Friday, October 13, 2017

Three 1961 stories by R. A. Lafferty from Galaxy

We're still reading my copies of Ace's Nine Hundred Grandmothers and DAW's Strange Doings, two early '70s paperback collections of stories by R. A. Lafferty. Today's tales were all published in Galaxy in 1961.

Back covers of my copies

"All the People"

Oh, this is a good one!  "All the People" starts off slow and deceptively flat; as I read the first two pages I was thinking, "Is this it?  Boring philosophical conversation?"  But "All the People" is a puzzle, a mystery story so mysterious that at first you don't even realize that what you are looking at is a single piece of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle!  The structure of the story is perfect, as is the pacing; reading it is like looking through a telescope and seeing nothing but blur, but then, as you turn the knob, shapes slowly, then quickly, come in to focus until you have a crystal clear image, an image that is  striking, surprising, and a little disturbing.  "All the People" achieves what stories with twist endings try to achieve, but there is not really a twist--everything that happens makes perfect sense and is essentially predictable; Lafferty doesn't use any trickery and he doesn't subvert expectations so much as carry things to an inevitable and logical conclusion--put together the puzzle pieces--faster than the reader may have.

While it may make sense to call "All the People" a mystery story, it doesn't feel like one of those mystery tales in which the reader is a mere spectator, watching some guy chase down some meaningless MacGuffin.  Instead, the reader feels like a participant in the exploration of a whole new world, and what the character is chasing is something meaningful, something tied up in his own character and wider human nature.  Laffert doesn't just succeed in structuring and pacing his story and in constructing its plot, but in providing us an affecting character, Anthony Trotz.

Trotz is a lonely individual who discovers he has a fantastic, incredible, ability, and, as he seeks to confirm that he even has this impossible power and tries to figure out its meaning, the truth of his life and his world is revealed to him.  When all is clear he makes a decision with life-changing and world-shattering ramifications.

A puzzle story and a story of a character, "All the People" is also very solidly a science fiction story, making brilliant use of traditional SF themes like the paradigm shift and the blurry lines between life and not-life and between human and inhuman, as well as standard SF devices like robots, computers, mental powers, government conspiracies and alien invasions. 

Strongly recommended.

"Aloys"

This piece is pleasant enough, but feels a little trifling.  Aloys Foulcault-Oeg is an impoverished intellectual from a long line of impoverished people (he wears his great-grandfather's holed and patched overcoat which has been passed down generation after generation) living in an obscure country.  When he comes up with a groundbreaking series of formulae he is invited to a big event in New York ("the great town where even the shop girls dressed like princesses") to receive a valuable award.  Criminals kidnap Aloys and an imposter gives a three-and-a-half hour speech in his place.  As we all know, academics are phonies, so none of the leading thinkers assembled to hear the speech reveal it is incomprehensible nonsense.  The crooks get their hands on Aloys' award, but the ending of the story is a happy one for Aloys--he joins the criminal gang, leaving his life of poverty behind.

"Aloys" is a fun little story with fun touches, like the characters' names.  The main character's name seems to refer to Lafferty's own, of course, as well as that of famous (and famously difficult and dubious) French scholar Michel Foucault, though 1961 was pretty early in Foucault's career--maybe this is just a happy coincidence?  Did Lafferty think of himself as a poor man feted by phony elites?  As a writer whose work was regarded as complex and perhaps bogus?  Another significant name is that of the man who finances the award and ceremony and has a "villa in the province, which is to say, Long Island"--Maecenas.

I like it, but compared to the other Lafferty stories I've been reading, it feels kind of slight. 

"Rainbird"

This is a time travel story, all about a scientist and inventor who goes back in time to give his young self advice.  You see, when Higgston Rainbird is old, in the middle of the nineteenth century, he can look back on a career of considerable achievement, but he regrets the many years spent on dead ends--if he had known which avenues of research and development were going to go nowhere he would have made much more progress.  So he goes back in time to spend a few hours issuing much time-saving advice to his younger self; as a result, this new, wiser, iteration of Rainbird is able to accomplish such astonishing and beneficial feats as travelling to Mars, building a computer, and putting into operation a social system which abolishes government--all before 1850!

Still, there is much work to be done--finishing up his project that will unlock the secret of immortality, for example.  So, Rainbird goes back in time again in an effort to repeat his scheme, but this time disaster results.  Distracted by such addictive hobbies as falconry and horse racing, the latest iteration of the inventor achieves relatively little, and all that progress in energy, electronics, transport, and political science is undone, in fact, never occurred.

Like "Aloys" this is an entertaining story, but fails to reach the level of the very fine "All the People" or the 1960 stories we talked about in our last blog post.

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In our next episode we'll take a look at some Raphael Aloysius Lafferty productions that debuted in Galaxy and If in 1962!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Four 1960 stories by R. A. Lafferty

It's been a while since we've read anything by R. A. Lafferty, so let's take my copies of 1970's Nine Hundred Grandmothers, an Ace Science Fiction Special with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, and DAW's 1972 collection Strange Doings, which has a Jack Gaughan cover, down from the shelf and read four stories by the Iowa-born Oklahoma resident and recipient of a 1990 World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.


"Through Other Eyes"

This is a story about how our beliefs and perceptions are not simply objective and accurate views of the outside world, but are guided or distorted by our attitudes and interests, so that we all see different, even live in different, worlds.  The first two pages of this fifteen-page story act as a sort of prologue, in which scientists Charles Cogsworth and Gregory Smirnov talk about the experience of using their time machine, which allowed them to view famous people and events of the past.  These viewings were a terrible disappointment--reputedly beautiful Isolde was obese, famously witty Voltaire was in fact a disgusting pervert, Sappho, remembered as a genius poet, turned out to be a tedious cat lady, the fabled hero Lancelot was in fact almost too feeble to mount a horse, etc.

The main plot concerns Cogsworth's new machine, the Cerebral Scanner, which allows one to experience the inner thoughts and view of the world of other people and creatures.  Through the eyes of a skeptical critic he sees a world that is unsavory and mean, through the eyes of an important business executive he sees a world of numberless details and infinite connections that can--and must!--be managed by a pull of a string here or there (the connections are likened to reins, the executive to God and to a general commanding an army), and so on.  Cogsworth is eager to use the machine to observe the world through the eyes of Valery Mok, a beautiful woman whom he thinks an angel, a wit, and a paragon of kindness. (Lafferty makes clear that she is in fact none of these things, just a pleasant but essentially ordinary woman--Cogsworth's love for her has distorted his view of her.)  When Cogsworth sees the world through her eyes he is painfully disillusioned--her world is one of pervasive, overwhelming, sensuality--to Cogsworth the sensations she enjoys as she smells trees, touches a rail, or looks at clouds are shockingly and grossly, filthy, coarsely obscene.  "I had thought Valery was an angel...it is a shock to find that she is a pig."

When Mok uses the Cerebral Scanner to see the world as Cogsworth sees it, she is amazed to find how bloodless, loveless, and lifeless his view of the world is, and compares him to a pig, a pig made of dry dead sticks.  "You live with dead people, Charles.  You make everything dead.  You are abominable."  Lafferty gives us a happy ending, though; Mok, we see, the lively and sensuous woman, is going to open the cold and clinical scientist's eyes to the throbbing vitality and earthy beauty of our world and the two will live happily ever after.


"Through Other Eyes" first appeared in Future Science Fiction and seems to have been well-received, reappearing in Robert Silverberg's Mind to Mind as well as Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Six Fingers of Time"

This is one of those SF stories in which a guy can halt or severely slow down time and then take advantage of people as they stand still as statues or (not quite so anti-socially) get some extra work done.  The most famous of these stories are perhaps John D. MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything from 1962, which I have not read, and Nicholson Baker's 1994 The Fermata, which I read in the 20th century and plan to reread sometime this century.  If Wikipedia and my memory are to be trusted, both those novels focus on sex and the use of the time-retarding power to do things like undress women against their will.  In E. C. Tubb's Dumarest series there are the drugs slow-time and quick-time that speed up or slow down your metabolism forty times--by taking these drugs you can heal forty times faster or do forty times as much work in an hour (in a memorable scene in Lallia Dumarest uses slow-time to produce enough product to meet a crucial deadline) or slow you down so tedious space voyages seem to pass forty times as quickly.  In some Warhammer 40,000 games psykers can invoke the power of the warp to slow or speed up time for particular individuals or small areas and so get more moves than their foes.

In "The Six Fingers of Time," Charles Vincent wakes up and finds that time has slowed so much that each second, to him, feels like a minute, each minute an hour.  After exploring the slow-motion city he goes to the office and catches up on two days worth of work before any of his colleagues even shows up.

The effect wears off and after some months have passed he begins to almost think that crazy day was no more than a dream.  But then he meets a mysterious figure whose face is hidden, who hints that Vincent, who has a deformed thumb that suggests a sixth digit, is a descendant of an ancient race of six-fingered people who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  This strange character teaches Vincent how to switch on and off his time-retarding power, and Vincent proceeds to uses his weird talent to play cruel jokes on people, to take advantage of women sexually, to steal money, to learn scores of foreign languages and to accumulate esoteric knowledge.

Besides adding the Weird Tales-style bloodline-of-an-ancient-lost-race-of-wizards angle to our guy-who-controls-time-and-abuses-people story, Lafferty, one of the SF world's most prominent and most hard core Catholics, adds a moral and Christian dimension.  The faceless figure, it appears, is the Devil, and Vincent risks a horrible fate for using his inhuman ability to harm others and enjoy benefits he has not earned.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was first published in If and later was the title story of an anthology of stories from that magazine which, somewhat bizarrely, pretended to be an anthology of stories from If's sister magazine Galaxy.  Both magazines were edited by Horace L. Gold, so I guess the publishers of the volume felt they would be forgiven this little trespass against the trust of the SF-reading public.  (No respect!)

"The Ugly Sea"

In three of the stories we are talking about today Lafferty uses traditional SF topics and themes ("I'm travelling through time!"; "I'm reading people's minds!"; "I can stop time!"; "I'm on an alien planet fighting a huge monster!") but "The Ugly Sea" is more of a mainstream literary piece, and appropriately enough first appeared in The Literary Review, a journal put out by Fairleigh Dickinson University of the great state of New Jersey.  (I once attended a wedding at Fairleigh Dickinson.  Fascinating, right?)  It takes up a traditional literary theme, the sea and its strange allure.  No doubt you remember the opening passages of Moby Dick, in which the narrator describes his own irresistible attraction to the sea, which he suspects all men share, and Homer's phrase "the wine-dark sea," which has become proverbial.  Rock music aficionados are familiar with Pete Townshend's use of the beach and the sea as recurring motifs in The Who's masterpiece Quadropheniawhile sword and sorcery fans (to bring us back to SF) may recall how, in Swords in the Mist,  Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser spoke of "their mistress, the sea...her rages and caressings, her coolths and unending dancings, sometimes lightly footing a minuet, sometimes furiously a-stamp, and her infinitude of secret parts."

In the frame story of "The Ugly Sea" Lafferty takes a counterintuitive but quite credible tack, having storyteller Sour John declare that the sea is ugly ("It has the aroma of an open sewer...it is perhaps the most untidy thing in the world...it is monotonous, with only four or five faces, and all of them coarse") but wins the love of men, including Sour John himself, just the same.  The main plot of "The Ugly Sea," which Sour John narrates, is about an associate of John's, a Jewish loan shark named Moysha Uferwohner, who falls in love with Bonny, a twelve-year-old crippled girl who plays piano (badly) at the Blue Fish, a bar frequented by seamen.  Bonny is fated to marry a sailor, so Moysha becomes a sailor himself, even though, as Sour John tells us, the Jews, "God's own people," have always "shunned" that "evil grave," the ocean.  Moysha, according to Sour John, is only the third Jewish seaman in all of history! 

Melville's Ishmael equates his desire to go to sea with suicide: "This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."  Lafferty's story here similarly conjoins seafaring and death.  It is very bad luck, we are told, for a seaman to marry a cripple, but a sailor marries Bonny when she is fifteen years old, anyway.  This tar soon dies of illness at sea, and Bonny remarries at sixteen--this second sailor is killed in a terrible accident in a ship's engine room.  Finally at seventeen she marries Moysha; Moysha leaves his five-year career as a sailor behind, and these two crazy kids live happily together inland for three years.

But the sea has gotten under Moysha's skin!  Those three blissful years end when Moysha is drawn back to the sailor's life.  He joins Sour John's crew, abandoning his wife and children for certain death.

I've had no luck finding an image online of the cover of the Fall 1960 issue of The Literary Review, so all you people who click over to MPorcius Fiction Log for the pictures will have to be satisfied with an image of the second place "The Ugly Sea" appeared, New Worlds of Fantasy #2 with its effective Kelly Freas cover.   

"Snuffles"

Planet Bellota is one strange world.  Though a mere one hundred miles in circumference, it has a gravity equal to half that of Earth's.  It is home to many insects, but each individual bug seems to be of a different species.  Lightning storms are constant, and the rinds of fruits are edible while the flesh is unpalatable.  And then there is the sole large inhabitant, a friendly beast much like a large bear which, like the insects, seems to have no sex or parents.  A team of six Earthling scientists is carefully studying this mysterious world until, unexpectedly, Snuffles the heretofore friendly psuedo-ursine suddenly attacks and they have to fight and then flee for their lives!

Lafferty wrote quite a few stories that feature horrendous violence, and "Snuffles" is one of them--the Earth expedition suffers heavy casualties in its struggle against Snuffles!  The survivors of the initial surprise attack march day after day, the wounded Snuffles hot on their heels, toying with them.  Lacking any supplies, the Earthers resort to eating native plants, including those with hallucinogenic properties.  Around the time they start eating this stuff, the survivors begin to receive what appear to be telepathic messages from Snuffles.  Lafferty has already given us reason to suspect Snuffles is a God or Devil or, most likely, a Gnostic demiurge figure (if you needed one, reading "Snuffles" provides a reason to read the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism), and our suspicions are further fueled when Snuffle's messages (or are they merely hallucinations fueled by the scientists' exhaustion and ingestion of narcotic plants?--like "Through Other Eyes," this story is in part about how questionable our perceptions of the world can be) assert that Snuffles created planet Bellota, and maybe the entire universe.

I didn't know until I had finished the story whether any of the humans would get off the planet alive or if any of the planet's mysteries would be solved.

It is normal to read SF stories in which human beings are jerks who despoil the environment and are too quick to resort to violence.  But in "Snuffles" Lafferty makes sure we see the human characters as good people and even seems to be suggesting that we are too gullible, too eager to see the universe as benign when in fact it is inimical.  At the start of the story one character argues that Bellota is the only "fun" planet in the galaxy (when it is in fact the planet where they will be massacred), and during Snuffle's first attack the leader of the expedition chooses to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill because "He was fond of Snuffles and gambled that it would not be necessary to kill him."  These people are too reluctant to resort to violence!  Another interesting aspect of the story is how Lafferty implies that Bellota, which seems like a topsy-turvy, atypical world, is actually the only sincere or normal planet in the universe, and/or is a mirror which displays reality to those few who have the opportunity to visit it.       

If you want to read another well-written story by a Catholic conservative about people pursued by an intelligent alien bear (I know some of you have very specific interests) I strongly recommend Gene Wolfe's "Try and Kill It" from 1996, a very good adventure/horror story.  I kind of wonder if "Try and Kill It" is a subtle homage to "Snuffles;" Wolfe actually uses the word "snuffling" in it, though that is hardly dispositive.  I'm also wondering if there is any chance "Snuffles" is an homage to A. E. van Vogt's 1939 "Black Destroyer," one of the inaugural stories of science fiction's Golden Age.  As you no doubt already know, in "Black Destroyer" a bunch of scientists make friends with an over-sized alien beast which seems friendly at first but later starts murdering them.


"Snuffles" first appeared in Galaxy and has been pretty successful, being included in anthologies in America, Britain, France, and Germany, including an anthology devoted to stories about religion.

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It is easy to recommend all four of these stories--they are all smooth and entertaining reads with fun little jokes and all feature interesting themes we've seen before but do different things with them.  Being written over 50 years ago by somebody who wasn't exactly taking pains to appeal to current trends in what constituted acceptable thinking, these stories can sometimes surprise--broad-brush assertions about women (they are more sensual than men!) and Jews (they never become sailors!) are good examples.  The stories also invite consideration of whether they have some deep meaning or philosophical point to make, even if Sour John in "The Ugly Sea" responds to a listener who asks, "Is there a moral to this?" with the flat declaration, "No.  It is an immoral story.  And it's a mystery to me."

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The House of Many Worlds by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Elspeth decided she was getting blase.  Inter-world travel seemed to involve some very high living.
My copy
Sam Merwin, Jr. was editing Startling Stories when it published Raymond F. Jones' The Cybernetic Brains and Edmond Hamilton's The City at World's End, and editing Thrilling Wonder Stories when it published Leigh Brackett's Sea-Kings of Mars and Jack Vance's Son of the Tree, all novels we have enjoyed this year here at MPorcius Fiction Log's Middlewestern HQ and arthropod sanctuary.  But Merwin didn't just buy SF novels--he wrote five or six of them!  And today we take a look at one of them, 1951's The House of Many Worlds.  I own the 1969 paperback from Curtis Books; I like the face and moon in the cover illustration, and the blurbs from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle really sell it as a fun adventure caper.  Let's check it out!

Elspeth Marriner is a snob and a poet who misses New York!  (Tell me about it, lady!)  She's stuck in a hick town of dirt roads, dingy fly-infested restaurants and dilapidated quays on the Carolina coast, sent there to write about "the Hatteras Keys" by the editor of Picture Week, who has partnered her with photographer Mack Fraser--Fraser is a former prizefighter and he has the crooked nose to prove it!  When one of the "natives," as Mack and Elspeth call him behind his back, tells them that a secluded mansion on an island owned by the reclusive Horelle family is sometimes visited by queer lights in the sky before major world events, the journalos (as Kmele Foster might style them) think they've finally found the story they need if they are to return to Gotham in triumph! 

Elspeth and Mack hie to the Horelle estate, where they meet dignified old Mr. Horelle and beautiful young Juana.  Horelle explains that when a turning point in history occurs, like the first flight of the Wright brothers' plane or the disappearance of the colony at Roanoke, a new time stream is created, branching off from the time stream in which, say, the Wrights' machine failed or the Roanoke colony survived.  The Horelles' magnificent house lies on a "tangential point" from whence people can travel between these alternate universes, and the Horelles, who are "Watchers" charged with protecting all these different dimensions, have chosen Elspeth and Mack for a very important mission!

When our heroes get back to the mainland they are in a version of the USA called "Columbia" that is less democratic and less capitalistic than our own.  As a result, the economy is weaker, politics is less stable, and technological progress has not taken the same course--there are no internal combustion engines or airplanes, for example, but there are railroads and boats powered by rockets.  Merwin spends several pages detailing the convoluted alternate history of this world, which features a Columbian Civil War in which New England was defeated by the rest of the country, a British Canada and French Mexico larger than in our own world, and a Columbian capitol is New Orleans.  When Elspeth and Mack arrive a rebellion is underway, led by Reed Weston, an idealistic politician and genius scientist who wants to extend the franchise to all men and liberate private property from excessive government regulation.  Mr. Horelle favors Weston, and has given E&M the task of helping him in his struggle to liberalize Columbia.  How can a poet and photographer help Weston?  Well, they have a car that can fly, which will provide a valuable advantage in a world with no aircraft.

E&M travel to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and then Texas in their quest to hook up with Weston, spending a lot of time in fancy restaurants and hotels doing spy and detective stuff.  (Wikipedia is telling me Merwin wrote more detective stories than SF stories, but doesn't offer any clues as to why he spends so much time in this book describing fashion and interior decorating.)  People try to capture them and they escape.  A character whom they thought was a bad guy, a sympathetic and admirable African-American named John Henry whose perfect body and noble soul ("Here, she thought, was a man close to God") receive lavish and loving descriptions, turns out to be a good guy.  An effeminate fop with an affected English accent who presented himself as a good guy turns out to be a bad guy--Elspeth realizes he's a villain when she sees a tattoo behind his ear.  Halfway through the book they meet Weston, who has invented and built a rocket ship and is planning to take the sixty finest human specimens to colonize Mars.  (Weston wants to bring John Henry, whom Elspeth thinks of as "an ebon demigod," to Mars, but Henry insists on staying Earthside to fight for freedom!)

When Weston sees the flying car he decides to stay on Earth and fight the Columbian government and begins manufacturing flying cars of his own.  Gorgeous Juanna reappears to take E&M to a different version of Earth, one where they trade Weston's rocket blueprints to President Roosevelt (the third of that name) for an asbestos-bakelite armor which Weston's troops can use to counteract the Columbian government's heat guns.  We spend more time in restaurants and well-appointed lodgings and chasing that Anglophile "swish," as Elspeth calls him.  After the problem of Roosevelt's world--international tensions caused by overpopulation--is solved by access to space and the political crisis in Weston's world is resolved via negotiation--the Columbian government balking at fighting a fleet of heat-resistant flying cars--E&M return to their own world, where we get the sense-of-wonder ending that Merwin has been hinting at.  E&M's world is not our own, but one in which flying cars are normal and the United States is part of the British Empire.

I'm afraid the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle have sold me a pig in a poke--The House of Many Worlds is not good at all.  The adventure plot is boring, slow and unconvincing--I couldn't care less if Weston took over Columbia or Mars or anywhere.  Just a third of the way through this thing's 200 pages I felt like abandoning ship.  The narrative is larded with passages that I guess are supposed to be evocative but which just waste the reader's time, like detailed descriptions of people smoking ("Henry paused long enough to flick a three-inch ash from his cigar into a hole with a metal rim set in the corner of the desk itself") and long stream of consciousness sections in which Elspeth composes poems ("It should rhyme tidily, she decided further, and consist of three quatrains with an unexpected little rhyme break in the middle of each line.")

The human plot is equally lame, "opposites attract" bilge like something from a light women's romantic comedy film (the kids call those "romcoms") or a slowed-down version of one of those irritating fast-talking screwball comedies from '30s-'40s Hollywood.  Elspeth is a hypocritical feminist who thinks of herself as a woman who can hold her own in a man's world but at the same time expects men to treat her gallantly--they are supposed to carry her bags and open doors for her and offer her cigarettes (this book is full of smoking) without her asking. Being a sensitive artiste, she hates machines and looks down on Mack as an uncreative type who loves machines; this causes her some angst as Mack's aggressive quick thinking and machinery keep saving their lives. The House of Many Worlds is very repetitive, and many times we are confronted with a paragraph in which Elspeth starts admiring Mack and then condemns herself for it.  Here's a particularly stupid one which I was too lazy to type (don't be ashamed if you are too lazy to read it):


Mack dallies with Juanna, the perfect woman, and Elspeth dallies with John Henry, the perfect man, but we know that flawed Mack and flawed Elspeth are meant for each other, not that we care what happens to these two pills.

The plot and characters of House are outlandish and absurd, but the book is never funny.  Am I supposed to think Elspeth's idiotic snobbery, the ridiculousness of sending a poet and photographer to do the job you'd expect commandos or intelligence operatives to do, or the effete mannerisms of a caricature of a gay man are funny?  I guess in theory these things could be funny, but Merwin's writing is too repetitive, too broad, and too lacking in cleverness or surprise to elicit a laugh.  The funniest thing about the novel is the extravagantly and embarrassingly overdone portrait of John Henry as the ultimate man, but presumably this is Merwin's sincere effort to fight racism and not an intentional lampoon of white fetishization of black people or the "magical Negro" trope or a writer who goes overboard trying to assuage his "white guilt."  (The gushing about Juanna after she gets disintegrated by the swish's heat pistol is almost as bad.)     

House fails as an adventure story, and as a humor piece.  Does it succeed as an SF story (if we are considering SF to be a literature of ideas which speculates on how different life and civilization might be under different conditions?)  No, it does not.  Because of all the alternate history and time stream jazz we've endured before (even if, in fairness to Merwin, lots of it was published after House) the novel does not feel fresh and none of its ideas is compelling.  All the talk about rocket-powered trains and flying automobiles and all the long descriptions of alternate histories of North American politics are sterile decoration at best and leaden burdens that weigh down the narrative at worst.

I try to be a generous reviewer who looks for good things in books, even those which have serious weaknesses, but I can't find much of anything good in The House of Many Worlds.  The negative verdict is inescapable. 

Bad!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Martyr by Brian R. Utley

She was looking at me frankly, warmly, with complete openness, her hair, golden...her eyes, an infinite blue...the beauty of her face, soft and quiet.
"You see, I really am to be yours...as I said last night.  It's part of Dearborne's plan."
 I could only stare at her, understanding, but not really understanding.  "Dearborne's plan..." I said.
She nodded.  "You do believe in the plan, don't you?"
"Of course I do!"
Today we look at Martyr, by Brian R. Utley.  Who is Brian R. Utley?  Well, he's no giant of speculative fiction, I know that much, and not much more.  He's only got this one credit at isfdb, and it appears Martyr was only printed a single time, in this paperback edition (meaninglessly labelled "Complete and Unabridged") put out by Curtis Books.  Why am I reading Martyr?  You doubt that the fact it was printed in 1971, the year of my birth, is reason enough?  Well, anybody can read a SF novel by a Grand Master like Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt or Poul Anderson. And anybody can read a SF novel by the pioneers who inspired people like George Lucas to produce the sort of SF that now dominates our culture, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton (in 1980 in "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction" Barry Malzberg suggested that "Much of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back appear to be based upon a close reading of his [Hamilton's] work.")   But the crew of the HMS MPorcius are explorers, hard-bitten types who want to go where no one else has been, see things nobody else has seen.  Do they love Heinlein, van Vogt, Anderson, Burroughs, Brackett and Hamilton?  Of course they do!  But they also love investigating the terra incognita, filling in the blank spaces on the map, looking under rocks and seeing what wriggles out.  So let's lift up the Curtis Books rock and see what the hell is going on behind the shirtless-guy-near-a-tower-and-a-spun-glass-city cover of Martyr.


Martyr starts with a three-page prologue.  A young man is interviewing an elderly black man, apparently a respected hero, getting him to tell the story of his life.  This man is our narrator for the next 150 pages of the 155-page novel.

The nameless narrator grew up in our underground future, in a subterranean city of "toobes" managed by a "Mother Machine," where people are incubated in test tubes and don't know their biological parents and the authorities keep a strict control on what food you eat and what media you are exposed to and encourage you to spend your free time at the local "pleasure center."  "The Greater Down Empire" has been mankind's refuge for many centuries due to overpopulation--every acre of the planet surface was needed for agriculture if the people, numbering "a million million," were to be fed.

In the first few chapters of Martyr, the narrator is hanging out with two friends--John Dearborne, another black man whom the narrator reveres and follows with an almost blind loyalty, and Roger Pleasant, a more ambivalent and equivocal character with a "dusty complexion, the color of ashes"--witnessing their debate about life under Mother Machine's rule.  (The real protagonist of the narrative is Dearborne, while our narrator mostly plays the role of second banana and chronicler.)  Dearborne denounces MM's orderly utopia because it has extinguished what he, and he feels all men, really need--freedom, and the challenges freedom brings that lead to personal and social growth! Thus spake Dearborne:
"...I think that a man without the problems of opposition, as we know is supposedly the case Down, will become as stagnant as a receptacle without an outlet.... We wallow in pleasures that dissipate.  We delight in a conformity that hedges us all about, denying us our destiny.  And our first love is a machine."
Dearborne is determined to leave "Down" and try to live "Topside," and the narrator is eager to follow him, but Pleasant discourages them.  He lists the benefits of subterranean life and rule by Mother Machine ("Poverty, hunger, disease and all those other nasty little problems are gone, wiped out....We live in mutual approbation, mutual respect....We live in unity") and calls Dearborne's complaints "generalities" that lack proof; he also warns his subversive friends that Mother's agents will destroy any who try to escape.  Pleasant should know--he's a member of the elite, with a luxurious apartment in Level 1 (the deepest and most prestigious of the one hundred levels of the city) and some ill-defined job working for Mother.  Why Dearborne and the narrator (whom we later learn is a "class two plumber") are friends with this guy and expose to him their heretical thinking is something of a mystery, though later on we get a sort of half-baked explanation.

Pleasant's warnings go unheeded.  Dearborne has amassed an arsenal of knowledge and equipment that facilitates our two heroes' egress through a gap in the force field that surrounds the exit to Topside and confounds the hovering saucer robots that chase them.  The narrator is surprised to find the surface is a wilderness prairie, not a bunch of robot farms--Dearborne explains that there is no longer any food crisis, that MM is keeping everybody underground to maintain her own control, not to free up arable land.

The pair travel to the mountains, where Dearborne explains to the narrator that his aim is not simply to leave Mother Machine's underground empire, but to overthrow it in what he calls a "crusade" and a "revolution."  The narrator is a sucker for Dearborne's oratory and vision, as reflected in these three successive one-sentence paragraphs:
It was almost like God talk.
And...he was telling all this to me.
I suddenly felt rebirth.
This epiphany occurs halfway through the novel.  Then the narrator gets one surprise after another as Dearborne leads him through a secret entrance (a two kilometer deep shaft down which they must rappel) to an abandoned part of the Empire where they find an extensive array of dusty old machines.  Dearborne reveals that he is a member of the underground organization of people who call themselves Forsters (they are inspired by E. M. Forster's story "The Machine Stops," which seems to have inspired Utley to write Martyr), and that he even knew his own parents when he was young, hundreds of years ago!  Dearborne, we learn, was born ages ago and put into suspended animation by Forsters, and only recently revived.  Via what we would call "hacking," MM was made to forget the existence of this room of machines--a control room Dearborne calls "the Citadel" where he can override some of Mother Machine's operations--and a bogus ID file was created for him in MM's memory banks.  From the Citadel the charismatic Dearborne can preach rebellion over MM's own airwaves, even fool the credulous masses into thinking he represents her! 

The plot of the last novel we read, Poul Anderson's fun and scientifically rigorous Virgin Planet, could be described as the journey of a man who starts the book physically and psychologically dominated by women but then reasserts his (and the male sex's) independence and authority.  I'm tempted to look at Martyr the same way. Not only is the tyrannical computer described in explicitly feminine terms, but before he leaves the Empire to travel with his hero and role model Dearborne, the narrator has to break ties with his girlfriend, "Freddie."  During his adventures with Dearborne, when he sleeps, the narrator dreams of Freddie, dreams in which she obstructs Dearborne's quest and implores the narrator to come home.  Perhaps Freddie's masculine nickname is a sign that sex roles in the chthonic world of Mother Machine are blurred, that women are usurping men's rightful positions.   It is perhaps also significant that Freddie has a "fair complexion."

Dearborne and the narrator return to the Empire via a secret passage, and Dearborne introduces the narrator to more Forsters and provides a replacement for Freddie, "Gentle," a blue-eyed blonde with a "bubbly nymph albedo" who calls our narrator "man of color."  In the final third of Martyr the revolutionary crusade starts in earnest with clever (and not necessarily truthful!) propaganda broadcasts and a campaign of sabotage and bombings which kills thousands of innocent people.  The narrator participates in an operation that (accidentally) blows up large residential sections, including where Freddie lives!  Freddie's apparent death triggers doubt about the wisdom of the revolution in the narrator, who confronts Dearborne, but Dearborne quickly convinces the narrator that the carnage is not too much of a price to ask for freedom.

(I can't tell if Utley is being ironic in having the narrator rebel against the mass murderer Mother Machine, who runs his life, only to let mass murderer Dearborne run his life!  Is this a knowing commentary on revolution as it was experienced in France, Russia, China, etc.?) 

Finally, the narrator and Gentle get captured, and find that Pleasant is head of the robotic police force!  Under torture the narrator reveals all he knows, and Dearborne is captured.  But this is all part of Dearborne's elaborate plan!  After he (somehow) convinces Pleasant to release the narrator and Gentle of the "golden hair" and "eyes of infinite blue," Dearborne sacrifices himself, detonating a bomb hidden in a copy of The Machine Stops that the government police inexplicably allowed him to bring to his place of execution.  This bomb destroys Mother, and triggers an exodus of people convinced by Dearborne's broadcasts that mankind belongs on the surface.  Dearborne's own white girlfriend (right before she commits suicide rather than live without Dearborne) tells the narrator that Dearborne left instructions to proclaim the narrator the leader of the new Topside civilization.

In the two-page third-person epilogue we learn that Pleasant survived the explosion and, reconciled with the narrator and Gentle, has grown old on the surface along with them.  Utley, with references to flies and blizzards, reminds us that life on the surface is not as comfortable as was life in the subterranean utopia of Mother, and implies that the new Topside society is surviving by excavating stuff from the wreck of the defunct Greater Down Empire.   

I'm on board with Martyr's pro-freedom themes, its smothering mother metaphors, and its portrayal of a revolutionary leader who uses lying propaganda and kills thousands of innocent people, just like the tyranny he is working to overthrow.  But the book has problems.  The style isn't so hot; it's not smooth or sophisticated or thrilling, and when the author and/or the editor mix up "flout" and "flaunt," a pet peeve of mine, as well as "it's" and "its," you feel like you are reading something shoddy.  The plot includes twists and turns meant to be (melo)dramatic, but which strain the reader's credulity.  But back in the plus column, we have to consider its ambivalent and ambiguous treatments of race and religion, which, for me at least, turn the novel into a sort of intriguing puzzle.

I don't really know what to make of the use of race in Martyr; do the protagonists just happen to be black, or is Utley trying to say something about the black experience with this book, or use allusions to the history of Africa or African-Americans to add depth to his story?  Our two heroes are black, and characters who cast doubt on their mission and stand in their way--"color of ashes" Pleasant and "fair" Freddie--are white, but Utley's narrative is not a straightforward tale of blacks fighting white racists; there are plenty of white Forsters, including the heroes' devoted girlfriends, and presumably the population of the underground city that Dearborne is liberating is largely white, and, of course, E. M. Forster is white.  All the interracial sexual relationships and the fact that Pleasant and the narrator reconcile suggests Utley is advocating forgiveness and amity between the races.  Mother Machine's tyranny doesn't really remind the reader of European enslavement of blacks in the New World or imperialism in Africa--MM isn't exploiting the city dwellers' labor for her own gain, she is smothering them, making their lives too easy.  Could one of Utley's aims in Martyr be to attack Great Society welfare programs (less than a decade old when the novel was published) that were meant to help the poor but which have been blamed for weakening the traditional family structure--in the African-American community in particular--and accused of setting up the government as a replacement parent?     

Martyr, as the novel's title suggests, addresses the topic of religion as well as race.  Martyr largely seems to follow the SF tradition of depicting religion as a scam.  In a way perhaps similar to how some Christians bless themselves with holy water before entering and leaving a church and some Jews touch a mezuzah while entering or leaving their homes, inhabitants of The Greater Down Empire are expected to conduct little ritualistic hand movements before entering and after leaving their apartments and elevators and the like.  Pleasant conducts these motions with enthusiasm and precision, while Dearborne conspicuously neglects them, and the narrator muses that there are so many such rituals that they "could almost swallow the intellect."  Mother Machine plays the role in the book not only of oppressive government but also of oppressive religion.

But, at the same time, Dearborne, the hero of the story, is a figure like a prophet who is compared to a deity more than once.  In his propaganda broadcasts he doesn't say Mother Machine is a scam--he claims to be her truest representative!  Is Dearborne (who, after all, rises from the dead and dies that everybody else might live in freedom) meant to be a Christ-like figure who opposes a corrupt religious establishment and strives to bring the true word of God to the people?  (A Christ figure who is a demolitions expert, fights a cyborg cop hand-to-hand, and uses a ray gun to excavate a tunnel, is certainly an interesting character to contemplate!)  That true word perhaps being that a good mother sets her children free, rather than nagging and controlling them, lets them face the world and grow through struggle rather than coddling and cossetting them and keeping them from the world so they stagnate.

I'm reluctant to say Martyr is good, but I was never bored (even though we've seen lots of SF books about stifling utopias and revolutions and unbelievable conspiracies that were better written and more entertaining) and I enjoyed trying to figure out what Utley was getting at with all the references to religion and people's skin colors, so I'm judging it acceptable to mildly recommendable. 

**********

isfdb lists 95 publications from Curtis Books--we'll be looking at another one in our next episode!   

Monday, September 25, 2017

Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson

"You know," answered Davis, "this is the kind of thing I used to daydream about in my teens.  A brand new world, like Earth but more beautiful, and I the only man among a million women.  Well...I've found it now and I want out!"
So many SF novels have covers that I really like produced by artists whom isfdb is unable to identify.  There's the cover of the 1970 Lancer edition of Damon Knight's World Without Children and The Earth Quarter, the cover of Belmont's 1963 Novelets of Science Fiction, Ace's 1975 edition of Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, and Dell's 1971 collection of A. E. van Vogt stories, More than Superhuman. Well, we can add Paperback Library's 1970 printing of Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet to the list.  The use of color and metaphor (the women in the book are not giants) gives the cover a very poster-like, "graphic design," feel which I like and which distinguishes it from the many more literal and realistic covers produced for Virgin Planet over the years, while not neglecting the obvious erotic overtones of a book about being the only man on a planet full of women.

Virgin Planet first appeared in book form in 1959, an expansion of a 1957 novella published in the very first issue of Venture with attractive illustrations by Emsh, and has been reprinted frequently.  I just sang the praises of one of Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories; let's see if Virgin Planet provides me a chance to issue further encomiums to the man who built a houseboat with Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

The Delta Capitas Lupi system of two stars and five planets and many moons has been cut off from the human space federation (the "Union") for as long as anybody can remember by a "trepidation vortex," the kind of thing in other SF you might call a warp storm.  The vortex has largely shifted out of the way, and playboy Davis Bertram (is this a Wodehouse reference?), girl-chasing son of a wealthy businessman, has purchased a one-man space ship with the idea of being the first to explore the system and win some prestige.  When he lands on the Earth-like third moon of the subordinate star's larger planet he discovers it is inhabited by the cloned descendants of a lost all-women colonization vessel that crash landed on the moon 300 years ago; these women have only preindustrial technology and are illiterate and have only dim legends about their ancestors' origins and ordinary human sexual life!

Anderson's narrative begins in medias res, with Corporal Barbara Whitley of the flightless-bird-riding cavalrywomen of Freetoon, one of the competing settlements of clones on planet Atlantis, as they call it. She captures Davis (in the Union, family name comes before personal name) with a lasso and drags him to imprisonment in Freetoon.  After a few flashback chapters which give us insight into Bertram's character, the novel's plot showcases the radical effect Davis's arrival has on Atlantean society.

Women who have been resorting to celibacy or lesbianism all their lives jealously compete for the attention of Davis, while the rulers of the towns see him and his spaceship as the key to absolute hegemony, and war erupts over him.  Barbara Whitley and her genetically identical comrade Valeria free Davis and they escape into the wilderness with him as a coalition army from other towns is storming Freetoon.  Davis insists on bringing along Elinor Dyckman, a voluptuous brunette who makes her way in the world via flattery and sex appeal and for whom the athletic and belligerent red-headed Whitleys have contempt.

The novel is quite readable and entertaining.  Anderson devotes considerable time and energy to setting the scene, describing in detail the sky of Atlantis, for example, with its many heavenly bodies that include the huge planet about which Atlantis orbits, a gas giant which looms 14 times the size of Luna as seen from Earth and  whose amber light alters colors on the Atlantean surface, where the numerous moons often paint a complex multiplicity of shadows.  We learn all about Atlantean society.  The 300-year old ship which brought the very first iteration of Whitley and Dyckman and all the few hundred women who are the prototypes of the hundreds of thousands of people now living on Atlantis is now the base of a sort of papacy.  Women from all the many towns go to Ship City as pilgrims, to be impregnated by the mysterious "Doctors" via a parthogenetic process which splits one of their ovum so they can give birth to a baby genetically identical to themselves.  The Doctors stay out of the endless political disputes between the warlike towns but demand regular tribute and live relatively luxurious lives.

Though there are no explicit sex scenes, Anderson plays up sex angle--one of the first things Davis witnesses in captivity is Barbara Whitley stripping and bathing in a trough, and on their harrowing journey over the mountains and through the woods to a different region of Atlantis, Davis repeatedly gets within seconds of getting into the quite willing Elinor Dyckman's pants, only to be interrupted each time by a jealous Whitley or a monster attack.  Anderson also talks about genetics and sex differences that maybe we aren't supposed to talk about nowadays?  For example, how women's muscles are weaker than men's, which results in Atlantean close combat yielding relatively few fatalities rates-- the women are not strong enough to easily penetrate each other's armor with their axes and spears.  Because an individual's personality, inclinations and abilities are determined by her genetic identity, each class of clones becomes a caste and fits the same niche in each town near Davis's landing spot--every settlement is ruled by mannish Udalls, and wherever you go all the aggressive Whitleys are members of the warrior class while the selfish Dyckmans (a Dickensian joke name?) are lovers and advisers to Udalls and mercilessly manipulate everybody at court.    

In the region of Atlantis beyond that mountain range the party of Freetoon refugees encounters a town in which all the women are the same type of clone, Burkes.  The Burkes have a republican society with a council and social equality, everybody taking turns at menial tasks, a contrast to the  the Udall monarchy and rigid castes--among them a class of helots--found at Freetoon and neighboring settlements.  The Burkes take Davis captive, hoping to breed with him and thus throw off their reliance on the Doctors and generate a more diverse, vital and physically strong nation which will be able to take over the entire planet.  Our heroes escape to an island where resides a settlement inhabited by a small variety of different genotypes, all creative and artistic people, a sort of decadent artists' commune.  These sensitive types are also eager to mate with Davis, for less utilitarian reasons, but the jealous Whitleys yet again interfere.  Then a representative of the Doctors shows up.  Uninterested in having their exalted position disrupted, the Doctors want Davis killed at once, hiding their fears behind the allegation that he is no man, but an alien monster.

The last third or so of the 150-page novel covers Davis's cobbling together of a military alliance of women disaffected from the Doctors and their conquest of Ship City. Anderson keeps this realistic rather than John-Carteresque--like you would expect of an actual political leader, especially in a society like the galactic Union which has abandoned war, Davis is far in the rear with the generals, watching the assault and not even issuing orders but letting an old native, a veteran ship captain, command the operation, until his special expertise is required when it is discovered that the Doctors have his ion blast pistol.  In the end Davis and Barbara and Valeria are able to neutralize the Doctors and make peace among the Atlanteans.  Davis leaves the planet with his lady love (one of the Whitleys, though Anderson keeps it a mystery which) to open up Atlantis to the Union--soon the women of Atlantis will all know the joys of heterosexual sex and sexual reproduction!

After the novel proper Anderson provides a seven-page explanation of all the science in the story, telling us he is emulating Hal Clement's well-respected and very science-based Mission of Gravity.  

A quite good example of the traditional SF story--an adventure with violence and danger that portrays a paradigm shift, expresses skepticism of religion and slings a lot of science--in this case astronomy, biology, sociology and political science--at you in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.  Anderson also succeeds in presenting characters who all have motivations, personalities and relationships that make sense, and who evolve as the novel proceeds.  Thumbs up for Virgin Planet.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes

Paul Danton found his brain whirling, lost in the complexity of it.  He felt curiously humble.  This duplicate, who differed from him only because a Security agent had thought him more devious than he really was, reasoned in a way that was utterly alien to him.
This recent weekend the Toyota Corolla conveyed the wife and me to Dayton, Ohio, where we took in the Alphonse Mucha exhibit at the Art Institute (strongly recommended) and ate dishes with "shish" in their names and drank coffee and tea at Olive Mediterranean Grill (MPorcius Travel Guide also recommends this establishment.)  On our way out of town we stopped at the One Dollar Book Swap, a huge warehouse next to the highway with masses of used books for sale for a dollar each.  It seems like it is some kind of charity or something, staffed by volunteers and only open on the weekends.  I pored over the SF shelves, which were not alphabetized and mostly had books too recent to interest me, but I did pick up two volumes, a 1990 edition of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s  The Moon is Hell! and a legitimately old book, the 1959 Avalon hardcover printing of James Blish and Robert Lowndes' The Duplicated Man.  Mine is a bedraggled copy formerly in the collection of the Lake Bluff, Illinois, Public Library and so covered in red "DISCARDED" stamps and hand-scrawled catalog numbers, but I'm a reader of books rather than a collector, and I think these evidences of former ownership add character to the volume, and I am certainly glad to have it for one dollar.

The Duplicated Man first appeared in a 1953 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction with an amusing declaration on its cover that assured potential readers that the novel was "complete" and "not an abridged 'magazine version.'"  For this magazine publication of the novel Lowndes used the pseudonym Michael Sherman--the Avalon hardcover of The Duplicated Man is actually dedicated "to the memory of Marcus Lyons, Michael Sherman, and John MacDougal," pen names employed by Blish and Lowndes, a little SF in-joke.  If you are not lucky enough to have secured your own copy of this novel for a dollar, the internet archive has you covered--check out the original 1953 magazine text, complete with disturbing Paul Orban illos, here.

The Duplicated Man is about four political hierarchies and their relationships with each other, each of them to varying extents revolutionary and tyrannical, three of them riven by no-holds-barred factional infighting.  The four political groups--the parliamentary rulers of Earth, the dictatorial cabal of Venus, an Earth revolutionary party which sympathizes with Venus and a revolutionary party on Venus which sympathizes with Earth, have been in a tense stalemate for many years, but political and psychological pressure has been building over that time, and the novel describes the course of events as things boil over into crisis and everybody takes extreme measures to win power or just survive.

I guess we should see The Duplicated Man as a meditation on the world politics of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, which were characterized by communist and fascist revolutionaries and mass war and saw, in response to economic and military crisis, a major increase in state power in liberal societies like the United States and Great Britain; the book also expresses Blish and Lowndes' negative view of technological change and their bizarre wish fulfillment fantasy of how geniuses might manipulate everybody to bring peace to the world.

The Duplicated Man is not structured in the way most of the novels I read are structured; rather than following a single sympathetic or interesting character or group of characters from start to finish, there are twenty or twenty-five characters who drop in and out of the narrative; many of them only appear in the first or second half of the book, none of them is very sympathetic, and only one is actually interesting.  Throughout the 222-page novel people make and break alliances, switch sides or reveal they were moles the whole time, double cross and stab each other in the back.  There is plenty of dialogue that consists of planning how to trick somebody or description of how somebody got tricked, and speculations of how somebody else is going to respond to events based on his or her psychological profile or strategic vision. Much of this stuff is neither easy to follow nor very entertaining.

The Background:  A century before , back in 1971 (the year of my birth!), the "Peace Squadron" bombed "the ice-cap," causing mass flooding worldwide and transforming the geographic and political landscape.  Countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and a world government, the Security Council, took over. Each of the newly designated nations of Earth was given a seat on the Council.  The first thirty pages of The Duplicated Man follow a publicly-broadcast parliamentary debate (the Security Council prides itself on its transparency) lead by Joachim Burgd, representative of Antarctica, about the so-called Earth-Government-in-Exile on Venus; this debate also touches upon the Pro-Earth Party, an underground organization on Earth itself.

You see, not everybody is happy with the Security Council's rule.  When they first took over a bunch of people, including one of Earth's greatest scientists, Geoffrey Thomas, fled to inhospitable Venus where they established subterranean cities.  From Venus these people periodically launch missiles (with conventional warheads) at the Earth, about a dozen a year, indiscriminately blowing people and property to bits.  The Security Council is unable to counterattack because that genius Thomas has surrounded Venus with an energy screen through which no nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels can pass, and the Venus settlements are too small, well-concealed and widely dispersed to target with conventional weapons--also, the Security Council's charter explicitly forbids warmaking!  This bombardment has been going on for like one hundred years (!) and the people of Earth are starting to crack under the strain!

The Pro-Earth Party is one of those revolutionary groups in which everybody has a code name and is in a three-man cell, the members of which signal each other in public via signs and countersigns like how they light their cigarettes.  These jokers hope to take over the Earth and end the bombardment by negotiating with Venus, but the Party's bloodthirsty leaders can't agree on methods and are always splitting into factions and purging each other, leaving the low-ranking members at risk of being on the wrong side of a purge at any moment. One such low-ranking member is the nominal protagonist of the novel, Paul Danton (his name, presumably, is significant.)

After introducing us to Danton and the Earth situation, Blish and Lowndes switch the camera to Venus, where we meet Thomas himself, leader of the exiles and a man of over 500 pounds and over 140 years--he needs the help of assistants just to walk!  He's having a meeting with the Directorate, usually called "the cabal," all of the members of which want to depose him and take his place and somehow squeeze the secret of immortality out of him.  On Venus we are also introduced to an underground group (one of the authors'' little jokes is that on Venus the "underground" organization meets on the surface) called the Earth Party which hopes to put Venus under Earth control--they too are having a meeting.

The Plot:  Danton has been investigating rumors of a Duplication Machine, a device which can create duplicates of human beings.  At a meeting of a division of the Pro-Earth Party he reports that the fabulous contraption is no myth--he has located it and seen it with his own eyes--and the leaders of the Party announce plans to seize the amazing machine and use it to support a direct military attack on the Earth government. Their idea is to kidnap members of the Security Council and duplicate them, which will sow confusion in the government hierarchy.  Immediately after this announcement, party members who are in fact government infiltrators shut down the meeting, capturing everybody present, including Danton.

Danton, it turns out, looks just like one of the members of the Venus cabal (this kind of thing happens in fiction all the time, like to our pal Fred, and even happens sometimes in real life!) and the Security Council enlists him for a mission to Venus. Imitating the Pro-Earth Party's aborted plan, the Security Council will use the machine to duplicate Danton five times and send all six of them to Venus, where they will disrupt the Venus government's operations.

At the same time, Thomas and the Venus cabal discover that their screen is down so they launch a preemptive invasion of Earth, desperate to conquer our big blue marble before the Earthers realize how vulnerable Venus now is.  The Venusians have sixteen warships, but only five take off because one of the cabal (pursuing his own agenda) joins the Earth Party and they sabotage the launch.  The Danton mission to Venus is also hamstrung: the Venusian preliminary bombardment (2000 missiles!) and assassins from the Pro-Earth Party waylay some of the duplicates on Earth, while the original Danton just stays on Earth because he has to distract a female member of the Security Council who has fallen in love with him!  Only two Danton duplicates and a Security Council secret agent make it to Venus.

One of the recurring themes of The Duplicated Man is how plans always fail--nothing anybody does seems to work as they had hoped--and another, related theme, is limited intelligence.  Because of the thick cloud cover of Venus, people on Earth have no idea what is going on on Venus (the Earthers don't know Thomas is immortal, for example, and assume he has been dead for thirty or more years), and people on Venus have little greater knowledge of conditions on Earth.  The Security Council activates the Duplication Machine without knowing how it really works, and, in the event, it doesn't actually duplicate Danton very well.  The "new" Dantons have all of the original Danton's memories, but their looks and personalities are all skewed and influenced by members of the Security Council apparatus.  One Danton dupe, thanks to the subconscious input of the beautiful woman on the Council who is in love with Danton, has powerful sex appeal, for example.  The passage used as an epigraph to this blog post refers to another dupe, one influenced by the aforementioned secret agent,

In the end of the book we find that everything that has happened has been orchestrated by Geoffrey Thomas and Joachim Burgd and that half the things everybody else, including us readers, believed is not true (e. g., there has never been an energy screen around Venus!)  Venus is now under the control of the one man on Venus devoted to peace and the Earth is under the thumb of the Security Council (but held in check by the Pro-Earth Party) so freedom and peace now reign throughout the solar system.  This ending is absolutely incredible* and very frustrating, in part because it undermines all the interesting themes of limited intelligence and failed plans we've been seeing for 210 pages--Thomas and Burgd are like omniscient and omnipotent gods who knew all and successfully manipulated billions of people to accomplish their goal.
* [in-kred-uh-buh l] adjective, 1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed. 2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.

The Duplicated Man is a pretty mixed bag.  The actual science fiction elements of the book are good--the passages on the form of immortality experienced by Thomas, the Duplication machine, the Earth agents' exploration of the Venusian surface, and the space war, are all interesting and evocative.  Blish and Lowndes also do a lot of psychology and sociology stuff I appreciated, even if I don't buy their theories--the stress endured by Earthlings who could be killed at any moment by a falling bomb and the claustrophobia of Venusians who live their entire lives underground; the lust for vengeance of some Venusians who feel they were unjustly exiled to that barren desert planet and the yearnings of other Venusians to live on Earth, even though they don't know a thing about life there; the psychology of people like Danton immersed in a merciless and totalitarian revolutionary organization.  No doubt feminists will not appreciate the psychological profiles the authors cook up for the women characters--like the Venusian femme fatale who uses sex to dominate men but is looking for a man to dominate her and the Earth politician at the top of the heap who falls in love with a low-ranking terrorist she just met and abandons her career for him--and I have to admit I never really understood why the Dantons were willing to undertake the dangerous mission to destabilize Venus--didn't Danton like Venus?

The plot and characters are flat, like watching a bunch of lifeless cardboard counters move around a gameboard until you lose track of which is which.  And Blish and Lowndes' philosophy is lame.  Instead of responding to the nightmare world created by the Bolsheviks and Nazis by considering that just maybe governments have too much power, they give us a childish fantasy of governments with even more power than Hitler and Stalin had but headed by selfless geniuses who can kill millions of people in just the right way to create peace.  It's bad enough to find yet another SF story in which we are supposed to welcome elites manipulating us (an idea the story undermines by portraying most of its characters as psychopaths--Thomas even tortures a guy!) but the authors also put into Burgd's mouth some pretty absurd luddism:
"Do you actually believe that we would need to run the Earth at its present peak of technology, if our only concern were to keep the people well-clothed, housed, fed, healthy and so on?  Nonsense!  We passed that peak around 1910.  Medicine, agriculture, education--none of them require a technology as advanced and as energy-expensive as the one we maintain."
1910?  Is that a typo? The magazine version and my hardcover copy both have "1910," so apparently not.  Did Blish and Lowndes really think that people's lives had not been improved by technological advances in medicine, agriculture and education between 1910 and 1950, and wouldn't benefit from further advances in the future?  Dumb!

Alright, time to sum up.  I've got a lot of complaints about The Duplicated Man as a piece of literature and entertainment, and I don't find its ideology congenial.  On the other hand, it feels ambitious, it addresses interesting issues in a way that (to me, at least) is strange, and it was never boring or painful--in fact, at times it was surprising, and I think surprise in fiction has value, even if the surprise is how crazy or foolish the author's opinions turn out to be.  One reason I read speculative fiction is because it exposes you to ideas and people that are outside the mainstream--A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry Malzberg, and R. A. Lafferty, to name a few, often write in ways or express ideas that ordinary people do not, and that is one reason I like them, even if I disagree with particular ideas or find particular writing techniques unsuccessful.  I've never read and have no interest in reading Stephen King, but I found the recent controversy about an underage sex scene in one of King's 1980s books a little bewildering--shouldn't we expect to find material that is challenging, offensive, disgusting, bizarre, etc., in horror novels and speculative fiction in general? Don't people read speculative fiction and horror specifically because they are looking for such material?  I'm not on board with a lot of what Blish and Lowndes do in The Demolished Man, but being exposed to it was worthwhile.

It's a borderline case, but I'm giving The Duplicated Man an "acceptable" rating.  I don't feel like reading it was a waste of my time...but don't expect to see me reading any more Blish soon.

**********

On the back cover of my copy of The Duplicated Man is an ad promoting Avalon's SF line, "The Best in Science Fiction."  I have read five of the listed titles, including the two Vances, which I read before this blog sprang fully formed from my febrile noggin, as well as The Space Egg, Across Time, and Hidden World, all of which have suffered this blog's attentions.  I own a paperback of Virgin Planet; maybe it's time I read it?
       

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Valley of Creation by Edmond Hamilton

"It is true, outlander.  You now inhabit the body of the wolf, Asha."
The strong wild thought of the stallion interrupted.  "The power of the ancients!  The punishment of those who transgress the brotherhood!"
In our last installment we talked about Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon.  At the risk of becoming the Hamilton-Brackett Book Blog (which doesn't sound like a bad fate, actually) today we are talking about The Valley of Creation, a novel by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton. The Valley of Creation first appeared in Startling Stories in 1948, but the edition I read, a 1964 paperback from Lancer, prints a revised text, copyrighted 1954.  The indispensable isfdb warns us that that "1954" is a typo for "1964," and reminds us that in a 1976 interview Hamilton admitted that three chapters of this novel were written by Brackett!

(Check out the issue of Startling at the internet archive--L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Vance and Henry Kuttner also contribute stories, and don't miss the Virgil Finlay illustrations or Marion Zimmer's long letter in which she assesses Finlay, Kuttner, and a host of other SF figures, and presents "Ode to Startling," her poem honoring the magazine!)

The cover illustrates the reprint of the
1937 Kuttner story
The protagonist of The Valley of Creation, Ohio-born Eric Nelson, served in the U. S. Army in the Korean War and became addicted to the dangerous life of a fighting man!  (And you thought being addicted to KitKats was unhealthy!)  So for ten years he has been a mercenary, fighting for petty warlords against the communists in the mountainous regions where China, Tibet and Burma meet, his comrades including a patriotic anti-communist Chinese man but mostly American adventurers like himself and European criminals unable or unwilling to get conventional jobs.  In the first third of The Valley of Creation Nelson and his four mates are hired by Shan Kar, a weird guy of unusual ethnicity from an obscure, hard-to-reach valley.  Before they reach the valley a beautiful woman of the same mysterious race as Shan Kar, named Nsharra, tries to seduce Nelson, and, while he is distracted by her feminine charms, she sics her wolf on him!

Nelson survives this assassination attempt and he and the four other mercs, guided by Shan Kar, make it to the valley of L'Lan, where they learn the whole crazy situation they have gotten themselves involved in.  In L'Lan, wolves, eagles, horses and tigers are as intelligent as humans!  Shan Kar is the leader of a human faction that thinks humans should have exclusive governmental responsibility over the valley, while Princess Nsharra and her father are leaders of the establishment, called the Brotherhood, which includes most humans and all the animals--they think there should be legal equality between human and animal, as there has been for time immemorial. Very much in the minority, Shan Kar's Humanites will need outside help to win the civil war they are starting against Nsharra's Brotherhood.  In the ancient past the people of L'Lan were masters of super science, but while they still live in the elaborate cities of bubble-domes and high towers built by their ancestors, the current inhabitants of the valley have lost the ability to produce mechanical devices and so fight with swords and bows--in such a setting the mercenaries' grenades and automatic weapons may be decisive.

At the novel's halfway point Nelson gets captured while on a botched commando raid against the Brotherhood's main city.  As anybody who read the back of the book was expecting, the Brotherhood punishes Nelson by blowing the dust off an ancient wonder of super science--a mind switching machine!--and transferring Nelson's mind into the body of a wolf! (The wolf is installed in Nelson's own form, but for some reason, instead of exploring the joys life offers those with thumbs, he just sleeps.  Another loose end is the question of why being put in a wolf's body is considered a punishment if everybody in the Brotherhood is considered equal.  I'm afraid Hamilton didn't think all of this stuff through.)

The scenes in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf are by far the best part of the novel, as the author compellingly describes the emotions of a man so transformed, rendered inhuman but also imbued with new abilities and new perceptions.  In that 1976 interview, which has been mentioned before on this blog, first by commenter marzaat, and which I strongly recommend to classic SF fans, Hamilton says that some consider the chapters of The Valley of Creation Brackett wrote the high point of the book, strongly suggesting that she wrote these very wolf's-eye-view passages.

People in these Hamilton/Brackett stories often switch sides, and as we've been expecting, Nelson turns against the Humanites and his fellow mercenaries (as does the Chinese merc, who gets killed seconds later by one of the Eurotrash mercs.)  Back in his human body Nelson helps lead the fight against the Humanites, but his former comrades-in-arms outmaneuver him and take the Brotherhood's city.  Nelson and Nsharra go into a cavern in which is embedded a crashed alien space ship and via an ancient recording learn the amazing truth about the valley of L'Lan and about the human race!

Long ago, aliens who had destroyed their own world with their technology were searching for a new home when they crashed on Earth.  Unable to breathe our atmosphere, they genetically altered the five most advanced species they found in the valley--the ape, the horse, the tiger, the wolf and the eagle--so they could transfer their alien minds into them. This was how the ape developed the intelligence that marks humankind! Some intelligent apes left the valley to colonize the world and become its master, but for some reason the other four intelligent species never left the valley.

(Hamilton's body of work includes numerous stories with bizarre explanations for how humankind arose--check out "The Accursed Galaxy" and "Devolution" from the 1930s, for example.)

Nelson manipulates events so that Shan Kar hears the recording, and he switches sides and, as he dies from bullet wounds, helps finish off the mercenaries and orders his followers to abandon their sinful rebellion.  Nelson of course stays in the valley to live with Nsharra, who is now ruler of L'Lan, her father also having died on the fighting. Not only does Nelson have the hots for Nsharra, but he couldn't stand to live in the outside world, where people treat horses like slaves!  (This is pretty bogus, in my opinion--the deer and rabbits and mice in the valley don't have intelligence, so the intelligent tigers, wolves and eagles devour them with a clean conscience--why shouldn't the intelligent humans outside the valley exploit the unintelligent horses out there with similar insouciance?)

The Valley of Creation is a below average performance from our man Hamilton. Firstly, the characters and setting are just plain boring.  Secondly, building an entire story around talking horses and wolves, even if all the talking is via telepathy, feels too childish and goofy to me for a serious adventure story, which this is meant to be (there are no jokes and there is tons of blood and death.)  Thirdly, the novel feels kind of cobbled together, with too many loose ends, some of which I have already pointed out--The Valley of Creation's moving parts just don't move together smoothly enough.

Another problem is that it is way too obvious that Nelson is going to switch sides and help out the Brotherhood.  The fact that Hamilton chooses some of the most beloved and romanticized animals possible--horsies, eagles, tigers and wolves--is an obvious sign who the real good guys are--why not challenge yourself, Ed, and try to make us side with rats, spiders and cockroaches?  Shan Kar tortures an eagle on page 25 of the 159-page book, making him pretty unsympathetic from the get go, and his urge to rebel against the egalitarian status quo of thousands of years makes no sense, so Nelson has no philosophical reason to stick by him.

Shan Kar's lack of any motivation for his rebellion is a good example of how weak the characters in this book are.  The animals haven't started causing trouble all of a sudden, so his rebellion has no rational practical basis, and the fact that Shan Kar changes his tune when he hears the recording that proves humans and animals are equal indicates that he has no personal emotional reason to rebel, no lust to be dictator of the valley or get revenge on the horses because stepping in a pile of manure ruined his first date or something.

It is also too obvious that Nelson is going to end up with Nsharra, as she is the only woman in the book--who else could Nelson end up with?

If we compare Valley of Creation to some of the other Hamilton/Brackett novels in which guys go to other worlds and get involved in their disputes that we've read recently, Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla and City at World's End and Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, the deficiencies of Valley of Creation are thrown into sharp relief.  The characters in those other books, in particular the villains and the people who switch sides, are all more interesting, more believable, and more nuanced.  Shan Kar's rebellion makes little sense, but it is easy to see where Loki (in Valhalla), the Sarks and Rhiannon (in Sword), and the galactic government (in City) are coming from, and the changes of heart of Ywain the Sark, Rhiannon the Martian god and Varn Allen of the galactic government, are more surprising and satisfying as drama than are Nelson's and Shan Kar's.  In Sword there are two beautiful princesses (a pyschic Sea Kings princess as well as war-like Ywain) whom the reader might suspect the hero will end up with, and in City at World's End the main character has to choose between his nice (if boring) fiance and gorgeous space babe Varn Allen.

(City at World's End also pushes Hamilton's anti-tyranny and anti-racism themes in a far more sophisticated and compelling way than does Valley of Creation.)

I don't want to say Valley of Creation is bad-- the story comes to life for those chapters in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf--but it is certainly disappointing.  I guess we'll call this one barely acceptable, and tell you to read all the other Hamilton books you see before this one!