Monday, May 30, 2022

James E. Gunn: "The Unhappy Man," "The Naked Sky," and "Name Your Pleasure"

"Induced delusions," the Hedonist said heavily.  "The Council has perfected the sensies.  Now, they're realies.  The Council is going to make the Earth one hundred per cent happy." 
I recently spotted in the wild, at an antiques mall, Bantam A2219, the 1961 paperback printing of James Gunn's novel The Joy Makers, the back cover text of which asks the provocative question, "why be miserable?"  The price asked for this volume was too steep for me, but I was definitely intrigued by the book's promise to make my skin tingle and my mind rattle with its descriptions of pleasures.  (Was there any chance James Gunn could give Kazuto Okada a run for his money?)  The publication page of the paperback listed three 1955 stories which apparently served as its basis, and I decided to read them in scans of the magazines in which they appeared, available for free to all of us who seeking mind-rattling pleasures on the cheap.  I am reading the three stories, "The Unhappy Man," "The Naked Sky," and "Name Your Pleasure" not in publication order but in the order they are listed on that 1961 publication page. 
   
Spoiler alert: Despite this back cover text, The Joy Makers isn't about wild sex; it is about
 to what extent we should have an individualistic society in which we run our own lives,
 or the converse, a collectivist society in which we let high-tech experts run our lives for us

"The Unhappy Man" (1955)

"The Unhappy Man" made its debut in Fantastic Universe and was never reprinted on its own.  

Josh Hunt is an overworked business executive, the kind of guy who scrutinizes the paper over breakfast, has a shouting match with the union rep before lunch, gets through the day by having his sexalicious blonde secretary "order a bicarbonate," and at night brings paperwork home, where he ignores his wife and his kids and eases the agony of his ulcer by drinking lots of booze.  A new business starts advertising in Josh's town--Hedonics, Inc., a firm that promises to make people happy.  Josh signs up for a trial of their service and on his first visit to the Hedonics office the Hedonics people's fire-and-forget medical technology automatically cures him of all his physical ailments in mere seconds.  They promise to cure all of his psychological issues in mere minutes on his next visit tomorrow, and, if he signs a long term contract, over the succeeding weeks to cure every problem he has in his life!  The Hedonics people's techniques enable them to gauge your personality with such exactitude that they can tell you exactly what to do with your life to achieve happiness, like what job to take, whether you should get married and have children, etc.  

Josh smells a rat and while everybody in town signs long term contracts with Hedonics, Inc.--surrendering all their property and future earnings to the Big H in return for having computers solve all their physical, mental, career and life problems--Josh tries to resist and undermine Hedonics, Inc, which he imagines will soon have its tentacles in everybody's life and more or less rule the world.  But Josh is defeated--Hedonics, Inc. actually succeeds in making all of its clients happy, and the government is full of Hedonics clients who have no interest in contesting Big H's grip on society.    

I feel like there are plenty of SF stories that feature a new business appearing out of nowhere and throwing society for a loop--maybe this is a reflection of the way that life in our market society is forever changing thanks to the arrival of new products and services, some of them revolutionary like the automobile, the TV and the internet.  A. E. van Vogt's Weapon Shops of Isher stories and Jack Williamson's Humanoids story, "With Folded Hands," are famous classics of this subgenre.  In the Isher stories, the Weapons Shops represent a welcome counterbalance against corrupt and overweening government, while Williamson's Humanoids promise to make your life easy and safe, but are soon controlling every second of your life, leeching it of all meaning by removing all risk and challenge.  I had expected Hedonics, Inc. to be a scam, and for Gunn to endorse the idea that life isn't satisfying if somebody else is telling you what to do, but in the end it seems like Hedonics is on the level and everybody is happy except for Josh.  "The Unhappy Man" thus comes across as an attack on our individualistic society in which people are expected to work hard and run their own lives and a celebration of how technology allied to altruism (all Hedonics, Inc. employees have passed a psychology test that proves they are altruists) can make practically all of us happy if we submit to the rule of experts.  Oddly, the editor's introduction to "The Unhappy Man" suggests that Hedonics, Inc. is the villain of the story, but this is not how the actual text is reading to me--it seems Josh is the villain for trying to stand in the way of progress and he is punished for his sin of skepticism by being kept out of the promised land.

This story is acceptable; it is a utopian idea story, a sort of wish fulfillment fable for people who hate rough and tumble capitalism and dream that somebody will solve their problems for them, not the sort of SF story I generally favor, a story of realistic speculation or a human drama with compelling characters or an exciting action adventure story.  But if you think submitting to the will of eggheads and their infallible machinery can create heaven on Earth, maybe you'll like it more than I did.      

"The Naked Sky" (1955)

For its appearance in Startling Stories, "The Naked Sky" was adorned with some great drawings of women and monsters by Virgil Finlay that I don't think I have ever seen before.  I strongly recommend that you illustration fans out there check them out. 

"The Naked Sky" is more adventure-oriented than "The Unhappy Man;" the opening scene is about a Terran on Venus trying to capture a mysterious alien who is disguised as a human and can move at 200km/h.  This scene is followed by exposition about how mankind is terraforming Venus; in fifty or so years the surface of Venus will be comfortable enough that the three million human colonists on that second planet from our sun will be movin' on up out of their underground city and on to a surface much like Earth's.

These colonists haven't heard from the mother world in some fifty years.  Now that the colony is in danger from these camouflaged aliens, it is decided that somebody should go to Earth and see what is up--maybe Terra can offer some aid.  As on Earth when the first colonists left it, the society on Venus is run on hedonic lines, with happiness the first and foremost goal, and so D'glas, who doesn't enjoy his job driving a combine on the surface, is chosen for the mission.  (Their hedonic training enables most of the colonists to relish the boring labor of terraforming Venus, but while he has had the same education as everybody else, D'glas is something of a skeptic and a dissident and not quite in tune with the whole hedonic program.)

On Earth, D'glas, accustomed to living in an underground city and working under thick cloud cover, finds the wide blue sky of Terra unnerving, especially after the stress of the long lonely space flight.  He finds that while the city around Earth's space port is deserted, everything is obviously being cleaned and maintained; the automatic amenities--moving sidewalks, vending machines, arcade games--are still operating smoothly.  Gunn spends a lot of time describing D'glas's explorations of the abandoned facilities, playing the arcade games and using the vending machines and so forth.  Finally he meets a man who promises to take the Venusian to "the Council" who will answer his questions.

The trip to the Council is via an open car subway train, one that, I suppose in keeping with the hedonic philosophy of fun fun fun, is built to function as a roller coaster.  Not only does it have the radical ascents and drops of a roller coaster, but, after the big dive, holograms or hypno illusions of fire, seductive women and sinister monsters simulate a descent into Hell--these are the women and monsters Finlay chose as the subjects of his engrossing title page illustration.  (Wisely, Finlay in his drawing offers no clue that D'glas is on a roller coaster and the women and demons are mere illusions.)  D'glas's guide offers philosophical and psychological commentary about our need for sin and guilt and how you can't appreciate something without having also experienced its opposite.  (In related news, D'glas appreciates Venus more after seeing what is going on on Earth.)

Soon after climbing off the coaster at their destination, a young woman comes out of nowhere to throw a rock at D'glas's Virgil; the "man" collapses after a hit to the noggin, and D'glas sees wires through the hole of his "wound"--this guy was a robot, a robot fragile enough that a rock thrown by a young woman can penetrate its artificial skull and render it totally inoperative.      

Gunn's decision to have the woman attack with a rock is an inexplicable one, because when D'glas catches up to this hit and run assailant he discovers she has an entire arsenal of firearms and explosives carefully organized in the corner of a ruined library that is her lonely home.  Susan claims to be the last real human being left on Earth, and after she has used an X-ray to assure herself D'glas is also human they fall in love--even though their hedonic training has counselled them to avoid making their happiness hostage to another--and have sex.

D'glas gets his mind back on his mission and sneaks away from Susan to investigate this Council he's been hearing about.  He discovers that almost the entirety of Earth's human population of five billion are now nearly immortal dreamers, floating in chambers full of amniotic fluid, fed via an umbilical cord while hypno devices fill their minds with super realistic dreams of happiness.  (The idea that the logical conclusion of hedonism--or maybe just the wrong kind of hedonism--is to reduce people to babies was foreshadowed in the start of the story when it is brought to our attention that one of the leaders of the Venus colony always has a pacifier in his mouth.)

Captured by robots, D'glas is taken to the telepathic main computer which replaced the human Council that once ruled the Earth and has inherited its title.  D'glas and the master computer have a philosophical discussion about what constitutes happiness, the meaning of life, and so forth.  The computer claims to be following the mission it was programmed to pursue--make people happy--in the most efficient way possible, but D'glas maintains that a life of easy happiness imposed from without, for people and for a society, is no life at all--true happiness comes from within and is the product of accomplishment, of facing risk and overcoming obstacles to achieve goals.  The computer also confirms that the "aliens" that have been appearing on Venus are its scouts, that it is extending to Venus its mission of guaranteeing 100% human happiness by turning everybody into what amounts to a powerless dreaming fetus.

The Council tries to break the resistance of D'glas and Susan, to addict them to its happy hypnotic illusions, but D'glas is a tough nut to crack--he can always tell he's in what we might now call "the Matrix," no matter how awesome the dream fed into his brain.  He realizes that anger somehow disrupts the effect of the computer's telepathic powers and tells this to Susan, and they both preserve their free will, flummox the computer with a tough question ("Are you happy?"), make their way to its control room, and reprogram it in such a way that is rendered inert (by ordering it to make itself happy, so that it gives itself pacifying dreams.)  Making the computer turn inward in this way consigns to death most of the five billion living fetus-like in those fluid chambers, but, as he and Susan fly off to Venus, D'glas presumably tells himself those people were just clumps of cells and caring for them would interfere with his career of terraforming Venus and paving the way for human conquest of the universe.

Yes, in classic SF fashion, we get a sense of wonder ending--humanity having successfully resisted the temptations of a misguided version of hedonics, the philosophy of hedonics rightly understood will foster the human race's exploration of the entire galaxy. 

"The Naked Sky" is kind of slow and tedious.  Gunn spends way too much time describing the automated vending machines and amusements and the roller coaster ride in the first half of the story, and then the seductive dreams in the second half.  We know these things are just diversions and digressions that will have no effect on the plot or on D'glas, so devoting page after page to them is a waste of our time.  The characters and the physical fights are not particularly interesting or exciting either.  As for the philosophical and psychological discussions, they are not offensively bad--I don't think I really disagree with them--but they are banal, and I didn't feel like they had any passion or any particularly novel or clever arguments behind them, so they are not engaging.  In fact, I consider the story's message to be a little muddled--are we supposed to think hedonics is good or bad?  I guess we are supposed to think the science of hedonics is awesome but the people of Venus have taken it a little too far and the Council computer on Earth has taken it way too far; the message of moderation may be wise, but it is not very exciting.

(If we consider "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky" together as a unit, which makes sense as they ended up being components of the same novel, maybe we can make Gunn's argument a little more compelling, at least for you college-educated types.  Perhaps Josh's bourgeois capitalist world of individualism in which everybody works so hard they lose their families and have to drink a lot of bicarbs and whiskey and sodas to function is the thesis, and the tyrannical collectivist world of extreme Hedonism in which people revert to infancy or the womb is the antithesis, and the interstellar community D'glas and Susan will help create will be a stable and enduring synthesis with a balance of individualism and elite intervention and planning.)

Its action-adventure elements, intellectual elements and literary elements all being sort of mediocre, "The Naked Sky" is merely acceptable, a long filler story.  Thank God Virgil Finlay was there to give Startling's readers their 25 cents' worth.      

Renamed "The Joy Ride," "The Naked Sky" was included in a 1975 Gunn collection entitled The End of the Dreams.  "The Naked Sky" is a much more poetic title, but "The Joy Ride" actually suits the story's plot and themes.

"Name Your Pleasure" (1955)

The events of this story take place after those chronicled in "The Unhappy Man" and before those described in  "The Naked Sky;" the Hedonist Council took over the world a few decades ago, and the colonization of Venus has just begun.  Our main character is a local hedonist potentate, the dictator of a "ward" of 1,000 people; such men abandon their names and just go by "The Hedonist of Ward 482" or whatever.  Employing the technology first described in "The Unhappy Man," and his hedonic training, he acts as doctor, psychiatrist, priest, teacher, and top cop to those 1,000 people.  Unhappiness is illegal, and those who are unhappy receive treatment of varying levels of intrusiveness--a woman unhappy because she can't get a man receives plastic surgery and fashion advice, while the really hard cases, like a violent man, get lobotomized.  The Hedonist decides who can marry, who can have kids, even what sort of fiction can be written--no sad stories allowed!  The Hedonist isn't permitted to marry or have children himself--he has to focus on the happiness of his 1,000 dependents.  But don't feel too bad for this guy--he has sex with plenty of unmarried young women in the course of training them for marriage!

In fact, the main plot of "Name Your Pleasure" has a lot to do with his relationship with the latest of these women he is training, Beth.  Despite hedonic prohibitions on becoming emotionally attached to individuals, he is kind of sweet on this girl who is 33 years younger than he is, and it makes him a little uneasy to cut off their relationship now the time has come for her to marry.  After a dozen or so pages that introduce us to the Hedonist and the Earth he inhabits, the action-adventure plot gets going.  The Hedonist is called to meet with the ruling Hedonist Council in their skyscraper HQ, and when he hails a helicab he is amazed to see who it is at the controls--Beth, who is too young to rent an aircraft!  Beth, it turns out, is some kind of rebel and an adept at deception, forgery and even fighting!  And spying!  Beth shares some crucial inside information--the Council has it in for our hero!  She urges the Hedonist to skip his appointment, but he goes anyway.

At the meeting, the Hedonist realizes his career is over.  The Council has perfected a hypno system that gives people superrealistic dreams--now people can be made 100% happy without ever leaving their rooms, as we saw in "The Naked Sky."  The Hedonist opposes imposition of such a system, just as in the past he has opposed the Council's sale of neo-heroin and use of the "sensies"--he thinks that happiness isn't something the government can just give to you, but something you have to achieve for yourself, that the government should limit itself to guiding people in their own quest to win happiness, not just give them happiness via drugs or induced delusions.  An obstacle to imposition of the new policy, the Council is determined to neutralize him.  So, he escapes the skyscraper by climbing out the window of the bathroom, and is saved from lobotomization by the Council or death from a fall of twenty-nine stories by the opportune arrival of Beth in her helicopter.  ("Name Your Pleasure" has the strong resourceful woman we are all supposed to be looking for in our fiction, but I guess it doesn't pass the Bolshoi Test because Beth devotes her abilities to preserving the man she loves.) 

Beth flies them to the ruins of the old city, where there is a crater from a nuclear weapon detonation, the space port, and the Strip, a sort of red light district with gambling and erotic entertainments.  (The crater is visible on the cover of Thrilling Wonder--the explosion in the sky is their chopper, which Beth sent back to New City on automatic control, where it was shot down by the government.)  The Hedonist ends up going to a bunch of places D'glas goes to in "The Naked Sky"--I thought those scenes in "The Naked Sky" long and superfluous filler, but I guess Gunn meant them to serve to tie the stories together.

Taking advantage of the semi-anonymity of the Strip (people wear concealing masks like at Carnival), the Hedonist tries to contact other ward rulers to enlist them in a plan of working within the political and legal system to stop the Council's radical hypno illusion agenda and preserve the status quo.  But his experience mirrors that of Josh in "The Unhappy Man" when that businessman tried to stop Hedonism, Inc. forty or whatever years ago: the politicians are already in full support of the Council's projected reforms, and the other ward leaders, he learns, are all too scared or too worn out to resist the Council.  The sad fact the Hedonist must face is that the classic hedonism he believes in is not a sustainable system--it turns out that our hero is the best Hedonist in the world, the only one who really believes in classic hedonism and practices it!  His colleagues at the top of all the other wards are cracking under the stress of being responsible for the happiness of 1,000 people, and welcome giving up their jobs and having their charges hypno-anesthetized--hell, they welcome being hypno-anesthetized themselves, according to one old chum from hedonism college, Lira, who has been a neo-heroine addict for years.  (Under collectivist dictatorial hedonism the middle classes are suffering the same fate Josh suffered under individualistic liberal capitalism!)    

With no way to stop the Council's radical reforms, reforms that the Hedonist feels are going to install a perverted and sterile form of hedonism, he agrees to join the effort to colonize Venus.  You see, the Underground of which Beth is a member busts out of jail people who have been sentenced by the Council to severely invasive therapies, and these enemies of the state are shipped offworld to become colonists on Venus or other planets or moons--the Council turns a blind eye to this, glad to have people incompatible with its plans off the planet and chary of getting into some kind of shooting war with the Underground, which has lots of money because it owns the profitable Strip.  As the story ends the Hedonist takes up his name again, Morgan, and he and Beth fly to Venus, where we are to assume they live a life of happiness based on the satisfaction of doing the hard work of terraforming Venus, and where, we know from "The Naked Sky" if we read it before reading "Name Your Pleasure," Morgan will become an intellectual leader of the colony and pen the book that will help D'glas overcome the master computer that is going to replace the Council.

"Name Your Pleasure" is quite a bit better than "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky."  It is more focused and direct--Gunn's points are more clearly made, both the attack on our 20th-century individualistic society and the argument that true happiness does not come from external shortcuts like drugs and induced dreams.  Hedonism's philosophy and techniques are better explained and more interesting.  Less encumbered by fat and filler than "The Naked Sky," the plot moves more quickly and satisfyingly.  The characters and human drama are also better--Morgan the Hedonist and Beth have sympathetic human motivations and reactions to their environment and situations, and the Hedonist evolves as a character in ways people in the other two stories do not as he realizes the government and philosophy he has served faithfully for so long is terribly flawed and falls in love with Beth.  Morgan's escape from the Council's skyscraper with Beth's help is actually a good action scene, complete with fun high tech devices.  Unlike "The Unhappy Man" and "The Naked Sky," which are merely tolerable, I can actually recommend "Name Your Pleasure." 

"Name Your Pleasure" would be reprinted in the 1974 collection Some Dreams are Nightmares under the title "The Hedonist."  This book announces on its cover that it is illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher like that is a big selling point, but when I looked at the scan of the book at the internet archive I was surprised to find that the interior illos are as sterile and lame as the one on the cover.  

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In 1984 a hardcover edition of The Joy Makers was published as the second volume of Crown Publishers' Classics of Modern Science Fiction series, and a scan of this book is also to be found at the internet archive. For publication as a novel, the three stories' titles were dropped and "The Unhappy Man" became Part One, "Name Your Pleasure" Part Two, and "The Naked Sky" Part Three. Buttressing the novel's philosophical pretensions, each of the 28 chapters now has an epigraph from a famous intellectual or writer like Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, H. G. Wells, Shakespeare, etc.; in magazine form only "The Naked Sky" had these sorts of epigraphs.

I skimmed much of the book.  Significantly, The Joy Makers does not feel like a fix-up, a bunch of stories that originally were totally distinct and were forced together--to their detriment in many cases--to form an episodic novel like so many A. E. van Vogt novels; the three tales are more like entries in a future history that were always meant to be published together and they actually work better when they appear in concert than individually.  

I didn't see any major changes to the text of the story--some typos had been fixed, and some new ones introduced.  I did find a new paragraph had been added to "Name Your Pleasure," but it wasn't a big deal, and when Morgan dons a mask in the Strip that makes him look like a drooling imbecile, and his old school chum has on a mask depicting a scared man, Gunn refers to them as "the Idiot" and "Fear" instead of the "The Hedonist" and "Lira," I guess trying to make any symbolism more obvious.

Significantly, The Joy Makers does not feel like a fix-up, a bunch of stories that originally were totally distinct and were forced together--to their detriment in many cases--to form an episodic novel like so many A. E. van Vogt novels; the three tales are more like entries in a future history that were always meant to be published together and actually work better when they appear in concert than individually.

Seeing as the stories are almost identical to their magazine appearances, the hardcover book's ancillary material actually provided me more to chew on than did its presentation of Gunn's texts.  

In his Foreword, Isaac Asimov explains the rationale behind the series: because magazines and paperbacks are so fragile, some great SF works, especially ones that are, Asimov says, "too good to be immediately popular" because of their subtlety, risk falling into oblivion.  The Classics of Modern Science Fiction series aims to preserve in hardcover just such classics, selected by George Zebrowski and Martin H. Greenberg, that were undervalued when they initially appeared.  Asimov doesn't name any authors or books in this foreword--I think the same Foreword appeared in all ten books in the series.

In his Introduction, George Zebrowski, however, names names.  He numbers James E. Gunn among a group of SF writers that includes William Tenn, Robert Sheckley, Algis Budrys and Chad Oliver, men he says have bodies of work comparable to those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert but who have not achieved the popularity of those iconic figures.  

I'm not really familiar with Herbert and Tenn, so I'll put them to the side, but it seems obvious why Asimov and Clarke the science geniuses and Heinlein and Bradbury, who have distinctive and pleasing writing styles as well as points of view about human life that suggest people are capable of great things as well as dreadful things, are more popular than Sheckley, Budrys and Oliver, who, in my opinion, don't exactly have winning writing styles and who, in my experience, single-mindedly bang away at the same unappealing, somewhat misanthropic, themes again and again. 

Zebrowski doesn't exactly contradict my assessment, but certainly puts a rosier spin on things by theorizing that Gunn, Tenn, Sheckley, Budrys and Oliver's relative lack of fame is due partly because their work makes use of irony and offers an "incisive, often comic, view of humanity," and the general public doesn't appreciate irony and misses the point.  (Yeah, that's the ticket, people prefer Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury to Robert Sheckely and Chad Oliver because people are dumb!)  Zebrowski then quotes the many accolades from critics that The Joy Makers has received over the years, tells us it is "delicious," and predicts that our own society will face the dilemma depicted in the novel, of having to choose between real life and immersive artificial entertainment.

I don't think that The Joy Makers is "delicious," by any means; I think it is just OK.  But Asimov's invocation of subtlety and Zebrowski's of irony made me wonder about how "The Unhappy Man" and "Name Your Pleasure," viewed in isolation from "The Naked Sky" as they were in magazine form, certainly seem to be advocating that you surrender your property and autonomy to experts who have been selected for altruism and are equipped with advanced technology--maybe they are in fact a satire of people who advocate such ideas?  

Well, either way, the stories that are the component parts of The Joy Makers are acceptable examples of the SF that is about ideas instead of adventure or human drama (Zebrowski dismisses such SF as being "naively heroic" and "sentimental" and directed at "adolescents."  Ouch!)

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More SF stories from the 1950s next time...if there is a next time!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Honey for the Bears by Anthony Burgess

'Coming over here with all those bourgeois clothes to sell, but too much concerned with your sexuality, dig, to really get down to a bit of hard work and sell them.  And boasting last night about having a big capitalist shop full of silver and jewels back in England.  Everybody was like disgusted.'

'Not everybody would understand what I was saying.'

'Oh, you got down to speaking Russian pretty good by the time you were trying to tear the clothes off of people.'

It feels like an eternity since I last worked on this ol' blog o' mine, social obligations and the quest for money taking up my time and keeping me from my true calling of reading crazy stories and spoiling them for others.  But today MPorcius Fiction Log is back!  With a mainstream novel I believe worthy of the attention of all readers interested in the Cold War or in sexual orientation and sexual identity, which, judging from what I am hearing on the news, should be just about everybody! 

Our last blog post was about a Fritz Leiber collection on the theme that "man is wolf to man," and within it we noticed an ad for books by Anthony Burgess, the famous British writer responsible for A Clockwork Orange.  One such book was Honey for the Bears, a 1963 novel.  Advertising works, and I was duly inspired to read Honey for the Bears, and settled on a scan available at the internet archive of a 1978 Norton hardcover edition.  

With the sole exception of a chapter which consists of the text of a letter, Honey for the Bears is written in the third-person and our main character, Paul Hussey, is always on screen.  Hussey is an English antiques dealer and an RAF veteran of the Second World War; it was during the war he met his American wife, Belinda.  During his war service, Paul was close to a fellow airman, Robert, whose aircraft was shot down by the Germans and who endured an ordeal in the ocean from which he never truly recovered.  Some years after the war, after both men had married, Paul and Robert reconnected and the two couples became very friendly, spending much time together; they even, it seems, engaged in what amounts to what people call "wife-swapping" or "swinging."  Robert died recently, apparently of a heart attack brought on by lingering effects of his war injuries, throwing Robert's wife, Sandra, into a financial crisis.

Robert, an aficionado of Russian culture and a fluent speaker of Russian, had a risky way of making money.  Robert would buy cheap synthetic dresses by the hundreds and then smuggle them into the Soviet Union, selling them wholesale to a man in Leningrad who would then retail them on the black market.  Robert's untimely demise came after buying one consignment of "twenty dozen" dresses but before departing for the Eastern Bloc, leaving these dresses on Sandra's hands.  Sandra convinced Paul and Belinda to secretly carry the dresses, in violation of Soviet law, to Russia to sell them to that black marketeer, and the couple set off on a Soviet passenger ship with the idea that their trip to Khrushchev's USSR, shortly after the flight of Yuri Gagarin, would be like a holiday.  As the novel begins, they are aboard ship, bound for Leningrad, and things are already going haywire, as Belinda has contracted a mysterious and painful rash and the ships' Soviet doctor doesn't have any penicillin with which to treat her: 

'...it [penicillin] is an English medicine.  But we are on a Soviet ship and it is right we use Soviet medicines.'

This woman blames Belinda's illness on the poor food available in Great Britain, and assures Paul that they will eat better in the USSR.

For most of the novel Belinda and Paul are separated, she in a Leningrad hospital where the medical staff psychoanalyzes her (I don't think we ever learn what that rash was all about), he out on the streets, desperately trying to avoid arrest by the authorities, who have already seized Robert's Russian associate and are pretty sure Paul is equally guilty of "bringing in capitalist goods in order to sell them and thus upset the Soviet economy."  Equally important as the plot threads concerning Belinda's health and Paul's liberty are the many mysteries about Paul and Belinda, the dead Robert and the absent Sandra, that unfold as the novel progresses.   

There are several interesting recurring themes in Honey for the Bears.  A big one, of course, is the Cold War, and Burgess offers a peculiarly English or British or maybe European view of the struggle between the liberal democracies of the West and communist totalitarianism of the East.  Burgess portrays the Soviet Union as poor and dirty, the communist system as inefficient and inhuman and its officials as incompetent and inhumane; Western supporters of the USSR are shown to be, at best, a bunch of dopes--among Paul and Belinda's fellow passengers are a leftist British "lecturer" (I guess this is equivalent to an American assistant professor) and her posse of students, jerks who slavishly parrot the propaganda from Moscow.  But all you commies and Russophiles out there will be relieved to hear that Burgess has many arrows in his quiver and a lot more to say about the Cold War than that.  For one thing, he stresses continuities between Tsarist (as he spells it) and post-Revolutionary Russia.  More interestingly still, Paul repeatedly notices similarities between the Russian people and the working-class English people among whom he grew up.  (Paul, though now a middle-class shop owner interested in serious literature, was born into a working-class family, and did not attend university.)  Again and again a Russian's appearance reminds him of a relative of his own he knew in his youth, and Paul quickly comes to like the ordinary Russian people, no matter what atrocities the Soviet authorities inflict on him.  The ordinary people of Russia and England are essentially, Burgess seems to be suggesting, the same. 

Belinda being American, and the fact that Paul meets other expatriate Yanks in Leningrad, gives Burgess a ready platform to present opinions of the United States, and he sets up a sort of parallelism between the land of the free and the home of the brave and the Evil Empire, with Paul saying stuff like "You Americans and Russians are all the same.  You promise things and you don't keep your promises.  You just can't be trusted, that's what it is."  (Again the idea that people separated by geographic, political and ethnic boundaries are essentially the same.)  How seriously we should take Paul's assessments is an open question; for one thing, Paul is portrayed as not only a loser but also as an aggressor himself.  It seems possible that Paul's attitude is meant as much to portray the psychological effect on Great Britain of being demoted from world leader to junior partner as it is to reflect reality; it is absurd to think that two nations as different culturally, economically, politically as were the USA and the USSR in the early Sixties are "the same," but from the point of view of an exhausted Britain the similarities of the two superpowers, both (apparently at least) vigorous and expanding their might and influence, perhaps their similarities are more notable than their differences.  

Having raised the idea that Paul is a loser and an aggressor brings us to another of Honey for the Bear's big themes: sex, and in particular homosexuality and sexual ambiguity.  Homosexuality is mentioned on the first page when a minor character, Madox, opines that, in the same way homosexuals aren't homosexuals all the time, say when they are asleep or on the toilet, communists can't be communists all the time.  Burgess's novel is full of mysteries--some of which are resolved, and others of which go unsolved--and they all seem to revolve around sexual identity and sexual orientation.  For example, Paul is unable to identify the sex of another secondary character introduced on page one, an irascible trouble-making oldster in a wheelchair whom Paul dubs "Dr. Tiresias," a reference to Greek myth and of course T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, of which Burgess was a devoted fan.  We never learn this mysterious figure's sex or name; Madox, this individual's assistant, just calls his employer "the Doc."

We gradually learn as the novel progresses how unusual Paul's and Belinda's sexual lives have been.  Paul is less interested in sex than is Belinda, and it turns out that Paul and Robert had a brief homosexual fling; the woman doctor treating Belinda in the hospital claims that one of Belinda's problems is that Paul is gay and is thus does not really lover her and is unable to satisfy her.  At the apartment of a young left-wing American (who claims to want to help Paul but betrays him to the Soviet authorities), Paul gets terribly drunk and sexually assaults a series of men.

At the start of the novel, Belinda expresses bitterness, even hatred of Sandra, claiming she probably murdered Robert.  At first Paul simply thinks this is because (as he suspects) all women really hate each other, and later he wonders if it is jealously that has raised her ire--maybe Belinda suspects Paul of preferring Sandra to his own wife, or maybe Belinda preferred Robert over Paul and envies the time Sandra spent with the now forever lost Robert.  Eventually Paul realizes that Belinda and Sandra were lesbian lovers.

Paul is something of a screw up, and is repeatedly portrayed as impotent and emasculated.  For example, in a bicycle accident years ago he lost his four lower front teeth, and wears a little denture in that space.  Well, the Soviet customs agent who fails to confiscate the 240 contraband dresses or Paul's copy of the forbidden Doctor Zhivago seizes the tube of adhesive Paul uses to secure this denture, saying it is a narcotic, and throughout the middle section of the novel the thing threatens to fall out, despite Paul's efforts to jam it in place with cotton and little pieces of wood (ouch!); it is finally lost when Soviet police beat up poor Paul (ouch again!)  Paul physically forces himself on a woman who shows contempt for him and when she has finally succumbed to his desires he finds himself unable to maintain an erection, inspiring her to laugh at him.

(The sexual transgressions don't end there--we learn that Belinda was raped by her father--a professor of English--and that the young Paul was aroused by the smell of his mother.  Yikes!)

Burgess combines two of his themes--the alleged similarity of the United States and the Soviet Union and Paul's impotence--in a scene in which Paul is interrogated by the police; this scene strongly suggests Paul is meant to represent a Britain/Western Europe that is psychologically scarred by the World Wars and feels hopeless and impotent in a world in which it lies trapped between two revolutionary superpowers characterized by boundless ambition, one that transforms the world with market capitalism and the other that seeks to do so with totalitarian socialism.

'You are very optimistic in the West, that must be admitted.  You look forward to a future.'

'No,' said Paul, 'not a future.  At least not in Europe.  America's different, of course, but America's really only a kind of Russia.  You've no idea how pleasant it is not to have any future.  It's like having a totally efficient contraceptive.'  

'Or like being impotent,' said Zverkov.  Paul blushed.  

In the last quarter of Honey for the Bears, Belinda leaves Paul for the lesbian doctor who has been psychoanalyzing her, following her to her ancestral home in the Crimea on the coast of the Sea of Azov.  Belinda leaves Paul a letter that constitutes the entire text of a chapter and gives Burgess a chance to parody both Americans and English people by depicting an American view of England.  Perhaps the most memorable sally in the letter is Belinda's idea that a life of relative freedom and wealth has made Love with a capital "L" almost disappear in Britain and America, because so many substitutes for Love are easily available; in Russia, by contrast, Love flourishes, because Love is all the people of the USSR have amid their many enduing hardships. 

Dr. Tiresias returns to the narrative--it is revealed this mysterious character is a smuggler who brings contraband to the Soviet Union secreted in his or her wheelchair.  Because Belinda is staying behind, Paul has an extra passport and an extra place on the ship upon which he will be leaving the worker's paradise; the Doc arranges for a young Russian man wanted by the authorities who has long been in hiding to take Belinda's place on the ship.  Is this guy really the feeble-minded but physically massive son of a dissident musician who was Robert's favorite composer?  Or just a violent criminal who has aided Dr. Tiresias in his or her smuggling and will rat out the Doc if the ruthless Soviet cops get their hands on him?      

In keeping with the novel's themes of gender-bending and of ludicrous incompetence and failure, this joker is very badly disguised as a woman, and he and Paul are caught by the crew of the ship en route to Helsinki.  In port in Finland the two Soviet police officers who beat up Paul come back into his life, tasked with taking him and the cross-dressing fugitive back to Leningrad.  In an inversion of the shipboard events at the start of the story, in which a communist English academic and her mob of leftist students maligned Paul, Paul and his slow-witted companion are rescued by a Russophobic British lecturer who leads a squad of hefty English football fans in disrupting the transfer of the captives to the shore.  

The story ends on a hopeful note as Paul accepts his homosexuality and reflects that small countries like Finland and England have a role to play in the world now dominated by the Americans and the Soviet communists: the job of preserving the beautiful high culture of the past from the market efficiency of the USA and the gruesome totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.  Maybe we should see Honey For the Bears as a warning from a conservative about the dangers to happiness, love and freedom posed by both the market and the state.

As I have chronicled, Honey for the Bears addresses all sorts of interesting topics and is full of allusions and references to art, music and literature (I have limited myself to a mention of Eliot, but Shakespeare and Tolstoy and others are in there.)  The novel is also cleverly structured and written; everything fits together in a satisfying way--the way passionate lecturers, a female useful idiot and then a male historian who oddly has it in for Russians because of things he read in his research on Richard Chancellor, bookend the story is one example.  At the same time, Paul's saga is kind of sad and sometimes disgusting, and in many ways, including morally, it is ambiguous--none of the characters is very likable or admirable, for example.  So, it is not exactly a fun or light read. 

Thumbs up from me, but be forewarned, though it is marketed as a comedy, Honey for the Bears is no joy ride, people!

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It's back to science fiction stories for our next episode, oh my brothers.  Stay tuned!

Friday, May 13, 2022

Fritz Leiber: The Night of the Wolf

In 1966 Ballantine released a paperback collection of four stories by Fritz Leiber, The Night of the Wolf, which has a below-average Richard Powers cover.  Leiber is a popular guy, whose name sells books, so Fritz's name takes up half the cover and Powers' characteristic mysterious and evocative figures and structures are relegated to like a quarter of the cover.  Ten years later a British edition of the collection, one with a literal dystopian-adventure cover image that specifically illustrates one of the stories, was published.

The Night of the Wolf offers four stories with the word "wolf" in the title; these stories all appeared originally in magazines (Amazing, Galaxy and Astounding) between 1944 and 1962 with different titles, none of which had "wolf" in them.  (The boys down in marketing are always trying to trick SF fans into buying stories they have already read.)  Leiber even integrates the wolf theme into his dedication of the volume to Judith Merril, doing so in a way that may perhaps offend today's sensibilities.

I recently purchased a stack of paperbacks by Fritz Leiber from Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, and the US edition of The Night of the Wolf was one of them.  Let's check out these stories from the chronicler of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the star of Equinox, even though the text on the back cover seems to be warning us these stories are satires.

"The Lone Wolf" AKA "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" (1962)

Preceding each story in The Night of the Wolf is a little intro that tries to link the four tales into a sort of grand narrative or episodic future history, and hammers home the book's main themes.  In the intro to "The Lone Wolf," Leiber tells us we humans, in contrast to our cousins the apes, are homicidally crazy, and hide our insanity from ourselves "by inventing paranoid ideas like God."  Fritz, you are supposed to show me, not tell me!  

Fears of a Soviet missile attack have become so severe that most Americans now live underground!  These subterraneans rationalize their decision to dwell beneath the Earth's surface with such convincing arguments as "It's a lot easier living in one room....You don't have to tramp from room to room hunting things."

Gusterson and his wife Daisy are still living above the surface with their three kids in their twentieth-floor apartment in Cleveland.  A friend of theirs, Fay, comes up from the shelter city to visit every so often.  Gusterson is a novelist and he is full of ideas, and Fay, who manages an "invention team" down below, often prods him for ideas for new inventions.  Leiber is fascinated by the sexual charms of teenaged girls, as we have seen in so many of his stories, and one of Gusterson's ideas is a mask that can make an adult woman "look like a seventeen-year-old sexpot."  Another of Gusterson's ideas is a portable reminder machine that will alert you of appointments and when your favorite TV show is broadcast and that sort of thing.

Over the next several weeks on successive visits Fay reports on the progress of these two inventions.  The beauty mask is a disaster, as rioting teenagers have been using them as a disguise and the young actress used--without her authorization--as the model for the mask is suing the manufacturer.  But the reminder device, dubbed "a tickler" (after what it is said secretaries would call the file of stuff they were supposed to remind the boss of), is a big hit with the government and other large institutions.  The tickler sits on your shoulder and a little wire leads to a little earphone through which it speaks to you.  The device can not only keep employees on schedule, but teach them their jobs and manage their labor, outlining every step of a process.  Later models of the tickler manage morale via subliminal messages based on the mantras of Emile Coue, and even manage mood by intravenously injecting drugs into those who wear them.  Gusterson worries the ticklers are graduating from becoming tools or servants to becoming masters, and goes down into the subterranean city to warn Fay--but he's too late!  Below ground, he finds that the ticklers are already self-aware robots intent on self-preservation and that wearing one is already mandatory among the subterranean population and will soon also be required of the remaining surface dwellers!

The ticklers take over, and their leader, the tickler riding Fay, comes to Gusterson to consult him.  The ticklers regard Gusterson as a sort of god or guru, he having "invented" them.  Gusterson saves the Earth from robot tyranny by convincing the ticklers they should build spaceship bodies and divorce themselves from the slow and dim lummoxes that are humans and search the galaxy for a planet of their own.

"The Lone Wolf" AKA "The Creature from Cleveland Depths" moves at a brisk pace and is basically pleasant and intriguing, with all kinds of SF ideas and cultural references and some philosophical forays.  While it does have horror and misanthropic elements its general tone is jaunty and light.  Twenty-first-century readers will perhaps see some parallels between the ticklers and our ubiquitous smart phones.  There are also plenty of Cold War references--to the Soviet Union and the fear it inspires, for example, and various missile tests and hypothetical weapons systems.  I can moderately recommend this one.        

"The Creature from Cleveland Depths" first appeared in Galaxy.  The tale there is adorned with quite good illustrations by Wallace Wood (the robot is very fine as are the depictions of young ladies--hubba hubba) that spoil everything that happens in the story; the intro there stresses not that your religious beliefs are a paranoid reflection of your homicidal tendencies, but one of the story's themes, the distinction between the rare inner-directed man (exemplified by Gusterson) and the typical, outer-directed, man.  Under its original title, which is far more appropriate (Gusterson has a good relationship with his wife and kids and tries to help his friend and the entire human race--he is in no sense a lone wolf) the story has appeared in a number of Leiber collections, including another one I bought in the same batch with The Night of the Wolf, You're All Alone, and several printed in foreign translation.

"The Wolf Pair" AKA "The Night of the Long Knives" (1960)

Under its original title, "Night of the Long Knives," which again is superior to the lupine title affixed to it here in The Night of the Wolf, this tale was an Amazing cover story.  In 1971 it was split in two parts and serialized in the French magazine Fiction (here in The Night of the Wolf, "The Wolf Pair" is like 80 pages.)

The intro to "The Wolf Pair" here in this collection indicates this story takes place in the same universe as "The Lone Wolf," but later, 20 or 25 years after a nuclear war that wiped out the subterranean cities and reduced most of the American countryside to a Deathland of radioactive dust.  "The Wolf Pair" is a first-person narrative presented by a guy who wanders the Deathland, and describes to us in great detail the terrain of the Deathland and the psychology of the people like himself--Deathlanders are loners who don't talk, and who are driven by a powerful urge to kill all they meet--though sometimes the urge to slay is overwhelmed by the urge to fuck!

Among ruined gas tanks and electrical towers that Leiber waxes poetic in describing (the red light of the sky shows through little cracks in the gas tanks, forming a lace pattern), the narrator meets a woman with a hook for a hand and a radiation scar on her face--our hero finds the scar sexy, and the two, without speaking, go through the Deathlander ritual of laying down their arsenals of weapons to have sex.  The narrator even removes his special razor-sharp dentures! 

There are still a few civilized spots in North America, and an anti-grav aircraft from one of them makes an emergency landing near the two lovers and they appease the murder lust Leiber insists we all have in our hearts by slaying the pilot.  A third Deathlander appears, an old geezer who is atypically voluble, and our narrator and his new girlfriend finally speak and we finally learn their names, Ray and Alice.  The old guy they call "Pop."    

(The cover of the British edition of The Night of the Wolf depicts Ray and Alice, but inexplicably suggests the story takes place in the United Kingdom.)

The trio pile into the aircraft to loot it of high tech devices and food, and then, dreaming it will take them someplace that wasn't ruined in the nuclear war, activate its automatic pilot system.  The vehicle leaves the Midwest, where they are, and heads east.  A voice addresses them; it turns out that the aircraft is carrying a precious cargo from one spot of civilization to another; these two high-tech areas are at war with a third.  The voice convinces them to drop the cargo out the door at a specified point, though Alice is reluctant to and tries, unsuccessfully, to stop Pops from making the drop.  Mission accomplished, the anti-grav vehicle carries them back west.

On the flight the three Deathlanders sahre reminiscences, unburdening themselves.  Pops talks about how he is a member of Assassins Anonymous, a group of Deathlanders who have killed but want to stop killing.  (In this story Leiber not only puts forward his theory that we humans are hardwired to be murderers, but the idea that killing is addictive, that our desire to kill is like the desire for booze of alcoholics or the need to gamble of compulsive gamblers.)  Alice tells the story of how she was raped by the gang who killed her father and eventually got her revenge on them.  And Ray, our narrator, reveals that twenty or twenty five years ago he was an officer in the United States Air Force and pushed the button that sent a flight of ICBMs to Moscow.  (Buttons are a leitmotif of this story; the aircraft is full of buttons--there are no control levers or knobs or anything, just buttons--and that precious cargo Pops tossed out the door was a box full of little cubes with buttons that Ray presumes are some sort of grenades.)

The automatic aircraft returns them to where they murdered the pilot.  Pop figures out what the pilot was up to and what the cubes are--the cubes are hypodermic needles that can cure a plague that was running rampant in the civilized city to which they delivered most of the cubes, while the pilot had made an unauthorized stop to administer a dose to his girlfriend, who was staffing a one-man secret base hidden among the gas tanks.  Our cast finds this poor plague-infected woman and Pop gives her a dose he pocketed before releasing the box out the aircraft's window.  Their adventure, particularly the chance to talk over their experiences in the confined space of the aircraft, has inspired in Ray and Alice a desire to reform, and they join Pop and Assassins Anonymous.

While Leiber is confident we humans are inherently murderous, this story suggests he thinks that individuals can reform, can break their addiction to murder.  The story also feels like an endorsement of Alcoholics Antonymous, and like something Leiber would write while working through his own feelings of guilt over some misdeed; perhaps it expresses his hope that he might be forgiven and learn how to behave.  (Wikipedia does point out that Leiber was an alcoholic and had a close association with AA.)

"The Wolf Pair" is well-written on the level of individual sentences and is sort of shocking and throws a lot of philosophical and sociological ideas at you--it is ambitious and heartfelt and so certainly a worthwhile read.  But is it fun, is it entertaining?

Though the story ends on a note of hope, it is bleak and depressing, and I had no sympathy or affection for the main characters--I was rooting for the doomed pilot when Ray and Alice were stalking him, and over the succeeding pages I kept hoping that our main characters would suffer some sort of punishment for their monstrous crime.  I'm not the forgiving type, and I'm not the type to take seriously "who killed the Kennedys?  Well, after all, it was you and me" arguments that society creates criminals, and I'm not the type to think the United States deserves any blame for the Cold War--I think burglars, muggers, rapists and murderers are to blame for the things that they do and that they should be severely punished, and I think the Communist Party of the USSR was to blame for the Cold War.  I don't think crime and war are usually the result of psychological problems--I think most crimes and wars are the result of rational calculations of criminals and aggressors, calculations that are often severely flawed.  So, I am not the intended audience of Leiber's story...or maybe I am the intended audience and I am just not finding Fritz's arguments persuasive.  

Another issue with "The Wolf Pair" is the possibility that readers will feel Leiber goes overboard--Assassins Anonymous and razor sharp dentures so you can bite your victims to death are sort of silly, aren't they--and the passages about the urge to kill and all the strange behaviors Deathlanders engage in, like refusing to talk, are a little too extreme to be believable and even worse go on quite long and can be repetitious.  The silly stuff in "The Lone Wolf" seemed to fit because the whole tone of that story was jocular, but the tone of this story is super serious, so wacky stuff that pops up sticks out like a sore thumb.

It has its problems, but I still can give "The Wolf Pair" AKA "The Night of the Long Knives" a moderate recommendation.        


"Crazy Wolf"
AKA "Sanity" (1944)

The earliest printed of the stories in The Night of the Wolf, "Crazy Wolf" first appeared in Astounding as "Sanity," alongside stories by A. E. van Vogt, Clifford D. Simak, and George O. Smith, and an article by Willy Ley on the rocket artillery contemporaneously in use in the war in Europe with lots of photos that may appeal to all you WWII buffs out there.

"Crazy Wolf" is a mediocre gimmick story that consists almost entirely of a conversation between two characters.  The intro to the story in my 1966 paperback tells us that it takes place after the world has been fully rebuilt, and the main text makes clear that there is a single world government and war and economic scarcity have been banished.  The Earth is like a paradise!  Or is it?

The two characters are the head executive of the world government--the World Manager--and one of the top ministers--the General Secretary.  The executive believes that he is one of the very few sane men left in the world--having read now-forgotten 20th-century books on psychology, he has been able to diagnose all the government ministers and much of the general public.  His theory is that man needs challenge and purpose to remain mentally stable, and that the lack of war and social inequality has taken away challenge and purpose and so almost everybody is insane.  During his ten-year tenure as World Manager, he has been secretly educating a small cadre of people who are the most sane in the world, training them to maintain their sanity and to run the government so they can replace the current, insane, government ministers.  At the same time he has been decreeing regulations to foster sanity among the masses, like outlawing provocative books and intoxicating beverages.  As the story begins, the big day has come--the ministers are all going to be replaced with the sane people the World Manager has been grooming for a decade.

On what is to be his last day the General Secretary comes in to talk to the World Manager, and reveals that the ministers have been bamboozling and humoring the World Manager for ten years.  The General Secretary admits that it is true that almost everybody is insane, by 20th-century standards, but argues what constitutes "sanity" and "insanity" is just a reflection of socially constructed norms.  Rather than their various insanities being an obstacle to high performance, the ministers have all undertaken responsibilities that their psychological imbalances suit them for.  All the World Manager's decrees have been ignored or countermanded or circumvented--the forbidden books and intoxicating beverages have all been available all this time, a truth kept from the World Manger via fabricated reports.  Even that cohort of specially trained individuals has been in on the conspiracy the whole time--it is the World Manager who is retiring today, not his ministers.

The idea that sanity is just adherence to social norms, which reminds us of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault, is sort of interesting, and the idea of wise managers finding jobs for mental cases that suit the peculiarities of their psychologies, turning those mental illnesses into strengths, is sort of fun and clever, but these ideas only take up a few paragraphs of this story; the rest feels like filler.  I'm judging "Crazy Wolf" AKA "Sanity" merely acceptable.

We are sometimes told that science fiction is the literature of ideas, and I guess because "Sanity" is all about ideas it has received the endorsement of many of the important SF editors, even though this blogger thinks it lacks human drama.  (I'm more interested in drama and literary merit than science, it is true.)  After John W. Campbell, Jr. included it in Astounding, "Sanity" was reprinted in anthologies edited by Groff Conklin, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, and Martin H. Greenberg (with Isaac Asimov.)  Maybe I underestimated the novelty and power for people in the 1940s and '50s of the idea that sanity is merely conformity to conventional norms because I have heard it so many times in my own adult life, which began some thirty years later. 

"The Wolf Pack" AKA "Let Freedom Ring" (1950)

Here's another story that debuted in Amazing and was presented as a two-part serial in the French periodical Fiction.  "The Wolf Pack," which more often has appeared as "Let Freedom Ring," rehashes some of the elements and themes we just saw in "Crazy Wolf" AKA "Sanity," and, according to the little intro that precedes it, takes place some time after that story, when the system of diagnosing people's insanities and slotting them into appropriate jobs has broken down. 

For 200 years there has been no real war, economic scarcity or outbreaks of disease--life is easy!  But the lack of challenge, and the lack of opportunities to appease the death wish and lust for murder that dwells in every human heart, periodically lead to alarming spikes in suicide and murder rates and raise the specter of some kind of revolution and total collapse of civilization into barbarism!  The solution to these social and political problems is war!  But not a real war with fighting; after all, there are no material or ideological disputes to trigger conflict and no foreign enemies to fight against.  Instead, every two or three decades, a bogus "war" is conducted, in which the world government just drafts 5% of the population of young men at random, and spends vast amounts of money and resources building a huge armada of unneeded warships.  After a few months of pointless training the randomly selected fighting men board the warships and sail to some arbitrary point where the ships self destruct and all the draftees are slain!  The sadness of those families who lose a son, the relief of those who don't, and the atmosphere of fear and death and hardship generated by the human sacrifices and the waste of resources on mountains of unnecessary military equipment and supplies, reduce almost to nil the suicide and murder rates and unite the public, preserving order.

As the story begins, a new one of these fake wars that will kill millions of young able-bodied conscripts (and a small group of women volunteers!) has been declared.

"The Wolf Pack" is like 65 pages, and the narrative is in the third-person omniscient, and we see the story from the different vantage points of numerous characters, none of whom is interesting or likable.  Some sections focus on a young man, Norm, who is one of the unlucky one in twenty eligible men marked for sacrifice.  Some star the chief executive of the world government, a guy who, like the chief exec in "Sanity," is a 20th-century history buff.  He and his inner circle of advisors have come to believe there is a secret underground working against them, endeavoring through subtle and sneaky means to "cure" the mental illnesses the underground believes the top government officials suffer from (each minister has a particular mental issue--one guy is obsessed with chess, for example.)  Some sections foreground individual members of the administration, others describe the plotting and meetings of the members of the underground of would-be psychiatrists dedicated to giving therapy to all of humanity.  This underground has come to the conclusion that they must stop the current war; they are convinced that if they can't succeed in curing the insanity of the human race this time, they never will.

Norm flees his home when he is shaken by the realization--in the only good scene in the story--that his family members are a bunch of government-loving sheep who truly think he should accept being sacrificed.  In the crime ridden parts of town, he meets a "trim" pretty girl (Leiber refers to her repeatedly as "elfin") who is a member of the psychiatric underground.  She enlists Norm into the underground, and he returns home to join the suicide army as their spy.  The "war" effort is sabotaged and public morale undermined so effectively by the underground that the prosecution of the war is in doubt--the chief executive boldly responds by volunteering to join the doomed fleet on the day it is to set sail, and "volunteering" all his top minsters to join him!  Norm is an officer on the flagship of the doomed fleet, and meets the chief exec and the man's great charisma tests Norm's loyalty to the underground.             

The story ends very unsatisfyingly, with the leaders of the underground short-circuiting the suicide mission of the fleet by using their many devices and tactics, apparently including telepathy, and their encyclopedic knowledge of the particular mental problems of individuals, to drive everybody totally insane so that they fight each other, scatter, take off their clothes, whatever, rendering them unable to detonate the explosives that will annihilate the fleet.  I guess it furthers Leiber's point that the human race is hopelessly irredeemable that the underground, which was trying to achieve its goals by curing people surreptitiously, resorting to exacerbating everybody's insanity when it seems the resourceful chief executive has foiled their Plan A. 

There is a lame surprise ending, which has been foreshadowed several times, and seems to have little to do with resolving the plot--the chief exec's particular insanity is that he thinks he is Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe we are supposed to think that a global civil war is going to break out (as the insanity outbreak of the fleet spreads to the entire world) and he will be a good leader who will help bring the civil war to a satisfactory conclusion?  I don't really get it.

Of the four stories in The Night of the Wolf, the experience of reading this final story, "The Wolf Pack," was the worst.  For one thing, after reading 150 pages about how all people are insane, reading another 65 pages of the same stuff was kind of a drag.  I think there is more to my disappointment than that, though--I think this story really is objectively the worst of the lot.  "The Crazy Wolf" had the virtue of being short.  "The Lone Wolf" and "The Wolf Pair" each had a marked and consistent tone that gave them a distinctive flavor--the former was sort of jokey and light-hearted, the latter unrelentingly grim--and each also had characters endowed with personality.  "The Wolf Pack" is long and dull, with no atmosphere and no interesting characters; much of the story consists of dry depictions of strategy sessions or the inner deliberations of individual strategists, and the character interactions (like the leader being some sort of recreation of Abraham Lincoln, and Norm's girlfriend's brother being a member of the secret police) don't add anything to the plot or atmosphere.  

Gotta give "The Wolf Pack" AKA "Let Freedom Ring" a thumbs down.  

**********

The back cover of The Night of the Wolf suggests that the stories therein are an attack on "militarism" that encourage people to be peaceful and that Leiber is a voice of sanity in our insane world.  I think we can quibble that "militarism" and "urge to kill" are two different, though I suppose somewhat related, things.  A more substantial complaint about the back cover text is that The Night of the Wolf doesn't really seem to offer any solutions to the problems of war and widespread insanity, but just to bemoan them.  Rather than "an ironic encouragement to the peace of the world," what the book actually is is unbridled misanthropy and hopelessness, a series of variations on the old saw that "man is wolf to man" that argue that humans are essentially insane--irredeemably murderous and suicidal and addicted to the scam that is religion.  Individual stories may have elements of hope, but the linking introductions seem intent on quashing any hope.  

Maybe we can't blame Fritz for the text on the outside of the book, but perhaps we can blame Fritz for the effort to shoehorn these stories into a single narrative with those tendentious introductions, an effort which is a failure.  The intros actually undermine the book as a whole, robbing the stories of nuance and surprise and puzzling the reader by referring to a "League of Sanity" that doesn't actually appear in all of the stories and, when it does, doesn't go by that name as far as I can remember.   

I think we have to consider the possibility that crafting a collection of stories which all have the same theme and make the same argument is inherently a risky proposition, because reading them can get monotonous.  Luckily, three of these stories are not bad.  

**********

Squint or click to read J. R. R. Tolkien's dissing of the first American paperback editions
of The Lord of the Rings

The last three pages of my copy of The Night of the Wolf are ads for other paperback Ballantine books.  Englishmen J. R. R. Tolkien and Anthony Burgess each get an entire page to themselves.  The Tolkien ad stresses with some repetitiveness that the Ballantine editions are the legit author-approved article, a response to the existence of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings spearheaded by the piratical Donald A. Wollheim.  The Burgess page advertises his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, another book that had a somewhat problematic American first edition, as well as The Wanting Seed, which I read and blogged about back in 2017, and two other books.  The third advertising page recommends to SF readers Edgar Pangborn's Davy, which I wrote about back in 2015, Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson's The Reefs of Space, which I read before I started blogging, and Robert Conquest's A World of Difference, which I bought recently in Front Royal, Virginia.

Also hawked is a Jack Vance collection with a great Richard Powers cover; for this image Powers uses bold thick lines in a way I find quite exciting.  I gotta look for this thing at my usual bookstores here out in the country and "inside the Beltway," where I find myself periodically.  There are four stories in Future Tense, three I have blogged about here at MPorcius Fiction Log: "Dodkin's Job," "Ullward's Retreat," and "Sail 25" AKA "The Dust of Far Suns;" and one I have yet to read, "The Git of Gab."  Another reason to get my hands on this thing of beauty!         

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Startling Stories, Sept '49: H Kuttner & C L Moore, J D MacDonald and L R Hubbard

In our last thrilling episode we read a story by Arthur C. Clarke that was reprinted in Startling Stories in September 1949.  That issue of SS also features stories by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, John D. MacDonald, and L. Ron Hubbard that I figured I would read, as well as fun illustrations of skyscrapers, monsters, and beautiful women by Virgil Finlay and some less famous artists.  As usual, I'll be reading the magazine at the world's greatest website, the internet archive, where preserved for all of us who have contrived to pay this month's electric bill is all that text and all those illustrations, plus ads for all the products a man needs to convince some dame to marry him, like razor blades, hair tonic, and a correspondence course in Swedish massage (not that we would expect a guy who reads a magazine with a cartoonish dinosaur on its cover to have any trouble with the ladies!) 

Forget her buddy, all you need is your fur baby and your collection
of scientifiction mags!

"The Portal in the Picture" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 

Here in Startling this novel is credited to Henry Kuttner.  When it was reprinted in an Ace Double in 1954, it was renamed Beyond Earth's Gates and credited to C. L. Moore and Lewis Padgett (Padgett is a pen name Kuttner and Moore generally used for collaborations.)  In 1987 the story was reprinted in a Kuttner collection and attributed solely to him, and in 2012 Gateway/Orion produced an e-book of the tale that they credited solely to Moore.  It seems a little odd how different publishers have attributed the novel differently; I guess these are all marketing decisions and each publisher had a different theory about what would sell.

"The Portal in the Picture" starts with a prologue.  Our narrator, Eddie Burton, is in a Manhattan nightclub where a mesmerizingly beautiful woman, Malesca, is singing.  He tries to keep his eyes off this irresistible goddess as she performs.  After her song she comes to his table--Malesca and Eddie knew each other in the past, and she wants to go out with him after she knocks off work.  Everyone in the club is amazed when Eddie turns down the woman they consider the most beautiful in the world.

The main text, fifteen chapters, is a flashback to the adventure in which Eddie and a selfish and irritating woman, Lorna Maxwell, were accidentally transported to an alternate Earth where Lorna was transformed into the striking beauty Malesca.

It is the 1930s, and Eddie Burton is an up-and-coming Broadway actor with three successful shows behind him.  He has inherited a fancy apartment from his Uncle Jim, a world traveler who, when Eddie was a child, told him Edgar Rice Burroughs-style stories (Tarzan and John Carter are specifically cited) apparently of his own devising set in the fantasy land of Malesco.  In the apartment is a reproduction of Henri Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, and one night when Eddie is being visited yet again by Lorna Maxwell, a conventionally pretty girl who says she is in love with Eddie and is always nagging him to help her break into show biz, a vision of a crimson city--Malesco!--appears in the picture.  Somehow, to the amazement of both, Lorna is sucked away, through the picture and into Malesco!

Eddie is blamed for Lorna's disappearance, which he cannot explain; this wrecks his career and puts him in terrible legal jeopardy--the cops can't quite pin a murder on him yet, so Eddie is eventually let out of jail, but they are still looking for clues!  Eddie searches for some clues himself--can he figure out how to get through the print to Malesco where maybe he can find Lorna and clear his name?  It turns out he can!

"The Portal in the Picture" is a very "meta" story, a story about person going to another world to have an adventure that expends a lot of verbiage referring directly to other fiction about fantasy worlds and adventures; Barsoom, the Wonderland of Alice, Oz, Erehwon, and Graustark are all mentioned, and Eddie repeatedly compares himself to John Carter and Allan Quartermain.  At times "The Portal in the Picture" seems like a parody or a satire of those sorts of adventure stories, an effort to remind us how unrealistic they are; for example, Eddie often points out, jocularly and at length, that he is not an invincible fighter, that he can't jump up a ten-foot wall, and so on.

"The Portal in the Picture" is also a story which Kuttner and Moore seem to have based on their reading about various historical periods and events, in particular the French Revolution and Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome, and about psychology and sociology.  (Kuttner studied for an advanced degree in psychology and we see a lot of psychology in Kuttner and Moore's work; I blogged about four examples here in 2015, but there are many more.)  K & M also bang a drum we've heard them bang before, making the argument that utopia isn't all it is cracked up to be.  (Consider: C. L. Moore: "Greater Than Gods" (1939), Henry Kuttner, "The Land of Time to Come" and "Remember Tomorrow" (both 1941)Kuttner and Moore, Fury, (1947)Kuttner and Moore, "The Two-Handed Engine" (1955).)

Eddie lands in Malesco, in a city in which he puts on a disguise and sneaks around and learns that Lorna the ambitious nag, in the months since her disappearance, has become some kind of idol to the people of Malesco, her face up on posters and films of her even projected onto the clouds!  Eddie meets a guy who looks like his Uncle Jim; this guy, Coriole, turns out to be Uncle Jim's son.  Uncle Jim, Eddie learns, was the leader of a rebellion against Malesco's theocracy, but he fled back to New York when the rebellion was on the verge of defeat.  His son Coriole has taken up the anti-theocratic cause, and he gives Eddie, and us readers, a lesson in Malescan history.

Malesco and our Earth are alternate timelines which had identical histories until the death of Caligula.  A different Emperor took over in Malesco than our Earth, and whereas our world witnessed the rise of Christianity in ancient times and the rise of the English-speaking peoples and representative government and capitalism in modern times, in Malesco a caste of priests who have a monopoly on math, science and technology took over and have ruled tyrannically for almost two thousand years.  They maintain their control through such means as outlawing the use of Arabic numerals--ordinary people are forced to use Roman numerals, which makes the math necessary for modern engineering difficult--and fostering a culture which regards curiosity as a sin, thus discouraging people from trying to figure out how the TVs, anti-grav elevators, and electric lights work.  A machine as simple as Eddie's cigarette lighter dumbfounds and fascinates the common people of Malesco.  

We on Earth don't know about Malesco, but the Malescan priesthood knows about our world--in fact, the priests can view our world on their TV screens.  A tenet of the absolutely bogus Malescan religion is that people who behave will go to our Earth upon death--people who are really good will go to the paradise that is New York!  The priests got hold of Lorna when she arrived and used plastic surgery and their mastery of the social sciences to mold her into a Platonic ideal of beauty!  Now she is like a spokesperson for their religion, posing as a messenger from heaven and broadcasting speeches the priests write for her that bolster their rule.  The anti-theocracy forces, led by Eddie's cousin Coriole, want Eddie to use his relationship with Lorna to get her to switch to their side.

Eddie equivocates over which side to join, and whether to join any side at all--all he wants to do is get back to New York with Lorna to save his skin from a murder rap.  He contrives to meet the high priest, who has the power to send him back to New York; this guy is fat, so we know he is the villain and Eddie will eventually join the Coriole crew.

The high priest agrees to send Eddie and Lorna back to New York if they will first give a pacifying pro-priesthood speech to a mob that has been assembled by Coriole's anti-theocratic forces--Coriole and company have been spreading the word that Eddie is going to teach them all the stuff the priests have been keeping form them about science and technology.  During the speech Eddie vacillates, unsure what to do, but his cousin and the other rebels influence Eddie so that Eddie turns the tables on the high priest.  The priest is killed by the very trap he had set for Eddie and Lorna, opening up the opportunity for Coriole and his conspirators to seize the throne and reform Malesco.

In the epilogue we learn that, back in NYC, Lorna is still pursuing Eddie, even though with her looks she doesn't need his help to get into show biz--she must really love him.  As we have seen throughout the story's sixty-five or so pages, Lorna is selfish, vapid, and annoying, so Eddie knows a marriage with her would make him miserable, but his resolve is weakening because she is now almost irresistibly good-looking.  

"The Portal in the Picture" is not very good because it is long, slow, and lacks narrative tension and narrative drive, due to many artistic decisions made by Kuttner and Moore which sap the story of drive and energy.

Eddie and Lorna are indecisive characters, and the plot is largely driven by luck and by the manipulations of Coriole, the high priest, and some other characters who have their own selfish agendas.  Eddie's motives are uninteresting--Kuttner and Moore decided to not make him driven by some kind of ambition, or ideological commitment, or love of a woman, but instead to make him "realistic," to have as his motivation merely self-preservation.  This might work if the authors had striven to portray Eddie as scared and depicted him as being in mortal peril, but Eddie never seems scared and we readers never feel he is in danger of getting killed or maimed or trapped in Malesco forever--we already know he gets back to NYC in one piece and the text includes so many jokes that no horror or suspense could possibly be generated.  As for Lorna, for some reason Kuttner and Moore made the conscious decision that she would be neither a heroine, nor a love interest, nor a villain--her character generates no strong feelings in the reader other than irritation (at times she is despicable and at other times she is pathetic) and she doesn't serve the plot as a goal for Eddie or as an obstacle to him, she is simply dead weight.  The way Eddie thinks about her and treats her is pretty shabby, but both of them are such boring characters we don't care.

"The Portal in the Picture" feels very slow, and very little actually happens.  There are way too many expository scenes of in which Eddie learns about Malesco through lectures from natives or by watching TV.  Kuttner and Moore spend more time on describing the details of history, geography and daily life in Malesco than on the characters' relationships or on adventure elements.  And what passes for "adventure elements" in "The Portal in the Picture?"  Scenes of Eddie walking around the city and having conversations with people.  Eddie does very little and shows very little initiative, but we still have to endure many long paragraphs that describe his thought processes and his speculations on the thought processes of others.  The final scene, in which Eddie and Lorna are to give speeches to the assembled crowd of people skeptical of priestly rule, contains paragraph after paragraph on mob psychology.  The references to other adventure stories are also too numerous; every time Eddie has to do anything he reflects on what the hero of a fictional adventure tale would do in a similar circumstance.  This gets repetitive, and further weighs down the already slow pace of the narrative and further deadens the already limited emotional impact of the decisions and challenges Eddie faces.

Gotta give "The Portal in the Picture" a thumbs down.    

"A Condition of Beauty" by John D. MacDonald

Way back in 2014 I read crime novelist John D. MacDonald's 1951 SF novel Wine of the Dreamers, as well as two of his 1948 short SF stories, "Ring Around the Redhead" and "A Child is Crying."  In 2015 I read MacDonald's 1949 story "Flaw" and his 1950 story "Spectator Sport" in a blog post I billed as devoted to pessimistic SF stories.  After a hiatus of over six years, MPorcius Fiction Log again offers coverage of John D. MacDonald's SF output!

"A Condition of Beauty" takes up like four pages of text here in Startling.  It is a competent filler story with an obvious and predictable twist, but, if we are feeling generous, we can say it is a rumination on to what extent our ideas of beauty are socially constructed and to what extent they are instinctive, hard-wired into our brains by evolution and heredity.

The story starts in a dungeon.  The three prisoners there, a young man, a young woman, and a pessimistic old geezer, have been condemned because they are hideously ugly and terribly strong.  The scene then shifts to a space exploration ship.  The crew scans a star system, finds the planet where the dungeon is, and discovers on its surface a Terran space ship which must have crashed there "a hundred and ten generations ago."  A squad of the spacers investigates and discovers the descendants of the crew of the wrecked vessel, which they use as a place of worship and sacrifice.  The conditions on this planet are only barely suitable for human life, and over the centuries, thanks to selective breeding apparently "guided" by "some sixth sense," the descendents of the shipwrecked Earthers have evolved radically.  MacDonald doesn't describe the evolved humans, but they are so disgusting that at the sight of them many of the spacemen vomit inside their vacuum suits.  The sight of aliens that look like slugs or insects or reptiles has never made these hardy adventurers toss their cookies, but these evolved humans are nauseating because they are a travesty of the human form and trigger disgust at a sub- or unconscious level.

The spacers free the people from the dungeon--as we expect, they are "throwbacks" who look like normal Earth humans.  The old guy keels over from shock, but the spacers will bring the man and woman, both of them lookers, to Earth and hopefully, among other conventional homo sapiens, they will get over their disgust with their own bodies and live normal happy lives.

Acceptable.  The emphasis on the unconscious, the subconscious, and alleged "sixth senses," as well as cultural and social pressures, in guiding human belief and behavior is sort of interesting.  

"A Condition of Beauty" would be reprinted in a 1966 magazine, Great Science Fiction Stories.   


"Beyond the Black Nebula" by L. Ron Hubbard 

People are down on L. Ron Hubbard because of his scam religion, but I enjoyed the parts of Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth I read as a kid when they were new (though I didn't like them enough to finish either of these sprawling sagas), and in 2014 when I read Hubbard's novel To The Stars I liked it; Final Blackout, which I read the same year, I thought merely acceptable, but not actually bad.  So I feel there's a chance I'm going to appreciate this here story, even though it looks like it was never reprinted in English.  According to isfdb, "Beyond the Black Nebula" is part of a series called "The Conquest in Space," and in the 1980s our Italian friends reprinted this entire series in book form.  

It is the spacefaring future.  Mankind has explored many systems, but many remain to be explored.  In his youth, Anthony Twain went on a few of the early interstellar missions, but then he switched careers, gaining fame and fortune as a writer whose beat was chronicling humanity's conquest of space.  

Like so many celebrity authors, Twain employed a squad of ghostwriters to maintain his output.  Somehow one of these ghosts penned and got published--without Twain's knowledge--a book appearing under Twain's name which is full of libelous bullshit.  Twain's reputation and finances were destroyed.  Now an old man, how can he recover his reputation?   

Twain has the crazy idea of getting together some money to go on a dangerous expedition to a part of space everyone is scared to go to, a big patch of blackness.  Nobody wants to finance such an expedition, but some criminals hear about Twain's eagerness to command a ship and they buy a decrepit old vessel and have it put into working order and offer it to Twain--they will be his crew.

The criminals don't want to explore some uncharted black region that everybody is scared of; they pull a gun on Twain and tell him to take them to some planet they have selected for some nefarious purpose which is never disclosed.  Twain tries to trick them, to fly to the black region without them realizing it, but they figure it out and a fight ensues.  Twain comes out on top, but during the fight the ship goes off course and becomes totally lost.  Twain eventually figures out where they are and how to get back to Earth.

Twain thinks his mission was a failure, but it turns out that the ship's black box automatic recording systems tracked the entire voyage and reveal to the technicians on Earth that Twain flew through the black region and now its mystery is solved.  Twain is a hero and his reputation is saved!

The style and basic idea of this story are fine, but the story feels like it was rushed, like it could have been improved with revisions that filled in some blanks (what crime were the criminals going to commit?) and made things more interesting (the black region is just a substanceless shadow?  Boring!) and more convincing (the black boxes keep track of and record the ship's location but the ship's systems can't do the same calculations or access the black boxes' recordings during flight?)  Merely acceptable.

********** 

Kind of disappointing, but they can't all be winners, can they?  And it is always worthwhile to explore the work of famous and/or important contributors to the SF field, so, no regrets!

Next time, we explore four stories by Fritz Leiber.