Monday, November 6, 2017

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

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

"After the Great Space War" (1976)

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

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

"Trashing" (1973)

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

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

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

"Vox Populi" (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Making the Connections" (1975)

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Volkhavaar by Tanith Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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