Wednesday, September 1, 2021

1968 SF stories by Fred Saberhagen, Fritz Leiber, H. H. Hollis and Terry Carr

I have already written three blog posts about Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 and its terrific John Schoenherr cover, covering a dozen of the stories it offers.  But I think there may still be some goodness to be wrung out of this fruit!  Today we'll read four stories from its pages, tales by Fred Saberhagen, Fritz Leiber, H. H. Hollis and Terry Carr, as we continue the exploration of the anthology shelves of the MPorcius Library that has taken up my last five blog posts.

"Starsong"  by Fred Saberhagen 

This story, one of Saberhagen's many Berserker stories, first appeared in Fred Pohl's If.  Saberhagen often bases his stories on famous works of literature or myth or events in history, and this story is a beat for beat retelling of the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.  

Ordell Callison is the greatest musician in the human space empire.  He marries the beautiful Eury.  As you well know, artistic types tend to be decadent libertines, and Ordell and Eury fit the mold.  One of the little games they and their hangers-on play is tag, each of them flying around in a little one-man space ship; when a man catches a woman's space ship he boards her ship and has sex with her.  Ordell and Eury are participating in one of these space sex games, as they did all the time before they were married, but now they want to play the tag part but not the sex part.  For some reason they didn't tell this to their fellow debauchees, so when Eury is caught by some guy he expects to be able to fuck her and doesn't believe her when she refuses and he gets a little rough.  Eury manages to escape his clutches and, back in her ship, in a panic, flies into a nebula.

In this nebula is a Berserker space station; the Berserkers, as you probably know, are machines programmed to exterminate all life.  This Berserker base is a laboratory that conducts experiments on captured humans, its main line of research is integrating human brains into Berserker computer systems.  So the base is mostly "crewed" not by purely mechanical robots, but by cyborgs, human brains stuffed into robot bodies; these brains are imperfect clones or natural brains in various states of insanity and are thus very suggestible.

Ordell goes to the lab and uses his top tier musical abilities to befuddle the foggy human brains of the cyborgs so they will facilitate his rescue of Eury.  All goes according to plan for a while, but, just like in the traditional Orpheus story, the rescue attempt miscarries on the very cusp of success.

Saberhagen's space warfare retelling of the tale of Orpheus is imbedded in a horror-story-style frame story involving a brain surgeon who assesses the human brains liberated from the lab when the Berseker base is captured by human space navy boarding parties.

I am prejudiced against parodies and spoofs and retellings and reimaginings, and was not impressed with this story, much of which comes across as contrived and silly.  Barely acceptable. 

"Starsong" would go on to be included in quite a few Berserker collections.

"The Square Root of Brain" by Fritz Leiber 

In the same way the narrow corridors of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons dungeon are riddled with spiked pits, spring-loaded crossbow bolts and green slime that falls on you from the ceiling, these SF anthologies are laced with joke stories that can unexpectedly spring on the intrepid explorer and make a mess of his expedition.  Wollheim and Carr warn us that "The Square Root of Brain" is a "sharply satiric look at human achievements," and I'm inclined to skip it, but will press on, buoyed by the knowledge that Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar" is one of the very funniest of SF stories.  

At a Hollywood party, in a series of rooms decorated with psychedelic drapes, modernist furniture, and teen-aged starlets in tight dresses, a bunch of people swap incredible anecdotes (a guy claims to have been abducted by aliens, a woman says she remembers her past lives, etc.) and share conspiracy theories.  The text of the story is broken up by block-quoted entries from an encyclopedia--these entries are nonsensical or clearly fictitious.  I guess these encyclopedia entries, and the fact that in the last paragraphs the modernist chairs turn out to be spacecraft, is our clue that this is an alternate universe and the crazy anecdotes and conspiracy theories, in the depicted universe, are likely true.

Despite the warning, I fell in the trap.  The jokes in this story are not funny, it offers no human feeling and no arresting images, the anecdotes and theories are not original, and there is no suspense or tension or even interest.  Gotta condemn this one.  Bad.

"The Square Root of Brain" debuted in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds and Moorcock even included it in Best SF Stories from New World 4, another anthology I own.  Do Moorcock, Wollheim and Carr really think this lame story is good?  Maybe they promoted it because it is (sort of...I guess) an attack on American imperialism and racism?  Or maybe they wanted to do their friend a solid and knew Leiber's name on a book would help it sell because Leiber truly has done very good and quite popular work?  Well, who knows?  One thing I do know is that isfdb does not list "The Square Root of Brain" as having appeared in any English Leiber collections, though it has been reprinted in a French collection.

"Sword Game" by H. H. Hollis

We really are exploring today, oh my brothers--here's a story from some guy I never read before.  H. H. Hollis was a Texas lawyer (real name: Ben Neal Ramey) who wrote SF on the side for fun; he has 16 fiction entries at isfdb.  "Sword Game" is probably his most successful story, appearing in several anthologies after its debut in Galaxy and garnering a Nebula nomination. 

"Sword Game" is another unfunny joke story.  A math professor is able to create tesseracts, which in this story at least are cubes inside which time passes very slowly because they exist in the fourth dimension as well as the three ordinary dimensions, or something like that.

Anyway, the prof starts having sex with one of his students.  He hasn't been enjoying being a professor anyway, so he and the girl join a circus and take to the road--the girl, before attending college, worked in a carnival as the woman who scrunches up into a basket and dodges swords that pierce the basket.  On stage the girl climbs into one of the prof's tesseracts, which appears as a translucent cube, and he thrusts a sword through the cube and through his girlfriend--spectators can see that the point of the sword sticking out the other side of the cube has her blood on it.  In a way I don't quite understand the girl doesn't die even though the blade of a sword has passed right through her torso because she is entirely within the tesseract so time passes very slowly for her while the weapon, its hilt being outside the cube, experiences time at the normal rate.  When the prof withdraws the bloody sword the girl heals instantly and climbs out of the cube in perfect health. 

This girl is vapid and they have nothing to talk about and the prof soon tires of her.  So he murders her in a way he thinks will be undetectable.  Telling her he needs to practice, he has her get into a tesseract in private, then he stabs her with a short Roman gladius--the point does not stick out the other side of the cube.  He breaks off the hilt of the sword so the blade is entirely inside the cube--presumably she has been slain.  Then he shrinks the cube down to a convenient size, and uses it as a paperweight on his desk when he resumes his career as an academic.

Many years pass.  The prof develops a friendly relationship with a promising student who looks much like him when he was young.  The student is fascinated by the tesseract and figures out how to open it.  Before the prof can stop him, the student opens the tesseract and the girl jumps out--for her only a few seconds have passed.  She is alive because when she didn't recognize the sword entering the cube she squirmed to dodge it.  She thinks the student is the prof and embraces him, and the lovers imprison the old geezer of a prof in the tesseract, where he will live until the collapse of the universe.

A plot along these lines--evil mad scientist takes advantage of a daffy female and then gets his comeuppance--could definitely work, but, instead of writing it like something you'd find in Weird Tales, Hollis presents it as a joke; there is lots of feeble topical humor about the mores of kids in the late Sixties, for example.  We're calling this one barely acceptable.          

"The Dance of the Changer and the Three" by Terry Carr

The point of this story, which first appeared in the anthology The Farthest Reaches, is to present some truly alien aliens and to demonstrate that different cultures cannot really understand each other.  Our narrator is one of the few survivors of a mining expedition of like fifty people sent to inhospitable planet Loarr, where the natives are beings made up mostly of energy that look like nebulas or snowflakes and communicate by changing their patterns and colors.  Their traditional art form is the "wave dance."  The narrator was the diplomat on the mission, and had time to get to know the Loarra people and their art pretty well, and to give us some insight into Loarra culture, provides us his translation of the most prominent Loarra wave dance, something like a folk tale or heroic myth, maybe akin to our Iliad or the tales of King Arthur or something.  The narrator stresses repeatedly how his translation is imperfect and he has to resort to words like "water" and "sky" even though on Loarr, a gas giant, there really is no water or sky.

The wave dance epic concerns three heroes who go on a quest to "avenge" the "suicide" of another character.  Our human narrator has to use the words "avenge" and "suicide," words which do not make much sense in the context of the aliens' story, because we Earthers have no words that correspond to the concepts that the Loarra story is really about.  In my opinion "commemorate" and "metamorphosis into the next stage of life" would be better translations.  Anyway, the three heroes meet a very old Loarra, one who is so old he is mostly matter now instead of mostly energy.  The old timer tells them a secret that is incomprehensible to human minds, and using that secret the three heroes enter the vortex from which life first emerged on Loarr and create a new life which they promptly devour.  This meal, we are told, is the most significant part of the Loarra epic.

At the end of Carr's story, after we have read this fragmented translation of the Loarra national epic, we learn the story of the mining expedition.  The humans met the Loarra, learned to communicate with them, made friends with them, got permission to mine, and then mined for over three years.  Everything seemed to be going just fine.  Then one day the Loarra, indestructible energy beings, suddenly attacked the helpless and unarmed miners and killed all but six of them.  When the narrator, who had been friendly with the natives for four years, asked them why they had murdered his colleagues, the aliens assert that they are not angry and don't mind if the humans take the ores off planet and don't want the humans to leave; they killed most of the humans "just because" and cannot predict whether they will or won't launch such an attack again.

"The Dance of the Changer and the Three" succeeds in making its point that the universe is inexplicable and life is meaningless and so forth, but it is not very engaging--it is kind of boring, to be honest.  It tells a story you can't understand, and keeps telling you that you won't be able to understand it, so all the descriptions of conversations between flickering beings feel pointless.  Maybe on a technical level the story is "good" because it inspires the reader to share the diplomat's frustration at being unable to make sense of the universe and hopelessness at realizing we have no control over our own fates, but I have to give it a thumbs down because reading it is not an entertaining or enlightening experience.

Editors evidently love this story--it has been reprinted many times in anthologies like Robert Silverberg's Deep Space and magazines like Vertex.    


Oy, I feel like this has been a tough expedition.  I may have to reread some SF stories I already know I like in order to renew my faith in the utility of carrying on with the performance art project we call MPorcius Fiction Log.  

Well, see you next time, space fans...if there is a next time.

1 comment:

  1. I'm also a fan of World's Best Science Fiction 1969 and its terrific John Schoenherr cover! But the SF field was changing in those years with more and more SF writers focusing on writing novels instead of short stories.