Sunday, May 27, 2018

Starburst by Frederick Pohl

"My God," he said, shaking his head, "it's politicians who are supposed to be the manipulators, not scientists.  You're acting like a tinpot Jehovah!  You use human beings like laboratory rats, tricking them and in the end killing them."
Most of the SF I have read since this blog arose from the slime to sow terror and confusion about the countryside has been in old paperbacks or old magazines (often via the medium of the internet archive or the SFFAudio PDF page.)  But in my youth most of the SF I read was in hardcover, because I was at the mercy of libraries in the suburban New Jersey towns where I and my grandparents lived, libraries which didn't really stock paperbacks.  One of the authors the librarians seemed to favor was Frederick Pohl, and I read lots of hardcover Pohl novels published in the '70s and '80s when they were relatively new.

As an adult I reread and loved Gateway, but on a reread I found Beyond the Blue Event Horizon to be mediocre and I was irritated by Drunkard's Walk, which I viewed as too much (for my tastes, at least) a product of Pohl's political ideas, ideas which I do not find congenial, so I avoided Pohl for some years.  Recently, however, I really enjoyed Pohl's short story "The Fiend," which sparked a curiosity about all those old hardcovers like Jem and Black Star Rising that I recall so little about but which I presume I liked.  I began looking into used bookstores specifically for these 1970s and '80s works, and my first hit came in late May at the Old Book Shop in Morristown, New Jersey, a place I frequented while still living in the greatest state in the union and which I try to visit on my rare trips back.  For $1.50 I got a paperback copy of 1982's Starburst, adorned with a rainbow-like cover and high praise from the Minneapolis Tribune, which ceased publishing under that name soon after printing that laudatory review (the Tribune survives as the Star Tribune, in 1982 having been consolidated with the Minneapolis Star.)  Was the Tribune full of crap when it said Starburst was "one of the best sf novels of the past three or four years?"  Or will Starbust be so good that I will be jumping in my Toyota Corolla to scour the Eastern seaboard's used bookstores for copies of the aforementioned Jem and Black Star Rising so I can indulge in what the TV-watching public might call "a Frederick Pohl binge?"  Let's read Starburst and find out.

Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen, alumnus of the Hitler Youth and veteran of the Eastern Front, is a genius!  You might even say an evil genius!  He has worked his way to the top of the U.S. space program, and convinced the American people and government to finance the construction of an interstellar space ship even though the country is wracked by unemployment and civil unrest and faces the prospect of Africa being taken over by violent Muslim radicals; he even personally hand-picked eight people of the highest abilities to crew the ship on its voyage to Alpha Centauri.  Von Knefhausen got the people of the land of the free and the home of the brave to sign on to this expensive project by telling them that there was a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri for the eight heroes to explore, but the Bolshies over in Moscow are not so gullible as us Yankees!  Soon after liftoff, the commies announce to the world that their instruments indicate that there is, in fact, no planet orbiting Alpha Centauri!  It's not long before the President of the United States has called von Knefhausen on to the Oval Office carpet and is demanding he explain why the German egghead tricked him into lying to the whole world and sending eight of America's best and brightest on a one-way trip to their deaths a bazillion miles away!

Von Knefhuasen explains that the free world, to outlast the communist East, needs scientific breakthroughs, and isolating the eight astronauts from the distractions of the Earth, putting them in a situation where they have nothing to do but think, will probably result in them coming up with some awesome new ideas!  (This scheme reminded me of Theodore Sturgeon's classic story from 1941, "Microcosmic God," and Thomas Disch's fine 1967 novel, Camp Concentration--in both, ruthless authorities impose deadly conditions on people that foster innovative thinking.)

Pohl's narrative switches back and forth between Washington, D.C. and the starship and employs a number of narrative strategies.  Many chapters are in the third person omniscient, though the ones on Earth include lots of internal monologue stuff from von Knefhausen; some early chapters consist of transmissions from the astronauts back to von Knefhausen, and some later ones are first person narratives composed by the most sympathetic of the astronauts, Eve Barstow and Willis Becklund, the spacefarers least altered by their revolutionary adventure.

Squint or click to marvel at the love showered on Starburst by the critics

Von Knefhuasen's scheme almost immediately bears fruit--with nothing better to do, one of the spacers proves Goldbach's Conjecture.  Within a year the astronauts have invented a more efficient, more expressive, language that leaves them bored with the clumsiness and annoyed by the sluggishness of English.  They become very interested in random numbers and their use in divination, and acquire knucklebone dice by chopping off their little toes--no real sacrifice, as they have developed means of controlling their bodies to the point that they can ignore pain and even regenerate lost digits.  They also realize, via I Ching hexagrams and a "personality analysis" of Knefhausen, that there is no planet at Alpha Centauri and that they have been sent on a fraudulent suicide mission; this inspires a consuming wrath towards the German scientist and a determination to build a planet around Alpha Centauri for them to reside on.

While the astronauts develop increasingly unbelievable powers, back in Washington things rapidly deteriorate, with political violence escalating and the federal government's power diminishing until a confused civil war, with military units switching sides and untrained youths taking the place of disciplined soldiers as the professionals are steadily killed off, ensues.  Things on Earth go from terrible to still more terrible when one of the astronauts, full of rage, uses his psychic powers to direct a stream of kaons at Earth; kaons cause radioactive materials to lose their radioactivity and instead shed tremendous heat.  This sneak attack renders useless nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors all over this big blue marble, crippling energy production, and also causes global warming that raises the sea level.

Starburst feels very long.  The tone is detached and uniformly flat, and the plot is episodic and has a feeling of bland inevitability; Pohl's novel lacks emotional high points and offers no suspense or tension or catharsis.  The characters are not very engaging, and those we follow most closely are, during the period the novel directly covers, spectators rather than drivers of events.  Mad scientist von Knefhausen is probably the most interesting character, though Pohl tries to make Eve Barstow, the least intelligent of the astronauts, sympathetic by describing her loneliness and ennui--she cannot learn the new-fangled super-efficient language of her comrades and is thus left out of much of what they do.  Eve is also the only astronaut who maintains her humanity; for example, she embraces the traditional female role of raising the astronauts' army of genetically engineered kids when most of the spacefarers have progressed so far intellectually and even physically that they see their own offspring as laborers, as the machinery they have built to do the tasks necessary to construct their artificial planet.

Pohl's writing is deliberately oblique and parcels out information in a fragmentary fashion, leaving the reader to figure out some things or just wait until they are explained.  Early in the story Willis Becklund is killed, but his personality somehow survives and continues to interact with the other explorers as a "ghost;" the nature of his living death is explained (in a vague and impressionistic fashion in keeping with the novel's interest in Eastern mysticism) many chapters later.  Similarly, we are presented with the astronauts' passel of children long before it is explained how these strange beings, genetically engineered to achieve English literacy at age two and sexual maturity at age six, were actually produced.  The reader's experience thus mirrors that of the characters--when von Knefhuasen was in the driver's seat he kept all the other characters in the dark as to his true designs, and when he is out of favor he has to contend with the astronauts' confusing messages and endure years in prison, where he receives only scattered clues about what is going on in the calamity-wracked outside world.

Some twenty years after leaving the Earth the astronauts and their fifty or so offspring have made great progress in building a Centauran planet out of asteroids and comets, but they want more raw materials and more genetic material and so they debate how to acquire these resources from Earth--via threats or via trade?  To assess the lay of the land back on the mother planet Eve and Willis return to the post-apocalyptic Earth with six children; Eve's twelve-year-old son, himself a father, is in command of the vessel.  They are greeted by the current President of the United States, whose domain consists of merely a portion of a largely submerged midAtlantic region--the rest of the former USA is split into little competing fiefdoms.  Von Knefhuasen died in prison a few months ago.

While Americans are reduced to riding around on horses and their President speaks with some kind of hillbilly accent, civilization has been reborn in Western Canada.  The leader of this oasis of order and technology in British Columbia, a beautiful woman, is on hand in Washington to make sure the President, whom Pohl portrays as a buffoon, doesn't have a chance to seize the Centaurans' technology and use it to reunite the United States.  She guides the visitors to her Kanuck utopia where everybody lives in an efficient little apartment and population levels are carefully controlled, and she has sex with Eve's son, who is sixteen after the four-year trip from Alpha Centauri.

Eve also starts a relationship with a handsome Canadian, a police officer (even though the sight of his gun makes her queasy.)  Willis the Ghost raises a ghost of von Knefhuasen in order to berate and humiliate him--he gives the German scientist a big nose and makes him say things like "oy vey" and "bubbeleh."  The astronauts offer the Canadians their supertechnology, but the Canadians reject the offer, preferring to keep their utopia the way it is.  I guess that is the (underwhelming, after 216 pages) climax of Starburst; the sensawunda denouement is that the principal Alpha Centaurans split up to colonize different areas of the galaxy (accompanied by some volunteer Earthlings), while Willis, the ghost, explores time and the universe and nervously contemplates the end of time.

Long, tedious and a bit dull, Starburst is disappointing, no matter what various newspapers claimed back in 1982.  Pohl presents situations that should provoke an emotional response in us readers--von Knefhuasen, Eve Barstow, and Willis Burkland are all people of ability and ambition who are suddenly thrust into catastrophes and find themselves essentially helpless and totally isolated from the rest of humanity--but somehow Pohl failed to generate any feeling in this reader.  The book is cold and distant--perhaps Pohl's failure to convey human feeling or depict human drama is a function of the novel's alleged satiric intent?

Publishers Weekly, in the blurb reproduced above, tells us Starburst is, in part, a satire.  If a satire is supposed to be funny, Pohl again fails, because there are no laughs in this book.  The effect of the jokes, if they have any effect at all, is to defuse any drama, or leave the reader scratching his head.  The way von Knefhuasen is turned into a caricature of a Jew, for example--Pohl didn't bother to paint von Knefhuasen as an anti-Semite, and in fact pointed out early on that he was not a committed Nazi but simply an opportunist, so the gag at the end of the book comes out of nowhere.

More interesting than whether or not Pohl's humor succeeds is the question of what Pohl is satirizing here.  A ruthlessly manipulative German scientist, stupid Americans, clever communists and wise Canadians, and a USA crippled by illegal immigrant demonstrators, stone-throwing college activists and heavily armed African-American terrorists, and then finished off by the temper tantrum of an intellectual, are certainly the kinds of elements you might expect to see in some left-winger's satire of a post-World War II United States.  Pohl, like grad students I have had the misfortune to have to work with, also pushes the idea that technology and trade are detrimental rather than beneficial to human life--the Canadian woman suggests that the kaon strike that has denied the Earth any nuclear power wrought an improvement over the Cold War conditions that prevailed before, and we get an abbreviated lecture on how international trade is characterized by imperialism, cartels, dumping, and trusts.

More effective than this bog standard lefty boilerplate stuff is what I take to be Pohl's examination of the science fiction trope of the superman and his rehearsal of the timeless insight that power corrupts.  The smartest and most powerful individuals in the book are the least decent and least kind, the astronauts (besides Eve and Willis) growing more and more selfish and less and less connected to their comrades and their families as they grow more intelligent and acquire more abilities.  Power corrupts, whether it is the genius of a von Knefhuasen, the supergenius of the astronauts, or the political power of a head of state (though not if she is Canadian, I guess.)

Starburst is not actually bad; I am not quite prepared to declare it a waste of the reader's time.  There are interesting ideas, and tons of science stuff--I don't think I've encountered kaons anywhere else, nor the idea of a Gödel code.  Pohl also tries to explain solitons and instantons, one of those concepts I am never going to understand.  Contra Washington Post Book World, what the novel lacks is any sense of fun (though I suppose Democrats and foreigners may read about the destruction of the United States with glee) and any sort of feeling--there is no adventure, no excitement, no human drama, and I didn't care about the characters and I wasn't eagerly turning the pages to see what happened next.  I have to judge this one barely acceptable, and admit that any plans of seeking out Jem or Black Star Rising have been put on the back burner.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Four tales of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Let's explore yet another of my Fifty Cent Second Story Books finds, my copy of Ace's 1970s edition of The Coming of the Terrans by Leigh Brackett.  There is some mystery over exactly when this edition was published and who produced its cover illustration, but we know that the first edition of The Coming of the Terrans was published in 1967 and had a cover by Gray Morrow.  The collection includes five stories, and we've already read one, "The Last Days of Shandakor," as it also appears in The Best of Leigh Brackett, which we read in its entirety in the summer of last year.  Today we'll tackle the remaining four stories it contains by the celebrated writer of SF adventures, detective stories, and screenplays.

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" (1948)

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" was the cover story of the Winter 1948 edition of Planet Stories, where it is advertised as a story of "lost worlds" where beautiful women try to bewitch tall men (how different is that, really, from our own world?)  I like the cover illustration--the principal figures wear suitably and convincingly desperate expressions and the female lead sports a charming little blue number--and the inside pages boast not only the Brackett tale but contributions from two other beloved writers on the fantastical end of the SF spectrum, Ray Bradbury and Frank Belknap Long. 

Captain Burk Winters is a broken man!  He chain smokes Venusian cigarettes!  His hands shake so severely he drops coins all over the place when he pays a cabbie.  What happened to this dude, who was once one of our best space pilots?  He lost his girl to alien drug pushers, that's what!

Jill Leland was a wealthy member of the thrill-seeking classes who spend their leisure time in the solar system's Trade Cities, where the decadent rich of Earth gamble and indulge in elaborate vices!  Such pastimes are sought to relieve the pressure of life in the go go future--here are the kinds of people one sees in the Trade Cities:
Their faces were pallid and effeminate, scored with the marks of life lived under the driving tension of a super-modern age.
Leland's particular vice was the Martian "Shanga."  The Martians are the heirs of the wreckage of an heroic high-tech civilization that collapsed many centuries ago due to nuclear war; even though they can't reproduce much of that old time technology, the Martians can still operate some of the artifacts, and the Shanga crystals are among such artifacts.  In the Shanga parlors in the Trade Cities, Earth people can expose themselves to the Shanga rays, and temporarily feel physically and mentally younger, and live carefree for a few hours.

Brackett explicitly compares the treatment to drug use, and depicts exposure to the rays as a direct stimulant to the human brain's pleasure centers and as quite addictive.  Hard core addicts like Leland soon hear rumors that the Shanga treatment in the Trade Cities is mere kid's stuff compared to the real deal, the Shanga rays available in the desert in the crumbling half-deserted cities of Mars's heyday.  Winters tried to get the Shanga monkey off Jill's back, but to no avail; she disappeared in the Martian desert without a trace, presumed dead!

We learn all this stuff I just told you over the course of the 60-page story, which is structured sort of like a hard-boiled mystery.  The plot of "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" follows Winters as he goes to the Trade City on Mars, Kahora, and then out into the desert in search of his junkie girlfriend.  Winters is a manly man who isn't really interested in Shanga or any of the twisted allures of the Trade Cities, but to pursue his lost love he patronizes their evil trade, posing as a hopeless Shanga addict.  The Martian pushers take him out to the desert, to a lost city on the shore of a dry ocean basin, where they hold him captive and Winters learns the terrible truth.

The Shanga rays, at full power, after repeated doses, don't just roll your biological clock back to childhood, but back down the evolutionary ladder!  One strong dose of the rays turns Winters into a brutish cave man!  Winters recovers from this treatment, but he sees other Earthlings who have received many doses and been turned back to Neanderthals, to "missing links," even to god-damned reptiles and amphibians!  Winters worries that, if he doesn't escape, he'll eventually get turned into an amoeba!

The Martians, who see themselves as a superior race of great wisdom who were building skyscrapers when humans were still living in caves, resent human control of their ancient red planet.  The tribe of Martians in this story, those who run the Shanga parlors, turn Earthers into these evolutionary throwbacks in order to put them into an old amphitheater to torment them and laugh at them, a way of getting a little of their own back and assuaging their humiliation at the hands of us humies.

Our French friends included "Beast-Jewel of
Mars" in this 1975 anthology of stories from
Planet Stories.
Winters finds Jill Leland reduced to the condition of a cave woman--she can't even talk any more!  At night he escapes captivity and sneaks into the room of the leader of this tribe of vengeful Martians, a beautiful woman named Fand who has catlike grace and walks around with her high breasts bare.  (Brackett generally writes stories in which aliens are so biologically similar to Earth people that they are sexually compatible.)  Winters treats Fand the way a New York state prosecutor might treat one of his girlfriends, knocking her unconscious while she sleeps by bashing her in the head and then tying her up and carrying her back to the amphitheater.  When the Martians turn on the Shanga rays as they do every day, Fand gets exposed just like the Earth-creatures, and, because the Martians are an old race with tired genes, she gets devolved way way back, becoming into a disgusting vermiculate monster.  When her tribe realizes what has happened to Fand, chaos ensues, with the Martians fighting hand-to-hand with the Earth creatures in the arena, and Winters escapes with his mute and illiterate girlfriend to alert the human authorities about the menace of the Shanga parlors.       

(The crazy evolution stuff in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" reminded me of the numerous stories by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, that feature wild speculations about evolution, and of course the whole plot and theme of the story reminds you of Chinese opium dens and Chinese resentment of Western imperialism.)

When we read two Poul Anderson novels recently we saw they were full of signs of his libertarian attitude--celebrations of private trade, the individual, and rational reason, and denunciations of big government and mysticism.  In "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" we see signs of an old-fashioned conservatism on the part of Brackett.  Modern life, we are told, is too fast and too complicated and drives people batty, and we see that modern wealth and leisure just leave hands idle to do the devil's work.  Interstellar trade hasn't made the life of Terran or Martian better, but corrupted and demeaned them both, giving rise to bitter hatreds as each race abuses or exploits the other at every opportunity.   Brackett also evinces a traditional skepticism of the city and city life:
Winters hated the Trade Cities.  He was used to the elemental honesty of space.  Here the speech, the dress, even the air one breathed, were artificial.
As you might guess, the Trade City on Earth is New York, a famous target for criticism from country folk and conservatives (and not always without reason.)

Not Brackett's best work, but entertaining and interesting.

Scanned from my copy, a brief introductory essay by Brackett and a list of "othe" Ace books
by her, including Alpha Centauri or Die! and Sword of Rhiannon, which I own and have read,
  and Big Jump, another publisher's edition of which I own and have read.

"Mars Minus Bisha" (1954)

Another cover for Brackett, and another Planet Stories in which Brackett shares an issue with Ray Bradbury; this time Bradbury is represented by one of the all-time most famous dinosaur stories and stories about time travel, "A Sound of Thunder."  In "Mars Minus Bisha" Brackett again invites comparisons between the people of Mars and East Asians, this time very directly:
She sat up, a dark and shaggy-haired young person, with eyes the color of topaz, and the customary look of premature age and wisdom that the children of Mars share with the children of the Earthly East.
This is the kind of thing you'd probably think twice about committing to paper today.

Fraser is a scientist living alone in a Quonset hut in the Martian desert, studying Martian diseases.  A woman from a tribe of reptile-riding nomads brings her daughter to him and flees--the shamans of her tribe had declared the seven-year old girl, Bisha, to be cursed, scapegoating her for a plague, and sentenced her to death.  Fraser examines her and finds Bisha to be perfectly healthy, and she moves in with him; soon the little girl is the light of his life, and he plans on bringing her home with him to Earth when his project is complete in a few months.

But it is not to be--this story is a tragedy!  From an ancient race of Martians with tremendous psychic powers Bisha has inherited a recessive genetic trait, an ability to drain the life force of those around her over which she has no control!  If they continue to live alone together, Bisha's autonomic vampiric powers will eventually kill Fraser, but if Fraser lets any Martians see her they will recognize her condition and destroy her.  Fraser's life force is fading--can he get to a human settlement three hundred miles away before he expires and before any natives spot Bisha?  And if not, who will live and who will die?

An effective story, more economical (just 30 pages) and better structured than "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" and with more human feeling, including a sad ending like something out of Somerset Maugham which took me by surprise.

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" (1964)

Brackett's name sits at the top of the list on the cover of the 15th Anniversary "All Star" issue of F&SF, right above her husband's.  (We read Hamilton's contribution to this issue, "The Pro," back in June of last year.)  Preceding "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is a page long bio of Brackett and a description of this story's genesis--it seems that Anthony Boucher, writing about Brackett in F&SF in 1955, made up the slightly goofy name od this story as a sort of parody of the titles of the type of planetary romances she excelled at writing, but some readers didn't realize it was a joke and began asking Brackett where they could find the story.  So, when the opportunity presented itself almost ten years later, Brackett wrote a story to match the title, making real this once fabulous component of her oeuvre.

Harvey Selden (!) has always wanted to go to Mars.  As he looks at the red planet from the observation dome of the starship as it comes in for a landing, Third Officer Bentham, an alcoholic whose career has been stunted by his love for the bottle, invites Selden to have dinner with him on the surface with some Martian friends of his.

Selden is staying at the Kahora Hilton.  Kahora has changed since the days when Jill Leland and Burk Winters frequented the Shanga parlor there; now that "the bad old days of laissez-faire," as Selden calls them, are over, Kahora and the other Trade Cities are under strict government control and all those sinful amusements are just a memory.  Kahora now has seven domes--Bentham takes Selden to the original dome, now a residential district, to meet his friends, including a Martian called Firsa Mak, Firsa Mak's sister and her human husband Altman, and a gorgeous Martian girl who walks around topless and serves the drinks, Lella.

Though this is his first trip to Mars, Selden is an academic expert on Martian culture and history; he came to Mars to take up a position at the Bureau of Interworld Cultural Relations.  He is also one of those liberals who identifies more with the colonized Martians than with his own people, the colonizers, and denigrates the actions of the first human explorers of the red planet, calling them "piratical exploiters."   
...Firsa Mak said with honest curiosity, "Why is it that all you young Earthmen are so ready to cry down the things your own people have done?"
Selden dismisses as nonsense the stories told by those first Earthmen to visit Mars about Martian cults who worshiped evil gods and practiced human sacrifice, but he's in for a surprise, because Bentham the drunk has just delivered him into the hands of people who know how very true those stories are!  Lella has served him a drugged drink and when he wakes up he's bound and gagged in the cold wilderness beyond the domed cities.  Brackett presents starkly the contrast between bookish know-it-all Selden, who in the wilderness proves weak and ineffectual, and adventurous manly men Firsa Mak and Altman, who are perfectly comfortable in harsh conditions and dangerous situations.

This German collection of
Brackett stories includes
"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon"
Firsa Mak and Altman disguise Selden and drag him to a ritual where cultists pay obeisance to a slumbering Godzilla-sized monster.  The experience is so horrifying that Selden faints.  When he wakes up, Firsa Mak and Altman try to convince Selden to alert the Terran authorities about this cult which sacrifices people twice a year and its dangerous monster, which, they fear, if roused could destroy an entire city.  The government does not believe scruffy adventurers like them, but maybe they will believe a trained academic and member of the establishment like Selden?   

Selden, however, begins to doubt his own senses--Lella drugged him, after all--and worries that spreading rumors about Martian cults and Brobdingnagian monsters will wreck his career.  Instead of reporting the menace to the authorities he abandons his new job with the Bureau and flees to Earth where he undergoes psychotherapy and is relieved to be told he hallucinated the ritual and the monster, the result of drugs working on his unresolved feelings about his mother and his repressed homosexuality.  (We see evidence of Bracket's adherence to traditional ideas about gender roles and sexual mores here as well as in the quote I extracted from "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" above and in her novel Alpha-Centauri or Die!)

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is well-written and I liked it, but at the same time I have to admit I thought the end was a little disappointing, anti-climactic.  A traditional adventure or horror story with a plot like this would end with the protagonist killing the monster and/or the priestess or making a narrow escape.  Instead, this story is a satire of inept intellectual types who look down on the brave men who defend and expand society, and so the main character is a kind of spectator lead around by the nose and kept from danger by the manly adventurer characters.  He is never in real danger and because he is incompetent outside a classroom he never makes any real decisions of consequence, just takes the path of least resistance.  I'm all for goofing on effete liberals and psychoanalytic quacks, but to achieve its full potential I think a story that follows the kind of adventure/horror template that this one follows needs real tension and a real climax--as "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" stands, it is unsatisfying.  (I was hoping all along that Selden himself was going to be sacrificed--this would accomplish the goal of ridiculing the willfully-blind academic types who dismiss the reports of men in the field while at the same time providing a satisfying horror story conclusion.  Of course, then Brackett couldn't work the psychoanalytic angle.)

Another problem I have with the story is the equivocal role of Lella.  We have every reason to believe that the masked woman who leads the ritual, the Purple Priestess, is Lella herself, but at the same time Lella seems to be allied with Firsa Mak and Altman, who are trying to get the government to do away with the cult.  A nagging mystery.

"The Road to Sinharat" (1963)

"The Road to Sinharat" was an Amazing cover story.  isfdb lists it as part of the Eric John Stark series, but Brackett's famous hero does not appear in the tale.  Maybe it is considered part of the Stark series because the city of Sinharat also appears in a Stark story "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," later expanded into the novel The Secret of Sinharat? 

Long ago Mars was a world of oceans and forests; today it is an arid desert.  The men of Earth think they have the technology to restore part of the red planet to its former verdant glory, but the Martians resist the renewal project; they have made peace with their old and tired planet, and don't want to see their canals messed with and their settlements moved.  In fact, the renewal effort is leading to unrest among the natives and even violence against Earthmen.

In 1932 Edmond Hamilton published the short story "Conquest of Two Worlds," a story about Earth imperialism and an Earthman who joined with the natives of Jupiter to oppose Earth oppression.  Brackett considered this one of her husband's best stories--at least she chose it for The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a volume she edited.  I bring this up because "The Road to Sinharat" also features a Terran, Dr. Matthew Carey, who goes against his superiors and risks his life to stand against Earth interference with aliens.

Carey is an archaeologist currently working with the organization planning the renewal project--because the natives oppose the project, so does Carey.  Carey has lived so long among Martians, exploring tombs and even participating in barbarian raids, that he can pass for a Martian desert dweller and capably wield Martian weapons (by which I mean things like axes and daggers--I guess automatic rifles and heat ray pistols aren't among the ancient Martian technologies which have survived.)  He ditches his job to help the natives, and the plot of "The Road to Sinharat" follows Carey and some Martians--the trader Derech, an old friend who accompanied him on his archaeological expeditions years ago, and Arrin, a sexy Martian girl--as they travel via canal barge and then on reptile-back to the forbidden city of Sinharat, to look for some ancient documents which may convince the Terran authorities to abandon their renewal scheme.  They face various obstacles, among them pursuit by a Terran police detective, Howard Wales, and his Martian cops, who is tasked with bringing in the renegade archaeologist on suspicion of fomenting native violence.

Eventually Carey and his friends and Wales and his cops end up trapped together inside Sinharat, under siege by some barbarians who are reluctant to enter the ancient city, which is taboo because it was once the HQ of a tribe of Martian scientists who achieved longevity by kidnapping young people and shifting their consciousnesses into the youth's bodies.  Just as an aircraft comes to rescue the besieged humans and their Martian comrades, Carey finds the records he needs.  They show that the body snatchers of Sinharat, ages ago, launched their own renewal effort, and the memory of its eventual failure lingers in the Martians' cultural consciousness, rendering all such efforts anathema.  These records convince the authorities to abandon their plans.

"The Road to Sinharat" was among the
stories from Amazing and Fantastic
included in this 1968 reprint magazine.
Like "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon," "The Road to Sinharat" contrasts academic experts who think they know it all with the men of action in the field who actually do know what's going on, and like "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" doles out some harsh conservative medicine--change is bad, progress is a scam, history is a tragedy, and you shouldn't interfere in other people's business, even if you have the best of intentions.  "The Road to Sinharat" is also reminiscent of Brackett's "Citadel of Lost Ships;" both feature government projects that relocate towns and tinker with water sources, allegedly for the greater good.  (Public policies that destroyed American communities to create reservoirs and dams, like those chronicled here, seem to have struck a chord with Brackett.)

While not bad, this story is another disappointment.  Brackett overstuffs "The Road to Sinharat" with lots of cool material, but because it is confined to a paltry 50 pages the story feels rushed and cramped, almost like a condensed version of a longer piece of work.  All Brackett's ideas and all the many relationships she sets up are dealt with in cursory fashion--she has no room to explore any of them with any depth, so they lack dramatic power.  Derech, Arrin, Wales, and Alan Woodthorpe, head of the renewal project, all have potentially fun and interesting relationships with Carey, in particular Wales and Woodthorpe, because all three of the Earthmen have a strong sense of duty and a determination to do the right thing for the people of Mars, but Carey's thinking is at odds with those of his fellow Earthers, and over the course of the story Carey wins them to see his side.  Unfortunately, Brackett doesn't have room to develop these relationships and chart their evolution in a compelling way.  Arrin is also a lost opportunity--she could have been a sexual interest for Carey, part of a love triangle with Carey and Derech, or given voice to one of the numerous Martian factions (Brackett's Martians are not monolithic, but split into distinct and often competing cultural and political groups who react to the colonizers differently, just like colonized peoples in real life) or all three, but as the story appears, she does very little.

(I often moan that a piece of fiction is too long, but here we have the rare case in which I think a story would have been better at two or even three times the length.)

Another problem with "The Road to Sinharat" is that it lacks the thrilling danger and cathartic (and sexualized) violence of many of Brackett's stories--often in Brackett stories men kill each other with their bare hands and women get beaten or killed (when Fand in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" got transformed into a 100 lb. slug her lieutenant euthanized her with a sword.)  I don't think anybody gets killed in "The Road to Sinharat"--when the barbarians charge Wales and his men they repel the charge with stun guns.  To be satisfying, an adventure story has to have believable physical or psychological dangers, and "The Road to Sinharat" comes up short in this department. 


"Mars Minus Bisha" is a quite good story of human feeling, while the other pieces we've looked at today are just marginally good or merely acceptable.  "Beast-Jewel of Mars" has some of the violence and passion that bring to life Brackett's best work, like Sword of Rhiannon or "Enchantress of Venus," but lacks their strong characterizations and relationships, while "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" and "The Road to Sinharat" follow an adventure template but lack the danger and violence of a good adventure story and the latter feels underdeveloped.  Fortunately, there are still Brackett stories out there I haven't read, and I can live in the hope that there is another Brackett masterpiece awaiting me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Orbit Unlimited by Poul Anderson

"You should try to be more friendly.  Not ask so many questions of the teacher.  Join in their games instead of going off by yourself and-- Oh, I don't know.  We came to Rustum to keep the right to be different.  I suppose I shouldn't start the old cycle over again by telling you to conform simply because it's more comfortable."
My copy
Still feeling those good vibrations from reading 1977's Mirkheim, this weekend I took Poul Anderson's Orbit Unlimited off the shelf.  I own a copy of a 1974 printing from Pyramid with an orange Paul Lehr cover that I acquired at Second Story Books in our nation's capital back in 2015 for fifty cents.  Pyramid also published the novel's first edition in 1961, with a fun space walking cover by John Schoenherr.  isfdb indicates that Orbit Unlimited, 150 pages of text in this edition, is based on three previously published short stories:  "Condemned to Death" (Fantastic Universe, 1959), "Robin Hood's Barn" (Astounding, 1959) and "The Burning Bridge" (Astounding, 1960.)  A fourth piece, "The Mills of the Gods," was added for book publication.  Anderson would return to the universe of Orbit Unlimited in the '70s, publishing four additional stories in the four numbers of Roger Elwood's 1974-5 series of anthologies, Continuum.

In Part One, "Robin Hood's Barn," space explorer Joshua Coffin returns to Earth after an 85-year journey (he was only awake for five of those years) to report that he has discovered a habitable planet out at ε Eridani.  He finds that Earth is so overpopulated that even the U S of A has abandoned representative government and freedom of speech and that the whole planet is ruled by an unelected class of "Guardians."  Most people don't seem to care--the literacy rate is like 20% and most people are content to submerge themselves in drug use and mystical religion.  But among some of the literate middle classes, those essential engineers and technicians who keep things running, is a hankering for a rational view of the universe and maybe even some of the liberties enjoyed in North America in past ages!  The Guardians fear that, if the philosophy of these free thinkers, known as "Constitutionalists," spreads, they could have a serious rebellion on their hands!

The smartest of the Guardians, Commissioner Svoboda, has a plan to solve the Constitutionalist problem.  First, he revives a classic tool of government domination and enforced conformity: compulsory public education!  Every kid has to attend school four days a week, six hours each day, where they are told science is "hooey" and that to be happy you should spend your free time emptying your mind and contemplating "The Ineffable All," and where the kids of Constitutionalists are exposed to some serious peer pressure from their pot-smoking fellows.  In a scene that will warm the hearts of parents everywhere, one Constitutionalist who isn't happy to see his kids parroting this mystical nonsense and isn't afraid of the authorities drives his aircar over to his son's teacher's flat and beats him up!  (Van Dongen provides Astounding readers with artist's renditions of an angry Dad castigating his mediating son and then grabbing Teach by the collar.)   How is it this rational-thinker and foe of mysticism has no fear of the oppressive government?  His name is Jan Svoboda--he's the estranged son of the top Commissioner, and the fuzz are very reluctant to lay a hand on him!

Constitutionalists all over begin organizing against the public schools, and, having brought the Constitutionalist problem from a simmer to a boil, Commissioner Svoboda meets his son and other members of the Constitutionalist organization to put into action the next step of his plan.  (Old school SF, even by libertarian types like Anderson, is all about the efficacy of human intelligence and the power of knowledge, and so guys are always seeing their elaborate plans and counterintuitive conspiracies come to fruition.  If you read history books or just watch the news on the idiot box it is pretty obvious that in real life the plans of politicians and military men almost never work out and that everybody's predictions are almost always wrong, and everybody in a position of power or influence is just playing it by ear and taking guesses.)  Everybody agrees that the solution to the government vs Constitutionalist crisis, which could very well erupt into a civil war if left unresolved, is for the most fervent Constitutionalists to colonize Rustum, the newly discovered planet in the ε Eridani system.  The Commish, who wasn't born into the Guardian class but rose into it and who realizes the Earth is in a period of decadence and tyranny, we readers realize, has engineered this whole turn of events in part because he wants his descendants to have a shot at living in freedom, and Rustum is the only place that can happen.

In Part Two, "The Burning Bridge," Joshua Coffin is admiral of the fleet of colonizing ships carrying some three thousand people, most in deep sleep, to Rustum.  Anderson in this section works to create an atmosphere of tension; he tells us interstellar travel is like being in a sensory deprivation tank and drives people insane, and portrays the astronauts committing dumb mistakes, making rash decisions, and griping at each other.  Most striking about this chapter is probably how, to minimize sexual complications, the fleet practices sex segregation, with women and men on separate vessels.  Women in positions of authority even have to wear veils when they patch into the communications system for all-fleet remote videophone meetings!

In the first part we learned all about Commissioner Svoboda's life, psychology and relationships, and here in Part Two Anderson focuses on Coffin, who is a fish out of water, having been raised on the Earth of like 80 years ago.  Coffin even wears the stern black uniform he was issued almost a century ago, while the spacers recruited this century have gay colorful attire!  Whereas the Constitutionalists are mostly atheists and the normies who make up the crew are superstitious mystics, the devout Coffin's religion is like something out of the 19th or early 20th century--he's a prude obsessed with duty who is always referring to some biblical figure or theologian like Lazarus or Jonathan Edwards.  He refuses to issue a rum ration, unlike other captains, and the sex segregation and veils were his idea.  Anderson uses the word "harem" to describe the condition of women in the fleet, and I wondered if he meant us to be reminded by Coffin's policies of some Islamic practices. 

The plot of this part of the book concerns a message that arrives from Earth when the fleet is at the very limit of reception range--the public education decree has been rescinded and the Constitutionalists are invited back!  The fleet is almost at the point of no return, so there is very little time for the small proportion of crew and colonists who are awake to decide whether or not to turn back, and disputes between those determined to colonize Rustum and those eager to return to Earth now there is some hope of liberalization bring morale to the breaking point.  Coffin wants to continue on to Rustum, but how far is he willing to break the law, bend his principles, and put others at risk to make that happen?  And is his insistence on continuing reasonable and rational, or selfish, emotional, and a product of the terrific stress he is laboring under?

Part Three is based on "Condemned to Death" but titled "And Yet So Far" here.  This chapter is serious "hard" SF, about engineers racing against the clock to repair their space ship in time--here's a sample passage to run through your cranium:
"Well, the Ranger is a metallic object, loaded with other metallic objects.  A conductor.  If you move any conductor across a magnetic field, or vice versa, you generate an EMF, whose value depends on the speed of the motion and the intensity of the field.  Have you ever seen that classroom demonstration where a sheet of copper is dropped between the poles of a strong magnet?"
Errr, I was probably looking at the legs of the girl sitting behind me during that demonstration.  Luckily for people like me, Anderson includes in this part of the book a love triangle, which is the kind of geometry even the dimmest among us can understand.

The fleet is in orbit around Rustum, the colonists all on the surface building their settlement while supplies and equipment are ferried down to them.  Because Coffin has decided to join the colonists, Nils Kivi is now in command.  Hotheaded Constitutionalist and engineer Jan Svoboda is helping to move cargo from a star ship to one of the space boats when Kivi has to fire the ion drive to move the ship out of the way of a meteor.  Svoboda, who of course is not a trained spacer, has left a huge piece of equipment loose in the cargo hold, and the ship's sudden movement propels the item (a component of a nuclear reactor) through a bulkhead, damaging the ship's reactor, which knocks out power to the ship's protective magnetic screen.  The ship is in a Van Allen Belt, so with the screen down, the vessel is flooded with deadly radiation and must be evacuated at once.  That means there is no safe way to get all the nuclear reactor parts off the ship, and without the reactor the colony (which is 42 years away from Earth, you know) is doomed.

As you can imagine, this disaster doesn't do much for already strained astronaut-Constitutionalist relations.  In fact, Kivi jumps in the lifeboat so fast that Svoboda accuses him of trying to leave him behind, and then Kivi starts the liftboat engines before Svoboda can buckle up, knocking the Constitutionalist on his ass so hard Svoboda ends up in the infirmary and accuses Kivi of trying to murder him!  When we readers learn how much time Kivi has been spending with Svoboda's wife Judith, we wonder if maybe Svoboda has a point!

Anyway, Svoboda figures out a way to get the ship out of the radiation belt and unload the equipment needed by the colony, and how to overcome Kivi's objections, which largely stem from Kivi's hopes that, if colony effort is abandoned and Judith has to return to Earth, she will leave Svoboda for him.

"The Mills of the Gods," Part Four of Orbit Unlimited, takes place some years after the colony has been established.  Joshua Coffin and his wife (they met on the voyage when he was breaking his own rules against contact between the sexes) have five kids, including adopted Danny, whom all the other kids bully because he was gestated in an artificial womb (an "exogene tank"), the product of sperm and an ovum brought to Rustum from Earth.  (From your parents yelling at you and teachers indoctrinating you, to the other kids making fun of you over stuff you can't change and pressuring you to conform when it comes to stuff you can change, Orbit Unlimited includes plenty of scenes that remind you of how horrible it was to be young.)  All couples are obligated to raise an exogene to increase genetic diversity in the small colony, but so far only Coffin, the civic-minded, highly-disciplined, religious guy, and his wife have actually done it.

1961 edition
Danny runs away from home, down a dangerous cleft into the clouds (the colony is high on a plateau, above the clouds.)  Looking for him down there is judged to be too dangerous by everybody except his adoptive father, but the mayor, a fat merchant who is a master of persuasion and espionage (that's right, like Nicholas van Rijn, one of Anderson's most famous characters), convinces Jan Svoboda to join Coffin in the search by telling him that saving the brat will give him the reputation of a hero, which will help him compete with other businesspeople for labor (Svoboda operates some kind of mine), and by threatening to tell everybody about Svoboda's recent extramarital affair! (Anderson writes one cynical book here, with most every character manipulating people, lying, betraying his principles, and/or making a boneheaded mistake!)

Down below the clouds the searchers find plenty of scientific danger (too much nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the air) and melodrama (native wildlife attacks them, and Coffin and Svoboda argue and even fight each other as they begin to lose their minds to fatigue), but they eventually find Danny and genius Svoboda comes up with a plan to rescue him from the precarious spot the exogene tyke has got himself in.  This life-threatening adventure changes both Danny and his foster father's character and reputations for the better.

In the last pages of the book, the mayor explains to Svoboda that he forced him to risk his life going after Danny in order to set a precedent, an example, of community-minded self-sacrifice, even giving a little speech on the limits of individualism:
"What did we come to Rustum for?  To live our own lives as we see fit, without official nosiness.  Good enough.  But we've carried it too far.  Now that the initial struggle to survive is past, each family has retreated more and more into its own selfish concerns.  We can't have that."
If people won't work together voluntarily, laws and police, which are of course ripe for abuse and a plague on liberty and efficiency, will arise to force them to work together, so examples of heroism like Svoboda's are needed to cultivate a culture of voluntary self-sacrifice in the interests of the community.

In Orbit Unlimited we have four good entertaining SF stories; each one is about one or more persons and their psychological issues and interpersonal relationships, and each one speculates about a possible future milieu: What kind of social and political life might result from overpopulation?  What kind of technology would be used to travel 20 light years to colonize another planet, and what kinds of lives would the starship crew and the colonists live?  Another success from Grand Master and multiple Hugo Award winner Anderson.

Three stories by Mack Reynolds

Happy May Day, comrade!  As the bourgeois intellectuals at Wikipedia tell it, "The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International called on 'all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.'"  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log on the First of May we talk about California-born Mack Reynolds, who was a star member of the Socialist Labor Party in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, until in 1958 he was excommunicated when the SLP's Executive Committee discovered that Reynolds had authored the book How to Retire Without Money.  (Check out last year's May Day commemoration of Reynolds, which includes a reproduction of the amusing cover of How to Retire Without Money.)

Reynolds didn't just write retirement guides and sex novels--he also wrote tons of SF.  Today we'll be looking at three Reynolds stories that appear in the 1976 volume The Best of Mack Reynolds, a copy of which I own.  These tales were first published in FantasticPlayboy, and Analog, magazines close to this blog's heart.  I chose these individual stories because I thought the titles interesting, and it is very possible that some or all of them have nothing to do with socialism or politics or economics.

"No Return From Elba" (1953)

I probably don't have to tell my erudite readership that Elba was the island to which the merciful forces of justice exiled the Corsican Ogre back in 1814.  But, as they say, mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and it was from Elba that the little corporal escaped to once again terrorize mankind.

Each story in The Best of Mack Reynolds is accompanied by an introduction from the author, and, in the intro to "No Return From Elba," Reynolds brags that Fantastic editor Howard Browne paid "the unheard of, in those days, rate of four cents a word" for the tale.

This is a very brief, and rather lame, doublecross tale with a feeble twist ending.  A warmongering dictator (I guess from Venus) has been defeated by a coalition of other planets and his three closest lieutenants fly him to an asteroid to hide.  The plan is that after a few years the coalition will fall apart and the Venusian public will welcome the tyrant's return.  The three lieutenants leave, and a bomb they planted on the asteroid explodes, killing the dictator--these jokers plan to seize power for themselves and didn't want the dictator to interfere.  But what they don't know is that the dictator, to help keep his hiding place a secret, planted a bomb of his own on the ship and the would-be triumvirs will soon join the dictator in death.

A forgettable filler story.  There is no reason for this story to even be a SF story--it would make just as much sense if it was about a mob boss or a Third World caudillo or something.  Sirius, the Croatian SF magazine, included a translation of "No Return From Elba" in a 1978 issue whose theme was SF crime stories.

"Burnt Toast" (1955)

Originally appearing in Playboy, a year later "Burnt Toast," under the title "Martinis: 12 to 1," reappeared in F&SF, and in 1988 it was translated for inclusion in an Italian horror anthology that endeavoured to capitalize on the enduring fascination of readers with H. P. Lovecraft and girls' boobs.

"Burnt Toast" is one of those stories in which a guy has a wager with the Devil.  Mephistopheles presents the protagonist 13 cocktails--one is poison.  If the main character, a drunk found in the gutter, drinks the poison cocktail his soul as well as his life are forfeit.  But if he drinks one of the twelve safe cocktails he gets one hundred dollars.  The wagering need not end there--if the man takes a second drink and survives he gets $200, a third $400, and so on.  We follow the protagonist's progress as he wins money, leaves, then days or months or years later returns because he needs or wants more money and is willing to take the ultimate risk to get it.  Of course, the Devil has not necessarily been playing fairly....

This one is actually mildly entertaining and moves at a brisk pace, so I feel free to give it a passing grade.

"Survivor" (1966)

This one is more what I expect from Reynolds, a pacifistic utopian thing.  Here is another Reynolds story that after its first appearance ("Survivor" was first published in Analog) was picked up by the people at Sirius for translation.

When negotiations break down between the West and the commies, atomic war is expected any minute.  People flee New York City, on the way out fighting each other for vehicles, food, and weapons.  A small number of Manhattanites, thinking there is no hope or unwilling to do violence to their fellow citizens, remain in the Big Apple awaiting their destruction.

To the surprise of those who chose to stay, New York is spared.  While millions of people in the countryside are killing each other in competition for scarce resources, those in the city, the meek, inherit all the canned food and other goods the city has to offer.  Via ham radio they learn that neither side in the Cold War conflict launched any missiles--apparently, when it looked like war was inevitable, all the politicians and military men in Washington and Moscow fled instead of doing their duty and pushing the button.  All over the world the ruthless fled the cities to engage in a fruitless and ultimately suicidal red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle while the resigned stayed home and, paradoxically, survived.  Soon all the aggressive people will have starved or murdered each other, and the pacific softies in the cities can begin building a new and peaceful society.

This story is silly and gimmicky, but the gimmick is original and the story is competently written, so "Survivor" gets a pass.


Nothing really good, but nothing really dismal, either.  If this blog is yet afloat in one year's time, we'll check in again with Comrade Reynolds.