|British editions of Nine by Laumer|
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.