Saturday, August 12, 2017

Finishing off Tomorrow: Neil Shapiro, Andrew Offutt, and Greg Bear

Alright, it's the final installment of our look at 1975's Tomorrow, a hardcover anthology of brand new science fiction stories that was edited by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood and was never printed in paperback.  Three stories remain, Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul," Andrew J. Offutt's "Enchante," and Greg Bear's "Perihesperon."

"Journey of the Soul" by Neil Shapiro

I'm always a little surprised that the general consensus favors Disney's 1982 Tron over 1979's The Black Hole.  I may be the only person that finds Tron a snooze and The Black Hole compelling, but it seems to me that The Black Hole is obviously better. Tron has a lame frame story about office politics, a pedestrian quest plot and totally forgettable characters and actors; The Black Hole is about explorers, haunted houses, zombies, mad scientists, and gun fights (i. e., stuff that is awesome) and features actors everybody loves like Roddy McDowell, Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins.  People make a big deal out of the graphic design of Tron, but to me all that glowing shit is just a gimmick; the robots and space ships in The Black Hole are much more interesting. Now, maybe people think the fact that at the end of The Black Hole the good characters go to Heaven and the evil characters go to Hell is stupid, and maybe they are right, but at least it is interesting and a surprise the first time you see it--in the beginning of Tron people magically go inside a computer to find a magical land inhabited by tiny little people, which is just as stupid and is totally boring.

I rationalize bringing up this pet peeve of mine with the excuse that Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul" is all about people who go into a black hole.  Empress Betty Grey has been deposed by democratic revolutionaries, and they sentence her to exile and send her into a black hole.  (The narrator expresses contempt for democracy and assures us Betty Grey was a benevolent dictator.)  On the other side of the black hole she finds a new universe, devised by fellow human Charon, a hermit who moved into the black hole over five hundred years ago.  The laws of physics are different in this universe--for example, space is not a black airless vacuum, but a phantasmagoria of different colored clouds and mists, a primordial chaos which Charon (and soon the deposed Empress) can form into whatever he likes through force of will.  He has built a city, he has created friends and advisers, he can fly, he can breathe vacuum, etc.

What he can't do is create life, and so he is lonely, despite his artificial friends and advisers, and so he falls in love with Betty Grey.  Betty Grey just wants to get back to our universe and get her ass back on her throne, of course.  But then it is explained to her that there is no way to get back to her Empire (if you go back through the black hole you reappear at a random point in our universe) so she embraces a new relationship with Charon.

This story feels long (it takes up 50 pages) and is boring.  There are boring (and unconvincing) technical explanations of what a black hole is and how people can be crushed while passing through one but come out alive on the other side, boring conversations explaining the nature of the malleable universe on the Charon side of the black hole, and boring scenes in which an artificial person explains Charon's psyche to Betty Grey.  The first page has a sarcastic, iconoclastic tone, but that tone is dropped and the rest of the story is straightforward.  Betty Grey's evolution from Charon hater to Charon lover doesn't feel real and doesn't have any emotional resonance, it just happens.  

Hubba hubba!
Gotta give "Journey of the Soul" a negative vote.

In this series of blog posts I have been talking a little bit about the criticisms Roger Elwood has received for his anthologies, which some have claimed flooded the market and made anthologies by other editors less salable, and which are sometimes said to be full of weak authors who published little.  Shapiro probably qualifies as one of these lesser authors.  isfdb lists only two novels by him (one of them, Mind Call, has a striking cover that suggests it is a sex novel) and ten short stories, though several of the stories appeared in F&SF, which I believe is one of the more prestigious SF magazines.

"Enchante" by Andrew Offutt

This five-page story is overwritten, full of fancy adjectives and lots and lots of metaphors.  Offutt crams two "undead fingers" metaphors into the very first paragraph, and adds a third "living dead" metaphor for good measure:

I guess this is intentional, an attempt to emulate or caricature a florid fairy tale.

A wizard turns a handsome prince into a frog, telling him that he will be returned to human form should a fair maiden kiss him.  The twist ending, which I predicted, comes when he finally meets a perfectly beautiful maiden and she eagerly kisses him ("'What a perfect frog,' she breathed"): as he is returned to human form she is transformed back into the frog she once was before the wizard got to her, and both are heartbroken.

Acceptable.  In the last line, the moral, Offutt writes, "...true beauty and true perfection are not for men, for they are the work only of Allah, and sorcerers, and artists," a reminder of Offutt's interest in Islam, which we have detected in other of his productions, like King Dragon.

(It is hard not to suspect some link between Offutt's interest in Islam and both his apparent sexual interests--he wrote lots of pornography about women in bondage or under torture--and his apparent attitude about gender roles, which we noticed in his L. Sprague de Camp-style planetary romance, Messenger of Zhuvastou.)

"Perihesperon" by Greg Bear

"Perihesperon" has the honor of being the only story in Tomorrow to have been reprinted in English.  It would appear in 2002's The Collected Stories of Greg Bear, and isfdb is telling me a revised version was included in 1992's British collection The Venging.  Was the one in The Collected Stories of Greg Bear the revised or original version?  I cannot be sure.  I have only read one other story by Bear, "Webster," though for years I mixed him up with Gregory Benford and thought of In the Ocean of Night whenever I saw his name.

Karen is a teenaged girl on an interstellar passenger ship.  She wakes up to discover the ship has been critically damaged and she is the only survivor.  An old man appears who explains that he came in his own one-man ship to help when he saw a meteor hit Karen's vessel, but Bear provides clues, or red herrings, that lead us readers to suspect he may actually be some kind of space pirate.  Whether he is innocent or some kind of criminal, he has but days to live because, as he was struck by a sudden flux of radiation from the liner's damaged engine struck him, wrecking his ship and his internal organs.  Karen is also doomed, as the liner is in an orbit around planet Hesperus that will repeatedly take it through a cluster of asteroids ("moonlets") and is bound to hit one before help arrives.

I guess the meat of the story is how these two, an old man who (according to his claims, at least) has a full life of adventures behind him and a girl who hasn't really lived yet, face death.

This story is OK, an attempt to marry hard SF (airlocks, force fields, radiation, space suits, calculating orbits) with (the author hopes profound) reflections on life and death. It's not great, but not objectionable.  I'm curious what we are supposed to think about the old man (I can't help but think he possibly torpedoed the liner to loot it) and wonder if the revision clarifies his role and responsibility.


So, we bid adieu to Tomorrow.  It may not be great, but by no means is it terrible; fans of J. Hunter Holly and Sonya Dorman will perhaps want it so they have access to a solid entry in those women's relatively small bodies of work.  The anthology is perhaps noteworthy for its level of diversity, with a hard SF story, a fairy tale, adventure-type stories, a New Wave story, jokey stories, stories that try to pull your heart strings, etc.  I certainly don't regret spending five bucks on Tomorrow, and I don't think it reflects poorly on Elwood.

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