Remember that Joachim Boaz, generous supporter of this blog and bulwark of the vintage SF internet community, has already digested Orbit 8 and discussed it at his blog and you should totally check out what he has to say about these three stories before or after you read what I have to say about them. We disagreed about several components of the last batch of Orbit 8 tales, and maybe we'll get some more friction today?
"Right Off the Map" by Pip Winn
Pip Winn has only this single credit on isfdb, and it only ever appeared in Orbit 8. "Right Off the Map" is a competent story with a brisk jaunty style, acceptable but no big deal; you might call it "filler."
It is the overcrowded future and even what today is the Sahara desert is covered in buildings. Space is so tight that a vast government bureaucracy controls every moment of people's lives, scheduling what hour of each week you are allowed to go grocery shopping, for example, and even then everybody has to wait in long lines.
Our narrator, a biologist, and his roommate, a sociologist, by looking at an old map, learn that there is a lost valley in India still unoccupied by man, and they get government approval to explore and assess it for use as a site for more housing. Once they get there the biologist sees one of the last tigers on Earth, and has to choose whether to return to civilization with the specimen or murder his roommate and live out his life in the jungle he is quickly growing to love.
An obvious overpopulation/environmentalism story, but I thought the style was good enough that it deserved a pass. Joachim thought it so silly and tiresome that he condemned it as "bad." I guess I'm a softie!
Ted Thomas, also known as Theodore L. Thomas, has a number of credits at isfdb, including two novels coauthored with Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight's wife. A few years after its debut in Orbit 8, "The Weather on the Sun" was included in one of those anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover, The Science Fictional Solar System.
Thomas was a legit scientist, and "The Weather on the Sun" is hard SF full of science. (Sample: "The electron-positron pairs do not annihilate back to high-energy photons completely.") I am in general sympathetic to hard SF; I like it when one astronauts is racing against the clock to jury-rig some busted gadget while his comrade is crunching the numbers on the only orbit that will conserve enough rocket fuel and oxygen to do wherever they gotta do before whatever horrible fate befalls them. Unfortunately, "The Weather on the Sun," as I suppose I should have guessed from the title, is about that most boring of natural phenomena, the weather. It is also one of those SF stories in which the scientists and politicians look down on the common people as children to be managed, in which the bogeyman to be staved off by the enlightened elite is "individualism," and in which we are reminded that politicians are in fact not cynical greedy power-hungry jerk offs who prey on the taxpayers, but martyrs who sacrifice themselves for us--remember that on April 15th, you ingrates! Worst of all, "The Weather on the Sun" is also one of those SF stories which consists primarily of cardboard characters sitting around talking to each other about shit that is boring.
Here's a core sample from the story, a quote from the president of the world government, that perhaps tells you all you need to know about "The Weather on the Sun:"
"Our entire culture, our entire civilization, the world over, is built on weather control. It is the primary fact of life for every living being. If our ability to control the weather is destroyed, our world will be destroyed. We go back to sectionalism, predatory individualism. The one factor that ties all men everywhere together would disappear. The only thing left--chaos."(Typing this quote out has forced me to consider the possibility that this story is a joke, a parody of the self-importance and myopia of elites and/or of histrionic SF stories.)
The plot: Changes in the sun lead to a diminution of the government's ability to control the weather. We get a long boring scene of the scientists finding this out, and a long boring scene of politicians finding this out totally independently of the eggheads. Why two unconnected scenes which accomplish the same plot objective? Maybe Damon Knight was paying by the word? We get scenes of the politicians debating and voting on raising everybody's taxes to figure out what the hell is going on and scenes of the boffins discussing how to spend all that mullah ("Maybe a carbon alloy would improve the efficiency of the turnaround effect.") The scientists figure out how to fix good ol' Sol--fly a space ship into the core of the sun and add some fluid--but a human has to be aboard the ship, and the ship won't be able to leave the sun one it has entered it--it's a suicide mission! The president of the world suddenly learns he has a terminal disease so he volunteers for the one-way trip to hell and eternal fame. Oh, brother!
"The Weather on the Sun" is like twenty-four pages long, and after I had dozed my way through each page I riffled through the rest, counting how many more pages of this torture session lay before my bleary eyes. Every scene is too long, with tedious descriptions of boring objects and opaque lines of gobbledygook, the hard SF version of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn." Every joke, like the two-page scene in which it rains on a guy's picnic, falls flat. There is no excitement and the many many characters are indistinguishable and convey zero human feeling until page 21 when Thomas turns the dial marked "sappy melodrama" up to 11 and everybody starts crying. Gotta give this one a severe thumbs down--an irritating waste of time.
Joachim thought the story the pinnacle of hokiness, but still judged it "vaguely average." Who's the softie now?
One of the reasons I decided to read every story in Orbit 8 instead of just reading the stories by Wolfe and Lafferty and moving on with my life is that on the publication page I saw that Graham Charnock in his story "The Chinese Boxes" had quoted T. S. Eliot's 1917 poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." I've been reading a lot by and about Eliot and his cronies Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis lately, and I was irresistibly curious to see how Charnock would integrate Eliot's work into his story. Readers of this blog may remember how I read Douglas R. Mason's From Carthage Then I Came for similar reasons and then was disappointed, but hope springs eternal!
"The Chinese Boxes" is a bleak story about the linked issues of our responsibility to others and the question of whether life has any meaning or even value, a story in which death is a recurring topic. Initially, Charnock presents us with two alternating but parallel plot threads. One concerns Carpenter, a man of above average intelligence who, because of the poor economic conditions of the near future in which the story is set, has serially taken and lost simple entry-level positions, like being a clerk at retail stores. Currently he is employed on the campus of a major research organization; his job is to sit in a large room watching a giant cube. He and his girlfriend wonder what the cube is all about. The other thread is about a guy imprisoned in an almost featureless room, a man who is going insane, losing his memory and so forth. It is not much of a surprise to us readers when Carpenter learns that the cube is an isolation chamber and the prisoner we have been witnessing go bonkers is in it; a former bartender, he volunteered to be the guinea pig in a psychological experiment seeking to find out how a person might react if he was isolated from all human contact for eighteen months? This experiment is super hardcore--the only way the bartender can escape the box is via suicide! Knowing the truth, Carpenter and his girlfriend have to decide if they want to be any part of this bizarre, risky, and morally suspect enterprise. We readers, of course, see many similarities between Carpenter's ostensibly "free" life and the bartender's life trapped in the cube.
Judged on a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, "The Chinese Boxes" is well-written. Images are sharp and phrases and characters are all engaging; Charnock's writing is never boring or vague, and I quite enjoyed it. How well the story is constructed as a whole, I am not really sure; it is ambitious, which of course is good, but may be too obvious, too earnest, too "arty." I liked it, but others may find it showy and sophomoric, like a pretentious student film about the meaning of life.
A big reason I enjoyed the story was that Charnock's direct references to Eliot, which include a recitation of the last ten lines of "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," had me picking up and shaking out every passage looking for indirect references to Eliot's life and work, and I think I found some! One of the noteworthy things in "The Chinese Boxes" is the presence of one of those IBM "THINK" plaques we encountered a year ago in Ted Sturgeon's 1965 story "The Nail and the Oracle," and I wondered if the invocation to "THINK" might also be meant to remind readers of the "nerves" section of The Waste Land.* Various phrases (e.g., "But what do they do?") and themes (isolation in a place so boring that death is a liberation and the question of whether life and death are really so different) reminded me of Eliot's unfinished verse drama, Sweeney Agonistes. Charnock even includes an unsavory Jewish character (the kind of character the kids call "problematic,") reminding us of the numerous questionable Jewish characters in Eliot's work.
*This "THINK" sign provides anexample of why I suspect people might find the story "showy" or "too obvious;" Charnock doesn't just mention the "THINK" sign once or twice, but again and again, with characters talking about it, staring at it, ruminating on it, etc.
I read "The Chinese Boxes" hoping for T. S. Eliot material, and Charnock's story is chockablock with Eliot material; I am more than satisfied. For his part, Joachim proclaims this one "good" and laments that Charnock hasn't published more fiction.
"The Chinese Boxes" reappeared in a French collection of SF stories about doctors. Charnock has like 14 short fiction credits at isfdb, most of them appearing in the various iterations of New Worlds, and is a very active SF fan; at his website you can find many issues of his fanzine, Vibrator, which appears to be deliberately written with an eye to offending people. Sample quote from the September 2013 issue: "Please feel free to send me shit in the post if you disagree with this. I’m used to being Mr Unpopular."
I think today's episode of MPorcius Fiction Log has been a worthwhile exploration of some minor SF writers--next week I may be scouring the Internet Archive for more stories by Graham Charnock. But first we'll be finishing up our ERB Moon project and reading the three final stories in Orbit 8, stories by people at the very epicenter of literary SF!