Monday, February 19, 2018

Space voyages with Oliver, Russell, Temple and Neville

Let's cast our net back into A Sea of Space and see what we can drag wriggling to the surface!  Today Chad Oliver (!), Ray Russell, William F. Temple and Kris Neville are our guides into "the vast space wilderness."


The 1980 British edition
of A Sea of Space
"The Wind Blows Free" by Chad Oliver (1957)

I'll always think of Chad Oliver as the guy who writes contrived utopian stories about spacefaring anthropologists who decide to abandon Earth to live among Stone Age people who are at one with nature, stories I think are ridiculous and boring.  In his intro to this story, however, editor William F. Nolan tells us "The Wind Blows Free" is about a "life ship" (what I think we usually call a "generation ship") and is one of Oliver's best.  I like generation ship stories, and confident that this isn't about an anthropologist who goes native among primitives, I am willing to tackle "The Wind Blows Free"'s 26 pages.

Sam is born on a generation ship of narrow catwalks, tiny apartments and stifling rules.  The rules may well be necessary to keep the cramped self-sufficient society of the ship (which it is said may well be the last hope of humanity, Earth having been ruined 400 years ago in a cataclysmic war) going, but Sam is an individualist and chafes under them.  Bigger and stronger than the other boys, he bullies them and has no luck making friends.  Sam is fascinated by the sex and violence in the stolen books he reads, but it is drummed into him that guns are bad and when he tries to get into a girl's pants he is confined to the family apartment for an entire year--in the closed environment of the ship population must be rigidly controlled.  Because of his troublemaking, the powers that be do not trust him and as an adult he is stuck at a maintenance job instead of graduating to the "Crew" along with his peer group.  One day comes the final straw, and Sam throws the rules totally out the window and starts exploring the forbidden areas of the ship.

When the Crew catches up to him, Sam kills a man in a fight.  Knowing that he now he faces execution or a lobotomy, Sam takes the drastic final step of stepping out of one of the airlocks in the forbidden outer decks of the ship.  He is amazed to find that the ship is a vine and rust-encrusted relic on a green and beautiful world!  The ship must have landed decades or centuries ago, but the Crew, after a lifetime of regimentation, risk-aversion and "mankind ruined the Earth" guilt-trips, has been too scared to disembark, and kept the fact that they have reached their destination a secret!  Sam advances into the jungle and soon meets other men as big and brawny and adventurous as he is; a happy life lies ahead of him.

Oliver yet again gives us a "guy leaves modern society to thrive as a primitive" narrative, but this story is actually a good one.  Oliver brings the ship to life,  doing a good job describing its physical and social architecture and effectively and efficiently setting a tone, and the psychological stuff about Sam is also good.  I'm maybe a little disappointed that the ship wasn't actually in space, but the tradition of generation ship stories is that the passengers are ignorant of their circumstances (generally, they don't realize they are on a space ship) and Oliver manages to adhere to this tradition and at the same time advance his own agenda, so it is forgivable.  Oliver also subtly pays homage to Robert Heinlein's classic generation ship story "Universe," which was fun.

I'm actually recommending a Chad Oliver story here at MPorcius Fiction Log!  Now there is a real plot twist!  "The Wind Blows Free" first appeared in F&SF.   

"I Am Returning" by Ray Russell (1961)

I have read only one Ray Russell story before and I thought it a waste of time.  If you are wondering who Russell is, Nolan tells us in the intro here that Russell was an executive editor at Playboy and "brought quality science fiction to its pages."  Maybe this story will be worth my time?

Not really.  "I Am Returning" is a gimmick story, the tale of the fall of Satan explained or reimagined as the story of a winged alien with antenna, the loser of a civil war, crashlanding his ship on Earth in the Mesozoic era.  Too proud to admit defeat, Satan burrows to the Earth's core, and from there uses his telepathic powers to influence the evolution of the human race, pushing us to develop high technology and to construct a space navy with which to continue the civil war.  As the five-page story ends it is the close of the 21st Century and Lucifer is leading his Earth-built fleet out into space to fight Round Two of the War in Heaven.

Because it is brief I will give "I Am Returning" a grudging acceptable rating.  It first appeared, I believe, in Russell's collection Sardonicus and Other Stories.

"The Undiscovered Country" by William F. Temple (1958)

Last year the MPorcius staff examined a pile of Ace Doubles, including 76380, which presented Temple's Battle on Venus and The Three Suns of Amara.  I guess I was sort of lukewarm about them.  Nolan in his intro to this story here briefly describes Nolan's adventurous life (serving in the Eighth Army during the long Mediterranean campaigns of World War II and then in peacetime rooming with Arthur C. Clarke) and commends "The Undiscovered Country" itself as a "tense adventure."

"The Undiscovered Country" turns out to be the kind of story I was expecting (hoping) from a collection billed as being about "voyages in space."  Astronauts have discovered that living on the surface of Pluto are people whose metabolisms move at a rate one fortieth of our Earth metabolisms.  Unfortunately, everybody on the first two Earth expeditions to Pluto died because Pluto's acidic atmosphere can burn right through a conventional spaceship and cause catastrophic failure.  The third expedition, of which our narrator is a member, crews a ship specially built to withstand the Plutonian atmosphere, but can only do so for a short time!

This third Pluto research team snatches a beautiful young Plutonian woman (did I mention that these Plutonians are nudists?) and puts her on the Earth ship in a special tank full of Pluto air.  The hope is to study her, perhaps even keep her alive and learn to communicate with her.  But the Plutonian girl does not appreciate being kidnapped and put in a tiny cell, and uses her previously unsuspected telekinetic powers to sabotage the ship!  Who will live?  Who will die?  Will the ship get to Earth, or will the alien beauty seize control of the vessel and take it back to Pluto?

A good adventure story; I actually think it is too short, that there are lots of ideas in the story that are not explored as far as they might be.  How often do I say that?  Temple tosses in Shakespeare references and historical analogies along with all the science blah blah blah, so reading it really makes you feel like a smart guy!  "The Undiscovered Country" was first published in Nebula.

"Worship Night" by Kris Neville (1953)

A few years ago I read several Kris Neville stories, as chronicled here and here.  Taken together, I found the stories pretty thought-provoking, and a few of them were actually touching or exciting.  So I have hopes for "Worship Night!"

Like Robert Bloch's "The Old College Try" this is a story about colonialism that reminds me of Somerset Maugham, but whereas Bloch's story was a humorous horror story Neville's story is sad and realistic.

George, a college professor, and his wife Wilma are Earthlings who have lived on planet Cerl for twenty years.  Today is moving day; they are relocating from a big city (presumably built to human specifications, as the natives seem like primitives) to a house in the country, apparently to retire.  George is planning to write a book on Cerl and its people, and his wife urges him to do so, because interaction with humanity is radically changing Cerl society and later historians will lack George's familiarity with the traditional ways of the people of Cerl.

Neville makes clear that George and Wilma identify more with the natives than with their own kind--for example, the native employees at their apartment building assemble on the roof to bid them farewell as they board the aircar to their new place, but none of George's human colleagues of twenty years come to see them off--George suggests that their fellow Earthers feel he and Wilma have "gone native."  But, as humans, a vast gulf separates them from the Cerl people.  At their new place they are treated in a standoffish and surly manner by the locals, and they recall how it took them long years back in the city to make friends with the natives there.  (The reader has to wonder to what extent the natives who worked at their apartment building were really their "friends" and not merely obsequious service workers catering to their customers, hoping for tips and the like.)  No longer young, George and Wilma may die before they can establish any relationships in their new environs, and George wonders if he shouldn't have taken a job offer he had of a position back on Earth instead of buying a house on this alien world.  Having turned their backs on their own people, and unable to fully gain acceptance among the people of this planet, George and Wilma may have doomed themselves to an old age of loneliness and alienation.

Not bad; the style is good, Neville efficiently painting images and conveying the emotions of these lost souls.  "Worship Night" was first published in F&SF.

**********

With one exception, a good crop of stories.  Our voyage into space has been fruitful!

More anthologized SF in our next episode!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Stories by Simmons, Beaumont, Nolan and Bloch from across A Sea of Space

Welcome to Technicolor-Dreamcoat Land

We've been digging through our collection of classic SF paperback anthologies here at the MPorcius Library, and today we explore William F. Nolan's 1970 effort, A Sea of Space.  No doubt you'll recall that time we read Nolan's anthology 3 to the Highest Power.  You've probably forgotten that time I read four stories by Nolan; don't be embarrassed--I forget about them myself!  As I did, you can refresh your memory at the link.


I'm not groking A Sea of Space's cover; the picture of a woman in an extravagant outfit holding an over-sized eyeball (and, on the margins, three men's heads and a landed flying saucer projecting colorful rays) is pleasant enough, but I don't feel it conveys the book's announced theme of travels through space.  Maybe it illustrates a specific story?

Nolan's dedication is also mysterious.  It lists ten first names, all, I suspect, of women.  In contrast we have the table of contents, which lists fourteen names, all, I believe, of men.  Our 2018 sensibilities cry out, "That just ain't woke!"

Today we'll be looking at four of those fourteen stories, those written by Herbert A. Simmons, Charles Beaumont, Nolan himself, and Robert Bloch.

"One Night Stand" by Herbert A. Simmons (1963)

As Nolan tells us in the intro to the story, Simmons is the acclaimed African-American author of two novels about urban black life and jazz, Corner Boy and Man Walking on Eggshells.  "One Night Stand" is his only SF story, and first appeared in Gamma, a short-lived (5 issues) magazine for which Nolan served as managing editor.

"One Night Stand" is a first-person narrative in the voice of a jazz musician of the future, when the Earth is in contact with aliens, like the blue people of Mercury.  It is full of slang and metaphors, lots of sentences like these:
See, man, you start out trying to conquer a horn and because it's a bitch and hard to control, if you ain't careful that damn horn ends up conquering you.
Oh, we got hot man, we got wild.  Right from the beginning we were a burning bitch, and that's no jive, giving out like an old-time preacher on a Sunday morning, giving out so hard it was like no smoke, man, no smoke at all.
The story is only five and a half pages long, and I found this kind of writing in a dose of that size to be amusing.

One of the narrator's bandmates is Maury, perhaps the best trumpet player on Earth.  Maury is not happy.  For one thing, him being twenty years ahead of his time, very few people appreciate his genius trumpet playing.  For another, because he's not very good-looking and spends all his energy trying to tame his trumpet and none learning how to woo women, he can't get any "dames."  When Maury gets the idea that the blue people of Mercury may be capable of appreciating his playing, he insists the band accept the offer of a gig there.  While they are there he meets a native girl who loves him for his playing, and decides to stay.

"One Night Stand" is entertaining, largely because of its distinctive voice.  It is a fun change of pace from most SF stories, and Simmons has fun defying the expectations of SF readers: regarding the band's space flight to Mercury, the narrator tells us, "Now, man, if you're waiting for me to tell you about the moon and the stars and the milky way and all that jazz, that ain't what's happening....I'm a musician.  I ain't no astronaut."

"Elegy" by Charles Beaumont (1953)

Beaumont, like Nolan, was friends with Ray Bradbury, and Bradbury, we are told in Nolan's intro to the story, "worked over" "Elegy" in one of its early drafts.  We are also told that "Elegy" formed the basis of an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Beaumont (a quick look at Wikipedia indicates that this was Episode 20, also called "Elegy.")

The nations of Earth were about to embark on a cataclysmic war (one featuring the use of the "X-bomb") so a bunch of spacemen fled in their ship.  They went to Mars, but they didn't get along with the Martians.  So they searched the galaxy for a suitable place to settle.  Just as they were about to run out of fuel, by chance they came upon Asteroid K7.

K7, they learn, is a secret installation, offering services to the very rich!  When your loved one dies, you can have him preserved in a custom built setting, where he can (to outward appearances) enjoy his favorite activity for all eternity.  It's the galaxy's most elaborate cemetery!  A kid who loved rollerskating is frozen in his skates on a sidewalk.  A businessman who loved his work is frozen in a replica of his firm's office building, and kept company by artificial statues of all his colleagues!  And on and on (we get plenty of examples.)

The refugees are eager to settle on the cemetery asteroid, the soil and climate of which are suitable for agriculture.  But the cyborg caretaker of the cemetery has been given the mission of maintaining peace on K7, and human beings are so fractious that you can only be sure they will be peaceful if they are dead!  So the cyborg poisons the spacemen and preserves them at the controls of their now inert ship.

Merely acceptable.  "Elegy" first appeared in Imagination.

"Lap of the Primitive" by William F. Nolan (1958)

Many years ago, on my birthday, my wife (then my girlfriend) had me board a train with her, not telling me its destination.  We got off in New Haven and she guided me to the Peabody Museum of Natural History to look at dinosaurs and then the Yale Center for British Art to look at prints and paintings.  As "Lap of the Primitive" begins, Phineas Perchall is trying to give his new wife, Tildy, the same sort of surprise on their honeymoon; they are on a rocket she thinks is going to Luna, but is really bound for Venus!  But is Tildy as appreciative as I was back in my New York City days when my wife gave me an unexpected opportunity to deepen my relationship with Rudolph F. Zallinger and Sir Joshua Reynolds?  No!  In fact, as she sits in the passenger rocket she is lamenting that she got hitched to a man who is a bore with a long nose and a weak chin!  Why did Tildy marry a man whom she finds so unattractive?  Because she's a big fatso and doesn't think she could do any better!

I recently rewatched the 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, on which Nolan worked and which features the famous adaptation of Richard Matheson's "Prey."  (You can still find illegally pirated movies on YouTube among all the videos from Russian bots providing advice on how to vote.)   Back in the very dawn of this blog's life I wrote that Matheson's "Prey" was a great horror story because it wasn't just about blood and violence but the everyday horrors of our human relationships.  When I started the story and saw it was about an unhappy marriage I thought that "Lap of the Primitive" would perhaps take this course.  Unfortunately, it is a goofy joke story taking, I suppose, Tarzan, King Kong and Ray Bradbury's "The Long Rain" as its inspiration.

Once on Venus, Phineas, inspired by his reading of books by an heroic anthropologist, wants to explore the jungles and uncover the truth about a "White God" who lives in the wilderness.  A safari is organized, with porters who carry stuff on their heads and a native guide and everything.  As they march through the jungle, Phineas, so excited about this trip earlier, finds the adventure fatiguing and even dangerous as he is stung by insects and blunders into pitfalls, while Tildy, at first scared of the jungle, begins to enjoy it.  She even begins losing weight thanks to the days of marching and eating native food.  The final twist joke is that the "White God" is the anthropologist Phineas admires, a big handsome blue-eyed blond, and he steals Tildy away from her husband, knowing that soon she will be thin and beautiful.  (The anthropologist and the native guide had this whole thing planned out when they first got wind that an Earth woman had landed on Venus.)

Weak.  This story first appeared in Fantastic Universe, and in his intro Nolan suggests that he is particularly proud of this one, that it is among his best works, in a way that left me bewildered.  For example, he talks about "Tildy's eventual triumph," when Tildy never does anything--she marries a guy she isn't attracted to, is tricked into going to Venus, is tricked into going on a safari she doesn't want to go on, and then submits to the desires of a man she does find attractive.  Tildy never makes any real decisions, she is subjected to the manipulation of others again and again.  Lame!

"The Old College Try" by Robert Bloch (1963)

It's Robert Bloch, he of Psycho fame!  Three years ago I read his 1989 novel about murder and voodoo in Los Angeles, Lori.  I think Bloch's reputation is a little inflated, but we'll see what he comes up with here.

"The Old College Try," which first appeared in Gamma, is about colonialism, and actually reminded me a little of the kinds of stories Somerset Maugham wrote about colonial administrators going native.  Bloch loves puns and jokes, and there is a certain amount of humor in this story, but the humor doesn't stop it from being a more or less realistic SF story--"The Old College Try" isn't an absurd parody like "Lap of the Primitive," thank heavens.

The Yorl of planet Yorla are violent savages with a stone-age level of technology.  These little blue-skinned hooligans enjoy fighting and are devoted to publicly displaying as trophies the heads of fallen opponents.  Yorla has valuable mineral resources, and humans are eager to trade with the natives for the minerals; as the Yorl are equally eager to acquire human trade goods there is no trouble convincing the Yorl to work in the mines.  Being too busy in the mines to fight their vicious wars, the Yorla have sublimated their lust for blood and craving for dangerous competition in a way that makes the mining operation more efficient--slackers who don't pull their weight in the mine or otherwise fail to meet their daily quota of ore are decapitated by their fellows!

The current colonial administrator, Raymond, has not made much effort in his five-year term on Yorla to civilize the natives.  In fact, he has a score of dutiful Yorl servants at his beck and call and spends most of the day drinking "Aspergin," a bit of wordplay from Bloch which I quite like.  (The first few lines of the story relate how a Yorl waits at Raymond's bedside every morning to hand him a glass of Aspergin as soon as he wakes up to alleviate his customary morning headache.)  Raymond's five years are up, and his replacement, Phillips, arrives.  Phillips is disgusted by Raymond's lax administration and the Yorls' taking and displaying of heads and other "exotic" customs, and, brushing aside Raymond's efforts to dissuade him, sets about trying to reform the Yorl.  This brief campaign ends in tragedy; unfortunately for this reader, the nature of the tragedy is a little too obvious and too easy to predict.

Despite the somewhat disappointing ending, I'll give this one a marginal positive vote; Bloch's style is smooth, and he structures and paces the story well, so it is enjoyable enough.

**********

For some reason I thought A Sea of Space would be full of stories about guys jettisoning cargo to escape gravity wells and calculating orbits while running low on oxygen, stuff like that.  Well, maybe those stories are in there; we'll keep our scanners tuned for them in our next episode.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Stories of Contact with aliens by Walton, Leiber, Brown and Phillips


As you can see from this receipt (the true historian knows that truth lies in the documentary evidence!) I purchased Contact, a 1963 anthology edited by Noel Keyes, on June 7 of 2016 at A-1 Bookstore for $1.50.  This book was 50% more expensive than Planet of Peril by John Christopher, which I read in August of 2017.  The vagaries of the market!  Contact is Noel Keyes's only credit at isfdb, and the know-it-alls there pour salt in Mr. Keyes's wounds by claiming that famous SF historian Sam Moskowitz actually did much of the work putting Contact together.  Keyes (real name: David Keightley) was probably too busy studying Chinese history and literature to devote his full attention to Contact.  Priorities, man!

Let's check out four stories from Contact, two from people we are familiar with, Fritz Leiber and Frederic Brown, and two from guys I know little or nothing of, Harry Walton and Peter Phillips.


"Intelligence Test" by Harry Walton (1953)

This is a sort of Twilight Zone-ish story in which, shortly after a UFO is spotted over Everytown, USA, a handful of people find themselves trapped by a forcefield in a roadside diner, the subjects of an alien test of human intelligence!  A journalist among those trapped figures out how to escape, despite the obstructions presented by the presence of two members of the decadent and corrupt bourgeoisie!

This is a good story of its type and I enjoyed it.  "Intelligence Test" originally appeared in Science Fiction Plus, and forty years later was translated into Russian and included in an anthology alongside Clifford Simak's Goblin Reservation and Horacio Quiroga's "Anaconda."

 

"What's He Doing in There?" by Fritz Leiber (1957)

Fritz, the man behind the much-beloved Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, has been showing up on the blog a lot lately, which is good, because he had an interesting career and I like much of his work.  Of course, he doesn't hit it out of the park every at-bat (as you sports fans might say.)  "What's He Doing in There?" is a tepid joke story.  I can't really object to Leiber writing joke stories, because he wrote one of the very best comedy SF/F stories, "Lean Times in Lankhmar," published in 1959, but this one feels like no more than competent filler.

The first Martian to come to Earth makes a beeline to an anthropologist who has a wife, a "coltish" teenage daughter and a "little son."  After a nice chat the alien utters a vague phrase that the humies interpret as a request to use the bathroom.  They direct him, and he locks himself in...for hour after hour.  What could the Martian be doing in there?  In the morning he finally emerges and it becomes apparent that Martians sleep underwater, and the alien took the tub for a comfortable bed.

An acceptable trifle.

First appearing in Galaxy, in 1982 "What's He Doing in There?" was translated into (I think) Croatian and appeared in the Yugoslavian SF magazine Sirius.


"Knock" by Fredric Brown (1949)

Hubba hubba!
Remember when we read a Fredric Brown novel about a homophobic boozer and a god-like rock?  Good times!  Let's hope this short story is equally fun and crazy.

Aliens hose down the Earth with rays that kill all animal (but not plant) life, saving only a few score specimens for their zoo, among them one man and one woman.  These aliens don't die of old age, though they can die by violence, and are dumbfounded and disappointed when their brand new Earth specimens start dying of natural causes.  These E.T.s are also cold-hearted, with no conception of love or affection, and the last man on earth tricks them; he tells them Earth creatures live longer if petted and caressed, and suggests they show such affection to their rattlesnake specimen.  The aliens start keeling over, and somehow don't realize they are dying from snakebites--they think that Earth is the planet of death and they have started dying of old age like Earth creatures do.  So, they leave.

There is also a sort of subplot about whether or not the last man and last woman on Earth will ever have sex; she does not find him attractive.

I can't tell you that this story is bad, but it is leaving me cold.  More filler.

After first appearing in an issue of Thrilling Wonder with a cover that is making my eyes dilate, "Knock" has been reprinted many times; according to isfdb, Sirius presented it twice, the second time as the cover story!  Weird!


"Lost Memory" by Peter Phillips (1952)

Phillips's career seems to have caused some confusion among SF scholars--not only are there multiple SF writers with this name, but it was also used as a pseudonym by Howard Browne.  The Phillips we are acquainting ourselves with today is mentioned by Barry Malzberg in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Malzberg telling us that Phillips was the first person to write about a machine that facilitates and manipulates dreams.

"Lost Memory" is yet another story about emotional robots who have lost knowledge of who first constructed them, like "Robots Return" and "Orphans of the Void," both of which we read earlier this week.  These here robots reside on a lifeless rock of a planet and have a complex society complete with a division of labor--there are politician robots, for example, and our narrator is a journalist robot.  These individualistic robots feel pride and fear and have differences of opinion, and some make a practice of customizing themselves--one has replaced his legs with wheels, for example.  Another converted himself into an aircraft and tried to escape the planet's gravity, without success.

When what we readers realize is a rocket ship crash lands on the planet, the robots think it is a robot from another world who has successfully converted itself into a space ship.  The injured Earth astronaut in the ship, via radio, tries to explain to the assembled robot politicians and journalists that he needs medical attention, but these robots have no experience with living things and continue thinking it is the rocket itself talking.  (The rocket's airlock was jammed in the crash and there are no windows or anything like that.)  A robot technician cuts open the rocket to conduct repairs, and the heat caused by the friction burns the human to a crisp.  Phillips really pours on the horror elements, with the astronaut repeatedly screaming things like "Dear Jesus!" and "You're burning me alive!" and then with the description of the corpse, which the robots think some sort of insulation.  This is like proto-splatterpunk!

Not only is the astronaut killed by his would-be rescuers, but the robots lose an opportunity to learn from him the secret of their origins.  I'll give this hardcore tragedy a moderately positive vote.   

"Lost Memory" has been reprinted numerous times in anthologies of robot stories and horror stories and translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese.


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I don't feel like any of these was a waste of my time, so a successful mission.  More fifty-plus-year-old SF stories in our next episode when I explore another of my paperback SF anthologies.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Shadows of Tomorrow cast by Leiber, Boucher, Shaara and Gunn


Here's another of my 50 cent finds from the carts outside Second Story Books in our nation's capital, 1953's Shadow of Tomorrow, edited by Frederick Pohl, alumnus of the Young Communist League and author of the classic Gateway.  My copy of the 379-page book is in pretty good shape if you ignore the water spots.  An earlier owner appears to have used the inner front cover as scratch paper while working on his algebra homework or trying to crack a KGB cipher.  I hope he passed the class or caught the Rosenbergs' controller or whatever.

The description of Michael Shaara's Orphans of the Void
sounds like it is for a different story.

In our last episode we looked at four stories from Astounding from the period 1938 to 1944.  Today's crop of SF capers are all from Galaxy, from the early 1950s.  Let's see if they are really "more vivid than anything you have ever read" and "possible," as the back cover promises.

"A Bad Day For Sales" by Fritz Leiber (1953)

In his intro to this volume Frederick Pohl says something that I don't expect to hear pinkos say: that the world and society are in pretty good shape!  The salutary state of the world in the early 1950s, Pohl continues, presents a problem to the SF writer who would play social critic: if things are so good, it is not easy to come up with a compelling story on how they should be improved.  One solution available to the able writer, Pohl tells us, is to write a story that points out not what course our society should pursue, but what course to avoid, and Pohl includes "A Bad Day For Sales" on the list of stories from Shadow of Tomorrow that take this tack.  In his intro to the individual story itself, Pohl offers his opinion that "A Bad Day For Sales" is the best story ever written by Fritz Leiber.

So, what world does Leiber suggest we should avoid in this brief tale?  A consumerist world in which popular culture is suffused with sex and violence and America is involved in mass war in the Muslim East!  (I have the feeling we haven't exactly been heeding Fritz's warning!)  The plot consists of a robot on the streets of Manhattan, trying to sell various items to the city dwellers, like lolly-pops, soda pop, booze, copies of comic books (Junior Space Killers to a boy, Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper to a girl) and cosmetics (Mars Blood, a "savage new glamor-tint"), the last to a woman in six-inch heels and skin-tight pants who flaunts her body at the robot.  Nearby, a fifty-foot-tall animatronic mannequin dresses and undresses, advertising the latest fashions, while news about the Pakistan crisis flashes by on the Times Square news ticker.  Then a stealth missile lands in Times Square, killing scores of people; the robot salesman survives, but is confused by this turn of events.

This is a sort of trifling joke story, but some of the jokes are funny (I definitely laughed at Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper.)  I thought it a little incongruous to find the author of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, which feature light-hearted depictions of swordfights, thievery and rape*, apparently lecturing us on the issue of sex and violence in entertainment.  ("A Bad Day For Sales," by the way, features explicit depictions of people being maimed and killed by the missile attack--I expect these are meant to be disturbing, not amusing.)  I'm guessing Pohl loved "A Bad Day For Sales" because it feels like an attack on advertising and the sale and purchase of frivolous things like sugary sweets and cosmetics, and perhaps hints that all act as "the opiates of the people," distracting them and keeping them from changing the government which is getting mixed up in all the wars (Orwell and numerous other lefties make this sort of argument.)

I love Coca-Cola and Oreos and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, and if I had seen Gee Gee Jones, Space Stripper on the shelf during one of my regular visits to Jim Hanley's Universe back in my Manhattan days I would have eagerly snatched it up, so I am looking at this story as an affectionate send up, a knowingly ironic homage, to our consumerist culture and giving it a thumbs up!  (Just call me Mr. False Consciousness.)  So there!

The immortal Charles Schulz was also mining the anti-social comic book title vein
in the early 1950s.  This panel is from the June 22, 1952 Peanuts strip.
"A Bad Day For Sales" has been reprinted many times in such books as the volume of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories that covers 1953 and The Arbor House Treasure of Science Fiction Masterpieces.  (While the former is "headlined" by Asimov and the latter by Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg is second editor on both...perhaps it is Greenberg who was so very keen on this piece.)

Is it vivid?  Yes!

Is it possible?  Yes!

*Not wanting to unfairly #metoo the Grey Mouser, one of the heroes of my youth, I took my 1986 copy of Swords and Ice Magic off the shelf and reread 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner" and I can confirm that therein the Grey Mouser rapes a teen-aged girl assassin and that the scene is played for laughs.   

"Transfer Point" by Anthony Boucher (1950)

Boucher is another well-known figure in SF with whose work I have little familiarity.  Because he also wrote mystery stories and his name starts with a "B," I sometimes mix him up with Frederic Brown, who once wrote a story about a man-eating armadillo.  I have a terrible memory!

Like Leiber's "A Bad Day for Sales," "Transfer Point" is a joke story, but whereas Leiber's story is brisk and brief and includes some funny jokes, Boucher's tale is long and tedious and not at all funny.

It is two thousand years in the future!  Modern medicine has advanced to the point that nobody suffers from allergies.  Well, this one guy does--he's got eczema!  The eczema-sufferer is a genius scientist, and constructs himself a "retreat" with super air-conditioning so he won't have to itch anymore.  (This guy joins the pantheon of literary characters who suffer from eczema that is headed by Jewish authority on Vermeer and man-about-town Charles Swann, who treated his eczema with pain d'epices, air-conditioning not having been invented yet.)  So when hostile aliens introduce a new element, an inert gas, into the atmosphere that causes everybody to cough and sneeze to death, this guy is safe!

Holed up with the genius scientist, safe in the retreat while the rest of humanity dies of the sniffles, is his vapid but sexy daughter and a young writer who is composing an epic poem about the history of the human race.  Sexy daughter flirts outrageously with the versifier (e.g., she eats fruits and sucks the juices off her fingers right in front of him!) but he is not interested because she is so dull-witted.  Bored, the poet kills time by reading some 20th-century science-fiction magazines he finds in the archives.  (Meta!)  He is amazed to discover that one of the stories describes his own time and plight--in fact, the story he is reading is the story we readers are reading.  He doesn't find it funny, either!

The scientist constructs a time machine and the poet ends up in 1948 where he becomes a SF writer and tries to romance a well-educated female editor and publish that story about himself and a human race menaced by alien chemical warfare.  Boucher piles on the meta with characters directly referring to Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros.  Then, after 20 pages of lame jokes, Boucher tries to switch gears and pull our heartstrings by having the romance with the editor fail and the poet's manuscript thrown into the fire instead of published, which means the time loop we've all been reading about is broken and the human race is exterminated in the year 3950 or whatever. 

Weak!

Despite my dismissal of this overly long and self-indulgent piece, Robert Silverberg included "Transfer Point" in the seventh volume of his Alpha series (promoted as a collection of "the greatest contemporary masterpieces") and it appeared multiple times in translation in Europe.

Is it vivid?  No!

Is it possible?  No!

"Orphans of the Void" by Michael Shaara (1952)

It's the guy who writes those novels about the religious beliefs of American Civil War generals!  Oh wait, he just wrote one of those--his son wrote the other ones.  Forgive me; everything I know about The Killer Angels I learned watching a two-minute review of the movie on the TV 25 years ago.

This is another sentimental robot story, one not as effective as the sentimental robot story we read in our last episode, Robert Moore William's "Robot's Return."  For three hundred years humanity has lived in peace and been capable of interstellar flight, but after centuries of exploration has yet to discover evidence of an alien race which has also achieved space travel.  (Planetbound alien civilizations have been discovered, but there is a strict rule that forbids contact with them.)  In this story, space explorers uncover the first ever sign of alien spacefarers, and track the clues to a planet covered in ruined cities, cities destroyed in a cataclysmic war.  All life on the planet was exterminated in the war, but the aliens' self replicating robots survived!

Here comes the sentiment.  To ensure obedience, the robots were programmed with a desire to serve their flesh creature masters, and suffer a sort of psychological pain when they are not serving.  Because their masters have been dead for millennia, the robots have suffered this pain for a long long time.  They even built space ships and went on a fruitless search for "the Makers," whom the robots, it is suggested, view in much the same way humans view God.  The happy ending of the story is that the human race will become these robots' masters; they will help us explore the universe, and need never feel that pain again.  (Shaara doesn't seem to explore the idea that humanity, by becoming these robots' masters, may be hubristically taking on the role of gods.)

The idea behind this story is OK, but Shaara failed to elicit any feeling in me; I just didn't care about these robots' psychological problems.  For one thing, the author fails to create any characters, human or robot, worthy of my sympathy.  He also breaks the "show me don't tell me" rules pretty severely.  Instead of us readers accompanying a human character as he uncovers this whole robotic psychology sob story, the truth of the robots' mental problems is revealed in a scene in which the captain of the space ship reads a report from his anthropology team.  Instead of using some literary techniques to inspire sadness in us readers, or convincingly display the captain's sadness, Shaara just tells is this whole thing is sad with lines like "Not since he [the space captain] was very young had he been so deeply moved."

There are lots of SF stories in which we are supposed to feel sad about robots who have problems, but such stories are a tough sell to me because I can never forget that a robot is just a machine.  When the Toyota Corolla has a flat tire I don't feel bad for the automobile--it's just a machine, with no feelings, and I am inclined to feel the same way about a robot.  Longtime readers of MPorcius Fiction Log may remember how much I gushed about Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, which features a robot that, apparently, develops feelings and then gets destroyed, but that novel worked because Lee placed at its center a believable human character who loved the robot, and the robot served as a catalyst for emotion and change in that human character.

I tend to like stories about dudes in space suits exploring alien artifacts, but I gotta give this one a thumbs down... however, it is not so bad that I won't give some of Shaara's other short SF a try.

Like "Transfer Point," "Orphans of the Void" showed up in Alpha 7.  Silverberg and I are really not on the same page today.

Is it vivid?  Moderately vivid.

Is it possible?  I don't think so.



"The Misogynist" by James E. Gunn (1952)

Back in 2011 I read a novel James E. Gunn coauthored with Jack Williamson in 1955, Star Bridge, and gave it a middling, mildly positive review at Amazon.  Gunn is an important figure in the SF world as a writer, editor, historian and critic, but I don't think I have read anything by him since this blog set sail.     

Whoa, this is another of those stories which wouldn't fly today, full of assessments of women that men nowadays deny they believe if they know what is good for them.  We'll let "Their minds work in devious ways; they win what they want by guile and subtlety" serve as our example of many such lines of dialogue in this story.

Gunn's story is structured as a written account of a conversation between the narrator and the smartest guy in his office, Harry, who has a reputation as a storyteller.  Harry has been married for a month, and has noticed that his wife acts much differently now than she did before they were married.  He expounds to the narrator his theory that most or all women are members of an alien species, left on Earth long ago--this is the only way, he believes, to explain the radical difference between men, who are practical and creative and able to grasp abstract ideas, and women, who are none of these things, but parasites who manipulate men.  No doubt the feminine fiends will eventually figure out how to do without men, and then exterminate them.  Harry warns that men who catch wind of the female conspiracy end up in the asylum or the morgue, but the narrator just thinks he's kidding and blithely tells his own wife, and Harry's, all about Harry's theory.  Two or three days later both Harry and the narrator are out of commission.

An obvious sort of story, but Gunn doesn't let it go on too long, and enlivens it with lots of sexist quotes from famous thinkers and the Bible.  An acceptable entertainment.

"The Misogynist" seems to have struck a chord with the SF community, appearing in numerous anthologies, including SF: Author's Choice 4, one of those anthologies in which writers tell you which of their literary productions they are most proud of--apparently "The Misogynist" represents what Gunn considers his finest work!

Is it vivid?  It is entirely set in some guy's living room, so, who cares?

Is it possible?  That women are different than men?  Yes.  That women are from outer space?  No.

**********

Ouch, these stories are kind of a disappointment.  The Leiber and Gunn stories are reasonably well-written and brief, but their ideas (boilerplate Marxism and boilerplate sexism) are banal.  The Boucher is long and tedious, and the Shaara has a decent idea but is poorly delivered.  Better luck next time, I guess.

More science fiction short stories published before I was born in our next episode!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Adventures in Time and Space by Miller, Rocklynne, Williams and Bates

My copy of Selections from Adventures
in Time and Space, discovered on the
outside carts at Second Story Books
In 1946 Random House put out a huge hardcover anthology of SF stories entitled Adventures in Time and Space.  Edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, this 1000-page volume has been reprinted numerous times and in 1952 won some kind of "All-Time Best Book" award from Astounding.  In 1954 Pennant Books put out a 200-page paperback selection of stories from the anthology, and in January of 2018 I paid 50 cents for a copy of this sixty-four-year-old paperback.

The first three stories in this book are by famous heroes of early 20th-century SF, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and "Lewis Padgett" (a pen name used by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore), but today we are going to read stories from the volume by somewhat less famous people: P. Schuyler Miller, Ross Rocklynne, Robert Moore Williams, and Harry Bates.  I didn't plan it this way, but all these stories first appeared in Astounding when the famous John W. Campbell Jr. was editing the magazine.

"As Never Was" by P. Schuyler Miller (1944)

"As Never Was" appeared in 1944, and you can read the issue of Astounding in which it debuted for free at the internet archive.  Robert Silverberg included it in his anthologies Alpha 5 in 1974 and The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces in 1983--I guess we can say the story has the endorsement of the SF community.  Miller wrote a bunch of stories in the '30s and '40s and many essays and reviews for Astounding/Analog up to the '70s, but I don't know that I have ever read anything by him before.

This is one of those time-travel stories about an impossible paradox that hurts my poor brain.  In the 21st century one of the first archaeologists with access to a "time shuttle" travels to the future.  (There is little point in a scientist or historian traveling to the past because if you do so you inevitably change the future, creating and finding yourself in a different time stream so you can no longer return to the future you used to inhabit in order to share your findings.)  He returns with a knife made of a super metal and dies shortly after.  This metal has so much technological and economic potential that practitioners of every science bend every tool and technique at their disposal to duplicating the metal or finding more of it, but decades of such efforts are absolutely fruitless.  Legions of people travel to the future but they can never find a civilization that has even heard of the super metal, much less one able to produce it.  Finally, the grandson of the pioneering archaeologist figures out the mystery, which only reveals a still greater mystery: his grandfather discovered the knife 300 years in the future in the ruins of the museum where it was housed after his death in the 21st century--the knife exists only in a closed loop, it was never actually created.

This story is well-written, Miller injecting some melodrama and character stuff as well as ideas and images that keep it entertaining, and the central conceit is kind of mind-boggling, which makes it memorable.  I like it, and see why anthologists like it, but can't deny that the impossibility of it all has left an uncomfortable, nagging, residue of frustration in my mind, analogous to the feeling I get looking at one of those impossible tuning fork drawings.

"Quietus" by Ross Rocklynne (1940)

Isaac Asimov (or Martin H. Greenberg acting under his aegis) included "Quietus" in the volume of his series The Great Science Fiction Stories that covers 1940.  A year ago I read four stories by Rocklynne and found them to be a mixed bag.

Zoinks!  This is the kind of story that will get you fired from your cushy job at a tech industry giant!  In their introduction, the editors (besides telling you ahead of time it is a tragedy, thus killing the twist ending) say it may be that the "significance of this tale is its brilliant portrayal of the historical struggle of the feminine mind to cope with logic a priori." NSFW!

Tommy is the last man on Earth!  Extreme seismic activity, triggered by a meteor strike, has exterminated all life on Earth save for that in an area of about 100,000 square miles in North America, where Tommy lives, and that area didn't come through unscathed.  The holocaust occurred during Tommy's childhood, when he had run away from home and was hiding in a cave.  When he emerged from the cave everybody was dead.  (That'll show you, Mom and Dad!)  Since then he has lived by catching rabbits with his bare hands, his loneliness eased by his pet crow, Blacky, who repeats sentences Tommy says and sentences it heard before the cataclysm, phrases like "the price of wheat is going down" which mean nothing to Tommy.

Tommy is 21 now, and has a feeling of "hunger" for you know what!  (Most of us got that feeling around 12 or 13, but Tommy is perhaps a late bloomer.)  Luckily, he chances upon the last woman on Earth.  Skittish, she flees, and he pursues.  She is shy, but also curious, and never goes too far; in fact, when he hits his head on a log while swimming after her, she pulls Tommy's stunned form out of the water before taking flight anew.

Interspersed with this tale of boy meets girl is the story of married couple of alien explorers.  This pair of bird people fly above the Earth's devastated surface, looking for intelligent life.  When they see Blacky riding on Tommy's shoulder, the female bird person assumes that Blacky is intelligent and Tommy is his beast of burden.  Her husband isn't so sure, and urges her to refrain from jumping to conclusions.  The last woman on Earth is getting over her shyness and she and Tommy are about to properly meet when that chatterbox Blacky starts up with his damn squawking and scares her off.  Tommy, who has never been exposed to all that "bros before hoes" propaganda, is enraged and throws stones at Blacky, and the female alien shoots down the last man on Earth, thinking she is rescuing the last intelligent creature on Earth.  The last woman on Earth weeps over Tommy's body, and that is the end of the human race.

This story is OK, but feels contrived and is the weakest of the four items we are looking at today.

"Robot's Return" by Robert Moore Williams (1938)

I don't think I've read anything by Robert Moore Williams before; looking at isfdb, it seems he produced a lot of adventure novels with cool covers by people like Frazetta, Jones, Gaughan and St. John, stories of musclemen riding dinosaurs and astronauts fighting aliens with ray guns.  Sounds like a fun guy.  "Robot's Return" was first published in Astounding as "Robots Return;" you can read the original printing at the internet archive.  I think the introduction of the apostrophe is a mistake, either an artistic or typographical one, as there is more than one robot in the story.  I also like the 1938 illustration for the story by Charles Schneeman.

This is a sentimental piece with limited plot.  A squad of robots arrives on the far future Earth, a planet of ruined cities.  For thousands of years the citizens of the robot civilization have wondered where and how their people began.  As they search the decayed ruins of a once great metropolis, they debate such topics as the difference between a mere machine and a thinking robot and whether an animal, a creature which needs air and food to survive, could really have created their race of nuclear-powered metal people.  They finally find the answer, text engraved on a sort of memorial that proves that flesh creatures of this planet--men--built them to staff the spaceship that was to take the human race to Mars to escape an incurable disease.  Of course, the fate of the humans on the ship and why their robot servants lost their memories of Earth and humankind is still a mystery.

This tale is well-written, but there is really not much story to it--this one is trying to get by on sensawunda alone.  "Robot's Return" actually reminds me of one of those Lovecraftian stories in which a seeker after knowledge discovers the secret origin of his family or race and is horrified, even psychologically damaged, by his discovery, but Williams here uses the same story structure to achieve the opposite effect.  Instead of his protagonists being disillusioned and his readers disturbed by the revelation that human life is meaningless, Williams's robots are buoyed by the knowledge of their origins, and Williams seems to be trying to celebrate man's ambitions and abilities.  Not bad. 

"Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates (1940)

Bates is another person whose work I am not familiar with.  He edited Astounding and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror in the early 1930s, and wrote a bunch of space operas starring the hero Hawk Carse that I have never heard of before.  "Farewell to the Master" was published in Astounding after John W. Campbell Jr. had taken over, and was the basis of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of those productions about how we should welcome alien imperialism because we humans are babies or savages who can't be trusted to behave without adult supervision backed by force.  These kinds of stories usually get on my nerves.  Well, let's see what the source material is like.

It is the future and mankind has colonized the solar system.  Three months ago a time machine constructed of a mysterious green metal suddenly materialized in Washington, D.C.  From out of the machine comes a dude with the face of an angel who radiates goodness and a giant green robot that looks like a naked muscleman with glowing red eyes.  The deific man only has time to say "I am Klaatu and this is Gnut" before some mentally ill guy snipes him dead!  Gnut stands still from that moment on, and a remorseful Earth builds a museum around the robot and the time machine and a tomb for Klaatu.  (We're not so remorseful that we refrain from trying to break into Gnut and the time machine with every drill and ray gun and acid we can come up with, but nothing we do can even scratch that green metal.)

Our hero is Cliff the photojournalist.  Cliff has been taking pictures of Gnut, day after day, and one day he is comparing his photos and realizes Gnut has moved a few centimeters!  The green gargantua must be moving at night when nobody is watyching, so Cliff hides out in the museum after it closes to see what happens.  (The security at this museum sucks!)

After some scenes of suspense and scenes of action, we learn that Gnut has been spending his nights in the time machine, working on an apparatus with which to reproduce Klaatu!  The sound each living thing makes is distinctive, like a fingerprint or DNA, and, with a decent recording of an animal or person's voice, Gnut's new machine can recreate the creature!  After some experiments (Gnut recreates an angry gorilla from a recording, and one of the action scenes is Gnut fighting the belligerent ape) and with some help from Cliff in getting the best possible recording of Klaatu's few words of greeting, Gnut has everything he needs and leaves in the time machine.  The twist ending of the story is the revelation that, while everybody assumed Klaatu was in charge and Gnut was his bodyguard or something, in fact it was Gnut who was the master!

Unless my memory of the movie is very faulty, The Day the Earth Stood Still shares only the rudiments of its basic premise with "Farewell to the Master."  "Farewell to the Master" is a good story, and I like it even if there is a big plot hole (there is a window in the museum through which Gnut and his glowing eyes are visible to those on the city streets outside, so it is impossible that he could have moved around at night unseen) and I don't quite get the real significance of the Gnut-is-the-master surprise ending--is it just a scary prophecy that in the future we will be subordinated to our machines?  Also, why did Gnut come back in time to visit us in the first place?     

**********

Despite their various problems, these stories are all interesting and entertaining, in their own right and as historical artifacts of the world before 1945.  A good purchase!

More 50¢ adventures in our next episode!


Saturday, February 10, 2018

By Furies Possessed by Ted White

"You're a fool," Bjonn said.  His face was flushed, and he looked more angry than I'd ever seen him.  "You've lived from infancy on a diet of tasteless, tube-fed pap.  You've never left the teat.  You connect yourself to an 'evacuation unit' and your entire alimentary tract is plugged in, part of the circuit of an obscenely sterile machine.  You're a product of conditioned reflexes, of compulsive habit patterns.  No wonder you're so deeply neurotic!"  
Three dollars!  That's why they call me
"The Big Spender"
In the July 1973 issue of Fantastic, SF critics Alexei and Cory Panshin conclude that SF is in a period of stagnation, but on the brink of achieving "maturity" and producing "a great literature."  They list a bunch of recent "introspective" SF novels which show hints of this coming maturity, and one of them is Fantastic editor Ted White's 1970 novel By Furies Possessed.  By Furies Possessed was first serialized over two issues of Amazing, which White was also editing at the time; I own the Signet paperback edition.  Flipping through my water-stained copy, the print looks quite small and I see that the last page is numbered "192."  This thing is long... it had better be good.

From its first page, By Furies Possessed lays on the traditional technological and sociological SF speculations: what will it be like to travel between the moon and the Earth, to travel in zero gee, to live on the moon?  If the Earth becomes overcrowded, how will government and culture change?  The novel is also full of psychology: in the first of 23 chapters we learn that our first-person narrator, Tad Dameron is claustrophobic, his fellow passengers on the Earth to Luna shuttle envy him because he gets waved through customs without having to deal with any paperwork, he envies his Luna-based colleague who has had more time in space than he has, and witness this colleague play mind games on Tad, criticizing him and trying to exploit his claustrophobia.  When something unfortunate befalls this guy, Tad is torn between sympathy and schadenfreude.

The Earth has built seven interstellar ships in the last forty years, and one has just docked on Luna, bringing with it a passenger from Earth's first extrasolar colony, Farhome.  This emissary, "Bjonn" (he has only the one name) is the first extrasolar colonial to ever visit Earth.  (Farhome is like 15 years travel away, though for passengers it feels like only a few months.)  It's Tad's job as a "Level Seven Investigator" from "the Bureau of Non-Terran affairs" to show Bjonn around the Earth, and, in the process, learn all about him and Farhome.  But already on Luna and on the shuttle back to Earth Tad has begun to dislike this visitor, who is so tall and agile and self-assured.  Envy again! 


Back in New York (or "Megayork," as they are calling it in Tad's day), Tad introduces Bjonn to one of his colleagues, Dian Knight, an attractive woman who has always spurned Tad's advances.  Bjonn and Dian disappear together, and the novel shifts into detective mode as Tad travels around the world, sifting through clues and interrogating people in an effort to find them.

As the story progresses we learn all about this future Earth and how radically different it is from our own.  The world population stands at 37 billion, and is presided over by a socialistic world government which White metaphorically likens to a mother.  There is almost no private sector, with most everybody working for the government or (Tad suggests this group is the "vast majority") living off "Public Care" and spending their time watching the "lulling opiates of public 3-D."  (Professionals like Tad almost never watch 3-D, and if they do it is more serious private broadcasts that are only quasilegal.)

Most strange, and most indicative of the mother-baby relationship people have with the state, is people's attitude towards eating.  People never eat together; in fact, the idea of seeing another eat or being seen eating disgusts them, and when Bjonn first invites Tad and Dian to share a meal with him they become physically ill.  The citizens of the future take their meals in private little "eating cubicles," the same rooms they urinate and evacuate in, seated on a toilet, sucking algae from a tube that projects from the wall.

As we learn about this overcrowded future society, we also learn about Tad's own psychology, and I think to an extent Tad is meant to represent his society--his misfortunes and psychological problems are the result or a small scale version of Earth society's sociological issues.  Family and community ties in this world are weak--Tad was separated from his parents at age six, people walking the crowded streets and riding mass transit never make eye contact (Tad dubs his age "The Age of Anonymity"), marriages are generally short term contracts, and when someone is nice to Tad, he tells us it is a surprise.  Tad is not only claustrophobic, but also alienated from the natural world, finding the feel of sunlight or cool air on his skin uncomfortable and spending as much time as possible inside.  As Tad conducts his investigation he is given the opportunity to see different sectors of society--he visits an artist living on the dole, a busy professional of the private sector who left her child to an orphanage so she'd have time to pursue her career, and attends a wild party of the decadent rich, an orgy where he becomes intimate with a porno actress, and performs in a porno with her!-- and we observe how classbound and divided Earth society is and how dysfunctional people's relationships are.

When Tad finally catches up with Bjonn and Dian they have started a church and their congregation is growing.  Tad realizes that the church members are all carrying an alien parasite from Farhome, and when he discovers that his bosses at the Bureau have also been infected with these parasites the hunter becomes the hunted, and he desperately tries to avoid capture.  But, in the end, he is persuaded that the alien parasite is not a parasite at all, but a symbiote that enhances its human host's perceptions and general health, including his psychological health.  Tad joins Bjonn's group, accepting one of these "parasites" into his own body, and Dian becomes his lover.  As the novel ends we know that Tad's many psychological problems are solved, and that soon, when everybody has taken aboard one of these alien symbiotes, the class conflict and alienation and other problems of Earth society will be solved.

An interesting way to look at By Furies Possessed is as a novel about science fiction, or perhaps as a novel in dialogue with other science fiction works.  White includes quite a few references which feel like little SF community in-jokes.  Early in the book there is a sort of satirical reference to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and Richard Sharpe Shaver's claims about a malevolent subterranean civilization of "deros."  A little later we meet a minor female character named Terri Carr--celebrated (male) SF editor Terry Carr co-wrote the novel Invasion from 2500 with White in 1964.   

Most importantly, By Furies Possessed feels like a response to or mutation of one of the most famous SF novels by one of the most important SF writers, Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.  Bjonn does almost the same stuff that the hero of Stranger does--he is a human born on another planet and matured under the beneficent influence of aliens, and he comes alone to an Earth that has a sort of crummy society and sets up a church that has the potential to solve all Mother Terra's problems.  One glaring "tell" is that the important alien ritual in Stranger is "the sharing of water," while the "sacrament" of Bjonn's church is the "sharing of food."

In the introduction of the 1978 edition of his 1967 novel Secret of the Marauder Satellite, White tells us that he first fell in love with SF when he read Heinlein's juvenile novels as a child, and that he took Heinlein's juveniles as a model when he wrote Secret.  So it would be "in character" for White to have based By Furies Possessed in part on Stranger in a Strange Land.  In many ways, of course, By Furies Possessed is very different than Stranger; Stranger is full of philosophical conversations and expressions of love, and it is clear from the start that the Martian is the good guy.  White's novel is like a hard-boiled detective novel full of femmes fatale in which people are all jerks to each other, and White tries to keep us guessing about whether we should welcome Bjonn and his church or fear it.  In fact, while Bjonn's character arc is somewhat like that of Smith from Stranger, it is also quite like that of Dracula in Bram Stoker's classic novel--Bjonn is an alien weirdo who comes to the Earth via a ship, hides out and begins converting people to his alien ways via an invasion of their bodies. 

(There are quite a few SF books that feel like responses to Heinlein's work, like Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage and David Gerrold's A Matter for Men.  Joe Haldeman's The Forever War was widely seen as a response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, though Haldeman denies any such intent.)
Ugh, I never would have bought the
book if the copy I found had this
cover--it makes the novel
look like it must be a bad comedy

I also thought White might be using By Furies Possessed to strike a subtle blow for the New Wave, or just reflect New Wave influence.  One of Tad's many psychological issues is an obsession with space travel.  As a child he collected model space ships and studied starship blueprints and covered his walls with pictures of astronauts, and as an adult he tries, without success, to get assigned to space missions.  But at the end of the novel it is made explicitly clear that Tad's path to happiness is the exploration and mastery not of outer space, but of inner space, of his own mind.  Tad's interest in outer space is, in fact, an illness!  One of the tenets of the New Wave was that SF should focus less on traditional topics like space travel and more on things like human psychology, and White's book, though it does have space travel and aliens as important components, is primarily concerned with Tad's thoughts, feelings and memories, and the novel's story follows Tad's psychological journey--the uncovering of the reasons why he is so envious and so obsessed with space and his growth from mental illness to mental health--not a physical voyage to another star system.

(With its optimistic paradigm shift ending and straightforward detective-style plot structure and tone, By Furies Possessed is probably more traditional a piece of SF than either Stranger in a Strange Land or your stereotypical depressing and abstruse New Wave piece.)

White's style is good, brisk and clear, so (despite my initial worries) the story never drags or confuses.  All the surprises, changes of scene (which I have not discussed here at all), symbols and SF in-jokes keep the reader interested.  By Furies Possessed is a solid, readable, entertaining, piece of work.

**********


Across from the title page of By Furies Possessed is an ad for other Signet SF we are assured we will enjoy.  Top of the list is Mordecai Roshwold's Level 7, a book much beloved by Joachim Boaz and 2theD.  Heinlein's famous The Door into Summer is represented, as well as a novel by SF giant Poul Anderson which I haven't heard of, A Circus of Hells.  Another thing I've never heard of is Moon Zero Two; the book advertised here is a novelization by a John Burke of a Hammer film.  Burke also did the novelization of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a bunch of short stories based on such Hammer Films classics as The Reptile and The Gorgon.  Also promoted here in By Furies Possessed is Robert Hoskins's anthology The Stars Around Us.  I own The Stars Around Us, but I don't think I've read anything from it yet.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

1975 stories from Fantastic: L. Sprague de Camp & Lin Carter and Juanita Coulson

I don't own a copy of the February 1975 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, but after reading the first three installments in L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's Conan of Aquilonia series and liking ech one more than the one before it, I could hardly fail to read the final episode!  So it was off to internet archive to witness Conan's final confrontation with Thoth-Amon!

I'm a fan of Stephen Fabian's work, but I have to say the cover he provides here is kind of weak; I don't like the colors, I don't like the composition (the relationships between the figures is unclear and there is a lot of negative space), the poses of the figures are strange, etc.  They can't all be winners, I guess.

In his editorial, editor Ted White talks about the 1974 World Science Fiction Convention.  He says he has no complaints about the event, and then proceeds to enumerate his complaints.  For example, he points out that the hotel food was bad and overpriced.  More interesting to us SF gossip hounds, he relates that the toastmaster at the Awards Banquet was terrible: his "rambling monologues lacked either wit or punchlines  and seemed to go on forever..." until Harlan Ellison reined him in. Ted doesn't name this long-winded individual, but wikipedia informs us that the toastmaster was none other than Andrew J. Offutt!  Another facet in the portrait of that unusual character!  Hmmm... did Offutt ever appear in Fantastic or Amazing?  I don't think he did...maybe Ted didn't like Offutt's work or didn't like him as a person; whatever the case he is not shy here about alienating a potential contributor to his magazines.

Ted is also unhappy that Kelly Freas keeps winning the Hugo for best artist, that his having "sewn up" the award reduces the award's meaning.  He also suggests that the Hugo voting may have more to do with name recognition and ability to get exposure than with serious assessments of the quality of a writer or artist's work.  Is Ted one of those snobs who has contempt for the voting masses?  And wasn't this "problem" with the Hugos "solved" back in in the 1960s with the introduction of the Nebulas, which are awarded by professional writers? 

Ted apologizes because he has been unable to produce a promised in-depth review of Marvel Comics' Conan comics.  He describes the many obstacles he faced in writing this review; one of the cool things about Ted's editorials and his responses to people's letters is the insight it gives you into the actual life of a person making his living in the pop culture industry.

Ted finishes up the editorial by expressing his outrage at Gerald Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon,  suggesting that his outrage is shared by such a significant number of the people that something terrible may happen.

"Shadows in the Skull" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

"Shadows in the Skull," the conclusion to the Conan of Aquilonia sequence, is the first story in the magazine.  It is accompanied by a trippy illustration by Michael Nally that seems better suited to a story about pot-smoking bikers at a strip bar than a story about a usurper king hunting down an evil wizard.  When I saw it, the first thing I thought of was Alex and his droogs at the Korova Milk Bar!  A bizarre choice by Ted or the publisher or whoever was responsible.  (Ron Miller, all is forgiven!)

"Shadows in the Skull" picks up not long after where "Red Moon of Zimbabwei" left off.  With Conan's help, Mbega has abolished the Zimbabwean tradition of having priest-elected twins serve as co-kings and founded a unitary monarchy, with himself as monarch.  Conan is eager to go after Thoth-Amon, and one of Mbega's soothsayers goes into a trance and tells the Cimmerian where to find the evil sorcerer.  The Aquilonian army is depleted and fatigued from the fighting and jungle illnesses, so Mbega assigns some of his spearmen and some of his wyvern-riders to serve Conan on his mission.  They are joined by a company of black Amazons from a nearby tribe who were visiting to celebrate Mbega's coronation.  It is suggested that the leader of these Amazons, Princess Nzinga, is Conan's daughter (years ago he spent some quality time with the Queen of that tribe.)

Here's an edition of Conan of
Aquilonia from our escargot-eating
friends that I should have used
to illustrate my blog post on
"Black Sphinx of Nebthu"
King Conan and Prince Conn lead the force south for weeks, the infantry marching through the difficult terrain, the leaders scouting ahead on the wyverns.  When the airborne troops spot the place the soothsayer described--a mountain that looks like a skull--the wyverns suddenly get sick and the adventurers are forced to land.  Down on the surface they find the barren skull mountain is gone, replaced by an elaborate palace surrounded by flowers!  Conan realizes that an illusion is at work, but which was the illusion, the desolate skull mountain or this sophisticated and beautiful estate?  When a bunch of beautiful women emerge from the palace Conan, and all his comrades, put the matter aside and embark on three days of relaxation and partying!  (This is the subject of Nally's illo.)

Conn, when he is just about to have sex with a dancing girl, sees her reflection, which shows her true form--she, like all the women in the illusory palace, is a snake person!  The skull mountain is the last redoubt of the  reptile race that ruled the Earth before the rise of mankind!  With Thoth-Amon's help they hope to reconquer the Earth!

At the same time Conn narrowly escapes death, Conan, drunk and asleep, has a narrow escape of his own; the queen of the snake people is about to stab him while he is helpless when suddenly daughter Nzinga appears and kills the snake queen with a thrown spear.

While the battle between the blacks and the snake people consumes Skull Mountain, Thoth-Amon, using some kind of invisibility spell, drags off the unconscious Conan unseen, to a beach where he plans to sacrifice him to Set.  The Cimmerian wakes up and he and Thoth-Amon engage in a mystical battle of wills--Thoth-Amon calls upon all his magical power and it looks like Conan is going to lose the psychic battle, but then Conn arrives and stabs Thoth-Amon to death.

"Shadows in the Skull" is disappointing; it uses the same structure and devices we just saw in the last three stories.  Conan falls into a trap (and this trap is the goofiest yet,) like he has in all of these stories.  Conan's army appears just in time to pull his fat out of the fire, as it did in two of the other stories.  In "Red Moon over Zambabwei" Conan was in a battle of wills with Set, and was about to expire just when Conn stabbed the wizard who had summoned Set, and almost the same thing happens here.  I've got to grade this one as merely acceptable.

I recognize that de Camp and Carter had busy careers, but it feels like they were just phoning in these Conan of Aquilonia stories.  In their defense, de Camp and Carter do try to bring something new to the Conan game by portraying Conan as a parent; I think all four stories include scenes in which Conan embraces his son Conn, and there is a lot of talk of Conan worrying about Conn and considering the best ways to raise him to be a good king when he takes Conan's place on the throne and so forth, but is Conan: Family Man really what we want when we pick up a Conan story?

The Conan of Aquilonia stories are not terrible, but they are not very good, either, a pedestrian addition to the sword and sorcery canon.

"The Dragon of Tor-Nali" by Juanita Coulson

The February 1975 issue of Fantastic seems to have a high proportion of surreal stories and joke stories (“The Return of Captain Nucleus” is apparently a parody of Edmond Hamilton-style adventure capers that was inspired by a joke in a reader’s letter), so I’m skipping most of the fiction in this issue. But I’m still in a sword and sorcery mood so I’ve decided to give Juanita Coulson, whose work I have never read before, a try.

Immediately, I was impressed by Coulson’s writing style and her efforts to get into the psychology and personality of her main character, and the way she integrated a description of his people's culture with a sort of stream of consciousness narrative, showing how much a product of that culture he was and giving us some exposition in an organic, unobtrusive way.  This is a marked contrast to de Camp and Carter's style, which is quite unambitious and just barely serviceable.  "The Dragon of Tor-Nali" may be vulnerable to the charge that it is overwritten for a story about violence in a fantasy world of sword-fighting pirates, vengeful witches, and fearsome deities, that the style slows down the pace of action scenes and the progression of the plot, but Coulson’s story is about human relationships as much as it is about bloody battles and perilous journeys.

The plot: Two veteran soldiers, the noble officer Branra and a scout from what I took to be a fantasy version of Plains Indians, Danaer, are among the fighting men on a transport ship, on their way to yet another battle in a long war against invaders from across the ocean, when it sinks in a storm. They are rescued by a pirate ship captained by a man named Nadil-Zaa who doesn't give a damn about the war. Another pirate ship is spotted—this one captained by a beautiful woman, Ama. The pirate ships eagerly join battle against each other, and Branra and Danear snatch up swords and fight alongside Nadil-Zaa's crew.  Nadil-Zaa’s men are triumphant, and the pirate captain disarms Ama and rapes her in front of everybody, then has her chained up on his vessel.

In the second half of the story we learn that Nadil-Zaa and Ama were once lovers, and Nadil-Zaa would like to rekindle their relationship.  We also discover that since their breakup Ama has made some sort of pact with wizards—the very foreign wizards Branra and Danaer’s army has been at war with.  In the climax, Ama vengefully summons a monstrous sea dragon (calling it her child) to attack the ship; the dragon threatens to sink them but flees when Nadil-Zaa kills Ama.  As the story ends Nadil-Zaa weeps over Ama's body and we are lead to believe that the pirate will now vengefully join the war on the foreign wizards who, at least as he sees it, took his love from him.

"The Dragon of Tor-Nali" is ripe for some kind of feminist analysis, and not only because of Ama's Medea-like story arc.  Danaer makes repeated references to his people’s goddess and thinks often about his wife (or girlfriend?) back home and a contrast is drawn between religion and sexual relationships among his people and the people he has found himself among.  Coulson includes still more female characters, crew and captives on Nadil-Zaa's ship of different social classes, and charts their reactions to Ama and that witch's radical actions and dreadful fate.  The wisdom and morality of every character in the story is ambiguous, open to interpretation by the reader.

A good story, better than any of the Conan of Aquilonia stories I’ve been reading; it shares the same kind of setting and plot elements used by de Camp and Carter, but Coulson does something more complex and more human with them, and she has a much better writing style.  "The Dragon of Tor-Nali" doesn't seem to have ever been printed elsewhere.

*********

Charles Moll's cover for The Return of
Kavin
includes a "quote" from Alphonse
Mucha's poster for Lorenzaccio
In his book review column Fritz Leiber heaps praise on four books.  First he gushes over Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga (take that Lester G. Boutillier!)  Then Andre Norton's The Crystal Gryphone.  Then, to my surprise, The Return of Kavin, by David Mason.  This is the sequel to Kavin's World, which I read in 2016 and declared "merely adequate."  Fritz reviewed Kavin's World back in 1970, and I found that review and read it--Fritz asserts that Kavin's World is "a damn good sword-and-sorcery story."  Fritz is a softie!  In this 1975 review, Fritz mostly talks about David Mason the person, his many unusual life experiences, rather than the book.  And he spent half the 1970 review of Kavin's World quoting some other guy's poem.  (In contrast, when he talks about the Anderson and Norton books he discusses their style and content with great specificity.  I have a feeling Fritz is being kind to his friend Mason in putting out these positive but content-lite reviews of his acceptable but unspectacular novels.)

Finally, Fritz discusses Ursula K. LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," apparently an examination of style in fantasy writing.  It sounds like LeGuin's main point is that the language a fantasy story is written in should sound like the language of a fantasy world, not like the language of the 20th century.  LeGuin praises Tolkien, E. R. Eddison, and a writer I'm not familiar with, Kenneth Morris, and denounces people Leiber does not name, but a little googling indicates Katherine Kurtz was one prominent target.  Leiber calls "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" "the best essay I know of on the language of modern fantasy" and uses the opportunity it presents to talk about writers like Robert Graves and Lord Dunsany, as well as Tolkien and Eddison.

In a sort of postscript, Leiber recommends strongly the small press Lovecraftian magazine Whispers.


Ted knows it, I know it, and you know it: sometimes the most fun part of Fantastic is the letters, and the February '75 issue produces a fertile crop of correspondence!

The writer of the first letter offers a long list of criticisms and suggestions for Fantastic and Amazing.  Most humorous criticism: Brian Aldiss's highly praised Frankenstein Unbound is a "rancid little bit of trivia...hastily written in a vein that smacks of A. E. Van Vogt at his least logical."  Ouch!  Most humorous suggestion: if "Conan" in huge type on the cover increases sales, why not include Lovecraftian material and put "Cthulhu" in huge type on the cover?  Ted ignores both of these chestnuts in his response, but does manage to work in a quote from Barry Malzberg praising Fantastic as "the best s-f magazine today."

Writer Darrell Schweitzer (remember we liked his novel The Shattered Goddess?) writes in to talk about the fiction of William Morris, one of the towering cultural figures of the Victorian era (my wife and I love his wallpaper designs.)  This is a response to an article in Fantastic about Morris by L. Sprague de Camp.  Another SF writer, R. Faraday Nelson, writes in to criticize some aspects of de Camp's essay, namely his characterization of the Pre-Raphaelites (I love the Pre-Raphaelites) and of Morris's socialism (well, here's something I don't love.)  Nelson wisely points out that one of the reasons that creative types are attracted to socialism is that they see the people's lives as a medium, just like their canvases and brushes, and society as an appropriate subject to be molded in the hands of the self-appointed superior intellect.

William Morris's wreath wallpaper and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Veronica Veronese
(R. A. Lafferty memorably satirized Morris's socialism in his 1973 story, "The World as Will and Wallpaper."  Joachim Boaz and I wrote about it with love in our hearts at his blog in 2011, and the inimitable tarbandu in 2013 compared it to Thomas Pynchon and dismissed it as "contrived."  Spurred by the William Morris talk in Fantastic, I reread "The World as Will and Wallpaper" today and fell in love all over again!  Five out of five severed heads!)

A woman writes in who agrees with me that M. John Harrison's The Pastel City is overrated, and who (like me) likes Jack Vance, but I have to part ways with her when she says she doesn't like Barry Malzberg!  (Sigh...we almost had a love connection there!)  The letters wrap up with still more Star Trek letters, these about the cartoon version of the voyages of the USS Enterprise.  Somebody calls Ted the "founding member of STING--Star Trek Is No Good."

The last page is the classifieds, with an offer all of you aspiring writers will find irresistible!

Specify type of story!
Well, that's four blog posts about Fantastic and nine posts about sword and sorcery stories.  The MPorcius Fiction Log staff is demanding a break from square-cut manes, flashing swords and the iron grip of massive thews, so no Fantastic and no sword and sorcery for a little while.  But don't think we are done with Ted White!  We'll be reading a piece of White's fiction in our next episode!