Saturday, November 24, 2018

Finishing up Tomorrow Lies in Ambush

British first edition of 11 stories
Here it is, the third and final installment of our look at the US edition of Bob Shaw's collection of short stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

"The Weapons of Isher II" (1971)

The title of this one announces that it was inspired by one of the most famous works of Canada's finest export, A. E. van Vogt!  In the 1942 short story "The Weapon Shop," (which formed a component of the 1951 novel The Weapon Shops of Isher) the title weapons are energy pistols that are devised so that they can only be used in self defense--they won't fire if you are trying to rob or murder some poor bastard.  Shaw takes this idea and builds a middling joke story around it.

The protagonist of "The Weapons of Isher II" is Tilton, a journalist on planet Isher II, a rainy and muddy planet where the main industry is agriculture.  A popular spectator sport of the people of the space empire of which Isher II is a part is televised duels organized like heavyweight prizefighting is today (I guess; I don't really know anything about sports.)  These duels are formalized gunfights with pistols that strongly favor having a "quick draw," much like the showdowns seen in 20th-century Western movies.  Some planets, including Isher II, forbid dueling--all guns on Tilton's planet include a device which prevents them from firing at a person unless it is in self defense.  Two galaxy-famous duellists (the current champ and the #2 gun fighter) come incognito to Isher II, which Tilton discovers when one of them accidentally shoots down the robotic duck built by his eccentric relative, Grandpa Vogt!

In van Vogt stories the protagonist often discovers some crazy secret about society's elites, and in this story Tilton learns that the famous duels followed by so many sports fans are not nearly as deadly as they appear--most duellists who are "killed" are speedily revived by high tech medicine and then retire into obscurity.  (This is a secret because it is the high stakes--life or death--which make the sport popular.)  The climax of the story involves the two duellists fighting a duel on Isher II and trying to game the system that enforces the rule that you can only shoot a person in self defense--maybe under such conditions the gunfighter with the slower draw has an advantage?

This story is just acceptable--the references to van Vogt are cute but not actually funny, and the plot (which concerns Tilton's professional rivalry with another journalist as much as it does the rivalry of the two visiting gunslingers) is just OK.  One of the pitfalls "The Weapons of Isher II" risks falling into is that it reminds you of van Vogt's famous story, which is a complicated and ambitious piece of work that addresses major philosophical themes (the right to self defense, and the questions of what form of government is just and how a people might create such a government) and Shaw's story here is just a silly trifle.  Van Vogt has many detractors, and I thought Shaw might appeal to them here by attacking van Vogt's idiosyncratic style or ideas, which would give the story an edge and invite debate about literary technique or philosophy, but Shaw doesn't do that--the story just kind of sits there inoffensively, a sort of kindly homage to van Vogt.  (A true homage to van Vogt should emulate van Vogt's work, and be challenging, surprising, difficult, crazy, peculiar and even offensive.)       

"The Weapons of Isher II" first appeared in the 45th anniversary issue of Amazing with an illustration by MPorcius fave Jeff Jones (who also did the cover of the issue.)  The story was later translated into Croatian and Dutch.

"Pilot Plant" (1966) 

This is a long one--like 60 pages!  It first appeared in New Worlds, I guess early in the third year of Michael Moorcock's tenure as editor, and has only ever been reprinted in the various editions of Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

It is the 1980s, a future world of videophones, permanent moon bases and radical advances in aircraft design.  Aeronautical engineer and expert on cybernetics Tony Garnett owns and manages a firm that is designing and manufacturing a fighter plane with an "ion-augmented" jet and wings that consist of a force field--the immaterial wings can change size, growing smaller at high speeds to reduce drag.  Garnett is watching a test flight of this aircraft when it crashes right next to him and he is injured.  The moment before the injury he hears a mysterious voice for which their is no obvious source say, "Get me out of this, Xoanon."  Garnett has never heard of Xoanon before.

There is plenty of psychology in this story.  Garnett is short, and Shaw tells us several times about how his height affects Garnett's feelings and decisions; Garnett has a temper, which we see him display; while recuperating in the hospital Garnett meets a dietitian with a lazy eye or amblyopia or something (Shaw says she has a "a slight cast in one eye" which he also describes as "a slight in-turning"), Janice Wheeler, and we hear all about how she affects his mind as they go on a few dates.

Immediately after returning to work Garnett orders a project (a civilian version of the force field wing) cancelled, but months later, by chance, sees a photograph suggesting that some segment of the company (of eight thousand employees) is still working on this project.  Weird things begin happening as he investigates this secret "parasite" organization within his own organization--the clue in the photograph disappears, for example, and the first person he seeks to interrogate suddenly falls into a coma a second before Garnett asks his first question.   

Maybe I've got van Vogt on the brain, but this story also reminds me of the work of the Canadian mastermind!  There's all that psychology, there's an esoteric way of thinking (Garnett's cybernetic thinking reminded me of van Vogt's Nexialism and interest in non-Aristotelian logic), there's the weirdness with Wheeler's eye, and the uncovering of a secret organization.  In the later stages of the story, like in so many van Vogt tales, our hero must confront space aliens and unexpected truths about himself and our world, and the story concludes with a (admittedly more modest than that at the end of The Weapon Makers) sensawunda we-will-now-explore-the-universe ending.

Whatever "Pilot Plant" owes to van Vogt, it is a fun "thriller" full of cool technological and mental SF stuff.  Thumbs up!  (The worst part is the unattractive title, which I assumed referred to vegetation, though it makes sense if we consider "plant" as meaning "factory" and "something or someone placed somewhere deceptively.")

"Telemart Three" (1970)

"Telemart Three" was printed in If, "The Magazine of Alternatives," and the same year was included in a French publication of Philip Jose Farmer's third Tiers book, A Private Cosmos.

This is a brief humor piece (10 pages of text here) about wives who spend too much and husbands who respond by murdering them.  Or trying to--in this story the husband fails and the wife lives (albeit crippled) to spend again.  The SF content of this story consists mainly in the introduction of a holographic TV that broadcasts lots of commercials, and has an integrated teleporter that can send to your home the items being advertised should your dainty feminine finger press the purchase button on the remote.  The teleporter can also instantly send a security guard to your home if you press the emergency button, as the murderous husband realizes too late.

Acceptable filler to me, perhaps misogynistic hate speech to those born more recently?

(I assure you it is a coincidence that I read this story on "Black Friday.")

"Invasion of Privacy" (1970)

"Invasion of Privacy" debuted in Amazing and has achieved success, being chosen by such editors as Terry Carr, Martin H. Greenberg and R. Chetwynd-Hynes for inclusion in anthologies as well as translated into numerous languages.  Maybe we are ending this collection with a bang!

Middle-class suburbanite George Ferguson's mother-in-law has been dead for two weeks, but his son Sammy claims to have seen her earlier in the day--in the old abandoned house down the street!  That evening Sammy becomes terribly sick, and is rushed to the hospital.  Back home, anxiously awaiting news with his wife, who is beside herself with grief and fear, George goes for a walk--somehow his feet lead him to that weird old house.  He peers in a window and finds things are just as his son described--his dead mother-in-law is sitting in the decrepit house along with a bunch of other people he thought dead, reading a magazine!

George busts into the old house to investigate, and then confronts the family doctor who has been tending to George's mother-in-law, wife and son, and he learns the astonishing truth--the psyches of alien refugees have been fleeing to Earth to take up residence in duplicates of the bodies of Earth people who are terminally ill!  The alien scheme is a complicated one.  1) The local representative of the aliens, ideally a medical professional, becomes aware that some poor human is about to die.  2) This doomed Earthling is taken to a secret location and his body duplicated by a big computer in some kind of vat.  3) An alien psyche inhabits the duplicate body, and when the original human dies the dead body is disposed of and the dupe is returned to his family with the news that he is cured--the duplicate brain holds all the memories the dead person had, so impersonating him is not difficult for the alien.  The reason George's mother-in-law's duplicate is hiding in the abandoned house along with the duplication apparatus is that there was a scheduling problem--Sammy's grandmother died earlier than expected, at home instead of in the hospital, so there was no way for the E.T.s to hide the corpse and substitute their healthy duplicate.  (At least this is how the aliens describe their practice to George--it seems possible they are bending the truth a little and they are just murdering people, not actually waiting for terminally ill people to show up.) 

George has to decide if he should expose this invasion to the world, go on a one-man crusade against the invaders, or just passively accept the invasion--he has reason to believe that the Sammy now living with him and his wife is a duplicate inhabited by an alien personality, but he is not sure if the aliens murdered the real Sammy or if the real Sammy died of natural causes, and either way his sensitive wife might go insane or commit suicide if she learns that the real Sammy is dead.  One of the themes of the story is that George is a weak-willed character who always takes the easy way out, compromising and accepting circumstances instead of standing up for himself and boldly authoring his own fate, so we are not surprised by the course he chooses.

This story isn't bad, but the alien invasion process seems overly convoluted (in contrast with the straightforward raw emotions of the human characters confronted by the death of their loved ones) with the result that the moving parts of the story don't mesh together smoothly.  I have to judge "Invasion of Privacy" as just OK.   


Let's sum up our reaction to the thirteen stories in Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, ranking the stories and separating them into three categories.

"Call Me Dumbo"
"Pilot Plant"
"The Happiest Day of Your Life"
"Cosmic Cocktail Party"
"...And Isles Where Good Men Lie"

"Invasion of Privacy"
"Weapons of Isher II"
"Repeat Performance"
"Telemart Three"
"What Time Do You Call This?"

"Element of Chance"

In our first installment of this look at Tomorrow Lies in Ambush I pointed out that a couple of years ago a review of the collection appeared at the Potpourri of Science Fiction blog.  Now that I have finished the book it is time to see if I have any major disagreements with the writer of that review, Mykobia AA.

Mykobia AA and I must have very different tastes, because the story I thought the worst, "Element of Chance," he thought the best, awarding it a score of 4 out of 5!  (He thought "Invasion of Privacy" the worst, and scored it a 1.5.)  My second fave, "Pilot Plant," gets the second worse score he assigned, 2.5 out of 5--he also gives "Weapons of Isher II" and "Stormseeker" a 2.5.  (Mykobia AA seems to have a distaste for the style and themes of Golden Age SF, and also laments the portrayal of women in Shaw's stories, which may explain some of our differences in opinion.)


Tomorrow Lies in Ambush didn't blow me away, but it was worthwhile.  I own a pile of Bob Shaw books I haven't read yet, so Shaw will be showing up again here at MPorcius Fiction Log, but our next few episodes will look at early '70s short stories by other SF authors.

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