Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak

Our field of study is the technological civilizations, none of which seem to be viable for any length of time.  They carry within themselves the seeds of their destruction.
A year ago I mentioned my fond memories of Clifford D. Simak's A Heritage of Stars, and since then I have been hoping to find it in a used bookstore.  These hopes have not been realized, but, when a Jeremy M. Beaver pointed out on twitter recently that he was reading the 1977 novel, I was spurred to look for it at the internet archive.  And, sure enough, a scan of a Book Club Edition owned by a library in Colorado was soon available, and so today we reread this book from my youth!

In the 25th century the populace rose up a against the high tech world man had created for himself, destroying the millions of robots and all the machines, burning all the technical books and even tearing out from books that were not primarily about technology those pages bearing technical knowledge.  Human society collapsed into primitivism, people living as small subsistence farmers or in nomadic tribes, leaving the cities to fall into ruins.  Simak gets us readers up to speed on his setting by including long excerpts from a book written, by hand, in 2952 by one Hiram Wilson, who reconstructed a picture of the fall of civilization as best he could from folklore, rumor and the meager surviving records.  Wilson was a resident of the University of Minnesota, a fortified community on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and one of the few places where people know how to read, and his handwritten book sits in the university library for centuries.

The protagonist of A Heritage of Stars is one Thomas Cushing, a guy who reads Wilson's hand scrawled history like a thousand years later, in the 40th century.  As a child, Cushing lived with his family on a small independent farm safely hidden away from bandits in the woods, but by the time he was sixteen he was alone, his family having been wiped out by disease, old age, or unexplained mishaps (his father went hunting one day and didn't come back.)  So, after finding some people to take on responsibility for his farm animals, he struck out on his own.  After a few years wandering alone and as part of a band consisting of only a handful of men, he decided to join the University of Minnesota community, where he grew potatoes and learned to read.  He read Wilson's book, and, by chance, even found some old hand written notes Wilson had left behind but never incorporated into his history.  These notes are about rumors to the effect that, before the destruction of technology, man had built star ships and launched them from a facility port somewhere out west.  Cushing, after five years at the University, decides to go investigate these rumors.  His experience as a farmer and a nomad, and his book learning, make him the perfect guy to go on such an expedition!

A Heritage of Stars is sort of a traditional quest narrative.  Cushing travels along, making friends and overcoming challenges (in Cushing's case there are lots of friends and very few challenges.)  Early in his journey he meets an old woman with psychic powers, Meg, and one of the last "living" robots, Rollo.  Rollo is one of those robots we encounter sometimes in SF, a robot who has developed a personality and can overcome its programming.  (We just met such a robot in Damon Knight's 1956 story "Stranger Station.")  Robots were programmed to be nonviolent, but when Rollo needed grease to protect himself from rust he was able to reprogram himself to kill animals to get the needed fats.  Rollo feels loneliness, and tells how, though he doesn't like humans, because we are violent and so on, he would feel a need to hear conversation, and so would sneak up on nomad tribes to listen, unnoticed, to their talk around campfires.  Thanks to all this eavesdropping and a single human friend over the course of 15 centuries, Rollo has a lot of information; for example, he knows the name of the site of "The Place of Going to the Stars": Thunder Butte.  As luck would have it, shortly after learning this from Rollo, Cushing by chance stumbles upon a topographical map with "THUNDER BUTTE" labelled on it.

(In a lot of novels, to find plot coupons like this map the protagonist would have to kill a monster or crack a code or seduce a girl or climb a mountain or something, but Cushing just finds the people and items he needs to complete his quest laying around.)

The mood of A Heritage of Stars is mostly sad.  Every individual's happy days are behind him, every species's happy days are behind it.  Most of the minor characters are old and pathetic.  Rollo the lonely last of the robots is obviously a sad character, as are all robots in the story.  The robots of the 25th century were almost entirely destroyed, their metal bodies wrecked by anti-technology zealots or worn away over the centuries by rust.  But the robots' "brain cases" were made of a metal almost indestructible, and these brain cases have survived, and many tribes pile them up ritualistically.  Meg, with her psychic powers, detects that the robot "souls" inside the brain cases are still "alive," and there is some speculation that the robot personalities are suffering the torment of sensory deprivation.  To spare Rollo's feelings, Meg keeps the reality about all those millions of robot brains a secret from him.  Luckily, another theme of the novel is human inferiority to every other life form, so there is hope that the robot souls are made of sturdier stuff than yours and mine and have found peace in sensory deprivation.

On their way to Thunder Butte, Cushing, Meg, Rollo, and Meg's horse Andy are joined by an old man and his granddaughter.  This old dude, Ezra, can talk to plants--plants, he claims, have a consciousness, an intelligence in some ways superior to human intelligence!  The flowers have told him of some plants to the west that are even smarter than the flowers and trees he commonly converses with.  We readers already know what these super plants are all about, because Simak has already spent a short chapter on the intelligent, semi-mobile Trees (with a capital T) that protect Thunder Butte.

Ezra's granddaughter, Elayne, has a permanent blank look on her face, and Ezra claims that she "lives in another place."  Cushing is warned not to pity her even if she has a look on her face like that of a mental case or what I would have called in my youth "a retard"--Elayne is happier than all of us and by rights she should pity us who are stuck in this crummy world, living as she does in a better world.  Cushing and Rollo have already told us that they prefer to keep away from people because the human race stinks, and Elayne is another example, an extreme one, of the misanthropic hermits we are expected to admire in this book.  (Meg comes right out and says Elayne, who almost never talks and does nothing productive but instead stares into space constantly, is better than most people.)

As well as these various psykers (and the robot), Cushing also meets a bunch of mysterious alien creatures who are wandering the Earth, some of them shadows and some of them flickers of light.  These creatures do not talk, but they develop relationships with some of Cushing's companions; they don't really contribute much to the plot; but they do add to the mood.

In the second half of the book the party reaches Thunder Butte, which has various guardians, including the capital-T Trees.  These guardians are easily persuaded to allow the party onto the Butte, though Simak keeps it ambiguous whether they are responding to Elayne's innocence, Ezra's ability to talk to plants, Meg's psychic powers, or the results of a scan of Cushing's brain.  On the way up the butte our heroes meet a bunch of flying robots, Earth space probes, who babble semi-coherently about the surreal scenes they witnessed on alien planets.  And then they meet some alien scientists, people who look like big bubbles.  The bubbles say they have been to many planets and have observed that all technological societies collapse onto barbarism, as Earth's has.

Atop the butte is a spare unadorned walled city, like one colossal building.  Meg's psychic powers eventually afford them entry.  Inside they meet an old robot, a more sophisticated model than Rollo, who manages the city and is apparently the city's sole Earthborn inhabitant.  Simak calls the facility "the City" with a capital C, I guess to make it evocative (City is the title of an important series of stories by Simak, and Simak's dislike of cities is an important theme in his body of work--he has a nonfiction essay in the 1973 anthology Future City)  , but it doesn't really behave as a city--there are no crowds or businesses or factories or whatever, it is just a big building with one robot guy and a bunch of uncommunicative little flying aliens and babbling little flying robots in it.)

This super robot, who goes by the name "The Ancient and Revered," explains that human exploration beyond the solar system was cost-prohibitive, so a multitude of robot probes were sent instead.  The City has a huge data bank, full of the info those robot probes collected from many alien planets--this data was wiped from the probes after it was uploaded to the City, so any data the probes themselves currently retain is fragmentary and useless--that is why they babble unproductively.  Many of the planets explored by the probes were home to nontechnological societies, and, maybe if all that data could be accessed, human civilization could be rebuilt on nontechnological lines.  Unfortunately, the computers that could access the data bank are busted.

When Cushing's party reveals to The Ancient and Revered that the robot souls in the brain cases that litter the landscape and are collected by the tribes are still alive, that there are lots of psychics all over the world, and that there is a university in Minnesota where live many people who can read, the robot theorizes that maybe the data can be accessed, either directly by the robot brains working with the psykers, or by training the literate university people at The City's library (where technical and scientific books have been preserved) to repair the computers.  Cushing goes out to talk to a tribe, to ask that they donate their brain cases and volunteer their psychics for this endeavor.  The tribesmen suspect Cushing is insane and fear he is going to end their happy lives of hunting and gathering and bring back the high tech civilization where everybody works from 9 to 5, and so they tie him to a stake.  Before they can decide how to dispose of Cushing, an army of aliens from the city scares the tribesmen away and rescues Cushing; I guess we can call this A Heritage of Stars' action climax.

In the final chapter we are assured that Cushing and his friends, protected from superstitious tribesmen by the many shadowy or sparkly aliens, will make it to the university of Minnesota where people will be eager to join the campaign of accessing the data from other worlds and setting the human race on a path that will lift mankind out of barbarism without resorting to technology.  Also, each of the robot brain cases will eventually be teamed up with a psychic who can be its friend and ease the torture of living without any sensory input.

I'm not hip to Simak's attitude, what his supporters call "pastoralism" and I am inclined to think of as "Luddite misanthropy."  The history written by Hiram Wilson talks about the "arrogance" of the physical sciences and technological thinking and how that arrogance must have stifled the development of psychic abilities.  Simak romanticizes animals and plants and even robots, even though he denounces technology.  Similarly, Simak is sympathetic to mysticism and talks about souls, but dismisses religious people as fanatics who have devoted their lives to a dumb mistake.

Maybe we should see A Heritage of Stars as a pioneering text of wokeness.  Second class citizens (robots) are better than their creators and masters (humans.)  Women are better than men.  Animals (and even plants!!) are better than humans.  And aliens whose civilizations are not based on technology are better than Earthlings.  Simak attacks people who are afraid of new ideas, while he himself is obviously afraid of new ideas if they involve technology.  Simak's thinking is not logical but emotional; there is no suggestion of what a non-technological civilization might look like, or even what exactly is wrong with technology, why people rebelled against it--that crack from the tribesmen about preferring a life of hunting and gathering to one of regular work is the closest we get to an explanation of why people rebelled against technological life.

A Heritage of Stars moves slowly, and there is very little tension or excitement.  There is almost no danger or violence, and absolutely no sex--surprisingly little happens besides a bunch of conversations.  Cushing is the kind of protagonist to whom things happen--most of the challenges he faces are resolved by dumb luck or by his companions.

If I find Simak's ideology silly and A Heritage of Stars is lacking in thrills, what did I like about it as a kid, and why am I giving it a moderate recommendation now?  I like Rollo, the robot who hunts grizzly bears for their fat; it is obvious that Rollo could use fat from some lesser creature to make the grease that has kept him rust-free for fifteen centuries, but his sense of dignity permits him to only use the fat of huge dangerous grizzlies--Rollo is what I have remembered of the novel over three decades.  The idea and the image of piled up robot brain cases, feared or revered by the primitive descendants of those who built the robots in the first place, each one inhabited by a living consciousness, is a powerful one.  And I like that Simak doesn't give us aliens who are lizardmen and catgirls--so many SF writers just use aliens to represent human societies, or base their aliens on Earth animals to facilitate working on our emotions, that it is nice to see Simak make the effort to depict aliens that are actually alien.

Simak's writing style is also smooth and comfortable, so even when little is happening, reading A Heritage of Stars isn't boring or irritating. 

I can't recommend A Heritage of Stars with great enthusiasm, but I liked it and I certainly enjoyed revisiting a book from my past, and people on Simak's wavelength may get more satisfaction out of it than I did.   

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Tales of provocative horror by Matheson, Sturgeon, Ellison, Etchison and Bloch

1989 and 2004 editions
Regular readers of this blog know I love the internet archive, a convenient source of multitudes of things worth reading.  I spend a considerable amount of time there just typing in names and topics and seeing what comes up; last week, for example, I read a scan of The Stick and the Stars, William King's memoir of commanding Royal Navy submarines during the Second World War.  Another recent find was the 1989 anthology Hot Blood, which has a cover that I find pretty hilarious. On its inside title page Hot Blood bears the subtitle "Tales of Provocative Horror," but I guess the boys down in marketing got their way and on the cover the subtitle is "Tales of Erotic Horror." Anyway, seeing as this is the month in which we all pretend we think that mutilation, murder and evil are a big joke, and one of the twelve months in which we are all fascinated by sex, it seems appropriate to check out what Hot Blood has to offer.

Hot Blood is full of stories by people of whom I have never heard, but there are also some familiar names, so let's read stories by those worthies Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Dennis Etchison, and Robert Bloch, men about whose work I have already written here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

"The Likeness of Julie" by Richard Matheson (1962)

"The Likeness of Julie" was first published in the Ballantine anthology Alone By Night under the pen name Logan Swanson.  Its subtitle is "Tales of Unlimited Horror," but Alone By Night also includes Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "A Gnome There Was," which, when I read it in 2014, I interpreted as a satire of left-wing activists that was full of goofy jokes.

Eddy is a horny college student who never paid skinny plain Julie much attention, but one day he notices she has an angelic face and some nice curves under those loose clothes after all, and becomes obsessed with her.  Her innocent look doesn't just inspire a desire to have sex with her--he wants to defile her, to rape her and blackmail her into keeping her mouth shut!  Eddy resists his own dark urges as long as he can, knowing the risk he runs if caught, but he can't help himself--he asks Julie out, drugs her, photographs her naked and has sex with her in such a brutal fashion that the next day he finds traces of her skin and blood under his fingernails and can't stop seeing in his mind's eye the bruises and bite marks he left on Julie's beautiful body!

The twist ending is that Julie craves being taken roughly by men, and uses her psychic powers to hypnotize men into abusing her, striking her, and raping her.  All of Eddy's crimes were her ideas, implanted in his mind.  When Eddy commits suicide she begins her search for another man to hypnotize into dominating her the way she aches to be dominated.

This is an acceptable sex and horror story.  The twist ending in which a woman is not only shown to be an evil manipulator but revealed to have rape fantasies and enjoy being abused is perhaps the kind of thing that would get a lot of pushback today. 

"Vengeance Is." by Theodore Sturgeon (1980)

"Vengeance Is." was first printed in Dark Forces, an anthology of new tales of horror and suspense by many important SF and horror writers.

A guy from the city goes to a bar in the country to ask about two brothers with a reputation for taking advantage of women and bragging about it, Grimme and Dave.  Through dialogue we learn the crazy story of Grimme and Dave's demise.  G & D attacked two city folks passing through, a gorgeous babe and her husband, an academic type.  Bizarrely, the professor egged the brutes on to rape his wife; for her part, the wife ferociously resisted their sexual assault--at first.  Then, when G & D found some priceless paintings in the trunk of the city folks' car and deliberately ruined them, the woman submitted to their efforts to rape her.  G & D died from a mysterious disease not long after.

The twist ending: the woman had some extremely rare disease (Sturgeon goes into it--I won't here) that is certain death to those who have sex with her, except for her husband, who is an extremely rare case of somebody who is immune to the disease.  The true horror of the story is not that a woman was raped, or that some priceless paintings were destroyed, or that two rapists died in agony from a weird disease, but what the two city folks learned about themselves.  You see, these educated people thought they were above a desire for revenge, but, when put to the test, the man quickly succumbed to that very desire, urging G & D to rape his wife so they would get the killer disease.  Initially, the wife fought G & D so vigorously because she didn't want them to get the killer germs, but when she saw G & D destroy the priceless canvases she was enraged and sought vengeance herself, letting the malefactors rape her as a means of killing them.

The two urban liberals repented of their lust for revenge and sent the guy in the bar out to look for G & D in hopes of providing information to those medical professionals caring for them that might ease the pain of their final days, but the guy is too late, G & D perished in terrible agony.

Acceptable; less sexy than the Matheson story, and kind of contrived, but more philosophical and science fictiony--Ted is at least pretending to give us something to think about instead of just trying to titillate and/or disgust us.

"Footsteps" by Harlan Ellison (1980)

"Footsteps" first appeared in the men's magazine Gallery, where it was advertised as "Harlan Ellison's Strangest Story."

Claire is a werewolf!  She travels the world, visiting the world's finest cities, murdering people and eating them.  One of the story's recurring jokes is that Claire thinks of herself as sampling world cuisine, and she compares the taste of different people from different cities--people in London are stringy, for example, in Berlin, starchy.  The tastiest people are in Los Angeles and Paris.  In this story, set in Paris, we follow Claire as she seduces a well-fed middle-class Frenchman at a sidewalk cafe, guides him under a bridge, sexually arouses him, transforms into a hairy monster, rips off his clothes and slits his throat, and then rides his erection as he dies.  Then she eats him.

Claire spends some time in the City of Light, feeding on innocent people.  Then she meets a man she cannot kill, a sort of plant man--sap runs from his wounds, which heal in moments.  Luckily the plant man has normal male human genitals, and can have sex with Claire.  The plant man uses his telepathy to convey to Claire some melodramatic goop about both of them being the last of their kind, and they live happily ever after!  The footsteps of the title are a metaphorical reference to Claire's fear that mundane civilization is out to get her, that if she is discovered, she will be destroyed (because, you know, she is murdering people by the score, just the kind of behavior that raises the ire of us muggles.)  Now that she has found her true love, plant man, Claire no longer hears the footsteps--I guess we are supposed to think plant man is going to teach her how to be a vegetarian...maybe he is going to feed her from his own flesh?

I thought it a little incongruous that a story about a famous type of gothic horror monster we have all heard about hundreds of times, the werewolf, a story in which, reminding us of Dracula, Ellison uses the phrase "children of the night" like five times, would achieve its climax and resolution not through the intervention of a vampire or an occult researcher armed with silver bullets or some other stock horror figure, but with something you'd expect to find in a story with rocket ships, robots and radiation, a telepathic plant man.  Also a little jarring, after like ten pages of Ellison trying to write poetically, evocatively, like a "real" "literary" writer, he has a startled Claire yell at the plant man, "You're a carrot, a goddam carrot!" undermining the tone I thought Ellison was trying to achieve.

The narrative thrust of the story is how Claire changes, from a lonely person who feels hunted by society to somebody who finds true love and safety.  That is all well and good, but a theme less in tune with our current zeitgeist is how the lone werewolf Claire was in total control of her life, and then chooses to give up control of her life to a (plant) man.  "But now she was helpless, and she didn't mind giving over control to him."  So far we have two stories, this one and Matheson's "The Likeness of Julie," about women murderers whose deepest need is to be dominated by a man.  I don't think we'll be seeing a blurb from Gloria Steinem on the next edition of Hot Blood.

"Footsteps" is OK, no big deal.  My attitude about Ellison is like my attitude about the Beatles--I am constantly being told that they are the best, to the point that it is annoying, but while I think they are good, they just don't move me or interest me the way a dozen or more artists working in the same genre do. 

(After drafting the above assessment of "Footsteps," a little googling brought to my attention the story that "Footsteps" was the product of a stunt in which Ellison wrote the story in front of an audience who provided the raw material for the story, improv style--the story is about a lady werewolf rapist in Paris because people in the audience set those parameters.  I believe it is still fair to judge the story like I would any other story, because it is presented to us in Hot Blood just like any other story, and during the years between the initial event that birthed the story and its appearance in the collection Angry Candy in 1988 and Hot Blood in 1989, Ellison had ample opportunity to revise and polish it--Ellison must have felt the version I read was satisfactory.)   

"Daughter of the Golden West" by Dennis Etchison (1973)

"Daughter of the Golden West" was first printed in the men's magazine Cavalier under the title "A Feast for Cathy."  (Cavalier in the 1970s, I now know, was full of early Stephen King stories and cartoons of nude women by Vaughn Bode.  I learn a lot of exciting information working on this blog.)

"Daughter of the Golden West" is the best constructed and best written story I have yet read from Hot Blood.  Etchison moves things forward at a good pace, starting us off with a mystery and giving us little nuggets of information that finally add up to the ultimate horror on the last page in a way which is satisfyingly striking.  Along the way Etchison provides images that are sharper and human relationships that are more interesting than anything Matheson, Sturgeon or Ellison offered us.  The reader gets the feeling that Etchison actually thought about the story and worked hard crafting it--it operates like a complex but smooth-running machine with a unified tone that leads logically to its erotic and gory conclusion, unlike the simple plots punctuated by a crazy surprise twist ending presented to us by Matheson, Sturgeon and Ellison.  And while Ellison's writing is showy and flashy, an obtrusive and heavy-handed effort at appearing literary, Etchison's piece here actually feels literary, each of the sentences feels like it is pursuing some story goal, not a pointless piece of fancy embroidery that screams, "Hey, I'm a writer!"  Even when you discover words like "gestalt" and "virgule" embedded in Etchsion's prose you try to figure out what Etchison is trying to accomplish with them, you don't just roll your eyes the way you do the fourth and fifth time Ellison waves "children of the night" in your face like a cheerleader's pom poms.

The plot: Three California high school boys are best buddies, doing everything together.  Then one of them disappears, and is found dead, the lower part of his body mutilated.  Two other young men have suffered a similar fate in the last few months.  The two surviving friends grieve, but also begin doing a little detective work, eventually going to talk to the high school girl, Cathy, who is probably the last person their dead buddy ever spoke to.  At her house they face the same horrifying danger that destroyed their predecessors--Cathy and her sisters are descended from a member of the Donner party, and have taken up cannibalism!  Their modus operandi is to seduce men and then incapacitate them by biting off their you-know-whats during fellatio!

A very good horror story; not only are the final scenes at Cathy's house, where the seduction, sex and murder take place, powerful, but the earlier scenes, in which the two boys and other members of the community deal with the shock and grief of the loss of one of their number, are also effective.  I can recommend this one with some enthusiasm.  

"The Model" by Robert Bloch (1975)

Like Ellison's "Footsteps," Bloch's "The Model" first appeared in Gallery, the author's name being given a spot on the cover.  This cover, however, unabashedly features a woman's bare breasts, and, for fear of getting on the wrong side of the Google authorities, and making my protestations of being a libertarian and a free-speech absolutist look pretty hollow, I am censoring the image of the November 1975 issue of Gallery that is appearing here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  To see the original cover image in all its glory, try here.

Remember how in "The Closer of the Way" Bloch used himself as the narrator and set the tale in an asylum?  Well, he uses the same gag here.  Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, talks to a mental patient, who tells him the story of his relationship with tall, thin Vilma, a fashion model he met while working at an ad agency.  He was some kind of assistant who handled schedules, and with no creative work to do had time to hang out with Vilma when his agency was building a campaign around photos of her taken in the Caribbean.  Vilma, the photog, the clothing and make up guy, and the assistant guy, traveled from port to port on a cruise ship, and between islands the assistant guy and Vilma spent their days on the ship sitting in the shade and shooting the breeze.  He lusted after the beauty, even fell in love with her, but she was very cool, gently rebuffing all his advances.

After two weeks of getting nowhere with Vilma, as the ship was about to return to Miami, Vilma finally invited him to her room.  She told him she wanted his genetic material, and revealed herself to be some kind of monster whose beautiful head was just an artificial appliance--her real eyes were on her nipples!  Even more horrifying was her vagina, which had teeth which she used to take possession of the man's genitals after arousing him and binding him with her special powers.  Vilma has not been seen since, and the assistant guy, who survived the removal of his genitals, is considered to have been driven insane by the mutilation he suffered--obviously nobody believes his story of Vilma being an inhuman monster.

The sense-of-wonder ending of this feeble story is Bloch suggesting that all those tall thin fashion models we see in magazines and ad campaigns, with their cool emotionless expressions, are inhuman creatures in disguise, monsters bred by some mysterious entity for some mysterious purpose.

Lame, the worst story we have discussed today.  It is a good idea to explore men's fear of losing their maleness (independence and virility and so forth) to a woman who wants to make a child with them, but Bloch only does this in the most shallow way, and then he tacks on the gimmicky concept that fashion models aren't really human, a theory that he just throws out there and doesn't do anything with that might be interesting or emotionally engaging.  "The Model" has no character development, no foreshadowing, no images besides the monstrous woman with eyes on her boobs and a toothy maw between her thighs, it's just six pages of filler and then the shock ending.

Thumbs down.

**********

German edition of Hot Blood
Five stories that offer the perennially appropriate advice, "Guys, maybe you should just keep it in your pants."  Four of the stories feature manipulative and murderous women, a reflection of the fact that men are scared of women and the desires they inspire in us, and the vulnerability we find ourselves in when we try to satisfy those desires.   

Dennis Etchison's contribution is far and away the best, delivering successful sexual and horrific content in a story that works in every way.  Richard Matheson comes in second with another story with decent erotic and terror elements.  In third place we see Ted Sturgeon, who unloads some speculative medical science on us as well as raising issues about how we should treat with those who trespass against us.  Then we have Harlan Ellison's mediocre offering, apparently the product of a stunt, followed by Robert Bloch's lackluster, anemic production, which fails to cross the finish line and is mired in "bad" territory.

I think my last dozen posts have been about short stories, but our next post will be about a science fiction novel by one of the SFWA Grand Masters, a novel I have wanted to reread for a while.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

From Great Science Fiction of the 20th Century: Davidson, Budrys & Knight


Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are flipping through Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century, a glamorous 1987 reskin of 1980's The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction.  In our last episode we looked at the stories penned by Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury that editors Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg selected for the volume; today let's read their picks from the bodies of work of Avram Davidson, Algis Budrys, and Damon Knight, three writers about whom I've scribbled a bit in the last few months.


"Or All the Seas With Oysters" by Avram Davidson (1958)

This story won a Hugo after first appearing in Galaxy and has been anthologized many times, including by Neil Gaiman.  (I hear Neil Gaiman is one of the favorites of the kids these days.)

I guess "Or All the Seas With Oysters" might qualify as a joke story, but it is more sophisticated, at least in style, than the broad and absurdist joke stories I am always complaining about here at the blog.  Two men run a bike shop.  One, Oscar, is a hearty chap who seduces a lot of women and whose attitude is to take life as it comes, to make the best of the situations you find.  His partner is Ferd, a shy nervous type who reads books and worries over the things he reads about in the newspaper.

To make a long story short, over the course of Davidson's tale, clever and sensitive Ferd realizes that some sort of weird creature, one that looks like a safety pin in its larval form, a clothes hanger in an intermediate form, and a bicycle in its mature form, has infiltrated human society--Davidson's gimmick here is based on commonplace observations that you can never find a safety pin when you need one and that one's closet is always filled with superfluous coat hangers.  The story's punchline is the contrast between how Ferd and Oscar respond to this astonishing discovery and what fates their reactions lead them to.

One of the sophisticated aspects of the story is how Davidson doesn't make it too obvious which of the two men we should identify with, and whether we should view the story as a terrible tragedy or something of a goof.  Similarly, there is a vague reference to Ferd suffering anxiety over reading about communists in the newspaper, and Davidson doesn't let on whether Ferd is worried about the threat posed by the communists who are murdering and enslaving millions of people in Eastern Europe and China, or sympathizing with leftist Hollywood screenwriters whose careers are suffering some obstacles due to their beliefs.  This sort of ambiguity allows the reader to comfortably assume Davidson sees the world as he sees it, or forces the more thoughtful reader to think twice, which adds value to the story. 

Despite my aversion to absurd joke stories, I enjoyed and am recommending this one.  Over time Davidson is growing on me.


"Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night" by Algis Budrys (1961)

As has Davdison, Budrys, about whom I was skeptical when this blog first lurched on to the interwebs from the recesses of my fevered brain, has been growing on me.  Like "Or All the Seas With Oysters," "Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night" first appeared in Galaxy.  It would go on to be included in a number of anthologies, including Isaac Asimov and Greenberg's The Great SF Stories #23, which also includes a story we at MPorcius Fiction Log liked, R. A. Lafferty's "Rainbird," and two stories we loved, Jack Vance's "Moon Moth" and Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol."

It is the future--the 21st century!  Rufus Sollenar is an optical engineer and a successful businessman, who surveys beautiful Manhattan from his office atop a skyscraper--he can even see spaceships taking off and landing out at the Long Island spaceport.  He is on top of the world, his firm having just started manufacturing a new kind of TV, EmpaVid, that interacts directly with the viewer's emotions via subliminal messages and a biofeedback mechanism.  But word comes of trouble--a rival firm, that of Cortwright Burr, has been working with Martian engineers--the native Martians are a dying race, but they have all kinds of mysterious technology.  Presumably Burr has returned to Earth with an entertainment system superior to EmpaVid, putting Sollenar's firm, and all those who have invested in it, in terrible financial risk.

Utilizing some of the many gadgets and devices featured in this story, Sollenar launches a one-man commando raid on Burr's office and tries to assassinate him and steal his Martian technology.  But it seems that Burr has been given Martian immortality treatments and is almost indestructible!  A shattered, scarred and half-disguised Burr begins to haunt Sollenar at his office, at a big party, on the commercial space ship Sollenar takes to Mars to meet the Martian engineers himself.  On Mars, Sollenar and we readers realize that there are no Martian immortality treatments, that Sollenar is not being pursued by an immortal Burr revenant, but is hallucinating such persecution because Burr, using the hypnotic entertainment device he acquired from the Martian engineers, laid a trap for Sollenar, whom he expected to kill him.

Sollenar is, however, in fact being pursued by somebody, an agent representing an association of all the companies of the broadcast industry--this association enforces agreements and looks out for the broadcast industry's collective interests, and has decided that Sollenar, who is acting like a nut and thus putting all their investments in EmpaVid at risk, should be killed.  As the story ends Sollenar lays a trap for his killer similar to that which Burr laid for him.     

This is a solid SF story full of futuristic devices and processes and mysterious aliens; there is also, implicitly, the criticism of TV and big business we see in so much SF.  Budrys is a good writer and the images in New York and on Mars and the pacing throughout are quite satisfactory.  I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I realized that Burr was not really a living-dead avenger chasing his assassin all over Manhattan's towers and the red planet's wastes, that it was all an illusion--I guess I have a childish fascination with immortality, revenge narratives and chases, as well as limited patience with "it was all a dream" stories.  But Budrys makes it work, and I can recommend "Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night."

(I'm glad I can give the thumbs up to two stories from Galaxy in this blog post, because I don't want people to think my lukewarm reaction to a bunch of Galaxy stories a few blog posts ago means I am some kind of irrational Galaxy-hater.)


"Stranger Station" by Damon Knight (1956)

"Stranger Station" got top billing on the cover of the issue of F&SF with the third installment of the serialized version of Robert Heinlein's Door Into Summer and a striking cover by Kelly Freas.  Like the other stories we have been talking about, it has been widely anthologized, and was selected for republication by, among others, respected anthologist Judith Merril and British men of letters Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest.

This is a traditional sort of SF story about space stations, a talking computer that may very well have developed a personality, psychic interaction between human and alien, and trying to figure out alien motives.

A century ago Earth astronauts encountered on Titan extrasolar aliens, colossal arthropod-like creatures with many limbs whose proximity caused an intense psychological pressure to the humans.  The aliens apparently also suffer from psychic contact with humans, and their suffering causes them to exude a fluid; this fluid, when taken by humans, greatly extends the human lifespan.

By the time of our story the process of trading with these aliens has been regularized, and human civilization is reliant on the alien longevity goop.  A space station orbits the Earth, and every twenty years a human spends a few months in one living compartment of the station, while an alien does the same in a huge adjacent compartment.  The mental stress on the human of being so close to the alien for such a long time is tremendous and tends to drive the human volunteer insane, though the details of that insanity, and what the aliens actually look like, is kept a secret from the common people.  The plot of "Stranger Station" covers one such period of interment at the station with the alien, that of Paul Wesson--we follow Wesson's wavering mental health, his relationship with the computer that runs the station and is meant to keep him company, and his efforts to figure out the aliens' motives for giving us this invaluable secretion for free.

There are many SF stories that contrast belligerent humanity with pacific aliens, and "Stranger Station" is one of them.  Wesson comes to believe that the elephantine bug-like aliens are not violent, and would thus be at the mercy of the aggressive human race when, in one hundred years or whatever, we invent an interstellar drive.  Contact with an alien mind alters a human's mind, making it more like that of the alien--for example, Wesson loses the ability to read and speak English during his exposure to the alien brainwaves--and Wesson theorizes that he is being manipulated into becoming a member of "the vanguard--the conquered men, the ones who would get along with their strange brothers, out among the alien stars."  The E.T.s are preemptively colonizing our psyches before we can colonize their planets!

This alien plan of altering our brains so we will be like them is characterized (as you might guess from the use of the word "brother" in the quote above) as "conquering by love," but in this case love is no match for good old hate!  Wesson's will, his ability to hate the hideous alien whose body "reminded him of all the loathsome, crawling, creeping things the Earth was full of" overcomes the alien efforts to adapt his brain and make it accept brotherhood with those freaks.  The alien dies, and in its death throes wrecks the space station, which Wesson presumes will mean an end to the goop handout, triggering human resentment and, when the human race does achieve interstellar travel, a campaign of revenge on the peaceful aliens.

A concurrent and interconnected subplot is how the computer may have developed free will and if so may be falling in love with Wesson.  The computer seems to break the rules a bit at Wesson's request, letting Wesson see a forbidden video feed of the repulsive oozing space monster that wants to be his brother, and it seems possible that it is this rule breaking that gives Wesson the ability to resist alien influence and set off the chain of events that will end the goop giveaway and set us on the road to interstellar war with these peaceful aliens.  Has love of computer for human tragically ruined any hope of love between alien and human...or rescued us from unnatural bondage to disgusting alien weirdos, from a betrayal of our essential nature?

(While I am holding on to the possibility that Wesson and his computer girlfriend should be seen as heroes for preserving human independence and free will from the machinations of giant alien hypno-bugs, Silverberg and Greenberg here in their intro to "Stranger Station" suggest Wesson's resistance is irrational racism.)

A good story.  I have been down on many of Knight's stories over the years, but I enjoyed "Stranger Station" and definitely recommend it.

**********

Three good stories.  Maybe we'll read more from Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century in the future.


Monday, October 21, 2019

From Great Science Fiction of the 20th Century: Sturgeon, Heinlein, & Bradbury

As you may remember, I have developed something of a crush on the space queen on the cover of the 1987 anthology Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century, whom I first encountered when doing cursory research on Cordwainer Smith's story "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" at isfdb.  It turns out that this volume is an "instant remainder" reprinting of the 1980 anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction, which has about as lifeless a cover illustration as you could imagine.  Her majesty is a big improvement--don't let that talk of instant remainders trouble your royal mind, your highness!

Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century is more than just a pretty face, as I found as I glanced over the table of contents, looking for familiar names among the stories selected for the book by major SF writer Robert Silverberg and indefatigable anthologist Martin H. Greenberg.  Of the 38 stories in the book, I have already blogged about five [UPDATE OCTOBER 21, 2019: In fact, six] of them:

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" by Cordwainer Smith (1961)
"Grandpa" by James H. Schmitz (1955)
"Private Eye" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (1950)
"The Human Operators" by Harlan Ellison and A. E. van Vogt (1971)
"A Galaxy Called Rome" by Barry Malzberg (1975)
"The Shadow of Space" by Philip José Farmer (1967)

...and there are quite a few more I am curious to read.  So let's read three included stories by American Grandmasters, those by Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury.


"When You Care, When You Love" by Theodore Sturgeon (1962)

I know that some of you out there think of Ted Sturgeon primarily as the guy who wrote "Killdozer!," the Astounding cover story of a piece of construction equipment that went on a murderous rampage, but Ted's more characteristic work is about the power of human love and sexual relations to make our lives worthwhile, so this title, "When You Care, When You Love," is pure Ted!  "When You Care, When You Love" first appeared in a special Sturgeon-centric issue of F&SF and would go on to be included in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Special 25th Anniversary Anthology, among other places.

"When You Care, When You Love" is the story of Sylva Wyke, richest woman in the world!  And her husband, Guy Gibbon, the ordinary man she met by chance--these two fell in love when she saved his life, he a trespasser who almost drowned in her private lake.  As the story begins the couple, only recently married, discover that Guy has an unusual cancer which suddenly inflicts upon him agonizing pain and which will kill him in a matter of weeks!

Much of the story follows the plot of Sylva responding to this disaster in their young lives, which were so full of hope and joy in the brief period after they met.  But much of it is flashbacks that give biographies of Sylva, Guy, and Sylva's surrogate father and guardian, Keogh.  Biography is one of the themes of "When You Care, When You Love."  The Wykes, we learn, made a fortune in the colonial period in that triangular trade of slaves, sugar and booze we talked so much about in high school.  The man who founded the Wykes dynasty had a sort of religious conversion experience and decided to strictly follow the Ten Commandments; one aspect of his stringent code was that his wealth should be hidden from others, so they would not be tempted into covetousness.  Wyke's heirs have maintained this code, and so for centuries the Wykes have been getting richer and richer, but few ordinary people know how rich they are.  The Wykes also have a tradition of spending some years of their youth laboring among the working classes--twelve-year-old Sylva, watched over by Keogh, worked in a cotton mill in the South.

These flashbacks and biographies feel a lot like mainstream fiction about love and family relationships, but without the customary villains and with a minimum of personality clashes.  I think we can think of "When You Care, When You Love" as a sort of fantasy of an alternate universe where everybody is nice and good and works hard and helps each other; the focus is on love, and Sturgeon, using poetic devices like detailed descriptions of images and repetition of words and phrases, tries to convey to the reader the feeling of falling in love and being in love.  When people do get in trouble it is bad luck related to impersonal forces--a guy gets cancer, a guy almost drowns, Sylva slips off a catwalk.  There are no thieves or invaders or whoever to serve as the challenge to the protagonists, their challenges are posed by the universe.

The "present day" plot is where all the SF is.  Guy is going to die in six weeks (interestingly, Guy and Sylva got married six weeks after meeting, Sturgeon giving us a little parallelism here.)  The spectacularly wealthy Sylva decides that she will use her wealth to finance the first cloning of a human being, so she can have another Guy to love.  She gets the best doctors and scientists, has a huge research lab built on her property, etc.  Keogh points out that she can thusly handle the nature part of building Guy Gibbon #2, but he won't be the Guy she loves unless she also handles the nurture part.  Sylva thus embarks on the monumental project of researching ordinary twenty-something Guy's boring biography, and hiring actors to play the parts of all the people he knew in life when clone baby Guy is born: Guy #2 is going to live the same youth Guy #1 lived, so that Sylva will have an exact duplicate of Guy #1 to love.  Sylva quickly finances the invention of cryogenic freezing technology so she can be preserved at her current age so that when she is woken up in twenty years to meet Guy #2 as he trespasses on her property, just like Guy #1 did, she will practically be the same age she was when it happened the first time and can live out the life with Guy #2 that she should have been able to live out with Guy #1.

The sense of wonder ending is Sturgeon suggesting to the reader that his or her own life might be a scripted fake, engineered to develop a specific personality--how would you know?

Sturgeon is a good writer, and he sells these somewhat crazy ideas, and spurs the reader to think about what love is, what components go together to create a personality, how rich people should ideally behave, etc.  This story also presents us with also yet another example of classic SF that seems to be advocating the manipulation of ordinary people by the cognitive elite.   

We are living in a feminist age, and so it seems that we should ask, is "When You Care, When You Love" a feminist story?  On the one hand, Sylva Wyke is good, smart, ambitious, an effective leader, and she pursues her goals relentlessly, not allowing any obstacle to stop her.  On the other hand, her goals, to the extent we see them in the story, are to save a man's life and then to recreate that man when he is doomed to die--as far as this story is concerned, her whole life revolves around her love for some guy, and this guy, while a decent and honest sort, is not her equal socially or intellectually. 

Pleasant, thought-provoking, and a change of pace from what I usually read (in which people are always trying to destroy each other) "When You Care, When You Love" is getting a solid thumbs up from me.  Silverberg and Greenberg made an appropriate choice here.



"'All You Zombies--'" by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Here's another story from F&SF, this one from an "All Star Issue."  We've dipped into this issue before, reading Algis Budrys's "The Distant Sound of Engines" earlier this year.

"'All You Zombies--'" is a complicated time travel story in which a hermaphrodite manages to be his own mother and father, and to recruit his own younger self into the time police who travel back and forth through time to prevent cataclysms like nuclear wars.  It is written in a sort of jaded tough guy noirish style by the veteran time cop who is running a bar in New York where he will meet his younger self and manipulate him into having sex with his still younger self, when he(?) was still living as a woman and was capable of giving birth to the little girl who would eventually grow up into a woman who would have a sex change procedure after giving birth to himself/herself.  I found the story challenging to figure out with my own unaided noggin, but luckily there is a diagram and a bulleted list at wikipedia that help make it all clear.  The story is clever, with little clues and jokes that foreshadow its revelations that you notice the second time you read it, and as usual Heinlein's style is smooth and enjoyable.

Among the interesting little subplots or side issues of the story is the fact that, when the space program really gets going, the government sets up a professional prostitution corps to service the large numbers of male astronauts who are off in space for months and years at a time.  (The narrator, when young, pursues a career with this unit.)  This corps has a series of joke acronym names that challenge the reader's ability to suspend disbelief--I think to get the reader to accept a crazy plot (like one in which a guy is both of his own parents) you have to play it straight, and the absurdist humor of the names of the government prostitute cadre undermines the story a little.

Also interesting is that the narrator for a period wrote genre stories for magazines to pay the bills, as of course Heinlein and so many of his fellow SF writers did.  The narrator's market was not SF or horror or western or detective magazines, but the "confession magazines," which (I am told--I haven't read any confession magazines) published stories of women who had made some sort of mistake or committed some transgression, I guess mostly related to sex, but then recovered and got their lives back under control.  The narrator, having lived as a woman who had a child out of wedlock which was stolen from her, can authentically write in such a woman's voice, being one (or having been one) him/herself.

The title of the story suggests that one of the most important aspects of the piece is how the narrator is totally alienated from rest of the human race--as he is his own mother and father, he has no biological connection to any other human being, and actually seems to doubt our existence.  Of course, we have every reason to doubt the existence of the narrator in turn, as he is a being who is part of an isolated circular system without any true beginning.  One might see the entire story as a study in alienation--the narrator is a woman who is unattractive, then a prostitute, then the victim of a man who has sex with her and abandons her, then she is given a sex change operation without her consent and has her child stolen, becomes a writer who writes under pseudonyms, and then goes on to be a member of the secret elite who controls (I mean protects!) the world.  All the roles the narrator has taken all across her and then his life are somehow marginalized or exploited or at a distance or behind a screen from the rest of humanity, though she/he has made a journey from the bottom (victim) to the top (secret overlord.)

Like Sturgeon's story, this is a story with a female protagonist, though as a woman the protagonist was more victim than actor.  Also like "When You Care, When You Love," "'All You Zombies--'" is all about those with superior knowledge and abilities manipulating others.  The elitism of classic SF, even from writers who have reputations for being all about love (like Sturgeon) or being libertarian (like Heinlein) is really something to behold.  If you love something, Ted, you gotta set it free!

"'All You Zombies--'" has been a hit with editors and appeared in many anthologies; presumably its rigorous construction and lurid and bizarre plot (a guy who was once a woman has sex with himself and becomes his own parents!?) make it a sterling example of the type of SF that works carefully to make impossible ideas seem believable at the same time that it sits firmly in the world of pulp, using all sorts of genre fiction conventions like detectives and fallen women and time travel and the revelation of the elites who are secretly controlling everything from behind the scenes.  I can't fault Silverberg and Greenberg for including it here, even if it had already appeared in a bazillion other anthologies. 


"Kaleidoscope" by Ray Bradbury (1949)

F&SF, where the Sturgeon and Heinlein stories debuted, is one of the more literary SF magazines, but with Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope" we find ourselves deep in pulp territory--it first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, in an issue adorned with the image of a scantily clad hot chick on the very brink of death.  (Five of Thrilling Wonder's six 1949 issues have cover illustrations of scantily clad women in some kind of dreadful trouble--the sixth depicts a woman holding a man at ray gun point.)  This issue includes stories by Bradbury's famous collaborator Leigh Brackett (one I haven't read yet) and one of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's ludicrous joke stories about the Hogben family, "Cold War," which I read four years ago.

"Kaleidoscope" is about men, astronauts, who are facing certain death after an explosion that wrecks their rocket ship spews them out into space between the Earth and Mars, and how they each face their doom.  Despite the venue in which it appears, this is primarily a poetic, psychological, philosophical story, rather than a sensationalistic adventure caper, though there is some fearsome violence.  One guy reminisces about all the women he's had, another laments that he was too shy to approach women, some of the men continue their stupid feuds or just lash out at each other, and some of them quickly try to repent for their pointless cruelty and envy.  Bradbury uses the metaphor of a kaleidoscope in a few different ways.  I read "Kaleidoscope" as a kid, probably in the widely available collection The Illustrated Man, and though I forgot the title of the story, I never forgot the story's final image--one of the man becoming a blazing meteor that is spotted by a child in the Mid West as he reenters Earth's atmosphere.

Like the Heinlein tale, "Kaleidoscope" has appeared in many anthologies, with good reason.  Another solid choice by Silverberg and Greenberg.

**********

Three good stories, each characteristic of its author, and each a good example of what SF can accomplish--they all have some sort of sex or adventure element, but are primarily about ideas and about life, about your relationship with other people and society at large.  Maybe I'll read more stories from The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction AKA Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century in the near future.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

"War-Gods of the Void," "Thunder in the Void," and "Soldiers of Space" by Henry Kuttner

Some years ago I purchased Haffner Press's 2012 collection of Henry Kuttner space operas, Thunder in the Void.  So far I have read eight of the thick volume's sixteen stories and discussed them across four blog posts:

"We Guard the Black Planet" (which I read in Sam Moskowitz's Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction)

"Raider of the Space Ways" and "Avengers of Space"

"The Time Trap" and "The Lifestone"

"Monsters of the Atom," "Red Gem of Mercury" and "The Crystal Circe"

Today, let's read three more of these tales of adventure.  These stories were first published in 1942 and 1943 in science fiction magazines and did not appear in book form until seven decades later, here in Thunder in the Void.  If you are so inclined, you can read the stories yourself for free at the internet archive in scans of the original magazines; I recommend checking these magazines out, as they are all quite fun, and because the texts may actually be easier to read there, because the scanning process introduced some errors into the texts here in Thunder in the Void.

"War-Gods of the Void" (1942)

"War-Gods of the Void" was first seen by readers of Planet Stories, where it is adorned with a picture of a man shooting a fishman in the face, a nice companion to the cover, where we see a woman shooting a fishman in the head.  (This is your trigger to wade into the philosophical and scientific controversy over whether fish feel pain.)  This issue of Planet Stories also includes an illustration by Damon Knight, who is far more famous for his editing and criticism--and for having his name added to the SFWA Grand Master Award twenty-seven years after the award was first given out--as well as a long letter from Sam Moskowitz seeking to refute some of Knight's criticisms of his story, "Man of the Stars."  I guess this letter constitutes one small blast in the long-running Moskowitz-Futurian feud.

Stocky Jerry Vanning is a cop, and he is on the trail of Don Callahan, a former diplomat and a would-be leaker who has got a hold of a secret treaty that, if revealed to the public, could cause a revolution!  Callahan is a master of disguise as well as an aspiring whistle blower, but Vanning has a sharp eye and has tracked him to the swampy hell that is Venus, where foolhardy Terran colonists farm herbs and "mola" trees and risk catching a virus that drives you insane.  When you catch North-Fever all you want to do is march north into the jungle, and nothing and nobody can stop you!  (Hmmm, doesn't this kind of thing happen to the guy in J. G. Ballard's Drowned World?)

Callahan caught North-Fever just before Vanning arrived, and Vanning catches it a few hours later and starts his march north through the swamp.  When you have North-Fever you don't eat, and you ignore pain, so, by the time Vanning gets to the mountains and the fever passes, he is a bloody emaciated wreck--there is a level of sensationalistic violence and gore in this story, as in some other of Kuttner's stories in this collection.

In the mountains, Vanning learns the truth of the North-Fever.  Living up there are a bunch of fish people who think of themselves as war gods.  These jokers have a highly advanced medical technology, and for centuries have used a virus they engineered to get people--first the mammalian human-like Venusians who live to the south and now Earth people as well--to make the trek up to their mountain fastness so they can enslave them.  (Could this story have been inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's classic Gods of Mars?)  Many victims of the fever die during their long march, but that is perfectly acceptable to the fishmen--they only want strong slaves, after all!  Among the slaves Vanning meets an Earthwoman, Lysla, and is bunked with three other men, two humans and a Venusian.  Vanning is sure one of these three men is Callahan in disguise, but cannot tell which one.

These five characters manage to escape bondage, thanks in part to Callahan's ability to disguise himself as a fishman, and they inflict a terrible punishment on the fish people--Vanning figures out a way to infect them all with the North Fever, so they all march north out of the city...into a pool of lava!  Not only does Vanning free Venus from the tyranny of their false gods and their plague, he also gets that unpopular secret treaty from Callahan and destroys it.  Grateful for Callahan's help, Vanning lets that traitorous member of the deep state to escape.

A fun story.  The use of a secret treaty that ordinary people won't like as a McGuffin is perhaps a hint that Kuttner was skeptical of American foreign policy (see more below!)

"Thunder in the Void" (1942)

"Thunder in the Void" was the lead story (labelled a "Science Fiction Novel," though it is just 32 pages here in book form) of the October 1942 issue of Astonishing Stories.  This issue of Astonishing includes a short column on the war-related activities of SF writers, another on the joys of searching used bookstores for old SF books, and another on a section of H. G. Wells' Time Machine that appeared in the magazine version but was often left out of book publications.

A brief foreword provides background on the three races said to live in our Solar System.  There is the human race of Earth, about whom you presumably already know--at the time of this story we have achieved space flight.  Then there are the Varra, people of pure energy who live in the void between the planets and stars--they are friendly, but cannot survive within the atmosphere of a planet.  Then there are the vampiric devils who live on Pluto, the dark world of evil!  These monsters don't have space flight, but their psychic powers can reach across millions of miles of space and suck the life force out of human spacefarers!  Luckily, these psychic powers can't penetrate an atmosphere.  The Varra are immune to the Plutonian's diabolical powers, and individual Earth astronauts buddy up with individual Varra via the medium of a communications helmet, and these friendly balls of energy provide some protection from the Plutonians' soul-sucking brain rays.

Our hero for this caper is Saul Duncan, convicted murderer!  Duncan was born in a slum, but passed space pilot training and had a lucrative and prestigious job flying space ships when a guy groped his wife, Andrea!  Duncan killed the groper with his bare hands, and got ten years in the clink at the North Pole!  As our story begins, Duncan, half way through his sentence, has escaped from prison with the help of Brent Olcott, the famously handsome and unscrupulous businessman.  Olcott has a job for an expert pilot with nothing to lose--hijacking a space ship carrying a valuable cargo (a pound of radium) from Mars to Earth!  Because Duncan will be committing a major crime, he can't wear a Varra helmet while on this job--those Varra are real square, like, "hand in glove with the government," as Olcott puts it, and would immediately rat out a hijacker!  To make sure the hijacked ship doesn't call for help, Olcott already has hooked up Andrea with a job on the ship and instructed her to wreck its communications gear right before the scheduled hijacking!

This is one dangerous mission, but Duncan is stuck--if he doesn't hijack the ship his wife will be arrested for breaking the ship's radio at the appointed hour and probably be sent to the North Pole prison Duncan just broke out of.  But wily Duncan tricks Olcott and the alcoholic scientist who installed illegal stealth equipment on the ship Duncan is to pilot, Rudy Hartman, into coming on this risky venture with him!  The three crooks blast off and are soon flying alongside the civilian ship, demanding they send over the radium and Andrea.  But Duncan gets a heartbreaking message via the flickering Morse code lights: when Andrea turned off her Varra helmet, severing her connection with a Varra so she could commit her sabotage unobserved, the Plutonians sucked out her life force! 

The innocent civilians send over Andrea's corpse in a space suit and the box of radium, and then Duncan goes on a suicide mission to Pluto, determined to exact revenge on the vampires of that black planet and on Olcott and Hartman, the swine who callously put his wife in harm's way in the first place.  Olcott and Hartman are killed on this adventure after almost outwitting Duncan.

On Pluto, Duncan discovers the shocking, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting truth: there are no Plutonian vampires!  It is the Varra who are the vampires!  Those duplicitous balls of energy fabricated the story of the Plutonians to facilitate building up a relationship with human beings so they could slowly suck us dry and so they had a convincing explanation ready when one of them decided to just devour somebody's life force whole.  Duncan gets a message back to Earth exposing the truth, but the measures he must take to keep the Varra from stopping him end his life.

An exciting story full of tragedy and death, with some surprises (I thought Duncan was going to go to Pluto and somehow get his wife's soul put back in her body), plus lots of strange science revolving around aliens and space travel.  I like it.

"Soldiers of Space" (1943)

The issue of Astonishing Stories that carried "Soldiers of Space" (along with stories by two people we have talked about at length here at MPorcius Log, Robert Bloch and Leigh Brackett) includes many letters praising Henry Kuttner, including one from Chad Oliver, the anthropologist SF writer.  Oliver says of Kuttner's "The Crystal Circe" that it "is a story that I, for one, shall never forget," and he awards Kuttner's "Night of Gods" 9.8 points out of a possible ten.  Oliver is a very precise reviewer--in the same letter he awards Malcolm Jameson's "Taa the Terrible" a 9.6½!

It is the future!  (The future, Conan?) The year 2000!  Gregory Lash, our narrator, is a veteran of the war that raged between Earth and Mars in the early Nineties!  He was a space ship pilot who won many dog fights against those rat bastards from the red planet, but what is he today, six years later?  A hobo who rides the (mono)rails!  The modern world has no place for a space pilot like Greg, who flew by the seat of his pants--today's flyboys fly by instruments!  And there is no work for low-skilled laborers--machines do everything, including washing dishes!  So men like Greg, who risked their lives for Mother Earth, are out on the streets!

Tonight Greg sits all alone in the wilds of Wyoming, eating "Mulligan." A space fighter just like the one Greg flew in the war crash lands nearby.  Greg gets in and finds the pilot unconscious, and messages coming in from Denver, so Greg flies the ship to Denver, where he learns it is being used for a movie about the war.  Thirty war veteran pilots, men bitter and always on a short fuse because they feel that, after they won the war for Mother Earth, she cruelly abandoned them, are today risking their lives doing stunt flying for the film, and the movie's budget is so low they aren't even getting a wage, just room and board!  With nothing better to do, Greg joins this crew.

One of these pilots is an old comrade of Greg's, Bruce Vane.  (Yeah, I know.)  Vane has a psychological problem--during the war he almost died in a crash on the asteroid known as Cerberus, and after that he would faint when he had to fly near Cerberus.  Well, guess where filming is resuming tomorrow, now that the government has outlawed the dangerous practice of filming space ship stunts in Earth's atmosphere?

Nobody knows about Vane's "spaceshock" except for Greg, so the film's director, Dan Helsing (yeah, I know), orders Vane to fly dangerously close to Cerberus, and Greg has to prevent him from passing out.

As we readers have been suspecting since the start of the story, the Martians' secret fleet appears and the only people who can stop it (the main Earth fleet is out by Venus because the Venusians are revolting) are these 30 men and their old space fighters.  They succeed because the Martian pilots are young people who have learned instrument, not seat-of-your-pants, flying.  Vane even overcomes his fear of Cerberus when he has to rescue Helsing, whose damaged craft is about to crash on Cerberus.

It is certainly interesting to see Kuttner write so much about shellshocked fighting men and about how society has abandoned servicemen (and this right in the middle of World War II!) and about how automation is putting low-skilled workers out of work.  Still, the stuff about the pilots coincidentally being in the right place at the right time to save an ungrateful Earth yet again is a little cheesy and contrived.  Another issue with the story is that Kuttner jams it full of material that he doesn't have room to explore.  There is, for example, tension between Vane and Helsing because they are both sweet on the same woman, a subplot that I think maybe should have gotten more attention or just been left out.

I am going to call this one acceptable.  Because of its social and political dimensions, "Soldiers of Space" is probably more interesting to scholars than "Thunder in the Void" or "War-Gods of the Void."  (It perhaps bears comparison to Kuttner's 1937 story "We Are the Dead," in which a ghost rises up from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery to urge a powerful senator to oppose legislation that will get the U.S. involved in foreign entanglements that might lead to American boys again fighting overseas.  Did Kuttner think the efforts of the United States government to punish Japan for its crimes in Asia and to help the British in their struggle with Germany and Italy before Pearl Harbor were a mistake?)  But I think "Soldiers of Space" is less entertaining to us readers of adventure stories than the other two tales we are looking at today.

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Three worthwhile reads.  Five stories remain in Thunder in the Void, and I plan to read them all at some unspecified point or points in the future.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Stories from Galaxy by E. E. Smith, F. Leiber, F. Pohl, D. Knight and C. D. Simak

My copy
I feel like a lot of critics are down on Astounding and the adventure-oriented pulps like Planet Stories and Startling Stories because they privileged the hard sciences and sensationalism (endless sword fights, ray gun fights, monsters and hot babes) over "sophisticated" literary values and the sorts of political and social concerns that excite the smart set.  These critics champion F&SF and Galaxy.  Myself, I love Astounding and Planet Stories and Startling Stories, but that doesn't mean I have anything against F&SF or Galaxy.  Let's check out five stories from the battered copy of The Third Galaxy Reader I bought in September for 50 cents from Second Story Books, that bright spot in the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Washington, D.C.

"The Vilbar Party" by Evelyn E. Smith (1955)

The wikipedia page on Galaxy is full of quotes and paraphrases about how awesome Galaxy was.  Here is a paraphrase of a sentiment credited to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, the source cited being their Trillion Year Spree:
...through the influence of its reduced focus on technology, [Galaxy] played an important role in attracting women to write science fiction.
At the risk of misgendering somebody, I will suggest that the only woman in The Third Galaxy Reader is Evelyn E. Smith.  I read Smith's 1961 story "Softly While You're Sleeping" and was totally into it, so I have no fear about trying "The Vilbar Party."  But wait, Aldiss and Wingrove are quoted at wikipedia saying (in Trillion Year Spree):
[Galaxy] brought into the sunlight a number of excellent satirists, comedians and ironists
and "The Vilbar Party" would go on to appear in the 1982 anthology Laughing Space: An Anthology of Science Fiction Humor.  Oy.  I generally avoid joke stories, but let's give Smith the benefit of the doubt and give "The Vilbar Party," 12 pages, a shot.

The people of Saturn are like teddy bears with four arms and antennae.  Professor Narli Gzann is selected to be an exchange professor with a North American university; he figures human beings will find him repulsive, but he doesn't care because he likes to be alone and he has tons of work to do on his history of the solar system.  But when he gets to Earth, apparently the first Saturnian to visit Terra, everybody finds him just fucking adorable and they never leave him alone--they are always giving him gifts and taking him out and throwing him parties and caressing him and kissing him, etc.  He has no time to work on his history and he eats so well he gets fat.  By the time he gets back to Saturn he has become addicted to social life and attention--his solitary ways are over, contact with Earth having wrought a change in him, turning him into the life of the party.

"The Vilbar Party" is inoffensive but ultimately pointless; the jokes don't make you laugh, and there is no edge or tension or drama.  How this bland filler story got into The Third Galaxy Reader, I don't know.

Merely acceptable.

"Time in the Round" by Fritz Leiber (1957)

"Time in the Round" takes place in the far future, when life is sterile and safe.  People are conditioned to "automatically reject all violent solutions to problems" regarding humans.  We observe kids playing with their levitators and robot dogs in Peace Park.  The levitators have a built-in forcefield that prevents a levitating child from crashing into a tree or wall and getting hurt, and the robot dogs look and act exactly like real dogs, but can't be harmed.

The anti-violence conditioning is done to people when they are six years old, and one of the boys, Butch, who calls himself "the Butcher," is only five and still has a natural love of risk, danger and violence, and shoots spits balls at the other kids and wishes he lived in the past he has heard about, the days of Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, the days of war and revolution and blood.

On the other side of Peace Park is the Time Theater, where people can watch a projection that shows life in the past.  Kids who have not yet been conditioned are forbidden to visit the Time Theater, but Butch is cunning enough to get inside and join the older kids.  While watching some Vikings, a disaster occurs--for the first time ever it is not only photons that pass through the time-viewing device, but people!  The Viking warriors emerge into the theater and try to kidnap the women!  Because of the conditioning, nobody can resist this raid, except Butch!  Boldly employing the forcefield integrated into a levitator and the invulnerable robot dogs Butch drives off the Vikings, saves the women, and becomes a hero. 

Minor and somewhat silly, but diverting, we'll judge this one a tick above acceptable, "marginally good," I suppose.  Most of the story is jokes, but I suspect Leiber is also suggesting that a life that is too easy will lead to weakness and an inability to meet unexpected challenges.  "Time in the Round" has not been reprinted much, but did show up in a huge (715 pages!) collection of Leiber stories put out by Centipede Press in 2016.

Fans of the Dillons should check out their illustrations for the presentation of "Time in the Round" found in Galaxy (link above.)  While I am interpreting the story as basically a goof, their illustrations are moody and sad. 


"The Haunted Corpse" by Frederik Pohl (1957)

Like Smith's "The Vilbar Party" this is another inoffensive story that is meant to be funny.  I don't know why H. L. Gold selected these light stories for The Third Galaxy Reader instead of stories that were striking or shocking or otherwise moving.

An unscrupulous scientist has figured out a way to transfer personalities from one body to another.  One of his colleagues alerts the government, and an army unit is dispatched to surround the mad scientist's house--this new invention no doubt has great military value, and must be protected.  Our narrator is the colonel in charge of defending the invention and also monitoring the inventor's work--he demands daily reports from the scientist, who rages at all this interference.

"The Haunted Corpse" is too long, I guess to fit in the multitude of mild jokes.  I guess the main joke is that military men are dim--it takes a long time for them to realize the scientist has invented a soul transfer machine and not a death ray projector, for example.  Secondary jokes include the fact that the scientist's colleague (the stool pigeon) is fat and loves to eat, and that the inventor calls the colonel a lieutenant.  These are the sorts of standard and obvious jokes that one cannot call bad, but which one does not actually laugh at, either.

Anyway, the inventor doesn't give a rat's ass about national security or getting rich or anything like that.  He is over 80 years old, and just wants to move his own soul into a young body.  He tricks the military into providing him an opportunity to shift his psyche into that of a hearty young soldier and then escapes.

Acceptable...barely.

"The Haunted Corpse" has appeared in many Pohl collections, and was even adapted for radio.

"Man in the Jar" by Damon Knight (1957)

Finally, here is the real thing, a story with weird ideas, strange people and devices, surprises, and dramatic tension, the reasons I read SF in the first place.  This piece is far more engaging than the three stories I have already read from The Third Galaxy Reader.

Through extensive research, ruthless alcoholic businessman R. C. Vane has come to believe that planet Meng was once ruled by a race of psychics who could, among other things, make diamonds out of graphite with the power of their minds.  But centuries ago they were overthrown by the other races of planet Meng and today are almost extinct, the few survivors hiding among the mundane Mengs, never using their powers for fear of exposure--nowadays many people consider the tales of the psychic overlords to be no more than legend.  Vane would like to have one of these psykers under his power, and the story takes pace in his hotel room in Meng City, where he has trapped a native he believes to be one of these secret mental powerhouses.  Using various ancient artifacts, high-tech devices, bizarre native flora, and psychic abilities, Vane and the native fight a battle of wits!  Who will come out on top, and how?

Thumbs up!  "Man in the Jar" would be reprinted in numerous Knight collections, and Gardner Dozois would include it in his anthology Another World: Adventures in Otherness.

"Honorable Opponent" by Clifford D. Simak (1956)

The Galactic Confederacy, hundreds of planets lead by Earth, is in trouble!  The human race has built working relationships with numerous alien races, but the race known as The Fivers is inscrutable.  Discussions with them are almost impossibly difficult because they don't even seem able, or seem to care, about such basic things as using a mutually agreeable system of keeping track of time so they can make appointments.  Worse still, they seem very touchy about their territory, very defensive, attacking without any sort of warning ships from any race that get too close.  The Fivers' attacks are irresistible, as they have weapons far more powerful than those of any other race, weapons which make their enemy's vessels disappear without a trace.

After much effort, a prisoner exchange has been arranged between Earth and the Fivers, and this meeting is what is chronicled in this story.  The Fivers arrive fourteen hours late, but they bring with them all the human space ships thought destroyed in battle, and all their crews, safe and sound--the Fiver weapons don't cause harm, they just teleport a target to a safe holding area, because the Fivers don't attack out of belligerence, but because they "fight" space naval battles as a game and assume all other races do the same.  After finally explaining this to the humans, the Fivers promise to give to Earth their teleporter weapon so the game will be less dangerous.  Thus this absurd joke story has a serious paradigm-shift ending--the human race need never fight a deadly war again because now people who misbehave can just be teleported into prison without harming them.

"Honorable Opponent" is getting a thumbs down.  Not only is it yet another joke story that is not funny, but the serious ending that comes after the punchline of the ludicrous plot means the story's tone is uneven--is this a sense-of-wonder story about mankind embarking upon an unprecedented era of peace thanks to high technology, or an absurdist joke story about the confusion of dealing with aliens whose actions make no sense?

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Science Fiction Book Club edition of
The Third Galaxy Reader
What is it with all the trifling, pointless, mild-to-the-point-of-sterility joke stories in The Third Galaxy Reader?  Was Galaxy supposed to provide a break from all the big ideas, all the thrills and chills, all the exuberant fun and shocking bloodshed to be found in other SF magazines?  Or is this just a sample size error?  Maybe it is just an odd coincidence that, of the five stories I read from The Third Galaxy Reader, chosen because of my interest in these five specific authors, four are light humor pieces--could it be that the other ten stories are full of moving drama and mind-blowing speculation on life in the future?

Well, whatever.  Knight's "Man in the Jar" is good, which was nice to see because I'm hardly a dues-paying member of the Damon Knight fan club, so I am still counting this mission a success.  But I can assure you that in our next episode I will specifically be seeking out thrilling adventure stories!