Wednesday, August 9, 2017

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

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

"Arctic Rescue" by John Keith Mason

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

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

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

"Always Somebody There" by Brian Aldiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Death or Consequences" by Sonya Dorman

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

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

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

Not bad.

"Castle in the Stars" by Terry Carr

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

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

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


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

We finish up with Tomorrow in our next episode.

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