Monday, February 6, 2017

Six stories from 1972's Generation: Lief, Stevens, Laurence, Ray, & Deely

Back cover text of Generation
After a two episode sojourn in the broadly defined World War II period (1939-1954), it's back to the era of flower power and Generation, the anthology of science fiction stories by "new voices" printed in 1972 but written in 1969.  We've already read Generation stories by critical darlings and MPorcius faves like Gene Wolfe and Barry Malzberg, and stories by prolific big sellers like Piers Anthony and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.  Now let's read stories by people I've never heard of before!  This is the kind of blog post in which I say stuff like "It's a tragedy this person never produced more SF stories" and "It's no surprise this person never sold another SF story."

"Every Fourth House" by Evelyn Lief

This story takes place in a Levittown, one of the prototypical post-World War II suburbs where all the houses look the same (the story's title refers to this fact; every fourth house in this house has red shutters.  This has become an almost cliched criticism of suburban life that we have all heard it in pop songs like Malvina Reynolds' 1962 "Little Boxes," Gerry Goffin and Carole King's 1967 "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and Sir Raymond Douglas Davies' 1969 "Shangri-la.")  I guess "Every Fourth House" takes place in the future, because a device is on the market that you hook up to your TV which allows you to smell the smells smelled by TV characters (remember "Smellevision" in 1944's "Old Grey Hare?") and think their thoughts and so on.

Housewife Barbara insisted her husband Harold buy her one of these devices so she'd have something to do all day besides watch the baby.  This brief story consists primarily of Barbara's flashbacks to the day Harold was killed in a car wreck and Barbara had an argument with mother, mixed in with Barbara's dreams about corpses and plagues; any of these "events" could in fact simply be reflective of the crazy adventures of the TV characters whose thoughts Barbara shares.  It is a little hard to figure out what is really going on, and I didn't feel like the reward of figuring it all out would match the amount of time and energy required to do so.  The last paragraph makes it seem like Barbara has either harmed her baby while under the influence of the TV, or has neglected to take the baby to the hospital after the car wreck because she is under the influence of the TV.  Either way, this story is some kind of attack on or lament about the suburbs and the TV, both of which are conventionally thought of by the cognoscenti as a "cultural wasteland."  (Maybe I should mention Ray Bradbury's much more interesting attack on TV in Fahrenheit 451?)

Do we need an unclear and dream-like story that tells us yet again that suburban life and TV are crummy?  Not really.  Is this story terrible?  Not really--I'm putting this one in the mediocre file.  However mediocre I thought it was, it was translated into German and into French (by Belgians, I think.)  No doubt those sophisticated continentals had a good laugh at the expense of our suburbs over a nice plate of kraut, snails and waffles!

Achtung! and ooh la la!
Lief has a novel and four short stories listed at isfdb.  It is a little embarrassing that I said I have never heard of her before because she has a story in Clarion and another in Again, Dangerous Visions, both of which I own and both of which I have read from.  I guess my eyes glazed over her name as I looked at the contents pages of both books.  Well, I have a bad habit of skimming and a poor memory, no doubt the result of a childhood spent empathizing with Gilligan, Barney Rubble and the long-suffering Fred Mertz!  A Google search suggests that Lief has found success as a psychoanalyst and as a painter and photographer in beautiful New York City, far from any ticky tacky Levittowns.

"The Birthday Boy" by James Stevens

Stevens has a novel and like 20 stories listed at isfdb, and apparently has achieved considerable success in the television industry (don't tell Evelyn!), writing and producing and directing films and commercials.

"The Birthday Boy," for most of its seven pages, is a charming, amusing, and bittersweet story about children and childhood and how cruel and callous kids can be and how the people we envy because they have wealth or some other advantage probably have problems just like we do.  This first part of the story consists of the narrator talking about the seventh birthday of his best friend, a child eager to grow up--this material is witty and fun, reminding me in some ways of that famous Jean Shepherd movie, A Christmas Story.  The last page and a half are a sort of surreal allegorical fantasy, I guess a sort of dream or nightmare?  This bizarre sequence seems to suggest that it is foolish to wish to grow up quickly because decrepitude and death come all too soon.

I enjoyed this one.

"Reprisal" by Alice Laurence

I think "Birthday Boy" and
"Reprisal" only ever appeared in
Generation--too bad, these are
worth your time
Laurence has a novel and thirteen stories listed at isfdb, and has also edited two anthologies, including Speculations, the anthology in which the authors' names were written in code and the reader was expected to try to guess who wrote what story based on style and content!

In his intro to "Reprisal," editor David Gerrold warns us this is a story about an oppressed minority with special powers.  We get a lot of these stories in science fiction, I suppose because of the considerable real estate in the popular consciousness occupied by the topics of anti-Semitism, racism, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights movement, and because the stereotypical writer (and SF fan) is somebody who thinks he is smarter than everybody else and yet feels ostracized, alienated, or bullied.  Even though Generation is billed as including new voices and being fresh and original and all that, Gerrold admits that Laurence's story is not really new, but yet again hammers home a lesson he thinks we should hear "again and again and again."

This intro made me think reading this story was going to be like eating my broccoli or attending a mandatory diversity training, but it is actually not bad.  Joachim Boaz has suggested I hold off reading these intros until after I've read the story they accompany, but I just can't help myself.

It is the future!  Crime was so rampant in the late 20th century that in the 21st century there was a revolution in criminal justice, spearheaded by a psychologist!  The government abolished the overcrowded prisons and instead of imprisoning malefactors instituted a system of punishment which consisted of public paddling of lawbreakers!  This form of punishment was so humiliating that most people subjected to it reformed, abandoning all thoughts of leading a life of crime!

The plot of this story follows Anne and Johnny, the leaders of a non-violent movement for the civil rights of the newly emerging race of homo superior.  These people, popularly known as witches and wizards, have minor psychic powers, like telekinesis strong enough to move a sheet of paper, but, more importantly, can fly using transparent wings.  (As with the totally absurd idea of abolishing prison and replacing it with spanking, Laurence's description of how the witches and wizards fly is absolutely ridiculous and not meant to be believable; this story is a kind of fable.) Poor old homo sapiens resent and fear the wizards and witches, and besides making them live in ghettos and being reluctant to hire them and the like, they make flying illegal and paddle any of them caught flying.

"Reprisal" actually reminded me of something Robert Heinlein might write, in particular Stranger in a Strange Land.  Much of the text of the story is taken up with philosophical discussions between the narrator (Anne) and Johnny, who is a wise and saintly leader, like Heinlein's Valentine Michael Smith, and these discussions have a libertarian flavor (Johnny hates eminent domain, for example, and instead of agitating for anti-discrimination laws he accepts that refusal to rent to or hire witches and wizards is within the rights of business owners.)  Like the Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land, Johnny dies a martyr, but not before he has taught his followers a better way to live.

"Reprisal" can also be compared to Lester del Rey's "Day is Done," which we just read, in that it is about a new, superior, race ineluctably supplanting an old one, but while in Del Rey's story the new people are cruel jerks, in Laurence's story it is the obsolete race, driven by fear and envy, who commit all the sins.      

Clearly written (it is nice to get a break from the surrealism of the last two stories!) and including strange ideas and paradigm shifts like so many classic SF tales, I can give "Reprisal" a thumbs up without reservation.

"Psychedelic Flight" by Robert Ray

One of my pet peeves in SF is psychedelic dream sequences which the writer intends to convey the experience of being high on drugs or having amazing sex or listening to mind-bending rock music.  Robert Silverberg includes such scenes in The World Inside and Shadrach in the Furnace, and in my opinion theses scenes are boring and gratuitous and stop the narrative cold.  I feel a little bit like a hypocrite feeling this way, because I love the "Star Gate" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, but I think my attitude is justified by the vast differences between the different media and because the Star Gate sequence, with its strange sights and sounds, represents a quantitative rather than a qualitative change from the rest of the movie; the entire film consists of strange sights and sounds, the Star Gate section is just the strangest part, not a gratuitous digression at all but a fully integrated component of the work.  Also, the sequence is not simply in a character's head, but is "really" happening, unlike a drug-induced or music-inspired dream which is has nothing to do with the plot.

Anyway, the title of this story had me worrying that it was going to be just a bunch of pointless surreal visions.  (Joachim, there is no way I am going to read these stories without reading the title first!)

Our narrator is a pothead from New Orleans who moves to New York and gets mixed up in a "scene" with wealthy acid heads.  He doesn't want to use acid, but they basically force him to do so.  When he wakes up he is in a prison on another world, his soul trapped in the body of a hideous tentacled monster, a member of the intelligent race which rules this planet.  One of the other tentacled monsters tells him the score: the natives of this planet reproduce via a sort of industrial process in which souls of people from other planets, including Earth, are implanted in native bodies. Usually the souls come as a blank slate, but sometimes the soul is still imprinted with its original personality, as in the narrator's case.  Such people are put in this prison, where they live for centuries before the monster body wears out.

(I wonder if this story is some kind of homage to H. P. Lovecraft... in "The Shadow Out of Time" a narrator's consciousness occupies the body of an alien tentacled monster during dreams, and he talks to other humans who have suffered the same fate.)

To make boring prison life more interesting, the narrator figures out how to make hallucinogenic drugs by ripping off monster skin and drying it.  On one of his skin trips he dreams he is a guy on Earth, a pothead from New Orleans who moves to New York, etc.....

Gimmicky and lame, "Psychedelic Flight" get a thumbs down.  (Still, it is probably better than editor Gerrold's own drugs-sent-me-to-outer-space story in Generation, "All of Them Were Empty.")   Ray has three novels and five stories listed at isfdb. Like Evelyn Lief's "Every Fourth House," "Psychedelic Flight" appeared, in French, in Cauchemars au ralenti.

"The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told" by Roger Deeley

Remember "Sign at the End of the Universe" by Duane Ackerson, which appeared in David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's 1974 anthology Alternities?  Well, here is another one line joke story Gerrold and Goldin saw fit to purchase.  Don't expect the nuance and excitement we witnessed in "Sign at the End of the Universe"'s three words, however; "The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told"'s three words are a groan-inducing disappointment.

Lame.  Still, it was included in 1975's Reflections of the Future: An Elective Course in Science Fiction and Fact, and was translated for the delectation of our Francophone buddies.

I had trouble finding a good photo of Reflections of the Future

"Here's a Health Unto His Majesty"
by Roger Deeley

Deeley isn't finished!  He has two stories here in Generation, and thus a chance to redeem himself!  And I suppose he does; "Here's a Health Unto His Majesty" is a trifling, but competent, time travel story, told from the point of view not of the time traveller but of the 17th century people he meets.

It is shortly after the Restoration, and a guy on his way to London stops at an inn.  The innkeeper tells him the story of a strange man he met back in 1649.  This man, we readers can easily discern, is a 20th-century genius who invented a time machine and travelled to the 17th century on a mission to rescue Charles I from execution.  His mission failed because he caught smallpox and died before he (armed with a supply of hand grenades) could get to London.


Deeley has six short story credits at isfdb.  In the intro to "Here's a Health Unto His Majesty" we learn that his ancestors were French aristocrats who lost everything in the 1789 revolution.


Taken as a whole, not a bad batch of stories.  More stories from Generation by people I know nothing about in our next episode.

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