Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Chillbinding" 1950s Science Fiction from J. Blish, P. Anderson and T. N. Scortia


An unexpected road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska earlier this month put me within striking range of A Novel Idea Bookstore, where they were, fortuitously, having a sale in which individual customers were randomly assigned different discounts.  Yours truly hit the jackpot, winning a 50% discount, so the wife and I stocked up.  Among my purchases was Crest Book L728, the 1964 edition of a 1960 anthology of stories selected by Leo Margolies entitled Get Out of My Sky.  At $1.50, how could I resist that Powers cover and the promise of "chillbinding" novellas by three authors I am interested in, James Blish, Poul Anderson and Thomas N. Scortia?  Let's take a trip back in time to the late 1950s, and to a terrifying future with "three master craftsmen of the science-fiction suspense story."  We'll ask if each story is good, like we always do, but also assess if these stories are truly chillbinding, as advertised!

"Get Out of My Sky" by James Blish (1957)

The title story of this anthology is almost 80 pages long and appeared first across two early 1957 issues of Astounding.  Besides here in this anthology, it would later appear in a few Blish collections and an Italian magazineMama mia!

Numerous times on this blog I have complained about elitist classic SF stories which seem to advocate the manipulation, by any means necessary, of the masses by the cognitive elite and even politicians(!)  And here we have another one!

Ocean-covered planet Home and desert planet Rathe are twins that revolve around a common point, each perpetually showing its sister the same hemisphere.  Along with a small star, the two planets form a Trojan system that orbits a large star.  Both planets are home to intelligent species of humanoids who have achieved what I guess we can call a 20th-century level of technology (nuclear bombs, rocket and jet engines, TV) and in just the last few years they have opened up communications via radio and television.  "Get Out of My Sky" is the story of this new interplanetary relationship, with the leading politician from Home, First Minister Aidregh, as our protagonist.

The main theme of the story is that the ordinary people of Home and Rathe are gullible, irrational, superstitious and religious fools, and their foolishness is driving the two planets towards a push button war that will likely lead to the extermination of one or both civilizations.  In fact, the first scene of the story, an italicized prologue, depicts what appears to be a tent revival, where a nameless demagogue drives the common people into a frenzy of hostility towards their sister planet.  Aidregh and the rulers of Rathe have to work together to prevent this cataclysm.

After the prologue, the novella is broken into nine chapters.  The early chapters largely concern the gathering of intelligence about Rathe.  Chapter I features observations of the desert planet from shipboard during an eclipse--did stories of Captain Cook's observations of an eclipse in 1766 and the transit of Venus in 1769 and inspire this scene?  There is also a secret space mission (Home's first manned space flight) to photograph Rathe's "dark" side.  The first five chapters also describe a lot of political jazz concerning different polities on Home (Aidregh is First Minister of the most powerful state on Home, Thrennen, but there are a few other countries on the islands of the watery planet with whom Thrennen has sometimes contentious relationships) and different political parties in Thrennen.  Blish portrays Aidregh's dealings with the voters and with the opposition party not as the inevitable features of a free society, but as a hassle, an obstacle to Aidregh's solving everybody's problems.  Aidregh seems to like the ruler of Rathe with whom he talks via TV, Margent, more than he likes the bulk of his own countrymen! 

In Chapter VI, Aidregh and the rest of our cast of characters fly to Rathe (this is Home's second manned space flight) to negotiate with the Rathemen.  In a secluded cave Margent explains to Aidregh that the Rathemen are mystics who for centuries focused not on developing material wealth and technology, but on developing telepathy and precognition; as a result, Rathe everybody loved everybody and there was no crime or politics or war.  Yes, "Get Out of My Sky" isn't just an elitist story, but a mystical utopian one!  Gadzooks!

But fifty years ago the Rathemen utopia was shaken by the invention of the radio!  The people started listening in on Home transmissions, and when the Rathemen learned about all the politics and crime and war on Home, it shook the common people to the core; in fear that the Home people would attack Rathe as soon as they learned of the Rathemen, the Rathe hoi polloi demanded the construction of a Rathe war apparatus.  Such technological and martial production began stunting Rathe psychic abilities, and even souring their lovey dovey attitude.  As things stand now, with the populations of both planets scared and suspicious of each other, nuclear war is only days away!

Luckily lead mystic Margent has a plan to make peace.  The Rathemen spend three days and three chapters teaching Aidregh a psychic trick--the power to sway audiences emotionally.  Then Aidregh uses this trick to get the people of both planets to step back from the brink.  An italicized epilogue exposes the fact that the italicized prologue was a trick played on us readers by Blish; the scene was really depicting Aidregh, resigned from the First Ministership (naturally, his son now holds the position), not preaching hatred of Rathe after all but spreading peace and love!

"Get Out of My Sky" is not very well written.  There is no human feeling, even though Blish wastes many words on the boring relationships between Aidregh and his son, his best friend, his dead wife, and his son's fiance (his best friend's daughter.)  Efforts to create drama can be silly--the astronaut who leads the months-long expedition to photograph the far side of Rathe dies of exhaustion immediately after giving his report (you know, like Pheidippides.)  The people in the story are aliens from a fictional star system, and Blish describes their appearance in some detail (the people of Home have six fingers and two thumbs and flat noses and a ridge above the eye sockets while the Rathemen have long noses and no ridge above the eyes, etc.), but Blish clumsily calls them "human" and has them use Earth metaphors (e. g., a determined woman is described as being like "a female tiger defending her cub.")  I also thought it was sloppy that Blish didn't come up with an actual name for Aidregh's planet, just referring to it as "this planet" or "Aidregh's world" in the first half of the story and then hitting upon "Home" in the second half.  Worst of all, the story is way too long, moving at a slow pace and burdened with extraneous detail and narrative dead ends.  Is this text a draft rather than a final version of the story?   

Neither am I impressed by the story's ideology or its SF ideas; the psychic powers of the Rathemen come across as infallible and unbelievable magic, which is boring and silly--contrast "Get Out of My Sky" with Algis Budrys's "The Peasant Girl," in which equally puissant psychic powers make compelling reading because Budrys shows the moral and psychological and sociological drawbacks and shortcomings of such powers.

"Get Out of My Sky" is getting a thumbs down from me.  Too bad.

Is it good?  No.                                               Is it chillbinding?  More like sleep-inducing!   

"Sister Planet" by Poul Anderson (1959)

Let’s see if Poul Anderson can deliver us a chillbinding story…or at least a good one.

Earth grows increasingly overcrowded, and at the same time that governments are becoming ever more intrusive and oppressive they are proving less and less able to handle the exploding crime problem. Some fear the building pressure will result in nuclear war that could wipe out humanity!

Our story is set on Venus, a world covered in a single vast ocean that teems with diverse and spectacular life.  A multicultural team of fifty Earth scientists and technicians work there on a floating research station; their work is financed by sending back to Earth “firegems” which the playful twenty-foot long Venusian whales bring the boffins in exchange for objets d'a and snacks from Earth.  These cetoids are eager to play and trade, and even help Earthmen in trouble, but they don't seem to use tools and efforts to communicate with them have been unproductive, so there is debate among the scientists over how intelligent they really are—do these creatures have a real civilization down at the bottom of the sea or are they just over-sized oceanic pack rats little smarter than a chimp?

Nat Hawthrone from New England, an ecologist, believes the cetoids are as intellectually advanced as humans, and halfway through the 40-page story one of the whales takes Nat down deep to show him something that proves he is right.

The same day Nat has proof that the whales are an intelligent civilized species, a geologist unveils his calculations that prove Venus can be affordably terraformed to create a second Earth; such a  colonizable frontier could relieve sociological and psychological pressure on the Earth and assure survival of the human race!  But the terraforming (which involves detonating nuclear bombs near the planet core to raise continents and release buried elements that will give Venus an Earth-like atmosphere) will kill all native life, including the whales.  When the assembled research team hears from Nat that the whales are an intelligent race, they all agree that the terraforming research will be suppressed, but that is not good enough for Nat “Dances with Whales” Hawthorne.  He knows that another scientist with access to the same data might make the same calculations, so, to save the whales, whom Nat prefers to humankind, he goes rogue, like the guy in Edmond Hamilton’s 1932 "Conquest of Two Worlds" or in James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, which I have not exactly seen but have heard people talk about.

Nat knows that nobody will finance trips to Venus if there is no prospect of trade between the whales and humans, so he sparks a war between the cetoids and the scientists, blowing up the research station and killing his 49 human friends and then massacring the local tribe of his aquatic buddies. When Nat gets back to Earth he commits suicide; we are presented a clue that suggests his participation in the two-planet tragedy may have led the atheist Nat to embrace Christianity before jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Sister Planet” is a brisk and entertaining read.  For thirty pages Anderson pushes his customary themes--promoting science, trade, the fine arts and the study of history and deploring the government--and introduces us to a bunch of nice people, and then in the last ten pages he hits us with an apocalyptic melodrama in which one of the characters we like murders all the other characters we like and likely consigns the human race to extinction, all in order to protect some aliens. I think Anderson may have actually produced something “chillbinding” here!  The story is talky, with all the exposition about how the men cope with conditions on Venus and conduct their research, the science lectures, the debates about how intelligent the cetoids might be, and the historical analogies Anderson likes to present to his readers (some of the characters in "Sister Planet" suppose that the Earth is reenacting the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, with the scientists on Venus--none of whom are women--playing the role of monks.)  But all that stuff is pretty interesting.

After it initially appeared in Satellite Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison included "Sister Planet" in their late 1960s anthology All About Venus, published in Britain as Farewell, Fantastic Venus!  Kinglsey Amis in 1981 put it in his anthology The Golden Age of Science Fiction.  It looks like this one is endorsed by the SF cognoscenti, and I am happy to agree with them.

Is it good?  Sure.                                               Is it chillbinding?  I think so!

"Alien Night" by Thomas N. Scortia (1957)

So far we've got one dud and one score.  Will Thomas N. Scortia's "Alien Night," around 46 pages here in Get Out of My Sky, a story which first appeared in Science Fiction Adventures and hasn't seen print since Margolies's volume, make it two hits out of three?

It is the future!  The Universal Insurance Company, based in the Universal Building in Universal City on the banks of the mighty Mississip, is in the process of conquering death!  For centuries they have been administering a longevity serum that you need only take every 25 years to indefinitely postpone senescence.  All over America their medical robots stand ready to rush to the aid of anybody who gets in an accident.  Skyscrapers are equipped with automatic nets which will snap into position if any clumsy person should fall out a window.  And if your girlfriend dumps you, don't bother considering anything rash--the Company has blanketed the country in a "hetrerodyne field" that will knock you unconscious if a brain scanning computer detects serious thoughts of suicide.

While "Get Out of My Sky" is one of those pro-utopia stories, "Alien Night" is one of those stories about how utopias are unhappy and unsatisfying places.  In response to a life without excitement, risk or even work (androids do almost all the work), around the country have arisen "hunt clubs" whose members pursue what we might call the most dangerous game.  So, the next step in the Company's quest to eliminate death is to try to put these clubs out of business.  Kenneth Huber has been spying upon the clubs for the Company, but when he learns he has a rare disease that the Company can't cure and has only five years to live, Huber decides to commit suicide in the indirect fashion of joining a hunt club as the quarry!

Thus begins Huber's 24-hour odyssey through three dozen pages of plot twists.  Huber tries to rescue a woman he thinks is also being pursued by a hunt club, then suspects that she is hunting him and so fights with her, only later to be told she was rescuing him from hunters.  Out of nowhere an alien spacecraft crashes nearby and Huber (an unemployed thermonuclear engineer) gets shanghaied into helping investigate it.  Huber survives a helicopter crash, participates in a fire fight, discovers that many androids in sensitive positions are in fact humans in disguise--no, wait, they are actually aliens disguised as humans disguised as androids.  These aliens have infiltrated the top ranks of the Company in order to prevent any possible reforms--human society is sliding into decadence and sterility thanks to the Company's elimination of risk and challenge, and an impotent human race is just what the aliens want so that they can easily take over our beautiful planet.  (They have targeted the hunt clubs because hunt club members are the only humans left with any bravery.)  The woman rescues Huber, again, and reveals herself to be the leader of the anti-alien resistance, an agent from the future of a timeline in which the aliens succeed in taking over Earth.  Together they neutralize the alien menace, making sure her timeline never occurs and that humanity will shake off its decadence by pursuing the exploration of outer space.  Huber (don't worry, a cure for his disease will be found), having gotten a good look at the alien space engine, will be a leader in the new space program.

"Alien Night" feels like a pastiche of an A.E. van Vogt story, what with all the jarring plot twists and the inclusion of every possible SF trope--immortality, decadence, time travel, time lines, space craft, aliens, androids, the sense of wonder ending--but it lacks something it is hard to define, a tone or style or something to match the material, maybe, and comes off as a little rushed and kind of silly.  It certainly fails to excite any emotion in the reader.  Barely acceptable filler, I guess.

Is it good?  Not really.                                               Is it chillbinding?  No.

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The Anderson is the winner, obviously; I am totally on board with his libertarian sensibilities and view of life as a tragedy, but looking beyond my biases I think he has the story here which is best constructed and which actually succeeds in inspiring some emotion in the audience; he takes a little time to develop characters and their relationships so when somebody takes a radical step and everybody gets killed we readers actually care.  Blish's and Scortia's efforts to depict people and relationships in their stories in Get Out of My Sky feel cheap or just lame (in general, Anderson's story feels finished, polished, while Blish's feels like it could use a revision and Scortia's feels like a rush job.)

I don't know what Margolies saw in the Scortia's "Alien Night," but in defense of the Blish, it was voted second best story by readers in both issues of Astounding in which its component parts appeared, so its selection makes sense from a marketing point of view--I guess "Get Out of My Sky" reflects the preferences of those SF fans sufficiently committed to the genre to write to Astounding and make their voices heard.



Thursday, April 25, 2019

Four more tales from Budrys' Inferno

I wasn't crazy about Algis Budrys's famous novel Rogue Moon when I read it in 2007, so I have been a Budrys skeptic for years, but I have to say that I have liked or at least found acceptable the first five stories in Budrys' Inferno, which we read over the last three blog posts.  Maybe I am becoming a softie, or maybe the high emotional pitch of Budrys's fiction works better in the short form than in a full-length novel, where it might get exhausting or silly.

Well, let's read the last four of the nine pieces in the 1963 collection, hoping as we do that I like them as much or more than the first five.

"Lower Than Angels" (1956)

This is one of those SF stories that feels like it is inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook.  (My wife and I recently ate at a restaurant called "Walrus," which gave me a chance to tell her the story of how Cook tried to get his men to eat walrus meat.)  Earth's empire spans much of the galaxy, and continues to expand!  The men who explore the edges of known space, identifying star systems with life and valuable resources and making first contact with those aliens and staking claims to those resources, are the heroes of their generation!  When twenty-six-year-old Fred Imbry gets out of the Terran Space Navy he immediately joins up with one of the most successful of the explorer teams, the crew of the Sainte Marie.  And he is immediately disillusioned!  These "heroes" are just in it for the money, and one is a drunk, another a coward, a third a serial fabulist, etc. 

A month after Fred signs on, the Sainte Marie enters a frontier system and our disillusioned and bitter buddy is on his first mission as the ship's explorers, alone or in teams of two, set out from the Sainte Marie in their space boats to check out the system's individual planets.  Imbry, alone, has two weeks to make friends with the natives on a hospitable planet covered in rain forests and act as a good influence on them.  If Fred can spur the natives, who currently have a stone age technology, to develop technologically and economically, they will eventually make good trading partners for the rest of Earth's space empire.  (Isn't this what the anthropologist in Chad Oliver's 1958 story "The Marginal Man" is supposed to do with the primitive aliens he meets?) 

This is a good set up for a story, but the aliens and Imbry's interactions with them are kind of boring, and take up what feels like a lot of pages.  ("Lower Than Angels" in this book publication is 30 pages long.)  The natives, fishermen who live in a small island village, think Imbry is a god, and he tries to disabuse them of this notion, as he fears it will open the natives to exploitation by Earthmen.  Imbry uses modern medicine to save a child who has an infected injury, which of course makes the villagers even more confident he is not a man, as he insists, but a god.  Then a hurricane strikes and the village is destroyed and many villagers killed; Imbray, in his space armor which has an integrated force field, is not harmed by the storm.  The surviving villagers now think Imbray must be some kind of devil who caused the storm or at least refused to stop it, as they assume he must have been able to.

"Lower Than Angels" consists of a prologue and six chapters.  The brief sixth chapter is set "three seasons" later.  It is a little opaque, but I think what this two page chapter tells us is that Imbray has made his peace with the men of the Sainte Marie and is working hard from orbit to nudge the planet's natives into building a modern society with a modern technology and economy.  Imbray's particular contribution is to put robots on the planet that look like short people; when the natives meet these dwarves, the dwarves act like they think the natives are gods because they are physically stronger and have have boats (which the fake dwarves ostensibly lack); in this way the natives will have the same experience that Imbray had, and realize that Earth people are just people, only with a more advanced society.

"Lower Than Angels" has some elements in common with stories in the long tradition of anti-imperialist SF in which Earthers exploit or enslave primitive aliens (Edmond Hamilton's 1932 "Conquest of Two Worlds," is one example that sticks in my mind) but in the end of the story Budrys seems to be suggesting that the Earth explorers are not so bad, that modernization and trade between alien races can be mutually beneficial.  The means by which the natives in this story are modernized (by tricking them with robots) reminds us of another long SF tradition, stories in which elites deceive their inferiors for their own good (Asimov's Foundation books are perhaps the most famous example, though Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Clarke's Childhood's End and Sturgeon's "Slow Sculpture" are similarly elitist award winners) as well as all the bizarre and complicated schemes these Budrys stories seem to feature.

I'm calling this one "barely acceptable" because it is too long and tedious, though I suppose it is not actually bad.  "Lower Than Angels" was the cover story of an issue of Infinity Science Fiction with a striking and sexalicious Emsh cover painting (which has nothing to do with Budrys's story) and was included by Robert Silverberg in the 1966 anthology Earthmen and Strangers (I own the 1968 paperback edition) and by Sylvia Engdhal and Rick Roberson in the 1975 anthology Universe Ahead.  I guess a lot of people found it more compelling than I did.

"Contact Between Equals" (1958)

William Schaeffer is a genius businessman, a millionaire five or six times over.  He was also born blind.  But today he lies in a secluded house with bandages covering his face--today is the day he will see, thanks to an operation by top surgeon Louis Champley.  His wife Alicia is standing right there as Champley removes the bandages and Schaeffer, our narrator, sees his wife and the world for the first time!  But neither his first view of beauty-contest winner Alicia nor his first sight of the beautiful wooded mountains of North America is the most mind-blowing revelation our hero has to confront!

Like several of the stories in Budrys' Inferno, "Contact Between Equals" has at its center an elaborate and complicated crime.  Schaeffer is a genius, and even when blind he realized that Alicia and Champley were having an affair, and that this summer cottage on the side of a hill had some rooms wifey and Doc had scrupulously kept him away from.  But marital infidelity is just the tip of the iceberg in this wild story which reminded me a little of A. E. van Vogt's work, in which so often shocking plot twists and exposed secrets follow each other in rapid succession.  Brainiac Scaheffer not only looks in a mirror and realizes that Champley has switched bodies with him(!), but, putting his top-of-the-line grey matter to good use, over the course of this short fast-paced tale, Scaheffer susses out that Champley isn't just trying to steal Scaheffer's benjamins but to throw off his trail a vengeful space alien who is imprisoned in a secret room behind the kitchen!

Thus speaketh Schaeffer:
"I never wonder about anything, Alicia.  I find out."
Our hero does find everything out, foiling the evil sawbones and his own evil wife (if this guy is so smart why did he marry an avaricious bimbo instead of an honest businesswoman or college professor?--I guess we all make mistakes!) and making friends with the alien and hooking the Earth up with a diplomatic and commercial relationship with the E.T.s that will make life better for every (decent) human being.

This is a fun example of the classic-style SF story in which a smart guy uses logic and knowledge to figure something out at breakneck speed and thus save his own life.  Budrys stuffs "Contact Between Equals" with iconic SF elements like a dangerous alien and high technology that lead to a sense-of-wonder paradigm shift, plus such hard-boiled detective elements as a first-person narrator who totes up the clues before our very eyes and a faithless back-stabbing dame.  I like this one quite a bit.

"Contact Between Equals" was first published in Venture under the pseudonym Albert Stroud.  It was also included in Harry Harrison's  SF: Author's Choice 2 ("A DOZEN SF GREATS PRESENT THEIR FAVORITE STORIES"), suggesting that, like me, Budrys thought it one of his better productions.  I appears in that 1970 anthology with an essay by Budrys about the story that I would like to read.  (On Wednesday I dug through the boxes of SF paperbacks at Second Story Books' Rockville location looking for SF: Author's Choice 2,  but had no luck.)

"Dream of Victory" (1953)

In his introduction to Budrys' Inferno, Budrys tells us that "Dream of Victory" was the first novelette that he wrote, and he thanks Amazing's editor Howard Browne for making it more "comprehensible," Budrys having initially drafted it as a "free-wheeling" exercise in "technical bedazzlement."

It is the high tech 21st century, a time of world government, peace and prosperity, of video phones, self-driving cars and "chutes" instead of elevators.  As we learn from a chunk of exposition in the middle of the story, there was a devastating war in the late 20th century which reduced the population of advanced countries to like a quarter of what it had been.  To rebuild civilization, multitudes of androids--artificial, organic men, almost exactly like real men but with no ability to reproduce--were created.  Now that the natural human population has bounced back, the androids are being phased out; no more are being produced and those still extant are gradually losing their jobs and being replaced with woman-born people.

The actual plot concerns an android who is going through a crisis, Stac Fuoss.  Fuoss is cheating on his android wife Lisa with a natural woman, Carol, and being pushed out of his job at an insurance agency.  He is also having terrible nightmares; these nightmares evince some of that "technical bedazzlement" Budrys warned us about:
She came from blackness, and it was into blackness that he went for her.
He rolled and jerked on the bed.  Time whinnied by like a silver beast.
The woman was gone, hidden in blackness.  His feet moved spasmodically against the sheets.
The blackness parted and the woman returned.  There was with her--
While the dream scenes are sort of annoying, there are good things in the story, mostly concerning what life is like as an android, the neuroses that spring up from being an artificial person who can't have kids.  The android men are all chain smokers, for example, android women were only created to provide companionship to the male androids, and Fuoss spent all his money paying the android-making company to destroy the template used to make his wife so she will be a unique being and not just one of many clones.  The recurring nightmare is meant to convey to us readers the obsessive nature of Fuoss's hopeless hope of having a child, but I think Budrys could have done the dreams better or come up with some other technique to get this across.  (Full disclosure: Dream sequences are one of my pet peeves.)

In the final pages of the story the celebrated android lawyer who is having an affair with Lisa comes up with a scheme that provides some measure of hope for the androids.  Androids will crew the first space ship to leave the atmosphere, and come up with bogus evidence that indicates that natural-born humans can't go into space but androids can.  This will create a reason to manufacture more androids and put in the hands of the androids the power to control Earth.  But, driven over the edge by his obsession with fathering a child and human prejudice (when he asks Carol to marry him she scoffs, "Me, marry an android?"), Fuoss assaults Carol, perhaps killing her.  News reports of his crime inflame the natural-born population against androids, ruining the lawyer's plan and dooming the androids to extinction.

While it is perhaps too long, I like the plot of this one, and judge "Dream of Victory" moderately good.  Like so many of these Budrys stories, it is about somebody who is out of place, alienated, but instead of being about a diplomat or an exile or a spy, it is about someone who is a second-class citizen; I assume the story is at least in part an allegory of the experience of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.

"Dream of Victory" has not been widely anthologized; after its debut in the same issue of Amazing as one of my least favorite Henry Kuttner stories, "Or Else," it reappeared in Amazing in 1969, while that venerable magazine was being edited by none other than one of this blog's particular heroes,  Barry N. Malzberg!   

"The Peasant Girl" (1956)

Like those Gus stories, this is a story of homo superior and the difficult relationship they have with us mundanes.  But in this tale it is the supermen who have the whip hand!

It is the future, and the superhumans are our more or less benevolent rulers, using their astonishing psychic powers to make our lives more comfortable, convenient, and efficient.  For example, as the story begins, our homo sapien protagonist, Henry Spar the cabinetmaker, finds that his younger sister, whom he has raised, has vanished.  Because now there is only one person living in their rural small town domicile, the powers that be shrink the house to a more compact, more manageable size!  Similarly, when Spar decides to ride the bus to nearby NYC to confront the rarely seen supermen and find out where they have teleported Dorothy, the bus that comes by is just the right size for the number of waiting passengers--Earth’s psychic rulers can read all our minds and know at any moment how many of us need a bus and where we want to go!  Mundanes don’t even have to light their own cigarettes, because some guy somewhere is always reading your mind and will use his long-distance pyrotechnic powers to safely light it for you the moment you want it lit!  And, of course, when you are done with it, somebody somewhere teleports away the unsightly butt.

The supermen are always reading everybody’s minds, so they have no trouble finding their perfect mates; for this reason, mundane women regularly just vanish from their homes, teleported into the arms of their new superhusbands. Spar suspects that Dorothy has been taken against her will, but when he meets her and her superbeau she tells him she truly loves the mental giant who has whisked her away from the Spar household without warning and taken her to Paris for a new dress, to Rome to have her hair done, and to a seaside kirk in Scotland to be married.  As Dorothy's superspouse explains, because they are all constantly reading each other’s minds, the supermen can’t really commit any crimes.

Mundane men are understandably bitter about living in a surveillance state where the women in their lives can just be teleported away any minute, but the supermen aren’t happy either. They are socially and genetically distinct from us normies, but have no culture of their own (in part because they have no need to work with their hands or even walk); everything they do is a reflection of or derivative of us mundanes, who hate them. But Budrys ends his story on an upbeat, hopeful, note.  After she gives birth to superhubby’s son, Dorothy begins spending time with her brother again, and Spar develops a relationship with his nephew.  Said nephew begins to learn how to work with wood from his uncle, and we are given reason to believe that Dorothy's son will be one of the first of the supermen to show some kind of creativity, that he is a pioneer in the development of a native homo superior culture, and that his relationship with his uncle is a harbinger of a future in which superman and mundane will be better able to get along.

"The Peasant Girl" is a good story and a good way to end the collection.  It first appeared in Astounding under that Paul Janvier pen name and would later see print in Joan Kahn's 1969 anthology of suspense stories, Hanging By a Thread.

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I'm quite happy with Budrys' Inferno, and even purchased another book of 1950s Budrys short stories, 1960's The Unexpected Dimension, just this week.  I guess we have to say that Budrys' Inferno has converted me from a Budrys skeptic to a Budrys fan.

Back in 2017 Joachim Boaz reviewed Budrys' Inferno at his blog Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  He also liked the book as a whole, but, a testimony to our divergent tastes, I think the story he may have liked most, "Lower Than Angels," which he awards 4.25 stars out of five, was the one I liked least!  (Joachim also gave "The Peasant Girl" a 4.25; there we are much closer to agreement.)  Joachim was also very harsh in his dismissal of "The Man Who Tasted Ashes," which I enjoyed.  So, to get a different perspective on Budrys' Inferno, definitely check out Joachim's take and the discussion there at his exciting blog.  (And remember that you can read these vintage science fiction tales, and thousands of others, for free at the internet archive!)

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More 1950s SF in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!     

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Algis Budrys's "Gus" stories

The third story in Budrys' Inferno is "And Then She Found Him," which isfdb is telling me is the second of the three "Gus" stories written by Algis Budrys and published between 1955 and 1957 under the Paul Janvier nom de plume.  I decided to look up the other two Gus tales at the internet archive and read the three of them in chronological order.

"Nobody Bothers Gus" (1955)

Augustin Kusevic is one of the early specimens of homo superior.  He has tremendous intellectual and psychic abilities--he can use math to foretell future social and economic developments; he need only read the first three pages of a novel to predict its course and conclusion; he can manipulate matter, say, turn a pen into a bouncing ball and back again or melt a twelve-lane highway, with ease.  But all these powers have come with a terrible price.  Gus autonomically generates a "field that damps curiosity," with the effect that people pay no attention to him, dismissing as magic tricks the psychic miracles he performs and forgetting that he was once heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  Superior to everyone, and  unable to form any emotional connection to an individual or to the larger culture, Gus is a lonely man without a country, without friends, without love.

"Nobody Bothers Gus" is a mood and character piece whose main plot (middle-aged Gus, having abandoned his too-easy boxing career, buys and fixes up a remote house only to lose it to eminent domain when the Feds decided to build Earth's first spaceport nearby) feels secondary.  The tantalizing component of the plot is the revelation that there are other people like Gus out there, presenting the possibility that maybe Gus need not be alone forever.

Not bad.  "Nobody Bothers Gus" first appeared in Astounding and was well received, chosen by Judith Merril for her first Year's Greatest SF anthologies and included since then in a multitude of anthologies edited by everybody ranging from Damon Knight and James Gunn to Barry Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg.

"And Then She Found Him" (1957)

Gus Kusevic doesn't actually appear in "And Then She Found Him," making me doubt the utility of calling these three stories "The Gus stories," but the tale does take place in the same universe and address similar themes.  It appeared in Venture and later in the anthology No Limits, as well as the various printings of Budrys' Inferno (AKA The Furious Future) and some European publications.

"And Then She Found Him" is quite plot-driven, and even has a shock ending.  In Chicago a community of fifty of the superhumans with the curiosity-damping field has assembled.  Following various clues, one of the supermen, Deerbush, travels the country finding these mutants and bringing them back to Chi-town to be welcomed to the super-community.  Deerbush is sort of like a matchmaker; when he finds a mutant he usually senses that there is a person back in the Windy City who would make a perfect spouse for this new member of the homo superior colony.

In a town he finds Viola, a mutant who has been using her superpowers to steal expensive consumer goods.  Viola has a power Deerbush has encountered in no other mutant--she can hypnotize people into obeying her; nobody can resist her commands, even commands to steal or to assault others. So rapacious is Viola that her thefts are wrecking the local economy and making the local retailers and law enforcement personnel paranoid.  If the Viola crime wave is not ended soon many people may lose their jobs and innocent people may be imprisoned or suffer mob justice!

Almost as mindblowing as Viola's powers is that Deerbush the matchmaker realizes Viola is his soulmate and he falls in love!

Tragedy strikes when the extent of Viola's mental illness becomes fully apparent.  She refuses to go to Chicago and leave behind all the luxury items she has stolen, and she has no interest in marrying Deerbush.  Unreformable, her powers of hypnosis a threat to all of civilization, Deerbush has no choice but to kill her!

This story is acceptable, less moving and more sensationalistic than "Nobody Bothers Gus."  I suppose feminists might object to it as a story in which a woman is so selfish, materialistic, and manipulative that she has to be put down for the good of the universe, or just on the basis that it is a story written by a man which attempts to psychoanalyze a woman. 

"Lost Love" (1957)

Old Doc Bennett is riding a bus across the great state of New Jersey.  Doc is dozing on mass transit among the plebs instead of caressing the wheel of a Mercedes because he is the kind of doctor who ministers to the poor instead of providing face lifts to the haute bourgeoisie!  Doc notices a teen-aged boy across the aisle, a pathetic wretch clad in rags!  He wants to help this emaciated scarecrow of a human being, and engages him in conversation, even offering to let him stay in his household a while until he gets on his feet.  But the boy refuses Doc's help, saying it would be no use; he describes his life and we readers of "Nobody Bothers Gus" recognize that this kid is one of those supermen with a curiosity-damping field, that he can't make friends with us normies because we forget him as soon as we look away from him.  Case in point: every time Doc Bennett wakes up from a snooze the kid has to introduce himself again!  The kid has been travelling the nation, refusing to use his superpowers to steal and thus living on the edge of starvation, hoping he will somehow meet somebody who will remember him, somebody of his own superhuman species.

The tragic twist ending comes when Doc gets home.  He greets his wife but is surprised to find that a teenage girl who actually looks a little like his wife is also living in his house--this girl moans that Mom forgot to set the table for her yet again.  Dun dun dun!  Doc Bennett's own daughter is one of the superpeople, and if the boy had accepted Doc's hospitality he would have met his soulmate and his (and her!) abject loneliness would have been relieved for good!

Acceptable, but inferior to "Nobody Bothers Gus" because it is too sappy and too melodramatic.  "Lost Love" first jerked the tears of SF readers in a magazine called Science Fiction Stories edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes that endured for seven years (1953-1960, 38 issues total.)  Martin H. Greenberg would later include it in 101 Science Fiction Stories, which was published in the United Kingdom as The Giant Book of Science Fiction Stories.

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"Nobody Bothers Gus" stands above the crowd, but I think "And Then She Found Him" and "Lost Love" are just average, though I guess "And Then She Found Him" is remarkable for being one of those stories (like Tom Godwin's famous 1954 "The Cold Equations") that contrives a situation in which it makes sense to slay a woman who isn't perhaps really morally responsible for all the trouble she has caused.

We'll finish up Budrys' Inferno in our next blog post.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Three 1950s stores from Budrys' Inferno


Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading Budrys' Inferno, a 1960s paperback collection of nine stories by Algis Budrys first published in science fiction magazines in the 1950s.  The collection is dedicated to Damon Knight, and in the introduction Budrys tells us the stories were selected by Thomas A. Dardis.

In our last blog post we read the second story in the collection, 1958's "Between the Dark and the Daylight."  Today let's read the first, fourth and fifth pieces.

"Silent Brother"  (1956)

This one appears to have been a hit.  After it first appeared in John W. Campbell's Astounding it was chosen by Judith Merril for the 1957 edition of her famous Year's Greatest SF anthology series, and would go on to be translated into French, German and Japanese.  I actually own that edition of Year's Greatest SF, and see that, in her intro to "Silent Brother," Merril praises Budrys fulsomely, jokes about his profusion of pennames ("Silent Brother" appeared under the pseudonym "Paul Janvier") and says he is "from Jersey;" Budrys was born in Konigsberg in 1931 but, his Lithuanian family in exile after the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, Budrys spent his youth in the greatest state of the union.

Harvey Cable is an astronaut and engineer whose work was essential to making Earth' first interstellar voyage successful, but he wasn't able to fly to Alpha Centauri himself with his comrades because he had been severely injured in a test flight accident.  When his friends return from their unprecedented adventure, the invalided Cable envies the public acclaim they receive.  But soon he has other things on his mind--mysterious changes around his lonely house which suggest there is either an intruder in his home, or that in his sleep he is able to move freely, as if he had never been injured.  Whoever it is, a stranger or his own sleep-walking self, is constructing in the basement an electronic device that the waking Cable can make neither head nor tail of!

This is a good story, a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy about becoming a superman who will never be lonely again in a world of plenty and peace.  Cable's friends, out on some alien planet, were united with benevolent immaterial aliens, and have come to share these beneficent beings with the rest of humanity.  An Earthling living in symbiosis with such an alien is super healthy (in mere days Cable's ruined eye, useless legs, and lost teeth are regenerated) and can walk through walls and perform feats of technical wizardry.  Soon every person on Earth will have such a little friend and all our problems will be solved and we will be able to explore the universe.

I thought Budrys's handling of the scenes in which Cable tried to figure out the mystery of what was going on in his house clever and entertaining, and Budrys also provides us a sort of life-affirming story arc in which Cable misses and envies his friends but then learns that they have been thinking and caring about him all along.  This is a story about people getting along which isn't mawkish or saccharine and doesn't show its hand until the end--thumbs up!

Budrys' Inferno was printed several times in Great Britain under the title The Furious Future
"The Skirmisher" (1957)

This is a brief noirish detective story about a time traveler from the future who comes back to 1957 to set elaborate traps that kill people before they can produce the offspring whom, for unspecified reasons, somebody in the future doesn't want to have to deal with.  Maybe the most noteworthy element of the story is that the reader is expected to figure out that the assassin is a time traveler.  The meticulous planning of the deadly Rube Goldberg "accidents" in this story reminded me of Budrys's intricate descriptions of Harvey Cable's methods of investigating what is going on in his house in "Silent Brother," but while that story had an emotional arc and was optimistic, "The Skirmisher" is cynical and a little gimmicky, and too short to really develop characters or a world.   Acceptable.

"The Skirmisher" was first published in Infinity Science Fiction and has only ever resurfaced in Budrys collections.

"The Man Who Tasted Ashes" (1959)

Like "The Skirmisher," "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" concerns an outsider who puts into motion an elaborate scheme to murder somebody.  A space alien living in disguise on the Earth wants to start World War III and hires Redfern, an English adventurer who now lives in America and does things like gunrunning for a living, to murder a communist diplomat who is visiting Washington.  "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" is composed of scenes that feel like they were lifted out of espionage fiction: Redfern in a hotel room, trying to remain cool as a cucumber as he negotiates with the alien and receives high tech gadgets, Redfern's anxiety boiling over as he talks to a British diplomat in the shadowy corner of a restaurant, Redfern obsessively checking his watch as he drives down the highway in a stolen car, trying to reach the aliens' spaceship before blast off.  Will the diplomat from the Warsaw Pact be killed?  Will war erupt between East and West?  Will Redfern get to the alien ship on time?

I liked the car driving scenes, and Budrys starts the story in the car, in medias res (all those negotiations are related in flashbacks), and thus gets the reader's attention in a way that telling the story in strict chronological order might not.  And while the complicated crime stuff in "The Skirmisher" is the meat of that story, all the lurid spy and space alien skulduggery in "The Man Who Tasted Ashes" is used to construct a psychological portrait of a warped personality; I can recommend this one.

"The Man Who Tasted Ashes" first saw print in Damon Knight's If, and would go on to appear in an anthology of If stories and a 1966 book of SF stories designed for use in schools.

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More 1950s stories by Algis Budrys in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"The Avenger" (1944) by Damon Knight and "Between the Dark and the Daylight" (1958) by Algis Budrys

In his introduction to Budrys' Inferno, a 1963 Berkley Medallion collection of some of his 1950s stories, Algis Budrys tells us that one of his favorite stories in the book is "Between the Dark and the Daylight," and that the story was inspired by Damon Knight's 1944 tale "The Avenger."  Budrys feels that "Between the Dark and the Daylight" is so heavily indebted to Knight that he thinks of Knight as a co-author of the piece.  So today, as a first step in our exploration of Budrys' Inferno, which I recently purchased down in South Carolina, let's read Knight's "The Avenger" and then the Budrys tale it inspired.

"The Avenger" by Damon Knight (as by Stuart Fleming) (1944)

It looks like "The Avenger" only ever appeared in the Spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories, where it was illustrated by Graham Ingels of EC Comics fame. (You may recognize the cover, also by Ingels, because we've already read that issue's lead story, Leigh Brackett's "The Jewel of Bas.")  I'm reading the scan of the issue available at that indispensable resource for the vintage pulp fan, the internet archive.

"The Avenger" begins with a half-page prologue in italics, a first-person narrative from the point of view of some being that is having a psychological breakthrough--it never had emotions before, but cries for the first time upon seeing the bloody corpse of Peter Karson.  When the main text starts we find it is a flashback, a third-person narrative all about Peter Karson when he was still alive!

Karson is an engineer and scientist working in his office in a skyscraper in the "Science City of Manhattan."  He is just putting the finishing touches on the "blackprints" of his latest invention, Earth's first space ship, when space aliens who can fly, pass through walls, and employ telekinesis appear on the Earth and cause all manner of mayhem.  These E.T.s have absolute contempt for us, treating us not like people with a civilization but the way human scientists treat insects and rodents!  Multitudes die because the world government is powerless to stop the invaders from using their mental powers to conduct such fascinating experiments as dissecting John Q. Public while he is still alive!

One of the aliens makes mental contact with Karson, putting Karson into a coma for nine months.  When he wakes up, the human race has resorted to digging underground cities in which to hide, but this is a fruitless measure: the number crunchers have calculated that, due to the continuing depredations of the aliens, the human race will be extinct in fifty years!

Karson's "blackprints" hold the key to humankind's only hope.  In an underground bunker the world's first spacecraft is quickly constructed; Karson is going to travel to space to expose a cargo of embryos (and himself!) to cosmic rays in hopes of creating a mutant superhuman race that will be as superior to the aliens as they are to us!  Karson's girlfriend, another genius inventor, wants to come with him into space, but he denies her request to board, saying that being mutated by cosmic rays would ruin her looks!

(Is now the time to recall how fifteen years later Knight lost a job by complaining that Judith Merril's 1960 novel The Tomorrow People was full of bad science and was way too girly?)

The last page of "The Avenger" returns us to the first person-narrative that began the tale.  The narrator is one of the embryos, now grown to adulthood, a superhuman with no emotions who could liberate Earth from the invaders.  But this first specimen of homo superior identifies with the cold-hearted alien invaders more than with the human race!  Karson implores him to go to Earth and save humanity, but the narrator refuses and euthanizes Karson by crushing his skull in his bare hands!

This story is alright.  It reminds me a little of those 1930s Edmond Hamilton stories about radiation and evolution I read when this blog was in its infancy.

"Between the Dark and the Daylight" by Algis Budrys (1958)

Budrys's tale begins under a dome on an alien planet, where squabble the mutated descendants of Earth people; these products of centuries of rapid, artificially-directed evolution have tremendous strength, a coat of fur, "sagittal crests" and "sharp canine tusks."  Their ancestors crashed on this inhospitable planet generations ago, and ever since the native fauna have been trying to break into the ship, while the colonists inside have been genetically engineering their offspring to have the superabilities needed to tame this inveterately hostile world from which there is no escape.  Tomorrow is the big day, the day when the nursery gates will be opened to the outside and the new generation of humanity will be released onto the planet surface, but for years the captain (he's also chief "biotechnician and pedagogical specialist") has kept the rest of the colonists in the dark about exactly what he has been doing to their children, and they are not happy about it!

This is a pretty good story.  Not only is the scenario and the images it gives rise to (a dome full of genetically modified humans under siege by an army of hideous alien monsters) striking, but Budrys does a good job of transmitting to the reader the crushing tension endured by the besieged humans, for example, in dialogue between the captain and his wife.
"You don't care for one living soul besides yourself, and the only voice you'll listen to is that power-chant in your head.  You married me because I was good breeding stock.  You married me because, if you can't lead us outside, at least your son will be the biggest and best of his generation."  
I like the Ahab-like determination of the captain, and the way Budrys in this story examines the common theme of his body of work, the question of what truly constitutes a man.  Are the people in the dome, the product of centuries of eugenic breeding and genetic modification, people who couldn't breathe the air of Earth and are so big and strong that furniture made on Earth is too fragile for them to use, still human?  Should we see the captain, who dominates his fellows and is emotionally distant from his family, as a real man (a mensch, as the Jewish colonist who celebrates Hanukkah on the day before the nursery is opened might put it) for his single-minded devotion to the mission his ancestors set him on, or as a selfish and obsessive tyrant?  These questions are tied up with the theme of Knight's 1944 story: when the captain opens the nursery and unleashes the children he has designed to thrive on this hostile world, will they have any reason to identify with their parents, whom they have not seen for years and who cannot even breathe the same air they do? 

"Between the Dark and the Daylight" was first published in Infinity and would go on to appear in two anthologies, including one I own, 1983's Changes, edited by Michael Bishop and Ian Watson.  It is a good enough story that I am looking forward to the rest of the pieces in Budrys' Inferno, which we will examine in our next two blog posts.

Four more 1940s erotic stories by Anais Nin

Last week I noticed an uptick in the number of pageviews of my 2015 blog post about Anais Nin's late-1970s collection of erotic stories she composed under odd circumstances in the 1940s, Delta of Venus.  I am skeptical of the very limited web statistics I have at my disposal (it could very well be not fans of literary smut clicking on my blog post on Delta of Venus but Russian bots seeking to further demoralize our nation!) but, nevertheless, I was spurred by this phenomenon to revisit Delta of Venus.  Back in 2015 I read six of Delta of Venus's fifteen tales and, boldly taking a stand against the opinions of The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angles Times, and Cosmo, I gave them all a thumbs down.  Today we'll read four more of these stories in hopes that I will enjoy them more than their predecessors; I must ask that adults only follow me beyond the curtain and join me on these NSFW journeys of sexual awakening!



Sunday, April 14, 2019

Stories by Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Kate Wilhelm from Orbit 8 (1970)

Let's finish up 1970's Orbit 8 with stories by authors beloved by the critics, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Kate Wilhelm.  Four years ago Joachim Boaz wrote about Orbit 8; feel free to click the link and check out what he had to say and then come back to see if Joachim and I are on the same page or at loggerheads when it comes to these three artifacts of the cutting edge of the SF world that prevailed before we were born.

"A Method Bit in 'B'" by Gene Wolfe

I purchased Orbit 8 in our nation's capital back in February largely because it contains a Gene Wolfe story that appears to be unavailable elsewhere.  Like a lot of people I think Wolfe is the best writer SF has produced, and that everything he does is worth grappling with.

Well, even Homer sometimes nods, and I have to admit I am disappointed in "A Method Bit in 'B'," a gimmicky sort of joke story of four and a half pages.  Our narrator is a policeman in a foggy rural part of Britain where there are moors and a crime-plagued manor house.  He realizes he is not a real person but stuck in a series of cliche-ridden B movies.  Acceptable filler of The Twilight Zone species.

Joachim actually really liked the story, giving it four and a quarter stars out of five and calling it "delightful."  You are going to have to get yourself a copy of Orbit 8 and make up your own mind! 

"Interurban Queen" by R. A. Lafferty

This is a clever tongue-in-cheek utopian story, a glimpse at an alternate universe in which the automobile has been outlawed and America is covered in railways.  It starts with theory--a dude with a big inheritance in 1907 has to decide whether to invest in rubber (for car tires) or in trains that will connect small cities, and he consults the experts, who tell him that the automobile will turn America into a living hell by fostering the development of dense cities and suburban sprawl and by turning everybody into an arrogant jerk:
"The kindest man in the world assumes an incredible arrogance when he drives an automobile...it will engender absolute selfishness in mankind...it will breed violence...it will mark the end of the family...it will breed rootlessness and immorality...." 
After the nightmare world of an America on wheels is described by these naysayers, we witness the edenic America in which poverty has been conquered and everyone has access to beautiful countryside generated by ubiquitous mass transit in the form of trollies.
"We are all one neighborhood, we are all one family!  We live in love and compassion, with few rich and few poor, and arrogance and hate have all gone out from us.  We are the people with roots, and with trolleys.  We are one with our earth."    
This utopia has a dark side: in hiding, all across America, toil men who love cars, men with names like "Mad Man Gudge," who illegally construct automobiles by hand and at night drive these noisy contraptions around.  The government is too soft on these outlaws, so ordinary citizens snatch up their rifles and jump off their trolleys and hunt down the drivers and lynch them.

With its over-the-top rhetoric and concluding scenes of idyllic life and extreme violence, "Interurban Queen" succeeds in being both a genuinely amusing parody of utopian and dystopian fiction and a thought-provoking piece that leads the reader to wonder about the effects of such technologies as the automobile and the locomotive on society and the individual.  Good!

(Joachim and I agree on the quality of this one.)

"Interurban Queen" is widely available, later appearing in the strange anthology known as Survival Printout, a copy of which I purchased in my Ohio days, in the Lafferty collections Ringing Changes and Lafferty in Orbit, and a bunch of other places.

"The Encounter" by Kate Wilhelm

I've been avoiding Wilhelm, Orbit editor Damon Knight's wife, because I wasn't crazy about her 1967 novel The Killer Thing, a tendentious retelling of Frankenstein that denounced strip mining and, in a cheap deus ex machina ending, advocated the human race being conquered by aliens.  But today I'm giving Wilhelm another look.  "The Encounter," the blurbs on the back of the book tell us, is a "boy-meets-girl" story in which we can expect "real horror."  Let's see what this Nebula-nominated twenty-four-page tale is all about.

Randy Crane, an insurance salesman riding a bus in a late night snowstorm, gets marooned in a cold bus station, all alone with a woman illustrator.  Through flashbacks we learn he is a failed writer with an unhappy marriage; he suspects his wife Mary Louise of cheating on him and even of trying to murder him on the ski slopes via a bogus accident.  Mary Louise claims he is a phony who is always putting on masks and who has hidden his real personality deep inside, and, in fact, Randy has seen head shrinkers who have told him he is "schizoid" and "had a nearly split personality."  These flashbacks get more and more shocking as we learn about Randy's service in the Korean War and that his wife, perhaps at his insistence, had an abortion.

In between these flashbacks we observe as Randy and the nameless illustrator try to get the furnace of the bus station to work as the place becomes increasingly, dangerously, cold.  In the start of her story Wilhelm piles on the long descriptions of everybody's clothes and the landscape and so on, making everything very clear, but in the end of "The Encounter" things get somewhat mysterious and confusing.  It briefly appears that the illustrator may not really exist, may merely be a figment of Randy's imagination, and/or that Randy strangles her, but then these suggestions are supplanted by the still more radical possibilities: that the illustrator is some kind of sorceress who absorbs Randy and thereby becomes a more skilled artist, and/or that Randy had a male half and a female half who have been struggling against each other for years, and tonight at the bus station the female half has finally triumphed.  Weird (almost Lovecraftian, really) elements of a flashback to Korea that feature a "chill" that originated  "in the farthest blackest vacuum of space" and a woman who appeared "out of nowhere" during a life or death situation in subzero temperatures hint at the possibility that an alien life form or a witch somehow entered Randy during his war service and that the current snowstorm (and the weakening of Randy's psyche due to his horrible relationship with Mary Louise?) has given the alien invader an opportunity to finally take over Randy or leave his body and destroy him. Whatever the case, when the bus station staff and bus passengers return to the station in the morning only the illustrator is there and she tells them it is her birthday.

In a lot of ways "The Encounter" feels like a conventional mainstream story full of pop psychology with some added feminist overtones; e. g., Randy doesn't really see the illustrator woman--he can't remember what she looks like the way he can remember what his male clients look like; Randy thinks women are manipulative and slutty and to blame for his failed career as a writer; Randy commits and/or hallucinates about violence against women. Wilhelm employs fancy literary techniques, using plenty of symbolism and metaphors.  She links the door to the station through which dangerous cold air comes to the "door" that seals off part of Randy's psyche, and that stream of cold air to the passage of the immaterial alien through Earth's atmosphere.  She also plays with the idea that Randy and the illustrator are failed creators; Randy wanted to be a creative writer and failed, Mary Louise's abortion means he failed to become a father (creator of a child), and during the brief moment we think the illustrator is a hallucination, Randy suggests that by conjuring her up, he has finally successfully created something.  The illustrator, early in the story, laments that she is not a true artist, but after having eliminated Randy she brags that she really is an artist.  (Another theme of the story seems to be woman as parasite.)

The end of the story, in which the alien parasite business is revealed and Randy vanishes, brings the story firmly into the SF realm, and I also suspect all the detailed description of Randy and the illustrator's efforts to get the furnace to work is an homage to or parody of those hard SF stories in which astronauts and scientists struggle to jury rig rocket engines or atomic reactors or whatever.

There is a lot going on in "The Encounter" and the story shows a lot of ambition, but I think it has a real problem.  The fact that Randy really has vanished by the morning undercuts all that Freudian and feminist stuff; if Wilhelm had had Randy kill the illustrator instead of vice versa, she would have left open the possibility that either the supernatural/SF stuff or the Freudian/feminist stuff was real, leaving the reader to wonder if Randy had really been attacked by and fought off an alien or if he was just a sexist agent of the patriarchy suffering delusions due to war-induced PTSD and the rape culture of our bourgeois society.  But since it is the illustrator who survives and Randy who disappears we have to assume Randy really was the victim of strange alien forces and that his psychological issues and politically incorrect behavior were a reflection of this alien invasion and not shortcomings of the male sex and our capitalist civilization.  So all that stuff about sexism and psychoanalysis is just a pile of unnecessary red herrings.

Joachim liked this one more than I did, rating it "Very Good."  He argues that the SF elements are of secondary importance, I guess thinking what makes the story is all the feminist and psychological components.  I think that because Randy actually dies/vanishes that we can't compartmentalize away or minimize the SF elements--they aren't window dressing but at the indispensable core of the story-- but that those SF elements undermine all the feminist and psychological elements, so I'm only grading this one fair, though recognizing all the effort and technique put into it.

"The Encounter" was included in Nebula Award Stories 7 and is one of the three stories by his wife that Knight chose to include in Best Stories from Orbit, Volumes 1 to 10; the story also appears in the Wilhelm collection Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions, and was translated into French, German and Polish. 

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The Lafferty is solid, what I would have expected from him, while the Wolfe feels like a trifle and the Wilhelm is an elaborate construction with a near-fatal flaw.

As a whole I think Orbit 8 is a big success, well worth my time and 50 cents.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Red Hawk by Edgar Rice Burroughs

"You are a strange people," she said, "that you could be so brave and generous to one you hate, and yet refuse the simpler kindness of forgiveness--forgiveness of a sin that we did not commit."
For the last few weeks an unexpected road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, biographies and analyses of T. S. Eliot, and the work of Rumiko Takahashi have come between me and ERB, but now the time has come to read the third and final installment of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Moon sequence, The Red HawkThe Red Hawk first appeared in Argosy in 1925, serialized across three issues.  As you no doubt recall, my brother acquired a copy of the 95¢ Ace edition of The Moon Men in an unspecified place in the unspecified past, and it is now in my possession; I will be reading the version of The Red Hawk included in that volume.

(I'm not going to explain who Julian and the Kalkars are again; please refer to my blog posts about The Moon Maid and The Moon Men if necessary!)

The protagonists depicted on the cover of the 1992 Del Rey edition of The Moon Men (the work of  Laurence Schwinger), and on the title page of my 1974 copy (drawn by Roy Krenkel), have a sort of Plains Indian look to them, and sure enough, as The Red Hawk begins, we find the twentieth incarnation of our narrator Julian, known as "The Red Hawk," leading an army of unarmored horsemen armed with lances and bows and adorned with warpaint and bird feathers.  The Red Hawk's horde of one hundred clans lead by people with names like "The Wolf," "Rain Cloud," "The Vulture" and "The Rattlesnake," crosses a desert and attacks an army of armor-clad Kalkars near Cajon Pass.  After a tremendous hand-to-hand battle (over the last three centuries the Kalkars have run out of ammunition for the guns they had in The Moon Men) our narrator is taken captive and brought before the Kalkar leader, a half-breed descendant of the treacherous Orthis we met in The Moon Maid.  This Kalkar ruler makes peace overtures towards the Red Hawk, but our narrator rejects them out of hand--he hates the Kalkars and the descendants of Orthis with a passion and feels peace between them is impossible.

In his prison atop an ancient skyscraper, the Red Hawk meets another descendant of Orthis, one who is a pure-blooded Earthman.  At the top of the Kalkar hierarchy there has been conflict between those Or-tis who are pure strain Earthlings and those who are biracial (part-Earthling and part Lunarian)--the current occupant of the throne ascended to power by murdering the previous leader, this prisoner's father, who was planning to negotiate with the Yanks.  In a speech that will perhaps surprise and dismay today's readers, this Or-tis invokes the one-drop rule and makes a sharp distinction between pure-blooded Earthmen and irredeemable half-breeds.
"Our blood strain is as clear as yours--we are American.  There is no Kalkar or half-breed blood in our veins.  There are perhaps a thousand others among us who have brought down their birthright unsullied....He [the current leader] is the son of a Kalkar woman by a renegade uncle of mine.  There is Or-tis blood in his veins, but a drop of Kalkar makes one all Kalkar, therefore he is no Or-tis."
Julian the Red Hawk finds talk of making peace more persuasive coming from this pure-blooded Or-tis, and they work together to escape the skyscraper.  During the succeeding horseback chase they are separated.  The Red Hawk travels around what I guess is Southern California, seeing the ocean for the first time, meeting a tribe of friendly dwarves (three feet tall) who are descended from Japanese people, and another purebred human Or-tis, a beautiful woman, Bethelda.  Bethelda is the brother of the Or-tis with whom The Red Hawk escaped the skyscraper.  Julian 20th falls in love with Bethelda, rescues her from a band of brigands led by a nine-foot-tall renegade Kalkar named Ragan, and comes to realize that the pure-blooded Or-tis should not be punished for the sins of their ancestors, but welcomed into the Yank community.  The Yanks and purebred Or-tis join forces and defeat the Kalkars and half-breeds, uniting North America under the Stars and Stripes.         

The Red Hawk is short, just shy of 100 pages in this edition, and an entertaining adventure story full of fights and chases and people getting captured and escaping captivity; as in so many ERB tales, our narrator even marries a princess and lives happily ever after.  There are some nice SF touches: at the start of the story the Red Hawk and his advisers speculate about whether the Earth is flat and what the stars are, there are good descriptions of the ruins of high-tech 20th-century civilization and the response to them of Earth's primitive future inhabitants (the narrator opines that the wealth built by 20th-century man did not make him any happier), and then there is the fact that the Kalkars have been bred for size since conquering the Earth centuries ago and many are seven or even eight feet tall--nine-footer Ragan is the ultimate expression of this eugenics program.

Even though it extends only to pure-blooded Earthlings and not to Lunarians, the story's theme of the value of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and Julian 20th's psychological journey from a seeker of revenge to one who can love an Or-tis give the story an overtone of hope.  However, there is a contrasting theme of the futility of striving, which is linked to Burroughs's common theme (famously seen in the Tarzan books and less famously in The Cave Girl) of the superiority of the primitive over the modern:
How long and at what cost had the ancients striven to the final achievement of their mighty civilization!  And for what?
How long and at what cost had we striven to wrest its wreckage from the hands of their despoilers!  And for what?  There was no answer--only that I knew we should go on and on, and generations after us would go on and on, striving, always striving, for that which was just beyond our grasp--victims of some ancient curse laid upon our first progenitor, perhaps.
Burroughs makes clear that the Yanks and Or-tis are white, but the American West of the future is also inhabited by native Americans, some of whom live free in the wilds, others as slaves of the Yanks and the Kalkars.  Like the Japanese dwarves, these Indians play no role in the war between the Yanks and the Kalkars, refusing to strive, and the Red Hawk muses that they may be wiser than any of the warring factions:
...I thought of the slave woman and her prophesy.  Her people would remain, steadfast, like the hills, aspiring to nothing, achieving nothing, except perhaps that one thing we all crave in common--contentment.  And when the end comes, whatever that end shall be, the world will doubtless be as well off because of them as because of us, for in the end there will be nothing.  
I think related to these two themes--the importance of reconciliation and skepticism of the value of striving--is how Burroughs depicts the major battle at the start of the story; he emphasizes exhaustion and the vast piles of dead bodies, and the way the battle runs out of Julian's control, as much as heroism and swordsmanship and generalship.

As with the other two Moon books, Burroughs in The Red Hawk does the stuff he generally does (fighting man fights and marries a princess) but changes things up a little with some unusual themes.  Here he almost entirely abandons the earlier Moon stories' attacks on communism, big government and revolution to instead muse about the futility of ambition and the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Worth a look for adventure fans, and if there are any scholars out there doing research on portrayals of Native Americans in SF, The Red Hawk should be on their reading lists.