Saturday, May 12, 2018

Four tales of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Let's explore yet another of my Fifty Cent Second Story Books finds, my copy of Ace's 1970s edition of The Coming of the Terrans by Leigh Brackett.  There is some mystery over exactly when this edition was published and who produced its cover illustration, but we know that the first edition of The Coming of the Terrans was published in 1967 and had a cover by Gray Morrow.  The collection includes five stories, and we've already read one, "The Last Days of Shandakor," as it also appears in The Best of Leigh Brackett, which we read in its entirety in the summer of last year.  Today we'll tackle the remaining four stories it contains by the celebrated writer of SF adventures, detective stories, and screenplays.

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" (1948)

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" was the cover story of the Winter 1948 edition of Planet Stories, where it is advertised as a story of "lost worlds" where beautiful women try to bewitch tall men (how different is that, really, from our own world?)  I like the cover illustration--the principal figures wear suitably and convincingly desperate expressions and the female lead sports a charming little blue number--and the inside pages boast not only the Brackett tale but contributions from two other beloved writers on the fantastical end of the SF spectrum, Ray Bradbury and Frank Belknap Long. 

Captain Burk Winters is a broken man!  He chain smokes Venusian cigarettes!  His hands shake so severely he drops coins all over the place when he pays a cabbie.  What happened to this dude, who was once one of our best space pilots?  He lost his girl to alien drug pushers, that's what!

Jill Leland was a wealthy member of the thrill-seeking classes who spend their leisure time in the solar system's Trade Cities, where the decadent rich of Earth gamble and indulge in elaborate vices!  Such pastimes are sought to relieve the pressure of life in the go go future--here are the kinds of people one sees in the Trade Cities:
Their faces were pallid and effeminate, scored with the marks of life lived under the driving tension of a super-modern age.
Leland's particular vice was the Martian "Shanga."  The Martians are the heirs of the wreckage of an heroic high-tech civilization that collapsed many centuries ago due to nuclear war; even though they can't reproduce much of that old time technology, the Martians can still operate some of the artifacts, and the Shanga crystals are among such artifacts.  In the Shanga parlors in the Trade Cities, Earth people can expose themselves to the Shanga rays, and temporarily feel physically and mentally younger, and live carefree for a few hours.

Brackett explicitly compares the treatment to drug use, and depicts exposure to the rays as a direct stimulant to the human brain's pleasure centers and as quite addictive.  Hard core addicts like Leland soon hear rumors that the Shanga treatment in the Trade Cities is mere kid's stuff compared to the real deal, the Shanga rays available in the desert in the crumbling half-deserted cities of Mars's heyday.  Winters tried to get the Shanga monkey off Jill's back, but to no avail; she disappeared in the Martian desert without a trace, presumed dead!

We learn all this stuff I just told you over the course of the 60-page story, which is structured sort of like a hard-boiled mystery.  The plot of "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" follows Winters as he goes to the Trade City on Mars, Kahora, and then out into the desert in search of his junkie girlfriend.  Winters is a manly man who isn't really interested in Shanga or any of the twisted allures of the Trade Cities, but to pursue his lost love he patronizes their evil trade, posing as a hopeless Shanga addict.  The Martian pushers take him out to the desert, to a lost city on the shore of a dry ocean basin, where they hold him captive and Winters learns the terrible truth.

The Shanga rays, at full power, after repeated doses, don't just roll your biological clock back to childhood, but back down the evolutionary ladder!  One strong dose of the rays turns Winters into a brutish cave man!  Winters recovers from this treatment, but he sees other Earthlings who have received many doses and been turned back to Neanderthals, to "missing links," even to god-damned reptiles and amphibians!  Winters worries that, if he doesn't escape, he'll eventually get turned into an amoeba!

The Martians, who see themselves as a superior race of great wisdom who were building skyscrapers when humans were still living in caves, resent human control of their ancient red planet.  The tribe of Martians in this story, those who run the Shanga parlors, turn Earthers into these evolutionary throwbacks in order to put them into an old amphitheater to torment them and laugh at them, a way of getting a little of their own back and assuaging their humiliation at the hands of us humies.

Our French friends included "Beast-Jewel of
Mars" in this 1975 anthology of stories from
Planet Stories.
Winters finds Jill Leland reduced to the condition of a cave woman--she can't even talk any more!  At night he escapes captivity and sneaks into the room of the leader of this tribe of vengeful Martians, a beautiful woman named Fand who has catlike grace and walks around with her high breasts bare.  (Brackett generally writes stories in which aliens are so biologically similar to Earth people that they are sexually compatible.)  Winters treats Fand the way a New York state prosecutor might treat one of his girlfriends, knocking her unconscious while she sleeps by bashing her in the head and then tying her up and carrying her back to the amphitheater.  When the Martians turn on the Shanga rays as they do every day, Fand gets exposed just like the Earth-creatures, and, because the Martians are an old race with tired genes, she gets devolved way way back, becoming into a disgusting vermiculate monster.  When her tribe realizes what has happened to Fand, chaos ensues, with the Martians fighting hand-to-hand with the Earth creatures in the arena, and Winters escapes with his mute and illiterate girlfriend to alert the human authorities about the menace of the Shanga parlors.       

(The crazy evolution stuff in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" reminded me of the numerous stories by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, that feature wild speculations about evolution, and of course the whole plot and theme of the story reminds you of Chinese opium dens and Chinese resentment of Western imperialism.)

When we read two Poul Anderson novels recently we saw they were full of signs of his libertarian attitude--celebrations of private trade, the individual, and rational reason, and denunciations of big government and mysticism.  In "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" we see signs of an old-fashioned conservatism on the part of Brackett.  Modern life, we are told, is too fast and too complicated and drives people batty, and we see that modern wealth and leisure just leave hands idle to do the devil's work.  Interstellar trade hasn't made the life of Terran or Martian better, but corrupted and demeaned them both, giving rise to bitter hatreds as each race abuses or exploits the other at every opportunity.   Brackett also evinces a traditional skepticism of the city and city life:
Winters hated the Trade Cities.  He was used to the elemental honesty of space.  Here the speech, the dress, even the air one breathed, were artificial.
As you might guess, the Trade City on Earth is New York, a famous target for criticism from country folk and conservatives (and not always without reason.)

Not Brackett's best work, but entertaining and interesting.

Scanned from my copy, a brief introductory essay by Brackett and a list of "othe" Ace books
by her, including Alpha Centauri or Die! and Sword of Rhiannon, which I own and have read,
  and Big Jump, another publisher's edition of which I own and have read.

"Mars Minus Bisha" (1954)

Another cover for Brackett, and another Planet Stories in which Brackett shares an issue with Ray Bradbury; this time Bradbury is represented by one of the all-time most famous dinosaur stories and stories about time travel, "A Sound of Thunder."  In "Mars Minus Bisha" Brackett again invites comparisons between the people of Mars and East Asians, this time very directly:
She sat up, a dark and shaggy-haired young person, with eyes the color of topaz, and the customary look of premature age and wisdom that the children of Mars share with the children of the Earthly East.
This is the kind of thing you'd probably think twice about committing to paper today.

Fraser is a scientist living alone in a Quonset hut in the Martian desert, studying Martian diseases.  A woman from a tribe of reptile-riding nomads brings her daughter to him and flees--the shamans of her tribe had declared the seven-year old girl, Bisha, to be cursed, scapegoating her for a plague, and sentenced her to death.  Fraser examines her and finds Bisha to be perfectly healthy, and she moves in with him; soon the little girl is the light of his life, and he plans on bringing her home with him to Earth when his project is complete in a few months.

But it is not to be--this story is a tragedy!  From an ancient race of Martians with tremendous psychic powers Bisha has inherited a recessive genetic trait, an ability to drain the life force of those around her over which she has no control!  If they continue to live alone together, Bisha's autonomic vampiric powers will eventually kill Fraser, but if Fraser lets any Martians see her they will recognize her condition and destroy her.  Fraser's life force is fading--can he get to a human settlement three hundred miles away before he expires and before any natives spot Bisha?  And if not, who will live and who will die?

An effective story, more economical (just 30 pages) and better structured than "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" and with more human feeling, including a sad ending like something out of Somerset Maugham which took me by surprise.

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" (1964)

Brackett's name sits at the top of the list on the cover of the 15th Anniversary "All Star" issue of F&SF, right above her husband's.  (We read Hamilton's contribution to this issue, "The Pro," back in June of last year.)  Preceding "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is a page long bio of Brackett and a description of this story's genesis--it seems that Anthony Boucher, writing about Brackett in F&SF in 1955, made up the slightly goofy name od this story as a sort of parody of the titles of the type of planetary romances she excelled at writing, but some readers didn't realize it was a joke and began asking Brackett where they could find the story.  So, when the opportunity presented itself almost ten years later, Brackett wrote a story to match the title, making real this once fabulous component of her oeuvre.

Harvey Selden (!) has always wanted to go to Mars.  As he looks at the red planet from the observation dome of the starship as it comes in for a landing, Third Officer Bentham, an alcoholic whose career has been stunted by his love for the bottle, invites Selden to have dinner with him on the surface with some Martian friends of his.

Selden is staying at the Kahora Hilton.  Kahora has changed since the days when Jill Leland and Burk Winters frequented the Shanga parlor there; now that "the bad old days of laissez-faire," as Selden calls them, are over, Kahora and the other Trade Cities are under strict government control and all those sinful amusements are just a memory.  Kahora now has seven domes--Bentham takes Selden to the original dome, now a residential district, to meet his friends, including a Martian called Firsa Mak, Firsa Mak's sister and her human husband Altman, and a gorgeous Martian girl who walks around topless and serves the drinks, Lella.

Though this is his first trip to Mars, Selden is an academic expert on Martian culture and history; he came to Mars to take up a position at the Bureau of Interworld Cultural Relations.  He is also one of those liberals who identifies more with the colonized Martians than with his own people, the colonizers, and denigrates the actions of the first human explorers of the red planet, calling them "piratical exploiters."   
...Firsa Mak said with honest curiosity, "Why is it that all you young Earthmen are so ready to cry down the things your own people have done?"
Selden dismisses as nonsense the stories told by those first Earthmen to visit Mars about Martian cults who worshiped evil gods and practiced human sacrifice, but he's in for a surprise, because Bentham the drunk has just delivered him into the hands of people who know how very true those stories are!  Lella has served him a drugged drink and when he wakes up he's bound and gagged in the cold wilderness beyond the domed cities.  Brackett presents starkly the contrast between bookish know-it-all Selden, who in the wilderness proves weak and ineffectual, and adventurous manly men Firsa Mak and Altman, who are perfectly comfortable in harsh conditions and dangerous situations.

This German collection of
Brackett stories includes
"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon"
Firsa Mak and Altman disguise Selden and drag him to a ritual where cultists pay obeisance to a slumbering Godzilla-sized monster.  The experience is so horrifying that Selden faints.  When he wakes up, Firsa Mak and Altman try to convince Selden to alert the Terran authorities about this cult which sacrifices people twice a year and its dangerous monster, which, they fear, if roused could destroy an entire city.  The government does not believe scruffy adventurers like them, but maybe they will believe a trained academic and member of the establishment like Selden?   

Selden, however, begins to doubt his own senses--Lella drugged him, after all--and worries that spreading rumors about Martian cults and Brobdingnagian monsters will wreck his career.  Instead of reporting the menace to the authorities he abandons his new job with the Bureau and flees to Earth where he undergoes psychotherapy and is relieved to be told he hallucinated the ritual and the monster, the result of drugs working on his unresolved feelings about his mother and his repressed homosexuality.  (We see evidence of Bracket's adherence to traditional ideas about gender roles and sexual mores here as well as in the quote I extracted from "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" above and in her novel Alpha-Centauri or Die!)

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is well-written and I liked it, but at the same time I have to admit I thought the end was a little disappointing, anti-climactic.  A traditional adventure or horror story with a plot like this would end with the protagonist killing the monster and/or the priestess or making a narrow escape.  Instead, this story is a satire of inept intellectual types who look down on the brave men who defend and expand society, and so the main character is a kind of spectator lead around by the nose and kept from danger by the manly adventurer characters.  He is never in real danger and because he is incompetent outside a classroom he never makes any real decisions of consequence, just takes the path of least resistance.  I'm all for goofing on effete liberals and psychoanalytic quacks, but to achieve its full potential I think a story that follows the kind of adventure/horror template that this one follows needs real tension and a real climax--as "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" stands, it is unsatisfying.  (I was hoping all along that Selden himself was going to be sacrificed--this would accomplish the goal of ridiculing the willfully-blind academic types who dismiss the reports of men in the field while at the same time providing a satisfying horror story conclusion.  Of course, then Brackett couldn't work the psychoanalytic angle.)

Another problem I have with the story is the equivocal role of Lella.  We have every reason to believe that the masked woman who leads the ritual, the Purple Priestess, is Lella herself, but at the same time Lella seems to be allied with Firsa Mak and Altman, who are trying to get the government to do away with the cult.  A nagging mystery.

"The Road to Sinharat" (1963)

"The Road to Sinharat" was an Amazing cover story.  isfdb lists it as part of the Eric John Stark series, but Brackett's famous hero does not appear in the tale.  Maybe it is considered part of the Stark series because the city of Sinharat also appears in a Stark story "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," later expanded into the novel The Secret of Sinharat? 

Long ago Mars was a world of oceans and forests; today it is an arid desert.  The men of Earth think they have the technology to restore part of the red planet to its former verdant glory, but the Martians resist the renewal project; they have made peace with their old and tired planet, and don't want to see their canals messed with and their settlements moved.  In fact, the renewal effort is leading to unrest among the natives and even violence against Earthmen.

In 1932 Edmond Hamilton published the short story "Conquest of Two Worlds," a story about Earth imperialism and an Earthman who joined with the natives of Jupiter to oppose Earth oppression.  Brackett considered this one of her husband's best stories--at least she chose it for The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a volume she edited.  I bring this up because "The Road to Sinharat" also features a Terran, Dr. Matthew Carey, who goes against his superiors and risks his life to stand against Earth interference with aliens.

Carey is an archaeologist currently working with the organization planning the renewal project--because the natives oppose the project, so does Carey.  Carey has lived so long among Martians, exploring tombs and even participating in barbarian raids, that he can pass for a Martian desert dweller and capably wield Martian weapons (by which I mean things like axes and daggers--I guess automatic rifles and heat ray pistols aren't among the ancient Martian technologies which have survived.)  He ditches his job to help the natives, and the plot of "The Road to Sinharat" follows Carey and some Martians--the trader Derech, an old friend who accompanied him on his archaeological expeditions years ago, and Arrin, a sexy Martian girl--as they travel via canal barge and then on reptile-back to the forbidden city of Sinharat, to look for some ancient documents which may convince the Terran authorities to abandon their renewal scheme.  They face various obstacles, among them pursuit by a Terran police detective, Howard Wales, and his Martian cops, who is tasked with bringing in the renegade archaeologist on suspicion of fomenting native violence.

Eventually Carey and his friends and Wales and his cops end up trapped together inside Sinharat, under siege by some barbarians who are reluctant to enter the ancient city, which is taboo because it was once the HQ of a tribe of Martian scientists who achieved longevity by kidnapping young people and shifting their consciousnesses into the youth's bodies.  Just as an aircraft comes to rescue the besieged humans and their Martian comrades, Carey finds the records he needs.  They show that the body snatchers of Sinharat, ages ago, launched their own renewal effort, and the memory of its eventual failure lingers in the Martians' cultural consciousness, rendering all such efforts anathema.  These records convince the authorities to abandon their plans.

"The Road to Sinharat" was among the
stories from Amazing and Fantastic
included in this 1968 reprint magazine.
Like "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon," "The Road to Sinharat" contrasts academic experts who think they know it all with the men of action in the field who actually do know what's going on, and like "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" doles out some harsh conservative medicine--change is bad, progress is a scam, history is a tragedy, and you shouldn't interfere in other people's business, even if you have the best of intentions.  "The Road to Sinharat" is also reminiscent of Brackett's "Citadel of Lost Ships;" both feature government projects that relocate towns and tinker with water sources, allegedly for the greater good.  (Public policies that destroyed American communities to create reservoirs and dams, like those chronicled here, seem to have struck a chord with Brackett.)

While not bad, this story is another disappointment.  Brackett overstuffs "The Road to Sinharat" with lots of cool material, but because it is confined to a paltry 50 pages the story feels rushed and cramped, almost like a condensed version of a longer piece of work.  All Brackett's ideas and all the many relationships she sets up are dealt with in cursory fashion--she has no room to explore any of them with any depth, so they lack dramatic power.  Derech, Arrin, Wales, and Alan Woodthorpe, head of the renewal project, all have potentially fun and interesting relationships with Carey, in particular Wales and Woodthorpe, because all three of the Earthmen have a strong sense of duty and a determination to do the right thing for the people of Mars, but Carey's thinking is at odds with those of his fellow Earthers, and over the course of the story Carey wins them to see his side.  Unfortunately, Brackett doesn't have room to develop these relationships and chart their evolution in a compelling way.  Arrin is also a lost opportunity--she could have been a sexual interest for Carey, part of a love triangle with Carey and Derech, or given voice to one of the numerous Martian factions (Brackett's Martians are not monolithic, but split into distinct and often competing cultural and political groups who react to the colonizers differently, just like colonized peoples in real life) or all three, but as the story appears, she does very little.

(I often moan that a piece of fiction is too long, but here we have the rare case in which I think a story would have been better at two or even three times the length.)

Another problem with "The Road to Sinharat" is that it lacks the thrilling danger and cathartic (and sexualized) violence of many of Brackett's stories--often in Brackett stories men kill each other with their bare hands and women get beaten or killed (when Fand in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" got transformed into a 100 lb. slug her lieutenant euthanized her with a sword.)  I don't think anybody gets killed in "The Road to Sinharat"--when the barbarians charge Wales and his men they repel the charge with stun guns.  To be satisfying, an adventure story has to have believable physical or psychological dangers, and "The Road to Sinharat" comes up short in this department. 


"Mars Minus Bisha" is a quite good story of human feeling, while the other pieces we've looked at today are just marginally good or merely acceptable.  "Beast-Jewel of Mars" has some of the violence and passion that bring to life Brackett's best work, like Sword of Rhiannon or "Enchantress of Venus," but lacks their strong characterizations and relationships, while "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" and "The Road to Sinharat" follow an adventure template but lack the danger and violence of a good adventure story and the latter feels underdeveloped.  Fortunately, there are still Brackett stories out there I haven't read, and I can live in the hope that there is another Brackett masterpiece awaiting me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Orbit Unlimited by Poul Anderson

"You should try to be more friendly.  Not ask so many questions of the teacher.  Join in their games instead of going off by yourself and-- Oh, I don't know.  We came to Rustum to keep the right to be different.  I suppose I shouldn't start the old cycle over again by telling you to conform simply because it's more comfortable."
My copy
Still feeling those good vibrations from reading 1977's Mirkheim, this weekend I took Poul Anderson's Orbit Unlimited off the shelf.  I own a copy of a 1974 printing from Pyramid with an orange Paul Lehr cover that I acquired at Second Story Books in our nation's capital back in 2015 for fifty cents.  Pyramid also published the novel's first edition in 1961, with a fun space walking cover by John Schoenherr.  isfdb indicates that Orbit Unlimited, 150 pages of text in this edition, is based on three previously published short stories:  "Condemned to Death" (Fantastic Universe, 1959), "Robin Hood's Barn" (Astounding, 1959) and "The Burning Bridge" (Astounding, 1960.)  A fourth piece, "The Mills of the Gods," was added for book publication.  Anderson would return to the universe of Orbit Unlimited in the '70s, publishing four additional stories in the four numbers of Roger Elwood's 1974-5 series of anthologies, Continuum.

In Part One, "Robin Hood's Barn," space explorer Joshua Coffin returns to Earth after an 85-year journey (he was only awake for five of those years) to report that he has discovered a habitable planet out at ε Eridani.  He finds that Earth is so overpopulated that even the U S of A has abandoned representative government and freedom of speech and that the whole planet is ruled by an unelected class of "Guardians."  Most people don't seem to care--the literacy rate is like 20% and most people are content to submerge themselves in drug use and mystical religion.  But among some of the literate middle classes, those essential engineers and technicians who keep things running, is a hankering for a rational view of the universe and maybe even some of the liberties enjoyed in North America in past ages!  The Guardians fear that, if the philosophy of these free thinkers, known as "Constitutionalists," spreads, they could have a serious rebellion on their hands!

The smartest of the Guardians, Commissioner Svoboda, has a plan to solve the Constitutionalist problem.  First, he revives a classic tool of government domination and enforced conformity: compulsory public education!  Every kid has to attend school four days a week, six hours each day, where they are told science is "hooey" and that to be happy you should spend your free time emptying your mind and contemplating "The Ineffable All," and where the kids of Constitutionalists are exposed to some serious peer pressure from their pot-smoking fellows.  In a scene that will warm the hearts of parents everywhere, one Constitutionalist who isn't happy to see his kids parroting this mystical nonsense and isn't afraid of the authorities drives his aircar over to his son's teacher's flat and beats him up!  (Van Dongen provides Astounding readers with artist's renditions of an angry Dad castigating his mediating son and then grabbing Teach by the collar.)   How is it this rational-thinker and foe of mysticism has no fear of the oppressive government?  His name is Jan Svoboda--he's the estranged son of the top Commissioner, and the fuzz are very reluctant to lay a hand on him!

Constitutionalists all over begin organizing against the public schools, and, having brought the Constitutionalist problem from a simmer to a boil, Commissioner Svoboda meets his son and other members of the Constitutionalist organization to put into action the next step of his plan.  (Old school SF, even by libertarian types like Anderson, is all about the efficacy of human intelligence and the power of knowledge, and so guys are always seeing their elaborate plans and counterintuitive conspiracies come to fruition.  If you read history books or just watch the news on the idiot box it is pretty obvious that in real life the plans of politicians and military men almost never work out and that everybody's predictions are almost always wrong, and everybody in a position of power or influence is just playing it by ear and taking guesses.)  Everybody agrees that the solution to the government vs Constitutionalist crisis, which could very well erupt into a civil war if left unresolved, is for the most fervent Constitutionalists to colonize Rustum, the newly discovered planet in the ε Eridani system.  The Commish, who wasn't born into the Guardian class but rose into it and who realizes the Earth is in a period of decadence and tyranny, we readers realize, has engineered this whole turn of events in part because he wants his descendants to have a shot at living in freedom, and Rustum is the only place that can happen.

In Part Two, "The Burning Bridge," Joshua Coffin is admiral of the fleet of colonizing ships carrying some three thousand people, most in deep sleep, to Rustum.  Anderson in this section works to create an atmosphere of tension; he tells us interstellar travel is like being in a sensory deprivation tank and drives people insane, and portrays the astronauts committing dumb mistakes, making rash decisions, and griping at each other.  Most striking about this chapter is probably how, to minimize sexual complications, the fleet practices sex segregation, with women and men on separate vessels.  Women in positions of authority even have to wear veils when they patch into the communications system for all-fleet remote videophone meetings!

In the first part we learned all about Commissioner Svoboda's life, psychology and relationships, and here in Part Two Anderson focuses on Coffin, who is a fish out of water, having been raised on the Earth of like 80 years ago.  Coffin even wears the stern black uniform he was issued almost a century ago, while the spacers recruited this century have gay colorful attire!  Whereas the Constitutionalists are mostly atheists and the normies who make up the crew are superstitious mystics, the devout Coffin's religion is like something out of the 19th or early 20th century--he's a prude obsessed with duty who is always referring to some biblical figure or theologian like Lazarus or Jonathan Edwards.  He refuses to issue a rum ration, unlike other captains, and the sex segregation and veils were his idea.  Anderson uses the word "harem" to describe the condition of women in the fleet, and I wondered if he meant us to be reminded by Coffin's policies of some Islamic practices. 

The plot of this part of the book concerns a message that arrives from Earth when the fleet is at the very limit of reception range--the public education decree has been rescinded and the Constitutionalists are invited back!  The fleet is almost at the point of no return, so there is very little time for the small proportion of crew and colonists who are awake to decide whether or not to turn back, and disputes between those determined to colonize Rustum and those eager to return to Earth now there is some hope of liberalization bring morale to the breaking point.  Coffin wants to continue on to Rustum, but how far is he willing to break the law, bend his principles, and put others at risk to make that happen?  And is his insistence on continuing reasonable and rational, or selfish, emotional, and a product of the terrific stress he is laboring under?

Part Three is based on "Condemned to Death" but titled "And Yet So Far" here.  This chapter is serious "hard" SF, about engineers racing against the clock to repair their space ship in time--here's a sample passage to run through your cranium:
"Well, the Ranger is a metallic object, loaded with other metallic objects.  A conductor.  If you move any conductor across a magnetic field, or vice versa, you generate an EMF, whose value depends on the speed of the motion and the intensity of the field.  Have you ever seen that classroom demonstration where a sheet of copper is dropped between the poles of a strong magnet?"
Errr, I was probably looking at the legs of the girl sitting behind me during that demonstration.  Luckily for people like me, Anderson includes in this part of the book a love triangle, which is the kind of geometry even the dimmest among us can understand.

The fleet is in orbit around Rustum, the colonists all on the surface building their settlement while supplies and equipment are ferried down to them.  Because Coffin has decided to join the colonists, Nils Kivi is now in command.  Hotheaded Constitutionalist and engineer Jan Svoboda is helping to move cargo from a star ship to one of the space boats when Kivi has to fire the ion drive to move the ship out of the way of a meteor.  Svoboda, who of course is not a trained spacer, has left a huge piece of equipment loose in the cargo hold, and the ship's sudden movement propels the item (a component of a nuclear reactor) through a bulkhead, damaging the ship's reactor, which knocks out power to the ship's protective magnetic screen.  The ship is in a Van Allen Belt, so with the screen down, the vessel is flooded with deadly radiation and must be evacuated at once.  That means there is no safe way to get all the nuclear reactor parts off the ship, and without the reactor the colony (which is 42 years away from Earth, you know) is doomed.

As you can imagine, this disaster doesn't do much for already strained astronaut-Constitutionalist relations.  In fact, Kivi jumps in the lifeboat so fast that Svoboda accuses him of trying to leave him behind, and then Kivi starts the liftboat engines before Svoboda can buckle up, knocking the Constitutionalist on his ass so hard Svoboda ends up in the infirmary and accuses Kivi of trying to murder him!  When we readers learn how much time Kivi has been spending with Svoboda's wife Judith, we wonder if maybe Svoboda has a point!

Anyway, Svoboda figures out a way to get the ship out of the radiation belt and unload the equipment needed by the colony, and how to overcome Kivi's objections, which largely stem from Kivi's hopes that, if colony effort is abandoned and Judith has to return to Earth, she will leave Svoboda for him.

"The Mills of the Gods," Part Four of Orbit Unlimited, takes place some years after the colony has been established.  Joshua Coffin and his wife (they met on the voyage when he was breaking his own rules against contact between the sexes) have five kids, including adopted Danny, whom all the other kids bully because he was gestated in an artificial womb (an "exogene tank"), the product of sperm and an ovum brought to Rustum from Earth.  (From your parents yelling at you and teachers indoctrinating you, to the other kids making fun of you over stuff you can't change and pressuring you to conform when it comes to stuff you can change, Orbit Unlimited includes plenty of scenes that remind you of how horrible it was to be young.)  All couples are obligated to raise an exogene to increase genetic diversity in the small colony, but so far only Coffin, the civic-minded, highly-disciplined, religious guy, and his wife have actually done it.

1961 edition
Danny runs away from home, down a dangerous cleft into the clouds (the colony is high on a plateau, above the clouds.)  Looking for him down there is judged to be too dangerous by everybody except his adoptive father, but the mayor, a fat merchant who is a master of persuasion and espionage (that's right, like Nicholas van Rijn, one of Anderson's most famous characters), convinces Jan Svoboda to join Coffin in the search by telling him that saving the brat will give him the reputation of a hero, which will help him compete with other businesspeople for labor (Svoboda operates some kind of mine), and by threatening to tell everybody about Svoboda's recent extramarital affair! (Anderson writes one cynical book here, with most every character manipulating people, lying, betraying his principles, and/or making a boneheaded mistake!)

Down below the clouds the searchers find plenty of scientific danger (too much nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the air) and melodrama (native wildlife attacks them, and Coffin and Svoboda argue and even fight each other as they begin to lose their minds to fatigue), but they eventually find Danny and genius Svoboda comes up with a plan to rescue him from the precarious spot the exogene tyke has got himself in.  This life-threatening adventure changes both Danny and his foster father's character and reputations for the better.

In the last pages of the book, the mayor explains to Svoboda that he forced him to risk his life going after Danny in order to set a precedent, an example, of community-minded self-sacrifice, even giving a little speech on the limits of individualism:
"What did we come to Rustum for?  To live our own lives as we see fit, without official nosiness.  Good enough.  But we've carried it too far.  Now that the initial struggle to survive is past, each family has retreated more and more into its own selfish concerns.  We can't have that."
If people won't work together voluntarily, laws and police, which are of course ripe for abuse and a plague on liberty and efficiency, will arise to force them to work together, so examples of heroism like Svoboda's are needed to cultivate a culture of voluntary self-sacrifice in the interests of the community.

In Orbit Unlimited we have four good entertaining SF stories; each one is about one or more persons and their psychological issues and interpersonal relationships, and each one speculates about a possible future milieu: What kind of social and political life might result from overpopulation?  What kind of technology would be used to travel 20 light years to colonize another planet, and what kinds of lives would the starship crew and the colonists live?  Another success from Grand Master and multiple Hugo Award winner Anderson.

Three stories by Mack Reynolds

Happy May Day, comrade!  As the bourgeois intellectuals at Wikipedia tell it, "The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International called on 'all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.'"  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log on the First of May we talk about California-born Mack Reynolds, who was a star member of the Socialist Labor Party in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, until in 1958 he was excommunicated when the SLP's Executive Committee discovered that Reynolds had authored the book How to Retire Without Money.  (Check out last year's May Day commemoration of Reynolds, which includes a reproduction of the amusing cover of How to Retire Without Money.)

Reynolds didn't just write retirement guides and sex novels--he also wrote tons of SF.  Today we'll be looking at three Reynolds stories that appear in the 1976 volume The Best of Mack Reynolds, a copy of which I own.  These tales were first published in FantasticPlayboy, and Analog, magazines close to this blog's heart.  I chose these individual stories because I thought the titles interesting, and it is very possible that some or all of them have nothing to do with socialism or politics or economics.

"No Return From Elba" (1953)

I probably don't have to tell my erudite readership that Elba was the island to which the merciful forces of justice exiled the Corsican Ogre back in 1814.  But, as they say, mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and it was from Elba that the little corporal escaped to once again terrorize mankind.

Each story in The Best of Mack Reynolds is accompanied by an introduction from the author, and, in the intro to "No Return From Elba," Reynolds brags that Fantastic editor Howard Browne paid "the unheard of, in those days, rate of four cents a word" for the tale.

This is a very brief, and rather lame, doublecross tale with a feeble twist ending.  A warmongering dictator (I guess from Venus) has been defeated by a coalition of other planets and his three closest lieutenants fly him to an asteroid to hide.  The plan is that after a few years the coalition will fall apart and the Venusian public will welcome the tyrant's return.  The three lieutenants leave, and a bomb they planted on the asteroid explodes, killing the dictator--these jokers plan to seize power for themselves and didn't want the dictator to interfere.  But what they don't know is that the dictator, to help keep his hiding place a secret, planted a bomb of his own on the ship and the would-be triumvirs will soon join the dictator in death.

A forgettable filler story.  There is no reason for this story to even be a SF story--it would make just as much sense if it was about a mob boss or a Third World caudillo or something.  Sirius, the Croatian SF magazine, included a translation of "No Return From Elba" in a 1978 issue whose theme was SF crime stories.

"Burnt Toast" (1955)

Originally appearing in Playboy, a year later "Burnt Toast," under the title "Martinis: 12 to 1," reappeared in F&SF, and in 1988 it was translated for inclusion in an Italian horror anthology that endeavoured to capitalize on the enduring fascination of readers with H. P. Lovecraft and girls' boobs.

"Burnt Toast" is one of those stories in which a guy has a wager with the Devil.  Mephistopheles presents the protagonist 13 cocktails--one is poison.  If the main character, a drunk found in the gutter, drinks the poison cocktail his soul as well as his life are forfeit.  But if he drinks one of the twelve safe cocktails he gets one hundred dollars.  The wagering need not end there--if the man takes a second drink and survives he gets $200, a third $400, and so on.  We follow the protagonist's progress as he wins money, leaves, then days or months or years later returns because he needs or wants more money and is willing to take the ultimate risk to get it.  Of course, the Devil has not necessarily been playing fairly....

This one is actually mildly entertaining and moves at a brisk pace, so I feel free to give it a passing grade.

"Survivor" (1966)

This one is more what I expect from Reynolds, a pacifistic utopian thing.  Here is another Reynolds story that after its first appearance ("Survivor" was first published in Analog) was picked up by the people at Sirius for translation.

When negotiations break down between the West and the commies, atomic war is expected any minute.  People flee New York City, on the way out fighting each other for vehicles, food, and weapons.  A small number of Manhattanites, thinking there is no hope or unwilling to do violence to their fellow citizens, remain in the Big Apple awaiting their destruction.

To the surprise of those who chose to stay, New York is spared.  While millions of people in the countryside are killing each other in competition for scarce resources, those in the city, the meek, inherit all the canned food and other goods the city has to offer.  Via ham radio they learn that neither side in the Cold War conflict launched any missiles--apparently, when it looked like war was inevitable, all the politicians and military men in Washington and Moscow fled instead of doing their duty and pushing the button.  All over the world the ruthless fled the cities to engage in a fruitless and ultimately suicidal red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle while the resigned stayed home and, paradoxically, survived.  Soon all the aggressive people will have starved or murdered each other, and the pacific softies in the cities can begin building a new and peaceful society.

This story is silly and gimmicky, but the gimmick is original and the story is competently written, so "Survivor" gets a pass.


Nothing really good, but nothing really dismal, either.  If this blog is yet afloat in one year's time, we'll check in again with Comrade Reynolds.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Mirkheim by Poul Anderson

"The issues are simple," Lennart declared. She repeated what she had said more than once at the conference table.  "Mirkheim is too valuable, too strategic a resource, to be allowed to fall into the claws of beings that have demonstrated their hostility.  I include certain human beings.  The Commonwealth has a just title to sovereignty over it, inasmuch as the original discoverers represented no government whereas the Rigassi expedition was composed of our citizens.  The Commonwealth likewise has a duty to mankind, to civilization itself, to safeguard that planet."
...van Rijn said, "what about those original discoverers of Mirkheim, ha?  What rights you think they have?"
Back in December of 2014 I bought a pile of SF paperbacks while on a visit to Columbia, South Carolina.  Looking over the stack of twenty volumes via the magic of my incompetent twitter photography (the light in that hotel room was terrible!), I believe I have read (and blogged about!) seven of the novels--Sandworld, Day of the Beasts, Diabolus, Orbitsville, Night Walk, Gender Genocide, and The House That Stood Still--and at least something from eight of the short story collections--The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind-BendersFuture Corruption, The Liberated Future, Infinity Two, The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, Special Wonder: Volume 2, Seven Trips Through Time and Space, and On Our Way to the Future.  I sometimes fear I buy way more books than I will ever read, but in a little over three years I checked off 15 of the titles of this big binge purchase, which isn't so bad.  And this week I checked off a sixteenth, Poul Anderson's 1977 novel Mirkheim.

Mirkheim is a component of Anderson's sprawling future history which, at isfdb, goes by the name "Technic History," and, on the cover of this book and various others in my library, "Future History of the Polesotechnic League."  It was dedicated to Jerry Pournelle, and has been reprinted numerous times on its own, and as part of Baen's Rise of the Terran Empire omnibus.  Let's double check the seals on our spacesuits, toggle on our voice translators, strap on our blasters and check it out!

The 22-page Prologue, which describes in episodic fashion happenings in the decades before the events related in the main text, clues us in to some of the themes of Mirkheim, which include conflict between social classes and social and political change.  On Earth, interstellar merchant Nicholas van Rijn (we met van Rijn in the stories collected in Trader to the Stars and have since encountered him a few different places) complains about pending legislation that will give labor unions and the government more power at the expense of business concerns and individuals, and it is hinted such legislation is part of a galaxy-wide trend of increasing corruption and diminishing trust in large public institutions.  On planet Babur the primitive natives are gradually deepening their relationships with the Solar Commonwealth (the big space federation centered on Earth), the Polesotechnic League (an association of the galaxy's big interstellar businesses), and other outside entities, conducting interstellar trade and developing into a modern spacefaring society; the Baburites' main link with the universe beyond their own system is human scientist Benoni Strang, a commoner from planet Hermes who harbors resentments against Hermes's aristocrats and holds close to his vest his own grand and mysterious ambitions.  On planet Valya, Lord Eric Tamarin-Asmundsen, one of those very Hermes aristocrats (and van Rijn's illegitimate son by the ruling Grand Duchess of Hermes), tries to convince a big unscrupulous mining firm to stop running roughshod over the other, much smaller, colonial businesses on Valya as well as the stone-age native Valyans.  Van Rijn's protege, David Falkayn, another Hermes aristocrat (but one who has been away from home for a long time), also figures in the prologue--it was his team that discovered Mirkheim, a planet of unusual chemical and physical composition due to its proximity, half a million years ago, to a supernova.  (We met Falkayn in the tales collected in The Trouble Twisters.)  Mirkheim, over two weeks hyperspace flight from Earth, lies only a few days travel from Hermes and Babur.

As the main text of the 216-page novel begins, Mirkheim is a catalyst for major trouble, as both the Solar Commonwealth and the young government of a newly united Babur claim the planet and its extremely valuable minerals; so useful are these minerals they have the potential to spark a technological revolution.  For years a company with ties to Falkayn and van Rijn has been mining the planet, keeping Mirkheim's existence a secret the whole time, but now the cat is out of the bag.  Van Rijn sends Falkayn's team, which includes Chee Lan the little cat-raccoon person and Adzel the hulking reptilian Buddhist, to the Hermes-Mirkheim-Babur region to gather information and hopefully prevent open hostilities that might threaten van Rijn's profits.

Mirkheim is classic old school SF, with space ships, space suits, hyperspace, aliens friendly and hostile, science lectures, and characters who defend the rights of the individual and the free market against the dead hand of government.  There is plenty of adventure stuff: people wear disguises, people get captured and escape, space ships chase each other, there are infantry firefights and a major space naval battle.  While the violence is exciting, Anderson makes an effort to keep things mature, realistic, and literary.  For example, rather than romanticizing war, he stresses the tragedy and pointlessness of it, airing standard libertarian arguments--Adzel ponders, "What does it [Babur] hope to gain?  As a world, a sophont species, it can only suffer a net loss by replacing peaceful trade with armed subjugation" and portraying politicians using war and security as an excuse to flout the law, increase their power and abuse their political opponents--and conjuring up scenes in which men bid sad farewells to their families before going into harm's way and people at risk in the battlezone think of the homes and families they may never see again.  I thought that in some of these scenes Anderson might be purposefully echoing passages from the Iliad; as he so often does, in Mirkheim Anderson advertises his own erudition and tries to turn us on to high culture, this time quoting Tennyson and Wordsworth and referring to sculptor Gustav Vigeland.

Along with the war we get the politics, and there are lots of negotiations between people with opposing interests and ideologies.  Anderson speaks the language of people (like me) who read the blog every day and follow the Cato Institute on twitter--he reminds us that all government is based on coercion, he depicts regulatory capture, he moans that so many people would choose security over liberty and that so many people are motivated by envy.  Remember when that letter writer to Fantastic in 1973 complained that Anderson was like the William F. Buckley or Ayn Rand of SF?--if he was still reading Anderson four years later, Mirkheim must have really made him grind his teeth!

The foreground plot of Mirkheim can be summed up thusly:  There hasn't been a major interstellar war for generations, so the Commonwealth space navy is relatively small, and in a short period the hydrogen breathing Baburites have been able, with the help of some mysterious humans and other oxygen-breathers, to build up a navy that can rival those of the Commonwealth, the League, and the various independent human planets like Hermes.  The Baburites seize control of Hermes, and the Hermes fleet, led by van Rijn's illegitimate son Lord Eric, flees to Earth.  Another Babur squadron repels a Commonwealth squadron from Mirkheim.  By the time David Falkayn, Chee and Azdel arrive on the scene it is too late to prevent war, but they manage to escape capture by the Baburites and even collect some info from the wreckage of a Baburite vessel knocked out during the battle at Mirkheim.  When Falkayn and company get to Earth they find the left-wing elements of the Commonwealth government are using the war as an excuse to seize control of all space craft and rein in those independent business entities (like van Rijn's) which haven't been already co-opted by the government.  Lord Eric, van Rijn and Falkayn and his buddies work together to sneak Falkayn back to Hermes, where Falkayn finds that Benoni Strang has been given authority over the planet by the Baburite conquerors and is turning Eric and Falkayn's homeworld into a communist dictatorship.  Having figured out the identity of the humans behind the Baburite war machine and its conquest of Mirkheim and Hermes, Falkayn sneaks back to Earth and he and van Rijn lead a successful effort to drive a wedge between the Baburites and their human enablers/manipulators via guerrilla warfare and piratical raids, bringing them to the negotiating table and ending the Mirkheim crisis.         

The larger, background, plot is about how the Commonwealth government and the Polesotechnic League have both become corrupt and incompetent to fill the roles for which they were created so long ago.  While the government has increased its power at the expense of individual citizens, many League businesses based in the solar system have essentially become an arm of the Commonwealth government--in fact, they now largely control the Earth government.  In response, many League businesses based in extrasolar space sought to build up a powerful government on Babur that could check the Earth government.  Founded to protect individual liberty and the free market against government interference, the League has fractured and its most powerful members have become the very thing they ostensibly exist to oppose, imperialistic and oppressive governments.  The Mirkheim crisis is a symptom, not a cause, of this galaxy-wide corruption, and while the independent businesses and independent planets lead by van Rijn and Falkayn have ended the Mirkheim war, they haven't stopped the decline of interstellar civilization.  Again and again the characters we are meant to sympathize with lament that the happy days of freedom and dynamic economic growth are ending, and a period of stagnation and intrusive government beginning.  (Anderson depicts this period of decadence and interstellar conflict in his Dominic Flandry stories, one of which we read last year.) 
A superior specimen of what Poul Anderson's science fiction (in my opinion, at least) is all about, Mirkheim gets a big thumbs up from me.  I look forward to reading more of the prolific Anderson's many Technic History stories.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mists of the Ages by Sharon Green

I sighed as I closed my eyes, called up a picture of the man in his fighting leathers to look at, and spent some time wondering if I would ever see him again.
Years ago, at one of the flea markets or antique malls my wife and I stopped at on one of our days-long car trips, I purchased a copy of Sharon Green's Mists of the Ages, a 1988 paperback from DAW.  I remember vacillating over the thing--I was curious, but would I really read it?  The book was over 300 pages, a serious time investment, and it gave every indication of living on the borderline of pornography--the description indicated that it was about a woman spy who teamed up with a male gladiator to investigate a "pleasure planet," after all, and one of the ad pages in the back was devoted to John Norman's Gor books.  (In a 2012 blog post reviewing Green's 1982 novel The Crystals of Mida, tarbandu directly compares Green's writing style and subject matter to Norman's.)  Well, all those years ago my curiosity overcame my reluctance to invest a dollar in the book, and this week my curiosity finally overcame my reluctance to invest the time it takes to read 310 pages of what I expected to be silly fights and nonconsensual sex--let's see what Mists of the Ages is all about; I like sex and violence as much as the next guy and maybe I will be pleasantly surprised!

Dalisse Imbro is the best burglar on planet Gryphon!  She's the best because she was mentored by the best, Seero, her surrogate father!  But Seero is dead, killed by the Twilight Houses, and now Imbro (her friends call her Inky!) is on a campaign of revenge against the Houses.

Chapter 1 gives us standard crime fiction stuff, starting in medias res with Inky in the middle of a burglary job, overcoming security systems and picking locks and stealing a document out of a hidden safe, and then we get all the background exposition at a bar, where Inky talks to her friends about Seero's demise and warns them not to help her on her campaign against the Twilight Houses because it is too dangerous.  Inky narrates the novel, and in these early chapters on Gryphon Green emulates the style of a hard-boiled detective story:
Getting out of my transportation brought me the stale but familiar smell of the air in that district, air that seemed to be holding itself as still as possible to avoid being noticed.  It was an attitude that seemed to be shared by a lot of the denizens of the area, and one that never failed to annoy me.
"I'm trying to say they weren't there," I answered, reaching for my cup of javi.  Black was the way I drank it, as black as my hair, and preferably as strong as my resolve for revenge.
Of course, instead of New York or L.A., Mists of the Ages is set in a space empire future where you ride your personal hover car to a night club and sit at a table drinking "javi," your privacy ensured by a "distortion field" that surrounds your table. 

In Chapter 2 we learn that Inky's method of taking down the Twilight Houses is to work with the local branch of the space empire's intelligence service: because the Gryphon courts are corrupted by bribes from the Houses, said Houses can only be successfully tried in Imperial Courts, and Inky steals the evidence that Imperial prosecutors need to make their case--Imperial prosecutors are permitted to use evidence obtained without a warrant or via a criminal act.  (Obviously the ACLU hasn't opened any offices in this space empire.)  When she goes to the intelligence service's HQ to deliver her latest burgled document, the intelligence people blackmail Inky into leaving the planet to join a team investigating weird goings on over on planet Joelare.  One entire continent of Joelare is covered in mists, and this continent has been turned into an amusement park called "Mists of the Ages" where wealthy people can spend time in recreations of cities from the past.  Lately people have been getting killed in mysterious accidents in the amusement park, and the Imperial cops think Inky's skills at stealing documents will be of service to them in their investigation--why bother with subpoenas and lawyers when you can just steal a company's records?

Chapter 3 covers an additional briefing Inky receives from an intelligence agent who flirts with her, and is a good example of the form most of this book takes.  Mists of the Ages is a talky book, and a typical scene consists of a long conversation larded with verbose descriptions of the furniture where the conversation takes place, the attire of the participants, and what my guide to the world of the legitimate theatre, Bertie Wooster, calls "stage business": what the talkers are doing with their eyes and what they are doing with their drinks--"I handed him a cup of javi," "he raised his cup of javi," "I sipped my javi," etc.  Green really wants you to know what a conversation between people drinking coffee looks like. 

In Chapter 4 Inky gets on the space liner to Joelare, and Green shifts gears; the noirish tone is abandoned and in its place we find the letter and spirit of one of those romantic comedy movies that infest our cinemas and cable networks.  On the liner Inky has her "meet cute" with the gladiator mentioned on the book's back cover--walking in a crowded corridor he is looking at a hot chick and Inky is looking at the hot chick's jewelry, so Inky and the muscleman blunder into each other and each blames the other for the collision.  Inky is told that this dude is Serendel, the most popular gladiator in the galaxy, and Green tries to wring some comedy out of the fact that Inky's fellow secret agents, female electronics expert Lidra and medical man Chal, are star struck at the sight of him while Inky finds him oafish and exasperating.  Of course, by the end of Chapter 5 Inky and Serendel are already softening towards each other after, in the liner's gym, he shows signs of being not a meathead but a gentleman, and she shows signs of being not a ditz but a talented athlete.

In Chapter 6, a third of the way through the novel, our three government spooks, undercover as tourists, and their new buddy, stud and arena star Serendel, arrive at Joelare and don the costumes they will wear as roleplayers in the amusement park.  The middle third of Mists of the Ages almost entirely ignores the espionage/law enforcement plot, and is instead about the relationships among our four protagonists, the development of which we directly observe and indirectly learn of via tediously long conversations.  We endure page after page of flirting and lovers' spats as Inky and Lidra play hard to get and try to maintain their independence in response to Serendel and Chal's pursuit of their favors, and page after page in which Chal or Lidra talks to Inky about the absent characters behind their backs.  These conversations are the same cliched glop you can hear on the TV every single night: Chal wants to "make a life together" with Lidra, but fears Lidra is reluctant because "she's been hurt in the past;" Lidra and Chal make each other jealous by flirting with Serendel and Inky; Lidra eventually explains that what she is really worried about is getting involved with men she works with; Lidra and Chal urge Inky to be more open to the gladiator's advances, etc.  Mind-numbing!

Independence is a theme of Mists of the Ages and we see it not only in how vigorously the ladies resist the men's advances.  Inky reminisces about refusing to join a clique in high school; Inky tells us how she doesn't care that the average person thinks that stealing is wrong (halfway through the book we learn that Seero and Inky aren't really thieves anyway, but more like vigilantes because all their breaking and entering is of the properties of bad people); when a member of the amusement park staff warns our four heroes to obey his advice in the interests of safety, they object: "Paying for the privilege of being bossed around isn't my idea of a fun vacation" says Lidra, and Serendel adds, "I don't obey anyone without question."  Serendel repeatedly complains about the burdensome responsibilities and limits put on him by his fans and trainers.

Over the course of Chapters 7 through 15 our heroes visit two of the amusement park's historical recreations.  The first of the two milieus the characters explore is ancient Llexis, where lords compete over women through the medium of their magicians.  Inky objects to roleplaying a woman subordinated to a lord, and decides to go off by herself; when she gets scared by some of the park's simulated dangers (actors in monster suits), Serendel appears and comforts her.  When another tourist's magician defeats Serendel's magician and, by the rules of the game, Inky is supposed to have sex with this guy, she and Serendel simply refuse to follow the rules.  I have to wonder why Green bothered with this whole "amusement park recreating many strange cultures" gimmick if 1) there are only two cultures represented in the book and 2) the characters just ignore the customs of these places that are actually strange and might present the reader with some kind of entertainment. 

As the final third of the novel begins, Inky and Serendel declare their love for each other and consummate their relationship.  It's the best sex of Inky's life!

Because tarbandu tells us The Crystals of Mida includes nonconsensual sex, I was expecting some nasty sex scenes in The Mists of the Ages, but, in fact, Green in this book practically fetishizes consent.  When trying to comfort her, Serendel asks Inky if he can put his arm around her shoulders and she rhapsodizes over how wonderful this is in comparison to all the times men in the past put their arms around her without asking first.  (Does this milquetoast attitude about sex really sit comfortably next to the novel's Death Wish/Dirty Harry attitude towards vigilantism and the use of illegally obtained evidence?)  Maybe in The Crystals of Mida Green was answering John Norman's Gor books by having women sexually exploiting men instead of the reverse, and here in The Mists of the Ages she is doing the same by having nobody exploit anybody and instead portraying safe space sex.

The characters move to the next recreated historical society, Bulm, where the crime story rises from the dead.  Inky and Serendel are to roleplay out a game in which she is chained up as a sacrifice to a monster and the gladiator is to rescue her, but instead of an actor in a suit a real monster shows up.  Fortunately Serendal has been carrying his gladiator sword with him all this time--it's essentially a light saber, a hilt that generates a force field blade when he turns it on--and our heroes kill the creature in a long fight scene in which we get detailed descriptions of the box Inky climbs up on and the chandelier she hangs from so she can wrap a chain around the towering monster's neck.

In the last 40 or so pages of the book our heroes sneak into the amusement park's HQ to seize the evidence they need and learn that the Mists of the Ages management are drug dealers who are spreading a powerful new drug throughout the galaxy by addicting tourists.  Inky distracts guards so her friends can escape, and is captured and tortured.  Luckily Imperial soldiers rescue her before she is actually killed.

The real climax of Mists of the Ages isn't this police stuff, but the fact that when Serendel realizes Inky isn't a full-time secret agent, but in fact a thief, he breaks up with her because he hates thieves!  A thief killed his sister!  Wait, how can a romantic comedy end with the main characters broken up?  Because Mists of the Ages is the first of an aborted series about Inky and Serendel's relationship!  The novel ends in a cliffhanger when Inky refuses to go on a second mission against the drug dealers for the intelligence apparatus and they threaten to haul her off to prison.  Presumably in volume two of the series, which was never published, Inky would win Serendel's love again (and continue the whole Twilight Houses plot.)

At the level of the individual sentence and paragraph, Mists of the Ages is more or less competently written, and some may appreciate its message about women's independence and the ability of women to steal and spy just as well as men, but I cannot recommend it--it is long, boring, and lacks originality.  It is only nominally a science fiction story--SF elements like the gladiator sword or the properties of the mist are essentially superfluous--or an adventure story--the pace is slow and there is very little excitement or suspense.  This is a comedy about meeting your soulmate hung on the skeleton of a detective story, but the characters are bland, their relationships conventional, and the jokes anemic, so Mists of the Ages fails in its real purpose as well as its ostensible one.     

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Day of the Shield by Antony Alban

"There she is, boys," he said soberly.  "Fortress America."
Here's a paperback I bought because of the Richard Powers cover, Antony Alban's 1973 The Day of the Shield.  Who is Antony Alban, you ask?  isfdb tells us "Antony Alban" is a pen name of British writer Antony Allert Thompson.  Alban does not seem to have set the SF world on fire; isfdb only lists two works by him, 1968's Catharsis Central in addition to The Day of the Shield, and if isfdb is to be believed, neither novel was ever reviewed in a SF magazine.

A minimum of googling brings up a book written under Thompson's real name: 1970's Big Brother in Britain Today.  (A few websites, including thriftbooks, which is already on my shitlist, list The People's Cookbook under his name, but I am pretty sure that is a mistake.)  That 1970 nonfiction title leads one to suspect that The Day of the Shield might be about government surveillance or propaganda or something.  Well, let's see.

The world is a mess!   A nuclear/biological war between Russia and China has turned most of Africa and Asia into desert.  Western Europe was safe behind a force field, but they aren't exactly living the good life, instead, due to overpopulation and drastic food shortages, Europeans live in crime-ridden and overcrowded slums and are sustained by a monotonous diet of synthetic goop!  As for the USA, also a beneficiary of force field technology, it is a land of plenty where the automatic factories produce a surplus of consumer goods, but the native-born population is down to a mere three million due to some kind of sterilization disease that results in very few babies being born--the skyscrapers and streets of major cities are in total disrepair because there are no people to use and maintain them.  (I kept expecting Alban to explain how Americans got sterilized, but if he did so in a straightforward way I missed it; a minor character offhandedly refers to some crime or attack inflicted on the US "back in ninety-eight," so maybe biological warfare is to blame.)  To make up for the dearth of population, America permits immigration by British subjects who, after a term of indentured servitude, are given land on reservations.  These "bondsmen" form a sort of second, inferior, class that performs what little work the robots don't do while most of the three million Citizens spend their time playing elaborate wargames; performance in these wargames largely determines social status.

Alban’s setting combines high technology--force fields, hover cars, sonic artillery, computers that can read your mood, prosthetic eyes and hands, and so on--with a social structure that is a kind of pastiche of various periods of medieval and early modern Europe.  The United States is now called the United Estates and those who govern the individual states are now called "Owners," and they rule their Estates like barons ruled their fiefs in Europe’s aristocratic past.  At the top of the feudal pyramid is the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, who resides in the White House.

The protagonist of The Day of the Shield is Fisk, a twenty-something Englishman who has immigrated to America; because of his impressive health, the computer gives him the job of serving as "body servant" to the daughter of the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, Lady Alice, a sexy but haughty and temperamental young thing.  Fisk's secondary job is to be her valet, driver, secretary and bodyguard--his primary job is to serve as a sort of living collection of space parts for her--all the Owners have such body servants, and many have survived violence and disease and lived to extreme old age thanks to many transplants.

I found Fisk's being selected for this job a little hard to believe: 1) Would your first choice of tissue and organ donor to a woman be a man?  Would big-shouldered muscleman Fisk's organs comfortably fit Alice's sexy girl frame? 2) Young and healthy Alice would most likely need donated body parts after a car accident, fire, or assassination attempt, yes?  But if Fisk is always with her, in the same vehicle and same building, wouldn't he be likely to be damaged in the same mishap that damaged her?  Shouldn't spare parts be kept in a safe place?  Well, whatever; Alban's book is more symbolic than realistic, and the plot requires that Fisk and his direct superior be of opposite sexes because the market for books with gay sex is smaller than the market for books with straight sex (at least I think it was in 1973.)

Alice spends her time going on fox hunts and shooting ducks and going to fancy parties, like somebody in a 19th-century novel.  Pushing the feudal and aristocratic theme, Alban even tells us she wears dresses of “Victorian cut” while the military officials she hangs around with wear uniforms that “would have done credit to a marshal of the Napoleonic Empire.”  When he is first presented to her, Fisk even has to fall to one knee and formally swear fealty to Alice.

Thrill-seeking Alice entertains herself with even more dangerous pastimes than fox hunting, like going in disguise to the reservations of manumitted bondsmen to see how they live behind the reservations' force fields.  The freed bondsmen, liberated from the need to work by the efficiency of the automated factories, follow bizarre lifestyles centered on cults and extravagant forms of roleplay.  Fisk accompanies Lady Alice to a sort of drug-fueled Mardi Gras bacchanal that features jousts between combatants on electric scooters.  Things get really out of hand when the "jester" who is master of ceremonies, by a crazy coincidence, turns out to be Fisk's predecessor, Alice's previous body servant.  He recognizes Alice through her old lady disguise, and tries to exact revenge.  Fisk saves Alice's life, and this precipitates their affair.  Fisk's secretive relationship with Lady Alice might be characterized as "hate sex" and features various fetishistic elements, like spanking and couplings in a mausoleum where cryogenically frozen people are warehoused.

About halfway through the book another of the bondsmen in the White House discovers Fisk and Alice's fuck nest in the cryogenics warehouse.  Fisk flees for his life, assuming this snoop will expose him and that the White House will have Fisk's brain wiped clean to hide the scandal.  But the snoop pursues Fisk instead of running off to tattle (the snoop does take time to blackmail Alice into having sex with him, though--all the sex in this book is nastily naughty!), giving Fisk a chance to kill the spy in my favorite scene in the book, a fight at an old high tech installation, a "solar furnace" with catwalks and elevators and a huge dish designed to generate tremendous heat by focusing the sun's rays (we are told a temperature of six thousand degrees Fahrenheit is achievable!)  Fisk hooks up with the Underground Railway, and these rebel activists connect him to the center of a revolutionary conspiracy lead by a Scottish bondsman; the head of the body servant union.  The conspiracy integrates Fisk back into the White House.

Fisk, as spearhead of the conspiracy, makes his big move on August 21, Execration Day, apparently a day on which the Commander-in-Chief publicly reads a list of people blamed for the sterilization crisis.  After attending an unexpected duel between the Owners of Georgia and Louisiana, and the scheduled exhibition wargames, Fisk manages to get an audience for himself and Alice with the Commander-in-Chief, Alice's father, Owner of Washington-Virginia.  The Owner, who is like 100 years old or something, lives in a sterile underground bunker because he has had so many transplants that his immune system is totally shot; he will be attending the Execration Day festivities via holographic transmission.  When they get to Alice's father's bunker, Fisk enrages the Owner by stripping his daughter and threatening to rape her.  The furious chief executive throws open his hermetically sealed room, exposing himself to germs that kill him mere minutes after he attacks Fisk with an electric weapon and accidentally kills Alice.  The Owner dies cradling his dead heir in his arms.

While Fisk is killing the monarch and his heir in a way that absolves him of moral responsibility (like the way The Red Skull used to get "killed" by his own foolishness while trying to kill Captain America in those old comic books), the rest of the bondsmen are paralyzing the assembled Owners with gas bombs, neutralizing America's executive branch.  Then Fisk deactivates the force fields protecting America and the billions of Europe sail over to resettle the New World. 

In The Day of the Shield, Alban seems to be using the very common SF device of overpopulation to express his resentment against the United States and the upper classes of the United Kingdom.  He transplants all that feudal oath and joust jazz from medieval England and the fox hunting and pistol dueling from the 18th and 19th centuries to the future USA, I guess in an effort to portray America's republican and democratic traditions, which are in part a rejection of British institutions, as mere hypocrisy.  Perhaps Alban is responding to the pathetic fawning over the Kennedys as a kind of American royalty and to such American attempts to ape European pomp as Richard Nixon's 1970 introduction of new uniforms for the White House security staff, uniforms inspired by those of European palace guards; maybe Alban is warning us of the fragility of liberal institutions and how quickly both elites and the masses will embrace old aristocratic ways in a crisis.  Here is how Alban refers to JFK, when Fisk is looking around the White House:
The drawing room, however, was much as it had been in the legendary days of Camelot, during the term of Kennedy the First.
References to "reservations," "manumission" and the "Underground Railway" are of course swipes at the United States for its treatment of native Indians and enslaved Africans; in the same way that Alban slots the American president and state governors, who of course in real life are elected and subject to restrictions from courts and legislatures as well as voters, into the role of dictatorial barons, he slots British immigrants into the positions held by in real life by Native Americans and Africans.  All the references to American wealth (the robot factories produce more consumer goods and food than the American population can consume, so that the manumitted bondsmen on the reservations use crates full of clocks, artificial limbs, books and silverware as building material for walls) and the contrasting misery in Britain may be a reflection of post-World War II economic realities, when the people of the USA experienced comfort and an economic boom while Europe lay in ruins; perhaps Alban carried with him bitter envy from living through this period as a child.

Presumably Alban's depictions of a working-class Briton spanking and sexually dominating an American aristocratic lady, and of British people overthrowing the American government so the English poor can get their hands on America's wealth, are wish fulfillment fantasies.  Sad!

The title of Alban's 1970 non-fiction book Big Brother in Britain Today is of course a reference to George Orwell's 1984, and a few things in The Day of the Shield did remind me of 1984.  For one thing, the Underground Railway turns out to be a government-run trap, paralleling the role of O'Brien in Orwell's novel.  Execration Day seems like it might be based on the Two Minutes Hate from 1984.

So, can I recommend The Day of the Shield?  There are lots of stories about rebels overthrowing governments in SF, and plenty of stories about palace intrigues and sexual liaisons across class lines  in fiction in general, and The Day of the Shield isn't a terrible example.  The writing style and the pacing and structure are fine; Fisk is a bland character, but Alice and her father are sort of interesting.  I liked the few chapters about Fisk's escape and fight with the nosy bondsman, and the technological SF elements are not bad.  The satirical elements are goofy, but maybe old-fashioned Marxist left-wingers who haven't become consumed with identity politics will enjoy them?  I guess I'll call The Day of the Shield acceptable.