Monday, September 30, 2019

The Stone God Awakens by Philip José Farmer

Ulysses was anything but exhilarated at his conquests.  The bloodshed depressed him.  Millions of years of sentiency had passed, perhaps four hundred thousand or more generations, perhaps twice that many.  Yet the sentients, the users of speech, the lords of the beasts, had learned nothing.  Or was that their lesson, that fighting and bloodshed were inevitable and would last as long as life lasted?   
The reference to a "recent" Hugo win is
presumably to Farmer's Hugo for
Best Novel for To Your Scattered
Bodies Go
, the first Riverworld novel,
 though Farmer also got a '68 Hugo
for the novella Riders of the Purple Wage 
If you have been following the performance art project known as MPorcius Fiction Log, you know that back in July 2018 Joachim Boaz, the internet's vintage SF mastermind, made a very generous donation of over twenty pounds of SF books to the MPorcius Library and I have slowly been working my way through them.  Today we assail a twelfth volume from the Joachim Boaz Wing of the MPorcius Library, a 1973 paperback printing of Philip José Farmer's 1970 novel The Stone God Awakens.  I don't think Joachim ever actually wrote about this one, though he recorded his acquisition of it in 2016.  Our man tarbandu did review it back in 2013; I'll hold off on rereading tarbandu's review until I have read the novel myself and drafted my own post about it.*

Before we explore The Stone God Awakens, here is a list of the eleven books I have already read from Joachim's donation, complete with handy links to my rantings and ravings about them:

Slave Planet by Laurence M. Janifer
Three Novels by Damon Knight
Dark Dominion by David Duncan
New Writings in SF6 edited by John Carnell
Tama of the Light Country by Ray Cummings
Tama, Princess of Mercury by Ray Cummings
A Brand New World by Ray Cummings
Ultimatum in 2050 A.D. by Jack Sharkey
The Power of X by Arthur Sellings
The Enemy of My Enemy by Avram Davidson
The Bright Phoenix by Harold Mead


Cat people!  SF is full of cat people, as I have observed in the past.  On the second page of The Stone God Awakens we see a cat person, but we don't spend much time with him, as he is stabbed to death by a raccoon person!  We SF readers don't see too many raccoon people, though I guess there is one in movies now and Chad Oliver did offer some up in his 1972 story "King of the Hill." 

SF is also full of 20th-century dudes who wake up in a crazy future world.  We just read a story like this by Keith Laumer, and, not too long ago, novels on this theme by Edmond Hamilton and Charles Eric MaineThe Stone God Awakens is yet another of these tales of people who go to sleep in the century of Lenin, Hitler and Mao and wake up in a century full of weird politics and terrible violence and dangerous characters!

Biophysics grad student Ulysses Singing Bear, like so many of our most prominent academics, is part white, part Native American--in his case, Iroquois.  One day in 1985, in a Syracuse, New York research center, he was working on a device that could preserve a living thing by freezing it down to absolute zero, a state in which none of its molecules or atoms would even move, turning it into an invulnerable statue.  An accident occurred and Singing Bear himself was thusly preserved while sitting at his desk.  Millions of years later, a tribe of cat people with a stone-age level of technology discovered his frozen body, pulled him out of a dried lake bed and installed him on a stone throne in a wooden temple with columns like totem poles, where they worshiped him as a god.  Centuries later still, as the novel begins, a lightning bolt strikes the temple, setting it on fire and revivifying Singing Bear.  Our hero awakes during an attack on the cat people village by a tribe of raccoon people and soon finds himself in the middle of a tomahawk-swinging, assegai-flinging melee.

Like so many members of the SF community (but not Robert Silverberg!), Farmer loves Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the set up of this novel is in some ways like the first John Carter book--in an impossible manner a 20th-century guy appears among a bunch of primitives, learns their language (Singing Bear is an expert linguist, which comes in handy) and starts teaching them how to behave.  The cat people haven't invented archery, so Singing Bear makes a bow and some arrows and trains them in their use.  The cat people want to practice their shooting on a live target, a captive raccoon man, but Singing Bear stops them from committing this atrocity, as he does other of their murderous cultural practices.

The raccoon people also consider Singing Bear to be their god, and our hero sets out to end the warfare between the felines and the raccoon folk and unite them under his rule.  Then, he leads a multi-species company of a hundred or so warriors on an odyssey across the country.  They cross plains, ride rafts, and, most remarkably, penetrate a dense jungle, the main component of which is a single colossal tree thousands of feet high that occupies an area the size of a European country or small American state!  This tree has a myriad of twisting winding curling branches, each hundreds of feet thick--the fissures and wrinkles in its bark are so huge that over the centuries they have filled with dirt and regular-sized trees are growing out of them.  Singing Bear's party marches along these more or less horizontal branches, hundreds or thousands of feet above the surface, crossing from one branch to another via dense networks of lianas. 

Rather than seeing the vast tree as just a plant, the animal people think of it as a god or intelligent entity, one which is served by some races, like a race of leopard men, and wages war on others, like the cat people, whom the tree is trying to conquer and add to the ranks of its subordinate peoples.  As the novel unfolds, Singing Bear uncovers clues that shed light on the question of whether the tree is really sentient, or merely the tool of a group of intelligent beings who use it to dominate others.

The company of cat men and raccoon men has overcome various monsters, and do battle against other tribes of intelligent species, among them some dog men and the aforementioned tree-aligned leopard men.  Singing Bear's party has an edge over these adversaries because he has not only provided them with the science of archery, but taught them to ride horses and how to make gunpowder; the primitives have no metal, so Sleeping Bear can't make muskets, but he does produce wooden hand grenades and even wooden rockets fired from a bazooka-like tube.

Farmer adds a little interest to all these adventures with developments in Ulysses Singing Bear's relationship with the natives of this far future.  For one thing, there is the nerve-wracking need to maintain his status as a god, a challenge because he lacks the kind of omniscience and invulnerability the cat and raccoon people, perhaps, expect of their god--for example, his followers assume Singing Bear knows all about the local geography and flora and fauna, and of course he knows very little.  In addition, and perhaps as we expect from Farmer, who is famous for including unusual sex in his fiction (who could forget "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol"?), Singing Bear is slowly falling in love with Awina, the cat woman who taught him the languages of her people and acts as his trusted servant and friend.  But can Singing Bear really be sexually attracted to a fur-covered person who licks herself clean and in the process ingests furballs?

Accompanying the feline and raccoon expedition is a person Singing Bear calls a batman--a short hairless guy with wings of bone and membrane jutting out his back who goes by the name of Ghlikh.  This flying dwarf makes his living by performing the role of diplomat, journalist and merchant, travelling all over this weird future world, conducting negotiations, exchanging news and gossip, and facilitating trade among the many stone age tribes of animal people.  Singing Bear badgers this slippery character into acting as his air force--Ghlikh somewhat reluctantly conducts reconnaissance and even tactical air strikes for Singing Bear's expedition, providing them yet another advantage over their foes.  But around page 70, in the middle of that jungle, the batman betrays them to a tribe of ogres, men eight feet tall who eagerly devour some of Singing Bear's followers raw.  Maybe this is Farmer's commentary on how far we should trust ambassadors, journalists and merchants--also, the scenes of the ogres eating people reminded me of the cyclops scenes in The Odyssey.  Anyway, Singing Bear comes to believe that the bat people are in charge of the tree, though they present themselves as its foremost servants.

I had hopes that the expedition being captured would radically change the course of the narrative, that Singing Bear would be hauled before the secret masters of this future world or something like that, but Singing Bear and Awina quickly engineer an escape and the party gets right back to marching through the elevated jungle and riding rafts and fighting tribes (now they have to fight the flying swarms of Ghlikh's countrymen) again.  By coincidence Singing Bear even comes across Ghlikh and captures him, so he is once again a member of our hero's party, though he is tied up and carried around instead of being sent ahead as a scout.  Maybe I should note here that, in the same way that John Carter improves Martian behavior but doesn't go so far as to abolish slavery on Barsoom, Singing Bear ends practices like human sacrifice among the cat and raccoon people, but is happy to make use of information gathered by torturing bat people.

This massive omnibus includes not only
The Stone God Awakens, but The Green Odyssey,
 which I read back in 2014, and
Lord Tyger, which tarbandu read in 2018
Finally, the expedition reaches the other side of the jungle, and leaves the tree behind.  They come to an abandoned village on the ocean, the remains of which suggest that actual human beings lived there but were carried off by ten-foot-tall elephant people, another race that resists the tree's efforts to dominate them.  Singing Bear teaches his party to manage a sailing vessel (Singing Bear apparently didn't waste his formative years watching cartoons and playing video games like I did, so he has a vast storehouse of practical knowledge), and they sail off to confront the pachyderm peeps.  It turns out that these elephant people, by digging up artifacts from an ancient city, have a much higher technological and civilizational level than the rest of the tribes Singing Bear has encountered--they have a written language and books, for example, and organic electronics and machines based on vegetables that, somehow, serve as circuit boards and batteries and motors.  The elephant folk are also masters of a large population of human slaves and servants.

The Stone God Awakens lacks a strong sense of narrative drive; during all the many pages of marching and climbing and rafting through the forest I sort of forgot why Singing Bear had launched this perilous expedition instead of just hanging out with his worshipers--I it was guess to investigate rumors of the tree and the possibility of there being a tribe of humans for him to make a family with.  But when Singing Bear finally meets what appear to be real humans (in fact, the humans living as second-class citizens among the elephant people are a different species than homo sapiens and Singing Bear cannot have children with their women), Farmer doesn't convey any excitement on Singing Bear's part.  Instead we are told Singing Bear has become determined to destroy the tree and its servants.  (I guess Ghlikh, who is actually probably the most interesting character in this book, and escapes from the elephant people's incompetent gaolers, really pissed him off.)  Singing Bear helps the elephant people develop new weapons--among them explosives and blimps--and much of the last sixty pages of the novel is concerned with war preparations and plans and raids and aerial battles.

Singing Bear is also allowed to visit the ancient underground city where the elephant people got their technology.  Accessing a sort of computer, Singing Bear learns something about Earth's history over the last few million years, including much about the origins and growth of the tree and of his own existence as an indestructible statue honored by many civilizations as they rose and fell.  Singing Bear is further enlightened when, at the head of his own elephant-financed air force, he fights his way through a Luftwaffe of bat men to the inner sanctum of the tree, where he has a tense conversation with that self-aware product of ancient genetic engineering.  In brief, mankind used up all the metal on the Earth and developed plants for use as machines.  The tree was bred as an environmentally-friendly, "be at one with nature," city.  Despite these efforts to embrace a green lifestyle, environmentalist aliens from Andromeda arrived and exterminated the human race because we were too mean to the environment; the Andromedans spared the animal people, in hopes that they would be of better character, but those people turned out to be almost as corrupt and violent as human beings, so the tree has been trying to get all intelligent life under its control via persuasion or by force.

The Stone God Awakens is, on the whole, kind of cynical and sad, or at least tries to be.  Farmer doesn't romanticize the page after page of fighting he depicts, and dwells on how crummy people are, with the brief foray into environmentalist talk with the tree and a general portrayal of all the animal races as bellicose and dishonest.  A major theme of the passages on the preparations for war among the elephant men is how slow and inefficient the preparations are in general and in particular how those in charge of the effort enrich themselves by selling substandard goods to the military--even during a major war for survival many people allow their laziness and greed to compromise the community's collective needs.  Occasionally Singing Bear will even muse about how life is meaningless and we all have to lie to ourselves about death in order to remain sane.

Perhaps in keeping with this downbeat tone, the novel ends inconclusively after a huge battle featuring dozens of pages of explosions, stabbings, ambushes, traps, and people being burned alive and drowned to death.  The tree is not destroyed and the batmen are not exterminated, so the war is doomed to continue.  In fact, any progress made in weakening the tree is mitigated by the fact that while Singing Bear and Awina and many of the elephant people's fighting men were away with the airships launching the inconclusive attack, the subordinate humans back at the elephant people city launched a rebellion, throwing Singing Bear's base and supporters into turmoil.  On the last page of the book Singing Bear reflects that he will have to make peace between the elephants and their former slaves if any of them are to survive the war against the tree and the batmen, and maybe he should also just make peace with the tree, if possible.

I like the plot of The Stone God Awakens and am willing to give it a mild recommendation, but there are plenty of problems with the book.  It is quite long, 188 pages of quite small text, and it feels long, in part because it is just one big chunk of words--there are no chapters to physically break up the wall of text and to organize it thematically or set off important plot developments.  The book can be a little wearying, and I think could have benefited by being separated into chapters with snappy titles like "The March to the Jungle" or "The Battle with the Elephant Monster" or "Captured!" or whatever, each chapter ending with the conclusion of an episode that gives the reader a sense of progress or a cliffhanger that spurs the reader's desire to find out what comes next.  Farmer could also have just left out some episodes or descriptions--the battles in particular can be pretty complicated and pretty repetitive, with each maneuver and operation being presented to us in detail.

As I have hinted when I talked about the novel's lack of narrative drive, The Stone God Awakens is kind of bland, lacking in passion and emotion.  Singing Bear is not a very exciting character and his motivations are a little vague, and when Farmer talks about his emotions he doesn't sound like a man of feeling writing a novel but like a psychologist writing a textbook:
There was also the problem of finding a suitable permanent mate, one who could father his children and be an enjoyable companion. 
Clinical and boring!  And just like the war plot, the love/sex plot isn't really resolved.  Does Ulysses Singing Bear ever declare his love for cat woman Awina and have sex with her?  He doesn't over the course of this novel, but maybe he will after it is over?

I am also wondering why Farmer didn't do more with his protagonist's Native American heritage.  In the book's first few pages we are told Ulysses Singing Bear is part Iroquois and Farmer makes a weak joke about it, but it is almost never mentioned again and plays no role in the plot.  Maybe Farmer planned to talk about how Singing Bear's ancient ancestors were at one with nature and man should have stayed that way or some such hokum, maybe during the scenes at the computer or in the discussion with the tree, and he just never got around to it or changed his mind.

Above I referred to Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life and Charles Eric Maine's He Owned the World, two other books about guys who wake up in a strange future.  Hamilton and Maine fill their books with war and adventure, just like Farmer, but they also try to say something about human freedom and the relationship of the common people to elites, and to integrate those ideas with their plots.  In comparison, The Stone God Awakens feels a little light in the ideological department.   With the exception of his portrayal of the elephant folks' war preparations, Farmer's environmental and misanthropic goop here in The Stone God Awakens isn't very well woven into the novel's plot or the relationships between the characters, much of it feeling sort of tacked on to his rambling and inconclusive tale.  And while I get the impression from the media that millions of people are apoplectic with fear that the world is going to end if I don't stop driving to the grocery store and flying to my in-laws' weddings, I personally find environmentalist stuff mind-numbingly boring (and I am also not seeing much evidence of people abstaining from driving to Grandma's house or flying down to Disney World.)             

So, I've got a lot of complaints, but the idea of a guy being turned into a statue and being revered by a long succession of societies is a cool idea, and Farmer does serve up some fun monsters and weirdos, so I'm giving this one a mild recommendation. 

*My big disagreement with tarbandu regarding The Stone God Awakens has to do with the length; while I found it too long and too detailed, he thought its style "unadorned" and found it "a quick read."  Maybe I am getting impatient in my old age!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Deathstar Voyage by Ian Wallace

"You are confident of your allure."
"Should I be?"
"In most situations, yes.  In this one, I am afraid you will lose.  My queen is the Eiland of Ligeria, and these are holy hours, and I do not intend to go a-wooing elsewhere.  My eiland is about to die in a famous bradzh...." 
Driven thither by family obligations, I recently found myself in Beaumont, Texas, a conglomeration of highways and strip malls 90 minutes east of Houston; I never actually saw Houston, as our inbound flight landed around midnight and two days later we boarded our outbound flight before sunrise.  The wife and I spent almost all of our brief visit embroiled in wedding-related operations and looking after my mother-in-law, but I managed to steal away for an hour to go to Red B4 books, a small used bookstore in an ugly strip mall.  Putting aside my sighting of an anole lizard climbing a tree, this was the highlight of my trip, as I purchased four old and battered SF paperbacks for a low low price.

Among these four finds was a 1970 printing of Ian Wallace's 1969 Deathstar Voyage.  You will recall we read Wallace's Croyd back in early 2016.  That novel had some elements of espionage fiction, and a subtitle on Deathstar Voyage's title page, "a downtime mystery cruise," suggests it is a detective or suspense story in SF guise.  Also noteworthy: isfdb suggests Deathstar Voyage takes place in the same universe as Croyd and its sequels.  Well, let's check it out.

The Eiland of Ligeria is a starliner, over a kilometer long and full of shops and restaurants and theatres that cater to its two thousand passengers.  The Eiland is currently on its final voyage, a trip of six days from Earth to planet Ligeria in the Altair system, where it will be scrapped.  Among the passengers is Zhavar, the King of Ligeria and the owner of the ship.  Zhavar is a white man--white people have ruled Ligeria for generations, but the majority of Ligeria's population is made up of golden people; the golden people have a matriarchal culture ("eiland" is the Ligerian word for "queen" or "empress") that practices a version of suttee (called "bradzh") in which a queen's husbands and lovers jump into a fire upon her death.  (Wallace admits in a "Forenote" to Deathstar Voyage that he got some ideas for the novel from the history of British India.)

Acting as the King's bodyguard is our lead character, Lieutenant Claudine St. Cyr of the Galactic Police, an artificial woman who has great reflexes and is a perfect shot with her energy pistol and has some psychic powers that warn her of danger.  "I am told that five continents on three planets collaborated in my design."  Based on Earth, she has just been assigned to protect Zhavar, and they spend a lot of time telling each other their biographies and flirting, producing much of the "clever" dialogue between characters and dialogue with sexual overtones that fills this book, none of which is amusing or arousing.

Deathstar Voyage is a mystery story (one of the characters even compares their situation to that depicted in Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Indians*), and the crimes and suspects pile up at a rapid pace.  Someone is trying to assassinate the King, and somebody has sabotaged the ship's power source, a big glowing sphere of energy called the Differential Mass Component.  Maybe a religious fanatic called Old Fire-Eyes Greco who thinks the ship is "the ultimate symbol of human corruption" is involved?  What about The Great Dore, a golden Ligerian magician who can use his telekinesis to turn items inside out?  And then there is the ship's Captain, Schwarz, who dislikes the king and thinks it a crime to scrap the Eiland of Ligeria and replace it with more efficient and less luxurious ships.  Oh, wait, Captain Schwarz just dropped dead at the dinner table a few seconds after flirting with Claudine.  He is replaced by Swainson, the first officer, who drops dead the next day during a competition at the ship's elaborate shooting gallery.

*Look up the original title of this best-selling detective novel, but don't say it aloud.

We get a science lecture on atoms, the point of which is to explain that the sabotage to the Differential Mass Component is going to turn the ship, and the two thousand souls aboard, into a star in less than 24 hours.  We get scenes in which people look for clues in the personnel files of the suspects and of the victims, scenes of people interrogating suspects, and scenes of people sitting around talking blah blah blah about clues.  This is all quite boring and also confusing; here is a paragraph I puzzled over for a while:

These images are from the scan of the hardcover edition at the internet archive
Somehow, the biography contains no hints of enemies and also suggests many enemies, and somehow Claudine admits it is full of "exploits" but denies that anything is "out of line" or "flashy."  Did anybody at Berkeley edit this?
Deathstar Voyage is not well-written; many of the individual sentences are ugly or clumsy or both.  Here's another frustrating extract, the first two paragraphs from Chapter 9:

What does "going away" mean in this context?  I guess "strip and unstrip" is Wallace's idea of clever wordplay, with "unstrip" meaning "dress."  This passage also includes another of Wallace's anemic jokes, the fact that the second officer, at this point in the story acting captain, has a lisp.  Wallace doesn't give Mashti a lisp to indicate he is a homosexual, a traditional sort of joke; rather, Mashti is from a planet where people have their teeth removed because they only eat liquid food.  Even Wallace realizes that this lisping is a drag, and after a few pages of it just stops typing the phonetic representations of Mashti's lisp and instructs the reader to remember that the officer is lisping.

A "cutichron" is a tiny watch or clock on your fingernail.  Wallace talks a lot about time pieces in this novel, and, in fact, the book is dedicated to his (and his wife's) wristwatches.  Which brings up another of Wallace's lame conceits: gratuitous references to the 20th century.  Early in the novel Zhavar buys Claudine a 20th-century wrist watch.  At the fancy dinner at which Captain Schwarz suddenly dies, the men all wear 20th-century evening dress.  The rifles used at the shooting gallery at which Swainson dies are 20th-century rifles.  I've already mentioned the reference to Agatha Christie. 

Wallace piles on mountains of boring details that I guess we are supposed to think are clever or amusing, but which are simply a waste of time.  There are many passages about people's clothes and people's food and people's tobacco that seem totally pointless, unless the point was to bulk up the page count, which, in my paperback, is a criminally excessive 191 pages.  Here's an exchange that comes after the episode at the shooting gallery, when the king asks Claudine to have lunch with him and she asks what she should wear:

Autopsies reveal that Captain Schwarz and First Officer Swainson were murdered by a psychic who turned their hearts inside out--the same sort of psychic powers were also probably used to sabotage the Differential Mass Component.  Investigation also reveals that Dore, the psychic who can turn stuff inside out, is the bastard son of Greco the religious fanatic and that Greco can hypnotize people, and that Dore is particularly susceptible to Greco's hypnosis.  There is a long scene of multiple chapters in which Claudine has a date with Dore (yes, they are on a date even though the star ship is due to explode in like 10 hours) and they flirt and Dore gives a science lecture on how to use psychic powers to turn stuff inside out.  During the course of this date the two fall deeply in love and decide to marry.  But when they go to the shooting range to have their first kiss on the grass, Dore is shot in the head by a sniper!  Wallace tries to pull our heartstrings by assuring us that Dore is dead ("Claudine was a cop, and almost instantly she knew he was dead....she lay down in the grass beside him, her face by his ruined head....") but after a few pages of grief Claudine realizes the bullet just creased the magician's head, not actually penetrating the skull.

Karel Thole makes this tedious dud
look fascinating and sexy--
Claudine believes Greco hypnotized Dore into wrecking the Differential Mass Component and murdering Schwarz and Swainson.  When Dore is shot she changes her theory--she now figures Zhavar the King of Ligeria is the culprit, that he has psychic powers he has kept a secret and has been driven by knowledge that the gold people are about to overthrow his government and execute him to spectacularly commit suicide by blowing up the ship.  Zhavar convinces her he is innocent and has no psychic powers, and also reveals that Captain Schwarz was his nephew, whom he raised as a foster father.  Schwarz turned against him and embraced the gold cause and was a master hypnotist and psyker, better than Greco and Dore--Claudine realizes it was Schwarz is the villain.  After he sabotaged the Eiland of Ligeria's Differential Mass Component he faked his own death, and then Swainson's (working in concert with the ship's doctor, who committed suicide out of guilt), and then shot Dore.  Claudine confronts Schwarz, who is disguised as a watch-salesman, and tries to convince him to fix the Differential Mass Component, employing her sexual wiles ("Before you condemn me, I suggest that you taste me") and promising to get the king to change his mind about scrapping the Eiland of Ligeria.  She fails--Schwarz refuses to repair the ship.  Luckily, King Zhavar was lying--he really does have psychic powers, and he fixes the Differential Mass Component, saving the ship and all the passengers.
This book is terrible. I don't like mysteries generally, and I certainly don't like mystery stories that feel like a scam, that tell you on page 40 that a guy has died and then on page 166 reveal, ha ha, that the guy actually faked his death, or tell you early on that there is only one person on the ship who can keep it from exploding and then reveal in the last ten pages that there was another guy aboard who could fix it all along so there was really nothing to worry about.  So, the mystery elements of Deathstar Voyage stink.  I like stories about difficult sexual relationships and I like science fiction stories, but the love elements and SF elements of this book also stink, being silly, tedious, unconvincing, and sterile, totally unable to inspire excitement or reflection in the reader.  I can be won over by any type of story, including a mystery story, if it is well-written, but Wallace's style is quite bad, as I think I have chronicled, and the characters and images and events and jokes are all boring or offensively poor.  (There are also annoying plot holes that I won't waste your time by going into...OK, look at the footnotes if your time is not important to you.*)

Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal,
your sources for fake news
Sometimes it is with regret that I feel the duty to give a piece of fiction which had some good elements a thumbs down because the bad outweighed the good.  But Deathstar Voyage has nothing at all to recommend it, and gets an embittered and definitive negative vote.  Zero out of ten 20th-century wrist watches.

*1) The ship's engineer admits that there is a way to fix the Differential Mass Component but he didn't pay attention to that lecture in engineering school and so has forgotten it.  Why doesn't he just look in the manual?--there must be a manual!  Even if there isn't a manual on board, why don't they just radio for instructions?  Multiple times over the course of the novel they radio Ligeria or Earth and receive responses!  2)  One of the clues that reveals that Schwarz is the saboteur and that he is the watch salesman is that when the king bought Claudine a watch it was inverted or flipped or whatever--the second hand runs backwards.  We are led to believe that Schwarz flipped the watch by accident--but when we learn all about the psychic powers Dore, Zhavar and Schwarz have, it is made clear that quite a bit of concentration is involved.    

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Three 1960s Bolo stories by Keith Laumer

Like a lot of people, I am interested in war and weapons and violence.  For example, I recently read Charles Lamb's memoir of service in the Royal Navy as a pilot of Fairey Swordfish, War in a Stringbag, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in World War II's early stages, naval aviation, and stories about secret agents and getting lost in the desert and getting captured by the enemy* and that sort of thing.  So it is only natural that I continue my exploration of Keith Laumer's body of work by reading more of his stories about the robotic tanks known as Bolos; besides, I found the very first Bolo tale, "Combat Unit" AKA "Dinochrome," to be one of the better stories in Nine By Laumer, the collection of Laumer stories we read last month.  So let's check out three Bolo stories from the 1960s which first appeared in John W. Campbell's Analog and Fred Pohl's Worlds of Tomorrow.

*Lamb was captured by the Vichy French, so War in a Stringbag is also a good book to read if you have some personal animus against the French or Arabs and would relish being exposed to a surfeit of examples of Frenchmen and Arabs behaving in a cruel and disgusting manner.

"Night of the Trolls" (1963)

This is the one that first saw light of day in Worlds of Tomorrow.  It would go on to appear in numerous Laumer collections and a couple of anthologies, both of them produced with Martin H. Greenberg's involvement: The Mammoth Book of New World Science Fiction (presented by Isaac Asimov) and Battlefields Beyond Tomorrow (edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg.)  I read the magazine version of "Night of the Trolls" in a scan at the internet archive.

Our narrator, Jackson, wakes up and climbs out of the suspended-animation tank to find the lab deserted--he hasn't been in suspended animation for three days, as planned, but for decades!  The Pennsylvania military base where the research facility is located is a wreck, full of rats and even a dead body; outside Jackson finds that the ICBM silos are open, the missiles launched--there must have been some kind of war or revolution!  Bad news!  Then worse news--there is a Bolo fighting robot, a thing like a pagoda on treads as big as a freighter and covered with gun ports, patrolling the facility grounds, and the Jackson doesn't have his ID with him!

Luckily this Bolo has not been maintained in a while and is not currently living its best robot life--Jackson is able to escape it.  He explores what turns to be the kind of post-apocalyptic world that we SF readers are always encountering.*  The narrator went under suspended animation back in 1979 as part of the testing of the systems of Earth's first star ship; Jackson learns that that was like 70 or 80 years ago when he meets a friendly old man who can't even remember a pre-apocalyptic world!  The old geezer helps him out with food and so forth, and tells him that the area is now controlled by a Baron.  The Baron lives in a palace that was a hotel back in the 1970s, and this aristocrat has not only an army with 20th-century AFVs but a Bolo of his own that sits in front of the hotel.

One of the noteworthy things about "Night of the Trolls" is how often Laumer uses silly metaphors that put me in the mind of hard-boiled detective stories.  "He folded like a two-dollar umbrella."  " to my feet and staggered off up the grade that seemed as steep now as penthouse rent."  I guess this suits how Jackson acts.  At the start of the story I thought he was some kind of scientist, but in fact Jackson is an astronaut, presumably a tough military veteran or test pilot.  He sneaks into the Baron's palace by hiding in the shadows, bluffs his way past guards through fast talk, and disguises himself by beating up people and stealing their clothes.  Jackson makes his way to the Baron, who it turns out is a fellow 20th-century astronaut, one of Jackson's colleagues who came out of suspended animation twenty years earlier and built himself up into the feudal suzerain he is today.

The Baron is ambitious (maybe he saw a sign at a shopping mall), and wants to rule the entire East coast, but there are rival barons with armies in neighboring states, so he wants to make use of the Bolos and the equipment stored in the star ship at the research center.  But to access that equipment he needs Jackson's help reprogramming his own Bolo, which ain't workin' right, as well as the Bolo defending the star ship.  When it comes out that some of the other astronauts at the facility have emerged from stasis and been killed by the Baron, Jackson's eagerness to take the role of the Baron's right hand man wanes.

Jackson is compelled to get the Baron's Bolo under control, and then the Baron rides off in it to attack the Bolo defending the star ship.  Jackson escapes, somehow gets to the Bolo at the research facility before the Baron's attack force does, takes command of it and in a Bolo vs Bolo duel defeats the Baron via trickery and superior technical knowledge.  Our sense of wonder ending is that Jackson sends the star ship off into space (there are still astronauts aboard in suspended animation who will be automatically roused when they get to Alpha Centauri) and Jackson, now leader of Pennsylvania, determines to rebuild a decent civilization on Earth.

I think it noteworthy that both this story and the first Bolo story, "Combat Unit," are about characters who wake up after a long period and find themselves in a changed world, and both are about Bolos that are not working at their full capacity.

"Night of the Trolls" has a good plot, and all the Bolo stuff is good, and much of the relationship drama stuff (Jackson's memories of family and colleagues from the 20th century and the revelation that that old man is Jackson's son) is good.  But the story is a little too long.  The biggest problem is Jackson's infiltration of the Baron's palace, where he beats up a guy and takes his clothes, then beats up another guy and takes his clothes, then beats up a third guy whose clothes he doesn't need--he just beats that third guy up because that guy is a jerk.  I guess we are supposed to enjoy all this beating because some of the victims are effete or obese aristocrats and we should like seeing their pretensions burst by a muscular man's man, but, really, one beating would have been sufficient.  There are also too many instances of the narrator getting past guards and other people by yelling at them in a parody of what people who hate aristocrats think aristocrats talk like.  I guess Laumer thinks this kind of dialogue is funny in and of itself and so laid it on thick instead of just providing one or two instances to demonstrate the narrator's ability and to achieve's the plot's requirement that Jackson meet the Baron.  (I have a feeling that a recurring theme in Laumer's work is the manly man who shows up his social superiors--a lot of writers work out their class resentments in their writing.)

I'm willing to give this one a thumbs up, even though the middle section at the palace drags and the jokes undermine the serious components of the story somewhat.

*Here are handy links to five MPorcius Fiction Log blog posts that each discuss a post-apocalyptic short story that I feel is  somehow noteworthy or memorable but not particularly famous:

"Magic City" by Nelson S. Bond (1941)
"Day of Judgment" by Edmond Hamilton (1946)
"Song from a Forgotten Hill" by Glen Cook (1971)
"Ring of Pain" by M. John Harrison (1971)
"The Kelly's Eye" by Robert Hoskins (1975)

"Last Command" (1967)

"Last Command" first appeared in Analog, and seems to have been well received by the SF community, evidence by the fact that it appears in many anthologies, including those put together by Analog editor John W. Campbell (Analog 7), Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison (Best SF: 1967), Damon Knight (A Pocketful of Stars) and Gordon Dickson (Combat SF.)  It also appears in My Favorite Science Fiction Story--"Last Command" is Anne McCaffrey's favorite SF story, and in the intro to the story she talks about how she would like to make a half-hour TV show of it.

I read the 1999 printing of the story in My Favorite Science Fiction Story, which is available at the internet archive.

This is another story about a Bolo in poor shape waking up after being "asleep" for a long time.  Are they all like this?

Pete Reynolds is an engineer on the planet New Devon, the head of a construction crew blasting apart a rocky area near a highway, clearing ground for a spaceport.  His blasting arouses a Bolo that was buried under 200 meters of rock a long time ago--the local government didn't bother to check the records and so didn't tell Reynolds this site was where a lot of military ordnance was buried after the last war.  Oh, those government bureaucrats!

The story features italicized passages in the first person, presenting the point of view of the war robot, and third-person sections in which we observe Reynolds trying to figure out what is going on as the earth shakes and cracks when the Bolo begins digging its way out and then everybody scrambles to resolve the crisis.  The local mayor and a journalist get in the way as Reynolds tries to evacuate the area and the submerged Bolo, travelling like a huge mole (it towers forty-five feet high and its treads are ten feet wide) wrecks a highway overpass.  The Bolo thinks the war that ended seventy years ago is still on and, when it surfaces, assumes that the city a few kilometers away is an enemy fortress!

The Bolo's weapons have no ammo and it can only crawl along at like two mph, but its armor is intact and the conventional weapons of the planetary defense force cannot knock it out.  Luckily, the ninety-year-old dude who commanded the Bolo way back when is still alive, and if he can get up close to the machine maybe it will recognize him, maybe he can stop it.  Of course, the Bolo is dangerously radioactive from being hit by enemy weapons seven decades ago, so the old man is on a suicide mission, but he is willing to give up his life for the community.

Everything in this story is obvious--the way that fighting men and engineers are portrayed sympathetically and politicians and other government wankers are denounced, for example.  (N. B.: I said "obvious," not wrong.)  And the story is really just a variation on the same themes we saw in "Combat Unit."  However, the story is well told, with every element being interesting or exciting, even if they are not surprising, and Laumer doesn't make the mistakes in "Last Command" that he made in "Night of the Trolls"--here there are no weak jokes to distract you and no padding to tire you.  This is a good one. 

I read the paperback version of The Yngling back in
 2016 and found it to be a "pedestrian" tale of a psychic
 swordsman in a post-apocalyptic feudal society
"A Relic of War" (1969)

After first appearing in Analog, in addition to a bunch of Laumer collections, "A Relic of War" has been reprinted in Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh's Robot Warriors and David Drake's Dogs of War.  I once owned a copy of the Laumer collection The Big Show, which includes "A Relic of War," but I can't find it anywhere, so I read the version in the internet archive scan of Dogs of War.  Drake penned a brief afterword for this edition that provides a little insight into Laumer's service in WWII and into what Drake likes about the Bolo stories.

"A Relic of War" is about an old Bolo unit that is not working at full capacity.  It served in an interstellar  war a century ago, and now sits in the town square of a small settlement that is surrounded by jungle; where the settlement now sits was the site of a ferocious battle one hundred years earlier, and the jungle is full of the wreckage of Terran and alien AFVs, artillery pieces and military aircraft.  The Bolo is still "alive," and has sat still for a century, chatting to settlers about its war service and just shooting the breeze.

A government tech comes by to deactivate Bobby, as the locals call the twenty-five foot wide war machine.  When the tech turns on the transmitter that will shut Bobby down, its signal is picked up by an alien war robot that has been lying dormant since its force lost the battle long ago.  This robot attacks, and Bobby outfights it, saving the settlement.  The townspeople have a little celebration and present Bobby a medal and then the tech (after making sure there are no more active enemy units around) finally shuts down Bobby.

This story is good, maybe a little slight.  In a smaller way it explores the same sorts of themes as "Last Command" and "Combat Unit:" the sacrifices made by those who defend the community, and how that community shows its gratitude.  The idea of an old veteran being called back to duty must really have resonated with Laumer, because he employs this idea again and again.  Maybe he felt he--and/or other veterans--didn't get the recognition they deserved for their service?


These stories are good (though "Night of the Trolls" has some problems) but since they seem to all have quite similar plot elements and themes, I think I'll hold off on reading any more Bolo stories for a while.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Dr. No by Ian Fleming

Quarrel had smelled his death.  Yet he had followed Bond unquestioningly.  His faith in Bond had been stronger than his fear.  And Bond had let him down.  Would Bond also be the death of the girl?
At the end of From Russia, With Love, James Bond, the world's greatest secret agent, loses consciousness and collapses because he has been poisoned by Rosa Klebb, the world's most dangerous lesbian and the Soviet Union's expert on torture and murder!  I thought From Russia, With Love the best of the first five 007 novels--let's hope the sixth, Dr. No, can match it!  I am reading a 2012 printing of the 1958 novel that I borrowed from the Baltigore County Public Library.  This copy has illustrations by, presumably, the child of somebody who borrowed it before I did.

In my early teens I read Dr. No in the Pan edition with the spiderweb cover, which I think I found in my paternal grandparents' house and which I guess is probably still someplace in my parent's house or my brother's apartment.  Unlike Live and Let Die, which I read in my youth and almost completely forgot about, I actually remember many key scenes from Dr. No.  I am curious to see if my memory of various things is accurate or has been distorted by the passage of time and exposure to the cinematic version of Dr. No.

In Live and Let Die, James Bond, while pursuing Soviet agent and smuggler Mr. Big, worked with John Strangways, the top British agent in the Caribbean.  In the first chapter of Dr. No we find ourselves in Jamaica, where we witness Strangways, and his No. 2, Mary Trueblood, get murdered by four "Chigroes," men with both Chinese and African ancestors.  The men use revolvers with silencers (which people who know about firearms will tell you weakens the credibility of the story) to kill the British spies, and then bundle them into a hearse and burn down their HQ, destroying all their documents.

It is common in military and espionage fiction for the protagonist to despise his superiors and for him to be portrayed as a better person and a better fighting man than those in charge.  The commander or the politicians are always sending him off on foolish operations or starting immoral or unwinnable wars, and it is made clear that the protagonist is more brave, is a better leader, and is a better strategist and tactician than those higher than he in the hierarchy.  We don't really get too much of that in James Bond.  Rather than seeing M as an old man who sends young men off to die pursuing the interests of the bourgeoisie, James Bond loves and respects M, with Fleming comparing their relationship to a marriage.  The first scene of chapter 2 of Dr. No, in which veteran naval officer M talks to his driver, a veteran sailor, demonstrates M's concern and care for his subordinates and his good relationship with them.

If you've been in a marriage, you know there are rough spots.  Well, 007 and M are going through just such a rough spot.  M is irritated that 007 almost got himself killed by Rosa Klebb, and he blames Bond's irrational affection for the .25 Beretta.  So he makes Bond start carrying around the Walther PPK 7.65 mm and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver.  Then he sends Bond to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of Strangways and Trueblood.  The "Chinese negro" killers expertly covered their tracks, so everybody thinks that Strangways and Trueblood were lovers and ran off together, and M figures he is sending Bond on an easy job that will allow him to get back in the groove after his months of hospital time following the Klebb episode.  Bond, however, resents being given a "cushy assignment," seeing it as a humiliating punishment.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you are
going to put an attractive woman on the
cover of your book, I think you should show
her face.
Bond is only in Jamaica about ten minutes before it is clear that this is no easy job, that lots of people, Chinese women, to be specific, are keeping an eye on him.  And it is only a few hours before it seems likely that Strangways and Trueblood were murdered by a mysterious half-German, half-Chinese, guy who owns Crab Key, a guano- and jungle-covered island thirty miles north of Jamaica.  Jealous of his privacy, this joker, name of Dr. Julius No, uses radar and machine guns to keep people away from his island.  Many of the clues that point to No come from Quarrel, a character from Live and Let Die with whom Bond reunites, a charming and courageous native of the Cayman Islands and an expert swimmer and sailor.  Like so many of the characters in the Bond novels, Quarrel is of mixed race, a black man with the grey eyes of some adventurous English ancestor--Bond speculates that Quarrel is descended from a pirate or a Cromwellian soldier.  As a well-liked working-class black man, Quarrel knows all kinds of things that Bond's white contacts in Jamaica, like the Governor and the Colonial Secretary, with whom he spends much of chapters 5 and 6, don't know.

While he's in Kingston, Dr. No's agents try to murder Bond with poisoned fruit and a centipede (always with the poison!) and by driving his car off the road and down a cliff.  Cleverly, Bond and Quarrel are not in the car as it careens down the cliff to destruction--they hired a beggar and a clerk who did the books for a whorehouse to impersonate them and it is these gentlemen who go to hell in our heroes' stead.  I think this is the most ruthless and cold-blooded thing Bond has done thus far in six novels.

Bond and Quarrel move to the north shore of Jamaica, where Quarrel trains Bond, getting him back into shape.  Then, under cover of night, the two men canoe to Crab Key, where they meet a beautiful teen-aged blonde with a crooked nose who is also trespassing on the island, Honeychile Rider--Rider is collecting rare shellfish she sells to somebody in Miami via the mails.  In between hiding from, fleeing, and fighting Dr. No's half-Chinese, half-black henchmen, Rider tells Bond all about her strange, Edgar Rice Burroughs-style life.  (Bond thinks of her as "Girl Tarzan.")  Her family was among the wealthy Jamaican elite for centuries, but had fallen on hard times by the year of her birth.  Orphaned by a fire, Honeychile lived in the ruins of the family home with her black nanny.  Because she tamed the snakes and scorpions and other animals that infested the decayed estate, the local blacks thought she had magic powers ("obeah") and avoided her.  Her nanny died when she was fifteen, and Honeychile was pursued by a white man, an overseer, who got drunk one night and knocked her unconscious, breaking her nose, and proceeded to rape her.  She achieved her revenge by sneaking into his house and putting a black widow spider in his bed, which killed him.

Eventually Bond and Rider are captured by some of Dr. No's thugs who ride around the island in a wheeled, armored vehicle decorated so that gullible and superstitious blacks will think it is a dragon and avoid the island.  (This Scooby-Doo stuff makes no sense--rumors of a dragon would attract attention from intrepid educated people, like journalists, scientists, and hunters, just the kind of people Dr. No would want to keep away from his island.)  Poor Quarrel is burned to death by the vehicle's flame thrower; 007 and the teenager who is already falling in love with him are handcuffed and given a lift on the dragon back to Dr. No's underground lair, which is done up like a luxury hotel or spa, complete with a staff of pretty and attentive Chinese women who call the prisoners "patients."

Bond and Honeychile have dinner with Dr. No, who tells them his biography (one career highlight: as a young criminal in a New York "tong," some other criminals chopped off his hands, so he now has metal pincers for hands) and describes his operations on Crab Key--not only does he sell the guano, but he is working with Moscow to jam the signals of American long range guided missiles and even take control of the missiles.  He could, he claims, redirect US missiles fired during tests or in war to land back in the US or in British Caribbean territories.  Finally, he explains why he has allowed 007 and the sea shell collector to get a good night's rest and eat a healthy meal--Dr. No is studying pain and human endurance, and he wants to test Bond and Rider to the breaking point.  He recently fed a black woman to an army of crabs (Jamaican "land crabs" or "black crabs.")  This "negress" expired after three hours exposure to the crabs--she died of fright.  Dr. No wants to see how a white woman's endurance compares to that of the black woman's.  When he realizes Dr. No is going to feed Honeychile to crabs, Bond calls Dr. No all kinds of names and says he will "fry in hell for this" but doesn't have the presence of mind to inform the doctor that his sample size (just two women!) is going to be way too small to yield reliable results.  I personally wouldn't take Dr. No's research results seriously until he had fed ten women of African ancestry and ten women of European ancestry to these crabs.

As for Bond, Dr. No tells him he has the honor of being the first man sent through his brand new "obstacle race, an assault course against death."  Over the course of two chapters, Bond crawls and climbs through this maze, tortured by electric shocks and broiling heat, forced to fight hand-to-hand against a swarm of tarantulas and, at the end of the course, a giant squid.  When he busts out of the death maze he finds he is near the island's dock, where Dr. No is supervising the loading of a ship with tons and tons of guano.  Bond assassinates the guy manning the crane that is directing the guano-disgorging tube, grabs the controls, and then buries Dr. No in guano, drowning the maniac in bird shit.  Then he reunites with Honeychile, who has escaped the crab horde--she knew something about crabs that Dr. No didn't know, that they don't really eat live people and, being Girl Tarzan, lover of creepy crawlies, she was not in the least bit scared of them.  While Bond was battling the tarantulas and the giant squid, Honeychile was slowly freeing herself from her bonds.  (Dr. No's experiments don't make any sense, because nobody was watching Bond or Honeychile with a stop watch and a rifle to see how long they survived or to catch them if they managed to overcome their invertebrate opponents.  Who the hell builds a death maze and doesn't bother to watch the contestant fight the level boss?)

Bond shoots down several "Chigroes," seizes the dragon, and chauffeurs Honeychile to the south end of Crab Key, where Quarrel's canoe is hidden, and they escape to Jamaica.

Dr. No is not bad--the sex and violence and espionage elements are good enough--but it is far weaker than From Russia, With Love.   Quarrel is a decent character, but not as interesting a doomed friend of James Bond as Darko Kerim, and Honeychile Rider is OK, but no better a character than Tatiana Romanova.  (Romanova, with whom I thought Bond was in love, isn't even mentioned in this book.  I wonder what kind of life she is leading in the West.)  As for the villains, next to the terrific Red Grant and Rosa Klebb, Dr. No is kind of underdeveloped.  (By the way, M tells a guy who asks that Klebb is dead, but I hope he was lying!)

Then we have setting and atmosphere; compared to Fleming's sinister depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain and in anarchic Istanbul in the fifth 007 novel, the Jamaica of the sixth book is a bore.  It's hot and there are bugs?  Come on, man!  You can do better than that!  Maybe Fleming should have explored the underworld of the "Chigroes," the way he explored the African-American underworld in Live and Let Die, or included more "yellow peril" stuff--the enemies are all Chinese, but Fleming didn't make use of any specifically Chinese cultural or historical characteristics in the story that I can remember.  This is a sad contrast to Moonraker, where there was plenty of "Germans are robots" stuff, Diamonds Are Forever, in which Bond unleashed a barrage of hilarious slander against Italian-Americans and harsh criticism of Las Vegas, and of course Fleming's masterpiece From Russia, With Love, which is full of specific observations of Russian communists, Turks and gypsies.

I can't deny that my interest in James Bond has waned a little bit.  It may be a while before we check out the next 007 novel, Goldfinger.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Four stories by Cordwainer Smith from the period 1958-1961

It has been a while since I have read any Cordwainer Smith stories.  In 2014 (when we were young!) I read "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," "The Game of Rat and Dragon," "Scanners Live in Vain," "No, No, Not Rogov," "War No. 81-Q," "Mark Elf," and "Queen of the Afternoon."  In 2015 I read "A Planet Named Shayol."  I recommended all those stories, some of them ecstatically, but somehow I haven't read any Cordwainer Smith stories since.  Well, today is the day Smith comes back into my life!

Some time ago I acquired a copy of the 1970 Berkley edition of You Will Never Be the Same, a collection of eight stories that, according to the publication page, were "specially revised for inclusion" in this book.  All of the stories are part of Smith's future history, known as "The Instrumentality of Mankind"; four of them I have already read in other books--the other four, which I have never before read, are the subject of today's blog post.  I am reading them in the order in which they appear here in You Will Never Be the Same.

"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" (1960)

This one first appeared in an issue of Galaxy with both a space suit and a bikini girl on its cover--cover all those bases, Emsh!  Within the pages of Galaxy, the story itself is illustrated by the Dillons, credited just as "Dillon."  Similarly, isfdb strongly suggests "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" was co-written by Smith with his wife, Genevieve Linebarger (Smith's real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) but in Galaxy, and here in You Will Never be the Same, it is just credited to Cordwainer Smith.

In this tale Smith (and his wife, it seems), cleverly and charmingly, give us insight into two future human societies, the society of Earth people who colonized the galaxy on ships driven by colossal solar sails and the later interstellar society that travels almost instantly across the galaxy via "the planoform": the later civilization remembers the sailing days through legends, in particular the legend of the love of Helen America, the sole female master of a solar sailing ship, and Mr. Grey-no-more.

Helen America's mother was a celebrity, a radical feminist (though not terribly radical by 2019 standards, I suspect) apparently driven to feminism because she was unattractive, who kept the identity of Helen's father a secret, a secret she took to her grave when she died in a spacecraft collision when Helen was a teen.  Helen, who took after her unknown father and was in many ways the opposite of her mother, was a genius (at age four she spoke six languages) and became the first woman to train to be a solar sailor.  A solar sailor's career features only one voyage; while the passengers lie frozen in pods, the sailor, integrated into the ship cyborg-style, kept awake by drugs and suffering terrible pain, pilots the ship for forty years, the drugs making it seem to him that only a month has passed, though his body ages the full four decades.  In his sixties after a successful voyage, the pilot's reflexes and nerves are no longer suitable for the job of mastering a solar ship.

When she is in college, the press, as a sort of stunt, set Helen, the genius who is the only woman in the world who wants to be a sailor, up on a date with a sailor who had just arrived from the colony of New Earth, Mr. Grey-no-more.  In part because Mr. Grey-no-more was not from Earth and so had no preconceptions about the famous Helen, which put her at ease, Helen fell in love with him, and asked him to marry her.  He loved her but refused, because he hated the artificial, decadent, corrupt Earth and wanted to get back to New Earth, a colonial society full of vigor where life was still real.   

In a plot development we can see coming but which is still powerful, after he was frozen, Helen got the job of master of the sailing ship Mr. Grey-no-more took to New Earth.  When they arrived on New Earth they were the same age and had both had the agonizing, horrifying, psyche-bending experience of commanding a space ship, totally alone, for forty years, and made a happy life together on the colony, their love becoming the subject of a hundred films over the centuries.  The story ends with what we might call a Christian message, Helen suggesting, as she lies on her death bed a century after their wedding, that if their love was able to conquer space, perhaps it can conquer death itself and she and Mr. Grey-no-more will be together again in the afterlife. 

It makes sense to compare "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" with Thomas N. Scortia's 1956 "Sea Change" and Walter M. Miller's 1953 "Crucifixius Etiam"; in all three stories people have their bodies radically altered and sacrifice themselves to further man's dream of conquering the stars.  One of the things I like about these stories is that they accept the Malzbergian complaint--"Technology is devouring us and diminishing our humanity!"--but insist that the sacrifice is worth it, that those who sacrifice themselves so we can conquer space are not victims but heroes.  One could probably write a dissertation contrasting Barry N. Malzberg's pessimistic, cynical, individualistic, Jewish-influenced view of space travel with the optimistic, romantic, communitarian, Christian-influenced view of SF writers like Miller and Smith.  Get to work on that, grad students!

"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" is a moving love story that is also a good future history and high-technology story; it is both romantic and tragic, but avoids being sappy or maudlin, and all the scenes about the space craft and all the medical stuff done to the sailors are effective.  Very good.

When I say "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" is superior I am embracing the conventional wisdom of the SF community: the story was republished in collections of the best pieces from Galaxy, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, as well as the volume of Issac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories that covers 1960.

"The Burning of the Brain" (1958)

Like "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul," "The Burning of the Brain" is about the sufferings, the sacrifices, of the people who crew the space ships that carry passengers in comfort between the stars.  It feels kind of slight, however.

In the period of Smith's future history in which this story takes place, people travel between the stars via planoform ships; I guess "the planoform" is like hyperspace or whatever.  Passengers can relax in the ship, which can take most any form--the one in the story is a reproduction of Mount Vernon--while the psychic "Go-Captain" and his crew of "pinlighters" guide the vessel through the turbulent stuff of space with their minds; voyages take a few hours.  The greatest of all Go-Captains is Magno Taliano.  A century and a half ago it was a sensation when he married Dolores Oh, the most beautiful woman in the galaxy.  In this period, people get juvenesence treatments so they look as good at 70 or 80 or 150 as they did when they were 20 or 30, but Dolores Oh has decided to skip the treatments and become hideously ugly with age--she wants to know that Captain Taliano loves her for herself, not her looks.  Taliano is a stand up guy, and really does seem to love her as much as he did when she was the dream girl of every man in the galaxy.

The plot: There is a malfunction on Taliano's ship that looks like George Washington's plantation house--all the many maps of the planoform are gone, so they are lost in hyperspace and will soon die.  But wait--in Taliano's memory are enough map fragments to get them back home, but letting the pinlighters extract these fragments for use will destroy much of Taliano's mind, reducing his intellect to that of an amiable moron.  Dolores Oh seems to relish this prospect--if Taliano is an imbecile he won't have the ability to fake still loving her, so if he still loves her it must be sincere.  Taliano's niece, Dita from the Great South House, is also aboard the ship.  She is a psychic herself, and, somehow, as Taliano's brain is burned up, his Go-Captain skills are transferred to her brain, and she becomes one of the greatest Go-Captains in the galaxy.

This story is not bad, but pales beside "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul," with which it shares its themes.  The science stuff didn't hold together as well here--how did Dita got her uncle's skills as his brain was degraded?--and I am not sure really what the point of having her in the story at all was, I guess as a sort of viewpoint character?

After first appearing in If, "The Burning of the Brain" has been included in several anthologies, including some of stories deemed "masterpieces," stories about starships, and even a Baen collection of stories influenced by Rudyard Kipling.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" (1959)

In this story, which is good, but like "The Burning of the Brain," a little slight, we see how the corrupt Lords of the Instrumentality, Earth's decadent rulers, defend Mother Terra from hostile space empires.

The dictator Raumsog, ruler of some planet outside Earth's control, wants to conquer the Earth.  He tries to bribe the Lords of the Instrumentality, but when this does not work he resorts to launching his powerful space navy.  The forces of Earth outwit and outfight Raumsog through trickery (the Earth has a huge space ship, a ship bigger than a star, but it is a sham, a thin shell built around a tiny space ship which could not withstand a single hit) ruthlessness and unconventional weapons (a small Earth ship raids Raumsog's planet, using the psychic powers of a little girl to cause the planet's population bad luck and the psychic powers of a "chronopathic idiot" to shift the vessel a few seconds in time in order to dodge enemy fire and then releasing poison and disease on the world that wipe out 95% of its inhabitants.)  The Lords then erase the memories of the crew that destroyed Raumsog so that their means of victory remains a mystery and many Earth people never even knew a war took place.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" was first published in Amazing, and, as with "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul," isfdb asserts it was co-authored by Smith with his wife Genevieve Linebarger.  "Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" has mostly been republished in Smith collections, though it did show up in the Souvenir Book of Readercon 10 in 1998.  I have to say the Readercon 10 Souvenir Book looks pretty awesome, with fiction by and essays about some of the MPorcius Fiction Log staff's favorite writers, including Gene Wolfe, Barry Malzberg, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, and Thomas Disch.     

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961)

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" was first published in F&SF and would go on to be republished in numerous anthologies, including Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg's Great Science Fiction of the 20th Century, which has a cover illo of a sexalicious space queen and her beautiful space palace that is turning me into a monarchist.

Life on Earth has become so easy, with no work and no danger, so stale, that society is on the brink of suicide.  So the Lords of the Instrumentality launch a program called "The Rediscovery of Man" that reintroduces disease, accidents, violence, and all kinds of pre-computer age cultural artifacts.  For example, the narrator, Paul, and his wife, Virginia, have their brains reprogrammed so that they are like 19th- or 20th-century French people--they speak French, want to go to cafes (which the government has built and staffed with robot waiters) and so forth.  Many Earthlings embrace these exciting changes to their lives, but Virginia, like Dolores Oh in "The Burning of the Brain," wants to know that the love she shares with Paul is real, no just something programmed into them like the conjugation of French verbs.

To find out if their love is real, they climb up Alpha Ralpha Boulevard to consult a mysterious computer that rests halfway up a twelve-mile high tower--some people worship this computer, especially artificial people ("homonculi"), though consulting it is considered declasse by most pure-blooded humans.  Virginia is one of the few natural humans to take the computer seriously.  Now that the weather machines are all deactivated, and people's brains are no longer programmed against violence and fear, the trip up Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is dangerous and Paul and Virginia experience a horrible and tragic adventure.

This is a good story, full of SF ideas and images, and features an appearance by cat-woman C'Mell, though I am afraid it doesn't move me like "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" does.  I guess "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" set a high bar.


The critics consider The Instrumentality of Mankind to be a major work in the SF field, and I feel no reason to dissent--the four stories we dealt with today are all worthwhile, and the first I found quite powerful.  There are still more Instrumentality stories I have not read, and hopefully someday I will read them.