shiningness."  Maybe Anderson here (conscious that this is supposed to be an "ultimate" story) is trying too hard to be fancy instead of just telling it to us straight.

I believe the cover of this 1982 edition of
The Dark Between the Stars illustrates
"The Voortrekkers"
Another problem may be how Anderson skips between third-person narration and first-person narration by various versions of Korene and Joel, as well as hopping back and forth in time.  And then there are the scenes in which Korene and Joel do not figure, in which nameless religious authorities and public intellectuals express hostility to the space program for wasting money that should be spent on the poor on Earth.  (This reminded me of A. E. van Vogt's essay "The Launch of Apollo XVII," which I read in 1978's Pendulum and in which van Vogt suggests that "Part of the reason for the moon program ending is, of course, the perennial tendency of all conservative types to withdraw to their own backyard and save money.  But also, there is the enormous pressure of Blacks to get more funds channeled into equalizing aid programs.")

I think I have to give "The Voortrekkers" a grade of "barely acceptable."

Each story in Final Stage is followed by an afterword by its author.  Anderson in his tries to convince you that financing an elaborate space program is a good investment.  

"Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss is going maximum New Wave on us this time!  The first of the three "Diagrams" is a series of notes for a story about how the narrator, a university prof who studies dreams, and real-life writer Anna Kavan are out house-hunting and witness a car wreck.  (Shades of J. G. Ballard?)  Aldiss helps a woman named Olga out of one of the autos.  As Aldiss announces in the first paragraph, this story is all about ambiguity, how each of us has a private personal "truth" or "reality" different from that of others.  Olga, we are told, is short and plump, but "spiritually, she was a tall and slender girl."  Similarly, Olga is a natural blonde, but "her personality...was that of a dark girl," so dyes her hair black.  And so on.

Olga and the dream prof have an affair.  A movie is to be made out of the prof's research and dreams, and Olga will play herself as she has appeared in the narrator's dreams,  But then she gets killed in another car wreck.

(Reading between the lines, I suspect Olga is not a very attentive driver.)

The second "diagram" is an outline of what Aldiss tells us would be an adventure story.  Four men over 60 years old are recruited and given two years of sensory deprivation "training," which Aldiss describes in detail.  Then they are put into an abandoned airport (they are told it is an "alien environment") that has been converted into a labyrinth and treated like rats in a maze by unseen "operators" who change the maze periodically, shifting the walls and changing the lighting.  Aldiss stresses that the completed story will be vague and suggestive, that just like the four men, the reader will not really know what is going on.  The four men eventually start seeing figures they are lead to believe are "Alien Psychic Life" and they engage in a hunt for them, in the process uncovering some operators and killing them as well as an "alien."

This second part of "Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" strongly reminded me of Christopher Priest's 1971 "Real-Time World."  I guess it is also supposed to "subvert the conventions" of traditional adventure stories by having the volunteers be old instead of young men, trained to do nothing and tolerate an absolute absence of stimuli instead of being trained in how to use weapons and pilot complicated craft and respond to a myriad of dangers.

The third "diagram" is about homo superior living among us, a common SF theme. As in the first section of the story, our narrator is the dream-researching college professor. He tells us about his friendship with a family of "aliens" who are in fact a strain of superhumans, the result of "a pharmaceutical error, like the thalidomide children." These people are very charismatic and have their own rituals based on the four elements and their own attitudes about relationships; I think Aldiss may be using them to satirize Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.  (Coming soon to a TV screen near you!)

The super human family is fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson, but seems to have knowledge of writings by Stevenson which are not widely recognized.  The narrator eventually realizes that the homo superior brain can make its dreams come true--by conceiving additional works by Stevenson, the super family is making them pop into existence.  Aldiss suggests that the moral of the story is that you can wreck a culture by loving it too much, a moral he explicitly rejects.

It is hard to take this sort of thing seriously; it is like Aldiss is pawning off on us his drafts and outlines of parodies of famous SF stories as completed work.  (I felt similarly about J. G. Ballard's "condensed novels," that they were a sort of lazy trick, an example of an author doing the easy parts of writing fiction and just skipping the hard parts that make fiction rewarding for the average reader.)  But Aldiss is a good writer and even though I can't take these fragments as seriously as Aldiss presumably does, they are faintly amusing and at least not boring or irritating.  Marginal recommendation, though Anna Kavan fans and all you New Wave kids may like "Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories" more than I did.    

In his brief Afterword Aldiss denounces "pulp science fiction" for "betraying" the possibilities of the genre in favor of "power-fantasy," "thick-arm adventure" and "jackboot philosophy."  But he considers the current generation's themes of "over-population and mechanized eroticism" as "banal" as the last generation's "faster-than-light flight and telepathy."  For his own part, Aldiss has become "preoccupied with the idea that art is all" and working on triptychs of "slightly surreal escapades" he calls "Enigmas."  Somebody is taking himself very seriously!

Last Orders is apparently full to bursting with Aldiss' three-part "Enigmas."
"An Old Fashioned Girl" by Joanna Russ

In the first half of this five-page story the narrator describes her house in the woods and all its high tech gadgets--she is having three friends over, and has driven them up to the house in her electric car.  Inhabiting the house with the narrator is a beautiful (swimmer's body, blue eyes) man, Davy, who makes the women drinks and walks around naked.  The second half of the story is a detailed sex scene between the narrator and Davy in which the narrator is the dominant partner.  The somewhat predictable twist at the end of the story is the revelation that the man is an artificial being, grown from chimpanzee "germ-plasm" and controlled by the house computers.  Men are in fact extinct, and the four women speculate about rumors that in the patriarchal past women were treated by men the way the narrator treats this organic machine, as an essentially soulless sex object.

This story isn't bad (the style is good), but it is simple and obvious, the kind of switcheroo* story you find in old EC comics in which a guy kills a spider and then gets caught in a giant spider web.  Russ thinks men mistreat women, and this story puts the shoe on the other foot and serves as a denunciation of (and perhaps plea for understanding from?) men as well as a feminist revenge fantasy for the delectation of women who share Russ' views.

First edition of The Female Man
When Aldiss complains about "power fantasies" I suppose he is talking about the kind of Edgar Rice Burroughs story in which a guy defeats monsters and villains and marries a beautiful princess.  Would Aldiss consider "An Old Fashioned Girl" a "power fantasy," albeit one aimed at a different audience, because it is about a woman who has absolute power over a beautiful man and enjoys him sexually in her beautiful house?

In her afterward Russ admits her story is not exactly groundbreaking, noting that much speculation about sex in SF depicts mechanical substitutes for human sex partners, and "An Old Fashioned Girl" does the same, but then adds "but I'd like to plead that the piece is part of a forthcoming novel in which there are lots of other kinds of sex." Wikipedia is indicating that the novel of which she speaks is 1975's The Female Man, which I have not read, but which, as a whole, presumably is a more nuanced and complicated piece of work than this little snippet appears to be when presented on its own.

*In the afterword Russ uses the phrase "role-reversal" and says that Davy is a "Playboy Bunny with testicles," revealing Russ' unsympathetic assessment of the women who have appeared in Playboy!              

"Catman" by Harlan Ellison

It is the high-tech post-scarcity future, when people teleport hither and thither through the "arcology" of a London whose buildings are made of force fields that are powered by energy beamed down from satellites.  But some things never change!  Our title character is nagged by his wife because he hasn't got that promotion yet, and his son is rebelling against his parents' and society's values!

Lewis Leipzig, a black man, works as a Catman, a sort of freelance cop who chases criminals with the aid of his robot animals.  His white wife Karin wants him to catch a jewel thief in order to get a promotion so he can afford to get her a rejuvenation treatment.  The jewel thief just eluded him, blowing up Lewis's robot black panther in the bargain, which puts a real crunch on their finances!  To add insult to injury, the jewel thief is Lewis and Karin's son Neil!

Why has Neil turned to a life of crime in a world where almost everything is easily available?  We follow Neil as he has a meeting with a rich aristocrat who rules Australia as her personal fiefdom; she is always searching for a newer, better high, and Neil has just stolen some very rare drugs that originally came to Earth from outer space.  He trades the drugs for information he obsessively desires; you see, Neil, having witnessed the unhappy relationship of his parents, how his shrewish mother has ruined his long suffering father, now directs his sexual desire towards metal and machines!  The aristocrat tells him where to find the HQ of a cult of people who live underground and have sex with a 200-foot tall computer!

Plugging wires into various sockets implanted in his own flesh and inserting his penis into the towering machine, Neil has the best sex of his life in a sex scene which takes up four pages!  He is absorbed by his towering mechanistic love partner, and when he emerges part of his body has been replaced by machinery!  And his father, Lewis the Catman, who followed him down into the computer-sex-cavern, has witnessed the whole mortifying act!

Worse is to come for poor Lewis!  Intercourse with the supercomputer has increased Neil's teleporting abilities, and, thinking he is liberating his father, he teleports to his parents' house, kidnaps his mother, teleports back to the cyclopean metal inamorato, and then permanently merges his own body and that of his shrieking mother with the machine, ending both of their (human) lives!  Lewis watches helplessly, and it is revealed to us readers that the problems in the Leipzig marriage (at least in Lewis' mind) were not due to Karin's tyranny, but to Lewis' own coldness!  "The mother always loved, but had no way of showing it.  The father had never loved, and had every way of reinforcing it, day after day."

In the same year "Catman" appeared in the
collection Approaching Oblivion
Ellison is of course a staunch anti-racism activist, but it is hard to read a story about two disastrous cross cultural sexual relationships (black man with white woman and human with computer) which includes a scene of a black man's half-white son killing his black panther, and not think it is somehow about the dangers of miscegenation.  Or perhaps Ellison is talking about how one culture can be undermined by intimate interaction with another (more powerful?  more seductive? more sophisticated?) culture. Is he suggesting that computers will exploit humans, take from humanity aspects of its culture and rework them to their own purposes, the way whites exploited blacks and seized upon aspects of black culture and put them to their own uses?

"Catman" is a crazy, over-the-top story, but the plot is straightforward and it is entertaining with its many far future gadgets, extreme emotions and vivid, lurid visions of sleek robots, decrepit cyborgs and bizarre sexual performances.

In his afterword Ellison describes the whole process of receiving the commission for the story and writing it, and does a lot of name-dropping of other famous SF writers, telling the reader little factoids and anecdotes about them.  Among those named is Ellison's fellow native Ohioan Edmond Hamilton.  Unlike Aldiss and Harrison, Ellison doesn't feel the need to express contempt for the writers of space operas and adventure stories.  There are plenty of stories about Ellison acting like a self-important dick, but Ellison, in his voluminous introductions and afterwards, always gives the impression that he likes and respects all the other writers who are there in the genre fiction trenches with him, banging away on those typewriters.


Final Stage has been a little disappointing.  Each of the four stories I read has enough going for it that I can't condemn any of them outright, but they are far from the "ultimate."  Were I to rank them, the Russ--well-written, concise and clear--and the Ellison--a loud sort of grand guignol noir--would vie for the top spot; the Russ feels literary and sophisticated, but the Ellison is actually fun.  However, neither feels qualitatively different than what has gone before; we've seen plenty of role-reversal stories before, and plenty of future detective chases a guy stories before.

Anderson's contribution, which has the solid ideas and plot structure of a good hard SF tale but feels hollow, and Aldiss' story, which feels like a self-indulgent trick, compete for third place.  People who are committed partisans in Hard SF vs New Wave debates will have an easy time choosing between them, but I don't.

Surprisingly enough, the afterwords provided by the authors, which address political and social issues and indulge in interesting SF criticism, are more entertaining and thought-provoking than their actual stories!

1 comment:

  1. "In the afterword Russ uses the phrase "role-reversal" and says that Davy is a "Playboy Bunny with testicles," revealing Russ' unsympathetic assessment of the women who have appeared in Playboy!"

    This comment should have had larger and bold font. Russ is thought of as a goddess by many contemporary social-justice oriented people. Seeing her write derogatory comments about other women - while I personally think is every bit within Russ' rights - is probably not something said people would put on a banner regarding gender perspectives. Funny that, so glad you pointed it out! :)