Saturday, August 12, 2017

Finishing off Tomorrow: Neil Shapiro, Andrew Offutt, and Greg Bear


Alright, it's the final installment of our look at 1975's Tomorrow, a hardcover anthology of brand new science fiction stories that was edited by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood and was never printed in paperback.  Three stories remain, Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul," Andrew J. Offutt's "Enchante," and Greg Bear's "Perihesperon."

"Journey of the Soul" by Neil Shapiro

I'm always a little surprised that the general consensus favors Disney's 1982 Tron over 1979's The Black Hole.  I may be the only person that finds Tron a snooze and The Black Hole compelling, but it seems to me that The Black Hole is obviously better. Tron has a lame frame story about office politics, a pedestrian quest plot and totally forgettable characters and actors; The Black Hole is about explorers, haunted houses, zombies, mad scientists, and gun fights (i. e., stuff that is awesome) and features actors everybody loves like Roddy McDowell, Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins.  People make a big deal out of the graphic design of Tron, but to me all that glowing shit is just a gimmick; the robots and space ships in The Black Hole are much more interesting. Now, maybe people think the fact that at the end of The Black Hole the good characters go to Heaven and the evil characters go to Hell is stupid, and maybe they are right, but at least it is interesting and a surprise the first time you see it--in the beginning of Tron people magically go inside a computer to find a magical land inhabited by tiny little people, which is just as stupid and is totally boring.

I rationalize bringing up this pet peeve of mine with the excuse that Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul" is all about people who go into a black hole.  Empress Betty Grey has been deposed by democratic revolutionaries, and they sentence her to exile and send her into a black hole.  (The narrator expresses contempt for democracy and assures us Betty Grey was a benevolent dictator.)  On the other side of the black hole she finds a new universe, devised by fellow human Charon, a hermit who moved into the black hole over five hundred years ago.  The laws of physics are different in this universe--for example, space is not a black airless vacuum, but a phantasmagoria of different colored clouds and mists, a primordial chaos which Charon (and soon the deposed Empress) can form into whatever he likes through force of will.  He has built a city, he has created friends and advisers, he can fly, he can breathe vacuum, etc.

What he can't do is create life, and so he is lonely, despite his artificial friends and advisers, and so he falls in love with Betty Grey.  Betty Grey just wants to get back to our universe and get her ass back on her throne, of course.  But then it is explained to her that there is no way to get back to her Empire (if you go back through the black hole you reappear at a random point in our universe) so she embraces a new relationship with Charon.

This story feels long (it takes up 50 pages) and is boring.  There are boring (and unconvincing) technical explanations of what a black hole is and how people can be crushed while passing through one but come out alive on the other side, boring conversations explaining the nature of the malleable universe on the Charon side of the black hole, and boring scenes in which an artificial person explains Charon's psyche to Betty Grey.  The first page has a sarcastic, iconoclastic tone, but that tone is dropped and the rest of the story is straightforward.  Betty Grey's evolution from Charon hater to Charon lover doesn't feel real and doesn't have any emotional resonance, it just happens.  

Hubba hubba!
Gotta give "Journey of the Soul" a negative vote.

In this series of blog posts I have been talking a little bit about the criticisms Roger Elwood has received for his anthologies, which some have claimed flooded the market and made anthologies by other editors less salable, and which are sometimes said to be full of weak authors who published little.  Shapiro probably qualifies as one of these lesser authors.  isfdb lists only two novels by him (one of them, Mind Call, has a striking cover that suggests it is a sex novel) and ten short stories, though several of the stories appeared in F&SF, which I believe is one of the more prestigious SF magazines.

"Enchante" by Andrew Offutt

This five-page story is overwritten, full of fancy adjectives and lots and lots of metaphors.  Offutt crams two "undead fingers" metaphors into the very first paragraph, and adds a third "living dead" metaphor for good measure:

I guess this is intentional, an attempt to emulate or caricature a florid fairy tale.

A wizard turns a handsome prince into a frog, telling him that he will be returned to human form should a fair maiden kiss him.  The twist ending, which I predicted, comes when he finally meets a perfectly beautiful maiden and she eagerly kisses him ("'What a perfect frog,' she breathed"): as he is returned to human form she is transformed back into the frog she once was before the wizard got to her, and both are heartbroken.

Acceptable.  In the last line, the moral, Offutt writes, "...true beauty and true perfection are not for men, for they are the work only of Allah, and sorcerers, and artists," a reminder of Offutt's interest in Islam, which we have detected in other of his productions, like King Dragon.

(It is hard not to suspect some link between Offutt's interest in Islam and both his apparent sexual interests--he wrote lots of pornography about women in bondage or under torture--and his apparent attitude about gender roles, which we noticed in his L. Sprague de Camp-style planetary romance, Messenger of Zhuvastou.)

"Perihesperon" by Greg Bear

"Perihesperon" has the honor of being the only story in Tomorrow to have been reprinted in English.  It would appear in 2002's The Collected Stories of Greg Bear, and isfdb is telling me a revised version was included in 1992's British collection The Venging.  Was the one in The Collected Stories of Greg Bear the revised or original version?  I cannot be sure.  I have only read one other story by Bear, "Webster," though for years I mixed him up with Gregory Benford and thought of In the Ocean of Night whenever I saw his name.

Karen is a teenaged girl on an interstellar passenger ship.  She wakes up to discover the ship has been critically damaged and she is the only survivor.  An old man appears who explains that he came in his own one-man ship to help when he saw a meteor hit Karen's vessel, but Bear provides clues, or red herrings, that lead us readers to suspect he may actually be some kind of space pirate.  Whether he is innocent or some kind of criminal, he has but days to live because, as he was struck by a sudden flux of radiation from the liner's damaged engine struck him, wrecking his ship and his internal organs.  Karen is also doomed, as the liner is in an orbit around planet Hesperus that will repeatedly take it through a cluster of asteroids ("moonlets") and is bound to hit one before help arrives.

I guess the meat of the story is how these two, an old man who (according to his claims, at least) has a full life of adventures behind him and a girl who hasn't really lived yet, face death.

This story is OK, an attempt to marry hard SF (airlocks, force fields, radiation, space suits, calculating orbits) with (the author hopes profound) reflections on life and death. It's not great, but not objectionable.  I'm curious what we are supposed to think about the old man (I can't help but think he possibly torpedoed the liner to loot it) and wonder if the revision clarifies his role and responsibility.

**********

So, we bid adieu to Tomorrow.  It may not be great, but by no means is it terrible; fans of J. Hunter Holly and Sonya Dorman will perhaps want it so they have access to a solid entry in those women's relatively small bodies of work.  The anthology is perhaps noteworthy for its level of diversity, with a hard SF story, a fairy tale, adventure-type stories, a New Wave story, jokey stories, stories that try to pull your heart strings, etc.  I certainly don't regret spending five bucks on Tomorrow, and I don't think it reflects poorly on Elwood.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tomorrow Part Deux: John Keith Mason, Brian Aldiss, Sonya Dorman & Terry Carr

In our last episode we read three stories from Roger Elwood's 1975 anthology of original stories, Tomorrow. Those three tales took up like 100 pages; today we've got four stories which are quite short.

"Arctic Rescue" by John Keith Mason

One of the complaints about Roger Elwood's anthologies is that they were (this is a quote from Elwood critic Theresa Nielsen Hayden that appears at Wikipedia) "peculiarly long on authors who had slight or nonexistent publishing credentials."  This is obviously not the case with Tomorrow--in this blog post alone we have towering icon Brian Aldiss, the well-known editor Terry Carr, and Sonya Dorman, whose fiction I am not familiar with both whose name I have seen on the cover of F&SF and Galaxy.  (Even if Elwood really did publish lots of stories by relative unknowns, if you spin that as "provides opportunities for new voices to be heard" it doesn't sound like some crime, but a service to the SF community!)  But John Keith Mason perhaps does qualify as a "slight" author--according to isfdb, he published only eight stories; five in the 1940s under the name John Hollis Mason, and then three in the '70s.  "Arctic Rescue" would be his last published story.

A space boat crashes in the Arctic, and an Inuit rescues the alien who is thrown clear and nearly dies of frostbite. The Earthling takes the extraterrestrial back to his igloo where his wife nurses him back to health.  Recovered, the alien, whose species is part of an interstellar union which has abolished war, contacts the space ship which is orbiting Earth studying our civilization, and then talks to the Inuit couple via telepathy.  The alien's family comes down to collect him, and everybody expresses gratitude and brotherliness and all that.

Acceptable, but totally pedestrian.  Maybe it would be interesting to students of portrayals of non-whites and race relations in SF (the Inuit talks about white people and how they differ from Inuits a bit)?

"Always Somebody There" by Brian Aldiss

My feelings about Brian Aldiss's individual productions run the gamut.  I loved Malacia Tapestry, liked Starship (AKA Non-Stop), thought the Helliconia books full of good ideas but nonetheless kind of boring, and was dismissive of his pretentious experimental triptychs.  So I never know how a piece of Aldiss's fiction which is new to me is going to impress me.  But, in general, I find Aldiss an interesting person with interesting views (he is an important SF critic and historian) whose fiction is always worth checking out.

(A few years ago tarbandu had a good blog post about the Helliconia books in which he sets them in the context of their time of publication.)

I think we are going to have to call "Always Somebody There" a New Wave story.  A spaceship left Earth long ago to search for "the Creator," its crew consisting of a man and a computer.  The man has been in deep freeze for what has seemed to the computer almost 60 million years, but due to relativistic effects, the time passed in the outside universe has been much longer.  So long that the universe has collapsed and a new universe sprung up.

(This is one of those stories in which the human is not really like the humans we know, the computer not like the computers we know, and they weren't really searching for God, but an "objective" that could "be expressed only in mathematical symbols," but words like "Creator" have to be used because they are the only crude intellectual tools at our disposal.)

The human is defrosted and the explorers open the viewports to look at the new universe.  All the laws of physics out there are different.  They land on an "octahedral" planet the size of a soccer field inhabited by creatures like blue-feathered kangaroos with heads on their feet.  The human leaves the ship, but the ship shrinks because "in this universe, time was as much a regular dimension as height or length...." so he cannot get back in it.  He realizes that he will have to stand still on this little planet forever--oddly enough, just this misfortune befell him in the dream he had while in deep freeze for 60 million years.

This story is only five pages long, so it is not a big waste of your time, but I can't say it is rewarding.  Barely acceptable?

"Death or Consequences" by Sonya Dorman

As I noted above, I recognize Dorman's name but am little acquainted with her work, which appears to consist of two dozen stories and a fix-up novel, some poems (I actually read one way back when which appeared in the experimental Quark series) and the book reviews in the June 1977 "Special Women's Issue" of Analog.  I mention the book reviews because one of the books reviewed is Barry Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  What might she have said about the collection of mid-1970s Malzberg stories?  I am succumbing to an ineluctable desire to order this magazine from ebay! While I'm at it I guess I should order a copy of Down Here in the Dream Quarter as well, which I do not own (though I have read stories from it, like the amusing "Ballad of Slick Sid" and two pieces that appeared in Elwood's Future Corruption, "On the Campaign Trail" and "Streaking."

Ebay, here I come!
Alright, back to "Death or Consequences." Like "Arctic Rescue," this story consists of pretty ordinary SF stuff, but I think Dorman's technique elevates it a bit.  Seventeen-year old Sandra, our first-person narrator, wakes up in a space station in 2108--back in the 1970s she was put in deep freeze by her wealthy parents because she had cancer. She has been thawed and cured because of her musical talent--because Earth is overcrowded, lots of frozen people have never been revived, and priority is given to people with special abilities.

Dorman focuses largely on Sandra's emotional reactions, but perhaps more interesting is how she (Dorman) develops a pervasive theme of disappointment in the future--not only does Sandra learn that the Earth is overcrowded and efforts to colonize other planets have come to nothing, but Dorman gives us the idea that everything in the future is fake, phony, fraudulent.  One of the many elements contributing to this theme is when Sandra, who is some kind of prodigy with the flute, classical guitar and piano, hears 22nd-century music for the first time--a recording of a "impertinent, repetitive" "electronic tune" that she immediately recognizes as a mere "popular song."  I always find it interesting when older SF writers like Poul Anderson (Dorman was born in 1924, making her two years older than Anderson), writing in a time when rock and roll and other types of pop music had triumphed, champion classical music.  This is in contrast with such writers as Michael Moorcock (born 1939) who lauds the Beatles in the Jerry Cornelius stories and gently pokes fun at their popularity in the Hawkmoon stories, and Harlan Ellison (born 1934) who publicly welcomed the death of an (unnamed) woman who had the temerity to criticize Jimi Hendrix.

Not bad.

"Castle in the Stars" by Terry Carr

Carr is more famous for his work as an editor, but isfdb lists three novels by him (Joachim Boaz read his third and apparently most ambitious novel, Cirque, last year) and three dozen stories by him.  I don't think I have ever read any of his fiction--Tomorrow is providing me several opportunities to sample authors for the first time.

This is another traditional piece, one about space explorers with a clearly foreshadowed twist ending.  For decades mankind has searched the galaxy, fruitlessly, for signs of intelligent life.  This story is narrated by a member of a three-man team who finally discovers an alien building on a planet where everything is large, because of the low gravity, I guess.  Sand dunes are five hundred feet high, for example.  The three spacemen explore the building, but it seems to lack any real entrance or contents. Suddenly, they realize that it must be a toy or work of art--not a functional building at all, but the alien equivalent of a sand castle, indicating that the aliens must have been hundreds of feet tall.

"Castle in the Stars" is not bad, but it is no more than a trifle.

**********

Four OK stories, though the Aldiss is on the verge of being bad and the Dorman on the edge of "good" territory.  I'm kind of thinking of these as "filler" stories.

We finish up with Tomorrow in our next episode.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stories from the tomorrow of 1975 by J. Hunter Holly, Alan E. Nourse & Robert Hoskins

The Buckeye Bookshop of Akron, Ohio has a good-sized science fiction section, but almost all the volumes on the shelves are less than twenty years old, and books that new are of little interest to me.  I did, however, discover a hardcover from 1975 with a distinctive typefacey designy cover, an anthology of brand new stories edited by Roger Elwood entitled Tomorrow. The price neatly written in pencil on the book's first page was "$10," but the Buckeye Bookshop people were having a sale so I got away with it for five and tax.

Wikipedia indicates that my fellow son of the great state of New Jersey Roger Elwood had a strange and wide-ranging career that included working on wrestling magazines and writing copious numbers of Christian-themed novels as well as editing a mountainous pile of SF anthologies.  His career was also a controversial one--the Wikipedia page on Elwood is largely given over to describing a hostile assessment of the man's editorial career by Theresa Nielsen Hayden.  Well, here at MPorcius Fiction Log we enjoy looking into the work of unusual and controversial members of the SF community (I think A. E. van Vogt, Harlan Ellison, Barry N. Malzberg, L. Ron Hubbard and Andrew J. Offutt qualify, and perhaps Donald A. Wollheim as well), so let's investigate Tomorrow by reading all its included stories, looking for clues that Elwood perhaps really was a "careless" editor of work that was "low-grade."  Tomorrow is perhaps a good subject for such an investigation, as it appears it was never issued in paperback and most of its stories were never reprinted (not exactly a sign the volume achieved critical or popular acclaim!)

(Back in 2015 the MPorcius Fiction Log staff conducted a similar experiment when we read Elwood's anthology Future Corruption.  I've read parts of other Elwood anthologies, like Frontiers 2: The New Mind, and lots of stories by Barry Malzberg which first appeared in Elwood anthologies.  In 2011 Joachim Boaz read Elwood's Future City anthology--in the comments Joachim and I discuss at some length the included R. A. Lafferty and Malzberg stories.  Tarbandu took a crack at Future City himself in 2013.  In 2012 blogger sanski posted a defense of Elwood which I find very convincing.)

There are ten stories in Tomorrow; today we look at those contributed by Joan Hunter Holly, Alan E. Nourse, and Robert Hoskins.

"Come See the Last Man Cry" by Joan Hunter Holly

Back in 2013 I read Holly's 1960 novel The Green Planet and criticized her editor and made fun of her author's bio and her publisher's line of books about celebrities and kinky sex.  Theresa Nielsen Hayden isn't the only person who can be mean to editors!  I thought The Green Planet a mediocrity, but maybe this 60-page piece will prove Holly, recipient of the Hinman superior student scholarship, was capable of better work!

In the future, the government takes four-year-olds and, using various techniques (like inflicting mild electric shocks on a little girl who reaches for her favorite doll!), conditions them to no longer feel "Affection, Hatred, and Love."  (The government believes "human beings with normal emotions could not survive the superfast pace of change and overcrowding"--maybe we can loosely characterize "Come See the Last Man Cry" as an overpopulation and/or "future shock" story.)  As a result, adults in this future society lack most emotions, almost never laughing or crying.  Because the government scientists want the populace to be aware of the way life was lived in the past, and because people are very curious about the old emotions, the main characters of this story offer thrice daily demonstrations of emotions.

You see, children of low intelligence (the main characters call them "defectives" or "morons") don't respond to the treatment offered at the "Anti-Emotion Conditioning Center," and such children are taken from their emotionless parents and put to work (unwittingly) putting on performances.  The "moronic" child lives in an apartment with a one-way mirrored wall, and at specific times of day the eggheads manipulate him so that he bursts into tears, bouts of misery which people on the other side of the wall observe with rapt attention.
      
The plot of the story follows one of the young scientists, Dainig, who works with a particular low-IQ boy, Peter, and finds himself feeling for the child and beginning to doubt the morality of the whole anti-emotion regime.  When a technical mishap reveals too much to Peter and he begins to suffer a likely-terminal psychological breakdown, Dainig liberates him from the lab and sneaks him around in disguise.  Under Peter's influence, Dainig begins to feel affection and love again, putting himself at risk of extreme remedial anti-emotion treatment at the hands of his colleagues!  And then there is the fact that, without Peter to provide the cold-hearted populace an emotional outlet, morale all around the world is in decline.

This story is perhaps a little long and slow, but I found the scenes in which the callous scientists make Peter cry (by telling him vicious lies like that his parents abandoned him because he has been a bad boy or that his parents have died) to be effective--they actually made me feel sad and angry.  Maybe I'm a sucker, and maybe we should criticize Holly for cheaply manipulating her audience by presenting us with that most pitiable of creatures, a dim-witted child in distress (just like her main characters!), but I have to give this story a passing grade because it affected me.  Also on the plus side, I wasn't quite sure how the story would end, and I think Holly is laying a little Christian allegory on us, with Peter as Jesus and Dainig as Judas, which was interesting.  Not bad.

"Come See the Last Man Cry" is one of the few stories in Tomorrow to be reprinted elsewhere; it was translated and appeared in a German magazine in 1983.  If you find yourself interested in Holly's work you should check out a Facebook page someone is maintaining in her memory--it is full of photographs and info about Holly's life.  I find it pleasing to see this level of devotion to a minor SF personage--the communications and information revolution which has taken place during my lifetime has been a boon for people with niche interests.

"Nize Kitty" by Alan E. Nourse

Nourse produced a respectable number of stories that appeared in such important SF magazines as Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF, but I've never read anything by him.

As I perhaps should have guessed from the title, "Nize Kitty" is a cutesy story about cats, exploiting people's love for cats and susceptibility to all those tired jokes about how cats are individualistic and act like they own the house, etc. I would have avoided this story if I had known ahead of time what it was all about and wasn't conducting an exhaustive investigation of this volume.  (Exhaustive, I say!)

Extrapolating from mid-century trends like the radical increase in urban crime and what in my academic days we called "white flight," Nourse envisages a future in which the inner core of major cities like Philadelphia have been abandoned, everybody moving to the suburbs or clinging to an outer ring of urban space. The inner city, where the roads and buildings are collapsing due to neglect, is colloquially called "The Graveyard."

Our narrator is a Brooklyn-born cop in Philly. His superiors send him into The Graveyard on his gyro-car to investigate complaints of disturbances from the poor people who live on the fringes of the Graveyard. He is loathe to go--no cop has ventured into the those ruins for a decade! But he goes, and discovers the source of the disturbance when a cat talks to him.

In a long scene which I suppose is meant to be funny, the talking cat explains that cats are more intelligent than humans but have kept their abilities a secret for thousands of years. The noise people have been complaining of is emanating from nightly meetings of all the cats in the vicinity. The cats (who don't get along well with each other but are trying to work in concert because of the gravity of the situation) have decided that mankind has gotten too close to destroying the world via pollution, nuclear war, etc., and so they, the cats, are going to take direct control over the world. This phenomenal cat demonstrates some of its amazing powers to the narrator when the cop expresses skepticism that cats could somehow outfight humans.

The end of the story includes scenes, again I suspect meant to inspire mirth, in which the narrator's wife and superiors don't believe his story about cats plotting to take over the world.  The cop loses his job and nervously waits for the coming feline take over, obsessively going over his conversation in the Graveyard for clues as to the nature of the coming quadruped regime.

Lame.  If I put on my charitable hat, I can tell you that people who love reading stories about cats may find "Nize Kitty" to be acceptable fare, and that it is perhaps an illustrative specimen of 1970s SF, what with the way it focuses on urban decay and touches on ecological issues and fears about international conflict. (I guess as a joke, or as an indication of how chaotic the international situation has become, the country mentioned in the story as a US rival isn't Communist Russia or Red China, but Brazil!) We might also consider how this story fits into the long tradition in speculative fiction of misanthropic stories in which aliens or elves or whoever are portrayed as superior to humans. Nourse seems to have one foot in this tradition, but to also be subverting it--the cats he portrays are just as selfish and just as prone to fighting amongst themselves as humans are. The felines are perhaps, rather than a foil or role model for humans, a mirror image of our selfishness and squabbling.

"The Kelly's Eye" by Robert Hoskins  

I own a few anthologies edited by Hoskins, and at least one of his novels, which I have not read. Maybe this story will inspire me to read that novel?

It is at least two centuries since some unspecified holocaust devastated the world. The people of the United States live in a state of barbarism, while parts of Canada are civilized. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear all you Democrats out there snickering "This is already the case!") A young Canadian diplomat has been sent to the ruins of Trenton, New Jersey to chase a rumor that a Canadian boy is in the custody of a nomadic tribe of bandits. His mission: trade for the boy's release or somehow rescue him.

This is an entertaining story about diplomacy; it actually reminded me of something that Poul Anderson might do. We learn about the barbarian tribe's culture (polygamy, a council of elders, a sort of wise man or witch doctor, ritual circumcision), about the Canadian culture (they have guns and aircraft and radios and so forth) and the interactions between these two groups, and then the hero resolves the problem through a clever mutually beneficial trade that reflects aspects of both societies and of the post-apocalyptic milieu. A solid piece of traditional SF.

**********

I liked the Holly and the Hoskins, and while I didn't like the Nourse, it is the kind of thing I know other people might like--it is no worse than lots of stories one would find in a SF magazine or original anthology. So far, the idea that Elwood is some kind of incompetent or shyster is not supported by the contents of Tomorrow.

More from Tomorrow in our next episode!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Planet in Peril by John Christopher

Raven said to Charles: "Well, Mr. Grayner?  Destruction or salvage?  A corrupt and decadent world--do you destroy it or do you try to mend it?"
Charles stood in silence; he felt that his irresolution must be written all over him.  Raven and Dinkhul were both looking at him--Raven with calm confidence, Dinkhul with the trace of a mocking grin.
He said: "I don't know--"  
I can't actually remember any
pretty blonde ladies in the book
Like so many people, I found John Christopher's first three Tripod books entertaining.  I liked No Blade of Grass when I read it a few years ago, and thought The Long Winter not bad when I read it before this blog first exploded into the public consciousness.  (Joachim Boaz rated The Long Winter "Good" back in 2012.) So, when I saw the 1959 Avon printing of Christopher's Planet in Peril with the cool Emsh cover, I got it.  As I announced to the world via twitter, which, despite my best efforts to create mesmerizing content like blurry pictures of the birds and graffiti I spot while visiting Akron, Ohio, is apparently in terminal decline, this edition is very fun, the book designer integrating elements of Emsh's cover illo onto the back cover and the title page.  My copy was owned previously by a Michael Wachover; amateur handwriting analysis suggests it was some other owner who wrote "Good" on the inside cover along with a long cryptic string of characters.  Mr. Wachover also wrote his nickname "Mike" on page 23, and that string of numbers (and letters?) appears a second time on page 11.  This paperback has lived a long and eventful life!

Planet in Peril was first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 with the considerably more appropriate title The Year of the Comet and stars Charles Grayner, 21st-century scientist.  Grayner is a sophisticated man--when he comes home and finds the cleaning lady has left the telescreen on the pop music channel, he switches it to the classical music channel.  After a long day studying diamonds as a possible power source, a little Mozart is just what he needs!  In the first ten pages of the book Grayner visits a used record store, where he runs into the guy who operates and stars on (as a kind of DJ or talk show host) the classical music TV channel, Hiram Dinkhul.  Even though they have only met once before, this guy seems to know all about Grayner's career, including the fact that the diamond expert has just this very day learned he will be transferred from Michigan to sunny California!

Fellow SF fan
Michael Wachover,
we salute you!
Planet in Peril is set in a world in which almost nobody, even a sophisticato like Grayner, knows any history.  Luckily Grayner and we readers have Dinkhul to handle the exposition duties for us.   Following a cataclysmic 20th-century war, the Western world was rebuilt by and is now run by "managerials," the various pre-war business sectors (they have names like "United Chemicals," "Atomics," "Steel," "Agriculture," "Genetics Division," "Telecom," etc.) consolidated into monopolistic entities which act as independent states.  These states are fascistic/socialistic, their citizens assorted into rigid classes and assigned their roles from above during their youth after psychological profiling.  (We learn that at school Grayner was assigned to Squad D, "research and development work.")  Like jobs, all goods and services seem to be distributed by the bureaucracy.

Outside this managerial system is "Siraq," a religious state (Dinkhul calls it a "deity-centered nation") that controls the "Near East."  (Though Grayner and Dinkhul are Americans, they use British lingo--Dinkhul at one point talks of the paucity of students who "read History" instead of the American usage "study History," while Grayner tells Dinkhul that he "tipped down the drain" the "containers of mescalin" provided him by his managers for use on vacation.)  While Westerners all smoke cigarettes, use "mesc" and engage in casual promiscuous sex (Grayner is said to frequent brothels), the Siraqis refrain, having what is said to be a "puritanical" culture.  (Christopher never uses the words "Islam" or "Muslim," just like he never uses "socialism" or "fascism.")

Like the Siraqis, Dinkhul is critical of the managerial states and to some extent lives outside of them.  His TV channel represents "one of the few remaining strands of capitalism in the modern world," he tells Grayner, and he complains that the society of the managerial states is decadent, pointing out the failure to colonize Mars and Venus though the technology to do so is available (Raymond F. Jones in The Cybernetic Brains also used the failure to explore space as a sign that a socialistic high-tech society had fallen into decadence.)  We later learn that Dinkhul, besides being a broadcaster, is a bigwig in an underground organization trying to undermine the managerial system, The Society of Individualists.  This group doesn't have a plan to take over, they just want to see the whole managerial system fall apart, assuming what comes next will be better.

I guess those are the Siraqis on their
diamond-powered flying machines
Grayner's managerial is United Chemicals, and his superiors transfer him to Cali to take the place of some other diamond expert, Humayun, who got killed in a boating accident.  Grayner falls in love with Humayun's (now his) assistant, Sara Koupol.  Koupol, like Humayun, is a political refugee who fled from Siraq; her father, a history professor, escaped Siraq with her.  Sara thinks Grayner's predecessor was murdered, and when she disappears before Grayner can even get in her pants (damn her puritanical Siraqi upbringing!) her father purportedly commits suicide.  Of course, Grayner and we readers think all these people have been kidnapped or murdered.

Much of the book consists of Grayner being cajoled or kidnapped by Dinkhul's Individualists or one managerial or another, all of them trying to convince Grayner to work for them.  Again and again Grayner is liberated from captivity at one managerial by another managerial or by the Society of Individualists--in this book people are always getting put to sleep by gas or drugged drinks or hit on the head by blunt instruments and then waking up in the custody of some other faction.  People in this book are also always putting on disguises, and members of one managerial keep turning out to be moles or turncoats who are in fact working for a different faction. When Grayner is "reunited" with Sara Koupol, Dinkhul, after some days, exposes this woman as an impostor (no wonder she was putting out!)  This is the kind of book in which the protagonist is carried along by the winds of fate and manipulated by mysterious forces--until the very end Grayner doesn't make any decisions, figure out any mysteries, or defeat any foes; Grayner does not drive the plot in any way, he is merely its passenger.

Anyway, all the managerials want Grayner (and Humayun and Sara Koupol) under their control because everybody realizes that they are on the brink of figuring out how to turn diamonds into a super efficient power source and super powerful weapon--if one managerial gets this power before the rest it will be able to rule the world.  Dinkhul, who I guess is like the book's conscience and Christopher's spokesman, tries to preserve Greyner's freedom to choose his own way while hoping Greyner will not stand in the way of a collapse of managerial society.

Loosely affiliated with the Society of Individualists is an underground cult of religious fanatics known as the Cometeers who think the appearance of a comet in the sky is a sign that managerial society is about to fall.  (You probably know that comets are associated with the crisis of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the Norman conquest of England.)  The managerials tolerate the Cometeers, and their revival-style meetings provide a cover for the Society of Individualists' own smaller meetings.  In the last 30 pages of the 159-page novel Dinkhul leads Greyner on a country-wide tour of Cometeer groups, seeking clues about the whereabouts of Sara Koupol.  As the puritanism of the Siraqis contrasts with the indulgence in drugs and promiscuous sex of the managerials, so the ecstatic Cometeers provide a contrast to the passionless managerials--on their faces Greyner sees "a concentration, a passion, which he never remembered seeing anywhere."  Dinkhul and Greyner get kidnapped again, and this time taken to Siraq--it turns out the Cometeers are being financed by the Siraqis as a means of further undermining the managerials.  We learn that Humayun, Sara Koupol and Professor Koupol have taken over Siraq in a palace coup, built the diamond-based super weapon, and are going to take over the world.  Greyner has to decide if he will try to alert the managerials and save the (drug-addled, corrupt and static) West from the (semi-capitalistic, imperialistic and puritannical) East, or just settle down with Sara and live a happy life with her as a member of the world's new ruling class.  

When I bought Planet in Peril, and when I started reading it, I had hopes it would be an exciting adventure story and/or a human drama.  I was disappointed because it is a kind of satire of and meditation on modern Western life, religion, radicalism and conservatism.  (I didn't realize it at first, but the character's names have an allegorical ring--Grayner, Ledbetter, Raven, etc.  Is "Humayun" supposed to reminded us of "houyhnhnm?")  Do I agree with Christopher that individualistic capitalist societies are more vital and productive than bureaucratic collectivist ones?  Of course I do.  Do I agree that while religion is a scam, it brings structure, meaning and even joy into people's lives?  You bet.  Does my agreement with what I think Christopher is trying to say here mean I loved this novel?  No way.

Sad!
Planet of Peril's plot, characters, and tone are weak.  The story conveys no emotion--all of the characters remain calm and detached, either gently ironic like Dinkhul or, even worse, cold fish like Grayner. Perhaps by design (to show how a technocratic society saps the life and emotion out of people), perhaps due to incompetence, Christopher's characters have no passion and the story develops no tension.  We don't get any sense that Dinkhul really hates the static collectivist society of the managerials or that Grayner deeply or ebulliently loves Koupol or is bitter or angry about the way the various factions are manipulating him.  The stakes feel low because the different factions don't threaten or bribe Grayner, and none of the characters gets shot at or risks death or maiming--looking back, I suspect that all the scenes of people getting knocked unconscious were played for laughs, though I didn't laugh.  The lack of feeling and danger makes the book flat and boring.

The scene I quoted as an epigraph to this blog post, in which Dinkhul and Raven (head of Atomics) both try to sway Grayner, reminded me of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which a representative of modern liberalism and a representative of religious and communist radicalism compete for the soul of a bland middle-class guy. The book as a whole reminded me of Anthony Burgess's satiric The Wanting Seed, which I also found didn't inspire in me much feeling.  Planet of Peril, however, suffers in comparison to The Wanting Seed because while Christopher is subtle (to be kind) or limp (if you want to be harsh about it), Burgess is loud, sharp, edgy.  Burgess just comes right out and tells you homosexuals are disgusting and that English people are superior to Third Worlders and lays his theories about history and religion right on the table for you to see.  This is a way to generate excitement, or at least interest, in your novel if it lacks human drama and tension.  Christopher's Planet in Peril, unfortunately, though it has a provocative theme (Muslims armed with a super weapon are going to conquer the world, and we decadent Westerners should welcome it!) isn't stirring or captivating because it is too soft and too vague.

Barely acceptable.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Three Weird Tales winners by Edmond Hamilton

I remember this image well from my youth,
when it appeared on Piers Anthony's
Blue Adept
I recently acquired at an Ohio antiques mall a copy of the 1983 World Fantasy Convention program book, a special focus of which is Weird Tales, that year being the 60th anniversary of the magazine's founding.  This thing is full of cool stuff for the Weird Tales fan.  Editor Robert Weinberg compares cover artist and con Guest of Honor Rowena Morrill to famous Weird Tales cover artist Margaret Brundage, suggesting both are pioneers as women in the speculative fiction illustrator field and that both have been denounced by feminists and prudes for their depictions of naked women in distress.  (Weinberg specifically mentions King Dragon, a copy of which resides in the MPorcius library!)  Robert Bloch reminisces about his experiences as a Weird Tales reader and contributor, and Jack Williamson, in an excerpted chapter of his autobiography, talks about his relationships with such members of what he calls "the Weird Tales clan" as editor Farnsworth Wright himself, E. Hoffman Price, and MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton.

I am very cheap, and I thought a looong time before plunking down ten bucks for this publication.  The thing that pushed me over the edge and made me a buyer was an article in the program by SF historian Sam Moskowitz entitled "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940, with Statistics and Analytical Commentary." While serving as editor, Wright read all the letters sent to the Weird Tales offices, and, whenever a story was mentioned in a letter in a positive way, he marked the mention as a "vote" for the story on a notecard listing all the stories in that issue.  This way he was able to judge (scientifically!) which stories were the most popular in each issue.  Years later Moskowitz obtained these notecards and, in this article, he provides us grateful readers a list of the most popular stories in each issue of the magazine for the period of Wright's editorship.  Moskowitz's list indicates the number of votes each winning story received, as well as the number of votes received by some famous stories which were only second or third favorite for an issue, and he also includes a list of the 56 top vote-getting stories for the entire period, and of the eleven writers who most often won the top spot for an issue.

Seabury Quinn, about whom I know nothing and about whom I rarely hear anybody talk, had the top story in the most issues, thirty.  Second and third place are held by speculative fiction icons H. P. Lovecraft (16 issues) and Robert E. Howard (14.)  In fourth place is our man Hamilton--in nine issues of Weird Tales between 1924 and 1940 his story was the most popular.  Hamilton's winning stories include "He That Hath Wings," "The Monster-God of Mamurth," and Part Two of "Crashing Suns," which I have already read.  But most of Hamilton's winners I had not read until this week, when I begin to rectify this gap in my Hamilton knowledge by reading "The Polar Doom," "The Avenger from Atlantis." and "The Six Sleepers."  I read all three online at the internet archive.

Attention doctoral candidates in the humanities!
 A denunciation of this cover will serve as the
extra chapter your dissertation needs!
"The Polar Doom" (1928)

Like "The Monster-God of Mamurth," "The Polar Doom" starts off like one of those lost city stories I associate with H. P. Lovecraft.  From superstitious Eskimos white men hear rumors of a ruined city, "erected by devils long ago," on an island in the northernmost reaches of Canada, among what are now called the Queen Elizabeth Islands but were in the 1920s known as the Parry Archipelago.  A famous anthropologist, Dr. Angus McQuirk of Eastern University, who has the odd theory that the human race originated in the Arctic, organizes an expedition up to this island.  The last thing the civilized world hears of the expedition is a garbled radio message that suggests some unknown disaster has killed all members of the party!

Ten days later mysterious aircraft that look like flying domes or "gigantic chocolate-drops" hover over Winnipeg and we are in "World Wrecker" Hamilton / War of the Worlds territory as they wipe the city out with "compression rays."  Hamilton explains that "any matter, any object, is composed of vast numbers of tiny molecules in ceaseless motion, molecules spaced as far from each other proportionately as are the planets of our universe;" these sorts of theories were apparently beloved of the SF writers of the '20s and '30s--for example, we saw them prominently featured in some Donald Wandrei stories from the early 1930s we read recently.  Anyway, the compression ray causes the molecules of the target to move much closer together, killing people and causing buildings to collapse by shrinking and distorting them in whole or in part.  (Like the graviton gun I've been using in Deathwatch, this seems like an unnecessarily fancy way to kill people when you can just set them on fire or blast holes in them.)

Next on the domes' hit list are Montreal, Quebec, and Boston, all demolished.  This series of misfortunes is followed by a genuine tragedy as the flying domes topple skyscrapers and destroy bridges in beautiful New York City!

While the mysterious flying domes are destroying the metropolises of North America, a lone Canadian pilot, unaware of the holocaust to the south, flies north to look for the lost McQuirk expedition, and crash lands on the island to find David McQuirk, the anthropologist's brother, is still alive.  David then takes up the narrative in a long flashback describing how the expedition found a frozen dome and defrosted it, only to awaken an ancient race of toad people!  You and I know that there is no creature more charming on God's green Earth than a toad, but these toad people go the extra mile to force us to reassess our toad love!  They murdered most of the expedition out of hand, and took the anthropologist and his brother captive.  Angus, impressed by the high technology and advanced scientific knowledge of the toad people, became what people twelve years later would be calling a quisling!  (These damn anthropologists are always going native and betraying the human race!)  He quickly learned the toads' language and history (they can't stand the cold and have been waiting out the ice age in suspended animation since the days when the North Pole was warm) and even helped them set up their heating system, a beam they shoot into space to collect heat from the rays of the sun:
that mechanism was to be a great heat-magnet, a magnet which would be able to bend and attract heat-vibrations as Einstein has shown that light-vibrations are bent and attracted by the bodies they pass in space.    
With this heat magnet the toad people plan to defrost their entire city of thousands of domes (which fly through the use of "propulsion ray apparatus") and conquer the world!  Angus even told them all about our civilization so they'd know what to attack first!

Anyway, after the attack domes have returned from their trip to Manhattan, the Canadian airman gives David a pistol, and the two of them sneak up to the heat magnet while the toad men are distracted.  David has to shoot down his own brother, but they deactivate the heat magnet and all the toad men freeze to death.

Much of "The Polar Doom" reads like a newspaper article or a brief history, and there is little attempt at producing characters or achieving any kind of literary style.  When talking about Hamilton's success as a Weird Tales author in "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940," Moskowitz suggests "It should be remembered that, up until John Campbell's takeover of Astounding Science-Fiction, novelty of the idea took precedence over literary style as a criteria [sic] of the popularity of a given piece of science fiction, which was then regarded as a literature of ideas."  Hamilton certainly serves out the scientific ideas in "The Polar Doom," invoking Einstein on the effect of gravity on light and "French biologist Berthelot" (does he mean Sabin? Marcellin? I don't know) when talking about suspended animation.  But he also includes the sort of striking images of horror I think most of us look for in Weird Tales, and which were memorable elements of the stories collected in Crashing Suns.  My favorite in "The Polar Doom:" a ray slices through the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, sending thousands of fleeing Manhattanites, a veritable waterfall of screaming figures, plunging to their doom in the East River.

Entertaining.  "The Polar Doom" would only be reprinted a single time, in the 2009 volume of early Hamilton stories from Haffner PressThe Metal Giants and Others: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume One.

I guess Brundage is going for a
metaphorical thing here
"The Avenger from Atlantis" (1935)

Here's a story which it seems has never been reprinted (though maybe the Haffner folks will get to it in the future?)  Written somewhat later in Hamilton's long career, it is much more character-oriented than "The Polar Doom," but if you are "woke," these characters may well have you scurrying for your safe space!

Ulios, our narrator, is the greatest scientist in the island city of white towers and porticoes known as Atlantis!  Among his duties is holding the position of Guardian of the Force, the Force being the apparatus that manages the volcano that is this advanced civilization's power source.  Ulios is married to a beautiful woman, Etian, a half-breed--she is half Atlantean, and half barbarian!  When Etian finds out that Ulios has perfected a means of transferring brains between people, she wants him to promise to transfer her brain to a young body when she gets "wrinkled and flabby and old.  Old!  A horrible fate that I dread above all others."  Of course, Ulios, greatest scientist in Atlantis, tells her this would be "black unholiness" and to "banish such thoughts as these from your mind."

He may be a great scientist, but Ulios is a lousy director of human resources.  His assistant, Karnath, is the only other guy in Atlantis who has the key to the Force, and the only other guy who knows how to transfer brains.  So Ulios may be surprised when his servant Sthan wakes him up one night to tell him Etian has just flown off in Karnath's flying machine, but the reader isn't.  We also aren't surprised to learn Karnath has sabotaged the Force and that the whole Atlantean civilization is exploding and sinking beneath the waves while Ulios, Sthan at the helm, is flying after his faithless wife and colleague, but our narrator is!
I swear by all the gods that I had no suspicion of anything else!  Earth tremors were common enough in Atlantis, and had I dreamed that this was anything more I would have forsaken my pursuit.
Crushed by "black guilt" for committing the sin of abandoning the Force to pursue his own vengeance thus allowing his entire civilization to be annihilated, Ulios vows to atone for his crime, but only after punishing Etian and Karnath for theirs!  The flying machines of pursued and pursuer run out of juice over North Africa, and Ulios and Sthan continue following the traitors on foot.  For years they chase them, overcoming deserts, mountains, barbaric tribes, monstrous beasts.  Karnath teaches Etian how to transfer brains, so when they get old they just kidnap local savages and move their brains into their young bodies!  When Ulios realizes this, he teaches Sthan the secrets of the operation, so he and his servant can also waylay innocent people and take their bodies as replacements!  The chase goes on for generations, for centuries, as the four last Atlanteans keep switching bodies so that they never die and need never give up flight and pursuit.

Babylon, the Rome of Tiberius, the Paris of the French Revolution, London under the bombs of the zeppelins--Ulios and Sthan chase the destroyers of Atlantis through them all!  Finally, in a Manhattan skyscraper, that monument to modern ingenuity, ambition, sophistication and beauty, where Karnath's brain resides in the body of the world's richest man and Etian's in that of his gorgeous mistress, we get a final showdown and a twist ending that revolves around Etian's womanly vanity!

This story features so many of my favorite things--mad scientists transferring brains, disastrous sexual relationships, a quest for vengeance--and Hamilton fills it with so many melodramatic speeches and wild cliffhangers, as well as a protagonist who legitimately acts like he is insane or from an alien culture, that I love it.  It is easy to see why the readers of Weird Tales embraced it--"The Avenger from Atlantis" is a classic of the weird!

I assume that's Lenya, but Brundage
decided to leave out Hath's human face!
"The Six Sleepers" (1935)

Weird Tales cover boy Hamilton struck again just months after "The Avenger from Atlantis" with the "startling thrill-tale" "The Six Sleepers."  Like the tragic tale of Ulios, this baby has yet to be reprinted.

By coincidence (like an actor who refuses to rehearse because he wants his performance to be spontaneous, I never plan out these blog posts) all three of these Edmond Hamilton stories are about people who live thousands of years and must face strange new versions of Earth.  In "The Six Sleepers" we have American prospector Garry Winton who gets chased into a cave in Morocco by Berbers.  The cave is full of a natural gas which induces a state of suspended animation.  Already in the cave are five other people who have been chased into the cave by hostile Africans over the centuries: a Roman legionary, an English crusader, a 15th-century Italian condottiere, a 16th-century pirate, and an aristocratic emigre from Revolutionary France.  (For some reason no African hunters or farmers ever end up in this Moroccan cave, just European professional fighting men.)

Garry and the five European sword swingers wake up thousands of years in the future, when an earthquake causes the cave's roof to collapse and the gas to escape.  If Garry was the kind of (self-)conscious consumer who only buys products emblazoned with "NO GMO" labels he is SOL (the kids still say that, right?) because this future is chockablock (I know the kids still say that!) with genetically modified organisms.  The adventurers are attacked by huge rats with human faces, and then make friends with a young woman, Lenya, who is accompanied by Hath, her loyal retainer, a bipedal wolf with a human head!  Lenya tells Garry that the civilization after his, that of the super high-tech "Masters," developed all kinds of new breeds of people, like the rat-men to serve as miners and fish-men to explore the oceans.  The Masters are long gone after a fratricidal war and their technology defunct (Lenya carries a spear around instead of a plasma rifle) but, left to their own devices, the rat-men and other freaks have flourished.  And by flourish I mean they have multiplied and mercilessly prey upon the few true humans left, people like Lenya, descendants of the tiny number of Masters to survive the cataclysmic final war.

Anyway, Lenya's brother and two of the swordsmen are captured by rat-men and the rest of the cast have to rescue them before they are sacrificed to the rat-men's god. Hamilton tries to build up suspense by not telling us what the god is until the last moment--I stupidly was predicting a robot or computer or nuclear reactor.  The god turns out to be a huge snake with a human-like face.  (I wonder if Hamilton got the idea for this story from witnessing somebody feed rodents to his pet snake.)  After the crusader decapitates the snake-man there is a chase through a ruined city and a final desperate fight, which Garry resolves by getting one of the Masters' old atomic power projectors operating and using it to incinerate the rat-men.

This story isn't actually bad, but the plot (rescuing somebody from being sacrificed by creepo cultists) is pedestrian and Hamilton's innovations don't really spice it up. Innovation #1, that the protagonist is joined by warriors from five eras, feels contrived (their swords didn't rust over a thousand years?) and is just used to make obvious jokes (the legionary can't believe the Roman Empire is no more, and the crusader thinks everybody is a witch or a demon), and Innovation #2, all the crazy human-animal hybrids, is just window dressing--the hybrids simply play the same role in the story that expendable enemy soldiers play in fiction all the time.  Disappointing after all the science and striking images in "The Polar Doom" and the perfect little mad scientist masterpiece "The Avenger from Atlantis."

**********

A fun exercise; I will be letting Moskowitz's article guide my reading in the future.      

Monday, July 24, 2017

Terror on Planet Ionus by Allen Adler

"You must feed Karkong...or die!"
My copy with its misleading
(but awesome!) cover illo
OK, this is one of those books I bought because of the cover, an evocative piece by Jerome Podwil which includes so many of my favorite things--a city (can we hope New York City?) skyline, some kind of space ship/fighter plane, and a hideous titanic monster in the crosshairs of the viewer's advanced weapons system.  Looks awesome!

As the cover of my 1969 paperback admits, Terror on Planet Ionus was titled Mach 1 when it first appeared in 1957.  I would never have bought a book called Mach 1, because it sounds like the title of a conventional novel about a test pilot, the kind of thing in which his wife doesn't understand his addiction to adrenaline and he is in trouble with the brass for insulting some overly-fastidious bureaucrat who was manning a desk while he was flying a Mustang over Festung Europa, risking his tail so beatniks and pinkos had the freedom to run down this great country.  I don't want to read that kind of thing, but a dude in an X-Wing fighter dropping a bomb on Godzilla I will give a try.

The Mach 1 is a motor torpedo boat that can sail at the speed of sound!  It moves that fast so it can launch atomic torpedoes at enemy ships or drop atomic depth charges on enemy subs and get out of the blast radius before duck and cover time.  Various devices, including jet engines and a "tri-node" which projects an "electric impulse" of "occulting current" which calms the waves, make such speed possible.  (I don't know anything about boats, but if you wanted something that could move at the speed of sound and drop depth charges on Soviet submarines, wouldn't your first choice be, not a jet boat, but a jet airplane?)

Our Italian friends go the literal route--
this picture of the boat carefully follows the
text description
Lt. Commander Jeb Curtis is a U. S. Navy veteran of the World War II Mediterranean theater, one of America's best PT boat skippers and the kind of officer who pisses off his superiors with his womanizing and his insubordinate attitude.  He has been tapped to take the Mach 1 on its first full-speed test run.  The day of the big test run there is some weird electrical activity on one of the Pacific islands on Jeb's route, so civilian scientist Martin Edmur, the inventor of the tri-node, and Lieutenant Janis Knight, beautiful Navy meteorologist, are sent to the island.  Martin and Jeb have both been trying to get into Janis' pants, Martin by being shy and polite and Jeb by just grabbing her and kissing her.  Guess who gets the girl and who gets killed in a supersonic boat crash!

Jeb, alone on the boat, sails at super speed out of San Diego and into the Pacific.  At the same time, the island where Janis and Martin are located is struck by a power outage and a strange wind that carries off Janis.  Jeb and the Mach 1 are swallowed by an alien saucer which opens and closes like a huge clam, and once inside he meets the aliens, tall handsome people with unusually-colored hair and eyes.  He discovers that these jokers have also captured Janis, providing him some alone time with the weather babe! (Like a boss, he makes Janis jealous by flirting with a hot platinum-haired chick!)

The aliens, who call themselves "the Grid," take the two Earthlings to their home world, Ionus, one of the barren moons of Saturn, where they live underground.  The Grid know Earth languages because they have picked up so many Earth broadcasts. From the US they have recorded noir films and westerns, so they think Americans are brutally violent, while from the USSR they recorded lots of propaganda broadcasts of folk music, so they think the Soviets are as peace-loving as they are.  In fact, the Grid saucer's original destination was Russia, and they only ended up in the Pacific because they decided on the spur of the moment to home in on the powerful signal transmitted from the island to Jeb in the Mach 1.

1966 paperback, also pretty awesome,
also pretty misleading
The Grid have shanghaied Jeb and Janis into service on their Earth-Ionus liaison team--these technicolor-coiffed pacifists want help from the Earth with their big problem, Karkong, the energy-devouring monster who is always attacking them.  As pacifists, the Grid refuse to take steps to kill Karkong, even though The Big K has murdered over half their population; their strategy is to feed Karkong energy in hopes he will make friends or get satiated or something.  They may have space ships, but the Grid don't know how to harness atomic energy, and so want Earth help in building a nuclear reactor; maybe their own personal Three Mile Island can generate enough energy to appease the beast.  While they are explaining this to the two naval officers, Karkong busts into the city, causing mass destruction, so Jeb and Janis and the leaders of the Grid escape in the saucer that is carrying the Mach 1, fleeing to Earth.  Karkong also grabs a saucer and follows them.  (All this Karkong action takes place "off screen," guys running in to the room to tell the Grid elite what is going on.  Jeb, Janis, and we readers have no idea what The Big K looks like at this point.)

After some scenes in which people refuse to believe Jeb's claim he was captured by aliens, and some scenes in which people refuse to believe the Grid's story about Karkong, Karkong arrives and begins marching around North America, shooting electric bolts, wiping out cities and dams and killing thousands of people in his ravenous quest for energy.  We are all curious as to what the star of the show looks like, but Karkong is essentially invisible behind his magnetic field, or whatever it is:
Observers tried to study the object with binoculars under the light of illuminating shells from the mortars.  But all they could see was a huge, pulsating shell.  It looked like an inverted bowl composed of turbulent air.  It seemed to be spinning, picking up everything that was loose, so that the agitated air could not be seen through.  Whatever it was, it was about one hundred yards in diameter and although it was only composed of air nothing--not bullets--not bombs--not armor-piercing shells--nothing would penetrate it. Another peculiar thing.  Not a single battery in any of the vehicles in the vicinity had a charge left in it.  Even flashlights would not function.
Western scientists, including Martin, try to figure out how to stop The Big K, but the Soviets go with their own strategy, dropping a nuclear bomb on Karkong while he is in the Nevada desert on his way to Hoover Dam.  Karkong enjoys his first taste of nuclear energy and looks for more.  When the American and Canadian authorities shut down all the nuclear power plants in North America, Karkong sets a course for Mother Russia, where the atomic reactors are still online.

Jeb, Martin, and some minor characters chase Karkong in the Mach 1.  It has been discovered that, when Karkong discharges one of his bolts, his "inverted bowl of turbulent air" rises up a little, so the Mach 1 is able to launch one of its atomic torpedoes under the field when the Grid saucer buzzes the monster and draws Karkong's fire.  The explosion weakens Karkong, forcing the field to collapse so Jeb and we readers can finally see Karkong's true shape on the penultimate page of the novel, the description plagiarized on the book's back cover.  (Yes, the back cover text spoils what happens on page 159 of the 160-page novel.)  In his weakened state Karkong cannot absorb much energy, and so a lightning storm kills him.  Big K, we hardly knew ye!

Mach 1 is the only publication listed under Adler's name at isfdb, and the novel does feel amateurish.  Images and ideas are vague, action scenes are described in a manner either cold and detached or incoherent and confusing, generating no excitement.  There are lots of static scenes of people in offices or bunkers, talking rather than doing anything.  The way the book is plotted and structured is more reminiscent of a disaster story than a SF tale--the aliens and the technical aspects are only lightly touched upon instead of being used to present the reader with far-out thrills or speculations about alternative ways of life.  Instead of fleshing out a few important characters we might actually find interesting, Adler gives us shallow descriptions of many (too many!) ancillary figures, most of whom end up dead.  We learn almost nothing about the personality, motivations and origin of Karkong, so instead of being an engaging villain, The Big K is a flavorless force of nature, playing the role an earthquake or weather event would play in a disaster novel, posing to the overabundant Earthling and Ionian characters a test which reveals their true colors or forces them to evolve.  Unfortunately, Adler's characters all follow obvious and banal narrative arcs--Jeb, the love 'em and leave em type, overcomes his fear of commitment and surrenders to his love for Janis; Martin, the cowardly scientist overcomes his fear of danger and dies as he pulls the torpedo trigger on the Mach 1; the Grid learn that one has a right to defend oneself from evil and support the final anti-Karkong attack--and all these character evolutions are explained in the most cursory way, inspiring no interest in the reader.

The character Adler spends the most time on, even though this guy doesn't really interact with Karkong or the Grid, is the admiral in charge of the Mach 1 program.  Answering my query of above, we learn that he is pushing a supersonic boat when a supersonic aircraft would be more logical because he wants to ensure that the Navy isn't rendered obsolete by the Air Force.  These chapters, which are largely divorced from the SF elements and in which we learn all about the admiral's career, relationships and psychology, feel like boring conventional fiction, a tragic study of a single-minded civil servant (he ends up committing suicide before he learns that his boat saves the world) and a satire of government inefficiency.  Maybe that is the kind of novel Adler really wanted to write?  My preference would have been more effort spent on developing Karkong and the Grid (if Adler was trying to write a SF novel) or on the two different love triangles (Jeb-Janis-Martin and Janis-Jeb-platinum babe) he sets up but does very little with (if he wanted to write a compelling human story.)

A poor performance with nothing to recommend it; not offensively bad, but bewilderingly limp and forgettable.

**********

Bound in the center of my copy of Paperback Library 63-048 is an ad for De Vry Institute of Technology, including a postcard (no postage necessary!) for use by men who hate their jobs and are interested in info on careers in the electronics field. Electronics, we are assured, is where the action is in this electronic age, and there are jobs for guys like you, not just those geniuses like Martin Edmur who get killed in supersonic boat crashes!
  

              


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F. Jones

They were dead, the cyberneticists said from the beginning.  The activation of the neurons was no more than the jerking of a dead frog leg by an electric current....But they couldn't know; no one could tell them. The mute prisoners of darkness could never tell.  They could only live--and hope for death.

How do I love this cover?  Let me count the ways.

I love the huge brain.


I love the monster frog.


I love the male and female profiles, which the artist (most likely Jerome Podwil, though some have claimed it is Richard Powers' work) imbues with a sort of iconic, essential humanity.  Here we see Everyman and Everywoman, together facing an indifferent universe.


And the colors, the width of the lines, etc.  I love it all!  But will I love Jones' novel?  In 1950 Raymond F. Jones contributed to Startling Stories a tale entitled "The Cybernetic Brains," and in 1962 an expanded version was printed in a magazine in Italy and in book form here in the good ol' U S of A.  My copy is a 1969 paperback, 128 pages, from the Paperback Library.  I recognize Jones' name, but I don't think I have ever read anything by him, at least not as an adult, so here I'm getting a first taste of his rather extensive body of work (isfdb lists over a dozen novels and many stories ranging from the early 1940s to the late 1970s.)

The Cybernetic Brains begins in darkness.  That's because chemist John Wilkins, whose body was destroyed in a car crash  along with that of his newlywed wife Martha while they were on their honeymoon (damn!) is a disembodied brain and they haven't hooked him up to the cameras yet!  Jones gives us a very effective description of what it is like to be a disembodied brain that really catches the reader's attention before we get the background exposition about the novel's future setting.

I guess that's Martha in her new body,
but don't be fooled into thinking this
is a light sexy story--it's a tragedy
and a cautionary tale about
central planning!
The Wilkins' world is a sort of socialist utopia, which Jones calls "the Welfare State" with caps.  Automatic factories run by computers produce everything anybody could possibly need, so only a tiny minority of ambitious and power-hungry people actually have jobs--everybody else just hangs out. The computers distribute everything--most people don't even know what the word "profit" means, the concept of business being so antiquated--and there is no crime because everybody has what he wants and psychopaths are euthanized at birth.

Where do the powers that be get computers with enough memory and processing power to manage the entire world economy?  Well, they use the brains of dead people as their computers!  The brains of the most intelligent and well-educated citizens killed in accidents (are they really accidents?) that (conveniently) left their noggins unharmed!  The cyberneticists who harvest, install, and maintain these dead brains don't realize (or do they?) that their process revivifies the consciousness of the people from whose skulls the brains have been extracted, so that two million human souls, for decade after decade, are living in an agony of sensory deprivation, just so the average man can sit on his ass all day!  I guess you could say they are using the brains as hardware, thinking the original software is gone, but it isn't gone!

John and Martha, as leading chemists, have been installed in a vast chemical plant. (The cyberneticists find that the dead brain computers work most efficiently when managing processes with which they were familiar in life.)  The disembodied newlyweds barely succeed in maintaining their sanity and then vow to do all they can to liberate the two million enslaved souls that are running the world economy!  Why haven't any of those two million ever rebelled?  We later learn that a slight tweaking of the revivification process has given John and Martha super-IQs, while the other two million are totally insane, schizos who have retreated into sterile dream worlds.

With their super IQs, John and Martha, in vats in unmonitored parts of the labyrinthine chemical factory, create little creatures they call "frogs" that transmit telepathic signals and act as their eyes and ears.  With practice, they graduate to creating human bodies that can walk undetected among real humans.  Through intermediaries--their family and friends--they alert the government and the Cybernetics Board that the brains are alive and the whole brain computer program should be suspended.  The authorities respond by trying to assassinate John and Martha's loved ones, leading to gory fights between the assassins and the frogs!  (Frog 2.0 has lots of sharp teeth!)  Next, John and Martha try to alert the people, thinking the common man will want to liberate the two million brain slaves.  Think again, naive boffins!  When the common man learns there is a threat to his cushy lifestyle he rises up against, not the slavers, but John and Martha's loved ones!  More gory fights, this time unruly mob vs toothy artificial frog!

I kept expecting a sense-of-wonder ending, with John and Martha winning over the populace through some stratagem and liberating the brains and creating a better world, or at least putting their own brains in new bodies and blasting off to live together forever in outer space, but Jones is writing a tragedy here.  As the novel ends the brains catastrophically cease production (chemical plant emitting poison gas, atomic plant exploding, etc.) and expire and world society, consisting of people who have never done any labor and don't know how to do anything productive, collapses into total anarchy.

Jones's novel has lots of cool disembodied brain, artificial creature, and high-IQ science-fiction stuff, and lots of human relationship stuff and psychological stuff in which people suffer breakdowns as they doubt they can go on after their significant other has gotten killed, but the real point of The Cybernetic Brains is to attack the cradle-to-grave welfare state.  The foundation of the welfare state is slavery, and it corrupts, infantalizes, emasculates, and dehumanizes everyone connected to it.  Jones' intelligent or admirable characters denounce it repeatedly in no uncertain terms, for example, suggesting that the welfare state represents man refusing to achieve maturity (by conquering the stars, say) and instead "returning to the womb."

All the SF elements are fun, the ending took me by surprise, I love stories about shifting brains and consciousnesses, and I still, after all these years, find debates over the role of the state compelling, so I quite enjoyed The Cybernetic Brains.  Probably some of the scenes, like John and Martha's grief-stricken sister-in-law standing naked atop a wall with a raging inferno behind her and a murderous mob before her, are a little melodramatic, a little too operatic or cinematic, but I don't think those few scenes sink the whole enterprise.  I can definitely recommend this one, especially if you are into van Vogt-style high IQ and conspiracy stories, and anti-socialist polemics.

And another word of praise for Jerome Podwil for producing not only a gorgeous cover, but one which is an accurate representation of everything that happens in the book!