Thursday, May 25, 2023

Fantastic, Apr '75: B N Malzberg, R Rocklynne, D R Bunch, J Shirley

It came to my attention while reading stories from Denis Etchison's anthology Masters of Darkness II that the April 1975 issue of Fantastic is the only place (according to isfdb, at least) where you can read Barry Malzberg's story "Dance."  Today we check out that uncollected piece from the sage of Teaneck, and while we have the internet archive scan of that issue of Ted White's magazine open, let's also read the short stories included therein by Ross Rocklynne, David R. Bunch, and John Shirley.

After glancing at the editorial and the letters column, of course!  Ted in his editorial talks about how fantasy fiction (as a distinct category from science fiction) is growing in popularity, perhaps in response to The Lord of the Rings and recent Conan comics.  Seizing upon this market opportunity, Fantastic is adding "Sword & Sorcery" to its subtitle and publishing less science fiction.  Ted also reviews novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and Lolah Burford, and has nice things to say about Georgette Heyer.  

The letters column sees Ted in spirited dialogue with readers about Star Trek and about the homosexual community.  Ted has sword and sorcery on the brain and suggests a Conan-style show would be more suitable for broadcast on the boob tube than "sophisticated  stf has turned out to be."  A readers slings slur terms for gay men and Ted pushes back against these utterances, and it is not quite clear how serious and how jocular it all is.  On a more elevated level, there is some dispute over how responsible gay men are for the phenomenon of "camp."  A self-described gay man participates in these discussions, and we might consider this letters column a primary source in the history of LGBTQ+ members of the SF community that presents views from both gay and straight perspectives.  If the history of African-Americans in the SF and comics worlds is your beat, there is also disagreement about work done for Fantastic by artist Billy Graham. 

(Ted is opinionated and is far from averse to directly arguing with readers and so his editorials and the letter columns of his magazines are pretty lively.)   

"Dance" by Barry N. Malzberg

Malzberg in this rare story offers us a female first-person narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman living in a future world.  She is confident in her physical charms--in particular, she thinks her breasts have an irresistible effect on men.  She is horny, and full to bursting with love that she wants to give to others, but her fiancé is away at the wars, and so she throws herself at a robot and, when the robot rejects her, at an old man, who also rejects her.  Our narrator, it seems, is in some kind of medical institution, and the old geezer she brazenly tries to seduce indicates in somewhat vague terms that she is suffering some kind of mental and/or physical debility.  Earlier, in trying to calm the narrator down, he talked earnestly about the wars and the terrible effect the absence of the men is having upon women, but when this fails to pacify the narrator he admits that there is no war--the messages the narrator receives from her fiancé at the front are bogus, as are her very memories, counterfeits implanted into her brain.  All these deceptions are components of a program of therapy.  The narrator gets increasingly berserk, and succeeds in enflaming the old man's desire against his will, and even dismantling the robot with her bare hands.

Before succumbing to his lust for the narrator, the old man told her that "The truth of your condition would be so painful that the knowledge would destroy you," and Malzberg doesn't let us readers know what is wrong with the narrator, either--at least I couldn't figure it out.  After the narrator is pulled off the old man, the authorities seem to just resume the earlier program of therapy, and the narrator receives news about the war which we have been given reason to believe is not real, including communications from her fiancé.  I toyed with the idea that the narrator is in fact ugly and future societies are so shallow they consider ugly people to be cripples and go to extravagant lengths to "cure" them, with the possibility that the narrator is a robot, and with the idea that the story is a satire in which Malzberg is arguing that our society is sick in that it considers war normal and the desire to love an illness.  But I could come to no conclusions--the old man's claims are so contradictory that he offers both evidence and refutation of all of my theories.  Maybe the point of the story is that in matters of love and war it is normal for the authorities to lie to us and for us to lie to each other and ourselves, so that we can never learn the truth, not even of our own minds.


"Emptying the Plate" by Ross Rocklynne

It looks like this may be the last published story by Rocklynne, whose earliest work appeared in the 1930s in the pre-Campbell Astounding.  Back in 2017 I read four stories by Rocklynne, two late 1930s tales (one each from Astounding and Amazing,) a 1945 piece from Planet Stories, and the story Harlan Ellison got Rocklynne to write for 1972's Again, Dangerous Visions.  In 2018 I read a 1940 Rocklynne story endorsed by Raymond J. Healy, J. Francis McComas and Isaac Asimov.  In 2021 I read a Rocklynne story printed in Astounding in 1946.   

And today in 2023 I read "Emptying the Plate," a boring and repetitive story which I guess is supposed to be funny; the foundation of the story is a silly gimmick that kind of reminds me of something you might see on The Twilight Zone.  

"Emptying the Plate" is about sportscaster Joel Bravura Del Tona, who comes to realize that all his life his actions have resembled a liberal interpretation of a version of the nursery rhyme "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe," which his mother concocted to serve as a mnemonic device; Mom's version of the old standard ends "nine, ten, start again."  This morning he put on shoes with buckles, then the owner of the shop where he buys coffee every morning asks him to close the shop door, then he retrieves some boards left laying in the street.  We go through several pages of shenanigans because the boards' owners accidentally left them in the street and when Joel manhandles them they get angry and the police arrive, blah blah blah.  This is not very interesting or entertaining.  After this tedious adventure Joel recalls that all through his life, at pivotal moments, he has picked up things that might be defined as sticks and done other things reminiscent of this rhyme's lyrics.

A lawyer appears and gets Joel out of jail.  This diffident and ineffectual little worm of a man turns out to be an agent of extraterrestrials, and he introduces Joel to the mysterious aliens, who are somehow involved in Joel's life being so strongly influenced by the nursery rhyme.  Then follows a long goofy parody of a sense-of-wonder passage, a look at how the universe works that explains to us readers everything that is going on in the story.  You see, a god-like figure rules the universe, which is divided into many individual sectors, each of which is home to a multitude of intelligent races.  This god figure tests each sector periodically, and when a representative of a sector passes a test, the people of his sector graduate to a new, higher, state of being.  A test is underway in our sector, and our champion is Joel--if he passes, all of us humans and all the other intelligent species in our sector can achieve a higher level of being.

Back to Joel.  Our unwitting champion is experiencing again and again ("nine, ten, start again") the day featuring his arrest and his meeting with the aliens, but as he lives that day some fifty additional times he is aware it is a rerun--Joel "view[s] this situation as if he were a second person inside his own head," one who does not seem to be able to control his body, to make different decisions, and so the fifty duplicate iterations of the day are all pretty much the same as the first.  To pass the test (which Joel doesn't really know about), Joel has to figure out how to break out of this time loop.  Driven by desperation, he finally exerts his will and is able to change his actions on the 51st go around  He telephones his mother, from her learns the original text of "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" ("nine, ten, big fat hen") and uses this knowledge in a complicated and boring way to pass the test. 

Putting the sense of wonder passage in the middle of the story instead of the end was a mistake that makes Joel's Rube Goldberg solution to the test even more boring--if, like Joel, we didn't know why all this was happening we might have been spurred on to finish the story by a desire to learn the answer to the mystery--as "Emptying the Plate" is written, there is no reward for reading the third part of the story.

Too long (22 pages!), with no human feeling or interesting speculations, just anemic jokes, this is a tedious waste of time.  Unsurprisingly, "Emptying the Plate" has never been reprinted.  

"End of a Singer" by David R. Bunch 

The critics love David R. Bunch and so I expected to find that "End of a Singer" had been reprinted, but according to isfdb it has not been.

This is a short (like three pages of text) poetic and surreal story about Ironland, a future Earth (I guess) in which people have had most of their body parts replaced with machinery and in which even the birds and flowers are now mechanical.  It is a time of plenty and progress, in which people keep getting their body parts upgraded, and also a time of exploration of the galaxy and high-tech war.  The story seems to be a satire of the idea of progress, an expression of skepticism of technological and scientific advance, and a reminder that human beings are too belligerent.  These are complaints we have all heard a billion times and so Bunch is wise to keep his story short, as it offers nothing new in plot or theme.  

The main character is old and can recall when he had a 100% natural body and how his various body parts were replaced.  He cannot deny that his current robotic limbs work much better than did his old flesh and blood arthritic arms and legs, but he believes that perhaps the medical advances went too far, that replacing so much of his body, in particular his interior organs, with machinery has diminished his soul, his ability to experience authentic emotions.  This guy was a poet, and with the loss of his ability to feel he has also lost his ability to versify.  But he holds out hope that an upgrade to his "changer"--an emotion-regulating accessory attached to his artificial heart that allows him to manually induce various emotional states--might bring back his poetic ability.  After all, upgrades are always happening; this guy has gone through "ten different changers" already.  The poet waits eagerly for the nightly news, which is projected onto the sky in letters many miles high, hoping that among the announcements will be a notice that a new model of changer is available.  After various stories about new weapons and new discoveries by the galactic probes comes an announcement that has a profound effect on the poet--new machinery has been developed that can create artificial literature and music at a much faster rate than previously; this news causes the poet to drop dead.

This story is a little hard to read with its long flowery sentences, and the ironic plot twist is sort of what you might expect.  "End of a Singer" does enjoy the virtue of brevity, though.  I guess we can call this one acceptable.  Maybe people reading it today could claim it is sort of predicting stuff like Chat-GPT and those Japanese holographic singers or whatever they are.     

"Silent Crickets" by John Shirley 

I didn't really know who John Shirley was, but decided to read this because it is just three pages long.  Then I looked at Shirley's isfdb page and immediately recognized the title of a novel tarbandu reviewed in 2017 and Joachim Boaz reviewed three years later, City Come A-Walkin'.  Will Errickson has also written about Shirley.  Looks like I'm late to the party.  

"Silent Crickets" is a gimmick story, but the gimmick is pretty good and the story doesn't overstay its welcome.  Artists have been disappearing, and modern works of art are being destroyed.  It turns out that modern painters like Du Champ and Modigliani didn't really paint distorted and abstracted versions of Earth people, but accurate representations of what people from other worlds or universes look like!  Their stealing of images from those other universes has summoned aliens to Earth, and the aliens are inflicting a terror campaign on the art community!  The plot of this little story concerns a guy who has realized what is going on and tries to resist the alien invasion but is defeated and finds his own body becoming distorted so it resembles something in a modern painting.

It works; I have to call "Silent Crickets" the most successful and most satisfying story covered in today's post.  It would reappear in multiple Shirley collections and in one of those Martin H. Greenberg et al Barnes and Noble anthologies.


Here ends our little trip to 1975.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more such excursions into the nearly forgotten past.    


  1. When Shirley was On, he was On. Do you have 'Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories' in your collection ?

    1. I see Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories at the internet archive, and I'll keep Shirley in mind!