Thursday, June 30, 2022

R A Lafferty: "What's the Name of that Town?," "Hog-Belly Honey," and "The Hole on the Corner"

Let's read three more 1960s stories by R. A. Lafferty that were included in the 1970 collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers.  Over the years, we've already talked about quite a few stories from the collection, including "Slow Tuesday Night," "All the People," "Through Other Eyes," "The Six Fingers of Time," "Snuffles," "One at a Time," "Land of the Great Horses," "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne," "In Our Block," "Seven-Day Terror," "Name of the Snake," and "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun."  After today's three, we will be pretty close to having covered them all.  We may live to see such a day, my friends!

"What's the Name of That Town?" (1964)

It is the year 2000.  The eggheads at the Institute set one of their most powerful computers, a machine with a reputation for telling jokes and concocting hoaxes, a difficult task: "seek to discover something not known to exist, by a close study of the absence of evidence."  The supercomputer uncovers a number of odd anomalies--two examples: young bears are called "pups" nowadays but there are hints they were called something else in the past; there is a mysterious extra space lying between two words in an Hungarian encyclopedia--adds them up and makes a startling discovery.  Back in 1980 a Midwestern American city of seven million people was totally destroyed, and everyone in the world resolved to forget this heartbreaking catastrophe--to that end one of the scientists at this very Institute invented a marvelous machine that erased every reference to the city and the disaster from recorded history!  In addition, a hypnotic signal was broadcast throughout the world that made everyone suppress the memory of the town and cataclysm.  When the computer reveals to the collected scientists that once there existed a city named Chicago and it was wiped out, and they were essential parties to the suppression of the memory of his horror, the hypnotic effect is so powerful the scientists refuse to believe it, thinking the machine is playing an elaborate joke on them.

A fun little tale, and our second joke about the Chicago Cubs in less than a month (the team was the butt of a joke from Fred Saberhagen in his novel Love Conquers All, you may recall.)  The story raises an interesting question--do we, in real life, actually try to forget historical calamities, wars and revolutions and plagues and so on?  Or do we endlessly memorialize them, even build our identities and political programs around them?  Maybe we strive to remember some disasters and forget others?  Is Lafferty spurring us to consider whether forgetting terrible events is a good or bad idea, or just sort of riffing on the standard SF idea that we see so often in Lovecraft- and Howard-style fiction that the human race has forgotten a past full of strange human civilizations as well as aliens and magic or whatever?

"What's the Name of that Town?" first appeared in the same issue of Galaxy in which editor Fred Pohl  dared to present to the public "The Children of Night," a story by Fred Pohl which I recently denounced as lame.  "What's the Name of that Town?" would go on to appear in Groff Conklin's anthology Science Fiction Oddities, and in the souvenir book, Fantastic Chicago, put together by Martin H. Greenberg for the 1991 SF Convention held in the Windy City.  A final fun note: An Italian Lafferty collection based on the contents of Nine Hundred Grandmothers took "What's the Name of That Town?" as its title story and bearing a Karel Thole cover illustrating the story with the images of a clownish computer and a distorted Chicago skyline.  Karel Thole is like a hero; not only is he an able artist when it comes to line, color and composition who works in a distinctive style, but he actually reads the fiction of the magazines he illustrates and tailors his illustrations to match the specific stuff that happens in the stories, often in surprising and creative ways.  He deserves some kind of medal.    

"Hog-Belly Honey" (1965)

The narrator of "Hog-Belly Honey" is what we might call an idiot savant: the text is full of grammatical mistakes and weird spellings and/or pronunciations and our hero's behavior betrays a total lack of understanding of social conventions and etiquette and an absolute dearth of empathy.  Despite committing a dozen solecisms on every page, the narrator is an inventor who has made a bazillion dollars and can do complex math in his head as fast as a computer.  

The narrator meets another genius and together they invent an intelligent "nullifier," a device of use in cleaning and tidying--it can make things disappear, and with great discrimination select what should be saved and what is only worthy of being discarded.  "It can posit moral and ethical can set up and enforce categories."  If directed at a man's face, it will shave him, but leave a mustache and beard if this would enhance his appearance.  Aimed at a drawer full of love letters, it will make vanish the insincere ones and let alone those expressing genuine passion.  And so on.

The punchline of the story is that the nullifier starts making a small percentage of people that come within its range disappear, people the machine deems worthless.  Friends and relatives of the disappeared violently disagree with the nullifier's murderous assessments, and while the narrator escapes their wrath his partner is lynched.  Is Lafferty suggesting it is folly to leave moral and ethical decisions to a machine?  If the vanished individuals are missed, surely somebody saw value in them, and so the machine's judgement that they were worthless is faulty.

Entertaining.  "Hog-Belly Honey" debuted in F&SF, and was later included in a volume of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction and, in 1973, the French edition of the magazine.     

"The Hole on the Corner" (1967)

"The Hole on the Corner" was first printed in Orbit 2, and Damon Knight liked it enough to include it in the Best of volume covering the first ten Orbit anthologies.  It also made its way into themed anthologies on time travel and alternate dimensions.

"The Hole on the Corner" is more absurd, less surprising, and less philosophical than the last five (six if we count "Snuffles") Lafferty stories we have read, and less rewarding, but still not bad.

Homer comes home to find his wife Regina in a clinch with a green-skinned, hooved and tentacled monster that looks somewhat like Homer, and which Regina seems to think is Homer, despite the physical dissimilarity.  She also seems to be enjoying this Homer-like monster's caresses, even though to Homer and the kids their embraces resemble the life and death struggle between a carnivore and its intended prey.  Suspecting somebody here is insane, Homer hurries to his headshrinker, who tells him that he has had numerous patients report very similar events just this day.  The psychologist suspects the local mad physicist is somehow to blame and he and Homer accost this gentleman.  Sure enough, Diogenes the genius explains why these bizarre events are plaguing the neighborhood.  Diogenes has discovered a means to open up passages between our dimension and several parallel dimensions, and those other dimensions' analogues of Homer and other men have been slipping through these passages, perhaps not realizing they have done so, and just going about their normal business.  The story ends with Homer in the clutches of a Regina from another dimension, whose show of physical affection resembles nothing so much as breaking his limbs and devouring him alive.

Perhaps the most novel and interesting part of "The Hole on the Corner" is Lafferty's raising of the idea of how we identify other people; in explaining why Homer's husband would welcome the caresses of a green-skinned version of himself with tentacles and hooves, Diogenes says,
"...nobody goes by the visual index except momentarily.  Our impression of a person or thing is much more complex, and the visual element in our appraisal is small." 
Most disturbing about the story is its attitude about sex.  Not only is sex in the story likened to one person violently slaying and devouring another, but Regina relishes the alien Homer's violent caresses, expressing her preference for the alien to her own husband.  Perhaps significantly, while Regina is thrilled by the caresses of the alien version of her husband, when the shoe is on the other foot and Homer is being devoured by a spider-like alien Regina, he experiences it as a horror, crying out for help and making desperate, and unsuccessful, efforts to escape.  If you want to enliven your Gender Studies class with discussion of Raphael Aloysius Lafferty, just offer the observation that "The Hole on the Corner" reflects cisgendered heterosexual men's fear of women's sexual appetites.


Three more thumbs up for R. A. Lafferty; it is good to know that there are hundreds of more pages of Lafferty material out there I haven't read yet.

More 1960s SF in the next exciting installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

R A Lafferty: "Seven-Day Terror," "Name of the Snake," and "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun"

Hello, and welcome to MPorcius Fiction Log.  I so enjoyed rereading R. A. Lafferty's 1960 "Snuffles" in my copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers while putting together my last blogpost that I decided to read three more stories from that 1970 collection, which has been translated into numerous languages.  I have the Ace printing with the cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

"Seven-Day Terror" (1962)

This is a charming trifle, an absurdist joke story with a little bit of  twist ending.  In "an obscure neighborhood" in "the boondocks" live the Willoughby family.  The Willoughbys have seven kids, and all are geniuses, and, in the way of kids, mischievous, amoral, callous, and cruel.  Devastation ensues when one of the kids constructs a handheld device that makes things disappear.  This may be a joke story, but as we often see in Lafferty stories, it has an edge, because some of the jokes are about bloodshed, and the story could easily be seen as an example of how people with superior intellect use that intellect to exploit or rob others, or just hurt them for fun.  Does Lafferty mean for us to simply enjoy this silly story, to laugh along as the precocious Willoughby kids make life hard for other people?  Or are we expected to reflect on our own light-hearted reactions to a story about disruptors who turn the world upside down and suffer no punishment for their crimes?

Thumbs up.  "Seven-Day Terror" is beloved of editors, chosen by Judith Merrill for her famous Year's Best S-F series and by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg for their Great SF Stories series.  It first was printed in Fred Pohl's If.  

"Name of the Snake" (1964)

It is the spacefaring future, and the Pope has encouraged missionary work among the stars, for aliens have just as much right to hear the Gospel as anybody.  This story tells of a Terran missionary on the planet Analos.  The natives, the Analoi, are somewhat similar to humans, but more advanced, or so they say, and when the missionary tries to spread Christianity among them they claim to have no sin, to have transcended greed (their economy provides each individual everything he could possibly want) and lust (they have evolved a new form of reproduction which obviates all requirement for or interest in sex) and the rest of the sins.  What need have they of religion if they have no sin?

The missionary is certain that the Analoi must in fact sin, and his investigations quickly uncover the sins that have, initially, been hidden from him.  Among these sins are the fact that some of the long-lived Analoi grow bored of life and commit suicide, and that Analoi society has no tolerance for disability or inferiority or dissent, and those young who do not meet societies standards are euthanized.

The quite predictable joke that finishes off "Name of the Snake" is the revelation of another sin of the Analoi, who don't appreciate outsiders trying to change their ways--like in all those old cartoons and movies and TV shows, they cook missionaries in an oversized pot and eat them.  

This feels like a minor story, but it is entertaining, and can be seen as a Christian commentary on the themes that modern advances, however much they make life longer or easier, do not make people better, and that utopias are built on the blood and bones on those who refuse to conform.  Like other Lafferty stories, "Snuffles" in particular, it also reminds us that virtue has to be its own reward, that good people's virtues often do not protect them from a horrible death--hell, sometimes people suffer a horrible death because they chose to do the right thing.  "Name of the Snake" also hints that we are not the first spacefaring civilization on Earth, that memories of the Analoi are the source of the human idea of the gargoyle, a common SF theme (we see this in C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories, for example, in which we learn that the Greek idea of the Gorgon Medusa is based upon the dangerous race of which Shambleau is a member); Lafferty's novel The Devil is Dead, which I blogged about almost ten years ago, also has such hints that our civilization was preceded by another, perhaps more sophisticated, one.

Not bad.  After its debut in Worlds of Tomorrow, "Name of the Snake" has primarily reappeared in different editions of Nine Hundred Grandmothers, but also in 1976 in the French edition of Galaxy

"Ginny Wrapped in the Sun" (1967)

More dangerous amoral genius children!  The Ginny of the title is a four-year-old mastermind who mercilessly dominates those around her.  We might call "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun" a homo superior story--Ginny seems to be the pioneering exemplar of the new race which is going to overthrow our own human race, and she is the target of a band of religious people who have foretold her arrival and seek to destroy her to preserve the status quo.  Lafferty's story also features esoteric speculations on the history of human evolution; one of the story's characters is a biologist who has a theory considered crazy by the scientific establishment--but supported by all the evidence presented in the story--that argues that at one time the human race consisted of three-foot-tall monkey-like creatures bereft of speech who matured at four years of age.  The humans of today are the mutant descendants of that race, but the biologist believes that humanity could suddenly revert to this earlier form at any time.  Ginny, we are led to believe, is such a reversion, and as the story ends and Ginny's absolute ruthlessness is fully revealed, it seems that the current form of the human race is in trouble, that Ginny has a cunning plan to evade the religious crusaders who would kill her and so her kind will inherit the Earth.

An odd element of the story is that Ginny is currently a genius who can do complex math in her head and employ psychic powers to control other people like puppets on a string, but is, apparently, about to "evolve" into a mindless and cultureless ape.  I suppose this is a comment on "progress" from Lafferty, a suggestion that what we may take to be civilizational or biological advances are simply steps on the road to a new savagery or barbarism or a reversion to the animal.  The physical and cultural forms we may admire are not stable, but likely to crumble at any moment, or perhaps represent transitional forms which carry within them the seeds of inevitable change into something loathsome.   

An entertaining little piece that features themes we see in Lafferty all the time, like the renegade scientist, horrible violence, esoteric history, and the triumph (in this material world at least!) of the immoral or amoral. 

The horrible revelations contained in "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun" were first aired in the pages of Galaxy, alongside a story by Roger Zelazny I read in 2014 and called "reasonably good," a story by Barry Malzberg I read in 2020 and called a "gimmicky joke story," and a story by Robert Silverberg I read before this blog monkey had climbed upon my back and which I enjoyed.   "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun" was included by Silverberg in his anthology Mutants, and also appeared in the back of Michael de Larrabeiti's novel The Borribles Go for Broke as a promotional gimmick meant to drum up interest in the 1982 printing of Nine Hundred Grandmothers.  


In the September 1983 issue of Amazing there is an interview of Lafferty by Darrel Schweitzer that I recommend to all those interested in post-war SF.  Among other interesting tidbits, Lafferty talks about his relationships with famed editors Horace Gold and Damon Knight--as we might expect from the idiosyncratic Lafferty, he seems to have a different take on them, or have had a different experience with them, than have many other writers.  Lafferty also mentions a conversation with Barry Malzberg, in which both of these odd and unusual writers professed to not understand much of what the other wrote.  

A reputation for being obscure or difficult isn't all that Lafferty and Malzberg share; a major theme of both of these men's work is skepticism of what many people consider progress, and both men also regularly feature in their writing characters who suffer horrible disasters.  But while the work of the secular liberal Malzberg is characterized by a deep despair, Lafferty's work, however grim the events he depicts, tends to be jolly--I guess as a Christian and a conservative, he has a confidence Malzberg cannot share that if you do the right thing, even if doing the right thing leads to you getting tortured or massacred, you will be rewarded in another world.


Next time on MPorcius Fiction Log, it's three more SF stories from the 1960s.  We'll see you then.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Best SF Seven: Fred Pohl, Eric Frank Russell, Brian Aldiss & Tom Disch

I'm not a guy who makes plans--I follow whims!  I don't know what I am going to do next week, and what happened last week I can barely remember--I let the winds of fate propel me hither and thither.  In my last blog post we read a story by Keith Laumer that appeared in the August 1966 issue of Galaxy, and while flipping through the issue I noticed a story by Brian W. Aldiss I couldn't recall ever encountering before.  Looking up other places it had appeared, I came upon the contents list for the 1970 Faber and Faber anthology edited by Edmund Crispin, Best SF Seven.  Besides the Aldiss, I noticed among the contents stories by Frederik Pohl, Eric Frank Russell and Thomas M. Disch that I hadn't read, and took this as a signal from the universe to read all four of these tales to which Crispin had given the nod of approval.

I don't have access to a copy of Best SF Seven, so I'll be reading versions of the stories from other venues.  Also note, I've actually already read three stories that appear in Best SF Seven: "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" by Roger Zelazny, "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, and "Snuffles" by R. A. Lafferty.  Click the links to marvel at MPorcius opinions and MPorcius typos from ages gone by.  (I reread "Snuffles" today, and wow, it is really good, so many little fun turns of phrase and nuggets of wisdom packed into a surreal but also viscerally convincing suspense and horror story.)  

"The Children of Night" by Frederik Pohl (1964)

I'm a Fred Pohl skeptic, but he's done things I have enjoyed, like Gateway, of course, and his memoir The Way the Future Was, and the short story "The Fiend," so let's give this one a try.  "The Children of Night" made its debut in Galaxy, edited at the time by Pohl himself, where it was illustrated by the renowned Virgil Finlay.  The story has been reprinted widely, including in several Pohl collections and in The Ninth Galaxy Reader, which Pohl himself edited, but I am reading the original magazine version in a scan at the internet archive.

"The Children of Night" is about how dirty politics and the PR business are, and how ordinary people are at the mercy of the cognitive elite and the science and technology they wield.  I feel like a large proportion of Pohl's career consists of picking out some industry or institution and writing an over-the-top story on how diabolical that industry is, and this story here is firmly in that genre.

Over a decade ago, the Terran colony on Mars was the target of an alien sneak attack.  The attackers, natives of Arcturas, massacred the adults and then carried the children of the colony back to their homeworld to experiment upon.  Earth's space force attacked the Arcturan homeworld, defeated the aliens and liberated the physically and mentally scarred children.

Today there is a truce between Earth and the Arcturan Confederacy.  The Arcturans want to set up a scientific base in the American town of Bridport; the town is holding a referendum on zoning that will determine whether the Arcturans will be permitted to set up their base.  The idea of letting the aliens who tortured Earth children set up a base in their town is not too popular with the townspeople, and the Arcturans have hired a PR firm to try to sway public opinion and make it possible for the referendum to go their way--our narrator is the PR firm's top man.

The PR firm has many tools at its disposal: polling, focus groups, advertising, stunts like giving away Arcturan felines to foster positive associations with the Arcturans, digging up dirt on local politicians with which to blackmail them, and the ability to use editing technology to fabricate video evidence of people misbehaving for use in poisoning their reputations.  Pohl really pours on the examples of unscrupulous things the narrator is willing to do and also piles up a list of the tortures and lingering injuries suffered by the children held in Arcturan captivity; he also keeps reminding you that smart people like the narrator can easily make the common people act the way they want them to.  Fred just hammers away at this stuff, ignoring the drawers in his toolkit labeled "SUBTLETY" and "ECONOMY."  There is also a subplot about how the narrator is in love with one of the women working for the PR firm on this Bridport job, and they used to date but she broke up with him and is marrying some other guy on Christmas Day.  The story feels long and just drags on with all this redundant stuff, the plot sort of stagnating as Pohl tries to manipulate your feelings as he both demonstrates and just tells you how crummy people are.

Finally, at the end we get some plot movement.  It looks like relations between Earth and Arcturus are souring again, that another war might break out.  The narrator uses all the tools at his disposal to get the Arcturans and humans to join forces in hatred of himself, the vile PR man.  War is averted as human and smelly space bug learn to get along thanks to the narrator's redeeming self sacrifice.

I found the plot twist pretty unconvincing intellectually and pretty unsatisfying emotionally, and I've already suggested the pacing is bad and that the story as a whole is repetitive as well as over-the-top in its efforts to bang home its banal arguments and emotionally manipulate you with its cast of overly goody good characters and overly foully foul characters.  Thumbs down!

We don't have to ask why Pohl would make sure to include this story in books and magazines he himself was editing--hey, we all need money.  But why would Crispin select it?  Maybe he shared Pohl's attitude about PR and his belief that the common people are easily gulled?  Maybe he thought the relationship of the Earth and Arcturus a clever parallel to how the United States and Great Britain had quickly made friends with Germany and Japan after the Second World War despite the multitudinous and unforgivable atrocities the Axis nations had committed because we needed to make common cause with them in the face of the threat posed by the Soviet Union?  Or maybe he just liked Pohl.  Whatever the reason, it was a mistake to include "The Children of Night" in Best SF Seven--this story is lame.

"Ultima Thule" by Eric Frank Russell (1951)

"Ultima Thule" debuted in Astounding (I'm reading it in a scan of the issue, and would later appear in Milton Lesser's anthology Looking Forward and several other places, including a Hungarian anthology.  I'm reading a scan of its first appearance in that issue of Astounding.

I was pretty lukewarm over Russell's novel which we read recently, With a Strange Device AKA The Mindwarpers, but this story here I can heartily endorse--it is SF in the classic mold, about three guys in a space ship and their reactions to the tremendous stress of interstellar travel, a story that speculates about the nature of time and space and offers us both a sense-of-wonder ending and a life lesson--that one should always do his duty!

The three spacemen come out of hyperspace in a black void, with no stars or anything at all visible in any direction.  In the three thousand years mankind has employed the hyperdrive, a few dozen ships have vanished without a trace, and they are the latest!  With no external stimuli, it is impossible to tell if the ship is moving or still; firing the rockets has no apparent effect on their position and when they try the hyperdrive nothing seems to happen.  They are doomed to die when the oxygen or water runs out.  The two subordinate crewmen can't take the pressure and Russell describes ably how they crack.  The captain keeps a steady nerve, writing everything in the log as per regulations, thinking that maybe if his ship is ever found the record of what has happened to it and its crew will prevent future such disasters. When the O2 runs out, he dies.

And is reborn 17,000 years later!  The people who revive him explain to the captain the salient features of the universe that made his revival possible, and thank him for his careful maintenance of the log, which, as hoped, contains clues that will help other spacemen.  

"Ultima Thule" is a real success; the sciency stuff, the human drama, and the sensawunda ending all work.  Thumbs up!  A good choice by Crispin.                     

"Heresies of the Huge God" by Brian W. Aldiss (1966)

As a little joke, on the Table of Contents page of the issue of Galaxy in which it made its maiden appearance "Heresies of the Huge God" appears under the heading  "Non-Fact Article," and Aldiss's story is in fact a joke story in the form of a secret history penned in the theocratic future approximately 1000 years from today.  The work of a cleric, "Heresies of the Huge God" describes how in the 20th century a metallic reptile with eight legs and over four thousand miles long landed on the Earth and this arrival's aftermath.  The creature's landing and occasional movements cause a series of catastrophes, changing the orbit and rotation of the Earth, throwing up new mountain ranges, digging new seas, etc.  Aldiss's story is an attack on religion, and the cataclysm triggers a radical religious reformation on the Earth that features human sacrifice (mostly of women) on a mass scale and a series of world wars in the form of Crusades fought to resolve theological disputes (like over whether people should dress in metallic attire in honor of the alien god) that serve for many as an excuse to pursue the satisfaction of their greed and lust for vengeance.

The story is clever and fun, an entertaining example of the SF tradition of misanthropy and anti-clericalism as well as another successful example of Aldiss using a nonfiction primary source document from a fantastical milieu to obliquely describe that fictional world--his 1967 "Confluence." is an example we read not too long ago.  Thumbs up for "Heresies of the Huge God"!

A critical and commercial success, "Heresies of the Huge God" has been reprinted many times in many languages in anthologies and Aldiss collections.

"Come to Venus Melancholy" by Thomas M. Disch (1965)

"Come to Venus Melancholy" is a great little story addressing some of my favorite topics.  Disembodied brains!  Unrequited love!  Suicide!  Our narrator is a female English professor who contracted leukemia in her thirties.  The medicos were able to remove her brain and put it into a computer, and she was given the job of managing a one-man/one-cyborg outpost on Venus.  She falls in love with the fully human half of their team, and they have some sort of sexual relationship (it seems that she makes up pornographic stories while he jerks off, though Disch doesn't make this crystal clear) but the two are incompatible--she's a sensitive intellectual who adores the poetry of Milton, and he's a sort of working-class brute, or so it is implied--and their relationship is rocky.  It doesn't help that being essentially alone on Venus, capturing native slugs with hallucinogenic properties for mysterious purposes (biological warfare? psychiatric therapeutics?) can cause neuroses, as can life as a disembodied brain, using the same nerve endings that once controlled your fingers and toes to now control doors and kitchen appliances.  Tragedy is the predictable outcome for this relationship.  

Disch is a very skilled writer, and with admirable economy he offers cool SF speculations, a Barry Malzberg-friendly "machines are taking away our humanity and exploring space drives you batty!" theme, and a sad story that tugs at your heartstrings.  Very good!  There's even a ton of references to the poetry of John Milton for all you people out there who went to a good school to enjoy!       

SF fans first lay eyes on this one in F&SF, and it has since appeared in a number of anthologies, including one put out by the British Psychological Society, PsiFi: Psychological Theories and Science Fictions, and Disch collections; I read it in my paperback copy of Fun With Your New Head, which has a good Gene Szafran cover.


With the exception of Fred Pohl's weak contribution, Edmund Crispin seems to have put together a quite good anthology here.  Following this whim has paid off!

More 1960s SF short stories in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Keith Laumer: "The Planet Wreckers," "The Body Builders," and "The Lawgiver"

In 1976, Pocket Books published The Best of Keith Laumer, a collection of nine stories with an intro by our beloved hero Barry Malzberg.  Dated "Teaneck, N.J., August 1975," Malzberg's introduction suggests that while the Retief stories are "fascinating" and "amazing" and enjoy a popularity which is "immense," they are not Laumer's most serious and important work, and there are no Retief stories in The Best of Keith Laumer.  Let's read from the 1980 printing  of The Best of Keith Laumer available at the internet archive and see how far we can agree with the sage of Teaneck when he says that Laumer is "serious and gifted" and that his work shows "range, versatility and technical sophistication." 

We've actually already read and discussed three of the stories in The Best of Keith Laumer, "Hybrid," "Cocoon" and "A Relic of War."  That leaves six, so let's wrestle down three today and leave three for next time.  Among today's selections are two stories Malzberg particularly recommends in his intro, "The Lawgiver" and "The Body Builders," but we start with the first story in the book, "The Planet Wreckers."   

"The Planet Wreckers" (1967)

"The Planet Wreckers" debuted in Frederik Pohl's Worlds of Tomorrow, in an issue with an article about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ("next year's sf super-movie") and an ad for a jigsaw puzzle map of the moon.  Based on my 30 seconds of research on ebay, I'm saying this puzzle looks a lot easier than the jigsaw puzzle of Frank Frazetta's The Silver Warriors which I have been grappling with for weeks.  

I face "The Planet Wreckers" with some trepidation because it was reprinted in Berkley Medallion's 1968 It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Baen's 2002 Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side, leading me to fear it is a joke story.  Generally, I find joke stories annoying.  But let's press on!  

Sure enough, this is a humor piece, 33 pages long.  A lock and safe salesman staying in an uncomfortable hotel in a small town gets mixed up in interstellar crime and espionage.  A bunch of alien filmmakers hope to trigger various natural calamities on Earth--an earthquake, a meteor strike, etc.--to record for their latest disaster movie.  A lone alien P.I. hired by the galactic game and wildlife service is on Earth to stop them, but she has been captured and chained up in this very hotel.  Our hero, using his professional skills, liberates her and then accompanies her--clad in his pyjamas--as she tries--and mostly fails--to stop the natural disasters.  He rides a flying saucer, participates in fire fights, witnesses the wrecking of San Francisco.  Thankfully, New York City is preserved by the salesman's quick thinking and good luck, and not only does our hero become a galactic movie star, but hooks up with the female detective--when she takes off her monstrous alien disguise she is revealed to be almost human and absolutely gorgeous!

Acceptable filler with lots of violence and death and lots of obvious jokes.  

"The Body Builders" (1966)

Here's another story that was reprinted in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side.  Where's Keith Laumer: The Grimdark Side when you need it? 

The style of "The Body Builders" is a parody of hard boiled detective fiction.  Our narrator is a tough guy who is trying to avoid marrying some dame and being pushed around by other tough guys and says stuff like "The idea left me cold as an Eskimo's tombstone."  The setting of the story is the future, a time when a segment of the population, of which the narrator is a member, prefers to store their bodies safely in government facilities where they are kept alive by an IV drip and live life through a remote sensory hook up to a robot body.  Your brain inside your cold inert body controls the robot body remotely almost as if it is your own; if you have enough money you can get some sweet accessories for your robot body, like one that allows it to eat food and transmit the taste back to your brain.  Wealthy people have different bodies, entire fleets of them, each appropriate for a different occasion.

The robot bodies in the story are based on those of famous celebrities; Laumer just gives the last names of the models, so for us 21st-century readers "The Body Builders" serves as a kind of test of our knowledge of mid-century pop culture.  I figured the "Astaire" and "Arcano" models owned by the narrator must be Fred and Eddie, and that the "Liston" and "Wayne" bodies of some thugs were Sonny and John; a comic relief character's "Cantor" must be Eddie.  I had trouble with the lead villain's "Sullivan," but have settled on the theory that the reference is to pioneering boxer John L. Sullivan.  Women in the story own Dietrichs and Pickfords, no doubt Marlene and Mary.    

(Conservative types who reject using robot bodies and walk around in their real bodies are called "Organo-Republicans" or just "Orggies," and some of them use cosmetic surgery and appliances like contact lenses and toupees to improve their appearance.  Also, Bolos are mentioned, so I guess this story is in the same universe as Retief's Bolo tales.) 

The plot:  Our narrator is a successful gladiator.  (As we are well aware, SF is full of people fighting in the arena.)  A thug in a Sullivan picks a fight with him in a night club; duels between people in robot bodies are common in this milieu and the Sullivan wants one immediately.  Our hero is operating his Arcano body, which is too small to really fight head-to-head with a Sullivan, so he flees to get his Davy Crockett body, and there is a chase scene as the John Wayne-clad thug pursues him.  It turns out the brute in the Sullivan is a government official, so our hero, now in his Crockett, ends up in prison.  His career will collapse if he isn't at a fight scheduled for tonight versus Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust, so he jumps out a window--the Crockett is destroyed and the main character is in control of his real body again.  He leaves the government storage facility and goes to the arena to fight in his flesh and blood body!  Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust is of course in a powerful robot body, but unexpected advantages of a real human body lead to a triumph for the main character.  Not only has he beat the villain (Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust turns out to be that government swine who tried to swat him with his Sullivan), he swears off robot bodies forever after experiencing the excitement of interfacing with life directly, and sets a date to marry not the Dietrich-clad woman who was chasing him, but a nice Organo-Republican girl.  It is also suggested that his example is going to end the fad for using robot bodies and institute the kind of paradigm shift we often see in SF stories.

I'm skeptical of joke stories, but "Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust" is actually funny, the pace of the story is fast, and Laumer actually does a decent job of speculating about and dramatizing all the little ins and outs of the operation of the robot bodies, so I can "The Body Builders" a mild recommendation.  Presumably our pal Barry liked it in part because it depicts technology chipping away at our humanity, turning us into machines, one of his favored themes.   

"The Body Builders" made its debut in Galaxy, and has been translated into Italian, German and Dutch.

"The Lawgiver" (1970)

"The Lawgiver" first appeared in Harry Harrison's The Year 2000, an anthology of new stories set (you guessed it) in the year 2000.

In the hardcover edition of The Year 2000 available at the internet archive, Laumer's story is listed under the heading "Overpopulation," and, just like the Fred Saberhagen novel we just read, Love Conquers All, "The Lawgiver" is set in a world in which fears of overpopulation have lead the government to force menstruators into having abortions against their will. 

"The Lawgiver" is an extravagant melodrama, full of tragic ironies and dramatic coincidences.  It is the future of self-driving cars and videophones and towering skyscrapers.  Senator Eubanks has spent his career fighting for laws mandating abortions as a means of staving off overpopulation and associated famine and starvation.  Just recently he finally achieved success and saw his law passed--but only narrowly!  As the story begins he is on the videophone, arguing with a constituent who thinks a fetus is a live human being with a soul; Eubanks and this woman repeat the same arguments for and against abortion that you have heard a hundred times already and will likely hear a hundred times more in just the next week.  Then a second womb-carrier enters the story, busting into Eubank's apartment on the 76th floor and exclaiming that she is in labor with Senator Eubanks's grandson!  The baby could come any minute!

Will Senator Eubanks stick to his principles and have his own grandson destroyed mere moments before he is born?  Will this unhealthy uterus-owner survive the ordeal of childbirth in the Senator's apartment?  Where the hell is the baby's father, Ron Eubanks, and will this love 'em and leave 'em type have a change of heart and drive back to the capital so fast in hopes of reuniting with the mother of his son that his manually-operated car flies off the road and he suffers a life-threatening injury?

I'm judging "The Lawgiver" barely acceptable.  There is nothing innovative or surprising or exciting about it; it is soap-opera stuff you've already experienced married to arguments about abortion that aren't new, either.  

It feels like filler to me, but "The Lawgiver" has been reprinted in several Laumer collections as well as a 1976 anthology that looks like a textbook that was inflicted on students.


These stories demonstrate that Keith Laumer is a competent writer, but they are no big deal.  Maybe we'll be more impressed by the other three stories in The Best of Keith Laumer?  Stay tuned to find out!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Love Conquers All by Fred Saberhagen

"Killing?  How can you call it...if I dig up an acorn am I killing an oak tree?"  But it was no use.  He didn't want to argue with Ann, and anyway it would really be impossible.  She lived in a reality so far from the generally accepted one that Art could see no place to start.  At least he couldn't now, not after a day of strain and wife-chasing and rioting and Black Russians.

Advertising works!  At the end of my Ace paperback of Poul Anderson's Flandry of Terra we saw an ad for Fred Saberhagen's Love Conquers All, a novel first serialized in Galaxy at the end of 1974 and the start of 1975, then published by Ace in 1979.  The book was reprinted in 1985 by Baen with an absurdly generic and lackluster cover.  That Baen edition of Love Conquers All, which, according to the publication page, is "Newly revised," is available at the internet archive, and, thanks to the ability of advertising to reach across four decades, I just read it on this very computer screen.

It is the future of underground maglev trains that carry you from California to Illinois at supersonic speeds, of self-driving cars, of mass unemployment and universal guaranteed basic income and scads of other government handouts.  For close to a century mainstream society has embraced, and the government and other establishment institutions strongly encourage, sexual promiscuity.  The most popular religious institution is the Church of Eros, and reproductions of Caravaggio's Amor Vinicit Omnia are hanging all over the place.  Open marriages are the norm.  People walk around practically nude.  Government regulations make sure performers on TV shows don't show too little skin.  Women who conceal their breasts and make themselves sexually unavailable are considered to be selfish antisocial jerks.  Average people consider pregnancy an ailment to be got over, and it is illegal to have more than two children; third children are called "superfluous" and "unwanted" because, even if their parents want them, they are "unwanted by the world."

Behind all these pro-casual sex and anti-baby laws and social mores lies fear: fear of the neuroses believed to be the consequence of sexual repression and frustration, but more importantly the fear of the starvation and cannibalism that may result from overpopulation.  But, in the time period of the novel, culture is evolving, with a counterculture developing that is curious about chastity and monogamy, a growing network of Christian churches, and an underground that helps women who have become pregnant a third time escape mandatory abortion.

We might call Love Conquers All a sort of switcheroo story, seeing as it depicts social developments the reverse of those that took place over the course of Saberhagen's life.  At the start of the 20th century the people who set the tone for culture and society, the establishment or the elite or the mainstream or whatever you want to call them, were, at least rhetorically, against sexual promiscuity and abortion and supportive of monogamous marriage, and people who were sexually promiscuous, had or provided abortions, and were felt to have betrayed their families or had unconventional attitudes about sexual relationships, ran a real risk of social or legal sanction.  As the century ground on, through technological and political changes and horrendous wars and revolutions, attitudes about sexual promiscuity and abortion and the family changed, with more and more people and institutions tolerating or even celebrating sexual promiscuity, abortion and the loosening of traditional family ties and new forms of family structures.  In Saberhagen's novel here, for as long as anyone living can remember, the establishment has been enforcing sexual promiscuity and abortion as legal and social norms, but the attitude of ordinary people is changing, reflected in growing interest in sexual restraint and the popularity of TV shows about life in the Victorian era, while radical movements that consider a fetus a person grow in size and influence.

Love Conquers All has some wacky satire elements.  Men in this casual-sex-approving society grope and pinch women as a greeting or farewell, and people snap "chastity" or "triplets!" when in distress like a 20th-century person might utter "fuck," or "damn!"  Exposed to nudity and casual sex almost constantly and discouraged from restraining their sexual impulses, many people find concealing cloaks to be sexually arousing (mainstream mores condemn such opaque attire as obscene--clothes worn for warmth or protection are transparent) and fantasize about monogamous sexual relationships in which desire is held in check; hard core middle-class counter-culture types indulge in steady relationships with lovers they refuse to touch, finding restraint more thrilling than the casual sex with strangers that is the norm.  One minor character is a psychologist, and In a parody of Freudianism he is certain that human actions are driven by subconscious urges to be celibate, that everyone is tempted to not have sex, and that it would be healthy if people gave in to their socially unacceptable desires to avoid sex.  One scene is I guess a joke from Chicago-born Saberhagen for all you sports fans out there--unemployed people are paid per inning to go see the Cubs lose baseball games.  

While these broad satirical elements are present, Love Conquers All is written and structured like a mainstream novel, not like an exercise in humor or a genre adventure tale, and I think we are expected to take everybody's emotional tribulations seriously.

The plot--TLDR version:

A guy who more or less is OK with the current pro-sex anti-baby regime discovers his wife has gone on the lam because she is preggers with baby #3 and wants to keep it.  He chases after her, hoping to find her and convince her to do the right thing and have their child sucked out of her body piece by piece by a robot.  He meets lots of people and has lots of discussions and in the final scene ends up fighting the police to save their third child--it is not certain they will succeed, but we are given indications that escape from mandatory abortion is likely.

The plot--long spoilertastic version:

Art Rodney is an electronics expert living in Cali, now working in industry after a period teaching at a college; he is also a chess master (SF people love chess.)  He is married to Rita, and they have two kids.  Rita has some radical ideas--she is reluctant to have sex with other men, for example.  Her brother George lives in Chicago, and George's wife Ann is really out there, wearing clothes that cover her breasts, for example.  One day Art comes home to find a note--Rita is on the lam because she is pregnant with a third child and knows if the government finds out about her delicate condition she will be forced to have an abortion.  Art may be an ordinary guy who thinks of an abortion as a procedure no more remarkable than having a hangnail removed and considers it more kind to destroy his unborn child than to condemn it to a life of social stigma as a "superfluous" person, Rita is determined to keep the child.  

Hoping to track down Rita and talk some sense into her, Art takes the subterranean super train to Chicago to see George and Ann.  The train's journey is interrupted by a riot on the surface at a Christian monastery; a pro-abortion mob has attacked the monastery in response to rumors about what the Christians are doing in there.  The train is evacuated and the passengers join a group of people fleeing the violence, including a young woman named Rosamond; Art has sex with Rosamond to comfort her.

In Chicago, when a government agent, searching for Rita, whom the Feds know is carrying an illegal child, catches up with Art, our hero gets an inkling of what was going on in that monastery.  Pro-baby activists have come up with a means of removing quite young fetuses from pregnant women and preserving them for later birth in natural or artificial wombs.  Because the mandatory abortion law only allows the government to abort fetuses that are less than nine months old, if a fetus is frozen and hidden from the Feds long enough, it is accorded the rights of a citizen and cannot be casually destroyed, even if it is only a few months old biologically.

Rita has left the kids with George and Ann, who support Rita's bold and risky decision to keep her baby, and escaped into the pro-baby underground.  George, a karate instructor with a black belt, has contacts among the working and lower classes, and Saberhagen gives us detective fiction scenes in which George and Art travel to the seedier parts of town, and we get an idea of how much crime and social strife (the unemployed who live on the dole resent the employed, for example) the world faces.  We also get acquainted with Fred Lohmann, Ann's brother, a kid just out of high school.  Fred wants to work for George at George's dojo, but he's not a good enough a fighter yet, and probably won't become one, as he is sort of lazy and dishonest.  Through Fred's eyes we see what life and relationships are like for young people in Saberhagen's pro-easy sex, anti-procreation world; a flashback to the dawn of George and Ann's relationship serves a similar purpose, but while George has become a responsible small businessman and devoted family man, Fred becomes a dangerously violent criminal.

Art gets mixed up in a riot when counter-protestors from the Gay League, homosexuals and transsexuals who support the establishment, clash with a pro-chastity demonstration by a group called The Young Virgins.  Knocked unconscious, Art wakes up in a secret facility where the anti-abortion activists preserve fetuses; a doctor who is also a Christian priest patches up Art, and they have an argument about abortion after Art by chance stumbles onto a three-month old fetus floating in a life-sustaining chamber, which gives Saberhagen an opportunity to describe how the tiny little girl has very human hands but a head and "gills" that remind Art of a fish.

After he leaves the secret medical facility, Art is arrested because he's been seen with members of the anti-abortion/pro-monogamy underground.  He gets released when he mentions Rosamond to the cops--it turns out Rosamond's father is a bishop of the Church of Eros.  Art and this guy have a philosophical discussion, and then Rosamond, who sympathizes with the underground, takes Art to see the man she is having a chaste romantic relationship with, a psychologist, thinking he may be able to help Art find Rita.  This headshrinker Art to his father, a rich man whose tendrils extend into all sorts of underground and illegal enterprises.  When this rich guy learns about Art's hope that Rita will have an abortion to escape legal jeopardy, he pulls strings to help Art out, or so he thinks.  Due to tragic coincidences and and misunderstandings, Fred is hired to steal Rita's frozen baby from the cooler in which it is living in suspended animation.  George slays Fred's partner in crime in hand to hand combat, and Art, signifying an epiphany and act of redemption brought on by love for his wife, runs off with the cooler, knocking over the detective he met when he first hit Chicago, endeavoring to get to a facility that will protect his unborn son from the government.  While we don't see Art make it to the facility, and can't be positive that Rita, George and Art will escape conviction by a jury of their peers on the charges of illegal baby-making and thug-killing, Saberhagen offers clues that lead us to expect this welcome outcome is likely.  


While a few of the most critically acclaimed (I'm thinking of Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty here) and most influential (like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) SF writers are committed Christians, most SF writers are religion-hating leftists or libertarians, so a SF book that takes seriously arguments against abortion is a rara avis.  Taking a different tack like this is a good idea, but unfortunately Saberhagen, whom wikipedia tells me was a practicing Catholic, is not as talented or innovative a writer as fellow Catholics Wolfe or Lafferty, and Love Conquers All is pretty mediocre when it comes to style and plotting.

The novel is too long.  Individual scenes are too long, and some long sections are pretty superfluous; for example, the flashback to George's first meeting with Ann, Fred's job interview with George, and a meeting between the head of the Chicago Family Planning department and the head of the Gay League.  Scenes with George featuring karate are, I guess, supposed to add violence and excitement to the story, and the scene of the homosexual activist's meeting with the government bureaucrat has an expository purpose (they talk about overpopulation) but since the early karate scenes don't involve Art or Rita, and we know George is not going to get killed or maimed, they don't really add any tension or thrills, and the exposition in the scene with the leader of the Gay League is redundant--we have already been subjected to exposition about overpopulation.  (The fight scene at the very end is admirably brief, the stakes are high, and Rita and Art are there, so that scene is a success.)  If Saberhagen was able to write these unnecessary scenes in such a way that they were funny or moving or included beautiful images or striking metaphors, we might not mind that they do not serve the plot and slow the pace of narrative, but Saberhagen's style is merely competent, not inherently enjoyable.  Saberhagen's ideas may have been better served in a shorter form--maybe the Galaxy version is substantially shorter?  

Another of my gripes with Love Conquers All is that Art is not a strong character--he is buffeted hither and thither by others and by luck.  We are told he is an electronics expert and a chess master but does this stuff ever matter to the story, does it ever add interest to the novel's 270 pages?  No, it does not.  It is Rita who should have been the main character, because it is Rita who experiences the big emotions and makes the big decisions and takes the big risks: she loves her unborn baby and so is determined to save it, but her efforts to do so put her at odds with her husband, whom she also loves, and put herself, her husband, and her kids at risk because she could wind up imprisoned by the government or even harmed by rioters or criminals.

(I recognize that the fact that Art sort of lamely goes along with his corrupt society and other people he knows until the very end when he makes a big decision and explodes into activity, risking it all to do the right thing, suits the story's Christian themes, but it doesn't make for an exciting extended narrative.)   

Merely acceptable.  Obviously you should read this if you are interested in portrayals of abortion in SF, SF by Christians, or specifically in Fred Saberhagen's career and thought, but I doubt it is the type of thing that conventional SF readers will be thrilled by. 


The last eight pages of the 1985 edition of Love Conquers All available at the internet archive consist of a three-page excerpt from Poul Anderson's Game of Empire and four pages of ads.  One is for another  Saberhagen novel, one about a genetically engineered superior race; it seems this, like Love Conquers All, is a revised Baen edition of an earlier work of Saberhagen's.  The illustration suggests the superior race is of people who can fly, which I have to admit is a pretty clear sign of superiority.

One ad is for one of Keith Laumer's Retief novels.  Remember back in 2019 when I read the collection Nine by Laumer and its introduction by Harlan Ellison?  I should read more Laumer soon.        

The next ad is for John Willett's Aubade for Gamelon, which I guess is another superior race novel.  There is a rose on the cover, which, frankly, doesn't strike me as so superior--I mean, I have a rose bush in my own yard, and I am not exactly a superior specimen.  This novel is hilariously blurbed by Robert Bussard, whose bio on the ad is longer than the totally generic and uninformative blurb he provided.  Sad.

The last ad is for Killer by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner, a book I can actually recommend, as I read it years ago and enjoyed it.  A good violent adventure/horror story set in ancient Rome.



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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Poul Anderson: "The Game of Glory," "A Message in Secret," and "The Plague of Masters"

Let's read my 1979 Ace copy of Flandry of Terra, a collection of three late-'50s/early-'60s Dominic Flandry stories by Poul Anderson with a good Michael Whelan cover featuring lots of guns, astronomical phenomena, and weird aliens, plus a mustache and a hot chick.  The three stories in the collection have proven enduringly popular, and been reprinted many times in numerous languages and under various titles.  Flandry of Terra first appeared as a hardcover in America in 1965, and first as a paperback in Britain in 1976.  There isn't any special introduction or afterword or anything, though in my printing there is a dedication to Jack and Norma Vance, and to a Johnny, presumably the Vances' son.  I like seeing these little evidences that writers can get along instead of being riven by professional jealousies and ideological rifts and all that, which seems, to me, to be the norm.  (The '76 British paperback, viewable at the internet archive, lacks this dedication.)

Like the Michael Whelan cover on my copy, the cover of the British 1976 paperback promises awesome militaristic adventure; well, let's see if the texts live up to these covers, or if, like the cover of our last paperback, Eric Frank Russell's earthbound chase thriller The Mindwarpers, which shows a space ship, these covers amount to false advertising.

"The Game of Glory" (1958)

"The Game of Glory" debuted in Venture, in the same issue as Algis Budrys's tale "The Edge of the Sea," which we just read in March.

The story begins with Captain Flandry in charge of intelligence operations on a formerly semi-autonomous planet that has just had its semi-autonomy violently revoked because its elite rejected a Terran demand for permission to set up a new space navy base.  The Terran military having conquered the place, Flandry is hunting down the anti-Terran elements among the elite so local collaborationists can be put in their place.  (In these Flandry stories, Anderson does not sugar coat the decadence and the ruthless realpolitik that characterizes the Terran Empire!)  One of the marines escorting Flandry, a black guy, is killed by a sniper, and his dying words provide Flandry a clue that suggests the soldier's  home world is seething with rebellion!  

Flandry, alone, flies to that black dude's home planet, a world covered in water whose "native" population is made up of ethnic Africans who colonized the place 500 years ago and are dedicated to fishing and other nautical pursuits; the planetary elite of whites and Asians who rule in Terra's name arrived some 100 years ago when the Terran Empire conquered the planet and form a sort of bourgeois class and live on a little island.  Landing on this island, Flandry finds that the Imperial representative has been murdered.  After an interview with the dead man's beautiful and decadent wife, Flandry accompanies a beautiful and heroic native lady aristocrat to her underwater city to continue his investigations.  

Flandry uses his charm as well as trickery to figure out who on this water planet is plotting a rebellion against Terra and to convince important people to side with him and Terra against the rebels and aid him in the fight against them and the hunt for the agent of Terra's rival space empire, the Merseians, who fomented the rebellion.  

This is a good story; the futuristic weapons and equipment and the enemy agent--a huge aquatic creature--are sold SF fun SF elements, Anderson offers vivid images of alien landscapes as well as decent fight scenes, and he also does a good job of integrating into the narrative his themes of cultural and political decline and decadence and the ambiguous nature of imperialism--the plot and setting and characters successfully illustrate those themes.  The story's racial politics would presumably invite comment from today's readers; the black people Flandry meets in the story are all more likable and admirable than all the white people he meets, so obviously Anderson means "The Game of Glory" to be an anti-racism story, but maybe some today would consider Anderson's depictions of black people to be an instance of cultural appropriation or to constitute examples of the use of the "magic Negro" (when they help Flandry) or the "white savior" (when Flandry helps them) cliches.

A less ambiguous no-no from the point of view of today's values is how Flandry uses homosexuality as a sort of emblem or synecdoche for degeneracy.  At the end of the story, after working with the vigorous and honorable black seafarers, people who fearlessly go head-to-head with sea monsters and storms, Flandry sums up how debased the Terran Empire is with a sarcastic reference to "our noble homosexual Emperor."                 

It is probably not nice to beat up on Russell again, but I think The Mindwarpers, the last subject laid out for dissection here at MPorcius Fiction Log, presents an illuminating contrast to "The Game of Glory."  Both stories are about a guy serving his powerful polity in a bipolar milieu in which it is at odds with another powerful empire and both stories chronicle how the guy travels from place to place to talk to people in an effort to discover and foil a plot of the opposing empire; both tales have a fight in the middle and a climactic fight at the end.  But while Anderson in his story makes sure all the places are vividly described and all the people and relationships in the story tell us something about what it is like to live in the hero's empire in a specific period of history, its culture and ethos and atmosphere, Russell signally fails to do any of that, not even providing names for the big cities the hero goes to or the opposing empire, and presenting almost no relationships whatsoever between his secondary characters.

So, thumbs up for "The Game of Glory."

LEFT: This 1999 special issue of a Japanese magazine features stories by Leigh Brackett,
Keith Laumer, and Fred Saberhagen as well as "The Game of Glory"
RIGHT: This French collection contains all three of today's stories, plus four other 1950s Flandry tales

"A Message in Secret" (1959)

"A Message in Secret" first appeared as the cover story of Fantastic, and its first book publication was as half of an Ace Double, where it was retitled Mayday Orbit.  

Planet Altai, far from the main space lanes, was colonized by humans from Central Asia like seven centuries ago, and Terra, center of a space empire of some four million stars, hasn't paid much attention to it since.  But in response to rumors that something is up there, Flandry is sent to Altai to investigate, travelling as the sole passenger on a merchant ship owned and crewed by non-humans, people from the independent system of Betelgeuse.  

Altai is an icy world of steppe and desert where most of the people live as motorized nomads--the planet has rings, as depicted by Michael Whelan on the cover of my copy of Flandry of Terra, and many of the tribespeople ride heavily armed motorcycles, as depicted on that British paperback edition.  Flandry quickly learns that the dominant of the planet's tribes, the tribe resident in the capital city, has a secret alliance with the Merseians and is even receiving high tech Merseian weapons.  Flandry hooks up with a female soldier of a pro-Terra tribe; her tribe was defeated by the pro-Merseia tribe and is being held captive as a member of the pro-Merseian khan's harem.  Mounted on stolen motorcycles, they fight their way out of the capital and make their way through the snowy wilderness to another pro-Terra tribe.  Significantly, this tribe has a different religion than most of the human tribes on Altai.  

Flandry and this dissident tribe's shaman consult the uncanny natives of Altai, weird little guys with psychic powers who have abandoned high tech civilization.  These jokers have domesticated herds of animals much like flying jellyfish, some as big as a passenger balloon, and Flandry figures out a way to use these airborne creatures to save his butt and Terran foreign policy.  

In the capital city is a two-kilometer high pagoda, a temple of the quasi-Islamic, quasi-Buddhist mainstream religion of the humans of Altai.  On a stormy night, carried in the tentacles of one of these Brobdingnagian flying jellyfish, Flandry spray paints in Roman letters visible from many miles away a message nobody on Altai understands, but any Terran will immediately recognize, "MAYDAY."  This sacrilege causes xenophobic riots, and the Betelgeusans flee the planet, carrying with them the news of the strife-triggering graffiti, news which quickly reaches the Terran authorities, who send a ship to investigate.  When Flandry, listening to radio traffic, knows the Terran ship is in the sky above, he has the pro-Terra tribesmen--expert cavalry men--ride in formations that form English words appraising the Terran spacers above of the Merseian-sympathizer threat on Altai.  Soon enough, a powerful Terran naval force arrives to kill a lot of people and set things to rights (from the Terran point of view, at least.)  

As we sort of expect from one of these vintage hard SF stories, the hero resolves the plot by using his wits and tricking other people.  But if that is not enough drama for you, in the weeks between the departure of the Betelgeusan merchants and the arrival of the Terran space fleet, Flandry gets involved in a love triangle as well as fights against Terran rats that have evolved over the centuries to the size of dogs and some of the pro-Merseia tribesmen.

A good story which shares the merits I saw in "The Game of Glory."  Thumbs up for "A Message in Secret."    

"The Plague of Masters" (1960)

This tale appeared in 1960 as part of an Ace Double under the title Earthman, Go Home! and was serialized across the December '60 and January '61 issues of Fantastic under the title "A Plague of Masters."  (Remember "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers?"  That was really something, wasn't it?)  

Three hundred years ago, planet Unan Besar was colonized by people descended from the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, and they have had no direct contact with the rest of human civilization since.  Unan Besar's atmosphere contains a toxin that will kill a person after prolonged exposure, so everybody on the planet has to take a pill every thirty days.  The technicians of the government department that makes these pills--Biocontrol-- jealously guard the secrets to their manufacture and have made themselves dictators of the planet.  The first Biocontrol scientists may have been technocratic socialists who thought they could make this world of jungles and swamps a paradise by meticulously managing a planned economy, but, proving Flandry's assertion that scientific government never works, Biocontrol quickly evolved into a ruthless and corrupt oligarchy indifferent to the fate of those ruled.  Nowadays the Biocontrol technicians and their lackeys live in palaces and most people eke out an existence as peasants or as toilers or thieves in crime-ridden slums.

The Biocontrol oligarchs know that interstellar trade would upend the social structure of Unana Besar because the high tech planets of the Terran Empire could with trivial ease develop and manufacture the life-preserving pills at low cost (Anderson's free-trade/small government politics is more evident in "The Plague of Masters" than in the other two stores we are talking about today) and so they have scrupulously avoided any intercourse with other human planets, only conducting a very limited trade with Betelgeusean merchants who strictly quarantine while on the planet's surface.  When Flandry arrives to investigate this mysterious world he soon realizes Biocontrol won't let him off the planet alive and so he fights his way out of the palace quarter into the slums, where he hooks up with a courtesan and her colleague, a ruthless mugger of tremendous physical strength.  Via elaborate disguise and trickery, and a little bit of the old ultraviolence, the three swindle a chest of silver coins out of a powerful crime boss; thus booty finances a move to a city on the other side of the planet.

Regardless, the planet's top cop manages to track the three down and imprison them.  In custody, Flandry learns all about Unana Besar's ruling cabal, many of whom are fanatics and quite a few of whom are goofballs.  The top cop, a more level-headed character than the arrogant and wacky technicians he serves, tries to sign up Flandry as his assistant--Unana Besar's number one flatfoot recognizes that a highly experienced intelligence agent from the Terran Empire has much to teach him.  

A wealthy guy Flandry made friends with right before getting captured springs the mugger and the courtesan and those two cold-blooded killers rescue Flandry; many people are slain in the process.  (This scene of mayhem is brought to life on the cover of the Ace Double version of Earthman, Go Home!)  Flandry's benefactor is from a small and remote community of anti-Biocontrol conservatives who live in a beautiful forest.  Even though they recognize that contact with the rest of the galaxy will change the traditional way of life they love, they commit themselves to helping Flandry overthrow Biocontrol and opening Unana Besar to interstellar trade.  Flandry and friends accomplish this goal via trickery and by killing a bunch of people, setting in motion the process that will end the planet's oppressive social order and improve the lives of those who survive the upheaval.    

"The Plague of Masters" is as long as "The Game of Glory" and "A Message in Secret" put together.  I like it, but not as much as those other two stories.  Individual portions are well done--chases, fights, schemes of deception--but some of them end up seeming superfluous.  For example, over quite a few pages, Flandry gets in good with that major crime boss, and together they develop an elaborate business plan, but of course the plan is just a ruse and goes nowhere beyond providing Flandry and his two felonious allies a chance to rob the crime boss.  I also feel like the secondary and minor characters here, and their relationships with Flandry and with each other, are not quite as interesting as those in the previous two stories. 

Personally, I agree with the anti-government and pro-free trade speeches Anderson puts in "The Plague of Masters," but lefties and the kind of right-wingers who find themselves more in tune with the brand spanking new Compact magazine than with 60-odd-year-old National Review may find them irritating.  
A thumbs up for "The Plague of Masters," but not as enthusiastic a one as for "The Game of Glory" and "A Message in Secret."


Three good stories.  They work as espionage adventure stories, but science fiction is the literature of ideas and Anderson has read a lot of books, so along with the plot we get plenty of science, talk about politics and economics, and a wealth of references direct and indirect to world history and culture; these stories are obviously influenced by the history of the Roman and British empires as well as the Cold War, and Anderson also alludes to culturally specific phenomena like (in "The Plague of Masters") "running amok."  I feel Anderson thus provides additional layers of interest to the stories, though I can see some finding it a waste of time, tendentious, or even somehow offensive.

I expect there are quite a few more Dominic Flandry adventures in our future.  For past Flandry content from MPorcius Fiction Log, check out my blog posts on The Rebel Worlds, "Tiger By the Tail," and "Honorable Enemies."  


My copy of Flandry of Terra has five pages of ads in the back.  So, what books was Ace actively promoting in 1979?

Well, we've got two pages of ads for books by Anderson, appropriately enough.  There's a full page devoted to Ensign Flandry, a 1966 novel that Michael Whelan's cover suggests features a sexy cat lady.  SF people love cats.  

Ian Watson and Fred Saberhagen each get a full page for a single novel, the former a 1978 novel apparently about UFOs, Miracle Visitors, the latter the first publication in book form of Love Conquers All, a 1974 serial from Galaxy, about, it seems, overpopulation and sex.  Hubba hubba.

Finally, there is another full page ad for what I guess is an SF murder mystery by Randall Garrett, Murder and Magic.  isfdb is telling me this is an installment in a long-running series; it is odd that isn't mentioned in the ad.

The Watson and Garrett books hold no attraction for me, but I am of course interested in the Anderson volumes and I am certainly curious about the Saberhagen.  Maybe we'll be talking about it soon here at MPorcius Fiction Log!