Monday, November 6, 2017

Barry N. Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter: Part Three

Almost all of my books are in cardboard boxes back in Ohio while I am in Maryland preparing our foul-smelling apartment for occupancy.  Luckily, I had the foresight to bring with me to this border region between America's Crime Capital and The Belly of the Beast both my DAW paperback of Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar and my hardcover copy of Barry Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  We discussed the Lee novel in our last episode; today let's continue our look into the 1976 Doubleday collection by the man who brought tears to my eyes with the hilarious "Vidi Vici Veni" and the moving "Conversations at Lothar's."

"After the Great Space War" (1976)

This story has a separate entry at isfdb, but it appears to be simply a retitled version of "Before the Great Space War," which appeared in Alternities and which we read in late 2016 when we read that original anthology.  It is possible that it is a revision of that story, but with my copy of Alternities 400 miles away, I am in no position to check.

In the afterword to "After the Great Space War" Malzberg talks about how hard it was to place the story, and speculates on why Analog, Galaxy, and Ed Ferman all rejected it before it was accepted by David Gerrold for Alternities.  Malzberg also reminds us (as if we, his fans, needed reminding!) that he doesn't think the human race will ever reach "far space."  "After the Great Space War" would in 1980 appear in Space Mail, an anthology with Isaac Asimov's name on it, one which has been reprinted numerous times over the years, including in German; do the authors of the stories get a payment every time one of these anthologies gets reprinted?  For Malzberg's sake, I hope so!

"Trashing" (1973)

"Trashing" first appeared in Infinity Five, edited by Robert Hoskins.  It is a three-page story, the reminisces of an insane man who stalks and murders the President of the United States.  Our narrator, a madman and an assassin, in the way of a mentally ill person, calls the President "the madman" and his bodyguards "his assassins" and after shooting down the President expects the crowds assembled to hear the chief executive speak to thank him as a liberator.

This is a decent story, and, with its insane narrator and topic of political murder, very representative of Malzberg's body of work.  The afterword is also very Malzbergian.  Barry relates that, at the invitation of a female friend who teaches creative writing, he read the story to about one hundred of her community college students, and only one of them (1 percent!) understood the story.  Malzberg worries that his career is a waste of time because, if ordinary people can't understand this brief and straightforward story, either Malzberg himself is a poor writer, or, ordinary people are almost all dim-witted (or, as Malzberg diplomatically puts it, "incomprehension is almost absolute out there.")  Barry addresses us readers directly, expecting us to share his pain: "either way, this afterword must depress you."

Malzberg's friend, the "lovely lady" college instructor, tried to salve his feelings by telling him that the community college students were members of the "underclasses" who would "never be heard of again," which is pretty funny and of course a fair sample of how academics, even those relegated to teaching at community colleges, think of the hoi polloi.  Malzberg, ever cagey, always teasing and laying puzzles and traps for us, his loving fans, doesn't tell us his friend's name, but gives us a clue: "she is a marvelous writer who wrote a splendid novel, Living and Learning," which, he tells us, was a paperback original which received little attention.  A few minutes on and then ye olde search engine leads me to believe the lady in question is Karen Jackel.  The cover of Living and Learning describes the novel as "an extraordinary and disturbing portrait of a young woman in love," and its sole reviewer on Amazon gives it five of five stars.  This book is available for ten dollars as of this writing at Amazon and 12 bucks at abebooks --I suggest you order a copy if only to prove to yourself you are not a mere member of the underclasses but can appreciate real literature.

"Vox Populi" (1973)

This one was first published in Edge, a magazine edited by Bruce McAllister that apparently only had one issue.  "Vox Populi" appeared alongside stories by Malzberg's peers in SF's literary smart set like Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and every college professor's favorite SF writers, Stanislaw Lem and Ursula LeGuin, a bunch of other famous SF figures, and a horde of people I've never heard of.

"Vox Populi" is two pages long, a lame bit of 1970s angst based on Malzberg's encounter on the street with congressman Leonard Farbstein, who was running for reelection, challenged by Bella Abzug.  (Malzberg tells us all this in the afterword; though I am flattered that you thought I figured it out by myself!)  On the first page of the story the narrator, a political and demographics junkie, is among a crowd of people shaking his congressman's hand, and then a few blocks away sees students rioting against American participation in the Vietnam War.  On the second page the narrator has a dream (ugh) about "members of the underclass" rioting and murdering people, including the congressman, at a campaign event.  The point of the story is that politicians just promise whatever constituents want--the congressman in the story blindly follows public opinion, for example supporting or opposing U. S. intervention in foreign wars not based on strategic or moral principles, but based on what will help win election.

The war business takes up more words, but the most interesting part of the story is the Jewish angle.  The congressional district in the story is largely Jewish, and the congressman (in the dream) while on a campaign stop trumpets his support of Israel and even plays the Israeli national anthem as a way to woo local voters.  (This wooing doesn't work on the "members of the underclass," who presumably are gentiles.)  I feel like nowadays only people on the very fringes of acceptable political opinion broach the topic of U.S. Congress members' support for Israel, so this element of the story struck me.  Presumably Malzberg is suggesting that the congressman's talk about Israel is insincere opportunism, but those passages in the story sound a lot like the kind of satire you might expect from anti-Semites or supporters of the Palestinians who think Israel has too much influence on Washington's foreign policy. 

In the afterward Malzberg reiterates his complaint about "liberal Democrats" (the scare quotes are used by Malzberg himself) who just cowardly chase votes and also complains that the country is "going down," saying "our life is being sucked away from us."  I hate vague political rhetoric like "going down" and "our life is being sucked away from us"--it is essentially meaningless, the kind of complaint any person who pays any attention to politics or culture at all and has any kind of ideology or attitude could voice:

Free market type:  "There are so many regulations and so many taxes there is no point in expanding my business and hiring more workers--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Government employee:  "They are cutting taxes and easing regulations, I'll be out of my cushy job and lose my monumental pension and the soft drink companies will sell arsenic soda--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Welfare recipient:  "They are cutting my food and housing benefits so I will starve in the gutter--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Union member (and factory owner):  "They are allowing too many foreign imports so nobody is buying our crummy overpriced MADE IN THE USA products--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Religious person:  "Thanks to the attacks on religion and traditional values from academia and Hollyweird nobody goes to church anymore and our social fabric is collapsing--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Luddite:  "All these computers and machines are taking our jobs and diminishing social interactions-- our life is being sucked away from us!"
Identity politics activist:  "The words people use and the way they look or don't look at my identity group are hurting our feelings--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Free speech advocate: "People can't speak their minds or even attend talks at college campuses without being shouted down or physically assaulted by these entitled snowflakes--our life is being sucked away from us!"

I think you get the picture.  Either Malzberg's amorphous complaint is evidence that he is driven not by serious reflection on political and social issues but an unspecific and visceral sense of unease about change, or, he is just too scared of diminishing his audience by specifying his gripes about the political and social issues of the day.  Either way, it results in vapid and irritating writing--it is much better when Malzberg makes clear his complaints, that the space program is a distracting waste of money or that machines are stealing our humanity or whatever.  Gotta give "Vox Populi" and its afterword a thumbs down.

"Fireday and Firenight" (1974)
"Fireday and Firenight" appeared first in one of Roger Elwood's anthologies, The Far Side of Time: Thirteen Original StoriesAs I have noted on this blog before, Elwood gets a lot of flak from some people who hate his anthologies or think they ruined the SF economy or something, but The Far Side of Time includes new stories from pillars of the SF community like Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova, and a story from genius Gene Wolfe, so it is hard to take such criticisms of Elwood very seriously--don't SF readers want more stories from Leiber, Silverberg, Bova and Wolfe?

We've seen a number of Malzberg stories in which the government takes control of family structure and sexual life, such as "Culture Lock" and "Getting Around," and "Fireday and Firenight" is another.  In the future the story depicts, the family has been replaced by "the unit;" the narrator's unit consists of seven people who "go together everywhere under statute."  The units are set up by "the Protectors," and each member has an assigned role; for example, each unit includes a learned individual, "the pedagogue," who explains everything to the rest of the unit.  The narrator would like to have some alone time with the female member of the unit with whom he has been "sex-paired," but this is impossible.  (Since there are seven people in a unit, one of them is doomed to celibacy; this person's role is that of "the antagonist," and he is very unhappy and caustic, always casting doubt on everything.  Each unit is supposed to be a microcosm of the old society, which of course included skeptics, rebels, conservatives, etc., who challenged beliefs, institutions, and new ideas, creating friction, and the role of the antagonist is to remind everyone of the problems of the past called by such dissension.)

The plot of the story concerns the annual Day of Burning, when the units all go to the Arena to watch actors and robots reenact such historical phenomena as 18th-century pistol duels and World War II terror bombings--the point of the Day of Burning is to remind the people of how horrible life was before the unit system was imposed.  The end of the story hints that the unit society is just as horrible as the societies that went before it.

In his afterword Malzberg describes his abortive attempt to expand "Fireday and Firenight" into a novel, which he says would have been a useless, even disastrous, rehash of the innumerable SF novels already published about rebels overthrowing an oppressive robotic government.  He also tells us that the story is a "satirical rejoinder" to Theodore Sturgeon's many sentimental stories romanticizing or advocating collective consciousness and corporate identity, showing such collectivism's "dark side."  Malzberg doesn't use simple words like collective" and "corporate," though, but instead challenges our little minds with "syzygy" and "the gestalt effect in human relationships."  Oy!  Now whose acting the pedagogue?

"Making the Connections" (1975)

Here is another piece first published in a Roger Elwood anthology, Continuum 4.  isfdb indicates that this story was the fourth and final installment in a collaborative cycle whose earlier parts were produced by Dean Koontz, Gail Kimberly, and Pamela Sargent with George Zebrowski.  (The idea behind the Continuum series was that it presented serial fiction.)

Malzberg often presents us with first-person narrators who are insane and suffer from hallucinations, but he mixes things up this time by giving us an insane narrator who is a robot!  It is the post-cataclysm future, and the world is run by a powerful computer named Central.  Central is trying to exterminate the human race, and to that end has an army of robots patrolling the world, one of which is our narrator.  Our narrator has been killing lots of humans lately, many more than were expected, and he suspects that his old and worn out sensors are providing false data, that he is not crushing and lasering real people, but hallucinations.  Central has problems of its own, and must deny our narrator's many requests for repair.

Our narrator hits on the idea that he could build a comparatively simple robot to do his work of hunting down the remnants of humanity for him.  (It is a little hard to believe that building another robot is easier than just repairing yourself or shooting defenseless people yourself, but we'll have to overlook this.  Anyway, this robot is insane and who knows what is really going on?)  In the final scene the narrator totally breaks down and has a comforting dream (!) that his creation comes to put him out of his misery and then continues his mission of wiping out the human race.  Presumably the narrator's career as creator of a simulacra is supposed to parallel humanity's own history of making machines to do our work for us and finding they have the power to murder and replace us.

Zoinks!  This thing goes
 for 21 bucks online!
In his afterword Malzberg tells us baldly that he thinks that the human race is now the creature of technology instead of vice versa, and that it was doomed to be thus, that nothing could or can be done to halt this process.  (I personally find this attitude totally ridiculous.  Would Malzberg really be happier in a world with no typewriter, no telephone, no recorded music, no printing press, no automobile, no skyscraper, etc?  The guy has chosen to spend his whole life in New York City and Northern New Jersey as a writer!)  Then he praises David R. Bunch's Moderan stories, and laments that they have been "almost completely ignored."  (Well, Joachim Boaz has not ignored them!)   


"Vox Populi" is self-indulgent and anemic, but "Making the Connections" and "Fireday and Firenight" are the real Malzberg stuff, worth the time of us Malzberg fans and people interested in the New Wave and the odder precincts of the SF world.  And Malzberg's afterwords discussing the commercial writer's life and indulging in literary criticism are always interesting.  I'm glad I kept my copy of Down Here in the Dream Quarter close to my heart and didn't trust it to those movers!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Volkhavaar by Tanith Lee

By now, to the villagers, also in actual fact, Kernik and Takerna were virtually synonymous, and not only in their names.  Each was a symbiote, the black stone and the yellow boy, and neither could exist without the other.  The god needed Kernik to spark its dark power.  Kernik needed the god to spark the dark power in himself.  So their aims and desires were as one.  
My scanner is in a box in another state,
so we're making do with some
very bad photography today
I love shopping at Half-Price Books, but my experience of selling books there has always felt more like I was donating the books and getting a partial reimbursement for the gasoline I expended travelling to the store.  As part of the downsizing attendant on our recent move from Columbus, Ohio to the Baltimore-D.C. Axis, I brought to HPB two boxes of old cookbooks, South Park DVDs and videocassettes of Godzilla and Gamera movies.  Fully half the shekels this transaction yielded were invested in the purchase of a single burger at Steak 'n Shake and a bedraggled copy of DAW No. 251, Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar.  My copy of the 1977 novel is, I think, from the first printing, and has a Michael Whelan cover and an interior illustration by Jack Gaughan which lead me to wonder if the novel is the tale of a hot chick's war against a race of evil giants.  Let's see if Lee, one of MPorcius Fiction Log's favorites, delivers the evil giant action or if these illustrations are just metaphorical.

Volkhavaar is a novel of 192 pages split into four parts. In Part One we meet Shaina, a beautiful young woman in her late teens who was captured by raiders as a six-year-old and taken across the sea to the cold mountainous country of Korkeem, where she was sold into slavery and resold to a succession of different masters; currently she is owned by a couple living in a small farming village. Having seen more of the world than her owners and with the blood of a proud race flowing through her veins, she is bold and confident, despite her position. One evening a weird gang of entertainers led by a bizarre magician by the name of Kernik comes to the village, and Shaina falls in love with the troupe’s handsome lead actor, Dasyel, even though she never speaks to him and even spots a clue that suggests Dasyel may be a demon or monster. The troupe vanishes in the early morning hours, and lovestruck Shaina goes into the mountains to ask the aid of a vampiric witch, Barbayat, the Grey Lady of Cold Crag. In return for some of her invigorating virgin blood, Barbayat teaches Shaina how to astrally project her soul out of her body so she can find Dasyel!

In Part Two the focus shifts, and we learn the histories of Kernick and Dasyel.  Kernik’s mother, an impoverished traveler from a land over the mountains with exotic yellow (“saffron”) skin, black (“almost dark green”) hair and black (“another kind of black that was almost red”) eyes, gave birth to Kernik in a small village soon after arriving in Korkeem.  She then took up work as a prostitute, and when the local women drove her and little Kernik out of the village into the wilderness, Mom was eaten by a bear!  Young Kernik, driven by a towering will, learned how to survive on his own, eating lizards and berries. Eventually the yellow boy was taken in by a childless woman of yet another Korkeem village, one whose inhabitants lackadaisically worshiped the mountaintop idol of a nearly forgotten god, Takerna.  Amoral, ruthless, totally uninterested in sex but animated by a lust to dominate others and a deep streak of sadism, teenaged Kernik murdered the village priest and assumed his position, reviving Black Takerna, Lord of Night and Shadowed Places, and winning from the god tremendous magical powers. Kernik made himself tyrant of the village, but when he went too far a rebellion ejected him, separating him from the idol and limiting his power. The yellow-skinned sadist joined a band of thieves and enjoyed a career of murder and robbery for five years, then found himself a prisoner in a dungeon and then a slave in a quarry.  After years of captivity and degradation, he discovered another idol to Takerna, and this time the Black God fused his divine soul with Kernick’s mortal body and indomitable will, this fusion giving birth to the wizard Volk Volkhavaar!

Dasyel, for his part, was an aristocrat's fifth son who joined a troupe of actors and traveled the countryside, putting on performances and winning the hearts of women everywhere. When the troupe caught the attention of Volkhavaar, the evil wizard descended from his tower and, at a performance at the local governor’s palace, murdered the troupe’s leader and made a zombie out of Dasyel and some of the other actors, using them as the nucleus of his own travelling company of performers.

In Part Three we return to the narrative present, as Shaina’s soul leaves her body and she pursues her beloved to the large city of Arkev, where a festival is being held.  Part of the festival is a competition of visiting acting troupes, presided over by the bickering Duke and Duchess and their innocent and plain daughter, Woana, whose only friend is her pet cat.  With his magic and his cunning, Volkhavaar makes sure his troupe, which showcases handsome Dasyel, wins all the prizes and the acclaim of the city mob--this acclaim will be the springboard for his effort to take over the city!  Shaina, entranced by Dasyel’s beauty, overstays her astral visit to Arkev as she watches the theatrical competition so that back in the village her inert body with its vampiric wounds is discovered.  A visiting priest, fearing that poor Shaina could be the Typhoid Mary of a potential plague of vampires, has Shaina’s mortal form decapitated and buried!

In Part Four Barbayat of Cold Crag returns to the narrative, helping Shaina implant her bodiless soul in the brain of the pet cat of the heir to the throne of Arkev!  Sharing the feline body with the native consciousness of the cat itself, Shaina has a front row seat to the Volkhavaar take over of Arkev, highlights of which include the murder of the Duke and Duchess, orgies which feature bestiality, and the obscuration of the sun, inaugurating a policy of 24 hours of night a day!  Through the cat's eyes Shaina also becomes familiar with the layout of the palace and city, which comes in handy when Barbayat mends the girl's body and she finds herself back in her human form, as she immediately returns to Arkev to try to overthrow Volkhavaar's regime, rescue zombie Dasyel, and put shy Woana (now the rightful Duchess) on the throne!

Volkhavaar is an entertaining fantasy that, instead of focusing on sword-swinging knights, barbarians and thieves, as do so many fantasy stories, instead focuses on priests, witches, wizards, gods and their cruel machinations; in some ways it has more in common with a macabre or decadent fairy tale than a 20th-century adventure story.  The novel's plot features a number of things I always enjoy, like people's consciousnesses being moved around and people being forced to share a body, and characters driven by all-consuming loves or hatreds, by overweening ambitions or desires for revenge--I found the principal characters, Shaina and Kernik/Volkhavaar, compelling, and Shaina's scenes in the cat's body and Kernik's early career particularly entertaining.  Lee also does a good job with the numerous minor characters; they are all interesting and have believable motivations and act in a believable manner--none of them feels like a cog in the machinery of the plot just doing what has to be done to make sure the author gets her story from point A to point B.  The weakest character is probably Dasyel, who sort of plays the kind of McGuffin role that a sexy princess might play in a more male-oriented story—Shaina desires him because of his looks and tries to rescue him from the villain the way some guy on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom or in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age might try to rescue a hot chick.  

The portrayal of Dasyel--the only sketchily defined attractive character for whom the protagonist braves terrible perils--suggests that in Volkhavaar we have a sort of gender-bending or perhaps feminist reimagining of traditional adventure fantasy plot and character elements.  After all, the "good guys" of Volkhavaar are all women--Shaina, Barbayat, and the Duke's daughter.  Lee doesn't throw this feminist stuff in your face, doesn't let it overwhelm her exciting story, but lets the reader discover it on his or her own; the theme rises out of the very logical plot, the plot doesn't feel like a piece of propaganda constructed in order to hammer home a tendentious theme.  There are no feminist speeches from the narrator or the characters; Barbayat and Woana are not feminist paragons but rounded and flawed characters who deserve the reader's skepticism; there are several unlikable female characters (like the Duchess and wife of the farmer who owns Shaina); and the female heroes don't resolve the plot by unconvincingly acting in stereotypically male ways, like strapping on swords and chopping legions of enemies to pieces. 

A German edition
Lee does lots of interesting things with the plot and characters besides this subtle feminist angle.  The monstrous and evil Kernik and sympathetic and loving Shaina are parallel characters, for example.  Both are aliens to Korkeem (which, I guess, is sort of like Northern Europe or Scandinavia, while Kernick is from the equivalent of China or the mysterious East more generally, and Shaina is from some warmer part of Europe, like maybe Mediterranean France or Italy) who feel superior to the natives, both suffer captivity and slavery, both are driven by powerful passions, both get creepy magical powers from creepy figures who want blood as payment, and both find themselves sharing a body with another consciousness. 

Another interesting theme: deities are the images of the people who worship them.  Shaina doesn't liberate the people of Arkev and her beloved Daysel by killing Kernik or blowing up a statue of Takerna or something, she does so by herself worshiping Takerna.  Takerna was the Black God of the Shadows and all that because the man who revived him through worship and sacrifice was Kernik, an evil man driven by a lust to dominate and harm people, and when compassionate Shaina, who is driven by love, worships him, Takerna becomes a White God of the Day.

One more theme: illusion and performance.  Much of Kernik/Volkhavaar's magic is in the creation of illusions, and the novel is full of descriptions of plays and their attendant special effects, and of performances facilitated by costumes or disguises.  Even the idea that worshipers determine the character of their gods fits into this theme: we create the world in which we live in part by how we choose to view it, and how we choose to present it and ourselves to others.

A lot of fiction is easy to predict, so I was happy to be surprised more than once by Lee here.  For example, I was surprised when Shaina's head was chopped off, I did not see the implantation of her soul into the cat's body coming, and I was again surprised that Shaina and Dasyel didn't become lovers.  When at the end of the novel Shaina and Dasyel finally speak, Shaina sees that Dasyel does not love her as she loves him, and so she returns to Cold Crag to live with Barbayat and study to become a great witch.  These are the best kind of surprises, surprises which are foreshadowed and so do not feel like a trick the author is playing on the reader.                 

The plot and characters are very good, and Lee's style in Volkhavaar is also superior.  Some of Lee’s novels can feel long and diffuse, with too many descriptions or too much going on or a plot that is very convoluted and features some unbelievable twists, but Volkhavaar is smooth and well-paced.  Individual sentences are very good. Lee uses lots of metaphors--on every page we hear that love is like a beast or a cold sword of iron that impales the heart or that some joker's cloak is like black wings and his gems are like drops of red blood or a cat's green eyes--and these similes and metaphors are always appropriate and never feel showy or pretentious. They make Lee’s images more vivid or her characters’ emotions more moving to the reader, or, serve as clever and cynical aphorisms about the sadness of our lives:
The sight was terrible, more terrible than words convey, for words are cowards as men are, and hide things as men do.
(Is this another subtle feminist note?  Is Lee just using "men" here to mean "people," or intentionally leaving the reader space to think she could be referring specifically to members of the male sex?)  

Cover of an Italian edition, illo by Allison, one of
Joachim Boaz's faves
Obviously I think this book is great and the more I think about it the better I like it.  But now comes the paragraph of the blog post in which I remind the people of 2017 that this book was written forty years ago in a world with very different prejudices and priorities and so may offend the easily offended.  The only non-white characters in the novel are a Fu Manchu-type with long pointy fingernails who hypnotizes and otherwise beguiles people, and his mother, a yellow whore.  Lee repeatedly uses the words white and black to mean good and evil, and, in passages describing Kernik/Volkhavaar's crimes, there are passing references to suicide, incest, bestiality, and maybe some other horrible things I am forgetting.  While Volkhavaar is ultimately a story about the power of love, it is also a story about evil and is full of human and inhuman cruelty and tragedy.   

Volkhavaar is a great mix of stuff I already am crazy about and stuff that is different and surprising, it is well-structured and well-paced, entertaining and thought-provoking and written in a engaging, even beautiful, style.  Strongly recommended. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Three 1961 stories by R. A. Lafferty from Galaxy

We're still reading my copies of Ace's Nine Hundred Grandmothers and DAW's Strange Doings, two early '70s paperback collections of stories by R. A. Lafferty. Today's tales were all published in Galaxy in 1961.

Back covers of my copies

"All the People"

Oh, this is a good one!  "All the People" starts off slow and deceptively flat; as I read the first two pages I was thinking, "Is this it?  Boring philosophical conversation?"  But "All the People" is a puzzle, a mystery story so mysterious that at first you don't even realize that what you are looking at is a single piece of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle!  The structure of the story is perfect, as is the pacing; reading it is like looking through a telescope and seeing nothing but blur, but then, as you turn the knob, shapes slowly, then quickly, come in to focus until you have a crystal clear image, an image that is  striking, surprising, and a little disturbing.  "All the People" achieves what stories with twist endings try to achieve, but there is not really a twist--everything that happens makes perfect sense and is essentially predictable; Lafferty doesn't use any trickery and he doesn't subvert expectations so much as carry things to an inevitable and logical conclusion--put together the puzzle pieces--faster than the reader may have.

While it may make sense to call "All the People" a mystery story, it doesn't feel like one of those mystery tales in which the reader is a mere spectator, watching some guy chase down some meaningless MacGuffin.  Instead, the reader feels like a participant in the exploration of a whole new world, and what the character is chasing is something meaningful, something tied up in his own character and wider human nature.  Laffert doesn't just succeed in structuring and pacing his story and in constructing its plot, but in providing us an affecting character, Anthony Trotz.

Trotz is a lonely individual who discovers he has a fantastic, incredible, ability, and, as he seeks to confirm that he even has this impossible power and tries to figure out its meaning, the truth of his life and his world is revealed to him.  When all is clear he makes a decision with life-changing and world-shattering ramifications.

A puzzle story and a story of a character, "All the People" is also very solidly a science fiction story, making brilliant use of traditional SF themes like the paradigm shift and the blurry lines between life and not-life and between human and inhuman, as well as standard SF devices like robots, computers, mental powers, government conspiracies and alien invasions. 

Strongly recommended.


This piece is pleasant enough, but feels a little trifling.  Aloys Foulcault-Oeg is an impoverished intellectual from a long line of impoverished people (he wears his great-grandfather's holed and patched overcoat which has been passed down generation after generation) living in an obscure country.  When he comes up with a groundbreaking series of formulae he is invited to a big event in New York ("the great town where even the shop girls dressed like princesses") to receive a valuable award.  Criminals kidnap Aloys and an imposter gives a three-and-a-half hour speech in his place.  As we all know, academics are phonies, so none of the leading thinkers assembled to hear the speech reveal it is incomprehensible nonsense.  The crooks get their hands on Aloys' award, but the ending of the story is a happy one for Aloys--he joins the criminal gang, leaving his life of poverty behind.

"Aloys" is a fun little story with fun touches, like the characters' names.  The main character's name seems to refer to Lafferty's own, of course, as well as that of famous (and famously difficult and dubious) French scholar Michel Foucault, though 1961 was pretty early in Foucault's career--maybe this is just a happy coincidence?  Did Lafferty think of himself as a poor man feted by phony elites?  As a writer whose work was regarded as complex and perhaps bogus?  Another significant name is that of the man who finances the award and ceremony and has a "villa in the province, which is to say, Long Island"--Maecenas.

I like it, but compared to the other Lafferty stories I've been reading, it feels kind of slight. 


This is a time travel story, all about a scientist and inventor who goes back in time to give his young self advice.  You see, when Higgston Rainbird is old, in the middle of the nineteenth century, he can look back on a career of considerable achievement, but he regrets the many years spent on dead ends--if he had known which avenues of research and development were going to go nowhere he would have made much more progress.  So he goes back in time to spend a few hours issuing much time-saving advice to his younger self; as a result, this new, wiser, iteration of Rainbird is able to accomplish such astonishing and beneficial feats as travelling to Mars, building a computer, and putting into operation a social system which abolishes government--all before 1850!

Still, there is much work to be done--finishing up his project that will unlock the secret of immortality, for example.  So, Rainbird goes back in time again in an effort to repeat his scheme, but this time disaster results.  Distracted by such addictive hobbies as falconry and horse racing, the latest iteration of the inventor achieves relatively little, and all that progress in energy, electronics, transport, and political science is undone, in fact, never occurred.

Like "Aloys" this is an entertaining story, but fails to reach the level of the very fine "All the People" or the 1960 stories we talked about in our last blog post.


In our next episode we'll take a look at some Raphael Aloysius Lafferty productions that debuted in Galaxy and If in 1962!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Four 1960 stories by R. A. Lafferty

It's been a while since we've read anything by R. A. Lafferty, so let's take my copies of 1970's Nine Hundred Grandmothers, an Ace Science Fiction Special with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, and DAW's 1972 collection Strange Doings, which has a Jack Gaughan cover, down from the shelf and read four stories by the Iowa-born Oklahoma resident and recipient of a 1990 World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.

"Through Other Eyes"

This is a story about how our beliefs and perceptions are not simply objective and accurate views of the outside world, but are guided or distorted by our attitudes and interests, so that we all see different, even live in different, worlds.  The first two pages of this fifteen-page story act as a sort of prologue, in which scientists Charles Cogsworth and Gregory Smirnov talk about the experience of using their time machine, which allowed them to view famous people and events of the past.  These viewings were a terrible disappointment--reputedly beautiful Isolde was obese, famously witty Voltaire was in fact a disgusting pervert, Sappho, remembered as a genius poet, turned out to be a tedious cat lady, the fabled hero Lancelot was in fact almost too feeble to mount a horse, etc.

The main plot concerns Cogsworth's new machine, the Cerebral Scanner, which allows one to experience the inner thoughts and view of the world of other people and creatures.  Through the eyes of a skeptical critic he sees a world that is unsavory and mean, through the eyes of an important business executive he sees a world of numberless details and infinite connections that can--and must!--be managed by a pull of a string here or there (the connections are likened to reins, the executive to God and to a general commanding an army), and so on.  Cogsworth is eager to use the machine to observe the world through the eyes of Valery Mok, a beautiful woman whom he thinks an angel, a wit, and a paragon of kindness. (Lafferty makes clear that she is in fact none of these things, just a pleasant but essentially ordinary woman--Cogsworth's love for her has distorted his view of her.)  When Cogsworth sees the world through her eyes he is painfully disillusioned--her world is one of pervasive, overwhelming, sensuality--to Cogsworth the sensations she enjoys as she smells trees, touches a rail, or looks at clouds are shockingly and grossly, filthy, coarsely obscene.  "I had thought Valery was an is a shock to find that she is a pig."

When Mok uses the Cerebral Scanner to see the world as Cogsworth sees it, she is amazed to find how bloodless, loveless, and lifeless his view of the world is, and compares him to a pig, a pig made of dry dead sticks.  "You live with dead people, Charles.  You make everything dead.  You are abominable."  Lafferty gives us a happy ending, though; Mok, we see, the lively and sensuous woman, is going to open the cold and clinical scientist's eyes to the throbbing vitality and earthy beauty of our world and the two will live happily ever after.

"Through Other Eyes" first appeared in Future Science Fiction and seems to have been well-received, reappearing in Robert Silverberg's Mind to Mind as well as Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Six Fingers of Time"

This is one of those SF stories in which a guy can halt or severely slow down time and then take advantage of people as they stand still as statues or (not quite so anti-socially) get some extra work done.  The most famous of these stories are perhaps John D. MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything from 1962, which I have not read, and Nicholson Baker's 1994 The Fermata, which I read in the 20th century and plan to reread sometime this century.  If Wikipedia and my memory are to be trusted, both those novels focus on sex and the use of the time-retarding power to do things like undress women against their will.  In E. C. Tubb's Dumarest series there are the drugs slow-time and quick-time that speed up or slow down your metabolism forty times--by taking these drugs you can heal forty times faster or do forty times as much work in an hour (in a memorable scene in Lallia Dumarest uses slow-time to produce enough product to meet a crucial deadline) or slow you down so tedious space voyages seem to pass forty times as quickly.  In some Warhammer 40,000 games psykers can invoke the power of the warp to slow or speed up time for particular individuals or small areas and so get more moves than their foes.

In "The Six Fingers of Time," Charles Vincent wakes up and finds that time has slowed so much that each second, to him, feels like a minute, each minute an hour.  After exploring the slow-motion city he goes to the office and catches up on two days worth of work before any of his colleagues even shows up.

The effect wears off and after some months have passed he begins to almost think that crazy day was no more than a dream.  But then he meets a mysterious figure whose face is hidden, who hints that Vincent, who has a deformed thumb that suggests a sixth digit, is a descendant of an ancient race of six-fingered people who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  This strange character teaches Vincent how to switch on and off his time-retarding power, and Vincent proceeds to uses his weird talent to play cruel jokes on people, to take advantage of women sexually, to steal money, to learn scores of foreign languages and to accumulate esoteric knowledge.

Besides adding the Weird Tales-style bloodline-of-an-ancient-lost-race-of-wizards angle to our guy-who-controls-time-and-abuses-people story, Lafferty, one of the SF world's most prominent and most hard core Catholics, adds a moral and Christian dimension.  The faceless figure, it appears, is the Devil, and Vincent risks a horrible fate for using his inhuman ability to harm others and enjoy benefits he has not earned.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was first published in If and later was the title story of an anthology of stories from that magazine which, somewhat bizarrely, pretended to be an anthology of stories from If's sister magazine Galaxy.  Both magazines were edited by Horace L. Gold, so I guess the publishers of the volume felt they would be forgiven this little trespass against the trust of the SF-reading public.  (No respect!)

"The Ugly Sea"

In three of the stories we are talking about today Lafferty uses traditional SF topics and themes ("I'm travelling through time!"; "I'm reading people's minds!"; "I can stop time!"; "I'm on an alien planet fighting a huge monster!") but "The Ugly Sea" is more of a mainstream literary piece, and appropriately enough first appeared in The Literary Review, a journal put out by Fairleigh Dickinson University of the great state of New Jersey.  (I once attended a wedding at Fairleigh Dickinson.  Fascinating, right?)  It takes up a traditional literary theme, the sea and its strange allure.  No doubt you remember the opening passages of Moby Dick, in which the narrator describes his own irresistible attraction to the sea, which he suspects all men share, and Homer's phrase "the wine-dark sea," which has become proverbial.  Rock music aficionados are familiar with Pete Townshend's use of the beach and the sea as recurring motifs in The Who's masterpiece Quadropheniawhile sword and sorcery fans (to bring us back to SF) may recall how, in Swords in the Mist,  Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser spoke of "their mistress, the sea...her rages and caressings, her coolths and unending dancings, sometimes lightly footing a minuet, sometimes furiously a-stamp, and her infinitude of secret parts."

In the frame story of "The Ugly Sea" Lafferty takes a counterintuitive but quite credible tack, having storyteller Sour John declare that the sea is ugly ("It has the aroma of an open is perhaps the most untidy thing in the is monotonous, with only four or five faces, and all of them coarse") but wins the love of men, including Sour John himself, just the same.  The main plot of "The Ugly Sea," which Sour John narrates, is about an associate of John's, a Jewish loan shark named Moysha Uferwohner, who falls in love with Bonny, a twelve-year-old crippled girl who plays piano (badly) at the Blue Fish, a bar frequented by seamen.  Bonny is fated to marry a sailor, so Moysha becomes a sailor himself, even though, as Sour John tells us, the Jews, "God's own people," have always "shunned" that "evil grave," the ocean.  Moysha, according to Sour John, is only the third Jewish seaman in all of history! 

Melville's Ishmael equates his desire to go to sea with suicide: "This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."  Lafferty's story here similarly conjoins seafaring and death.  It is very bad luck, we are told, for a seaman to marry a cripple, but a sailor marries Bonny when she is fifteen years old, anyway.  This tar soon dies of illness at sea, and Bonny remarries at sixteen--this second sailor is killed in a terrible accident in a ship's engine room.  Finally at seventeen she marries Moysha; Moysha leaves his five-year career as a sailor behind, and these two crazy kids live happily together inland for three years.

But the sea has gotten under Moysha's skin!  Those three blissful years end when Moysha is drawn back to the sailor's life.  He joins Sour John's crew, abandoning his wife and children for certain death.

I've had no luck finding an image online of the cover of the Fall 1960 issue of The Literary Review, so all you people who click over to MPorcius Fiction Log for the pictures will have to be satisfied with an image of the second place "The Ugly Sea" appeared, New Worlds of Fantasy #2 with its effective Kelly Freas cover.   

[UPDATE January 2, 2018: Commenter Todd Mason owns a copy of the Autumn 1960 issue of The Literary Review, and points out below that Lafferty's "The Ugly Sea" is in fact in the Autumn 1961 issue.  I was mislead by a typo at isfdb, which still lists "Fall 1960" as the issue in which the story appeared.] 


Planet Bellota is one strange world.  Though a mere one hundred miles in circumference, it has a gravity equal to half that of Earth's.  It is home to many insects, but each individual bug seems to be of a different species.  Lightning storms are constant, and the rinds of fruits are edible while the flesh is unpalatable.  And then there is the sole large inhabitant, a friendly beast much like a large bear which, like the insects, seems to have no sex or parents.  A team of six Earthling scientists is carefully studying this mysterious world until, unexpectedly, Snuffles the heretofore friendly pseudo-ursine suddenly attacks and they have to fight and then flee for their lives!

Lafferty wrote quite a few stories that feature horrendous violence, and "Snuffles" is one of them--the Earth expedition suffers heavy casualties in its struggle against Snuffles!  The survivors of the initial surprise attack march day after day, the wounded Snuffles hot on their heels, toying with them.  Lacking any supplies, the Earthers resort to eating native plants, including those with hallucinogenic properties.  Around the time they start eating this stuff, the survivors begin to receive what appear to be telepathic messages from Snuffles.  Lafferty has already given us reason to suspect Snuffles is a God or Devil or, most likely, a Gnostic demiurge figure (if you needed one, reading "Snuffles" provides a reason to read the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism), and our suspicions are further fueled when Snuffle's messages (or are they merely hallucinations fueled by the scientists' exhaustion and ingestion of narcotic plants?--like "Through Other Eyes," this story is in part about how questionable our perceptions of the world can be) assert that Snuffles created planet Bellota, and maybe the entire universe.

I didn't know until I had finished the story whether any of the humans would get off the planet alive or if any of the planet's mysteries would be solved.

It is normal to read SF stories in which human beings are jerks who despoil the environment and are too quick to resort to violence.  But in "Snuffles" Lafferty makes sure we see the human characters as good people and even seems to be suggesting that we are too gullible, too eager to see the universe as benign when in fact it is inimical.  At the start of the story one character argues that Bellota is the only "fun" planet in the galaxy (when it is in fact the planet where they will be massacred), and during Snuffle's first attack the leader of the expedition chooses to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill because "He was fond of Snuffles and gambled that it would not be necessary to kill him."  These people are too reluctant to resort to violence!  Another interesting aspect of the story is how Lafferty implies that Bellota, which seems like a topsy-turvy, atypical world, is actually the only sincere or normal planet in the universe, and/or is a mirror which displays reality to those few who have the opportunity to visit it.     
If you want to read another well-written story by a Catholic conservative about people pursued by an intelligent alien bear (I know some of you have very specific interests) I strongly recommend Gene Wolfe's "Try and Kill It" from 1996, a very good adventure/horror story.  I kind of wonder if "Try and Kill It" is a subtle homage to "Snuffles;" Wolfe actually uses the word "snuffling" in it, though that is hardly dispositive.  I'm also wondering if there is any chance "Snuffles" is an homage to A. E. van Vogt's 1939 "Black Destroyer," one of the inaugural stories of science fiction's Golden Age.  As you no doubt already know, in "Black Destroyer" a bunch of scientists make friends with an over-sized alien beast which seems friendly at first but later starts murdering them.

"Snuffles" first appeared in Galaxy and has been pretty successful, being included in anthologies in America, Britain, France, and Germany, including an anthology devoted to stories about religion.


It is easy to recommend all four of these stories--they are all smooth and entertaining reads with fun little jokes and all feature interesting themes we've seen before but do different things with them.  Being written over 50 years ago by somebody who wasn't exactly taking pains to appeal to current trends in what constituted acceptable thinking, these stories can sometimes surprise--broad-brush assertions about women (they are more sensual than men!) and Jews (they never become sailors!) are good examples.  The stories also invite consideration of whether they have some deep meaning or philosophical point to make, even if Sour John in "The Ugly Sea" responds to a listener who asks, "Is there a moral to this?" with the flat declaration, "No.  It is an immoral story.  And it's a mystery to me."

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The House of Many Worlds by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Elspeth decided she was getting blase.  Inter-world travel seemed to involve some very high living.
My copy
Sam Merwin, Jr. was editing Startling Stories when it published Raymond F. Jones' The Cybernetic Brains and Edmond Hamilton's The City at World's End, and editing Thrilling Wonder Stories when it published Leigh Brackett's Sea-Kings of Mars and Jack Vance's Son of the Tree, all novels we have enjoyed this year here at MPorcius Fiction Log's Middlewestern HQ and arthropod sanctuary.  But Merwin didn't just buy SF novels--he wrote five or six of them!  And today we take a look at one of them, 1951's The House of Many Worlds.  I own the 1969 paperback from Curtis Books; I like the face and moon in the cover illustration, and the blurbs from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle really sell it as a fun adventure caper.  Let's check it out!

Elspeth Marriner is a snob and a poet who misses New York!  (Tell me about it, lady!)  She's stuck in a hick town of dirt roads, dingy fly-infested restaurants and dilapidated quays on the Carolina coast, sent there to write about "the Hatteras Keys" by the editor of Picture Week, who has partnered her with photographer Mack Fraser--Fraser is a former prizefighter and he has the crooked nose to prove it!  When one of the "natives," as Mack and Elspeth call him behind his back, tells them that a secluded mansion on an island owned by the reclusive Horelle family is sometimes visited by queer lights in the sky before major world events, the journalos (as Kmele Foster might style them) think they've finally found the story they need if they are to return to Gotham in triumph! 

Elspeth and Mack hie to the Horelle estate, where they meet dignified old Mr. Horelle and beautiful young Juana.  Horelle explains that when a turning point in history occurs, like the first flight of the Wright brothers' plane or the disappearance of the colony at Roanoke, a new time stream is created, branching off from the time stream in which, say, the Wrights' machine failed or the Roanoke colony survived.  The Horelles' magnificent house lies on a "tangential point" from whence people can travel between these alternate universes, and the Horelles, who are "Watchers" charged with protecting all these different dimensions, have chosen Elspeth and Mack for a very important mission!

When our heroes get back to the mainland they are in a version of the USA called "Columbia" that is less democratic and less capitalistic than our own.  As a result, the economy is weaker, politics is less stable, and technological progress has not taken the same course--there are no internal combustion engines or airplanes, for example, but there are railroads and boats powered by rockets.  Merwin spends several pages detailing the convoluted alternate history of this world, which features a Columbian Civil War in which New England was defeated by the rest of the country, a British Canada and French Mexico larger than in our own world, and a Columbian capitol is New Orleans.  When Elspeth and Mack arrive a rebellion is underway, led by Reed Weston, an idealistic politician and genius scientist who wants to extend the franchise to all men and liberate private property from excessive government regulation.  Mr. Horelle favors Weston, and has given E&M the task of helping him in his struggle to liberalize Columbia.  How can a poet and photographer help Weston?  Well, they have a car that can fly, which will provide a valuable advantage in a world with no aircraft.

E&M travel to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and then Texas in their quest to hook up with Weston, spending a lot of time in fancy restaurants and hotels doing spy and detective stuff.  (Wikipedia is telling me Merwin wrote more detective stories than SF stories, but doesn't offer any clues as to why he spends so much time in this book describing fashion and interior decorating.)  People try to capture them and they escape.  A character whom they thought was a bad guy, a sympathetic and admirable African-American named John Henry whose perfect body and noble soul ("Here, she thought, was a man close to God") receive lavish and loving descriptions, turns out to be a good guy.  An effeminate fop with an affected English accent who presented himself as a good guy turns out to be a bad guy--Elspeth realizes he's a villain when she sees a tattoo behind his ear.  Halfway through the book they meet Weston, who has invented and built a rocket ship and is planning to take the sixty finest human specimens to colonize Mars.  (Weston wants to bring John Henry, whom Elspeth thinks of as "an ebon demigod," to Mars, but Henry insists on staying Earthside to fight for freedom!)

When Weston sees the flying car he decides to stay on Earth and fight the Columbian government and begins manufacturing flying cars of his own.  Gorgeous Juanna reappears to take E&M to a different version of Earth, one where they trade Weston's rocket blueprints to President Roosevelt (the third of that name) for an asbestos-bakelite armor which Weston's troops can use to counteract the Columbian government's heat guns.  We spend more time in restaurants and well-appointed lodgings and chasing that Anglophile "swish," as Elspeth calls him.  After the problem of Roosevelt's world--international tensions caused by overpopulation--is solved by access to space and the political crisis in Weston's world is resolved via negotiation--the Columbian government balking at fighting a fleet of heat-resistant flying cars--E&M return to their own world, where we get the sense-of-wonder ending that Merwin has been hinting at.  E&M's world is not our own, but one in which flying cars are normal and the United States is part of the British Empire.

I'm afraid the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle have sold me a pig in a poke--The House of Many Worlds is not good at all.  The adventure plot is boring, slow and unconvincing--I couldn't care less if Weston took over Columbia or Mars or anywhere.  Just a third of the way through this thing's 200 pages I felt like abandoning ship.  The narrative is larded with passages that I guess are supposed to be evocative but which just waste the reader's time, like detailed descriptions of people smoking ("Henry paused long enough to flick a three-inch ash from his cigar into a hole with a metal rim set in the corner of the desk itself") and long stream of consciousness sections in which Elspeth composes poems ("It should rhyme tidily, she decided further, and consist of three quatrains with an unexpected little rhyme break in the middle of each line.")

The human plot is equally lame, "opposites attract" bilge like something from a light women's romantic comedy film (the kids call those "romcoms") or a slowed-down version of one of those irritating fast-talking screwball comedies from '30s-'40s Hollywood.  Elspeth is a hypocritical feminist who thinks of herself as a woman who can hold her own in a man's world but at the same time expects men to treat her gallantly--they are supposed to carry her bags and open doors for her and offer her cigarettes (this book is full of smoking) without her asking. Being a sensitive artiste, she hates machines and looks down on Mack as an uncreative type who loves machines; this causes her some angst as Mack's aggressive quick thinking and machinery keep saving their lives. The House of Many Worlds is very repetitive, and many times we are confronted with a paragraph in which Elspeth starts admiring Mack and then condemns herself for it.  Here's a particularly stupid one which I was too lazy to type (don't be ashamed if you are too lazy to read it):

Mack dallies with Juanna, the perfect woman, and Elspeth dallies with John Henry, the perfect man, but we know that flawed Mack and flawed Elspeth are meant for each other, not that we care what happens to these two pills.

The plot and characters of House are outlandish and absurd, but the book is never funny.  Am I supposed to think Elspeth's idiotic snobbery, the ridiculousness of sending a poet and photographer to do the job you'd expect commandos or intelligence operatives to do, or the effete mannerisms of a caricature of a gay man are funny?  I guess in theory these things could be funny, but Merwin's writing is too repetitive, too broad, and too lacking in cleverness or surprise to elicit a laugh.  The funniest thing about the novel is the extravagantly and embarrassingly overdone portrait of John Henry as the ultimate man, but presumably this is Merwin's sincere effort to fight racism and not an intentional lampoon of white fetishization of black people or the "magical Negro" trope or a writer who goes overboard trying to assuage his "white guilt."  (The gushing about Juanna after she gets disintegrated by the swish's heat pistol is almost as bad.)     

House fails as an adventure story, and as a humor piece.  Does it succeed as an SF story (if we are considering SF to be a literature of ideas which speculates on how different life and civilization might be under different conditions?)  No, it does not.  Because of all the alternate history and time stream jazz we've endured before (even if, in fairness to Merwin, lots of it was published after House) the novel does not feel fresh and none of its ideas is compelling.  All the talk about rocket-powered trains and flying automobiles and all the long descriptions of alternate histories of North American politics are sterile decoration at best and leaden burdens that weigh down the narrative at worst.

I try to be a generous reviewer who looks for good things in books, even those which have serious weaknesses, but I can't find much of anything good in The House of Many Worlds.  The negative verdict is inescapable. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

Martyr by Brian R. Utley

She was looking at me frankly, warmly, with complete openness, her hair, golden...her eyes, an infinite blue...the beauty of her face, soft and quiet.
"You see, I really am to be I said last night.  It's part of Dearborne's plan."
 I could only stare at her, understanding, but not really understanding.  "Dearborne's plan..." I said.
She nodded.  "You do believe in the plan, don't you?"
"Of course I do!"
Today we look at Martyr, by Brian R. Utley.  Who is Brian R. Utley?  Well, he's no giant of speculative fiction, I know that much, and not much more.  He's only got this one credit at isfdb, and it appears Martyr was only printed a single time, in this paperback edition (meaninglessly labelled "Complete and Unabridged") put out by Curtis Books.  Why am I reading Martyr?  You doubt that the fact it was printed in 1971, the year of my birth, is reason enough?  Well, anybody can read a SF novel by a Grand Master like Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt or Poul Anderson. And anybody can read a SF novel by the pioneers who inspired people like George Lucas to produce the sort of SF that now dominates our culture, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton (in 1980 in "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction" Barry Malzberg suggested that "Much of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back appear to be based upon a close reading of his [Hamilton's] work.")   But the crew of the HMS MPorcius are explorers, hard-bitten types who want to go where no one else has been, see things nobody else has seen.  Do they love Heinlein, van Vogt, Anderson, Burroughs, Brackett and Hamilton?  Of course they do!  But they also love investigating the terra incognita, filling in the blank spaces on the map, looking under rocks and seeing what wriggles out.  So let's lift up the Curtis Books rock and see what the hell is going on behind the shirtless-guy-near-a-tower-and-a-spun-glass-city cover of Martyr.

Martyr starts with a three-page prologue.  A young man is interviewing an elderly black man, apparently a respected hero, getting him to tell the story of his life.  This man is our narrator for the next 150 pages of the 155-page novel.

The nameless narrator grew up in our underground future, in a subterranean city of "toobes" managed by a "Mother Machine," where people are incubated in test tubes and don't know their biological parents and the authorities keep a strict control on what food you eat and what media you are exposed to and encourage you to spend your free time at the local "pleasure center."  "The Greater Down Empire" has been mankind's refuge for many centuries due to overpopulation--every acre of the planet surface was needed for agriculture if the people, numbering "a million million," were to be fed.

In the first few chapters of Martyr, the narrator is hanging out with two friends--John Dearborne, another black man whom the narrator reveres and follows with an almost blind loyalty, and Roger Pleasant, a more ambivalent and equivocal character with a "dusty complexion, the color of ashes"--witnessing their debate about life under Mother Machine's rule.  (The real protagonist of the narrative is Dearborne, while our narrator mostly plays the role of second banana and chronicler.)  Dearborne denounces MM's orderly utopia because it has extinguished what he, and he feels all men, really need--freedom, and the challenges freedom brings that lead to personal and social growth! Thus spake Dearborne:
"...I think that a man without the problems of opposition, as we know is supposedly the case Down, will become as stagnant as a receptacle without an outlet.... We wallow in pleasures that dissipate.  We delight in a conformity that hedges us all about, denying us our destiny.  And our first love is a machine."
Dearborne is determined to leave "Down" and try to live "Topside," and the narrator is eager to follow him, but Pleasant discourages them.  He lists the benefits of subterranean life and rule by Mother Machine ("Poverty, hunger, disease and all those other nasty little problems are gone, wiped out....We live in mutual approbation, mutual respect....We live in unity") and calls Dearborne's complaints "generalities" that lack proof; he also warns his subversive friends that Mother's agents will destroy any who try to escape.  Pleasant should know--he's a member of the elite, with a luxurious apartment in Level 1 (the deepest and most prestigious of the one hundred levels of the city) and some ill-defined job working for Mother.  Why Dearborne and the narrator (whom we later learn is a "class two plumber") are friends with this guy and expose to him their heretical thinking is something of a mystery, though later on we get a sort of half-baked explanation.

Pleasant's warnings go unheeded.  Dearborne has amassed an arsenal of knowledge and equipment that facilitates our two heroes' egress through a gap in the force field that surrounds the exit to Topside and confounds the hovering saucer robots that chase them.  The narrator is surprised to find the surface is a wilderness prairie, not a bunch of robot farms--Dearborne explains that there is no longer any food crisis, that MM is keeping everybody underground to maintain her own control, not to free up arable land.

The pair travel to the mountains, where Dearborne explains to the narrator that his aim is not simply to leave Mother Machine's underground empire, but to overthrow it in what he calls a "crusade" and a "revolution."  The narrator is a sucker for Dearborne's oratory and vision, as reflected in these three successive one-sentence paragraphs:
It was almost like God talk.
And...he was telling all this to me.
I suddenly felt rebirth.
This epiphany occurs halfway through the novel.  Then the narrator gets one surprise after another as Dearborne leads him through a secret entrance (a two kilometer deep shaft down which they must rappel) to an abandoned part of the Empire where they find an extensive array of dusty old machines.  Dearborne reveals that he is a member of the underground organization of people who call themselves Forsters (they are inspired by E. M. Forster's story "The Machine Stops," which seems to have inspired Utley to write Martyr), and that he even knew his own parents when he was young, hundreds of years ago!  Dearborne, we learn, was born ages ago and put into suspended animation by Forsters, and only recently revived.  Via what we would call "hacking," MM was made to forget the existence of this room of machines--a control room Dearborne calls "the Citadel" where he can override some of Mother Machine's operations--and a bogus ID file was created for him in MM's memory banks.  From the Citadel the charismatic Dearborne can preach rebellion over MM's own airwaves, even fool the credulous masses into thinking he represents her! 

The plot of the last novel we read, Poul Anderson's fun and scientifically rigorous Virgin Planet, could be described as the journey of a man who starts the book physically and psychologically dominated by women but then reasserts his (and the male sex's) independence and authority.  I'm tempted to look at Martyr the same way. Not only is the tyrannical computer described in explicitly feminine terms, but before he leaves the Empire to travel with his hero and role model Dearborne, the narrator has to break ties with his girlfriend, "Freddie."  During his adventures with Dearborne, when he sleeps, the narrator dreams of Freddie, dreams in which she obstructs Dearborne's quest and implores the narrator to come home.  Perhaps Freddie's masculine nickname is a sign that sex roles in the chthonic world of Mother Machine are blurred, that women are usurping men's rightful positions.   It is perhaps also significant that Freddie has a "fair complexion."

Dearborne and the narrator return to the Empire via a secret passage, and Dearborne introduces the narrator to more Forsters and provides a replacement for Freddie, "Gentle," a blue-eyed blonde with a "bubbly nymph albedo" who calls our narrator "man of color."  In the final third of Martyr the revolutionary crusade starts in earnest with clever (and not necessarily truthful!) propaganda broadcasts and a campaign of sabotage and bombings which kills thousands of innocent people.  The narrator participates in an operation that (accidentally) blows up large residential sections, including where Freddie lives!  Freddie's apparent death triggers doubt about the wisdom of the revolution in the narrator, who confronts Dearborne, but Dearborne quickly convinces the narrator that the carnage is not too much of a price to ask for freedom.

(I can't tell if Utley is being ironic in having the narrator rebel against the mass murderer Mother Machine, who runs his life, only to let mass murderer Dearborne run his life!  Is this a knowing commentary on revolution as it was experienced in France, Russia, China, etc.?) 

Finally, the narrator and Gentle get captured, and find that Pleasant is head of the robotic police force!  Under torture the narrator reveals all he knows, and Dearborne is captured.  But this is all part of Dearborne's elaborate plan!  After he (somehow) convinces Pleasant to release the narrator and Gentle of the "golden hair" and "eyes of infinite blue," Dearborne sacrifices himself, detonating a bomb hidden in a copy of The Machine Stops that the government police inexplicably allowed him to bring to his place of execution.  This bomb destroys Mother, and triggers an exodus of people convinced by Dearborne's broadcasts that mankind belongs on the surface.  Dearborne's own white girlfriend (right before she commits suicide rather than live without Dearborne) tells the narrator that Dearborne left instructions to proclaim the narrator the leader of the new Topside civilization.

In the two-page third-person epilogue we learn that Pleasant survived the explosion and, reconciled with the narrator and Gentle, has grown old on the surface along with them.  Utley, with references to flies and blizzards, reminds us that life on the surface is not as comfortable as was life in the subterranean utopia of Mother, and implies that the new Topside society is surviving by excavating stuff from the wreck of the defunct Greater Down Empire.   

I'm on board with Martyr's pro-freedom themes, its smothering mother metaphors, and its portrayal of a revolutionary leader who uses lying propaganda and kills thousands of innocent people, just like the tyranny he is working to overthrow.  But the book has problems.  The style isn't so hot; it's not smooth or sophisticated or thrilling, and when the author and/or the editor mix up "flout" and "flaunt," a pet peeve of mine, as well as "it's" and "its," you feel like you are reading something shoddy.  The plot includes twists and turns meant to be (melo)dramatic, but which strain the reader's credulity.  But back in the plus column, we have to consider its ambivalent and ambiguous treatments of race and religion, which, for me at least, turn the novel into a sort of intriguing puzzle.

I don't really know what to make of the use of race in Martyr; do the protagonists just happen to be black, or is Utley trying to say something about the black experience with this book, or use allusions to the history of Africa or African-Americans to add depth to his story?  Our two heroes are black, and characters who cast doubt on their mission and stand in their way--"color of ashes" Pleasant and "fair" Freddie--are white, but Utley's narrative is not a straightforward tale of blacks fighting white racists; there are plenty of white Forsters, including the heroes' devoted girlfriends, and presumably the population of the underground city that Dearborne is liberating is largely white, and, of course, E. M. Forster is white.  All the interracial sexual relationships and the fact that Pleasant and the narrator reconcile suggests Utley is advocating forgiveness and amity between the races.  Mother Machine's tyranny doesn't really remind the reader of European enslavement of blacks in the New World or imperialism in Africa--MM isn't exploiting the city dwellers' labor for her own gain, she is smothering them, making their lives too easy.  Could one of Utley's aims in Martyr be to attack Great Society welfare programs (less than a decade old when the novel was published) that were meant to help the poor but which have been blamed for weakening the traditional family structure--in the African-American community in particular--and accused of setting up the government as a replacement parent?     

Martyr, as the novel's title suggests, addresses the topic of religion as well as race.  Martyr largely seems to follow the SF tradition of depicting religion as a scam.  In a way perhaps similar to how some Christians bless themselves with holy water before entering and leaving a church and some Jews touch a mezuzah while entering or leaving their homes, inhabitants of The Greater Down Empire are expected to conduct little ritualistic hand movements before entering and after leaving their apartments and elevators and the like.  Pleasant conducts these motions with enthusiasm and precision, while Dearborne conspicuously neglects them, and the narrator muses that there are so many such rituals that they "could almost swallow the intellect."  Mother Machine plays the role in the book not only of oppressive government but also of oppressive religion.

But, at the same time, Dearborne, the hero of the story, is a figure like a prophet who is compared to a deity more than once.  In his propaganda broadcasts he doesn't say Mother Machine is a scam--he claims to be her truest representative!  Is Dearborne (who, after all, rises from the dead and dies that everybody else might live in freedom) meant to be a Christ-like figure who opposes a corrupt religious establishment and strives to bring the true word of God to the people?  (A Christ figure who is a demolitions expert, fights a cyborg cop hand-to-hand, and uses a ray gun to excavate a tunnel, is certainly an interesting character to contemplate!)  That true word perhaps being that a good mother sets her children free, rather than nagging and controlling them, lets them face the world and grow through struggle rather than coddling and cossetting them and keeping them from the world so they stagnate.

I'm reluctant to say Martyr is good, but I was never bored (even though we've seen lots of SF books about stifling utopias and revolutions and unbelievable conspiracies that were better written and more entertaining) and I enjoyed trying to figure out what Utley was getting at with all the references to religion and people's skin colors, so I'm judging it acceptable to mildly recommendable. 


isfdb lists 95 publications from Curtis Books--we'll be looking at another one in our next episode!