Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Dinochrome," "Placement Test," and "Doorstep" by Keith Laumer

British editions of Nine by Laumer
Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading Nine By Laumer, a 1967 collection of SF stories by Keith Laumer, famous creator of space diplomat Retief and the Bolo robotic tanks, two long popular series.  Laumer also wrote a book on how to design and build flying models.  Some people have really intense hobbies! 

In our last installment we tackled the first three tales in the book, and today we read the middle three.  Presumably there is some logic to the order in which the stories appear.  I considered reading the stories in chronological order, but, as in so many things in life, after playfully indulging in a reasonable course based on logic, I opted for the path of least resistance and am just reading them in the order presented.

"Dinochrome" (1960)

"Dinochrome" is one of the aforementioned Bolo stories, in fact the first one.  Its initial airing was under the title "Combat Unit," in F&SF, and it has been republished in quite a few different Laumer collections.

"Dinochrome" is a straightforward, but entertaining, story told from the point of view of a giant robotic tank.  Centuries ago the tank's entire brigade was knocked out, and the enemy deactivated the robots' simulated personalities that allowed for autonomous activity, removed their main guns, and used them for construction work, demolishing buildings and the like.  All this stuff we learn in dribs and drabs as the narrator does, after its personality is accidentally awakened by a researcher interested in the high technology of the past.  It turns out that the interstellar war the robot was fighting in has dragged on, so severely that the technological level of the civilizations conducting the war has reverted to a pre-atomic and pre-FTL level, a level at which they can no longer produce the kind of computers that operate the tank.

While its primary weapons were removed long ago, the tank is still a clever and formidable foe.  It wipes out the successor population of the people who captured it 300 years ago and awakens its comrades--the narrator tank's unit is now the most powerful conglomeration of technology in existence and may well decisively conclude the war after two centuries of stalemate!

Laumer comes up with all kinds of interesting ways for the decrepit tank to fight without its main guns, and fun speculations on how an artificial personality might perform its duties and interact with its human masters.  A good story.  It is obvious why Laumer would want to write, and why SF fans would want to read, more Bolo stories.

"Placement Test" (1964)

This is one of those stories in which the government controls every aspect of your life via an incompetent and merciless bureaucracy; we see quite a few of these in SF.  When I was young and the Berlin Wall fell and Slick Willie declared the era of big government over I thought that such stories would become obsolete, but I have been proven wrong—these stories are perhaps more prophetic than ever!

Mart Maldon is a 28-year old engineering student who resides at Welfare Dorm 69, Wing Two, Nineteenth floor, Room 1906.  Second in his class, he is three days away from graduation and the start of a career in his chosen field of Microtronics.  But he is called in to see the guidance counselor and told that, due to unexpected budget cuts, he has been “quotaed out”— tossed out of school without a degree through no fault of his own.

Without a degree, Maldon can’t get a professional job. He applies for low-skilled and no-skilled jobs, like receptionist or laborer, but his IQ is too high for such positions—the government knows that smart people in such menial jobs become bored and rebellious. The government has a solution to the problem of being unemployable—you can abandon all hope of social status and live off meager welfare benefits, or, accept one of their readily available and no-cost “adjustments.”  What is an adjustment, you ask?  Well, a medical professional sends carefully a calibrated electrical current through your brain to lower your IQ to 80 or so--then you'll savor the excitement and responsibility that comes from being a janitor or meter reader.

Maldon manages to get his hands on the circuit schematics for the adjustment machine and when he goes in for his adjustment he is able to sabotage the machine—it appears to work normally, but the puissant electrical current is just routed through the machine itself, not into Maldon's noggin, so the procedure has no effect on his brain.  (Maldon puts on a stupid act until he gets out of the office.)

Defeating the adjustment machine and getting a job as a toll observer on a bridge is just the first step in Maldon’s long and complicated campaign of using disguises, bravado, fast talk, his technical skills, and an ability to crawl through air conditioning ducts to get to the central computer and update his own file so it shows that he has in fact earned his Microtonics degree and is eligible for a good job.

As "Placement Test" proceeds it becomes increasingly absurd, with more and more jokes until it climaxes with a satirical twist ending.  I rarely enjoy broad farce and absurd satire, so I can't deny that I was disappointed by the turn taken by "Placement Test" in its final pages.  Everywhere I look I see snide sarcasm and childish irony--and I am as reprehensible an offender as anyone--and so I seek sincerity in the fiction I read, and would have preferred Laumer to have played "Placement Test" as straight as he did "Dinochrome."  I think the satiric twist of the ending also irked me because it undermines what I kind of was taking as the story's point, that government is incompetent and the people at the top of government are selfish and corrupt--the twist makes it seem like the people atop the government hierarchy are devilishly clever and committed to (however ruthlessly and anti-democratically) solving public problems.

Another perhaps noteworthy aspect of the story that might give readers pause is the apparent contempt in which Keith Laumer--Air Force officer, diplomat, successful novelist and guy who designs and builds flying models in his spare time--holds those who make a living cleaning toilets and answering phones.

But, taken as a whole, I liked "Placement Test," which moves at a brisk pace and is well constructed.

After first appearing in Amazing (in an issue in which Robert Silverberg reveals that he hates Edgar Rice Burroughs ("silly...crude") but loves Robert E. Howard ("intellectual stimulation"), "Placement Test" has been included in a number of anthologies, including that Canadian textbook we mentioned in our last episode, SF: Inventing the Future, a 1977 book called Psy Fi One: An Anthology of Psychology in Science Fiction, which I can't find a cover image of anywhere (if a reader has access to an image of the cover, said to have been illustrated by Stanislaw Fernandes, I would like to see it!), and one of those anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover over Martin S. Greenberg's and Charles H. Waugh's, this one called Those Amazing Electronic Thinking Machines!: An Anthology of Robot and Computer Stories.  I guess "Placement Test" counts as a computer story because Maldon has to figure out how to get access to the computer database which records everybody's education and employment status. 

"Doorstep" (1961)

This one first appeared in Galaxy, where it is described as a "short-short story."  It is, in fact, a five-page joke story (six and a half in Nine by Laumer) that, I guess, is a lampoon of military overreaction.

A huge object lands from space in rural America.  The Army surrounds it, investigates it, men climbing over it and so forth.  When it opens, I guess like a woman's compact or a clam shell, a soldier is knocked off and killed.  Monstrous appendages, like those of a giant crab or scorpion, emerge from the vehicle, and the general in charge of the investigation, a veteran of Operation Overlord, orders his men to open fire with machine guns and mortars.  The giant creature inside is blasted to bits.  Then comes the punchline--the boffins have decoded the message that came with the vehicle: "Please take care of my little girl."

When I realized the story was going to be a joke I had hopes the punchline would be that the aliens were sending ahead live food supplies, or offering us a toothsome delicacy as a gift.  Of course, that would have been a silly joke, and Laumer instead chose an ending with a sort of satirical sting, an attack on American, or human, or military (there is a scientist who tries to stop the general from giving the command to fire) belligerence.

Innocuous filler. I'm grading this one barely acceptable.

Besides in a bunch of Laumer collections, "Doorstep" would reappear in one of those Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh anthologies, this one called Young Extraterrestrials in early editions and Asimov's Extraterrestrials or just Extraterrestrials in later, revised, editions.  It is hard to believe Greenberg and Waugh couldn't find a better five-page story for their anthology, but maybe they legitimately liked it...or maybe there aren't a lot of stories about alien babies out there.

They changed the title but they still put a baby on the cover.  Tricky!

"Dinochrome" AKA "Combat Unit" is the stand out, though "Placement Test" has merit and even the slight "Doorstep" is not repulsive.  In our next episode we finish up Nine By Laumer with three more stories by the inventor of the "Twin Lizzie" and the "Dub-L Dek-R."  Hopefully these will be straight tales of adventure and science like "Dinochrome" and "Hybrid" and not satires or goofs.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

"Hybrid," "End as a Hero" and "The Walls" by Keith Laumer

First edition
In the August 1967 issue of Amazing, Harry Harrison of Stainless Steel Rat fame dismisses Harlan Ellison's 12-page introduction to the 1967 collection of Keith Laumer stories Nine by Laumer as a pretentious waste of time that you should ignore.  And he wasn't kidding!


For fear of spoilers, I only read the first page of Ellison's intro, in which he says that the nine stories in this book are "completely unlike" the Retief stories for which Laumer is famous.  In fact, Ellison warns that Retief fans may be "shocked and bewildered" by the stories in Nine by Laumer.   Harlan, are you trying to help sell your friend's book, or drive people away from it by insulting them?  Well, I've read, I think, two Retief stories, and I wasn't really crazy about them, so this claim of Ellison's is not driving me away--maybe Ellison is pulling some effective reverse psychology on me and other SF fans.  I've been thinking for years that I should read more Laumer (and I did like Laumer's portion of the experimental book Five Fates) so let's read this collection over the course of three blog posts.  I am reading the scan of the first edition which is available at the internet archive, and reading the stories in the order in which they appear in this volume.

"Hybrid"  (1961)

"Hybrid" made its debut in an issue of F&SF with a great cover and has been reprinted in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison's Decade: The 1960s and The Best of Keith Laumer; I guess this one has been embraced by the SF community.

"Hybrid" is about a sentient tree, a tree whose crown is like a mile across and whose thousands-years-long life cycle includes an ambulatory faun stage during which it lives as a parasite/symbiont with another creature.  Laumer comes up with a whole biology and ecology for this creature which is convincing and compelling, and he succeeds in making the tree an actual sympathetic character.

The tree is not the only character in the story, though he may be the most sympathetic one.  The tree is near death, alone on a planet where its species is practically extinct, when it is discovered by three squabbling space men.  These three guys are so frustrated, so unhappy, so pathetic, it was depressing reading about them.  You've got a violent bully, a physically feeble and socially inept nerd (there is a vague hint that he may have grown up on the Moon) who is always screwing up and then making resolutions to better himself which he never follows through on, and the captain, who tries with little success to keep these two from beating the hell out of each other and to guide their business to profitability.

The story's problems are resolved when the nerd and the dying tree come into mental contact and become symbionts.  The tree's tendrils invade the egghead, alter his body so he is strong and resistant to disease, alter his mind to diminish psychological problems caused by unhappy memories, install within him spores so he can spread the tree's offspring throughout the galaxy (by the pleasant expedient of impregnating human women--the children those women will give birth to will, when they get close to their hundredth birthdays, take root and become trees themselves.)  The tree's consciousness resides within the spaceman's mind, so he not only now has the strength and confidence to defend himself from the bully and achieve success with women, but also has a friend for life.

Quite good.  I can totally see why Ellison (and Aldiss and Harrison) would like a story like this.  Hopefully the rest of the stories in Nine by Laumer are going to be comparably interesting, affecting, and economical.

"End as a Hero" (1963)

"End as a Hero" first appeared in Galaxy, in an issue with a cover that reminds me of Walt Disney's The Black Hole. (I am one of the few people who maintains not only that The Black Hole is good, but that it is better than the overhyped and gimmicky Tron.)

The Earth is at war with vicious aliens, the monstrous Gool!  These space bastards are believed to have a "long-range telehypnotic ability" that can make a patriotic Earthman turn on his comrades and then forget he did it!  So when Earth space battleships Gilgamesh and Belshazzar are destroyed by sabotage, it is no surprise that Earth HQ is pretty suspicious of the sole survivor of the disaster, our narrator Peter Granthan, psychodynamicist.

As a trained psychodynamicist, Granthan is able to resist the invasion of his mind by the malignant Gool--in fact, he is able to follow the Gool brainwaves back to their source and read the Gool's mind and learn all about Gool society and technology!  Granthan learns that the Gool have matter transmitters and even how to build one, and perhaps more amazingly, he learns how to hypnotize people from thousands of miles away himself, stealing from those alien freaks their best trick!

Knowing how to hypnotize people he can't even see comes in handy pretty damn quick, because Earth HQ assumes Granthan is now a Gool slave, so when his life boat approaches Earth they open fire on it!  Granthan uses his new powers to manipulate the gunners of the Earth defense forces into holding their fire or missing their shots.  Granthan then uses his psychic powers to elude capture as he travels cross country, collecting the equipment and supplies he needs to build a matter transmitter.  He plans to use the matter transmitter to help Earth fight the Gool and thus convince Earth HQ he isn't working for the Gool, but what if people at HQ in Washington have been influenced by the monstrous aliens?  And what if he didn't steal the knowledge of the matter transmitter and telehypnosis from the Gool, but was given this paradigm-shifting info to further the vile E.T.'s own inscrutable and diabolical purposes....? 

"End as a Hero" is a fun fast-paced adventure spy thing.  The alien race, the use of psychic powers, and Granthan's flight across the galaxy and across the U S of A, are all well done, very entertaining.  "End as a Hero" kind of reminds me of a van Vogt story, with the rapidly expanding mental consciousness and powers bit and the mind-bending plot twists.  I like it!  "End as a Hero" was included in a number of Laumer collections, and was even expanded into a novel in 1985.
"The Walls" (1963)

Here's another story to add to the swollen catalogs of overpopulation stories and anti-TV tales.  (I just listed four SF stories decrying the boob tube in my last blog post!)  First presented by Amazing, "The Walls" would go on to be included in Laumer collections and in a 1972 Canadian anthology that looks like a textbook of some kind, SF: Inventing the Future.

It is the overcrowded future, in which people live in tiny apartments and eat yeast chops and never see their kids because travel between home and boarding school is too expensive.  The forests and beaches have all been paved over, covered in apartment towers and factories.  Flora is a thin, gaunt even, housewife who wants to go outside--she hasn't seen the sky in what feels like years!  Her husband Harry, a tryhard devoted to the cult of conspicuous consumption, tries to show up the neighbors and brighten Flora's time alone at home by having their little TV replaced with a costly state-of-the-art screen that fills an entire wall of their tiny flat.  Then he purchases a second full wall television, and a third, and finally a fourth so that he and Flora are surrounded by the brawling cowboys and shouting comedians and chattering quiz masters that are broadcast at them.  Flora goes insane--the proximate cause is all these intrusive TVs, but the "real" reason she goes bonkers is the fact that she has been totally alienated from the natural world of animals and trees, of the sky and the sea, the world of her childhood.

Laumer tries to do some literary things in "The Walls," mostly around Flora looking at the reflection in the TVs when she shuts them off.  When only one wall has been converted to a TV screen the reflection in its dark surface makes the room appear to have doubled in size, which is not unpleasant, but when two or more walls have been turned into glass screens they set up infinite reflections which are disturbing, and Laumer uses the reflections to presents various metaphors and symbols--when Flora is in bed and can see hundreds of other thin women in beds surrounding her, she feels like she is in an infinitely huge hospital or morgue, for example.

I can't point to anything wrong with this story, but somehow it just didn't move me.  Maybe I just feel like these topics are played out (which may be unfair to Laumer, as a large proportion of the overpopulation and anti-TV stories that contributed to my being sick of the subjects may have been printed after "The Walls") and this one doesn't bring anything unique or surprising to the timeworn themes.   I'll grade this one acceptable.


"The Walls" was a merely acceptable standard issue SF piece, but "Hybrid" and "End as a Hero" were fun adventure capers full of weird science; so far I am enjoying Nine By Laumer.  Three more Keith Laumer stories from the early 1960s in our next episode!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Four more stories by Jack Vance from The Augmented Agent and Other Stories

Paperback editions from 1988 and 1989; the cover illustration on the 1988 printing has nothing to 
do with Vance's work--it originally appeared on Barrington Bayley's Rod of Light
Here at MPoricus Fiction Log we are reading 1986's The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, a collection of 1950s and 1960s stories by SF Grandmaster Jack Vance, the brilliant stylist behind such famous series as the Dying Earth and the Demon Princes.  I often think about rereading the three Alastor books and the three Cadwal books (I've already read the second and third Dying Earth books and all five Demon Princes books multiple times) but today I explore four Vance tales that I have never read before.  Having examined the first four of the volume's eight tales over the last two blog posts, today we'll be finishing up with my hardcover copy of The Augmented Agent and Other Stories.

"Crusade to Maxus" (1951)

In our last blog post I complained that Vance failed to convey to the reader the emotions of the protagonists of 1951's "Golden Girl," and that that story lacked any thrills that might hold the reader's attention.  Things are quite different in this 1951 story.  You see, Maxus is a planet to which slaves are brought, to be sold to the "Overmen" who employ most of them in vast industrial complexes which produce top-of-the-line electronics and machinery that are critical to the economy of the entire galaxy!  Travec has rushed to this world because his family has been captured by the space raider Arman and brought to Maxus to be sold to the highest bidder!  Without going overboard or getting too manipulative, but instead with economic understatement that is compelling, Vance depicts Travec's desperation and frustration as he hurries to the slave market to buy back his own flesh and blood and is delayed by all manner of bureaucratic red tape and demands for bribes.  Agony follows as he finds upon his arrival at the "Slave Distribute" that his mother Iardeth has died and his sister Thalla has been sold to some overweight aristocrat.  There is also melodrama and grue as fate decrees that, in the icy morgue where rests Iardeth Travec's corpse, Travec get into a fight with the noble who has purchased his sister--in the fracas a stray energy blast from the aristo's pistol kills Thalla!

Before she was killed, Thalla told Travec of another captive, a young woman named Mardien who was kind to her.  Following the tragedy in the morgue, Travec purchases Mardien at the slave auction.  He also goes to see a Maxus official, the High Commissioner, in hopes of purchasing his brother and a younger sister, who were sold before Travec arrived.  The High Commisioner offers to hand over Travec's siblings if Travec can deliver to him, dead or alive, the renegade son of a Maxus noble and a slave woman, a desperado who has committed crimes which humiliated members of the Maxus overclass--this offender is none other than Arman the slaver, somebody Travec wanted to kill anyway!

Arman is believed to be on Fell--his mother was an Oro, one of the highland people of planet Fell, all of whom the lowland people of Fell consider insane.  On their way to Fell, Mardien reveals to Travec that she is also an Oro, and that Arman is a hero to the Oros, herself included!  When Travec confronts Arman he learns that Arman, ostensibly at least, is leading the Oros in a long term plot to overthrow Maxus--they hope to build Fell into a similar industrial powerhouse and put Maxus out of business.  Part of the plan is selling to Maxus slaves like Mardien, volunteers who will conduct industrial espionage while toiling in the Maxus factories.

"Crusade to Maxus" starts off strong, but the resolution of the story is a little muddled and lacking in verve.  To me it felt sort of contrived, and much of it is related to us in a bloodless second hand fashion that is not very exciting or satisfying.

Mardien's attitudes about Arman evolve as her relationship with Travec evolves; our heroes declare their love for each other and Mardien reveals to Travec the secret of what makes the Oros so special.  The Oros are not only telepaths, but have discovered a method of achieving something like immortality, which renders them unafraid of death.  When an Oro dies he can shift his personality into the brain of a loved one, where it will merge with the primary personality and live on in a vague fashion.  I have to admit that I found this business rather unconvincing and uninteresting--it sounded to me like the consciousness of the dead person is quickly subsumed within that of the primary and quickly forgotten, and thus is not immortal at all.  Mardien absorbed her mother's soul, but it's not like she has her mother's memories or talks to her mother or has taken on her mother's likes and dislikes or anything like that--"I felt her presence for a few weeks, as if she were in the room.  Then gradually she melted completely into me."  This is not any different from when somebody you love dies in real life!  This is a half-assed concept that doesn't seem to change what death is like or change how life is lived very much at all, but seems to have been conceived by Vance as a plot device to produce people who are fearless because the plot needed a bunch of people to be fearless.  To this end, the Oros can teach people who are not telepathic the technique of shifting your consciousness into a loved one's brain as you die.

After they have killed Arman, Travec and Mardien take over the crusade against Maxus, abandoning the plan of building a rival superpower, a project that would take decades or centuries and probably be strangled in the cradle by the Maxus space navy before a Fell space navy could be cobbled together.  Our heroes, instead, direct the Oro slaves on Maxus to teach as many of the other slaves as possible the Oro soul-shifting ability.  Because their leaders can communicate telepathically, and none of the slaves fear death, the slaves can launch a campaign of spectacular suicide attacks--for example, all at once, in the space of a moment, every single slave chauffeur on the planet crashes the air car he is driving, killing over a million people.  The Maxus government crumples before such terrorism, and slavery is ended and a representative government installed.

"Crusade to Maxus" was first published as "Overlords of Maxus," a cover story in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  Prefixed to the story is a funny little note from Thrilling Wonder's editor, believed to be Sam Merwin, Jr.  It seems that some readers had written in to complain about SF stories depicting a future full of people fighting with swords and contending with slavers and so forth--surely sword fighting and slavery are anachronisms, totally out of place in a future of interstellar travel!  Merwin replies that the modern world of 1951 is full of people who believe in voodoo and is plagued by dictatorial governments who throw dissenters into forced labor camps--he avers that human cultural differences that we might call anachronisms exist now and no doubt will continue to exist in the future.

A glance at the 1951 magazine version of the Maxus story reveals many changes were made to the text for book publication in 1986--the protagonist's name is even different, changed from Gardius to Travec.  A long action sequence on Fell involving a fight with giant spiders was deleted--this section doesn't do much to move the plot forward, as it starts with Gardius, having been captured by Arman, being thrown in the woods to be eaten by the spiders, and then ends with Gardius, having slain the spiders, being captured again by Arman and this time sold into slavery on Maxus.  In the 1986 version Arman just sells Travec into slavery on Maxus immediately upon capturing him.  The 1986 version still contains the foreshadowing of the fight with the spiders--a lowlander tells Travec all about the monstrous spiders, so that the reader expects him to have to fight them, but they are never mentioned again!

"Crusade to Maxus" is like 50 pages, and I really liked the first 40 or so, which reminded me of the Demon Princes stories, but the ending is just OK.  "Crusade to Maxus" has appeared in numerous Vance collections; under the title "Kruistocht naar Alambar" (Alambar is the capital city of Maxus) it is the title story of one such Dutch collection.

"Three-Legged Joe" (1953)

This is one of those stories in which academically-trained young men with a lot of new ideas are shown up by the uneducated old-timers for whom they have contempt because they underrate the value of those old goats' accumulated lifetimes of practical experience.  In the end the newbies triumph over adversity, however.

John Milke and Oliver Paskell have just graduated from Highland Technical Institute and are going to planet Odfars to do some prospecting.  They chose Odfars because there is evidence that it is loaded with valuable minerals, but, for some reason, nobody has staked any claims on the planet.  Milke and Paskell try to find an old timer to accompany them as a hired hand, but none of the experienced prospectors they approach want to go to Odfars--these geezers even advise the boys to stay away from the place, making jocular comments about a "Three-Legged Joe" said to live there.

Milke and Paskell head to barren airless Odfars alone, making bone-headed amateurish mistakes both while preparing their expedition and while on the planet.  A mysterious three-legged creature which they can never seem to get a good look at bedevils their operations, and they try various means to destroy it; all fail, but they do manage to neutralize the creature without killing it and thus open up Odfars's deposits to exploitation that will make them rich.

This is a slight but entertaining SF story with some amusing bits and a healthy serving of science, mostly about electricity--Milke and Paskell know all about "hysteresis" and "field conflicts," the "resistance of superconductive metals at absolute zero" and "induction coils."  I don't know anything about that stuff, but I guess that is why they are rich and I consider buying a five-dollar book an extravagance.

After first appearing in Startling Stories, "Three-Legged Joe" would go on to be included in many Vance collections.  A brief skim reveals there are quite a few differences in the text of the original magazine version and the 1986 version; for example, in the magazine version Milke says "If it's liquid...I'll eat your hat" and in the hardcover book version, he says "If it's liquid...I'll eat my hat."  I'm finding the rationale behind some of the changes a little opaque.

"Sjamback" (1953) 

"Sjamback" first appeared in If, the top story of an issue in which editor James L. Quinn's editorial is devoted to complaints that his new fountain pen is too complicated and praise for the film Breaking Through the Sound Barrier.

Wilbur Murphy is a cinematographer on the TV show Know Your Universe!  One of the producers thinks the show is getting stale with all the scientific stuff they have been showing, and needs some sex, some mystery, some excitement!  So he sends Murphy to the planet Cirgamesc (the challenge of pronouncing this name is one of the story's jokes), chasing rumors of superstitions and unlikely supernatural happenings, like claims a guy rides a horse from the surface of the planet up into space to greet incoming star ships!

Cirgamesc was settled by Javanese, Arabs and Malayans, and Murphy hopes to be able to film some interesting traditions and exotic rituals, preferably involving dancing girls, but for the most part the people there seem pretty tame--the son of the Sultan of Singhalut, the city in which Murphy disembarks,  meets Murphy at the spaceport and tells him that "We left our superstitions and ancestor-worship back on Earth.  We are quiet Mohammedans and indulge in very little festivity."  One oddity does pique Murphy's interest, however: it seems that occasionally a citizen of Cirgamesc goes berserk--runs amuk--and becomes a "sjambak"--a bandit, a rebel against authority.  Such troublemakers wear a metal ornament on their chests, and to facilitate the detection of such renegades the Sultan has decreed that everybody go around bare chested...including the women, hubba hubba!

Murphy is discouraged from investigating this phenomenon by the native authorities, the common people, and by an offworld businessman who has lived on Cirgamesc for nine years--the Sultan runs a surveillance state and things don't go well for those who look too closely into the subject of the sjambaks.  A little detective work reveals that the Sultan's son is behind (or taking advantage of) the sjambak phenomenon--he wants to launch a jihad and these energetic rebels are to be his army.  Singhalut, like all the cities on airless Cirgamesc, is under a dome, which severely limits opportunities for the city to grow.  The solution, according to the atavistic (and perhaps insane) prince is to conquer some other dome cities or maybe some other planet.  (The metal thing on the chests of the sjambaks is the visible portion of a device implanted into the sjambaks that allows them to breathe on the airless planet's surface.)  In a way that is not very exciting or satisfying Murphy foils the jihad and figures out the kernel of truth behind the weird rumor of a man riding a horse in space.

("Sjamback" brought to mind those reader complaints of anachronisms mentioned by Sam Merwin, Jr. in Thrilling Wonder in 1951--when they venture outside the dome, the Sultan's soldiers wear spacesuits but are armed with crossbows and swords, and the sjamback that faces them down also wields a sword.)

"Sjamback" is just OK.  There isn't much by way of thrills, the resolution of the plot is underwhelming, and the satire of TV is a little obvious and rather gentle--Vance's depiction of TV  doesn't have the bile we see in other SF stories that address the threat posed by the idiot box, of which there are quite a few.  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is perhaps the most famous and sophisticated of such attacks, but during the life of this blog I have encountered many others, among them Robert F. Young's "Thirty Days Had September," Robert Bloch's "Beep No More, My Lady," Charles Beaumont's "The Monster Show," and John D. MacDonald's "Spectator Sport."  Vance made a packet of money writing for the Captain Video TV show, and so maybe he had a soft spot for the boob tube.

"Sjamback" might be of value to those interested in SF depictions of Muslims, Asians, and Arabs and Western essentialist views of nonwhites that boil peoples down to a few stereotypical characteristics: that businessman tells Murphy that the people of Cirgamesc are "schizophrenic.... They've got the docile Javanese blood, plus the Arabian elan."  A number of SF writers have mined Islamic and Arab history for ideas; I haven't actually read Dune, by Jack Vance's friend Frank Herbert (Vance, Herbert and Poul Anderson would go sailing together in a boat they built themselves--we're talking about real men here!), but it is my understanding that it is largely inspired by Arab history, Islam, and T. E. Lawrence.  Andrew Offutt integrates stuff from the Islamic world in some of his work, like King Dragon, but as I recall mostly as romantic window-dressing.

"The Augmented Agent" (1961)

Finally we come to the title story, which was first printed in Amazing Stories under the joke title "I. C. a. BeM."  It was the cover story for that issue, and, when it was reprinted in The Best from Amazing Stories under the title "The Augmented Agent" in 1973, Jack got top billing again.  (Remember how in the July 1973 issue of Fantastic editor Ted White spoke at some length about what a crummy job the publisher did putting together The Best from Amazing?)  In the interim the story had appeared, under its original title, in the Spring 1968 issue of Great Science Fiction
"The Augmented Agent" starts off like something out of Warhammer 40,000, as we learn that CIA agent James Keith has had all sort of weapons and surveillance and communications equipment integrated into his body.  It is the 1990s, the Soviet Union is still a going concern, and Adoui Shagawe, premiere of the Soviet-aligned African nation of Lakhadi, has acquired some old intercontinental ballistic missiles (they lack warheads, for now at least!)  Keith has been given the mission of infiltrating the Lakhadi government and disguised to look like Tamba Ngasi, a minister of the parliament of Lakhadi with a face that is "dark, feral and harsh: the face, literally, of a savage."  Ngasi is a tough customer, a tribal chief who murdered his own family to win his seat in the Lakhadi legislature.

We observe as Keith sneaks into Lakhadi via submarine, assassinates Tamba Ngasi with one of his high tech secret weapons, takes the man's place and travels to the capital of Lakhadi, Fejo, a city built with Soviet money in a modernistic but African style where the hotel staff address the government bigwigs staying at the hotel as "comrade."  (Here we find the inspiration for Ned Dameron's jacket illustration which mixes African designs and figures with Soviet iconography.)  Keith as Ngasi attends parliament, where the wisdom of controversial policies of purchasing the ICBMs and allying more closely with the People's Republic of China are debated.  One guy even says that Marxism is bunk!  Lakhadi's policy is not set in stone, and Western, Soviet and Chinese agents are all there in Fejo, trying to influence the Lakhadi government, and Keith discovers that the Red agents are just as augmented as he is.

Was the man Keith killed the real Tamba Ngasi, or an impostor sent by Moscow?  Is the Polish operative who mistakes Keith for a Soviet agent really working for the USSR, or is he a double agent working for Beijing?  After much espionage business and killing, Keith, in his guise as Tamba Ngasi, finds himself dictator of Lakhadi.  As the weeks and months of his regime go by, Keith begins taking on the personality of the man he is impersonating, a man who is impetuous and ruthless, and his policies begin antagonizing the Soviet Union, the Chinese, and even the United States, attracting the attention of agents from all three great powers who seek to change his policy or get him off the throne one way or another.

"The Augmented Agent" is a good Cold War spy story.  I liked all the espionage techniques and all the many high tech devices, none of which I have detailed here.  The Cold War issues addressed--e.g., How should Third World countries pursue their interests in the Cold War world?  By adopting Western governing philosophies of revolution and socialism or democracy and capitalism?  By accepting material aid from the great powers that no doubt come with strings attached?  Or by forging a philosophically and materially independent course based on indigenous traditions and culture?--are compelling.  "The Augmented Agent" lacks a neat and tidy resolution, but this reflects one of Vance's goals for the story, which is to dramatize the likelihood that conflict between different cultures is inevitable and a peaceful Earth an impossible dream.  Like "Sjamback," if you are writing your master's thesis on the depiction of nonwhites by important SF writers, "The Augmented Agent" will provide some grist for your mill.


With a single exception, the eight stories in The Augmented Agent and Other Stories are enjoyable, and it is definitely fun to find similarities between these lesser-known Vance stories and Vance's famous novels, and to see Vance's take on real life cultures and ideologies.

Science fiction stories from the 1960s in the next installment of MPoricus Fiction Log!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

"Shape-Up," "The Man from Zodiac" and "Golden Girl" by Jack Vance

In our last episode I talked about "The Plagian Siphon," AKA "The Planet Machine" AKA "The Uninhibited Robot," a Jack Vance story with many versions and titles; I read the version in my hardcover copy of the 1986 collection The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, a book the cover illustration of which made me do a double and then a triple take.  Today let's read three more stories from this volume, 1953's "Shape-Up," 1967's "The Man from Zodiac" AKA "Milton Hack from Zodiac," and 1951's "Golden Girl."  These are what you might call Vance "deep cuts," stories which were published in SF magazines and then never anthologized, only reappearing in Vance collections.

"Shape-Up" (1953)

The first story in The Augmented Agent and Other Stories made its debut in Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy.  A glance at the magazine version's first page confirms that the version from 1986 is revised, with the word "copper" being replaced by "coin" in the later version ("he plugged his next-to-last coin into the Pegasus Square Farm and Mining Bulletin dispenser....")

Gilbert Jarvis reads the Pegasus Square Farm and Mining Bulletin as he sits in a cafe, drinking hot anise he has purchased with the last of his coins (or coppers.)  In response to a classified ad, he goes to an inn for a rigorous job interview, which includes a sort of group interview component.  I still recall with dread some group job interviews of my experience, but this group interview that Jarvis finds himself involved in is more dreadful still.  The job applicants are all rough tough adventurer types, and have been called together under false pretenses--according to the man managing the interview process, the gathered men are all suspects in a murder, and have been brought together so that the killer can be identified and then summarily executed!

This is a decent thriller story about violent, dangerous men in a sort of lawless environment.  In true classic SF fashion the mystery is solved, and Jarvis's life is saved, because Jarvis is a quick thinker who knows about science (in this case gravity.)

"The Man from Zodiac" (1967) 

This one appeared first in Amazing, and was apparently the major selling point of the issue.  "JACK VANCE'S GREAT SHORT NOVEL" the cover cries out above a surprisingly bland and busy illustration totally lacking in hot chicks, monsters or spacecraft.  Amazing must have been in some kind of trouble, because, excepting "The Man from Zodiac," all the stories are reprints!  Not that I am knocking the issue--there is every chance that those reprinted stories, pieces by Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester and Neil R. Jones among them, are awesome.  And then there is the fun book column by Harry Harrison in which he says that SF may well be "the last bastion of the short story," praises Brian Aldiss, Keith Laumer and Samuel R. Delany, and takes swipes at widely beloved but also controversial figures Harlan Ellison:
The worst thing about Nine By Laumer by Keith Laumer (Doubleday, $3.95) is the overly long and pretentious introduction by Harlan Ellison.
and Sam Moskowitz:
Moskowitz has yet to understand that literary criticism is more than which parts of which stories resemble other stories.
Yeow, that one hurts!

OK, back to "The Man from Zodiac," which is like 40 pages in the 1986 version I am reading.

Martin Hack is the field representative of Zodiac Control, Inc., and owns an eight percent share of the company.  Zodiac Control is an interstellar contractor that offers services to polities large and small--Zodiac will maintain order, enforce the law, extinguish fires, educate the young, manage the economy, and fight foreign enemies of those entities that sign a contract with them--Zodiac basically sets up and operates governments.  The recent inheritors of 92% of Zodiac Control sign a seven-year contract with the state of Phronus on the planet Ethelrinda Cordas, and give Hack the job of managing this project.

Upon his arrival in Phronus, Hack learns that its people are semi-literate barbarians in a constant state of war (waged primarily at close range with swords and other such low-tech weapons) against their neighbors, the equally belligerent and primitive people of Sabo--the Phrones had hopes that Zodiac would supply them with high tech weapons with which to wipe out the Sabol.  A pack of raiders and pirates, the Phrones would also like to pillage a sort of artists' colony/intellectuals' retreat known as Parnassus that sits nearby and is managed by one Cyril Dibden--the offworlder eggheads at Parnassus are defended by energy fields against which the Phrone cutlasses and poniards are useless.  When Hack, surveying the territory of Phronus, suggests to one of the local lords that a charming seaside area be developed into a resort to cater to the tourist trade, this bloodthirsty campaigner responds, "Why entice strangers into the country?  Far easier to depredate our neighbor Dibden.  But first things first: the Sobols must be destroyed!"

The plot follows Hack's efforts to bring peace and order to the Phronus-Parnassus-Sabo region; through trickery he not only drags Phronus and Sabo into the modern civilized era, but uncovers a conspiracy on the part of Cyril Dibden, who was as interested in acquiring the Phrone and Sabol lands as those marauders were interested in despoiling Parnassus.  In the end Zodiac has not only the Phronus contract, but one with Sabo and Parnassus, and Hack is a hero back on Earth at Zodiac's corporate offices.

"The Man from Zodiac" is a sort of light entertainment; it is smooth and pleasant, and made me laugh several times, and I recommend it.  While it doesn't really engage with ideas (though we might see it as yet another example of SF elitism that dismisses democracy without a thought), there is one somewhat striking, somewhat incongruous, psychological passage:
At his deepest, most essential level, Hack knew himself for an insipid mediocrity, of no intellectual distinction and no particular competence in any direction.  This was an insight so shocking that Hack never allowed it past the threshold of consciousness, and he conducted himself as if the reverse were true.     
At the risk of seeming like Sam Moskowitz, I will point out that carefully planned subterranean explosive charges play an important role in the plot of "The Man from Zodiac," and that just such engineering plays a role in Vance's fourth Demon Princes book, 1979's The Face.  Also of note, the editor's intro to "The Man from Zodiac" in Amazing, and portions of the text that seem to foreshadow a relationship between Hack and a young woman who owns lots of Zodiac stock, suggest that there were plans, which apparently did not come to fruition, for a series of Martin Hack stories.

"Golden Girl" (1951)

This is a first contact story.  A reporter, Bill Baxter, goes to investigate a meteorite that has fallen in rural Iowa and discovers a burning alien space ship!  He pulls out the unconscious occupant, a beautiful woman aged 19 or 20 with golden skin!  Entranced by her beauty, he contrives to stay by her side in the hospital as she recovers, and, while the government and the press and the world wait with bated breath to learn what she is all about, it is Baxter who teaches her English.

The woman, named Lurulu (also the name of Vance's last published book), describes her society to Baxter--it is a standard issue utopia, with no more war, no more racism, no more crime, no need to work, etc.  Lurulu was taking a trip in her space yacht when it malfunctioned and she crashed here on belligerent, racist, crime-ridden, labor-intensive Earth.

Lurulu is shown around New York--her world, she says, has no such skyscrapers or vast bridges, people living in flying houses and not congregating in large groups.  Lurulu finds Earth exhausting.  Baxter worships her and asks her to marry him, but she refuses--their cultures are too different.  Shortly after, Lurulu commits suicide.  Vance hints that "Golden Girl" is based upon an 1839 story in a book by J. G. Lockhart, Strange Tales of the Seven Seas, the diary of an Englishwoman who was shipwrecked on the coast of Africa and taken in by a black tribe--though the natives treated her well, in fact worshiped her, she missed English people and English life and so killed herself.

This story is not very good.  The SF elements feel tired and obvious, and Vance has no success in making us feel Lurulu's homesickness or alienation, nor in making us feel Baxter's love or lust or infatuation or whatever it is, and the scene in which Baxter realizes she will commit suicide feels gimmicky.  This is a filler story, but with no jokes or violence or other entertaining or exploitative components that might hold your interest or give you some kind of thrill.  Gotta give this early Vance story a thumbs down. 

"Golden Girl" was first printed in an issue of Marvel Science Stories featuring a debate about Dianetics between L.Ron Hubbard, Lester del Rey and Theodore Sturgeon.


In our next exciting episode we'll finish up with The Augmented Agent and Other Stories.  The wraparound illustration on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Augmented Agent and Other Stories features a bust of Lenin and some other communist iconography, plus a female figure that reminds me of African sculpture.  I don't recall any references to the Soviet Union or to sculpture in "Shape-Up," "The Man from Zodiac" or "Golden Girl," so maybe the key to the mystery of what story the cover illustrates will be cleared up in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.  Or maybe we will have to go along with the theory put forward in the comments on our last blog post by Transreal Fiction, that the cover illustrates "The Planet Machine."



Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Three 1950s stories by Jack Vance: "The Miracle Workers," "The Men Return" and "The Planet Machine"

Flipping through the scan at the internet archive of the October 1958 issue of Astounding, seeking the illustrations for Pauline Ashwell's "Big Sword," which we read in our last blog post, I noticed that Astounding readers had voted Jack Vance's "The Miracle Workers" the best story in the July issue.  I'm pretty sure I read "The Miracle Workers" years ago, long before this blog's spontaneous and incomprehensible generation, but I didn't remember much specifically and so I decided to give it another read, along with two other 1950s Vance stories which have yet to be subjected to the MPorcius treatment, "The Men Return" and "The Plagian Siphon" AKA "The Planet Machine" AKA "The Uninhibited Robot."

"The Miracle Workers" (1958)

In the Preface to the 2006 volume, The Jack Vance Treasury, Vance says that he wrote "The Miracle Workers" with the specific aim of appealing to Astounding's famous editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., who, Vance says, "had a predilection for unusual ideas."  It speaks to Vance's ability to write for a market, and perhaps to Campbell's own ability to figure out what his readers wanted and transmit that info to writers, that "The Miracle Workers" was the most popular story in the issue in which it appeared.

I'm reading the version of "The Miracle Workers" that appears in The Jack Vance Treasury, via a scan at the internet archive; I believe the texts in The Jack Vance Treasury are derived from those prepared by the Vance Integral Edition project, and thus the text I am reading is as close as possible to Vance's original vision.

"The Miracle Workers" is set on Pangborn, a planet which was colonized by humans, the war-weary crews of space warships, over 1000 years ago.  Pangborn's current human inhabitants have access to very little of their spacefaring ancestors' hi-tech equipment or technical know-how--these people ride around on animals or in animal-drawn wagons, their soldiers lug around spears and crossbows.  But the Pangbornians of today do not pine for the conveniences of the modern industrial past--instead, they consider the few remaining hover cars and the energy weapons to be relics of an uncouth age, and consider empiricism and the experimental method to be mere superstition and mysticism!  In place of what you and I might call science and technology, dear reader, the intellectuals of the story's topsy turvy milieu embrace voodoo and fortune telling!  When Lord Faide's army marches off to war on Lord Ballant, behind his mounted knights and foot sore infantry roll the wagons of his cadre of wizards with their cabinets full of voodoo dolls!

The plot of "The Miracle Workers" largely concerns the esoteric work of, and rivalries among, Lord Faide's "jinxmen," "cabalmen" and "spellbinders," each of whom has different ambitions, attitudes and ideas; one young apprentice even suspects the scientific ancients' books and artifacts worth studying.  During the battle below the towers of Ballant Keep we witness the sorcery of the jinxmen and cabalmen of both sides--we learn the nature of their spell casting, which consists in part of telepathy and in part of very clever psychological manipulation.

Another major plot element of "The Miracle Workers" is the relationship of the humans to the planet's natives, called by the humans "the First Folk."  After Lord Fainde takes Lord Ballant's keep, wipes out the Ballant family and receives oaths of allegiance from Ballant's retainers, he is master of all humanity on Pangborn.  This is when the natives, still resentful after being driven out of their ancestral lands and into the forests by human beings many centuries ago, begin their anti-human guerrilla war in earnest--for a long time they have been breeding and training an army of arthropods of all sizes for this campaign of revenge and reconquest.  When Lord Faide finds that the conventional warfare methods of his knights and crossbowmen is of limited use in crushing the native uprising, he turns to his jinxmen, but since the jinxmen's sorcery relies on "getting into the heads" of their enemies, will it be of any use against the First Folk, whose mental processes, psychology and culture are radically different from that of humans?

This is a fun story, full of violence and understated jokes, but also a story about imperialism/colonialism and about ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking.  Presumably the fact that the story chronicles a renaissance of scientific thinking (the formerly laid back First Folk have seized upon the experimental methods and mass production practices of the early human colonists in their drive to build a war machine with which to take back their homelands, while the quasi-medieval humans, in response, begin to consider a return to such methods themselves--the miracle workers of the title are not the jinxmen but their ancestors who flew spaceships between the stars) appealed to the science-loving audience of Astounding.  The siege and bioweapon aspects of the story are obviously reminiscent of Vance's famous award-winning 1966 "The Last Castle" and his 1965 "The Dragon Masters."  I feel like I just recently read "The Last Castle" and "The Dragon Masters," but I guess it was over four years ago because I don't see that I have produced any blog posts about them.  Maybe it is time for a reread of those classics?

Quite good.  "The Miracle Workers" has appeared in many Vance collections and many anthologies, including some purporting to offer some of SF's greatest short novels and some devoted to tales of warfare or magic.

"The Men Return" (1957)
The Earth has drifted into a field of chaos, and logic no longer functions, the laws of cause and effect having been repealed.  The Earth's surface changes color and texture at random, the sun is absent from the sky and time is meaningless, the plants you ate "yesterday" may poison you "today."  Humanity has almost been wiped out, and only a small number of men survive: insane people, whose disordered minds somehow sync with the disorder of the landscape, and the Relicts, men whose grip on sanity is so firm, whose belief in logic so steady, that they generate a field of order around their own bodies.  But to survive, the Relicts must eat and drink from the world of disorder that surrounds them, a perilous endeavor.

Less than ten pages long ("The Miracle Workers" is like 65), "The Men Return" is more a catalog of absurd and insane visions and ideas (cannibalism is a given among the Relicts) than a plot-driven story.  We observe the desperate day-to-day existence of a few Relicts, their scrabbling and scheming to find food and avoid becoming food.  Then the Earth drifts out of the area of randomness, the sun returns and with it logic and causality--the insane people quickly die from trying to repeat the feats of daily life under chaos (e. g., stepping over a twenty-foot chasm or eating rocks) and the Relicts can begin building civilization anew.

"The Men Return" is well-written, featuring Vance's customary clever dialogue, but to my taste it lacks substance; you might call it experimental if you were being kind, a little gimmicky if you were being callous.  Maybe we should see this as a pioneering work of psychedelia.  (Remember when I pointed out the psychedelic nature of some passages in Clark Ashton Smith's 1932 story "The Monster of the Prophecy?"  Well, elsewhere in The Jack Vance Treasury--on page 384, in the author's afterword to "The Overworld"--Vance admits to being influenced by Smith, whom he read as a child.)

An acceptable strange entertainment.  I read "The Men Return" in The Jack Vance Treasury; it first appeared in Infinity Science Fiction, where its experimental nature is heralded on the cover: "A New Kind of Story by Jack Vance."  You may recall that we recently read the Algis Budrys story in this issue of Infinity, "The Burning World."  "The Men Return" has been widely anthologized, including  in Robert Silverberg's Alpha Two (alongside Vance's friend Poul Anderson's quite good "Call Me Joe") and in Brian Aldiss's Evil Earths (alongside Henry Kuttner's fun adventure novelette "The Time Trap.")

"The Planet Machine" (1951/1986)

In contrast to "The Miracle Workers" and "The Men Return," stories anthologized far and wide and beloved by multitudes for their memorable ideas, "The Plagian Siphon" has never been anthologized, only reappearing in Vance collections following its initial airing in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  The title used for the tale in the Vance Integral Edition, where it appears in the Gadget Stories volume, is "The Uninhibited Robot."  I am going to read the version in my hardcover copy of the 1986 collection The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, which I acquired at a book sale at an Ohio public library--in this book the story appears as "The Planet Machine."

The Augmented Agent and Other Stories is apparently somewhat rare, only 798 pages of this edition having been printed.  When I got it, it was in pretty good shape, but here in Maryland I live in the upper story of a 100-year-old house whose landlady considers maintenance optional, and is thus subject to strange and unpleasant variations in temperature, humidity, and odor; as a result, the condition of my books has deteriorated to some degree.  Ned Dameron provided The Augmented Agent and Other Stories with a mind-boggling wraparound cover in hideous colors that seems to integrate Soviet iconography and African-influenced modern sculpture.  I have not read the story "The Augmented Agent" (original title, "I-C-a-BeM"); when I do, maybe it will provide some insight into this outre vision.

Scans of my copy; feel free to click to zoom and get more intimately
 acquainted with this Pepto Bismal Socialist nightmare
(Curious caterpillar that I am, I read the first dozen paragraphs of "The Planet Machine" in my hardcover copy of The Augmented Agent and Other Stories and then the same paragraphs in "The Plagian Siphon" in the October 1951 Thrilling Wonder Stories and found quite a few additional words and phrases in the 1986 version.  There are also typos in the 1986 version that do not appear in the 1951 version.  The universe is in a state of entropy.)

Remember how in Heinlein's 1955 Tunnel in the Sky, Biggle's 1963 All the Colors of Darkness, and J. T. McIntosh's 1962  "One Into Two" there is a network of teleporters connecting different parts of the world and/or the galaxy?  Here in "The Planet Machine" there is a similar system connecting many different Earth locations as well as different planets, facilitating trade and travel.  Marvin "Scotty" Allixter is a technician whose job uis to maintain and repair these teleporters.  One day a slight irregularity is discovered with transmission to and from Rhetus--maybe the Rhetus machine just needs some fine tuning, but maybe some criminals have acquired their own teleporter machine and are rerouting transmissions of goods to themselves, stealing them.  So Allixter puts on an armored suit and straps on a disrupter pistol and steps into the "tube," bound for Rhetus to investigate.

He materializes not on Rhetus but some world unknown to man; he has walked out of an alien teleporter reception machine, but he sees no accompanying transmission machine.  How can he get back to Earth?  Using a computer translator, Allixter haltingly communicates with some natives of this world.  These little weirdos lead him through a landscape of ruins to a machine--it turns out that this machine runs the entire planet in the interest not of the natives but of some aliens, the Plags, mining and refining resources and teleporting them to the Plag home world.  The machine is supposed to run itself, and no Plags live on this planet.  The machine's security apparatus is currently malfunctioning, blowing up the mining and refining installations at random, and killing all the Plags sent to repair it.  With the aid of the natives and his translation device, Allixter figures out how to avoid getting killed by this security system himself, how to repair the machine, and how to get back to Earth.  He also figures out that his arrival here was no accident--he was deliberately sent as a kind of cat's paw by a clandestine Plag agent on Earth.  Allixter returns to Earth and neutralizes the Plag agent.  Then, in the kind of denouement you find in detective stories, he explains to everybody (including readers like me who couldn't figure it out ourselves) how he figured that stuff out.

"The Planet Machine" is not bad, maybe a little long.  Vance spends a lot of time exploring how a computer might go about learning an alien language so it can act as an interpreter between an English speaker and a heretofore undiscovered alien civilization, and on speculations on how a complex computer might work, how one might program it and distract it if need be. 

A version of "The Planet Machine" appears in this 1980 Dutch collection of Vance stories,
while the VIE edition of the story, "The Uninhibited Robot," appears in the 2013 collection Magic Highways

When I think of Jack Vance I first think of things like the two Cugel books, which are so hilarious, the Demon Princes books, with their complicated villains and violent detective/secret agent plots, or the Alastor and Cadwel books, which touch on politics and social issues in the context of an adventure story.  But these three 1950s stories have at their centers science (in particular the scientific method itself and circumstances which seem to call it into question) and technology.  All three are worth your time, if only for Vance's charming style and clever little jokes, which always bring a smile to my face.

Expect to see more Jack Vance short stories in the near future here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Spectrum 5: 1950s stories by Wallace, Thomas, Ashwell, and Ashby

1969 and 1972 paperback editions of Spectrum 5; I probably should have used the '69 image
on my last blog post because the cover looks like it may have been inspired by
James H. Schmitz's "Grandpa."
In our last episode we read half the stories in Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest's 1966 anthology of 1950s SF stories Spectrum 5, the half by authors I felt were more or less famous.  Today we experience the other half of the book's content, four stories by authors whom I, at least, am less familiar with.  Let's check out these "guys"--maybe we'll meet a new favorite!

"Student Body" by F. L. Wallace (1953)

Wallace has a single novel and like two dozen stories listed at isfdb. Barry Malzberg, whom we at MPorcius Fiction Log both take very seriously and consider a figure of fun, asserts that Wallace is a writer who deserves a higher reputation than that which he enjoys.  A story by Wallace is included in the 1979 anthology Neglected Visions, a book edited by Malzberg, Martin H. Greenberg, and John D. Olander dedicated to reprinting work by nine such SF writers who, according to Malzberg, have been unfairly neglected.

Marin is the biology officer with the first wave of colonists on a virgin planet.  Before the colonists got there the planet was surveyed by a whole team of biologists, but Marin finds that their survey is not accurate, that there are troublesome creatures on the planet they weren't warned about, namely voracious rodents that start taking a chunk out of the colony's limited food supplies.  Marin deals with this problem by designing a robot cat, and when even bigger rodents show up that the steel feline can't handle, by manipulating his supply of frozen animal material and breeding a pack of terriers the size of great danes.  The huge terriers soon have to contend with heretofore undetected native predators who are bigger still, beasts much like tigers.

By observing a captive native creature, and by using a sonar device to study in situ fossils without digging up the terrain, Marin figures out what is going on.  All these vermin and carnivores are the same species--when environmental conditions change, as with the introduction of the Earth dogs, the current generation of native fauna gives birth to a generation fully equipped to deal with the new conditions--for example, to deal with the dogs the rat-like natives gave birth to a generation of tiger-like offspring.  The sense of wonder ending is that when the human colonists kill the tigers with rifles, the next generation of natives looks quite like human beings--maybe the Earth-derived humans can negotiate with these creatures?  They had better learn to, because mouse-sized natives have stowed aboard the star ships which brought the colonists and have since headed home, and soon every planet in mankind's space empire will be infested with these quick-growing and quick-adapting alien creatures.  

This story is about average, not bad, but no big deal.  A little better than acceptable, I guess.  

"Student Body" is the only story in Spectrum 5 that is not from Astounding; its first appearance was in Galaxy.  It has been included in numerous anthologies, including ones edited by Groff Conklin and by Galaxy editor H. L. Gold.

"The Far Look" by Theodore L. Thomas (1956)

Uh oh, I read Thomas's 1970 story "The Weather on the Sun" in May and denounced it as a piece of garbage that romanticized politicians and bored me to death.  I implied that this irritating misfire was included in Orbit 8 because Thomas was friends with editor Damon Knight's wife Kate Wilhelm, but I am not aware that any such excuse is available for Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. or British men of letters Amis and Conquest.  Well, let's do the right thing (for once) and try to look at "The Far Look" with an open mind.

"The Far Look" starts out long-winded and annoying.  As a scientist provides the background exposition to a subordinate egghead (and to us readers) Thomas buries us under a blizzard of mind-numbing minutia about Dr. Scott's pipe--how he fills the pipe,  the size of the match he uses to light the pipe, the gurgling noises the pipe makes, the size of the flame that comes out of the bowl of the pipe, how Scott waves the pipe around for emphasis and how he prods the junior scientist with the end of the pipe to put him in his place (that's right, Scott takes his disgusting cancer promotion device out of his mouth and touches one of his colleagues with the saliva-covered end of it as a means of enforcing dominance--sickening!) and blah blah blah.  Oh wait, I said I was keeping an open mind.  Well, let's take a look through all the tobacco smoke at the actual text of the exposition Scott delivers.

The United States has a base on the moon, staffed by two men.  Every month the two astronauts are relieved by a different pair sent up from Earth.  Many of the astronauts who return have become geniuses, the world's best in some field of art or science or business.  Earthlings can immediately tell which astronauts have become geniuses by looking at their eyes--those who have become geniuses have a "far look" and crinkles around their eyes.  Pipe enthusiast Dr. Scott is tasked with figuring out how spending a month on the moon has turned above-average men into supermen.

Once the seven Earthbound pages with the scientists are past and we are up on the moon with two of the astronauts, "The Far Look" is actually pretty good.  I like stories in which people in space suits go about the business of surviving in low-gravity, zero-atmosphere, environments, where death awaits only a few centimeters and a few seconds away, and Thomas actually does a good job of describing all the technical technological aspects and even the psychological aspects of two men's stay on the moon.  (And by "a good job" I mean the story is entertaining and builds an anxious, claustrophobic atmosphere--I am not competent to assess how realistic any of the science is.)

Over 27 pages we follow the astronauts' compelling adventures on Luna, their fears and their near death experiences, and then they are replaced and return to Earth with "the far look."  It's a little vague, but apparently the experience of being so horribly alone, and then returning back to the bosom of Earth and its teeming millions, is what turns the astronauts into geniuses.

I'm skeptical of the story's central gimmick (it's not clear what causes the astronauts to become superhuman and there is very little about how these newly superior persons behave on Earth) and the first part with the scientists, who we don't see again at the end of the story is poor and practically superfluous, but all the stuff on the moon is good and won me over despite my bitterness about Dr. Scott and his filthy habits and "The Weather on the Sun."  I am happily surprised to be able to give "The Far Look" a solid thumbs up.

"The Far Look," after its debut in Astounding, was chosen by Judith Merril for her second Year's Best volume, which means I own two printings of the story, I having purchased that Merril anthology in December of 2015 in New Jersey, and by Harry Harrison and Willis E. McNeilly for a 1975 anthology of Science Fiction Novellas.

"Big Sword" by Pauline Ashwell (as by "Paul Ash") (1958)

Here's another story I own multiple printings of.  After its debut in Astounding, Pauline Ashwell's "Big Sword" was included by Groff Conklin in his 1966 anthology Another Part of the Galaxy, a copy of which I acquired in Kentucky in 2016, as well as by Amis and Conquest in Spectrum 5.  In all three places the story appears under the masculine pseudonym "Paul Ash."  Ashwell has two novels and a score of stories listed at isfdb but I don't think I have ever read her work before.

Jordan is a spaceman and a scientist, currently the leader of a scientific expedition to planet Lambda.  At the start of his career he foolishly married a social climber who was only interested in his notoriety, Cora.  Cora divorced him while he was away on one of his expeditions, after she had given birth to his son, Ricky.  While back home on Earth, Jordan learns that Cora and Ricky, now fourteen, don't get along, and she is trying to send Ricky to some school for troublemakers so she won't have to deal with him, or even see him, for some years.  Instead of authorizing the shipping off of Ricky to this school, Jordan brings Ricky, who is interested in science, to Lambda.  He thinks that this trip will be a chance for him to get to know his son, whom he has hardly ever seen, but as leader of the expedition Jordan has almost no time to spare for Ricky.

Meanwhile, the 6-inch tall Lambda natives, of whom the human explorers are not even aware, are trying to open negotiations with the Earthers, who have unwittingly damaged their home.  Ashwell's aliens have an interesting biology and society, one so different from that of the humans that it makes any cross-species communication difficult--in fact their first efforts to communicate are perceived by the humans as an attack by invisible enemies or even an irresponsible practical joke played by Ricky.  (Some of the scientists are suspicious of Ricky.)

Luckily, Ricky turns out to be a rare human telepath--in fact the poor relationship he has with his mother and some of the expedition team members is largely a side effect of his psychic powers; Ricky, by picking up stray brain waves, innocently acquires knowledge that has lead Cora and others to think he has been snooping in their private papers.  Using his telepathy, Ricky, unbeknownst to all the adults, who have yet to even see a Lambdan, develops a friendship with the leader of the natives.  Ricky goes off with the alien leader to help him resolve an existential threat to his tribe, and Jordan, thinking his son has run away or is perhaps lost, organizes search parties and flies an aircraft in search of his son.  Ricky solves the Lambdans' dire problem and makes peace between human and native.  Tying up our other plot thread, Jordan even finds a wife among the other scientists.

Ashwell's aliens are very good, but the story feels too long and the whole deal with the precocious kid who is believed to have run away from home and who makes peace between the races feels tired and a little childish, like something from a sappy live action Disney movie from my youth.  I guess it all averages out to marginally good.  Suggesting that I am not necessarily an outlier in my assessment of where "Big Sword"'s strength lies, it was reprinted in 1983 in an anthology titled Aliens from Analog.

"Commencement Night" by Richard Ashby (1953)

In the 1960s the UN sponsored an elaborate experiment, Project Peace, that sought to find out how to prevent all the strife attendant with human life by studying human beings who were unaffected by history and culture.  A bunch of scientists took an island and exterminated all the rats and germs on it, then left a multicultural cohort of forty-five babies on the island.  It is now the early 21st century, and for decades a fifty-strong company of researchers has been observing the island through a multitude of hidden cameras and microphones as the children invented a super efficient language and multiplied to today's population of over 300 individuals.

One of the technicians on the research team is a former Olympic swimmer, and one New Year's Eve he was drunk and decided to leave the secret subterranean facility from which the researchers watch every move the experimental subjects make and take a swim around the island.  This lapse of judgement sets in motion a series of events which lead to the scientists learning that the island's inhabitants have developed psychic powers and been visited by space aliens.  (This is news because the islanders and E.T.s have been exploiting blind spots not covered by the boffins' cameras and mikes.)

The swimmer talks to an alien.  The alien explains that there is a Galactic Confederation with many member species, and they would like humanity to join, because humanity has some very useful skills, but we can't be accepted yet because our system of communication is too primitive--it is our inadequate ability to communicate that has lead to the wars and crime and greed, etc., that have plagued humanity throughout history.  When the aliens learned about Project Peace they secretly came down to teach the islanders their space language, in hopes of jump starting Earth's development of better means of communication.  Sure enough, because the islanders only know the alien language and not any Earth language or culture, they are all peaceful and honest hippies overflowing with love for everything.  As part of his work under the island observing the islanders, the swimmer has learned to speak the space language, and so the islanders are able, with their psychic powers, to change the swimmer's brain, erasing the negative effects of Earth culture so he, too, is full of love.  As the story ends we are led to expect that all the researchers will soon have their brains fixed and that humanity is on its way to joining the Galactic Confederation.

This is the worst story in Spectrum 5.  It is silly, it is sappy, and it is boring.  Ashby takes a bunch of SF elements (scientists who experiment on people, a Galactic Confederation, psychic powers) and instead of exploring them in any depth or using them as the building blocks for an entertaining story he just piles them up like a bunch of discarded bricks.  Gotta give this one a negative vote.

"Commencement Night" has been anthologized in only one place besides Spectrum 5, by Groff Conklin in Giants Unleashed, which was republished with the title Minds Unleashed.  Ashby has a single novel and like a dozen short stories listed at isfdb.


It ends on a sour note, but Spectrum 5 is a good anthology of more or less optimistic tales that celebrate science and the ingenuity and drive of the human race.   A worthwhile purchase.