Monday, November 25, 2019

"Spacebred Generations" (AKA "Target Generation") by Clifford N. Simak

Internet vintage SF hero and supporter of the white elephant known as MPorcius Fiction Log, Joachim Boaz of Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, is doing a series of reviews of short stories about that beloved science fiction theme, the generation ship.  His first review in the series was of my candidate for the title of anthropologist Chad Oliver's best SF story, 1957's "The Wind Blows Free," which I blogged about in February of 2018.  Joachim announced that the second story he would be dealing with in the series would be Clifford Simak's "Target Generation," originally published under the title "Spacebred Generations" in 1953 in Science Fiction Plus, a magazine edited by Hugo Gernsback, the cismale for whom the Hugo award was named.  A scanned version of that issue of Science Fiction Plus is readily available to one and all at the internet archive, and I read "Spacebred Generations" there last week and am now ready to reveal my assessment to the world.  I encourage you to click on the link to the scan of the magazine yourself before reading my spoiler-rich description and dissection below, read the story and then join the conversation at Joachim's blog--he loves inspiring and participating in discussion of vintage SF!


I have strong disagreements with Simak's political and economic attitudes, and have panned quite a few of his productions, but I still think he is an able writer and I have enjoyed a number of his stories and novels (check out my blog posts on "The Fence", "Dusty Zebra", "To Walk a City's Streets" and A Heritage of Stars) and so I am looking forward to reading "Spacebred Generations."  Gernsback prefaces the story with a long and extravagant blurb ("Here at last is a different science-fiction story") that makes it sound totally awesome.  Let's hope Gernsback's not trying to pull the wool over our glazzies!

Hardcover 1956 edition of Strangers in the
, which included "Spacebred Generations"
under the title "Target Generation"
Jon Hoff and his wife Mary live on a huge Ship which is run on strict authoritarian lines to ensure that the vessel's supplies don't run out--for example, they are forbidden to have a child until Jon's elderly friend, Joshua, dies.  People aboard the Ship don't even really know what "ship" means, or what stars are, though they know the word "star" and through the observation blisters can see the stars circling their home--the "Folk" believe that the Ship is sitting still and the stars are endlessly rotating around them.  Only a small proportion of the Folk perform any productive work (Joshua, who runs a hydroponics garden, is one of the few who has a job) and so people like Jon and Mary spend all their time just killing time, playing chess or poker or pointlessly gossiping. 

Reading is forbidden among the Folk, but Jon was secretly taught how to read by his now-deceased father, who was taught to read by his father before him.  Hidden in an unused level of the giant Ship is the dictionary handed down to him by his father, and with it is a sealed letter, written by a long-forgotten ancestor, only to be opened and read in the event of an emergency.  One day, the Ship suddenly lurches, the stars cease circling the Ship and the surface that was once the floor is now a wall, sending furniture throughout the ship crashing.  Jon decides this seems like an emergency and that the time has come to read that sealed letter!

There are traditions that these generation ship stories tend to follow, traditions seen in Robert Heinlein's 1941 "Universe" and seen again in Brian Aldiss's 1958 Non-Stop AKA Starship and Gene Wolfe's 1990s The Book of the Long Sun: the inhabitants of the ship do not understand the true nature of the ship and the universe, but over the course of the story that true nature is revealed, which results in a paradigm shift marked by a revolutionary war; Simak faithfully hews to these traditions.

The letter guides Jon to a secret room where there is a machine that puts knowledge into your head--by hooking himself up to the machine Jon learns the truth about space and Earth and the stars and the history and mission of the Ship.  The Ship has ceased rotating because it is close to the planet it was sent, a thousand years and dozens of generations ago, to colonize.  Jon has to take control of the ship and guide it into orbit around the planet to be colonized; in the process he will be overturning the static culture and bogus religion that has grown up on the Ship over the centuries, but luckily hidden along with the knowledge machine is a firearm so Jon has the means to work his revolution (remember what Chairman Mao said!)  Tragically, the leader of the religion and defender of the status quo that must be destroyed is Jon's best friend Joe!  Joe becomes one of those eggs that one must break in order to make the omelette! 

In the end, when Jon has landed the Ship on an Earth-like planet against the will of the masses of the Folk, Jon realizes that everything that has happened for the last thousand years--including the fake religion and his ancestors' maintenance of a tradition of reading samizdat style and his own revolution--was planned out by the people who built the Ship back on Earth.

1957 paperback edition
This is a good story, and I enjoyed it and recommend it, but Gernsback was exaggerating when he talked abut how "different" it was: it is a standard SF story that does standard stuff.  Simak romanticizes science--the search for knowledge--and the written word, even including multiple footnotes about hydroponics and advanced sleep-learning techniques and computers and research into the oral and written transmission of history that refer to real life experiments and theories.  As in so many SF stories, in "Spacebred Generations" religion is a scam or a mistake that holds back progress.  And like in so many SF stories there is an elite with special knowledge and skills that uses those advantages to push the common people around--for their own good, of course! 

If we want to give the benefit of the doubt to Gernsback and Simak (and I do--I like those guys!), we can say that Simak's story is perhaps a little different because Simak goes into the philosophy of when laws are good and should be followed and when they are bad and should be broken, and because Simak doesn't shy away from depicting the costs individuals and communities pay when making a change, even a change for the better.  The religion that Jon explodes really did comfort people, however bogus it may have been, and Jon really does suffer psychologically from having to gun down his unarmed best friend Joe.

A solid traditional SF story--thumbs up!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Quark/4: Vonda N. McIntyre and Marek Obtulowicz

Let's finish up our examination of Quark/4, the final installment of the 1970-71 anthology series edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker that Donald Wollheim (in The 1972 Annual World's Best SF) called "probably the farthest out of the 'New Wave' original collections."  After Helen Adam and Gail Madonia's pieces, which I dealt with in our last episode, comes Thomas M. Disch's "Bodies," which would later be included in 334I wrote about 334 back in 2014 and won't address "Bodies" here.  After "Bodies" is a 24-line poem by Marilyn Hacker, "Nightsong," that I don't have anything to say about (well, I'll say it is better than Marco Cacchioni's poem in this book.)  Then comes Vonda McIntyre's "Cages."

"Cages" by Vonda N. McIntyre

Vonda McIntyre is a big success, with a Hugo and multiple Nebulas.  I think I've read four stories by McIntyre, "Only at Night," "The Galactic Clock," "Recourse, Inc.," and "Elfleda," liking two, disliking one, and finding one merely adequate.  According to isfdb, "Cages," interestingly enough, has never been reprinted, so I get to tell all you McIntyre fans that you have to surf over to ebay to buy yourself a copy of Quark/4.

Sprinkled throughout Quark/4 are
thirteen drawings by Olivier Olivier;
all of them are variations on this
elephant and robed men conceit
"Cages" is like nine pages long, and McIntyre writes it in straightforward direct sentences that focus on the surface of events and provide only glimpses at what is really going on, but those glimpses eventually add up to a full picture.  The full picture: A psychologist doing one of those nature vs nurture experiments has isolated two boys for sixteen years; they have been raised by a computer so that their experiences have been identical--this computer even has the ability to control their minds so that they do identical things, day after day.  The result: even though they have different genetic heritages, they are like the most indistinguishable of twins, with similar bodies, attitudes, beliefs, etc.  On the day the story depicts, the sixteen-year-old boys are set free from isolation, and for the first time meet other human beings, including the psychologist, who hopes they will see him as their father, though he is not their biological father--besides resolving the nature/nurture debate, the researcher also seems to have been trying to create supermen who would be his family and would respect his authority.  But the boys miss the computer, whom they have come to love as if it were their mother, and they do not react well to exposure to the real world--in fact, they kill the psychologist and burn down his research facility.

After I read this story the first time I was going to judge it just OK, but I kept thinking about it and on a second read liked it much more--the first time I read it I expended all my energy figuring out the basic background and plot, and during my second read, as I already knew the framework of the thing, I could focus more on the details and the more emotional elements.  McIntyre does a good job of describing the reactions to the real world of two kids raised in a strictly controlled and isolated environment (e. g., everything IRL smells bad and looks chaotic to them) and the science stuff McIntyre addresses is interesting, even if I don't find her nurture over nature attitude very convincing.  A thumbs up for "Cages,"--McIntyre fans, and those interested in SF treatments of the nature vs nurture issue, should seek it out.

"A Man of Letters" by Malek Obtulowicz

Like so many of the pieces in Quark/4, "A Man of Letters" appeared here and nowhere else.  Obtulowicz has six stories listed at isfdb, and all of them appeared in issues of Quark or in one or another of New Worlds's incarnations (Obtulowicz's first two stories appeared in 1969 issues of the magazine, which ceased regular publication in the 1970s but lived on as a paperback quarterly put together by many people who had worked on the magazine, including Michael Moorcock, Charles Platt and Langdon Jones--Obtulowicz's last two stories were printed in 1972 and 1973 in that quarterly book version of New Worlds.)

The two line bio of Obtulowicz in Quark/4 suggests that in 1971 he was an aspiring novelist living in Canada.  A brief internet search turned up nothing about Obtulowicz's career, though there is a gentleman by the name of Malek Obtulowicz who produces amateur videos of himself discussing Polish least that is what I think he is talking about.
"A Man of Letters" is like a dozen pages, and as the title should have led us to expect, it is written in the epistolary form.  The writer is an old man, an architect, and the surreal letters suggest he is going insane and/or is the prisoner of some kind of tyrannical government or maybe a mental institution.  His cell, if that is what it is, is outfitted like an apartment, and a woman comes in regularly who prepares his meals and sleeps with him.  The letters seem to be written to his wife, who is apparently distinct from the woman who comes to the apartment every day; the narrator advises her to change her and their children's names so their children's life prospects won't be harmed by his bad reputation.  By the end of the story he is on the path to committing suicide.

I guess this is all a metaphor for a stifling career and an unhappy marriage, maybe with some satire of overbearing bureaucratic government/medical establishment.  The only clear and sharp portions of the story are the writer's memories of his childhood and university days--this story would have been a lot more appealing to me if it was just a comprehensible bildungsroman about a poor boy who became an architect and got married and then became disillusioned or disappointed with life.  As it stands, "A Man of Letters" feels like a waste of time, a bunch of elements that don't add up to a coherent whole or entertain the reader.  If somebody were prosecuting a case against the [worst examples of the] New Wave, "A Man of Letters," with its surrealism, explicit but unpleasant sex, and literary anecdotes about a semi-unhappy childhood and a semi-rebellious youth--all of which don't add up to an interesting or fun story--could be Exhibit A.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.


After "A Man of Letters" comes the final story in Quark/4, Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession," which I liked when I read it back in 2016.

While there are a few stories that repelled me, taken as a whole, I think Quark/4 is a big success, with numerous stories that are worth reading, several of which have only ever appeared in this volume.  If literary SF is your thing, it is well worth worth picking up if you can get it as cheap as I did, especially if you have a particular interest in McIntyre, Davidson, or Platt.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Quark/4: Stories by Helen Adam and Gail Madonia

An unexpected trip to New Jersey, the land of my birth, put a kink in my reading schedule, though it did afford me an opportunity to visit Morristown's Old Book Shop, which I can recommend to all my readers who find themselves in the Garden State.  During my trip north from MPorcius Fiction Log's current HQ in the suburban no-man's-land between Baltigore and our nation's capital, I did find time to read two more stories from 1971's Quark/4, the "Quarterly of Speculative Fiction" edited by Samuel R. Delany (I read Delany's Triton last year) and critically-acclaimed poet Marilyn Hacker.  (Delany and Hacker were married during Quark's four-issue run.)  Delany and Hacker include in Quark/4 an introduction in which they make the case, at tedious length, that fiction can produce models of reality that are in some ways more "sophisticated" and "accurate" than simple mathematics.

"The True Reason for the Dreadful Death of Mr. Rex Arundel" by Helen Adam

According to Wikipedia, Helen Adam was a Scottish poet who became a major figure of the San Francisco Renaissance, a movement contemporaneous with that of the Beats.  Besides her poetry, she also did collages; you can see many of these collages at the University of Buffalo website; it looks like Adam would cut a figure out of one old print and then paste it onto another old print—Max Ernst did this sort of thing decades earlier. You’ll accuse me of being a conservative if I tell you that producing the original prints took more talent, skill, imagination and labor than did chopping them up and gluing the pieces together, so I’ll keep that to myself.

One of Helen Adam's collages, as it appears
at the University of Buffalo website. The main image is a
famous illustration of Milton's Paradise Lost
by Gustave Dore. Where the young woman was
lifted from, I don't know.
"The True Reason for the Dreadful Death of Mr. Rex Arundel" is like 24 pages long. A brief prologue tells us that the main text was found among an old man’s papers after his death. The main text is a first person narrative, a memoir penned by a guy, Tobias Barrington, who tells us that when he was 11 years old, sixty years ago, he hated a 14-year old kid and wished he would die. That 14-year-old, Rex Arundel, was mangled to death in a train crash, and for six decades Barrington has worried that perhaps he was responsible for the tragedy.

You see, Arundel was the handsomest, richest, finest boy in school, whom everybody admired. But he had a dark side! Secretly he bullied and tormented poor Tobias, an orphan who would need to work to survive, and a scholarly type who wanted an intellectual career instead of some soul-crushing laboring job; Tobias needed to succeed in school, and the psychological trauma inflicted on him by Arundel was ruining his concentration and thus his grades—and thus his life! (We’re talking about 19th-century Britain here, long before our days of grade inflation and social promotion in which the most indifferent or rebellious student is allowed to matriculate.)

Tobias’s one friend was an old maid, Miss Arabella, who herself was orphaned at a young age--they both lived with a relative generous enough to support them but who treated them somewhat coldly.  As a sad little girl Arabella claimed to have fortuitously learned a supernatural way to destroy those who tormented her, and the lion’s share of "The True Reason for the Dreadful Death of Mr. Rex Arundel" consists of her telling Tobias of her outre experiences of witchcraft!  When she was ten years old a teacher who was cruel to her died horribly and mysteriously, and when Arabella was a young woman a rival who stole her fiance met a similar terrible end, and we and Tobias learn all the ins and outs of Arabella's means of contacting the Devil and working this destruction!  The entire time she is relating her weird occult experiences, we know Tobias is going to follow her example and destroy that evil piece of human filth Arundel!  But will liberating himself from Arundel’s tyranny consign Tobias’s immortal soul to Hell?

This is a quite good horror story; I really enjoyed it. Adam does a good job describing the supernatural elements and the human relationship components, the character and emotions of Arabella and her enemies, the way they tortured her and the way Arabella wreaked her terrible revenge and in the process put her soul at risk!  One of the strong points of the story is its ambiguity.  Barrington does not describe what abuses Arundel inflicted upon him: "...I will not detail the tortures, both physical and mental, which that handsome, heartless boy inflicted on me...."  It is hard not to suspect that Arundel was raping and/or sodomizing Tobias, but since no other person noticed Arundel's crimes, it also seems possible an envious Tobias was just making the crimes up to justify his hatred!  Another bit of ambiguity lies in Arabella's motives--she says she is telling Tobias about her experiences with witchcraft in order to warn him against risking his immortal soul by indulging his hatred, but if she doesn't want him to risk his soul, why does she give him a detailed description of how to contact the Devil and murder his tormentor?  Linked with this ambiguity is one of the story's major themes: that people who can appear innocent and good to the world--as Arabella, Arundel, and Barrington do--can secretly harbor in their hearts a terrible hate and in fact be responsible for monstrous unsuspected crimes...or suffer crushing guilt from crimes they only fancy they committed.

Thumbs up! This is one of the most conventional works in Quark/4, and I feel comfortable recommending it to anybody who likes horror stories of a somewhat old-fashioned sort—unlike Lovecraftian cosmic horror and splatterpunk, this is a story that takes Christianity seriously, and while there is some gore, the story doesn’t rely heavily on disgust to achieve its effects. Because it was written by a woman and women’s sexuality and rivalries between women are important plot elements, maybe this is a story feminists and students of women in SF should seek out. A final interesting thing about "The True Reason for the Dreadful Death of Mr. Rex Arundel": some of the striking images in the tale strongly resemble images Adam created via those collages of hers I linked to.

I like this well-written story, but "The True Reason for the Dreadful Death of Mr. Rex Arundel" is Adam’s only fiction credit at isfdb, and isfdb does not list any reprintings of the piece. Too bad!

"Acid Soap Opera" by Gail Madonia

Unlike Helen Adam, Gail Madonia doesn’t have an extensive Wikipedia page. It does seem possible that this same Gail Madonia contributed to the feminist underground comic Manhunt! and wrote a book about coin collecting.

Like Helen Adam’s story, it appears that "Acid Soap Opera" never escaped the confines of Quark/4.  Unlike Adam's quite good story, Madonia's is irritatingly bad, almost unreadable.  "Acid Soap Opera" is a total waste of time, ten pages of lame jokes and lame vignettes. It is about—I think—a pig man, Oink X, a famous writer, who gives his first ever TV interview.  Integrated into Madonia's story of Oink X's TV interview are vignettes about family and sexual relationships--these relationships are vulgar and unhappy.  Maybe these are anecdotes Oink X tells the audience, or samples of his writing?  Madonia tries to enliven her material with "word play"--odd spellings, rhymes, esoteric words--but while reading "Acid Soap Opera" my eyes glazed over and my mind wandered, so I have to admit I no more than skimmed a third or half of its pages.  I woke up in time to catch that in the penultimate line of the story Oink X says "That’s all, folks” into the camera.

I guess "Acid Soap Opera" is a satire of popular culture and TV in particular--maybe Oink X is specifically a spoof of some writer feminists had a beef with, like Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, and maybe the TV interviewer is supposed to be like Dick Cavett or Merv Griffin?  Maybe Madonia's satire would have felt fresh and sharp back in 1971.  Still, I have to give this one a severe thumbs down.


We'll finish up with Quark/4 in our next episode.  Nota bene: I have already opined about later printings of two stories that appear in Quark/4Thomas Disch's "Bodies" and Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession," so I will be skipping them.  They are good stories I strongly recommend to you, however.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Quark/4: Davidson, Moorcock, Persky, Farmer and Platt

Way back in 2014, we read Quark/3, the third number of Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker's quarterly paperback presentation of SF that was somewhat outside the mainstream.  I also own a copy of the fourth and final issue of Quark, 1971's Quark/4.  My copy of Quark/4, previously owned by a personage named "Shan," is in quite good condition; maybe Shan never read it.  (I have several of Shan's books, which I purchased in April 2016 at a Half Price Books in Ohio--remember Harlan Ellison's Doomsman?  I think Harlan may have wanted you to forget!)

 I should have taken this picture before I'd bent the spine to scan the pages you'll see below--
you'll have to take my word for it that Shan left it in near mint condition 
I covered Quark/3 over three blog posts, and I guess we'll devote three to Quark/4 as well.  Today let's read the contributions by Avram Davidson, Michael Moorcock, Stan Persky, Philip José Farmer and Charles Platt.

"Basileikon: Summer" by Avram Davidson

This story by the critically acclaimed writer and editor of SF and detective stories, has, as far as I can tell, only ever appeared here in Quark/4.

"Basileikon: Summer" is a sort of collection of vignettes of New York life, portraits of New York characters, and is full of sex jokes and ethnic jokes.  Puerto Rican women throw garbage out of their apartment windows into the backyard, so that it is now a foot deep in garbage.  Black nationalist and would-be dictator of New York Hulber Rudolph abandons his slave name and takes up the name Zimbabwe Kunalinga, and swears vengeance on the black women who laugh at his new dashiki.  An unsuccessful painter, an old man who has has lived in the same apartment for decades, owning ten cats in succession and watching all the Irish people who resided there when he moved in be replaced by Hispanic immigrants, spends money on paint he should spend on food.  An unsuccessful writer waits in his agent's office, frustrated when his agent ignores him in favor of a successful African-American writer.  And so on.

I'm a sucker for New York stories, and "Basileikon: Summer" is clever and amusing, and also quite sad.  I like it, but be forewarned--it ain't woke.

"Voortrekker" by Michael Moorcock

This is a Jerry Cornelius story; according to isfdb, the twelfth.  I read some Jerry Cornelius things in my late teens or early twenties, so over two decades ago--I think The Final Programme and A Cure for Cancer in the 1977 Avon omnibus The Cornelius Chronicles with the Stanislaw Fernandes cover.  During my high school and Rutgers years I read tons of Moorcock's Eternal Champion books, but the Jerry Cornelius things I read interested me relatively little; I liked Elric the best, of course, but also liked Corum and John Daker and Von Bek and the first two Dancers at the End of Time books and found the Hawkmoon and Bastable books tolerable, though I thought the Mars books written under the Edward P. Bradbury pseudonym to be lame.  My memories of The Final Programme are that I found it underwhelming and annoying--it felt sarcastic instead of sincere, part of it was a joke retelling of one of the most famous Elric plots, and part of it was a lot of gush about the Beatles.  I had enjoyed the sincere melodrama of Elric and Corum, I didn't like the way the Cornelius story undermined my beloved Elric, and maybe writing about how great the Beatles were was edgy when The Final Programme first appeared in 1968, but by the 1980s lionizing the Beatles was the opposite of edgy, it was banal and boring--my mother liked the Beatles, for Christ's sake!  I also felt The Final Programme was an attack on the United States and a smug dismissal of anti-communism, which was the last thing I wanted to read in high school and college, when I was being fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism and socialism by my teachers and professors.

Anyway, for a few years I have been thinking I should take another crack at Jerry Cornelius--maybe over 25 years my tastes have changed, and maybe my memory has exaggerated the negative aspects of the Cornelius stories.  I suppose "Voortrekker," which would be reprinted in the many editions of The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, is as good a place to start as any.  (Wikipedia claims that "Voortrekker" first appeared in the British underground paper Frendz, a piece of information not found at isfdb or anywhere in Quark/4.)

"Voortrekker" turns out to be a very New Wavey story, twenty pages divided into twenty six chapters with titles from Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley songs, chapters that consist largely of long quotes from books by Frantz Fanon and Charles Harness and newspapers touching on Cold War and post-imperial topics, like Soviet intentions in Eastern Europe, non-white immigration into England, fighting in Cambodia and Vietnam, North Korean complaints about Japanese trade policy, etc.  The plot of the story, such as it is, is related in fragmentary vignettes of Jerry Cornelius travelling through time and between alternate versions of the world (at least I think that is what is happening) making contacts, collecting cryptic messages, and assassinating people.  The word "entropy" comes up several times, and basic themes are imperialism, racism, and women and children getting killed.  (All these plot elements and themes of a dangerous journey, racism, violence and collapsing empires are summed up in the story's title; the choice of title is probably the most effective thing about this story.)  The whole thing is vague and inconclusive--Cornelius doesn't know what is going on, why he is doing what he is doing, and what is going to happen, and neither do we readers--which I guess is in keeping with the entropy theme.  Cornelius's contacts seem to be participating in wars and revolutions not out of ideological conviction but because they think it is fun to do so.  At the start and end of the story Cornelius plays in a rock band, and maybe we readers are supposed to think that politics--or at least violent and deceptive politics--is a pointless, counterproductive waste of time, that it is art that is worthwhile.

This story is not very fun or interesting, there is really no plot or character development, and the many images of people smoking and flourishing weapons and driving in various vehicles are just brief flickers rather than anything sharp or rich.  "Voortrekker" is a mood piece that overstays its welcome and belabors its point, portraying life as incomprehensible and frustrating, and itself feeling like a waste of time bereft of anything tangible for the reader to hold on to.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

from The Day by Stan Persky

Click to enlarge
Lying between the Moorcock and the Farmer, though not listed in the table of contents or on isfdb, is an eight-page excerpt from the book The Day by Canadian writer Stan Persky.  Wikipedia indicates that Persky has written many books on gay issues, late Cold War topics like the foreign policy of the Reagan administration and the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, and life in post-communist Europe, as well as books about Canadian politics.  These eight pages are a stream of consciousness wall of text that I found rather difficult to read.  In case you are interested in seeing what sort of prose strains my 48-year-old noggin, I reproduce here a page on which, I think, a guy is having breakfast (cream of wheat and/or badly made pancakes) with a friend, a cat comes in the room, and the guy daydreams that the house he is in and house next door are warships from the Age of Sail exchanging broadsides.

There are many works of great literature that make demands on their readers, things like Moby Dick, In Search of Last Time, and The Waste Land.  I personally have found investing effort into reading Melville, Proust, and Eliot to be very rewarding.  Maybe Stan Persky's The Day would be very rewarding to the reader willing to make a commitment to reading it with attention, but I don't feel that I have the time and energy to make that commitment myself.

"Brass and Gold (or Horse and Zeppelin in Beverly Hills)" by Philip José Farmer 

I actually own this story in another book, the Farmer collection Riverworld and Other Stories; I read three stories from it full of disturbing sex meant to shock your bourgeois sensibilities back at the very end of 2015.  Farmer provides a foreword to "Brass and Gold (or Horse and Zeppelin in Beverly Hills)" in that 1979 collection, in which he tells the sad story of how, when he lived in Los Angeles and was working for the aerospace industry (I guess as a technical writer), a flash flood destroyed his decades-old collection of pulp magazines and old Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum books.  Damn!  "Brass and Gold (or Horse and Zeppelin in Beverly Hills)" also appears in DAW's The Book of Philip José Farmer.

"Brass and Gold (or Horse and Zeppelin in Beverly Hills)" is a farcical story about a drunken and impecunious Gentile poet, Brass, who lives in a Jewish neighborhood in Beverly Hills.  Brass and a Jewish woman, Samantha Gold, who loves the taste of pork but has almost no opportunity to eat pork sandwiches because her husband keeps her a virtual ;prisoner in their home, meet and fall in love.  Mrs. Gold starts to regularly sneak away to Brass's place to eat pork and have sex.  She introduces Brass to her father, a veteran of World War One who was an officer on a Zeppelin that bombed London.  This old Jew hates the governor, whom he calls Abdul von Schicklgruber (in 1971 in real life the governor of California was Ronald Reagan, though I'm not sure if this story is supposed to take place in real life or what year it is supposed to take place in), and on the same day Brass decides to leave town and Mrs. Gold declines to run away with him, electing instead to stay with her husband, her father takes off in a small Zeppelin he has built himself to bomb Sacramento.

This joke story, which is like 13 pages long, might be considered by some to be anti-Semitic or anti-feminist, but that is not why I am giving it a thumbs down.  My complaint is that it is not funny, and it is too silly to arouse any emotional attachment to its characters.  There is a lot of dramatic potential in a sexual relationship which crosses boundaries of class and faith, and in an old man who is obsessed with his youthful war experiences, but Farmer doesn't develop any real drama, instead focusing on lame jokes about how Mrs. Gold's expanding waistline makes it harder for her to sneak out and about how expensive things are in Beverly Hills.

"The Song of Passing" by Marco Cacchioni

Also missing from the table of contents page is a poem by Marco Cacchioni.  It is not very good.  A quick google search suggests this is Cacchioni's only published poem.  Hopefully Cacchioni, described as a young student in the "Contributors' Notes" at the back of Quark/4, went on to a successful life as a hedge fund manager or brain surgeon or something with a loving wife and a bunch of happy kids.

"Norman vs. America" by Charles Platt

Platt, a British immigrant to America himself, contributes to Quark/4 a choose-your-own-adventure comic book of 21 pages about a young Englishman who comes to the USA to make his fortune.  Platt even drew the panels himself!  The choices readers are to make are all goofy reflections of late-'60s/early-'70s cultural preoccupations--should Norman become a member of the Silent Majority or a student revolutionary?  Should Norman take to the streets of New York to work as a cab driver or a mugger, or instead start a dildo factory?  Some of the jokes are pretty "out there" by today's standards, like when Norman, after being castrated, becomes a child molester.

Click to enlarge
Platt is no Harvey Pekar or R. Crumb, but this comic is sort of amusing.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about "Norman vs. America" is the gamebook format--the first Choose Your Own Adventure did not appear until 1979, so I guess Platt is sort of an unacknowledged pioneer of the format, one which I, and millions of others, have cherished since our youths, which were full of CYOA, Fighting Fantasy and Steve Jackson's Sorcery! books.  Platt, on the first page of the comic, acknowledges that "Norman vs. America" "is from an original idea by John T. Sladek", so maybe it was Sladek who came up with the gamebook idea.

[UPDATE NOVEMBER 18, 2019: In the comments below Matthew Davis describes the pioneering role of John Sladek in the development of the beloved gamebook format.  Check it out!]

Like "Basileikon : Summer," I think "Norman vs. America" only ever appeared here in Quark/4, so all you Platt and Davidson enthusiasts need to get a hold of a copy.  As I write this draft of this blog post on November 10, there is a copy of Quark/4 signed by Larry Niven available on ebay for fifteen bucks.


Five experimental stories; the only one I can really recommend as a fun read is the Davidson, though all the others (though the Farmer the least) have interesting aspects and are worth a look.

More Quark/4 in our next episode!

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Garbage World by Charles Platt

"You know how we feel about off-worlders.  Nothing personal, mind, but we can't take their lily-white, pansy-faced pious attitudes.  Don't like 'em dropping their garbage on us, then complaining because we're not clean like they are." 
The water- and sticker-damaged copy
of Garbage World from the MPorcius
Library's Joachim Boaz wing
Seeing as in my last blog post I gushed about the Keith Roberts cover of the issue of New Worlds in which Charles Platt's Garbage World debuted, I figured it was about time I actually read Platt's novel.  Garbage World was serialized in New Worlds in 1966, and appeared in book form in 1967--I own a copy of that 1967 printing which was donated to the MPorcius Library by Joachim Boaz last year; I believe it must be the copy he read when he reviewed the novel back in 2015.  Our man tarbandu reviewed it way way back in 2010, when we were young!  Both tarbandu and Joachim gave Garbage World a mere two stars out of five--will we at the quixotic endeavor we call MPorcius Fiction Log concur with the assessments of our benefactors and give this work a negative vote, or strike a discordant tone and champion it as an unfairly maligned masterpiece?  Let's see!

Oliver Roach lives in a part of the galaxy full of asteroids.  Via the use of gravity generators, these asteroids have Earth-like gravity and atmosphere, and all but one are peaceful and orderly "pleasure worlds."  Roach is an information expert who manages and analyzes vast amounts of data about the asteroids; he has traveled to hundreds of them over his career, collecting data to catalog and synthesize.  As Garbage World begins, Roach is acting as assistant to an anthropologist and government minister, Larkin, as Larkin travels to the unique asteroid Kopra.  As you no doubt already know, "kopros" is the Greek word for dung, and Kopra is the asteroid where all the hundreds of pleasure asteroids shoot their garbage, and the place is now miles deep in refuse!  Two or three generations ago a spaceship got stuck on Kopra, and the descendants of that ship's crew have lived on Kopra ever since, surviving by eating not-quite spoiled food scavenged from the crash sites of the garbage containers that land on the asteroid daily; they build their homes from scrap metal and plastic similarly collected.  The Koprans have developed a whole distinct and resonant culture and social hierarchy of their own on the garbage world, one based on scavenging--he who has the best hoard of scavenged items is the leader, and gets first dibs on every new heap of trash that falls out of the sky.  The Koprans are a happy people whose social life revolves around drunken parties (just about the only thing they can produce locally is a crude and powerful alcohol they call "homebrew.").

I really like these Keith Roberts covers.
Larkin and Roach meet the ruler of Kopra, Isaac Gaylord (grandson of the captain that crashed his ship on Kopra), to tell him that Kopra's gravity generator is about to dangerously malfunction because the asteroid's balance has shifted due to all the garbage being added to it unevenly over the decades.  The asteroid must be evacuated for ten days so a new gravity generator can be installed.  Gaylord's daughter, Juliette, immediately becomes powerfully attracted to Roach, and essentially throws herself at him.  She is pretty, but she smells, and, as Roach learns when she impulsively kisses him, even tastes, like garbage, which sickens Roach.  Gaylord's son Norman is also interested in Roach and Larkin, but his passion is not amorous--he hopes his fortuitous meeting with Larkin and Roach can somehow get him off this asteroid and to a cleaner and more advanced one--the people of Kopra have scavenged TVs and can watch transmissions from the pleasure asteroids and know all about how the inhabitants of the other asteroids live.  Most Koprans have contempt for the people of the clean asteroids, but Norman is a dissenter who rejects his native culture.

Juliette's aggressive pursuit of Roach is only one of several complications the data expert has to face on Kopra.  He eavesdrops on a conversation between Larkin and Captain Sterril (groan) of the engineering team that arrived shortly after Larkin and Roach himself did, ostensibly to install the new gravity generator deep in a hole in the asteroid, and gets the idea that there is more to this mission than meets the eye, that Larkin is keeping something from him and from the Koprans.  Gaylord's hoard is stolen, so that his son Norman becomes head of the village.  And Roach learns that there are Koprans who live outside of Gaylord's village, nomads and tramps who travel the wastes, and Larkin gives Roach the job of driving out into the mutant jungles and garbage dunes of Kopra in the expedition's "desert tractor" to try to collect these hardy individualists so they too can be evacuated.  Roach will need a guide out in the wastes, and Gaylord volunteers himself and Juliette--Gaylord wants to talk to the nomads because he figures it was a nomad who stole his hoard, and his daughter is a necessary adjunct as she is experienced at traversing the wilderness, where she regularly scavenges while dad stays in the village managing the affairs of its hundred or so citizens.

There is plenty of fiction in which a guy from a more advanced or somehow superior society visits a less sophisticated or otherwise inferior society and switches sides or goes native, like those movies Dances With Wolves, Last Samurai and Avatar (full disclosure: I've never actually watched any of those movies from beginning to end) and Garbage World is another one.  Interestingly, Platt dedicates Garbage World to Michael Moorcock, with whom he worked at New Worlds (Platt did a lot of the art direction for the magazine), and again and again in Moorcock's fiction we see characters who go native or switch sides and end up fighting against their homelands or original allies (I'm thinking of the Elric and Bastable stories here, as well as the Erekose novel The Eternal Champion, and I have vague memories of other examples.)  You might even say that Moorcock and Platt have lived out (less violent and melodramatic versions of) such narratives, both of them having left their native England to live in the United States.

The drive in the desert tractor is a disaster: the vehicle breaks down due to sabotage, and Roach, Gaylord and Juliette are almost killed by a monster and then in a rare storm.  They are rescued from these life-threatening events by the nomads Roach left the village to rescue--after saving them the nomads reject Roach's help, refusing to be evacuated.  Roach stumbles upon further evidence that Larkin and Sterril are up to no good, and, more importantly, he comes to feel at home on smelly, filthy Kopra.
Oliver no longer noticed the dirt around him.  He had become a part of the planet, on equal terms with the Koprans.  The smell of the place could never be called pleasant, and his throat was still a trifle raw--but he'd got to the stage where he didn't notice any of it.  Gaylord had been right; in a way, dirt suited him.  He was happier and more relaxed than ever before.
Roach and Juliette surrender to their desire for each other--like John Carter, Oliver Roach has arrived on a barbaric world and quickly come to prefer it to his own and become the lover of a native princess.  (As you probably know, Edgar Rice Burroughs was a big influence on Moorcock.)

Our three dirty heroes return to the village on foot.  They find that new headman Norman, his father and sister presumed dead, has tried to clean up the town; they also learn that it is Norman who stole his father's hoard and sabotaged the desert tractor (Juliette explains to Roach that Norman was adopted and never felt a part of the family and would spend all his time trying to clean himself and watching TV shows depicting clean life on other asteroids.)  Roach goes to confront Larkin and learns that Sterill's team, which just left the asteroid, did not install a new gravity generator in that deep hole of theirs but rather a powerful shaped charge that will neatly break Kopra into four smaller garbage asteroids where nobody will be allowed to reside.  The population of Gaylord's village will be carried off to have their brains altered, their dirt-loving personalities replaced with squeaky clean personalities so they can be settled on other asteroids.  (Larkin is willing to callously leave the nomads to die during the explosion.)  Norman has complicated this drama by sabotaging the high tech bomb, putting down into the hole a less advanced remote-controlled explosive of his own that has the potential to spoil the carefully calibrated explosion planned by Larkin--if Larkin refuses to help Norman achieve his goals he can blow up the asteroid in such a way that it spreads filth all over the pleasure asteroids.  (If Larkin's and Norman's activities don't necessarily make sense to the reader, Platt makes sure to indicate they are both insane as a way to paper over any gaps in his plot.)

The redoubtable and resourceful Gaylord seizes control of events, and in the last thirty or so pages of the novel (which is less than 140 pages total) leads Roach, Juliette, and the villagers to victory over Larkin and Norman.  The villagers (including a cowed Norman) crowd into the ship and escape, while Kopra explodes behind them, Larkin and all those nomads being killed.  The villagers celebrate aboard the ship as garbage spreads throughout the asteroid field--soon every asteroid will be as foul as Kopra was.

Garbage World has the form and content of a traditional SF short novel--a guy arrives on another planet, goes native, learns a truth about his own society, and participates in a revolution/paradigm shift that remakes society.  It is also largely a goof and a satire--observe the Dickensian names of the characters--the leader of the party-hearty villagers is named Gaylord, his daughter who falls in love with a man from the society her father despises is called Juliette, his son who wants to live a normal clean life is Norman, etc.  There are lots of slapsticky jokes revolving around people's love or hate of dirt, and the most blatantly silly element of all is Platt's chapter titles (e. g.; "The Great Purgative Plan," and "The Defecated Village"--even the mundane chapter titles, like "The Hole" and "The Deserted Excavation," in context, bring to mind bowel movements.)

I've suggested that Platt's story could be a parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories--one element of this is how it is not Roach who does most of the hero stuff, but Gaylord.  The effort of Norman to turn his filthy village into a nice clean and orderly hamlet felt a little like a spoof of the Scouring of the Shire part of Lord of the Rings.  (Another possible Moorcock influence?--Moorcock famously hates J. R. R. Tolkien's work.)

On a somewhat more serious note, Larkin's talk of cleanliness reminded me of Victorian and Edwardian sanitation and eugenics campaigns--Larkin, apparently a cleanliness fanatic, links physical cleanliness to moral cleanliness--maybe Larkin is a sort of spoof of a bourgeois reformer or imperialist who considers the lower classes or other races to be sub- or inhuman, people who need to be controlled, either radically reformed or simply eliminated.  One of the odd things about Garbage World is its blithe dismissal of the value of sanitation and sobriety--Platt unabashedly celebrates acceptance of filth and participation in drunken orgies, as if a bias towards sanitation and sobriety is just a matter of taste or even a form of close-minded bigotry.  Maybe we should see Garbage World as a reflection of 1960s counterculture values, a somewhat irrational or tongue-in-cheek rejection of the bourgeois values of "squares" in the form of a wacky light-hearted novel.  We might also compare Garbage World's off-the-wall attitude about dirt to Theodore Sturgeon's 1967 "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?," in which a space traveler learns that the key to building a utopia is for a society to reject the incest taboo.

Garbage World is sort of pedestrian, but I found it mildly entertaining; the odd society Platt devised for the book is fun and the jokes (e.g., Gaylord stamping on his son's brand new flower garden and throwing his new curtains out the window) are obvious but sort of funny.  I kind of like it--Garbage World isn't brilliant or groundbreaking or beautiful, but it was certainly not boring or irritating.  I guess I'm disagreeing with tarbandu and Joachim Boaz on this one; if I used numbered ratings I would give Garbage World a three or 3.5, a mild recommendation.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"A Museum Piece," "Divine Madness," and "Corrida" by Roger Zelazny

Cover illo by Lebbeus Woods
It has been five years, but Roger Zelazny is back, here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

I own a copy of the 2001 ibooks edition of Zelazny's collection, The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, which I purchased at a Des Moines Public Library sale for ten cents.  This edition presents seventeen stories, and over three blog posts in 2014, I read nine of them:

"The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth," "The Keys to December," and "Devil Car"

"A Rose for Ecclesiastes," "The Monster and the Maiden," and "Collector's Fever" 

"This Mortal Mountain," "This Moment of the Storm," and "The Great Slow Kings"

By the time I read "The Great Slow Kings" I was getting a little tired of Zelazny, and decided to take a break from this collection.  I thought that break was going to be a few weeks, but that turned into a few years.  Best laid plans, I guess.  Today let's crack open this 500-page volume and continue our examination of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth by reading Zelazny's "A Museum Piece," "Divine Madness," and "Corrida," all of which first appeared in 1960s magazines...and not necessarily the most prestigious ones, like Galaxy and F&SF, where many of Zelazny's famous short stories debuted.

"A Museum Piece" by Roger Zelazny (1963)

"A Museum Piece" was first printed in Fantastic, and maybe this one counts as prestigious, because it was one of the issues edited by Cele Goldsmith, who is beloved by the critics.

This is a joke story about an artist, Jay Smith, who pioneered "two-dimensional painted sculpture" and, ignored by the public and panned by the critics, abandons art to immerse himself in yoga.  This was not remunerative, so he decides to live by residing, clandestinely, in the art museum, standing naked and still in the classical section of the museum, mistaken by all for a Greek sculpture from two thousand or so years ago.  (In part the story is a satire of the limited interest people have in art--Smith is able to fool everybody because almost nobody even looks at old sculptures, and the only people eccentric enough to care about art are nerds with bad eyesight and mental cases subject to hallucinations, people who would not believe their own eyes if they suspected that a sculpture a real living and breathing person.)  Smith memorizes the movements of the night watchman and after closing time he steals food from the cafeteria.

The story (like 14 pages in this 2001 book, with its large type and wide margins, and 8 pages in the 1963 magazine) gets more absurd as it proceeds.  It turns out most of the statues in the Greek and Roman sections of the museum are actually failed artists and disgruntled art critics, and even the statue of a lion is a (albino) man-eating beast.  The mobile hanging in the modern art section is in fact a space alien marooned on Earth.

Zelazny is the kind of writer who likes to show off his erudition and "A Museum Piece" is full of allusions and mentions of Samuel Johnson, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, and many artists and art movements.

I'll call this one an acceptable trifle, a piece of filler gussied up with learned references.  "A Museum Piece" was reprinted in Fantastic in 1979, where it had appended to it an analysis by a college professor, Robert H. Wilcox.  It also was included in Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles Waugh's 1982 anthology Science Fiction A to Z: A Dictionary of the Great S.F. Themes; I can't find online any indication of what theme "A Museum Piece" is supposed to illustrate--"A Museum Piece" is the second story in the anthology, so maybe it is under the "Alien" category?  I'll be grateful to anybody who can offer a solution to this mystery in the comments.

"Divine Madness" (1966)

"Divine Madness" first appeared in Robert Lowndes's The Magazine of Horror ("Bizarre - Frightening - Gruesome.")  We have already looked at a story in this issue, Robert E. Howard's "Valley of the Lost" AKA "King of the Forgotten People," a fun story about weird science, giant spiders and scary Orientals.  That very same year Michael Moorcock included "Divine Madness" in the same issue of New Worlds as Charles Platt's Garbage World, which both tarbandu and Joachim Boaz have read--I haven't read it myself, but Joachim donated his copy to the MPorcius Library and someday I expect to experience Garbage World (which both tarbandu and Joachim awarded two out of five stars) myself.

(The sextastic cover of the October 1966 issue of New Worlds is apparently the work of Keith Roberts, author of Pavane and Molly Zero.  I have not been able to get this picture out of my mind since I first saw it over four years ago--this magazine cover should be available as a poster at all fine retailers, it should be as iconic as Raquel Welch's One Million Years B.C. poster.  That long neck, that perfect hair cut, the mysterious face mask, the extreme contrappasto pose--there's even the dirty toes for all you foot fetishists out there!) 

Alright, back to "Divine Madness."  The nameless protagonist of the story suffers seizures that have him experiencing periods of time, twenty or thirty minutes, backwards, a passenger in his own body who watches himself undoing all the stuff he just did, walking backwards as ashes leap up to make his cigarette longer, for example, as around him the sun sets in the east and cars drive in reverse, etc.  Zelazny fills the story with what you might call snatches of imagist poetry, not just the backwards-in-time stuff, but visions of urban life:
Clustered on the concrete, birds pecked at part of a candy bar stuck to a red wrapper.
Telephone lines were tangled with wooden frames and torn paper, like broken G clefs and smeared glissandos.
This guy is broken-hearted, constantly drinking, and near the end of the story, which is just ten pages in this edition of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, we learn why.  The protagonist has his longest seizure ever, time flowing backwards for days, and we learn that after a loud bitter argument his wife drove away, upset, and her reckless driving lead to her death.  The main character relives, in reverse, the funeral, the purchase of the casket, learning of his wife's accident, all the way back to the argument.  Because of all the talk of death and the gross images of booze flowing backwards out of a guy's mouth and birds eating trash and so forth, "Divine Madness" feels like a horror story, and I expected a downer ending, but at the very end (spoiler alert, kids) we get a happy ending--"Divine Madness" is a wish fulfillment fantasy that brings to life all our dreams of going back and undoing a mistake.  When time starts running forward again, right before his wife gets into the car, the protagonist apologizes and she decides to stay with him. 

At times I was getting close to dismissing "Divine Madness" as a gimmicky thing, but maybe because it came as such a surprise, despite myself I found the ending powerful, even moving.  I have to give this one a thumbs up!

"Divine Madness" has appeared in many anthologies, and I can concur with the judgments of such editors as Terry Carr, Martin H. Greenberg, and Robert Silverberg (and of course Lowndes and Moorcock) that it is a good, memorable, read.

Is it a coincidence that New Worlds and New Worlds of Fantasy
use the same font on their covers?

"Corrida" (1968)

"Corrida" debuted in the third issue of the fanzine Anubis, of which four issues were printed form 1966 to 1968.  With the possible exception of Vaughan Bode's "Dead Bone," I think "Corrida" is probably the most famous/successful thing to ever appear in Anubis.  (Check out Jeff Jones's fine portrait of Bode.)  "Corrida" would reappear in an odd anthology by Fred Corbett, Gerry Goldberg and Stephen Storoschuk called Nighttouch: Journeying into the Realms of Nightmare that includes work by SF stalwarts like H. P. Lovecraft, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch alongside that of major poets like Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, James Dickey and Ted Hughes, and in an Asimov/Greenberg/Joseph D. Olander anthology of short shorts I sampled back in 2014.

"Corrida" is a brief (like three and a half pages here) piece in which a man wakes up naked in a dim room and sees a dark figure with four arms and a naked woman and pursues them, eventually grappling in gory combat with the tall four-armed creature.  There is something symbolic going on--the man is a New York lawyer, he remembers being accosted by a man on the street late at night, he thinks he is being treated like a bull at a bull fight, when he strikes the dark figure he himself feels the pain--but it feels like a waste of time to really figure all this out.  He feels guilty for putting people through legal trials and so hates himself?  Trials are as cruel as bullfights?  He was mugged and is having dreams as he lies unconscious on the streets of the Big Apple, bleeding to death?  Who cares?

Gotta give this pointless exercise a thumbs down.   


"Divine Madness" is good, and so my belated resumption of my reading of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, has been worthwhile, even if "A Museum Piece" and "Corrida" aren't exactly winners.  Maybe we'll get back to this collection soon.