Monday, February 27, 2017

Mid-60s SF tales from Arthur C. Clarke, Lin Carter, R. A. Lafferty & Fritz Leiber

It's time for some more stories from Wollheim and Carr's World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series, the paperback edition of World's Best Science Fiction: 1966.  Today we've got stories from hard core man of science Arthur C. Clarke, hard core Catholic R. A. Lafferty (check out Edward T. Babinski's anecdotes about meeting Lafferty and other SF writers in the comments of this very blog's "About" page), and two giants of the sword and sorcery field, Lin Carter and Fritz Leiber.

"Sunjammer" by Arthur C. Clarke (1964)

This story first was printed in Boy's Life in '64, but I guess Wollheim and Carr felt it was legit to include it in their anthology because Michael Moorcock presented it in a 1965 issue of New Worlds.  I have to say, the cover treatment given Clarke's story by Boy's Life is pretty awesome, though it is strange that Clarke's name doesn't appear on the cover!  "Sunjammer" (AKA "The Wind from the Sun") seems to be beloved by all, and has appeared in a billion anthologies; I actually read this story in my teens, and it made such an impression on me that I can remember key details.  So, I guess I am already on the "Sunjammer" bandwagon, but after three decades a reread feels justifiable!

This is actually a pretty simple story, and I don't have much to say about it besides to note that it works perfectly.  A pioneer in the development of spacecraft which are driven by the solar wind via huge (fifty million square feet) sails, after decades of wanting to, finally has a chance to skipper a one-man ship himself, in a race against several other such craft.  We follow the race, Clarke making all the technical details of the various ships and their eventual fates both interesting and easy to understand, and expressing (without getting sappy) the "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" spirit of explorers and engineers who are on the cutting edge, mapping out and building humanity's future.  A great example of a hard sf story: streamlined and efficient, bracingly optimistic but also totally believable.

"Uncollected Works" by Lin Carter (1965)

I was surprised to find Lin Carter's name on the contents page of World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series because, while people in the speculative fiction community admire the valuable work he did as an editor and his infectious, tireless enthusiasm for the genre, I think most critics consider his fiction to be mediocre; of the many Burroughs pastiches I have read, I personally consider Carter's to be below average.  Presumably because they recognize this, in their intro to "Uncollected Works" editors Wollheim and Carr assure us that "it would be hard to imagine anything more different from" Carter's usual sword-swinging stuff  "than this quiet tale...."

This quiet tale is quietly bad.  An aging literary critic is our narrator; he drops all kinds of big names like Pound, Proust, Joyce and Yeats.  He is being interviewed by a journalist, and tells the journo the story of a conversation he had with another guy long ago on the Left Bank, a guy he calls the Gentleman in Green because he never learned his name, only meeting him once, right before he got run over by a Parisian cyclist.

You know that old saw about randomness, that with enough time a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random would eventually type out, by chance, the complete works of Shakespeare?  Well, Green Man told the critic that, inspired by this cliche, he invented a device that would type at random at superfast speed, and another device that could read at superfast speed and see if Shakespeare showed up.  Eventually real books did start showing up in the allegedly random text, but not just Shakespeare: the entire Western canon showed up, in chronological order!  The kicker of the story is that the machine didn't stop after it printed books from the current year--it started spitting out books from the future!  So our narrator knows the names of important books and authors of the future, and tells his interviewer that he regrets that he won't live to read these future masterpieces.

A literary nerd feeling wistful because he won't live to read the works of genius of the future is a good idea, but it just doesn't mesh with the random typing thing.  If the random typing machine is predicting the future, it is not really random, is it?  This story would work better with a time machine or an alternate universe or something like that.  Is it possible we are supposed to think the Man in Green and the narrator are mistaken, that the books they think will appear are in fact never going to appear, that they were just the result of random chance after all?

I have to give "Uncollected Works," with its flawed premise and unnecessary layers of frame story and pointless "atmosphere" in which the narrator blah blah blahs about famous writers, a negative verdict.  "Uncollected Works" was printed in the same issue of F&SF as Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth," which I read back in the dimly remembered year of 2014.

When I lived in New York there was a
good diner right under that green canoe
"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty (1965)

"In Our Block" first appeared in Fred Pohl's If.  In 2000, Martin H. Greenberg and the people at DAW put out a volume called My Favorite Fantasy Story--the book's genius gimmick was to have current top fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin, Charles de Lint and Terry Pratchett select and introduce their favorite story by another writer.  Neil Gaiman, who apparently doth bestride the 21st-century SF world like a colossus, chose "In Our Block" as his fave.

(Read about My Favorite Fantasy Story here; Steven Silver, in his review at the link, helpfully includes a list of who selected each story.  I first flipped through a copy of My Favorite Fantasy Story back in my New York days, at the branch of the NYPL on Fifth Avenue near my office, and, ever since, reading Gene Wolfe's selection, Mopsa the Fairy, has been on my "to do" list.  It has yet to be shifted to my "has been done" list.)

Well, this is certainly an interesting choice for somebody's favorite story; there is not really a plot, at least not a plot that gets resolved--I guess you'd call this a shaggy dog story.  Two guys meander down a dead end block rarely visited, to find odd people, apparently aliens--at least they are familiar with the inhabitants and climate of Jupiter--conducting business in a way that is plainly impossible.  They create products out of thin air, using the power of their minds, which they can then sell at low prices (a luxury car for a hundred dollars, for example.)  The two Earthlings visit several such stores and have funny conversations with the strange merchants, remark upon the oddities they witness, and then leave without trying to take advantage of the spectacular bargains available ("No, I already got a car.")

Faintly amusing.

"The Good New Days" by Fritz Leiber (1965)

"The Good New Days" was first published in the 15th Anniversary Issue of Galaxy, which also included Edgar Pangborn's "A Better Mousehole," which we read in December.

This is a sort of light-hearted dystopian humor story about a 21st century in which an intrusive and incompetent government is always up in your business, robots and strict regulations create mass unemployment, and people live in shoddy tenements, distracted by big screen TVs broadcasting propaganda. The story is told at a breakneck pace, reminding me of one of those old screwball comedies from the 1930s in which everybody talks fast and is "witty" and manipulative.

Our narrator lives in a crummy flat with three of his brothers, his domineering mother, and one of his brother's irritating wives.  I guess the story is a complaint about or an attack on our society for being too money-obsessed and unromantic, but the breathless pace and extravagant ending (accidents kill much of the cast) left me thinking it was much ado about nothing or maybe a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.


I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't disappointed in this batch of stories from World's Best Science Fiction: Second Series.  The Clarke is a perfect example of its subgenre, and the Lafferty is alright, but the Carter (unsurprisingly) is not so hot, and the Leiber is just not for me, though I have enjoyed lots of his work, both before and during this blog's life.


  1. I have always loved "In Our Block." Of course, I'm an acknowledged Lafferty fan, so I love most everything of his, but I put "In Our Block" very high on my list. I don't think it works very well as a story--in some ways it's an anti-story, in that very pointedly, nothing happens. Instead it's a portrait of the reaction of the characters Art Slick and Jim Boomer, as they react without any curiosity or wonder when presented with the clearly fantastic. I love the sense of cognitive dissonance this story creates. In a way, it's a satire of the type of story Clarke wrote full of sense of wonder at technological advancement.
    Thank you again for your reviews!

    1. Thank you for your informed and insightful comments! Contrasting Clarke and Lafferty directly in the way you suggest did not occur to me, but it is a revealing and thought-provoking way of looking at those writers and these particular stories!