Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Early '70s horror stories by Robert Bloch, T. K. Brown III, and Eddy C. Bertin

Only three stories remain in 1974's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II; let's check them out!

Frontispiece by Jack Gaughan and title page 
"The Animal Fair" by Robert Bloch (1971)

This story, by the much beloved author of Psycho and a book I almost bought a few days ago at an antiques store in Catonsville, MD, first appeared in Playboy.  I wish I could like Bloch's work as much as so many people do, but generally I find him underwhelming.  "The Animal Fair" is apparently Joe R. Lansdale's favorite horror story, or at least Lansdale's favorite Bloch story (Lansdale wrote an essay introducing it that appeared in the collection Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master and the anthology My Favorite Horror Story) so perhaps we have here the prime slice of Bloch that is going to help me see in Bloch what everybody else sees.

Bloch loves puns and jokes and wordplay, and on the first page of "The Animal Fair" we get lines like "...Dave hit the main drag.  And it was a drag." and "Phil's Phill-Up Gas stood deserted."  This kind of stuff detracts from creating a mood of suspense or fear, in my opinion, foregrounding the third-person omniscient narrator and reminding you this is not real.  Fortunately, Bloch cuts it out after that first page, or at least I didn't notice it again.  (The actual title of the story may well be a subtle pun on the disparate meanings of "fair," referring to a place where animals are displayed before spectators, a beautiful creature, and a creature who is just.)

Dave is hitchhiking across Oklahoma, on his way to Hollywood.  Dave thinks Oklahoma and its people are disgusting! 
Dave could smell oil in the air; on hot summer nights in Oklahoma, you can always smell it.  And the crowd in here smelled worse.  Bad enough that he was thumbing his way through and couldn't take a bath, but what was their excuse?  
Dave goes to a travelling carnival to get a hamburger (all the local stores are closed) and finds himself in a tent full of "red-necks."  In a cage in the tent is a sick gorilla, forced to dance for Oklahomans!  Dave is so sickened by this crime he throws up!  He takes a nap on the side of the road, and when he wakes up he hitches a ride...on the trailer with the gorilla and its cruel master, "Captain" Ryder!

Ryder tells the sad story of his life as he drives with one hand and drinks a bottle of "fresh corn likker" with the other.  He was a trapper in Africa, then a Hollywood stuntman who handled big dangerous animals for jungle movies, and wore animal suits for closeups of fights between actors and beasts.  He got rich doing all this work!  But then tragedy struck!  Four drug-addled criminals he calls "hippies" broke into his house and drugged and raped his niece, the joy of his life, whom he had raised like his own daughter.  Ryder caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight killed one of the rapists and seriously wounded two others, but his niece also died from an overdose of whatever the creeps had used on her.  The hippies' ring leader escaped.  Ryder went to prison for two years, and when he got out his career was ruined and he resorted to this carny business.

(The sensational crimes of Charles Manson, as well as the greatest movie of all time, King Kong, seem to have served as inspiration for much of this story.)

"The Animal Fair" appears in this Finnish
This blog is all about spoilers, so of course I am going to tell you what all the clues in Ryder's narrative add up to.  While in Africa, Ryder learned all kinds of crazy witch doctor stuff, like how a shaman can use drugs and psychological torture to make a person who has been sewn up inside a lion skin (!) think he is a lion.  Without coming out and saying it, Bloch is implying that Ryder used his jungle skills to track down the leader of the rapists, and then sewed this jerk up in his Hollywood gorilla suit and is achieving his revenge by (mis)treating the rapist like an animal!

(Remember how in the second Aubrey-Maturin novel the naval officer escapes from France by disguising himself as a bear?  I read a dozen or more of those books, but that was the most unbelievable passage, and ironically the most memorable, in all of them.)

This is a good story--Lansdale, Davis and Playboy didn't let readers down in promoting it.  Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how it took me by surprise--Dave's demeaning of the small-town Oklahomans, and the initial appearance of Captain Ryder, whom Dave hates, and his first few lines of dialogue, which consist of bitching about drugs, hippies and Hollywood, led me to expect that the story's point would be to mock retrograde country people from the point of view of a sophisticated liberal urbanite.  Instead, Hollywood, one of America's cutting-edge cultural capitals, is said to be in terminal decline, and we are given reason to hate and fear forward-thinking young people (as well as African medicine men) and lament their destructive and corrupting influence on healthy people like Ryder and his niece.  What I thought was going to be a smug animal rights piece morphed before my eyes into something like 1974's Death Wish!

("The Animal Fair" actually includes many of the themes I saw in Bloch's 1989 novel Lori, among them alcohol, an America in cultural and societal decline, and a young woman at the mercy of predatory men.) 

In addition to the way the story subverted my expectations, it is economically and smoothly written, and the central gimmick feels new and is surprising.  Thumbs up for "The Animal Fair."  Maybe I need to seek out more of Bloch's "greatest hits," guided by the horror cognoscenti like Lansdale.

"Haunts of the Very Rich" by T. K. Brown III (1971)

"Haunts of the Very Rich" first came under the eyes of the public in the very same issue of Playboy that printed Bloch's "The Animal Fair."  Was this a special horror issue of our most pretentious girlie rag?  (Actually, this issue is full of big names, like John Wayne, V. S. Pritchett, Jean Shepherd and Garry Wills, and there's an article about James Dickey, whose Deliverance I read just before moving out of New York State during my brief Westchester County period, and even an illustration by Gene Szafran, who did so many SF book covers.)

T. K. Brown III only has five credits at isfdb, but when you google his name you find that "Haunts of the Very Rich" was made into a TV movie in 1972 starring actors I don't like!  You can watch it on youtube!  (Having no desire to lay eyes on the  visages nor lend ear to the voices of Ed Asner, Donna Mills, Lloyd Bridges and Cloris Leachman, I'll stick to the printed word, myself.)

Six incredibly wealthy people pay an exorbitant fee to go on a mystery vacation--they are flown on a small jet whose windows are shuttered to a jungle resort by a lake surrounded by volcanoes.  Once there everything goes wrong--the power goes out so there is no air conditioning or refrigeration, natives raid their booze supply, the "exotic" prostitute turns out to be from Brooklyn.  Yes, this is a comedy, one which is not in the least bit funny.  When the characters, like the reader, realize nothing that is happening makes any sense, they theorize that they are dead and this is hell.


"Like Two White Spiders" by Eddy C. Bertin (1971)

Bertin is a German-born Belgian, a prolific writer of genre stories and children's books.  As I said in the comments to the first installment of our look at DAW No. 109, when Mats Paulsson pointed out that the cover of this anthology is by Swiss-born resident of Sweden Hans Arnold, The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II is a real international production.  I mercilessly criticized a story by Bertin from this same time period, "Timestorm," back in 2016, but gave a moderate recommendation to a late '70s story by Bertin, "My Beautiful Darkling," a year before that.

"Like Two White Spiders" comes to us in the form of a transcript of a tape recorded statement from a guy in an insane asylum.  This guy describes how, several times over the course of his life, his hands acted with a mind of their own to kill small creatures and even people!  He has been imprisoned because of his crimes, but he claims he is in fact innocent, that his hands have been taken over by some alien from another dimension, or are separate alien entities with their own internal organs, or some such thing.  Of course, the story is full of clues that hint that this guy is just a murderer with mental problems who has consciously or subconsciously come up with this bizarre possession narrative as an excuse. 

Bertin's is one of the more viscerally gruesome stories in this anthology, with descriptions of how it feels to strangle an eight-year old girl and crush the skull of a canary--and then there are the narrator's efforts to deter or liberate his hands by holding them in a fire or chopping them off with a scythe!  Jeez!

I should note, for all you Yog-Sothery fans out there, that besides comparing his hands to spiders and scorpions, the narrator likens them to The Hounds of Tindalos; even though he usually disappoints me, I really have to read the story of that name by Frank Belknap Long someday.

This is a good horror story that exploits our fears of our bodies betraying or failing us as well as our willingness to blame others for or otherwise rationalize our misdeeds.  And our fears of chopping off our own hands--yikes!  It is well-written and well-structured, the length and pace just right.  Thumbs up!  "Like Two White Spiders" was first printed as "Als Twee Grote Witte Spinnen" in the 1971 Belgian collection De Achtjaarlijkse God; the author himself translated it into English and it first appeared in the tongue of William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Dan Brown in the 1973 collection that is the source of much of the material in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 3.


DAW No, 109, The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, is a good anthology; there is only one serious clunker, and several quite good stories.  Looking at Amazon, ebay and abebooks, I am getting the idea that it is sort of rare; maybe I shouldn't have bent the cover of mine scanning the title page and the page of ads in the back?

Ah, the ads.  Six DAW titles are pushed, including Brian Lumley's first Titus Crow novel, the eighth of John Norman's (in)famous Gor books, and the 1974 edition of Donald Wollheim's Annual World's Best anthologies that includes R. A. Lafferty and E. C. Tubb stories I don't own; I would probably grab this one if I saw it going for a buck or two.  Also promoted is D. G. Compton's The Unsleeping Eye; Joachim Boaz has gushed about this baby (5 of 5 stars!), which I own in a later Pocket Books edition, but I have yet to read it myself.  The Weathermonger, which I'd never heard of, is, apparently, some kind of "young adult" book about a future anti-technological England and was the basis for a TV series.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Early '70s horror tales from Brandner, Copper, Pedler and Klein

It's the pick of the nightmare crop!  More early 1970s horror stories, selected by British anthologist Richard Davis for Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2 and No. 3, and included in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II.

(I chose today's stories because I thought all the last names together sounded like a law firm.)

"The Price of a Demon" by Gary Brandner (1972)

Some of the writers whose work appears in DAW No. 109 I am familiar with, and others are people I have never heard of.  Gary Brandner is one of the latter, even though he wrote the novel The Howling, the inspiration for the 1981 film, and the novelization of the 1982 film Cat People.  (I haven't seen these films, but wikipedia is making them sound like they are nonstop fetishistic sex.)  "The Price of a Demon" is, I believe, Brandner's first published story, and appeared originally in Witchcraft and Sorcery #7, a magazine that also featured art from MPorcius faves Jeff Jones and Stephen Fabian.

For a while, before we got married, my wife worked at a small, old and somewhat snooty firm based in New York City.  The firm was purchased by a huge national corporation based in California, and there was a lot of talk about how different were the corporate cultures of the New Yorkers and the Californians, the East Coast peeps thinking the West Coasters a bunch of flaky and goofy hippies and surfers.  Anyway, I thought perhaps "The Price of a Demon" a subtle reflection of this view of Californians.

Paul Fielding, some kind of scientist or engineer, lives in Encino with his beautiful blonde blue-eyed wife, Claire.  Claire is a housewife and regularly gets involved in silly hobbies and fads, and currently is taking classes in witchcraft.  Following the instructions in an old book she found in a bookstore on Ventura Boulevard, she summons a demon, an invisible creature which begins taking bites out of her.  Paul rushes his wife to her teacher, who is able to summon a second invisible demon that neutralizes the one afflicting Claire.  But, the witch warns, a summoned demon exacts a price, and as the story ends we readers are lead to assume that Paul is about to suffer even more grievously than was his wife.

This story has problems with tone; Claire is a kind of vapid ditz character who belongs in a comedy, and doesn't mesh well with the blood and gore, especially since she is just as ditzy after her ordeal as before.  Maybe this was originally meant to be a story about mismatched spouses, a serious intelligent man who married a good-looking dolt and is disappointed, but Brandner gave up on that idea or just failed to flesh it out?   The plot also feels kind of contrived, and there are nagging unanswered questions, like what comes next--is Paul going to be killed by this second demon?  Barely acceptable.

"The Knocker at the Portico" by Basil Copper (1971)

Like Ramsay Campbell's "Napier Court," which we dissected with gusto in our last episode, "The Knocker at the Portico" initially appeared in the Arkham House anthology Dark Things.  The story would later be included in a few different Copper collections, including the first volume of Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper, which has a nice wintry cover by our guy Stephen Fabian.

Copper is new to me, but he had a long and industrious career, producing scores of detective novels of both the hard-boiled and Holmesian varieties, as well as horror stories of various types.  "The Knocker at the Portico" is a Lovecraftian title; let's see if it lives up to or subverts (or disappoints) our expectations.

The story comes to us as a manuscript, written by an independently wealthy scholar living in London who conducts his research outside the academic system (and good for him, I say!)  The forty-something scholar works himself to the bone trying to finish a long project involving Hebraic texts written in tiny characters that he must strain to read by his "flickering pressure-lamps," and distance grows between him and Jane, his hot twenty-something wife.  When Jane hurts her leg in a fall off a horse, a thirty-something physician insinuates himself into that distance!  When the scholar begins to hear loud knocks at his large house's front door, knocks none of the servants can hear and which resound even when there is nobody to be seen on the porch, he assumes that the interloping doctor is to blame in some indefinable way.

Long hours toiling on his research, jealousy, and the sound of the knocking over a period of months, drive the writer insane, culminating in a murderous rage.  He chases his wife and the doctor through the streets of London, an Oriental knife (a Malay kris) in hand.  His quarry enters an elaborate building, closing the door behind them.  When he beats on the door he recognizes the sound--that knocking he heard was his own, somehow communicated to his backwards across time!  The building he stands before is the mad house where he will spend the next three decades, the final years, of his life!  Jane and the doctor, a shrink, have been trying to help the unbalanced scholar all along!

(There is also a very brief frame which suggests the scholar's family suffers a curse and the horror has not claimed its last victim!)

So far, this is my favorite story from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II.  I like the style--it actually conveys some emotion and charts a guy's mental breakdown--and the plot feels somewhat original and is a little surprising.  Maybe I need to keep an eye out for more stories by Copper.

"The Long-Term Residents" by Kit Pedler (1971) 

Pedler is another writer with whom I am not familiar.  My look at the wikipedia page on this individual indicates that he contributed to some Doctor Who episodes I never saw (I've only ever seen Tom  Baker episodes) and was a big proponent of the use of psychic powers and protecting the environment (zzzzz....)  Let's see if this story is about the horror of some psionic government bureaucrat using remote viewing to monitor the alacrity with which you rinsed that peanut butter jar before tossing it in the recycling bin.

Riker, a stressed-out London scientist (a bio-chemist or something like that) without much by way of friends or family, takes the advice of a colleague, Kempton, and drives to a distant seashore hotel to rest a few days.  The hotel is run by a woman he dimly recognizes, and inhabited by quite elderly permanent residents.  It turns out the hotel is a terrible trap!  The woman is a scientist, Pribram, who, plagued by scandal, was said to have committed suicide years ago; in reality she faked her death and she and Kempton are secretly working on longevity elixers, unhindered by any ethical rules!  The permanent residents are guinea pigs and fellow scientists selected by the rebel researchers because of a certain rare attribute of their body chemistry.  They are imprisoned in the "hotel," which is no hotel at all, and can be kept alive indefinitely; Pribram and Kempton exploit their expertise in service of their revolutionary project.  (The feeble captives crave the elixir like drug addicts.)  Kempton recently discovered that Riker himself has that important "anti-R factor" in his blood, and now Riker will join the old timers as a virtually immortal conscripted research assistant and test subject.

I guess this story is sort of original, but Pedler's style is not very good and the characters didn't excite my interest or elicit any emotion from me.  Merely acceptable.

"The Long-Term Residents" was first printed in The Seventh Ghost Book

"The Events at Poroth Farm" by T. E. D. Klein (1972)

Klein's is a name I have seen numerous times, but for whatever reason I have not read anything by him.  "The Events at Poroth Farm" first appeared in the second issue of a fanzine, From Beyond the Dark Gateway, but has since been reprinted numerous times and has enjoyed much acclaim.  Hopefully I will be able to join in the adulation!

(The story has also, it appears, been expanded and revised numerous times--I guess I am reading the original published version, not the author's preferred version.)

"The Events at Poroth Farm" takes place in the great state of New Jersey, land of my birth!  It is funny to hear boring suburbs with which I am familiar talked about as if they are places of looming menace or the haunt of fringe religious minorities.

This story comes to us in the form of a manuscript, an "affidavit," written by another one of those scholars who wants to be left alone; this guy plans to read a mountain of books in preparation for teaching a college course on Gothic literature.  (College professors in books and on TV work a lot harder than those I have met in real life.)  In search of peace and quiet he rents an outbuilding for the summer from a couple who own a farm in rural New Jersey, the Poroths of the title.  The Poroths are members of small idiosyncratic sect distantly related to the Mennonites and/or the Amish, with their own customs and rules (they watch TV and think good cats go to heaven and bad cats to hell, for example.)

"The Events at Poroth Farm" is longish (like 45 pages here) but it doesn't drag; everything that Klein includes in the story is interesting or adds to the mood or advances the plot.  The lion's share of the affidavit consists of excerpts from the narrator's journal, which include descriptions of how his relationship with the Poroths evolves over the course of weeks and complaints about all the insects and spiders and mildew that infest the farm and his rented dwelling--Klein does a good job depicting an urbanite's response to life in the country, reminding me of the cabin in Maine woods that my wife and I rented for a few days years ago.  (Is Klein trying to say something about human nature or to mirror the attitude of his story's weird antagonist with his many descriptions of the academic's sometimes grim and at other times gleeful efforts to wipe out the creepy crawlies that intrude upon him?)  The journal entries also provide comments on the famous Gothic novels and stories the narrator is reading--Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Austen's Northanger Abbey, Lewis's The Monk, Machen's "The White People," and many others get capsule reviews.

The main plot thread of the story involves the farmers' numerous cats.  (The narrator not only relates his own efforts to kill bugs, but the cats' massacring of rodents, birds and reptiles--this story is full of killing.)  One cat, the oldest and meanest, is (as gradually becomes apparent) killed and its dead body taken over by some kind of mouse-sized intelligent alien monster.  The creature, in the animated feline corpse, stalks the humans, who have little idea what is going on, and before the story ends the alien has shifted from controlling a quadruped to a biped, and our narrator considers the possibility that our entire civilization may be at risk from this alien invasion.

A solid and entertaining Lovecraftian story; there is a lot going on in here (there's plenty of religious stuff I haven't talked about here, for example), all of it engaging, and Klein obviously took a lot of time and care putting all these elements together.  "The Events at Poroth Farm" is giving Copper's "Knocker at the Portico" serious competition for best piece in this anthology.


Two good pieces from writers new to me whom I look forward to reading again (and two mediocrities from guys I will probably never think about again.)  Three more stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II await us in our next episode, which will conclude our look at DAW No. 109.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Early '70s horror stories from Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell

Turn out the lights!  Pull up the covers!  It's time to get scary!  Our next MPorcius Fiction Log project is to read DAW No. 109, The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II, edited by Richard Davis and printed in 1974.  Beloved actor and World War II intelligence officer Christopher Lee provides a foreword to this anthology in which he tells us he is widely read in the horror genre, and of the stories he has read recently, only about 15 percent are successful.  Fortunately, according to Lee, all the stories appearing in this volume are members of that small elite!

Even though this book is called The Year's Best Horror Stories, the publication dates of the stories in it range from 1971 to 1973.  This American book is, it appears, a selection of stories from two British anthologies edited by Davis, 1972's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2 and 1973's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 3.  This makes me wonder if Lee's foreword is literally about the eleven stories here in this book, or if it is just a reprint of his foreword to The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2.

(A detailed bibliographic article by Todd Mason about the DAW Year's Best Horror anthologies at his blog was helpful to me in solving the mysteries of this volume.)

We'll start with four stories, two by Brian Lumley and two by Ramsey Campbell.  I have had mixed feelings about these gentlemen's work, so there is a significant chance I will have to disagree with Lee about these tales.

"David's Worm" by Brian Lumley (1971)

"David's Worm" first appeared in a magazine called Pulp in 1971, a magazine I am not having any luck finding info about online.  It has been reprinted in several places, including in the British collection The Second Wish and Other Exhalations.

I actually recognized this story almost at once; I must have read it in the US collection Beneath the Moors and Darker Places when I borrowed if from the New York Public Library over ten years ago.  It is an acceptable horror story based on the now exploded belief that planarians who eat other planarians gain the knowledge of the worms they have devoured.  The style is sort of oddly folksy, perhaps an effort to simulate the way a vocal storyteller might relate the story face to face in a bar or around a campfire or something.

A "radio-biologist" is showing his seven-year-old kid slides of small living things, amoebas and diatoms and so on, that have been irradiated to death.  The kid thinks he sees a planarian on a slide move, so he steals the slide and puts it in a pond.  The worm is revived, and begins eating everything in the pond and growing to tremendous size (for a planarian.)  It takes on the personality and attributes of those it digests, including a dog and an aggressive pike, and eventually eats the seven-year-old.  The monster invades the scientist's house and tries to eat the kid's parents--the quick thinking boffin destroys the creature, but not before it chillingly speaks in his child's voice.

This story always reminds me of the alzabo from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.   

"Haggopian" by Brian Lumley (1973)

"Haggopian" first appeared in F&SF (read it for free at the internet archive, cheapos!), and would later be the title story of a Lumley collection.  This is a Lovecraftian piece, with an elaborate frame in which the narrator is a journalist who secures an interview with the titular Richard Haggopian, famous but reclusive ichthyologist of mixed race (Armenian and Polynesian, among other ethnicities), on his tiny private island near Greece.  Haggopian has a weird sheen to his skin, wears dark glasses indoors and out, and walks oddly.

The scientist tells the journo the story of his career, how he travelled around the world, finding evidence of Cthulhu and Dagon and other ancient aliens and gods on sea coasts from New England to Polynesia to Africa.  To be honest, all these direct references to Lovecraft stories do not add to Lumley's story; they just make it longer.  Haggopian's story could be told without any reference to Innsmouth or any of that stuff.

The significant portion of Haggopian's tale is that one day he caught an intelligent hagfish, a slimy eel-like four-foot long parasite, of a previously undiscovered species.  This creature, like a vampire, has hypnotic abilities it uses to seduce its victims; said victims not only submit to its biting and drinking of their blood, but actually derive (sexual?) pleasure from giving their life force to the hideous fish!  In the same way that a vampire can turn its victims into vampires, the hagfish has altered Haggopian's physical makeup, so that he can now breathe underwater and has an additional organ (not unlike a second penis, frankly) that can latch on to other living things and suck their juices.  This interview with the narrator will be Haggopian's last--he is almost fully transformed into a fishman, and will soon abandon the human race and the surface world and join the hagfish monsters' subterranean community.  It is strongly suggested that Haggopian has been sucking the blood of his current wife (a Greek fashion model--vampires always get the best chicks!) and that she will soon become a fishperson herself and join him in the briny deep, and that his first wife is already down there awaiting him.

This story isn't bad, if we ignore the superfluous direct references to Lovecraft stories and characters.  Writers who would emulate Lovecraft should expend their energy achieving the Providence weirdo's tone and mood and so forth, not just throw catchphrases and words famously used by Lovecraft into any old story in a cheap attempt to get us Mythos fans on their side.

"Napier Court" by Ramsey Campbell (1971)

Alma is a young Englishwoman who works at a museum and plays the flute; she lives with her parents in a big Victorian house called Napier Court.  She has a cold, and is looking forward to spending two weeks in bed resting while her nagging, smothering parents are away on holiday--she has plans to read Eugene Ionesco's Victims of Duty in the original French, which wikipedia is leading me to believe is an absurdist play drawing on Ionescu's difficult relationships with and mixed feelings about his parents and the theater.

Alma's ex-fiancee Peter, recently dropped at the insistence of her parents, and her friend Maureen, are god-damned commies, who tell her that her love of music and the finer things is just a way for her to hide from the suffering of the local poor and the people of Hiroshima and all the other victims of the bourgeoise.
"Why must you and Peter always look for the horrid things?  What about this house?  There are beautiful things here.  That gramophone--you can look at it and imagine all the craftsmanship it took.  Doesn't that seem to you fulfilling?"
"You know we leftists have a functional aesthetic."
This chick Alma is surrounded by downers!

Anyway, from the local gossip mongers and from Maureen, Alma has gotten the idea that her house full of beautiful things is haunted; the previous owner is said to have committed suicide after losing his money in the stock market.  Shortly before his death he complained of a mysterious inhabitant of Napier Court, and in his suicide note he wrote of "fading into the house."

Alone in the house, weighted down with regrets that Peter is gone but also obsessively recalling all the times he contemptuously derided her music and badgered her with his political convictions, Alma either goes insane (maybe in part because of some medicine she takes) or the house comes to life and absorbs her.  It also seems possible that she masturbates with the flute.  It's all a little vague and confusing.

The repeated references to Ionesco, Vietnam, and sexual relationships suggest that this story demands some kind of ideological analysis.  What could the story's ideology be, and what critical theoretical lens should we employ to analyze it, fellow students?

Marxist/class analysis:  Alma, like the rich dude who owned Napier Court before her parents, cares more about property than the suffering poor and the non-white victims of what I call the Pacific War and the struggle against communism and my college professors called America's imperialistic pursuit of markets.  (Alma not only expresses affection for the house and her flute and her records, but doesn't give back Peter's ring when she reluctantly breaks off their engagement.)  Social justice is served when she becomes one with the house, essentially choosing to marry and have sex with property instead of Peter.  This analysis is buttressed by the way Alma's mother decries Alma's relationship with Peter, whom Mom says "is beneath her." 

Freudian/pro-sex analysis:  Alma has normal healthy sexual desires, but her stuffy bourgeois upbringing and her parents, who police her every move, keep her from fulfilling them with Peter.  Alma's mother isn't sexually attracted to or fulfilled by her husband (they sleep in separate rooms), and Mom takes out her frustrations by obstructing Alma's relationship with Peter, of which she is envious (Mom at one point remarked that Peter was "a handsome bugger.")  Alma resolves her desires by having sex with the flute and the ghost, whom she "marries" when she becomes one with the house.   

Feminist/individualist analysis:  Alma is a creative and sensitive soul with her own ideas of how to live her life, but our patriarchal society crushes her!  Peter and the ghost of the previous house owner treat her as a sex object, always trying to get into her pants whether or not she affirmatively consents.  Peter, ostensibly an ally because he is always blithering about the poor and non-whites, in fact is an oppressor, psychologically dominating Alma--he tells her what to think, mansplains why her hopes and dreams are stupid, and renders her psychologically dependent on him.  (He does to her all the things those "game" theorists say you should do to get girls.)  Mom, herself the victim of the patriarchal institution of marriage, sees that her daughter is in trouble, but, her psyche colonized by Victorian bourgeois nonsense about heterosexual love (Mom has a collection of 19th-century Valentines Day cards), is incapable of modeling a strong independent woman for Alma, and just nags her daughter, stifling poor Alma and sabotaging Alma's efforts to achieve independence.  In the end Alma is wholly absorbed by the male/collective entity of the house, like a subservient, oppressed wife.

Good work, class!  Next stop, grad school!  (Destination: Starbucks!)

"Napier Court" isn't bad, but it feels kind of long and tedious; individual scenes are crowded with too much detail, and all the descriptions of figures and shapes behind Alma or in the corner or wherever get repetitive.  "Napier Court" first appeared in August Derleth's Dark Things and would be included in the Campbell collection Dark Companions and an oft-reprinted anthology of stories about haunted houses.

"The Old Horns" by Ramsey Campbell (1973)

This is a muddled mess of a story, difficult to get a handle on, and unable to excite enough interest to make the challenge of figuring it out worthwhile.

A bunch of people go on a picnic to the beach.  Near the beach is dangerous soft ground amid some fungus covered pine trees; the characters liken it to quicksand.  This danger zone is called "The Old Horns."  Our narrator is an introverted poet who tries to compose a poem but is distracted by his companions.  One member of the group is a boorish guy, George, who is always trying to flirt or get his hands on the women.  George talks about pagans, celebrating their open attitude towards sex, and the narrator tries to correct him, saying that paganism was degrading, dehumanizing.  The poet uses the word "rot" to describe the effect on the human soul of paganism, and describes the Old Horns as being full of rotten wood on the next page, connecting the place and paganism.

The picnickers play hide and seek.  Our narrator, while hiding, witnesses some kind of strange dancing parade of people in strange outfits and over-sized masks, a sort of pagan ritual--this vision turns out to be just a dream.  He returns to the group, but George is missing.  Everybody figures George made his way home to watch Julie Christie on TV (Campbell loves to mention literary and pop culture figures in these stories--in "Napier Court" he mentioned Michael Caine.)  But the narrator suspects George is trapped in the quicksand or something, and when everybody goes to a restaurant, our hero heads back to the beach to look for George.  He sees George in the darkness, in a reflection in a pool.  George is moving jerkily (perhaps foreshadowed by the robotic gait of a child's clockwork doll in an earlier scene as well as the narrator's dream) and appears to be headless, the moon visible between his shoulders.

What am I supposed to get from this story?  If you abandon yourself to sexual license you will lose your soul?  Does the title refer to the Devil?  Our culture has been so sympathetic to paganism and promiscuous sex for so long that a story taking a contrary view is a good idea, but this story just isn't all that good.  "The Old Horns" is just too vague and too confusing, feeling flat and inspiring no emotion.  Thumbs down!

"The Old Horns" first appeared in the collection Demons by Daylight.


Today's Lumley stories, which are just trying to be icky and fun, are too simple and obvious, and the Campbell stories, which aspire to literary and philosophical significance, are too confusing and vague.  Maybe the writers in the next installment of our look at DAW No. 109 will be better able to achieve a happy medium?


The back cover of DAW No. 109 tries to piggyback on the success of the 1973 film The Exorcist, which I saw in a special rerelease ("Version You've Never Seen/Extended Director's Cut") in a crowded Manhattan cinema with my wife in 2000.   I'm a queasy sort, and the elaborate medical scenes near the beginning of this version of the picture brought me close to fainting.  The famous possession scenes didn't have any effect on me, partly because the audience laughed all through them.  (Audiences similarly impeded my enjoyment of 2000's Uzumaki, which I saw in a little theatre in the Village during my brief Japanophile phase when I would hang around Jim Hanley's Universe in the shadow of the Empire State Building reading entire volumes of Maison Ikkoku and at a midtown Japanese bookstore marveling at the insane work of photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and draughtsman Toshio Saeki.)

Remember when we caught DAW trying to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars?

The back cover also advertises A. E. van Vogt's The Man With A Thousand Names, which we read during our 2016 van Vogt Marathon

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Sentinel Stars by Louis Charbonneau

He had sought to find some value in life other than the mechanics of push-button work, other than, as it had turned out, the purposeless pursuit of pleasure in freedom....In the end the only thing of value he had found was the personal concern one human being might have for another--a concern beyond physical need, beyond pleasure, beyond self.
Way back in 2014 I read Louis Charbonneau's 1967 novel Down to Earth and then blogged about the hundreds of things wrong with it.  Somehow, that experience didn't stop me from purchasing Louis C's 1963 The Sentiniel Stars when I came across it in Lexington, Kentucky last year.  Who could resist those wide-shouldered outfits, and the promise of a depiction of a rebel in a "hugely probable future" of "sodden slaves?"

Thomas Robert Hendley (the ID tag on his coveralls says "TRH-247") lives in City No. 9, an underground complex of tiny apartments, offices, stores and sliding walkways, one of a network of subterranean cities in our post-atomic war future, cities where bureaucrats and computers plan and schedule every moment of your life!  The video screens are full of talk of the "Merger" that has just taken place--henceforth, the long-hostile blocs of West and East will be united as one.

The Merger strikes an odd chord with Hendley--it is as if the last vestige of individual identity in a world without religion or the family unit or political parties or private property has been erased, all diversity and variety extinguished.  He feels compelled to rebel in a small way, to express his individuality, and his means of doing so is to skip work today!  Out on the slidewalk, just wandering around among the crowds, Hendley spots a pretty blonde.  He approaches her, wins her over, and he and ABC-331--she tells him her name is Ann--sneak out into the sunlight--Hendley's government assigned job is as an architect, and he knows the location of an exit into the outside world in the service area of a building he helped design.  Out under the rarely-seen sky they have illegal sex; every adult in City No. 9 is assigned a sex partner and you are only permitted to have sex once a week in an authorized Public Intercourse Booth!

The economic system undergirding this rigid society is based on "tax debt."  Everybody starts with a debt to the government, and works to pay off the debt.  Some services are free (the slidewalks, for example) but food and other things you pay for with your ID disc.  When you have paid off your debt you leave City No. 9 and move into a "Freeman Camp" on the surface.  Not having reported for work or provided a medical excuse, Hendley's disc stops working at the stores, so he must choose between turning himself in or starving.  When he turns himself in, the headshrinker ("Morale Investigator"), reminding me of Beatrice and Virgil in the Divine Comedy of Dante, authorizes Hendley to visit a Freeman Camp for 24 hours, thinking this will ease his worries and resolve his doubts about the system!

As it turns out, the Freeman Camp (which is more like an amusement park with attached hotels or a tourism-oriented city of casinos and restaurants and resorts than an actual "camp") is not all it's cracked up to be!  Sure, there are blue skies, live trees, live birds--beautiful things Hendley doesn't see underground.  And sure there are no government rules and regulations.  But living in a state of anarchy in which they have no responsibilities (the government robots provide free food and health care and so forth), the free people have turned to decadence and perversion in an effort to give their lives excitement and meaning--blood sports, drugs, alcoholism, gambling, violent crime and exploitative sex are the order of the day!  One of the freemen hates the meaningless and gruesome life of the camp so much he hatches a scheme to get out of there and into City No. 9--by stealing Hendley's identity!  This joker drugs Hendley and switches IDs with him, so that Hendley becomes a permanent resident of the Freemen Camp! 

In the Freemen Camp, Hendley finds not only rapists, murderers, dope fiends and muggers, but beautiful Ann; her government-assigned job is as a stripper and prostitute, and she must pliy her trade in the camp every two weeks or so.  Hendley and Ann declare their love for each other, but they have almost no opportunities to see each other, and, as the weeks go by, the culture of the Freeman Camp begins to corrupt Hendley, and he tries his hand at gambling and even mugging!  (Louis C seems to have a pretty dim view of human nature!  The  Freedom Camp section of the novel may be a pushback against the libertarian SF which is so skeptical or hostile to government--Louis C may be telling us that some government is necessary because we are all a bunch of selfish jerks who will run wild given the chance.)  Stepping back from the brink of total degradation, Hendley focuses on trying to escape, and eventually succeeds, though he is quickly captured by the authorities at City No. 9.

Using truth drugs, the law enforcement apparatus picks his brain, and he finds himself on trial alongside Ann.  Convicted of rebellion and sedition, the two are exiled to the desert beyond the city!  Fortunately, they meet a tribe of descendants of earlier exiles, and as the story ends we have every reason to believe that they will live happily with this tribe, and their children or grandchildren will overthrow the city government and liberate humankind.
After suffering through Down to Earth, I was expecting to have to denounce The Sentinel Stars as a piece of garbage, but in fact it is not bad.  It's obviously not original--there are plenty of SF stories about oppressive socialistic futures and plenty of SF stories about decadent utopias which don't meet man's need for challenge and meaning--but it is an entertaining little thriller.  The style is smooth, the pace fast, and the action scenes (e.g., the "hunt" sequence in which Hendley is the prey) and suspense scenes (like when Hendley gambles for his life against a robot) are good.  The SF (genetics and computers and robots and all that) and philosophical (what is true freedom?) elements give the reader a little additional meat to chew on and all the sex adds a little extra spice.

(My crazy literary theory for today, which I have already hinted at, is that Louis C loosely based this novel on Dante.  As all the medieval literature scholars who follow my blog already know, Dante begins "a new life" when he sees the beautiful Beatrice dressed in red.  Well, when Hendley first sees Ann, she is dressed in red!  Obviously, like Dante in the Comedy, Hendley has a chance to explore the next stage of existence after suffering doubts about the prevailing ideology, and like Dante his final exploration is of a place of love and happiness.  In the Freedom Camp a guy acts as Hendley's guide, sort of like how Virgil acts as Dante's guide in Hell.  Also, the title of The Sentinel Stars makes no sense, unless it is a reference to how Dante ended each of the three parts of the Comedy with the word "stars."  I know this theory is a stretch, but I like it!)

Much to my surprise I am giving The Sentinel Stars a mild recommendation to people who like quick-paced SF stories about guys rebelling against the system.  (And people who are experts on Dante who want to play literary detective!)  Our Italian friends produced a translation in 1965, and in the 21st century the novel has appeared as an e-book twice, and been most recently printed as a double from Armchair Fiction, bound with Alfred Coppel's Warrior-Maid of Mars, so it is still widely available! 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Harlan Ellison and Brian Aldiss stories from 1966 men's magazines

The internet archive offers to the public, free of charge, scores of pornographic men's magazines.  Flipping through some of the more respectable ones, you can find stories by famous SF writers.  Let's take a look at stories from 1966 by two of our more critically acclaimed SF authors, Harlan Ellison and Brian Aldiss, that appeared in magazines that were purchased by men because they wanted to see girls' boobs.

[NOTA BENE: Some of the links in this blog post are NSFW!]

"Delusion for a Dragon-Slayer" by Harlan Ellison

Knight, "The Magazine for the Adult Male," is full of nude women--photographs of nude women, drawings of nude women, paintings of nude women.  But Knight is not merely a rag full of smut!  In this issue we find an article by Jacques Cousteau, a reprint of a 1955 story by John Steinbeck (I think it's about chewing gum that comes to life and tries to kill people!), and a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, who have done so many SF covers.  Another SF connection in the magazine is the inclusion of some cartoons by William Rotsler, who not only did writing and photography for lots of these men's magazines but has also won numerous Hugos for Best Fan Artist.  (Some gender studies grad student out there could easily do her dissertation on the overlap of the porno world and the SF world!  Maybe one already has!)

The cover illustrates Ellison's story, "Delusion for a Dragon-Slayer," which would go on to be included in several different Ellison collections in the late '60s and the '70s.  This is the story of Warren Glazer Griffin, a middle-class office worker who gets killed in a Rube-Goldberg-esque accident while walking across Manhattan to work.  He goes to heaven, but in this story, to stay in heaven, you have to pass a test, and the nature of the test is determined by your day dreams during your life time.  WGG must have daydreamnt of being a hero from Homer or Robert E. Howard, because he finds himself in a muscular, god-like, body, captain of an oared ship on a stormy sea, and to get into heaven he has to rescue a girl from a monster, sword in hand.  In the event, like Odysseus, loses his ship and his crew, and then he kills the monster by sneaking up on it and attacking it from behind--while it is having sex with the girl!  The girl prefers the monster, so WGG rapes her instead of winning her love.  Having proven himself a poor leader, a coward, and inept with the ladies, WGG has failed to live up to his own fantasies and is barred from heaven.

We readers probably should have been able to predict WGG's bleak fate.  Ellison describes our protagonist's dream body as "Nordic" and "Aryan," with blonde hair and blue eyes, and "Aryan" is a word we generally only hear in pop culture in reference to Nazis.  Also, artistic types like Ellison generally have contempt for the salaryman type, so you can expect him to take an opportunity to puncture the pretensions of such a character.

I found Ellison's style here tedious, characterized by lots of long repetitive sentences that, I suppose, are meant to be poetic and dreamlike, an effort to convey WGG's feelings in the outre milieu in which he finds himself.  An entire column of text on page 51 is devoted to describing the colors in the sky, sentence after sentence like this one:
The colors that top-filled a man to the brim and kept him poised there with a surface tension of joy and wonder, colors cascading like waterfalls of flowers in his head, millioncolors, blossomshades, brightnesses, joycrashing everythings that made a man hurl back and strain his throat to sing, sing chants of amazement and forever--as his ship plunged like a cannonball into the reefs and shattered into a billion wooden fragments, tiny splinters of dark wood against the boiling treacherous sea, and the rocks crushed and staved in the sides, and men's heads went to pulp as they hurtled forward and their vessel was cut out from under them, the colors the colors, the God beautiful colors! 
Annoying!  In a long preface to the story printed in the "Editor's Notebook" department of the magazine Ellison tells us that in this story he is trying to emulate the "saxophone technique of John Coltrane."  Well, OK then.

Maybe "Delusion of a Dragon-Slayer" is supposed to be funny--maybe it is a lampoon of people who read heroic fantasy stories.  But it is not funny, and the style is irritating, at times mind-numbing.  Gotta give it a thumbs down.

"Lambeth Blossom" by Brian W. Aldiss

A paperback edition of
Strange Bedfellows
For its appearance here in Knight"Lambeth Blossom" is illustrated with one of those NSFW paintings I mentioned before, this one a full two-page spread.  "Lambeth Blossom" later appeared in Thomas N. Scortia's 1972 anthology of SF stories about sex, Strange Bedfellows, and a Dutch anthology of Aldiss stories with a cool cover that will appeal to fish-lovers.

It is centuries, maybe millennia, in the future, and Great Britain has long been a province of the Chinese Universal Republic, a tyranny of commissars and secret police which is currently embroiled in a mass war against a united Africa.  Under a giant viewscreen in London showing anti-African propaganda (a pornographic film of an African soldier raping a Chinese girl) one of the agents of the Chinese overlords, Lob Inson, meets a blue-eyed prostitute named Lambeth Blossom who has just come to London from the countryside.  He takes her home to meet the extended family, including his wife, son, brother-in-law, and servant girl.  The males share Lambeth Blossom in an elaborate sex scene--Lob Inson's wife brings refreshing sherbet to her husband and Lambeth Blossom as they have sex, and when his son is aroused by watching his father coupling with the young woman, the servant girl takes him away to (I believe) provide him masturbatory relief.

Lob Inson and his brother-in-law talk about propaganda, including Lambeth Blossom in their conversation.  They admit the possibility that there is in fact no war on Africa at all, and that everything they know about the English countryside and the history of the Chinese conquest of Europe and America may be lies designed to hide or excuse the economic shortcomings of communist rule or a simply a sign of a collective Chinese mental illness.  Lambeth Blossom's account of life in the country is so different from what the men have read in the newspapers that they consider handing her over to the secret police; in response she commits suicide.

This is a well-written and entertaining story, even if it treads much of the same ground George Orwell covered in 1984.  It creates a new world and inspires some kind of emotional reaction in the reader--"Lambeth Blossom" is far more intriguing and readable than Ellison's "Delusion for a Dragon-Slayer!"  Thumbs up!

"Pride in the Profession" by Harlan Ellison

Adam magazine, "The Man's Home Companion!," where "Pride in the Profession" first appeared, was put out by the same people who put out Knight, and also includes a story by Steinbeck.  This magazine is less attractive however, lacking Knight's color photos and color paintings.  (Perhaps as a consolation we have an installment of a translation of the ancient Roman novel by Petronius, The Satyricon, which on the table of contents page appears under the heading "Book Bonus.")  Adam also seems to be very focused on Hollywood and the entertainment world--that's Raquel Welch, immortal star of One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage, on the cover, and many of the nude women in the black and white photos inside seem to have some connection to the stage or screen.  "Pride in the Profession" would be reprinted in the Ellison collection No Doors, No Windows, purportedly in a rewritten version.

Ever since he saw an innocent black man lynched as a child, Matthew Carty has wanted to be a hangman--and not any old hangman, but the world's best hangman, a hangman who has raised execution to the status of an art form!  And he achieves his dream, devoting himself to interdisciplinary studies at various universities (taking classes in such diverse fields as architecture, biology, physics, and criminology) and then acquiring practical experience working for various state governments until he is the acknowledged "Picasso of the scaffold."  But will Carty choke when the biggest possible opportunity to ply his trade comes along--for seven months the newspapers and the public have been consumed with the case of a doctor who euthanized his ailing girlfriend, and now that the doctor he has been convicted, Carty is hired to perform his execution!

This is an entertaining enough story, and touches upon hot button issues like racism and different forms of both extrajudicial and government-sanctioned killing.  Thumbs up!

"The End of the Time of Leinard" by Harlan Ellison

The issue of Adam that includes "The End of the Time of Leinard" also includes an ad for Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment, which would go on to be a movie starring Tippi Hedron and Don Johnson.  Rimmer's career as a writer seems to have focused on exploring new forms of sexual and family relationships, themes we see in fiction by important SF writers like Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Samuel R. Delany all the time.  "The End of the Time of Leinard" first appeared in Famous Western magazine in 1958, and would later be included in Edgeworks 1 and Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral, a collection of recordings of Ellison reading his own stories.  Ellison must be proud of this story if, decades later, he chose it from among his vast catalog to read aloud!

Actually, this is a decent, economical story, a sort of character study that touches on timeless issues of public and private corruption and ingratitude.  When Bartisville was on the frontier it was a wild place, subject to all kinds of mischief and trouble, and so the town hired an expert gunslinger, Frank Leinard, to be sheriff.  Leinard brought peace and order to the town, and the citizens have prospered.  But, now that times have changed, Leinard's brand of heavy-handed justice is no longer so comfortable, so the local government asks Leinard to resign.  Leinard's whole life is wrapped up in being sheriff (he has no wife, no family), and so he refuses to leave, setting off what amounts to a civil war between him, the bravest man and best gunfighter in the town, and the rest of the establishment, who are neither very brave nor very good at fighting, but have the money to hire people who are.

"The End of the Time of Leinard" is smooth and entertaining, and Ellison maintains a level of ambiguity so that Leinard is a tragic figure without being wholly sympathetic, and readers can identify with his opponents about as well as they can identify with him.  Not bad.


Three enjoyable reads and one irritating failed experiment is not a bad ratio.  The internet archive continues to be a valuable resource!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

"There was this man, you see, from some sect she called the Dumb Beasts--I mean, if there is such a sect.  But considering all that happened, how do you tell if any of it was real?  I don't know big their endowment was...and maybe the 'endowment' was part of the 'theater' too." 
Recently Joachim Boaz, Fred Kiesche, Winchell Chung and I had a conversation via twitter about the Mitchell Hooks cover of Samuel R. Delany's 1976 novel Triton.  Martin Wisse spoke up, urging me to read the novel tout suite.  I didn't have anything in particular planned after The Future Is Now, so I figured, why not? 

Triton appears to have been more successful than a lot of the books I talk about on this blog, going through many different printings and editions and being included in a Book-Of-The-Month Club omnibus edition called Radical Utopias along with Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World.  Joachim Boaz harbors doubts that I will like the novel, and it is true that I thought Delany's Nova and Empire Star were just OK, but the copy on the back cover of my edition, an eighth printing that does not include Frederick Pohl's name on the cover (Triton was a "Frederick Pohl Selection" and the first printing was labelled as such) but does include a reference to the 1979 Tales of Nevèrÿon, makes it sound awesome:

On the other hand I have an aversion to utopias and the novel's table of contents and other front matter, like a half-page epigraph from British anthropologist Mary Douglas's Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, make we wonder if Triton isn't the kind of extravagant New Wave artifact that Terry Dixon so recently warned me about.  Well, let's just read Triton and see if it passes the MPorcius test (some, no doubt, will prefer to see this excursion as an inquiry into the possibility of MPorcius passing the Delany test.)

The first (brief at 24 pages) chapter of Triton introduces us to the city of Tethys, which lies on Neptune's largest moon, and the book's themes, which revolve around the fact that real knowledge is very difficult to come by--we can almost never really know anything for sure--and that communicating real knowledge is very difficult--defining and describing things accurately is practically impossible.  In this chapter Delany foregrounds various weird religious sects--some mendicants and others dangerously violent--and a troupe of bohemian performers who live off government endowments and present one-of-a-kind spectacles to more or less randomly chosen individuals they run into in Tethys's "unlicensed sector," a neighborhood where the law is not enforced.  The one-person audiences of these "micro-theater dramas" are drugged (surreptitiously, without their prior consent) to foster "better access to the aesthetic parameters" of the troupe.

Tethys is a place where things are not as they seem and communications cannot be trusted, and these two dozen pages are rife with examples of hidden knowledge revealed, deceptions, and garbled or meaningless communications.  The city is covered with a "sensory shield" that alters (prettifies) the appearance of space and Neptune from Triton's surface; artwork is torn down from a wall to reveal further, fragmented, layers of artwork and texts (Delany uses the word "palimpsests") that our protagonist interprets from his perhaps vague memories of seeing such texts before; one religious sect assigns its members new names that consist of long strings of random numbers, another trains its members to precisely mumble absolutely meaningless sequences of dozens of syllables, and yet another forbids its members to speak.  Our protagonist is tricked into attending a performance of the aforementioned troupe, and he is not sure if a fight he witnesses is part of the performance or an actual violent encounter.  One of the odd cults we hear about may not be real at all, but an invention of the troupe's leader, a woman named "The Spike."  Sexual ambiguity is one major component of this theme of malleable and unknowable truth; besides the woman with the phallic name, the troupe's ranks include a "hirsute woman" with a horrible scar indicating "an incredibly clumsy mastectomy" whom the protagonist mistakes for a man, and who may have actually been portraying a man earlier in the performance.

Our protagonist is Bron Helstrom, a traveler from off-colony come to study and practice "metalogics," a type of "computer mathematics."  Bron was born and grew up on Mars, where he worked as a prostitute who served women before coming out to the colonies on the satellites of the gas giants.  Delany scrambles up all our 20th-century expectations about gender in this book; examples include the characters in the novel who have names traditionally associated with the opposite sex, and the fact that most of the cops in Tethys are women (in the last quarter of the novel we learn that women in the time of the novel, the year 2112, are as tall and as strong as men, maybe due to rapid evolution, maybe because 21st- and 22nd-century adults are equally affectionate towards female and male infants, whereas parents for thousands of years prior lavished attention on boys and neglected girls.)  Bron is an intellectual traveler as well as a geographic (astronomic?) one--in the past he studied to join one of those bizarre religious sects before abandoning it (he couldn't memorize those pointless chants) and currently he is friends with an elderly homosexual, Lawrence.  Bron always rejects Lawrence's regular sexual advances, and the septuagenarian acts as a sort of mentor or guru, dispensing wisdom to Bron; in particular, Lawrence talks about how all people are "types."  (Identity--what makes you who you are, whether who you are is natural or artificial, and how malleable who you are might be--is another of the novel's themes, and there is much discussion of people's names and ID numbers and a taboo in Tethys on talking about your parents, a taboo ignored, like most customs, in the unlicensed sector.)

We meet Lawrence in the flesh and learn about Bron's home life in Chapter 2.  Bron lives in a "single-sex unspecified-preference co-op" with both straight and gay men.  (There are several types of co-ops and communes on Triton and Delany gives us a whole rundown of what proportions of the population live in each type.)  Lawrence is teaching Bron vlet, a complex war game, and the chapter revolves around a match between them. (You'll notice that Mitchell Hook's at-first-glance fine but generic painting on the cover of the novel is in fact very specific, incorporating chess pieces, as well as the kinds of mirrors and goops an actor might use in preparation for a performance, direct references to some of Triton's plot elements and themes.)  Watching the game are other residents, including the handsome and well-educated diplomat Sam, and a retarded man who goes by the nickname Flossie, whose mental shortcomings are partially alleviated by computer finger rings, and his ten-year-old son Freddie.  (Freddie presents one of the several opportunities Delany takes advantage of to hint to us readers that in Tethys it is normal for children to have sex with each other and with adults.)  As befits a SF utopia (we all know how SF titans Robert Heinlein and his pal Theodore Sturgeon felt about the subject!), most of these people hang around naked, and even go to work naked on occassion.

In keeping with the novel's themes of incomprehensibility, the rules of vlet are astoundingly complicated; below is the "modulus by which the even more difficult scoring system...proceeded."

The vlet match is interrupted by a power outage that temporarily disables the sensory screen and allows the inhabitants of Triton to see the real sky for once.  The second chapter of Triton ends as Bron does research in a computer directory on The Spike, learning her real name and reading critical analyses of her work; again Delany pushes home his theme of inscrutability as we learn that The Spike's writing is deliberately opaque, and, while widely commented upon, actually seen by very few people (Bron is one of the lucky ones!)

In the third chapter we see Bron at the office, where he uses metalogic to program a computer to make predictions (or something--Delany here, as elsewhere, is deliberately obscure.)  He meets a new employee, Miriamne, a woman who is "his type," and gives her (and us) a nine-page lecture on metalogic, much of which is difficult going; I think this fairly represents the salient part:
Areas of significance space intermesh and fade into one another like color-clouds in a three-dimensional spectrum.  They don't fit together like hard-edged bricks in a box.  What makes "logical" bonding so risky is that the assertion of the formal logician that a boundary can be placed around an area of significance space gives you, in such a cloudy situation, no way to say where to set the boundary, how to set it, or if, once set, it will turn out in the least useful.  Nor does it allow any way for two people to be sure they have set their boundaries around the same area.  
Bron hopes to seduce Miriamne, but soon learns she is a lesbian (for now, at least.)  Luckily, she lives in the same co-op as The Spike, with whom Bron (as he reluctantly admits to himself) is infatuated, and facilitates the beginning of Bron's brief sexual relationship with The Spike.  Then we get some sitcom/soap opera business from Delany--Bron is jealous, thinking The Spike and Miriamne may have a relationship, and so he acts in such a way that Miriamne loses her job.

(I wondered if this business with Miriamne was a nod to Proust; Marcel famously acts crazy because he is jealous of Albertine's lesbian affairs.  A number of times I thought I detected hints of Proust in the novel; late in the book The Spike is directing a performance of Phedra, presumably the same play by Racine that plays a prominent role in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.  Marcel's confusion when seeing Phedra and his changing opinion of the performances mirror some of Delany's own themes about knowledge here in Triton.  The very template of Triton--a long story about varying types of love and sex among intellectual/artistic types set against a background of international diplomacy, intrigue and war--is similar to In Search of Lost Time.) 

Bron is then chagrined to learn that The Spike's troupe is leaving the colony in a matter of hours.   

All through the first three chapters, looming in the background and bubbling under the surface, has been vague talk about a war between an Earth-Mars alliance ("the worlds") and the colonies on Luna and the moons of the gas giants ("the satellites.")  Neither Bron nor us readers know much about the war, save that Triton has been trying to stay out of it and everybody assumes Triton will soon be dragged into it anyway.  The war moves closer to center stage in Chapters 4 and 5 as Sam goes to Earth on a diplomatic mission and brings Bron along with him, but we learn absolutely nothing about the negotiations (or whatever) that take place on Earth, and, as far as the war is concerned, apparently it is just a matter of espionage and tariffs and the like, a cold war with no space fleets or marines or anything of that nature.  Delany keeps hammering home his same themes, and early in the trip Sam reveals to Bron a secret--now a black man, Sam used to be a white woman.  Chapter 4, another short one, consists of the trip from Tethys to Earth--I always like reading this sort of thing, the author describing how people experience and cope with lift off and the view of space through the ports and low gravity and all that.

In Chapter 5 Delany does more traditional SF stuff I always enjoy, as Bron, who has always lived under domes and breathed artificial atmospheres, for the first time breathes natural air and walks under an unobstructed sky on the surface of mother Earth!  (This stuff brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth, another novel from 1976 about a guy who travels from a gas giant satellite to Earth.)  Bron also gets tossed into jail briefly, and I always find descriptions of being imprisoned oddly compelling.

Later editions appeared under
the title Trouble on Triton
Bron only spends a few pages in jail, but Delany gives us many pages on Bron's date with The Spike, who, by coincidence, is also visiting Earth for the first time.  Whereas in Chapter 1 The Spike stage managed an elaborate performance for Bron, here in Chapter 5, on their date to a fancy restaurant, to which they are transported by a flying limo staffed by four naked female footmen, Bron draws on his experience as a prostitute on Mars (when accompanied women on similarly fancy dates many times) to stage manage an event for The Spike.  I won't be providing any more examples, but rest assured that on every page Delany bombards the reader with his themes of the impossibility of pinning down true facts and transmitting reliable knowledge to others.  Bron declares his love for The Spike and asks her to spend her life with him (marriage is illegal on Triton) but she rejects him.

Just as Bron returns home in Chapter 6 the war gets hot and Triton is right there in the middle of it.  Tethys is battered, with buildings collapsing and some minor characters killed.  Minutes before the devastation (apparently wrought by saboteurs) Bron receives a somewhat garbled letter from The Spike in which she says she doesn't like him and never wants to see him again.  It is here in Chapter 6 that Delany's purposes become, perhaps, a bit more clear and direct.  It is revealed that there are Christians and Jews in Tethys, and they are denounced as troublemakers, Delany suggesting Judaism and Christianity are religions that drive people insane or perhaps appeal only to insane people.  Lawrence, our mentor and guru, is one of the survivors, and Bron makes to him a speech that I guess is Delany's paraphrase of his view of typical 20th-century male thinking: women don't understand men, and men are individuals who have to stand apart from society, which is the domain of women and children, in order to protect that society.  Lawrence calls Bron a fool and tells him such thinking is a perversion that was once almost universal but that now only afflicts one in fifty men and one in five thousand women, and gives a feminist speech about how women for thousands of years were not treated as human beings and men are to blame for all the wars.  (Did this thing go through so many printings because it was being assigned to college students?)  And, by the way, the war is over and the satellites have defeated the worlds, in the process massacring 75% (or more) of Earth's population.

Italian edition
Bron jumps up and runs through the rubble-strewn streets to request a sex-change operation.  After a ten-page lecture and a brief operation (in Tethys a sex change is same-day surgery, no appointment required) he returns to his half-ruined co-op (his room is in the not-ruined half.)  Did Bron become a woman because he got "woke" and didn't want to be a beneficiary and perpetrator of patriarchy?  That is what I expected, but Delany is not so easy to predict.  Back home, Bron tells Lawrence that he still believes all that stuff he told him about men being lonely heroes who have to protect society, that it is those one in fifty men and one in five thousand women who keep our race going.  Bron became a woman to bolster the tiny number of women who have those traditional values, and hopes to be the perfect woman for the sort of heroic old-fashioned man he (thinks he) used to be!

Chapter 7 takes place six months after Bron's sex change.  Bron runs into The Spike again (it's a small solar system) and she again rejects his proposal that they spend their lives together.  Bron makes friends with a fifteen-year-old girl whose regular recreation is sex with 55-year-old men, and this kid tries to help Bron find a man, but Bron has no luck.  I think maybe Delany is using Bron-as-woman-with-traditional-values to show how our 20th-century values make (in Delany's opinion, at least) healthy and happy relationships almost impossible.  The chapter, and the novel proper, ends without Bron's sexual life being at all resolved, though we do see a number of ways that Bron's becoming a woman has changed his/her own psychology and altered how people around him/her feel about and interact with Bron.

German edition; check out
the typeface
After the novel proper we have the two appendices.  Appendix A consists of SF criticism, some in the mouths of characters from the novel, that mentions Heinlein, Gernsback and Bester and celebrates the possibilities of SF, its superiority to "mundane" fiction because of its "extended repertoire of sentences" and "consequent greater range of possible incident" and "more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmic organization."  (Delany really slings the academese here.)  Delany likens the relationship of SF to mundane fiction to the relationship of abstract art and atonal music to "conventional" art, something I had never considered.  (I just recently was talking to commentor and blogger Lawrence Burton about A. E. van Vogt's belief that what distinguishes SF from regular old fiction is the fact that the "good" reader of "good" SF has to bring something to the material, because the author has deliberately left something out, providing the reader and opportunity to use his imagination to build upon the material or presenting the reader an obligation to figure out the material--isn't this something like what people commonly say about abstract art?) 

It is nice to hear Delany championing SF after so often reading Malzberg bemoan the field's decline, imply it is a slum he had to resort to after literary markets were closed to him, and lament the way SF killed Henry Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth and Mark Clifton (in his 1980 essay "Mark Clifton: 1906-1963.")

Appendix B is a brief biography of Ashima Slade, one of the most important intellectual founders of metalogics and an associate of The Spike's, and a person who had multiple sex changes.  Slade was born in 2051 and killed in the war on the day Bron had his own sex change operation.  In keeping with Delany's themes throughout the book, many facts about Slade's life are unknowable and in a footnote it is made clear that evidence presented in this biography is not trustworthy.  Also, Delany reveals to us something potentially very important that he has kept from us for 350 pages--the lingua franca of the year 2212, the language spoken by all people on the satellites and 80% of people on Earth, is "a Magyar-Cantonese dialect," suggesting a radical political and cultural change between our own time and Bron's that we didn't know about as we followed Bron's story.  This is comparable to the revelation late in Starship Troopers that Rico is non-white, one of the Heinlein passages Delany talks about in Appendix A.

A later British edition
In a recent blog post I compared Ted White's By Furies Possessed to Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, wondering to what extent White's novel was a response to or inspired by Heinlein's.  (In a 2016 talk that I highly recommend to SF, pulp, and comics fans, pointed out to us in a comment by Paul Chadwick, White talks about how important Heinlein was to him as a youth.)  I think it might also be useful to ponder how much Triton may have been influenced by Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress--both are about a colony on a moon where people have new innovative familial and sexual relationships, and both involve a war between the colonials and the Earth--and I Will Fear No Evil, in which a man's brain is implanted in a woman's body?  Delany has no doubt thought seriously about Heinlein's body of work--he wrote the intro to the edition of Glory Road I read some years ago and in his Appendix A here in Triton talks about important sentences in Starship Troopers and Beyond This Horizon, sentences which obliquely tell the reader about the imagined future world of the novel.

Four years and two states ago I read Delany's Empire Star and admired its structure and the evident hard work Delany put into it, but I didn't find it very fun.  My feelings about Triton are somewhat similar.  Delany is working ably in a literary tradition (I've already compared Triton to Proust) with a story that strongly pushes its themes and includes clever devices, like speaking in different voices and effective foreshadowing (the attack on Christianity on page 245, for example, is foreshadowed on page 2 in a way that is quite effective).  He also works masterfully in the SF tradition (I've already mentioned similarities to Heinlein), filling his book with hard science and social science, presenting speculations on what space travel and interplanetary war might be like, and giving us an inhabitant's eye view of a society radically different from our own, one with no marriage in which only 20% of women have children, people live communally, sex involving children is normal, there is a government that provides services to the unemployed and supports a diplomatic and defense apparatus but (somehow) collects no taxes, there is income inequality and social distinctions but (so they say) no money.  (Instead of money everyone has an amount of "credit" based on his or her job; Delany hints that in practice this "credit" is just like money but with the added "benefit" that it makes it easier for the government to keep tabs on you.  How the beggars and artsy fartsy recipients of government endowments we meet in Chapter 1 fit into Tethys's economy I do not understand.)

An early British edition--I'm afraid there are no dog fights in the novel
There are all these good things to say about Triton, but somehow the novel lacks excitement and fun despite all the war and espionage business, lacks feeling despite all the love and sex and death elements; Triton feels a little too cool and a little too intellectual.  Delany, to me, comes across as a skilled technician whose work is built on a strong foundation of thought and knowledge, who lacks some kind of (difficult for me to define) emotional fire or breath of human life.  Or maybe Delany and I are just on such different wavelengths that I can't receive the spark or passion he is transmitting?

Triton is well put together and thought-provoking, but it is easier to admire than to love, one of those books that I'm enjoying more now as I think back on it that than I did while actually in the process of reading it.  Mild to moderate recommendation from me, though it is easy to see that Triton is exactly the kind of SF book that will hold a powerful appeal for some but be prohibitively tedious and opaque to others.