Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Son of the Tree by Jack Vance

"I order you!" exclaimed Elfane.  This was fantastic, insane--contrary to the axioms of her existence. 
Joe shook his head, watching warily.  "Sorry." 
Elfane dismissed the paradox from her mind.  She turned to Manaolo. "Kill him here then.  His corpse, at least, will provoke no speculation." 
Manaolo grinned regretfully.  "I'm afraid the clobberclaw is aiming a gun at us.  He will refuse to let me kill him." 
Elfane tightened her lips.  "This is ridiculous." 
April, famously the cruelest of months, has been Ace Double Month here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and here is our final Ace Double (for the time being, at least), Son of the Tree by Jack Vance, half of my battered copy of 1964's F-265.  The other side of F-265 is The Houses of Iszm, and both novels are adorned with a Jack Gaughan cover highlighting energy pistols and a small charming interior illo, also by Gaughan. Son of the Tree first appeared in 1951 in Thrilling Wonder Stories, where it was lead story, and has been reprinted numerous times.  In the period before I started this blog I read lots of Vance, but I never got to Son of the Tree, so I am looking forward to this.  isfdb says Son of the Tree is part of the Nopalgarth Series, along with Houses of Iszm and Nopalgarth; I know I read Houses of Iszm but suspect that, like Son of the Tree, I never read Nopalgarth (AKA Brains of Earth.)

Joe Smith is travelling across the galaxy on passenger starships.  At each planetfall he works for a while to accumulate enough money to take the next leg of the trip, hypnotized and shipped practically dead as cargo in the hold with scores of other such lower ranked passengers.  Thusly he has journeyed so far from his home planet of Earth that the people he meets think Earth is a mere myth.

Whoa!  This sounds a lot like the premise of E. C. Tubb's Dumarest of Terra series!  Is it possible Tubb was influenced by Son of the Tree?  I feel like a detective!

As the 111-page novel (novella?) begins, Joe arrives on planet Kyril, where two million aristocratic priests (called "Druids") lord it over five billion impoverished serfs (the "Laity.")  At the center of the planet's capitol city and its culture is a tree bigger than a skyscraper that the people worship--they think that when industrious workers die they become one of the three-foot leaves on the tree (slackers become "rootlets" mired in the "slime.")  One of the strategies the Druids employ to maintain control of the Laity is to keep the planet at a low technological level, so Joe, who has a technical background, easily finds a job as a chauffeur among the elite because he is able to improve on the shoddily cobbled-together aircars used by the Druids.

Like a lot of Vance books, Son of the Tree takes place in a future in which mankind has spread throughout the universe, and enough isolation, mutation and evolution has taken place that new races or subspecies of humans have developed. One of the first people Joe meets on Kyril is Hableyat, a Mang, one of the yellow-skinned people of planet Mangste.  Kyril is involved in a sort of Cold War with Mangste, a modern industrial world, and the Druids assume all Mangs on Kyril are spies. Working in the household of an important Druid, and being friendly with Hableyat, Joe quickly gets embroiled in life-threatening intrigue between different ruthless factions of Druids and Mangs.  Complicating matters is the fact that Joe falls in love with one of the callous aristocratic Druids, the Priestess Elfane, even though she is willing to kill the Earthman to pursue her goals and is involved in some kind of relationship with the equally ruthless Eccleasiarch Manaolo.

Joe, Hableyat, Elfane and Manaolo all take passage (not in the hold, but awake) on a starship headed for the planet Ballenkarch.  The people of Ballenkarch are politically and economically primitive, but rapidly developing and a source of raw materials and manpower, and both Kyril and Mangste hope to manipulate the planet to aid their side in the cold war (perhaps Vance is referring here to the role in the real-life Cold War played by places like Africa and the Middle East.)  Elfane and Manaolo have with them a shoot from their divine Tree (the "Son" of the title), and hope to plant it on Ballenkarch and convince the natives to worship it and join Kyril in a kind of religious union.  Hableyat's faction of Mangs and another, perhaps more influential, faction of Mangs disagree on how to respond to this Druid scheme, and both parties are willing to go to any length to enact their policy.  Joe is right in the middle of this multi-sided conflict among cold-blooded killers, not really caring about the Kyril-Mangste struggle but instead hoping he can convince the alluring Elfane to be his lover and the clever Hableyat to be his friend and that the three of them can leave all this murderous intrigue behind and go together to an easy life on the peaceful Earth.

In 1971 Ace rereleased the Son of the Tree/Houses of Iszm Double with
a different cover and a higher price 
As the Druid-Mang-Ballenkarch plot progresses Vance fills in the blanks of Joe's past and we slowly learn why Joe is crossing the galaxy, leading us readers to wonder if perhaps Joe in his own way is as fanatical as Elfane and as manipulative as Hableyat. On Ballenkarch the plot threads reach their violent conclusions, Joe learns the true natures of the elites of the three planets, and the main characters make decisions about how they want to live the rest of their lives.

Son of the Tree is a great thriller set in a vivid alien environment, full of Vance's signature witty dialogue.  Vance's style is often compared to that of the great P. G. Wodehouse, and the comparison is very appropriate: Son of the Tree, like so much of Vance's work, is a pleasure to read, almost regardless of the plot.  Not to criticize the plot of Son of the Tree; the story moves smoothly, all the twists and revelations are perfectly paced to maintain reader interest and all the characters' motivations and interactions with each other are interesting and entertaining.  A fun book that gets my enthusiastic endorsement.  I suggest you overcome your love of Jack Gaughan, however, and get a 21st-century edition of the novel that uses the Vance Integral text--my 1964 copy is full of typos.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Six stories by Barry Malzberg from the period 1969-1971

It's back to Ace Double 27415 and In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, "A Grab-Bag of Science-Fiction Surprises" by Barry Malzberg published under his transparent pen name of K. M. O'Donnell.

"The New Rappacini" (1970)

"As Between Generations," in this same collection, was a four-page story about the sad reality of relationships between parents and children; "The New Rappacini" (all you English majors and Vincent Price fans know where Malzberg got the title) is a five-page tale about the sad truth of marriage!  How many of the things that spouses do that ostensibly are an expression of love, or reflective of love, are in fact done in the pursuit of selfishness, or mere playacting to obscure that selfishness from others and from the self?
Perhaps he had never needed a wife in the first place, only something accessible and socially approved to masturbate against....
Glover comes home one day to find his wife has died in a freak accident, falling down some stairs.  He buys a "kit" with which he can bring her back to life.  As he follows the kit's instructions, he considers many hard truths about their marriage.  Will his wife appreciate being brought back to life? Maybe she prefers death to spending time with him!  Is he bringing her back to life because he loves her, or just because he is horny?  Could he be bringing her back to life simply to perpetuate the facade that he loves her, in an effort to prove to the world, to his wife and to himself that he is capable of love and not just a selfish jerk?  The kit provides the material needed to "improve" his wife, make her smarter, make her breasts larger, make her vagina tighter... if he makes these alterations, will it expose his selfishness?

Very good.  "The New Rappacini" first appeared in an issue of Fantastic full of work by famous names like Keith Laumer, Brian Aldiss  R. A. Lafferty, and Jeff Jones.  Run out and pick this one up!

"Bat" (1971)

Have I told you that one of my favorite Woody Woodpecker cartoons is about a character named "The Bat?"

Image of the Italian trans of
In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories
from ebay--it can be yours for
6 euros (plus 45 euros shipping)
"Bat" is a first-person narrative from a drug addict living in New York City.  As he tells it, for three years the Earth has been in contact with a diverse array of extra terrestrials, but, unlike in most SF stories in which contact with aliens leads to revolutionary change or heroic drama, like dreadful wars or humanity's elevation to a higher plane of consciousnesses, these aliens just come as tourists, barely interacting with us natives!  Like all New Yorkers, our dope fiend of a narrator finds tourists, including these aliens, very annoying!  "...after you've talked to them five minutes you know everything you could possibly want to know about them and despite the fact that they come from distant segments of the universe, they all sound pretty much the same."

As the story progresses, we learn that the arrival of the aliens has not wrought tremendous changes to human life, only exacerbated one of our worst tendencies.  Being visited by superior who ignore us has led to a sort of psychological malaise, and more and more people are turning to drugs.

The plot of the story is a standard Malzbergian one: the aliens chose the narrator at random to take a test to see if the Earth should be allowed to persist or should be destroyed.  As is so often the case with Malzberg, we readers can't be sure how much of all this extraterrestrial business is real, and how much is the protagonist's hallucinations.

Good.  I think "Bat" has only ever appeared here in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, and in that Italian translation, making it an essential purchase for Malzberg fans, fans of SF that "subverts the expectations of the genre," and fans of SF stories about New York City drug addicts.

"A Question of Slant" (1971)

This is another of those "meta" SF stories about a guy in the SF biz, like "July 24, 1970," and it shows up in 1994's The Passage of the Light as well as here.  If you have a lot of money laying around and want to encourage the reprinting of old SF and strange experimental niche SF you should consider ordering The Passage of the Light from the good people at NESFA Press, which can be done for like 20 bucks.

A married-with-child 45-year-old SF writer named Constantine abandons SF to write a sex novel about a college professor who has sex with a female student who is trying to persuade him to change her grade.  (When I, your humble blogger, was considering grad school back in the '90s a guy told me I should definitely become a college professor because it opened up all kinds of possibilities to have sex with young women.  I've never been sure to what extent he was kidding.)  His wife and child present obstacles, perhaps insurmountable, to this shift in his career.

A funny but also tragic look at the life of the professional writer and family life in general.    

"What Time Was That?" (1969)

When I was quite young the first Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, and my brother and I spent a lot of time reading such titles as The Cave of Time and The Mystery of Chimney Rock.  When I was a little older came the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks spearheaded by Games Workshop founders Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson; my brother and I were so obsessed with these that when I went to London by myself in the '90s "buy British editions of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks" was right there on the must-do list with "see the Elgin marbles," "see Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs and Rossetti's Prosperine" and "visit Imperial War Museum."  The very pinnacle, of course, of this whole gamebook phenomena was Steve Jackson's genius four-book Sorcery! series with its disturbing and gorgeous illustrations by John Blanche which I never tire of admiring.

I bring up the gamebook phenomena because in "What Time Was That?" Malzberg employs the rarely seen second-person perspective, putting you the reader into the story!  Max Robin is an uneducated goofball living on the dole who sits in the public library poring over technical articles he doesn't understand, trying to figure out how to make a time machine!  (All of this brought to mind Karl Marx.)  When Max has finally built a time machine, the narrator (who has told us that making a working time machine is obviously impossible) goes to visit Max, bringing the reader along.  Max grabs the reader and forces "you" into the device to test it!  When Max throws the switch the reader disappears.  Then there is some business I didn't understand about how maybe the reader is Max and scores of Maxes come out of the machine and start a melee.

OK.  "What Time Was That?" first appeared in If; on the cover Barry's name appears above Norman Spinrad's and Keith Laumer's!  Malzberg sometimes complains that his work was not recognized by the public, but nobody can blame editors for that--as far as I can tell they went out of their way to put Malzberg's work before the eyes of the SF-reading public.

"A Soulsong to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties" (1971)

Though I am not indiscriminately against the 1960s (I love The Kinks and The Who, for example), the incessant self-indulgent romanticizing about the decade of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock and all that by some people who lived through it can get on my nerves.  So I was a little wary about this story.  

"A Soulsong to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties" is, I think, about a guy who goes insane and has hallucinations of participating in or being present at various iconic episodes of violence during the 1960s, events like the JFK murder and the police riot at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago.  Malzberg tries to give us a sense of the hallucinations in paragraphs that feel like a lot of opaque phrases jumbled together.  Half of the story's seven pages consist of these tedious and mysterious passages, and half the insane person's diary and letters to various people explaining his condition in vague terms.

This is the kind of story that perhaps would move someone who already has deep emotional commitments to the events hinted at, but which, because it is so vague and unclear, has no effect on a person like myself born in 1971 who has no more emotional attachment to JFK, Malcolm X or Abbie Hoffman than to Franz Ferdinand, Peter Bartholomew or Publius Clodius Pulcher, and just sees them all as colorful characters from the past who were at the center of some turmoil that, at the time perhaps felt apocalyptic, but which ordinary people in 2017 can be forgiven for knowing little if anything about.

I'm calling this one a failure.  A story like "The New Rappacini" works because most people have been involved in some kind of sexual relationship, and a story like "A Question of Slant" works because it teaches those of us who are not professional writers of genre fiction some interesting things about being such a writer.  Only somebody already all wrapped up emotionally in 1960s unrest can really grok "A Soulsong to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties," and Malzberg does nothing to teach the reader who didn't live through the '60s anything about the period.

"A Soulsong to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties" appeared in an issue of Fantastic with a cover I am totally loving by Steve Harper.

"Addendum" (1971)

Here we have another story which, I think, only ever appeared here in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories.  "Addendum" is a time travel story, and feels like a combination of Moore and Kuttner's brilliant Vintage Season and Ray Bradbury's famous "Sound of Thunder," with a Malzbergian twist.

"Addendum" is the text of a report about a disastrous time travel mission.  It seems that in the future, people will go back in time to observe tragedies for fun (this is what happens in Vintage Season.)  And it seems that somebody went insane (it would hardly be a Malzberg story if nobody went insane, amirite?) and escaped the expedition's invisible vehicle and did something to change history (this is what happens in "Sound of Thunder.")  The Malzbergian twist is that a clue indicates that the expedition went back in time to observe the JFK assassination.

Like "A Soulsong to the Sad, Silly, Soaring Sixties" this story is really only going to move people who are already psychologically invested in something Malzberg himself is psychologically invested in.  This story is merely acceptable.


Alright, another Ace Double, and another collection of Malzberg stories, behind us! In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories is a very good collection, a must for Malzberg fans, and a good collection for people curious about Malzberg who have yet to experience his unique body of work because so many of the stories are characteristic in their themes and ideas, and because so many are (in my opinion) more entertaining than his average.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Seven stories by Barry Malzberg from the period 1969-72

The backside of Ace Double 27415 presented to the SF fan of 1971, the year of my birth, In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, a collection of fifteen tales by New Jersey's own Barry N. Malzberg.  Three of these stories I am skipping: "In the Pocket" because I am assuming it is material later integrated into the novel The Men Inside, which I read and wrote about in 2011; "Gehenna," which I read and wrote about in 2013; and "The Idea," which I read and wrote about in January of last year.  That leaves us with a dozen stories, six today (plus a special free bonus!), six in our next episode.

"Ah, Fair Uranus" (1971)

This is a very typical Malzberg story, and I think it only ever appeared here in this Ace Double and in an Italian translation of In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories in 1974.

It is the early 24th century!  Hostile aliens are setting up bases around the solar system, and, according to Earth's authoritarian government, they are plotting an attack on humanity!  So an astronaut by the name of Needleman (I'm guessing his name and the title of the story are a sort of childish joke or even a reminder of The Men Inside) is sent to Uranus in a one-man craft to deploy some super bombs.  Along the way Needleman starts sympathizing with the aliens, and then is contacted by the aliens, who suggest he use the super bombs to blow up the Earth.  We readers have no idea if the alien threat is real or a government lie, if Needleman is really talking to aliens or just hallucinating, and whether or not Needleman blows up the Earth.

This story bears similarities with Malzberg's 1973 "A Reckoning," and 1972 "Making it Through," both of which I read in October of last year; all three are about astronauts who may be insane approaching one of the outer planets and coming to believe they have been contacted by aliens, and the grave peril to the human race that insanity and/or close encounter represents.  "Ah, Fair Uranus" also reminded me of 1972's "Out From Ganymede," which I read years ago, and which I decided to read again this week to refresh my memory!

"Out From Ganymede" (1972)  

"Out From Ganymede" was first published in Robert Silverberg's anthology New Dimensions II.  I read it in my copy of Out From Ganymede, a 1974 collection put out by Warner.  It also appears in the 2013 collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.

1974 paperback edition of
New Dimensions II
It is the future!  An Earth wracked by international disputes and racial tensions sends a one-man space ship to orbit Ganymede.  The sole crewmember of the craft, Walker, spends much of the flight in unhappy reminiscences of his failed relationship with his estranged wife.  Once in orbit around Ganymede he is visited by Ganymedean natives.  When mission control back on Earth is forced (by riots or some similar issue) to abort the mission and direct the craft to return, the aliens, perhaps by hypnotism, convince Walker to destroy the Earth with the ship's arsenal of super weapons.  Whether the aliens are real and manipulating Walker, or simply hallucinations, the product of Walker's pent-up frustrations about his wife and the stress of the trip, the reader is left unsure of.

This story, while very similar to "Ah, Fair Uranus," is superior because of its focus on Walker's relationship with his wife.  I think "Out From Ganymede" also better presents the theme of mankind looking to space for salvation or escape from its problems, only to be frustrated because mankind's problems are psychological or sociological and carried with him wherever he may go.  (Malzberg challenges the idea of those SF writers--Ray Bradbury is coming to mind--who argue that travel to other planets is essential because it will make mankind immortal.)

"Notes Just Prior to the Fall" (1970)

OK, back to Ace Double 27415.

"Notes Just Prior to the Fall" first appeared in an anniversary "All-Star" issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and stars Simmons the horseplayer and takes place at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.  (No doubt you remember that Malzberg's mainstream novel Underlay was set largely at the Aqueduct.)  Our narrator is some kind of alien or supernatural creature who can observe while remaining invisible, read horses' thoughts and manipulate people's brains.  He appears to Simmons, gives Simmons bad advice on what horse to bet on, then observes the poor man, who loses his money and questions his own sanity.


"As Between Generations" (1970)

This brief (four pages) story, first seen in Fantastic, is an allegory of the tensions inherent in the relationships between fathers and sons, including Oedipal tensions.  On Sundays in the town in which the story is set, adult sons ritualistically ride carts pulled by their aged fathers, whipping them as assembled spectators watch.  In the first part of the tale we get the son's point of view: dad humiliated him in front of a girlfriend, cut his allowance, etc., and this weird ritual is the son's chance to punish the father.  In the second part, the father's point of view: junior embarrassed him and disappointed him with his low morals, never appreciated all of his financial sacrifices, etc., and the point of the ritual is to humiliatingly expose to the people of the community the son's ingratitude.

A good "fantastic" literary story, a metaphor of one of the many sadnesses of our lives.

"The Falcon and the Falconeer" (1969)

Like "Notes Just Prior to the Fall," "The Falcon and the Falconeer" first appeared in F&SF.  In it Malzberg has characters explicitly state the themes we saw in "Out From Ganymede," that going into space is not going to solve humanity's problems, because man will bring his real problems, which are psychological and sociological (a religious person might say "spiritual") with him:
"...we learned only to play out our madness and insufficiency on a larger canvas; that space drive and the colonization of the galaxy only meant that the uncontrollable had larger implications."
" tend to get crazy on these expeditions anyway....this is what is going to happen inevitably when you set out to colonize the universe: men have to occupy it, and men are going to bring what they are along with them."
This perspective is one of the things that makes Malzberg and his work distinctive and valuable, the contrast it provides to the confidence in mankind we see in so much SF, perhaps archetypally in Robert Heinlein (Damon Knight finishes his intro to the collection of Heinlein's future history stories, The Past Through Tomorrow, thusly: "Heinlein's money is on Man, and I think the next century will prove him right.")  I hurry to point out that I think Malzberg's pessimism is a complement, not a refutation, of Heinlein-style optimism; the sweep of history and our daily lives may be full of human actions and artifacts that are ugly and terrible, but they are also full of human creations and achievements that are beautiful and heroic, from a Greek vase or a Japanese garden to the Empire State Building or the landing on the Moon.

The text of "The Falcon and the Falconeer" consists of transcripts of interviews of members of an expedition to Rigel XIV; the expedition suffered a disaster, and as we read the story's seventeen pages we piece together just what happened. What happened?  Bored and homesick, as Christmas approached the crew of the expedition decided to hold a Christmas pageant, reenacting the first Christmas, with crew members (all adult men) playing Mary, the newborn Jesus, the three wise men, etc.  Playing the animals were the native Rigelians, who "look like asses."  Malzberg encourages us to consider all the multiple meanings of "ass" by having various crew members say the Rigelians are dim-witted and by having the expedition's psychologist report that the expedition commander is "anal-retentive" and a "latent homosexual."  There is evidence that the Rigelians were smarter than they appeared and used telepathy to inspire in the humans the desire for a Christmas pageant, but the psychologist insists it was all just "mass hysteria."  During the performance the crewman playing Jesus began throwing fits, and the rest of the expedition fled the planet, leaving him behind.

This one is pretty good.  We have reason to believe that Malzberg himself is particularity proud of "The Falcon and the Falconeer"--it appears in the 1973 anthology SF: Author's Choice 3, a cover description of which reads, "Thirteen Science Fiction Masters Present, With Commentary, Their Own Favorite Stories."  I would certainly like to read Malzberg's commentary on the story.  (Of course, readers of Charles Platt's Dream Makers know that by 1979 Malzberg's favorite story of his own was "Uncoupling.")

[UPDATE 4/23/2017:  In the comments ukjarry gives us a summary of the Malzberg commentary on "The Falcon and the Falconeer" from SF: Author's Choice 3, providing valuable insight into the creation of this tale and Malzberg's work process!]

"June 24, 1970" (1969)

This two page story is a letter from an editor to a SF writer with Malzberg's famous pseudonym of O'Donnell.  At the same time that it is a satire of the time travel story in which a guy might kill his ancestors, it is itself just such a time travel story, as well as a series of jokes revealing the sad truths of a career as an SF editor or SF writer.  Such a story runs the risk of being self-pitying or self-indulgent, but "June 24, 1970" is actually pretty clever, and people into "meta" and "recursive" SF will, I suspect, love it.

"June 24, 1970" first appeared in an issue of Venture with a striking but incomprehensible cover.

"Pacem Est" (1970) (co-written with Kris Neville)

This story, which first appeared in Infinity One, was co-written with Kris Neville; as we have discussed here at MPorcius Fiction Log before, Neville's pessimism about space flight presages Malzberg's own, and Malzberg has been one of Neville's biggest fans.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pessimistic story, about a space war which might lead to the destruction of the human race.  It is also full of symbolism (for example, the aliens look just like human beings) and histrionic melodrama.  Hawkins is an officer in a reconnaissance unit fighting on an alien planet, participating in ground combat that is perhaps supposed to remind you of World War One (there is poison gas and daily patrols beyond the barbed wire.)  A group of nuns who think that Armageddon is nigh are on the planet, tending to the soldiers, and one gets too close to No Man's Land, to the edge of the wire, where she breathes in alien poison gas and dies.  She lays there dead for a few days, until Hawkins, who passes her twice a day, departing on and returning from patrols, arranges to have her body retrieved.  He finds that the nuns have put up a wooden marker where she died.  After a talk with the nuns Hawkins lays down on the marker and awaits the enemy poison gas as a way of committing suicide.

I don't know if I am missing something, or if I am just supposed to be moved by the images of death and the decision of the main character to commit suicide rather than continue participating in the madness of the war.  Like all of us, I've experienced lots and lots of anti-war fiction, so for yet another anti-war story to have an effect on me it has to do something new or do something very well, and this story doesn't quite cut it. There is also the religion angle; the story begins and ends with italicized lines claiming that God was lonely and so he invented religion.  Is this some kind of indictment of religion for causing wars or of religious people for being selfish or a criticism of the depiction of God found in the Bible?

This story is acceptable, but I am not sure it succeeds in its aims.


This crop of stories is rather good; not only do they touch on many of Malzberg's characteristic themes, but I think "As Between Generations," "The Falcon and the Falconeer," and "June 24, 1973," are better than average for Malzberg, more concise, better structured, and more entertaining than is usual for him.  Sometimes his work comes across as rushed or derivative of his earlier work, but the three stories just mentioned feel carefully crafted.  Let's hope the rest of the stories in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, which we'll look at in our next episode, will meet this admirable standard!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Gather in the Hall of the Planets by Barry N. Malzberg

"Something's happened, William; I can't enjoy a convention anymore. You see, I was visited by these three aliens who said that they were going to plant one of them in human disguise at this convention and if I couldn't detect his identity by the time it was over then they would destroy the planet.  So of course I'm a little distracted."
"That's interesting," Culp says.  "Of course the idea's been a little over-used." 
Our last episode discussed a Barry Malzberg novel about the SF community of New York City, 1970's Dwellers of the Deep.  That worked out pretty well, so I figured I might as well tackle 1971's Gather in the Hall of the Planets, another "meta" NYC-centric novel which paints an unflattering picture of rabid SF fans. Gather in the Hall of the Planets first appeared in Ace Double 27415.  The book is dedicated to Donald Wollheim, famed SF editor, who, Malzberg revealed in 2004, apparently provided the plot for the novel!

Sanford Kvass is a successful science fiction writer who says he doesn't like science fiction (even though it is quickly revealed that he has attended SF conventions for over twenty years, since he was thirteen.)  How successful is he? Check out his publication list below!  Why does he write science fiction if he doesn't like it?  He needs the money, and the porno, western and detective markets are too unreliable!

(In some ways, Kvass seems to be based on Malzberg's own life and career, and to express Malzberg's own frustrations.  I think Malzberg, however, has had a successful marriage and family life.)

One night, drunk and mired in the middle of a long stretch of writer's block, Kvass is visited by tentacled aliens.  They tell him that he has been selected to represent Earth for the purposes of taking a test.  At the upcoming 1974 world science fiction convention in New York City, one of Kvass's close associates will have been seized by the aliens and replaced with an alien in disguise.  If Kvass can spot the alien (he has to ritualistically say "unmask!" to indicate his discovery) Earth has passed the test.  If Kvass fingers the wrong person, the aliens will blow up the Earth.  This is the kind of thing education activists decry as a high stakes test!

Most of the novel consists of funny scenes of Kvass staring into peoples' eyes or trying to have sex with them as a means of discerning whether they are human or alien, descriptions of wacky convention hi-jinks, and Malzberg's satirical takes on famous figures and events of SF history.  As in Dwellers of the Deep, we get caricatures of A. E. van Vogt and Sam Moskowitz, and thinly veiled retellings of the role of Dianetics in van Vogt's career and of the split between Moskowitz's SF fan group and leftist SF fans like Wollheim and Frederick Pohl. Stuart Wiseman, the shady seller of overpriced magazines, also reappears.  It was a little disappointing seeing Malzberg trot out such similar gags instead of amusing us with more caricatures of different SF figures and events.

In Malzberg's defense, there is an extended reference to John W. Campbell, Jr.'s "Who Goes There?", as well as a pair of editors, William Culp and Michael Foote, who are said to have been married to the same woman (at different times, we are assured) who, put on a panel together, without using the phrase, seem to be debating the "New Wave"; one argues that SF has to expand its horizons and focus on "what's closest to our hearts and minds," while the other insists SF is about science and follows particular conventions, and writing that does not follow those conventions ceases to be SF.

There is also a good chapter about the angst and disillusionment felt by writers of popular fiction (at least in Malzberg's conception; I hope at least some genre writers are happy with their careers): guilt at being paid for such a silly occupation; disbelief that anybody could possibly care about one's output; and late in his career, sadness that one has been unable, in the medium of popular fiction, to say anything he really wanted to say.  At various points in the novel Malzberg suggests that being a writer of popular fiction is like being a prostitute, and that writing is no less absurd than looking for a probably hallucinatory alien doppelganger.

Gather in the Hall of the Planets appeared in the
German collection of Malzberg stories
 Der Letzte Krieg under the title
  Die Arena der Aliens
In the final scene of the novel, after it is clear that Kvass's career is kaput and that the aliens (if they are in fact real) have lied to him, Kvass snatches up a mirror and says "unmask!", declaring that he himself is the alien.  Even though this revelation was foreshadowed, I am not sure it makes any sense in relation to the novel's plot (if the aliens are real), but I suppose it is a spoof of those classic SF stories by people like van Vogt, Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein in which a guy, in the climax, is revealed to be multiple characters or his own ancestor or some such thing, due to time travel or some similar gimmick.  Also, it expresses the idea that Kvass is alienated not only from the world and his community (other people at the convention keep telling him that his published work is poor, or not as good as it used to be, or that they simply have never read it or even heard of Kvass) but from himself, that he is not the man he used to be and not the man he wanted to be.

Another fun read aimed directly at those familiar with the history of SF and its prominent figures, distinguished from Dwellers of the Deep by its focus on the plight of professional writers and editors who, like Malzberg himself, think perhaps they (and SF as a whole) could have achieved something more.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dwellers of the Deep by Barry N. Malzberg (plus The Day of the Burning)

"You don't say?" Stuart says.  "That's very interesting.  That's one I never heard of before.  Must be very tough for you, hey, Izzie? Aliens!  Seizing your mind!  Imagine that."
"It's pretty tough," Fox says.  "There's no question about it."
"He's bearing up very well," Susan says.  "But he needs help and I thought the Solarians could give it to him."
Do I love Barry Malzberg?  Of course I do. But that love does not blind me to those of his idiosyncrasies which might fairly be considered faults.  One such fault?  Our man Barry, resident of the great state of New Jersey lo these many years, former employee of the New York City government, has produced a prodigious volume of salable writing, but one strategy that has made his tremendous output possible has been the recycling of plots and themes.  For example, here at MPorcius Fiction Log we have read numerous stories by Malzberg that feature hypnotherapy that allows the patient to experience socially unacceptable sexual liaisons and acts of violence.  Another plot Malzberg has reused has been the one about an astronaut who goes crazy and kills his comrades or bombs the Earth or both.  And those aren't the only plots Malzberg has used more than once.

Back in 2011 I read Malzberg's 1974 novel The Day of the Burning, in which an employee of the New York City government thought he was being contacted by aliens and believed that the fate of the world lay in his hands.  Just last year I reread Malzberg's 1973 story "Closed Sicilian," in which a chess player thinks he is in contact with aliens and the fate of the world rests in his hands.  Today, as part of our continuing series looking at Ace Doubles resident here in the MPorcius library, we are talking about Dwellers of the Deep, which appeared in Ace Double 27400 in 1970 under Malzberg's transparent K. M. O'Donnell pseudonym.  It is not exactly surprising that Dwellers of the Deep is about a former employee of the New York City government who thinks he is being contacted by aliens and believes that the fate of the world rests in his hands.

In the 1990s there were some rumblings among temporarily ascendant dissident factions of the New York City government that there might be some reforms made to CUNY.  CUNY professors and administrators, including those in my office, sprang into action to prevent any such reforms, and I did some work on a research project which consisted of calling up and interviewing people who had dropped out of CUNY without earning a degree.  No matter what these people said (many told me that CUNY had been just like high school, with nobody taking classes seriously), in our report they played the role of grateful alums asserting that the CUNY experience had wrought a vast improvement in their lives, even though they had not graduated from CUNY, and thus no reforms were necessary.  Of course, their names didn't appear in the report and there were no recordings of the interviews, so our report was about as verifiable as an urban legend related via a friend of a friend, or as my little anecdote here.

Dwellers of the Deep also appears in 1979's
Malzberg at Large...
Dwellers of the Deep takes place in the summer of 1951.  Our hero, 23-year-old Izzinius Fox, like an alternate reality MPorcius, a few months ago quit his city job conducting fraudulent interviews of "dispossessed or evicted welfare recipients...."  Why did he quit?  To collect unemployment compensation ("it would last at least twenty-six and possibly fifty-two weeks" and "cover his rent and food nicely") and devote himself full-time to collecting science-fiction magazines!

Malzberg seems to have chosen 1951 as the setting for his novel because this was a time of ferment in the science-fiction community. In this novel the leading SF magazine, Tremendous Stories, is being challenged by Thoughtful Stories and Thrilling Stories, periodicals which have more "prestige" than Tremendous and have stolen most of Tremendous' famous contributors.  The SF world is also embroiled in a dispute about the theories of SF writer Cupboard, who has recently published non-fiction articles with titles like "A New Engineering of the Mind."  You probably already realize this is all a parody of the once dominant Astounding facing competition from Galaxy and F&SF and of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics articles.

Fox fears he may be going insane, and well he might: periodically his consciousness is transported as if by magic to a space ship where aliens who claim to be minor civil servants of a galactic union demand he hand over a copy of the aforementioned article, "A New Engineering of the Mind."  If he does so, he is told, the aliens will bring peace and prosperity to Earth via membership in the Galactic Federation, but Fox does not trust them and refuses to cooperate, causing the aliens to threaten to resort to coercive measures.  These "Interceptions," as Fox calls them, last a maximum of ten minutes, but when he is returned to his body on Earth he finds no time has passed.  In fact, one Interception takes place while Fox, a virgin, is in the arms of Susan Forsythe, a bespectacled and large-breasted SF fan who is always trying to get Fox to join her fan group, the Solarians, and she doesn't even notice his disappearance and return!  Shaken by this Interception, Fox puts his makeout session with Susan on hold so he can describe to her his incredible problem.

With the single-mindedness we sometimes see in women trying to change men, Susan doesn't dismiss Fox's experiences as delusions, but instead uses them as a lever to get him to come to tonight's meeting of the Solarians!  She thinks "Izzie" should tell the Solarians his story, that maybe they can provide him useful advice!  The Solarian meeting, however, collapses in rancorous internecine warfare before Fox can relate to them his incredible tale.  (Presumably the passionate disputes among SF fans in Dwellers of the Deep are a satire of the famous strife in New York City SF fan circles in the 1930s, when Marxist SF fans like Donald Wollheim broke with Sam Moskowitz's Greater New York Science Fiction Club to form the Futurians, whose members included Communist Party member Fred Pohl and Trotskyist Judith Merrill.)

...and 1994's The Passage of the Light
After the Solarian fiasco, Susan takes Fox to see the leader of the splinter group which has broken off from the Solarians, a Miles Graffanatis.   In the story's climax, Fox learns, or has the delusion that, Graffanatis, along with Susan, is a collaborator with the aliens. Graffanatis, a four-hundred pound chain smoker, tells Fox that the aliens have stolen the Cupboard article from Fox's apartment, making both the aliens' efforts to convince him to voluntarily hand over the article, and his resistance, pointless.  This sort of undermines the whole plot, and I can't deny that the novel peters out limply here in the last dozen pages or so.  The real climax of Dwellers of the Deep is the wild meeting of the Solarians, or the section that follows the meeting, Malzberg's satire of Dianetics and Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr.'s support of Dianetics. Cupboard's "A New Engineering of the Mind" argues that all of society's problems are the result of obsessions with sex, and calls for extreme measures to suppress the sex drive. I am guessing this is a jocular reference to the views expressed by top SF writers like Robert Heinlein and especially Theodore Sturgeon, who felt that society's problems were caused by sex taboos and repression of sexual desire.    

Despite its somewhat weak ending, Dwellers of the Deep is a fun book, full of fun little jokes and funny characters, most of whom I haven't mentioned (let's mention some of them: Susan and Izzie's insane landlord; Fox's overbearing mother; a fantasy version of Fox's deceased father who is obsessed with the roller derby; and Stuart Wiseman, a bookseller who always tries to overcharge Fox.)  Fox himself is a fun character, a decent enough and smart enough chap but a weak-willed loser from a line of losers who is manipulated by women and businessmen and government bureaucrats, a protagonist more interesting, more believable and more deeply realized than a lot of those we find in Malzberg's body of work.  Of course, any story set in beautiful New York City, where people live in little apartments and ride the subway, tugs at my exile's heart.  Fans of classic SF will perhaps enjoy trying to spot Malzberg expressing his own opinions, roman a clef style, about Golden Age SF; for example, when Fox says "Damon Tyson's" "Parking Ticket" is "lousy," is this SF critic and historian Malzberg hinting that he thinks Damon Knight's famous "To Serve Man" is overrated?  Besides Hubbard, Campbell, and Knight, Malzberg makes veiled references to Isaac Asimov and MPorcius faves A. E. van Vogt and the Kuttners, and no doubt others I didn't grok.


In case something ever happens to Amazon, I am preserving here my 2011 review of The Day of the Burning.  Don't ask me what I am doing in case something ever happens to Google.

In 1974's The Day of the Burning Barry Malzberg uses a gimmick we have all seen on a hundred TV shows - George Mercer has a "friend" whom only he can see or hear, a sort of demon called Lucas. Lucas hangs around George, invisible to everyone else, yakking away and distracting George while George tries to complete his work at the office or complete the sex act with Delores, a fellow office worker. Of course, everyone suspects George is insane because he is always talking to himself.

Lucas eventually reveals that he is the emissary of the Galactic Overlords, and George has been selected to represent the human race to these Overlords, and must take a high stakes test. If he passes the test, the Earth will be admitted to the Galactic Empire; if George fails the test, the human race will be exterminated.

In The Day of the Burning Malzberg endeavors to subvert SF conventions, and, apparently, commonly held notions about government. George is obviously mentally ill - Lucas is a delusion and the idea of Galactic Overlords some sort of fantasy. The test these Galactic Overlords set for George is not any kind of quest or adventure or duel, but rather that he complete one of his office tasks. Malzberg slips into the novel some sarcastic complaints about his editors and readers - we are told that the Galactic Overlords (the novel is ostensibly a report written by George to these Overlords) dislike first person narratives, non-linear chronology and use of the present tense, the very literary techniques Malzberg customarily employs, and prefer the straightforward plotting and action scenes that almost never appear in Malzberg's work.

The narrative is sprinkled with passages related to a subplot about failed space missions to Mars and Venus (the futility of the space program is a recurring theme in Malzberg's writing) and widespread riots and terrorism in U.S. cities. A general theme of the book is the inability of the government and its bureaucracy to accomplish much of anything, be it quell terrorism, send astronauts to other planets, or administer welfare benefits efficiently (George works in the New York City welfare department). The government's incompetence is matched by George's own lack of ability to accomplish anything in his career or his social and erotic life.

I appreciate what Malzberg is trying to do in The Day of the Burning, and he is certainly effective in generating an atmosphere of hopelessness, but the book is a little long and some sections seem to drag and bored me. I guess I can recommend it to Malzberg fans.

I read the 1974 paperback from Ace with the full color ads for Kent cigarettes bound in the center and ten pages of ads for more famous SF writers than Malzberg at the end. This edition seemed to have lots of typos.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hunting on Kunderer by William Barton

Tikavoi looked over at him.  "Anxious to catch up with your Jew, captain?"
Den Ennov smiled.  "Well," he said, "someone tried to wreck my spaceship.  Not only that, but tried to kill me, my crew, and all of my passengers."  His face took on a look that was increasingly more grim each time that it appeared.  "I mean to find out who."
According to wikipedia, Ace Double 48245, which presents Hunting on Kunderer by William Barton and Life with Lancelot by John T. Phillifent, was the very last of the famous tĂȘte-bĂȘche Ace Doubles. Let's see if the much-beloved and highly collectible series, which showcased such fan favorites as Jack Vance, Golden Age icons like A. E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov, and innovative critical darlings like Thomas Disch, Samuel Delany and Barry Malzberg, went out with a bang by looking into Hunting on Kunderer. Hunting on Kunderer's first and only appearance was here in Ace Double 48245 in 1973. Hmmmm...that doesn't sound good.

The year: 4125.  The place: Planet Kunderer, where the shrubs are as big as Earth trees and the trees are as big as skyscrapers.  Kunderer, only settled by humans 40 years ago, has only one space port to link it to galactic civilization, which includes the vast human Terran Colony System of hundreds of planets as well as numerous other human and non-human space empires.  It is at this space port that wealthy tourists arrive on their way to Kunderer's jungles (known as "the Thicket"), where they hunt giant reptiles.

Now, I am totally down with a story about people hunting dinosaurs, as dedicated readers of MPorcius Fiction Log already know.  But I immediately got the feeling that Hunting on Kunderer was going to be pretentious when I saw that each chapter began with a sleep-inducing poem.  My fears were strengthened after a few pages of Barton's prose, prominent components of which included long sentences and long paragraphs and long descriptions overstuffed with tedious detail, extraneous romantic phrases, and unnecessary equivocation.  Here's a sentence (about shrubs) from the second page of text:
Their trunks, while of that same alien scalyness of the trees, did not flaunt the dead sameness of lemony yellow that was a blight upon the beauty of larger things; instead, their yellows were tempered and made heir to a strong, perhaps even noble, handsomeness by a monstrous blending of metallic greens and blues and of a widely separated splash of pink or perhaps violet.        
On the same page, the first sentence of a paragraph about the fauna of Kunderer, featuring one of those pointless romantic sallies:
Through the harshly beautiful jungles of the Thicket there wandered things which were parts of that great eddy in the laws of the cosmos called life.
"were parts of that great eddy in the laws of the cosmos called life" doesn't add anything to the reader's knowledge of Kunderer, it is just some bilge that makes the book longer and distracts the reader.  Not good!

Fortunately, as the story proceeded and the detective-type plot got underway, I became acclimated to Barton's style and I think he let up a bit on the extravagant verbiage.  Our story concerns a hunting party of five tourists and their guide.

The main hunting party:

Gilgamesh: Short and muscular, gruff and taciturn, a veteran of service in the Terran Colonial Navy, Gilgamesh is the party guide.  He lives on Kunderer and greets the tourists when they arrive.

Uri ben Baruch: Jewish, three hundred years old and fat, the former prime minister of the Vinzeth Empire.  When he first describes Baruch, Barton tells us that the Jews are the ultimate expression of all that is fine about humanity, and that they ruled the human race back in the Third Millennium, until gentiles overthrew their oligarchy.  At least that is what I think Barton says; judge for yourself:

Bottom of page 14, top of page 15
Baruch was castrated at age ten but recently had a new set of genitals installed.  A three-hundred-year-old virgin, he lusts after the prostitute, Maryam.

Scott MacLeod: Born in Scotland, an officer in the Terran Colonial Navy.  He and Gilgamesh quickly become friends, united by their military backgrounds and shared attitudes.

Pashai anke Soring: An eight-foot-tall alien of great beauty, an anthropologist studying the human race.  He is especially interested in Jews, and asks Baruch a lot of questions:
"I am more interested in the Jewish human as he is today and how he manages to insert himself into a position of power and wealth.  I feel that this is the key to Terran economic structure."
Soring is also fascinated by human sexuality, which he has been exploring with the prostitute Maryam, whom he has brought along on the trip to Kunderer and into Thicket.  A non-mammalian creature, he has no penis, so he uses his hands to stimulate Maryam and observe her responses.  Soring hopes to observe human sexual relations of a "noncommercial" character, and so eggs Scott on to seduce Maryam. When accused of using Maryam as a slave, he denies this, but he does seem to be manipulating her through hypnosis.

Maryam: The human prostitute, born in a slum inhabited by Greeks and Arabs on planet Hekate.  Her experiences with men and their selfishness (or maybe just Soring's mental powers?) have lead her to fall in love with the inhuman Soring.  Her character is an indictment of men and the way society uses women, but feminists may object to the fact that she is the least fleshed-out of the main characters (she doesn't even have a last name) and that she is in the book as a kind of literary device that provides insight into the male characters.  

These amateur hunters all arrived on the same starship, the Wandervogel, captained by Bela den Ennov.  Ennov is even fatter than Baruch--almost 400 pounds!  Ennov discovers that somebody has sabotaged the Wandervogel's space drive, and believes it must have been one of the four hunters.  Because a space naval officer like MacLeod and an alien from a disciplined and peaceful race like Soring's are essentially above suspicion, and Maryam presumably knows nothing about space drives, the apparently emotionally unstable Baruch (he has tried to commit suicide, perhaps more than once, since getting deposed) is the prime suspect!  So Ennov hires his own guide, Tikavoi, a huge ogrish alien, and pursues Gilgamesh's party into the jungle.

Interspersed with the story of the tourists hunting dinos and Ennov hunting the saboteur and various people's sexual relationships with Maryam, are asides about the history of interstellar travel and politics (the "Combine" mentioned in connection with Jews above is described as "a unification of the old Communist International, the Interstellar Businessmen's Syndicate, and a revived and modified Cosa Nostra") and the investigation of the sabotage conducted by Ennov's crew and the port's naval personnel back at the space port.

Stories about hunting often address the question of "what is a man?"  Is hunting big game for sport manly because it is risky and requires a willingness to kill?  (A character is killed by a dinosaur in Hunting on Kunderer, maybe because another character doesn't shoot fast enough--perhaps Barton airing these points.)  Or is big game hunting just a sick parody of the real manliness of hunters who hunt to feed their families?  (Barton includes a scene in which it is revealed that the dinosaur meat is inedible and there is no market for dinosaur hides--the guides just disintegrate the dino carcasses with their power guns after the tourists have felled the beasts with the compressed-air-powered projectile guns supplied to them by the guides.)

After he has sex for the first time, Baruch, invoking Jewish tradition, writes in his journal, in all-caps, "TODAY I AM A MAN."  (Barton provides us a peek into several of the character's journals.)  Ruling an authoritarian empire for 260 years and killing scores of people in self defense and while acting as the figurehead Emperor's executioner didn't make him feel like a man, but bringing Maryam to orgasm does. Baruch is not only the best shot of the group, he is also the best lover, and, even though he has spent most of his life as a merciless unelected dictator, he has the most human feeling of all the characters--he and Maryam fall in love and he plans to buy her the expensive immortality treatment he enjoys.  Baruch, even though he was once a eunuch, embodies all the attributes one might assign "a real man:" he is a ruler and an expert fighter who has killed many men, he is smart and educated and fabulously wealthy, he is a generous and talented lover who pleases women sexually and sees women as more than sex objects.  Of all these attributes, it is his ability to love that makes him happy.    

In what I am considering an interesting authorial choice, halfway through the book the naval officers at the port figure out who conducted the sabotage and the culprit, a character so minor we never heard his name before, commits suicide.  (There is plenty of suicide in this book.)  We observe Ennov's investigation for page after page, all the time knowing the tourists are all innocent.  Finally, fed up with the tourists' intransigence, Ennov tries to manhandle Baruch and Baruch, a master of hand to hand combat despite his fat eunuch's body, kills him.

The real plot of the novel (I guess) is not the dinosaur hunting and the hunt for the saboteur, but how the characters change and what the characters learn.  Baruch goes from sexless tyrant to sensitive lover.  The professional men of violence, MacLeod, Gilgamesh and Tikavoi, all face crises that change their lives and/or their views of themselves that revolve around whether or not they are capable of shooting someone or something.  Soring, in what looks to my 2017 eyes like a foreshadowing of the replication crisis you perhaps have read about in the news (all these stories of useless scientific studies resonate with me because I spent over ten years working in an academic research office and all the social science research people were doing seemed, to me, to be shoddy and/or mendacious), realizes, by observing the other tourists and the guides, that the conclusions of the centuries-long sociological and anthropological research his race has conducted on humans and on Tikavoi's race are probably all wrong.  And Maryam, after a life of poverty as a whore (Barton repeatedly uses "whore," not "prostitute" as I have) and experimental subject, finally finds a man who loves her and will spend a bazillion bucks on her.

I've already suggested that Barton's style can be distracting, and there are other distractions.  Barton says one of the Kunderer monsters looks like the tyrannosaurs of prehistoric Earth, but then describes a creature that walks on four legs and has a spiked tail, which is true of several different dinosaurs, but not a tyrannosaur.  Why unnecessarily use the word "dinosaur" in your book if you know less about dinosaurs than a six-year old?  In his story set over 2000 years in the future he includes jokes and references directly aimed at his 1970s audience: Baruch ostentatiously smokes cigars imported from Earth, from "a place called Cuba," and his weapon of choice is an ancient revolver he got from a museum, even though he lives in an age of "powerguns."  Soring cooks MacLeod and Maryam lasagne, having got the recipe from an old anthropology text on human cuisine by an academic of his species, and finds that his fellow tourists have never seen it before, because it went out of style a thousand years ago.

Now comes the part of the blog post in which I tell you, after listing a hundred things wrong with Hunting on Kunderer, that I am still giving it a thumbs up.  The book is ambitious, tackles subjects you don't necessarily see in a lot of SF books (how often do we read a book which seems to be endorsing Benjamin Disraeli's view that the Jews are a natural aristocracy?), and is full of surprises because of Barton's odd choices.  Marginal recommendation for this oddity, though it is a must read for students of portrayals of Jews in SF.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Yank at Valhalla by Edmond Hamilton

Loki shrugged.  "There can be no great victory without great danger, outlander.  I had a vision of leading the Aesir to undreamed-of heights of power and wisdom, though by a road beset with vast perils.  I was willing to risk those perils, to be great or to die.  But dull Odin blocked my path."  
Ace Double 93900 was offered to the public in 1973, and included material that was first printed in SF magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.  Let's take a look at MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton's contribution, 1941's A Yank at Valhalla, whose title, I guess, is a play on that of the 1938 film A Yank at Oxford and/or Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court.  1941 also saw the release of the war movie A Yank in the R.A.F.  Those Yanks are always sticking their noses in someplace!  A Yank at Valhalla was published entire in a single issue of Startling Stories, and in 1950 a book version appeared in the UK under the title The Monsters of Juntonheim.  The story was reprinted in 1953 in Fantastic Story Magazine, billed as a "Book-Length Science Fiction Classic."

Keith Masters, the novel's narrator, is a scientist working with an international team in the Arctic in some unspecified near future.  He feels a strange urge to trawl an unremarkable patch of ocean, and, like might happen in a Lovecraftian story, an ancient artifact with Scandinavian-style runes on it is recovered; the runes indicate the item is a key, the key to the prison of Loki, Fenris, and the Midgard serpent!  Our man Keith starts wearing the key around his neck on a string. All the time he has the key on his person he feels powerful competing inclinations, apparently the work of opposing psychic entities--one of the forces encourages him to throw the artifact back in the ocean, while the other urges him to cherish it.

Keith's team has a "rocket plane" and our narrator, who is an expert pilot as well as physicist and swordsman, takes off alone in the machine to scout out a route for the expedition's dog sleds.  Out of a clear blue sky a tremendous storm erupts, forcing Keith to land in a strange hidden world that, because of radiation that warps light waves, is essentially invisible to outsiders.  Here Keith finds a civilization whose attributes all match that of Norse mythology, from the fortified city of Asgard, connected to the mainland of Midgard by the rainbow bridge Bifrost, to its blonde inhabitants, among them temperamental Thor and beautiful Freya.

A number of Hamilton's stories have as their basis weird theories about radiation and evolution (check out "The Man Who Evolved," "The Accursed Galaxy," and "Devolution," three 1930s stories selected by science-obsessive Isaac Asimov for his Before the Golden Age anthology) and the foundation of A Yank in Valhalla is the same kind of theory.  After introductions are made, Odin himself explains to Keith the history of his people, the Aesir, and the scientific factors behind that history.

Human civilization, the one-eyed king of the Aesir relates, began not on Earth's surface but underground, thanks to radiation from subterranean rocks that created life and accelerated evolution far beyond the pace on the surface by fostering a very high number of mutations.  Odin's people had an advanced technological civilization down there while your ancestors and mine on the surface were still "wandering, half-animal savages"!  Hey, Odin, check your Aesir privilege!

Stung by Odin's contempt for us surface people, you might ask, if the Aesir are so damned advanced, why are Freya and Thor riding horses and fighting with swords and hammers instead of riding segways and fighting from a safe distance with cruise missiles and drones like civilized people?  Well, it's not because Hamilton felt like writing a sword-and-planet story instead of a space opera this time out, of that I can assure you.  It is because the Aesir learned that messing with science can have terrible consequences!  A great Aesir scientist decided to tinker with strengthening all that radiation in hopes of making the Aesir immortal!  Unfortunately, he overdid it, unleashing way too much radiation, and the Aesir had to flee to the surface, where they founded Asgard. With the Earth's crust damping the radiation, the scientist's aim was more or less achieved: the radiation kills all germs and constantly regenerates human cells, so nobody in Asgard ages or gets sick.  The downside is that almost everybody is sterile and few Aesir have been born in the last two thousand years.

I wondered if, as in that famous story by another Ohio-born SF icon, A Boy and His Dog, the virile outsider, our man Keith in this case, might be called upon to impregnate the local population, in this case a legion of blonde super model types! When it was revealed that the novel's Freya (whose slender body Hamilton keeps telling us about) is not the famous Freya of myth but her 20-year old granddaughter and Keith started making the moves on her, it seemed that Keith was getting off to a good start!

As many readers will have already guessed, on page 35 of this 128-page novel we learn conclusively that that reckless scientist was Loki and that as Odin puts it:
"It was Loki's power that brought you [our pal Keith!] and the rune key here.  Yes, from the gloomy prison where his body lies helpless, Loki's mind reached forth through his deep craft of scientific powers.  He caused you to fish that rune key from the sea, and raised the storm that blew you hither."
And so, just as Keith and Freya's interracial romance is blossoming, a commando squad of Jotuns (the barbaric black-haired surface people with whom Loki is allied) pulls an Otto Skorzeny on the Aesir and captures the blonde bombshell and the rune key!  The Jotuns also steal Keith's rocket plane and defeat Frey's ship in a naval battle, so the only way to get to Loki's force field prison before the Jotuns can free him is to crawl and trudge through a series of caves, a journey Keith and Frey (this guy is Freya's grand-uncle or something) immediately embark upon.  Luckily Freya was friendly with the Alflings, the isolationist dwarves who inhabit the caves and have kept their distance from the Aesir-Jotun war for two thousand years.  These nativist gnomes exact a border tax on all who enter their tunnels, but they need only exact it once on each visitor, because it is a sentence of death!  Because Frey and Keith are on a mission to rescue Freya, whom even these weirdos liked, they usher our heroes through to the subterranean prison of Loki and his fiendish pets.

This cover, depicting our man Keith
 shooting Jotuns with an automatic
pistol (yes!), closely follows the text
Loki's psychic powers prove too much for our heroes, and Frey and Keith join Freya in a cell of their own while Loki is liberated from his.  Keith is granted an audience with Loki.  Hamilton portrays Loki as a kind of mad scientist who feels he could have lead the Aesir to great power and knowledge if it hadn't been for Odin's conservatism; Loki and Odin are contestants in the sort of debate we see in politics and economics throughout history and in our own individual lives, the debate between risk-taking adventurism and prudent caution, between visions of an ever-evolving progressive society and an ambitious and dangerous life and those of a safe and stable society and a calm and comfortable life.  An adventurer and scientist himself, Keith is not wholly immune to Loki's appeals when Loki tells him "we two are more akin than any others in this land" and asks Keith to become his right-hand man and his only friend.  (Loki has a gorgeous princess of his own, black-haired Hel, but she he dismisses as "a wicked wildcat who can never learn my science."  Sounds sexy, though!)  Of course our man stays true to Odin, Thor, Freya and the rest, who were so welcoming to him.

The captives escape in Keith's rocket plane, and, back in Asgard, Keith and Thor go on a dangerous mission to get material needed to reactivate one of Odin's ancient high-tech weapons.  Then comes the titanic battle between the armies of Odin and the Aesir and Loki and the Jotuns; Keith participates in the cataclysmic struggle as both a fighter pilot and a swordsman.  In the end the whole secret world is destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion, with only Keith and Freya escaping with their lives in Keith's rocket plane.    

A Yank in Valhalla follows the Edgar Rice Burroughs format of a smart brave guy going to another world, being embraced by its establishment and championing that elite in a war with barbarians and/or radicals.  It also reminded me of one of Michael Moorcock's John Daker books, I guess 1970's The Eternal Champion, in which (if my 30-year old memory of reading it serves) the Eternal Champion has to choose sides in a genocidal war between the elfin Eldren and the human Mabden; aircraft, radiation and ancient super weapons figure in that novel, as they do in A Yank in Valhalla.  Is there any possibility that Moorcock, who has effusively praised the work of Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, and admitted to her influence on him (check out his essay, "Queen of the Martian Mysteries"), was influenced by A Yank in Valhalla in writing that novel?

I don't know enough about Norse mythology to be impressed or offended by Hamilton's use of it, so I have to put that aside.  Judged without any special Norse knowledge, A Yank in Valhalla is a quick-paced and fun adventure story in an interesting setting, with good battle scenes and, in Loki, a good villain.  Definitely recommended to fans of this sort of material.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Three Suns of Amara by William F. Temple

...Sherret reflected further that there was something disturbing about a Jackie's laugh....there was more irony than cruelty in it.  The laugher knew you were a fool, but knew that he was too.  He was laughing at the nature of things which made sport of him and of you.
Even though people were getting killed all over the place by poison gas and shell splinters, William F. Temple's 1963 novel Battle on Venus, the half of  Ace Double 76380 which we read in our last episode, has a kind of light-hearted tone and includes little jokes here and there. Temple's bio on the first page of the book is also supposed to be funny.  I didn't think the jokes in Battle on Venus were counterproductively overdoing it (I often think comic relief undermines fiction, but Temple avoided this pitfall) but I was on my guard when I read the other half of Ace Double 76380, 1962's The Three Suns of Amara--this novel actually starts with a jocular, puzzling, "CAST OF CHARACTERS."

Whereas lots of SF is about scientists and engineers who seek knowledge and use their understanding of the laws of the universe to solve problems and accomplish great things, The Three Suns of Amara suggests the universe is a chaotic mystery that we'll never figure out.  Again and again the novel's hero and readers are confronted by complex systems which are totally inexplicable and bizarre phenomena that are absolutely incredible, among them astronomical phenomena, human neuroses and forms of government and society.

Star ship Endeavor is on Amara, a planet whose eccentric orbit around three equidistant suns astrophysicists cannot explain.  Crewman Alexander Sherret decides to leave the ship when Captain Maxton learns that Goffism is sweeping the Earth and decides to run his own vessel on Goffist lines.  Goffism, the brainchild of a "psychosociologist" whom Sherret considers "a nut," prescribes that political units be run as dictatorships, with each individual member of the unit being given a turn at wielding absolute power.  Sherret assumes such a system will lead to disaster and wants no part of it.  There is another human ship on Amara, Captain Bagshaw's Pegasus, 300 miles away at Na-Abiza, and Sherret sets out for it, on foot, a journey directly compared to that of Odysseus.  (Over the course of the novel Temple refers to Homer, to painter Diego Velasquez's Rokeby Venus, and, repeatedly, to Shakespeare.)

Click or squint for an introduction to William F. Temple and his sense of humor
On the road, Sherret interacts with the many strange life forms native to Amara.  First up are specimens of the people Earthers have dubbed Paddies and Jackies; these figures set the tone of Sherret's odyssey.  Paddies are short and hairy, and their name is derived from a stereotype of Irish people which I am not quite familiar with, apparently a tendency of Irish people to speak cryptically or nonsensically.  (Maybe this is a reference to the paradoxes of Oscar Wilde, who isnamechecked later in the book?)
He greeted Sherret surlily, "Don't kill me, human, because if you do I shall kill you."
This kind of remark had earned the creature its sobriquet.
Sherret smiled.  "Don't e afraid, I shan't kill you.  I'm only out for a walk.  Have you ever been to Na-Abiza?"
"Yes, I have, human, but I didn't get there."
Jackies are tall and skinny, and "Jackie" is short for "jackass"--the Jackies are constantly laughing, maniacally, and like the Paddies speak in riddles.  The Paddy and Jackie provide Sherret incomprehensible advice, and then the Earthman proceeds onto his perilous journey, their warnings only making sense later, in context.

After he is subdued by Melas trees, which can only reproduce by reaching into a person's mind, Sherret is rescued by a member of the race known as the Petrans; like the Melas, Petrans have a psychic and parasitic nature.  A Petran can only survive as long as a member of a different race believes in it, and this Petran, Rosala, strives to keep Sherret from leaving, lest she fade away to nothing.  Among her means of convincing him to stay are her efforts to practice therapy on him--she is an artist and they collaboratively paint allegorical pictures of his neuroses as a means of expunging them.  (Remember how there was a lot of psychology in Battle on Venus, from Captain Freiburg's insecurities to Senilde's failure to achieve psychological adulthood?  Three Suns of Amara is also full of psychology.)  Then there's the fact that Rosala's appearance is determined by Sherret's preferences; he can tailor her looks to his exact specifications, so she looks like his dream girl.

Sherret falls in love, but his relationship with Rosala is tempestuous, claustrophobic, and plagued by jealousies, and he eventually leaves her to continue on his journey. He encounters more people from dysfunctional societies with psychological problems and more dangerous monsters who owe their existence largely to Sherret's own personality, as well as menacing and inexplicable natural phenomena, but finally makes it to Pegasus at the village of Na-Abiza.  He finds that Captain Bagshaw and his crew have fallen into decadence, having entered into an unstable and unsustainable exploitative relationship with yet another group of psychologically unbalanced natives, the inhabitants Na-Abiza.  The crew of the Pegasus is doomed, and they offer Sherret no way off Amara and no safe harbor.

Sherret heads back towards Rosala's place, and meets her on the way.  She has broken the laws of her people and abdicated many of her psychic powers, proving her sincere love for Sherret.  The lovers set out to reform the Petrans in hopes of founding the first healthy community on Amara.

The Three Suns of Amara first appeared in this 1962 Ace Double, F-129
Three Suns of Amara is more like a series of fantasy allegories of unhealthy individuals and societies than a "real" science fiction story in which the author speculates about the effects of novel conditions or extrapolates from real-life trends. Again and again Sherret confronts bewildering phenomena that are visually striking (like the oft-described light effects of the three suns and the glowing, slowly growing crack in the world, both of which Kelly Freas illustrates in his charming cover illustration) or make some metaphorical point, but when the Earthman asks an Amaran about them, he receives no explanation.  Instead of coming up with believable explanations for, say, Petran biology, Temple just has Rosala tell the Earthman that such things are secrets she cannot divulge.  The novel's point seems to have nothing to do with science, or to integrate a skepticism of science; perhaps Temple is trying to tell us that the universe is incomprehensible, but if we try to do the right thing and embrace love and friendship, maybe we can get by.  In making his point Temple presents the reader with lots of incredible stuff he refuses to explain, but I think the most outwardly ridiculous elements--Goffism, the Paddies and the Jackies--come at the beginning, and I don't think Temple ever slips across the line into absurdity or farce.

The Three Suns of Amara is more ambitious than Battle on Venus, but I don't think it is more entertaining.  It has a dream-like, unreal quality, which means it has little emotional impact, and since Temple tries to cram numerous topics into the small space afforded him (the novel takes up just 102 ages of text), he can only address them in a shallow way.

The Three Suns of Amara is acceptable, but not particularly remarkable or memorable. I certainly don't regret reading it and Battle on Venus, but they have not inspired me to actively seek out more of Temple's work.


Another Ace Double adventure coming up next time at MPorcius Fiction Log!