Distant Signals and Other Stories

As I was walking about the house looking at the stuff scattered in the wake of a recent remodeling project, books disarrayed and out of order, this book caught my eye.

No one mentions Andrew Weiner any more. That’s too bad. He deserves more respect, so you’re getting this bit of unedited coverage of Weiner.

I haven’t read any of his novels, and I made no notes on his other collection, This Is the Year Zero, whose title story is a memorable science fiction treatment of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide.

Raw Feed (1992): Distant Signals and Other Stories, Andrew Weiner, 1989.Distant Signals

The News From D Street” — Like several Weiner stories, this is a take off of someone else’s work — here Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World”. In fact, when Victor Lazare first reveals the nature of protagonist Kay’s work, Kay’s first inclination is to ask if the studies planned in his world are advertising (the purpose of the miniature world of Pohl’s story). Still, even on second reading, I found this an interesting use of Pohl’s idea. Kay uses the model to plot social structures, how information spreads, and people’s reaction to different types of authority figures. He manages to pack a lot of film noir/hard-boiled detective clichés (the mysterious woman, the evasive client, the menacing underworld figures), but they don’t seem clichéd here.

The Man Who Was Lucky” — This story was very funny. The premise was very much like Alfred Bester’s “Oddy and Id”, another story about a very lucky man. I liked the protagonist’s tremendous string of good luck, his part in a commercial conflict, the Law of Conservation of Luck turning his luck real bad, and the formerly defeated aliens foisting him off as an ambassador of bad luck on the winners till they payoff to get rid of him.

Waves” — I liked this story. Weiner weaves the thematic motif of waves (the waves of expanding and receding light from the Big Bang, the economic wave-cycles, and the waves of mental activity in the brain — in effect, waves in the physical, psychic, and social universes) through his story skillfully. The leisure society owes something to J. G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories — there is even a specific to the Ballardian activity of cloud sculpting. While I thought the existential angst of singer Marianne Reiss (former astronaut and neurological researcher — everyone in this story has had at least two careers), was a bit weak, I did like the tension of the story between the life of a dilettante artist and actually building things, moving forward, not stagnating. The protagonist’s ex-student, Wayne Houghton, chides him for forgetting how to build, to work, that the pause is an aberration of history and human nature. For his part, the protagonist isn’t much interested in exploring space, mining asteroids. He finds Houghton a little frightening with his urgency, his drive, his involvement. Like the Russians landing on Mars, Houghton reminds the protagonist of his old self. Weiner doesn’t really come down on one side or another. Weiner, seemingly always interested in art, postulates some cool stuff — the video synths — and some bizarre stuff like singing New Food.

Going Native” — The title perfectly describes the plot of this story: an alien on a recon mission to Earth gradually begins to feel his loneliness, his alienation, begins to develop human emotions, human reactions to the events of his past. You can argue that, even if his body is very similar to a human’s, it’s unlikely that he could develop new emotional responses for the first time on Earth. If the biological potential is there for an emotion, it seems it would be expressed in a culture sometime even if it is discouraged. That objection aside (or even if it’s accepted), this is a good story. As the alien becomes more human, we still get that inherent delight of a lot of alien contact stories: the familiar through skewed, alien eyes. Alien protagoinst observations: human’s fear of loneliness; the deadness of people in crowds; the uses of family as a conditioning agent for authority and conformity; advertising as a relic of a primitive economic stage, a mediator and manipulator of desires; the need for humans to be anxious. I really liked the idea of an alien joining an encounter group run by a realistically annoying therapist.

Leaving the Planet” — Weiner writes in a literary, not Analog, style. His stories are often about art, have religious and social elements, so it’s easy to miss the scientific and technological aspects, but they’re there. This story is a good example. Weiner uses an idea that I’ve never seen anywhere else except in a geology journal: surveying for minerals using the reflected spectra of leaves. This is a story like Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (I often find myself thinking of other authors’ stories when reading Weiner.) about using rock and roll to affect a political change, here to resurrect the space program from the timid, nostalgia crazed, annoying gerries’ — Weiner’s Baby Boom peers — grasp. I liked this story with its artificial intelligence manipulating the D’Arcy family so it can search for other AIs in space.

Empire of the Sun” — A slight, disappointing story. It was first published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions making it one of Weiner’s earliest stories. I suspect it’s orgin in a famous New Wave anthology is responsible for its faults. Basically it’s an opaque exercise in style (Weiner’s characteristic short, numbered scenes are here) that reminds me of a remark I recently read by Robert Silverberg about style getting in the way of what the author is trying to say. The point of the plot seemed to be that spaceflight can make you berserk, maybe murderously insane. It’s a trite notion that probably appealed to Ellison and Weiner as a renunciation of what they saw as old sf’s silly optimism, especially in its main symbol of space travel. I found it annoying, especially from a talented writer like Weiner.

Inspiration” — A neat little sf/horror story of alien possession/symbiosis whose setting reminded me a bit of H. P. Lovecraft. Weiner makes an interesting and probably valid point about the ruthless lengths artists (especially technically accomplished but conceptually bankrupt ones) will go to get inspiration in a materially possesseable form.

Getting Near the End” — This is a story thematically related to Weiner’s “Leaving the Planet”. It too involves a political agenda tied to a a popular singer and the cause of social transformation, and space exploration is a concern of both. Here the social transformation is done by the Nova Children, the nihilistic — yet peaceful — and gloom filled followers of a prescient singer. Weiner tries to do a lot in this story. First, there is the plight of an astronaut returning from the Mars mission to find people care more about the destruction loving, decay worshiping songs of Martha Nova then the accomplishments he represents. The Nova Children thirst for religious ecstasy and seem to be sort of radical environmentalists. One says people are “ants on the skin of a giant . … The worse things get, the more excited we get . …We would be disappointed if they didn’t.” There is also the interesting philosophy of the astronaut’s (unknown to him) son who argues going to Mars and building skyscrapers is futile, a waste of time since the end product doesn’t differ from the imagination. (No one in the story criticizes the obvious fallacies here: that construction itself can be instructive, challenging, and makes the builder proud; that a mental image is not a real object; that an object can’t be entirely imagined in every detail — not usually). It’s a bankrupt, destructively passive and incurious notion. At the story’s end, the world is transformed (Weiner unfortunately chose not to be specific. Perhaps he couldn’t in a short story) — after a burning. Ecstasy and transformation and nihilism have been destructive and creative as a nova destroys but creates new elements in its depth, is a beginning and end. Weiner never really expresses sympathy for the astronaut or the Nova Children view of the world. Unfortunately, he also doesn’t really tie up the thematic threads of the story either unless the metaphor of the nova is the story’s statement.

Fake-Out” — A clever, fun story about aliens counterfeiting high priced, designer consumer goods and, in a final twist reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, people too. It was with this story that I began to suspect a persistent anti-capitalist theme in Weiner’s work. Here the main character (even when he’s duplicated) doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for his clients who are suffering the loss of their intellctual property. He doesn’t seem to realize the significance of copyright and patent law. Perhaps you could excuse this as a humorous story, but there is other evidence for this anti-capitalist bent. “The Man Who Was Lucky” features rather unscrupulous alien merchants. “Waves” ambivalently shows the pleasures of life on the dole — without dealing with the problem of funding the dole. “Going Native” has advertising an “artifact … of their stage of economic development” as if there is something else we can economically evolve into (socialism?). “Leaving the Planet” and “Getting Near the End” show social/political manipulation via pop music and, in the first case, a corporation’s artificial intelligence.

Rider” — A promising start for this story is blown by a “so-what” ending. I liked the idea of an expert system just designed to track down people and the mind link between Arnold Lerner, scientist in permanent fugue state, and the psychiatrist was reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s “The Dream Master”. But the ending, where Lerner changes external reality under the influence of memory/simulacra Martha Danning (a sixties radical killed while trying to rob a bank in real life), whose outlook in life he admires, is trite, clichéd, and boring. The Danning character – along with a rather grimy world inhabited by privatized police and security forces – is another bit of evidence for Weiner’s anti-capitalist bent.

Klein’s Machine” — The plot of this story resembles that of a hoary ghost story: boy undertakes incredible journey (through time here) and is not believed but an external bit of evidence (here a flower) supports his account. What makes it interesting is the portrait of its sf fan protagonist. You can read this story as a comment on the psychopathology on sf and sf fans or as a fond look at a bright sf fan or both. (There is an explicit reference to Lindner’s The Fifty Minute Hour which contains accounts of a man’s elaborate sf style fantasies. Speculation has it that the patient was none other than Cordwainer Smith.) On the pathology side, protagonist Philip Klein is alienated, obsessive (he is a prolific journal writer) who still lives at home – he’s in this twenties – with his dominating mother. He has little social life, no close friends, and (like many sf fans – at least till now when they’re just as likely to be libertarian – he’s involved in socialist politics). He spends time trying – successfully – to invent a time machine. The therapist who works with Klein describes sf as “a literature steeped in pathology” with scientific speculation as a veneer for narcissistic fantasies of “limitlessness and omnipotence”, an escapist literature of characters bent on transcending time and space and society, a genre designed to appeal to alienated individuals, powerless people with fantasies of power. He goes on to babble on about Oedipal conflicts in all those time travel stories where people kill or make love to their ancestors. Klein rather properly retorts that those type of time travel stories have more to do with speculation on incest taboos than Freudian psychology. The therapist finds Klein very well-read but with a garbage can mind with no discrimination as to what he reads. To compound the pathological side of Klein, he illogically states that the course of American history would have been the same even with different president yet wants to kill Franklin Roosevelt to incite a socialist revolution. Yet Klein is brilliant, smart, educated but a social and psychological failure. I sense an ambivalence on Weiner’s part about the image (perhaps the reality) of the typical sf fanatic, but it may be whimsical play with a stereotype.

Distant Signals” — A rather humorous, but still thoughtful and strange, story about aliens who want an old tv show produced again to finish the story whose distant signals they’ve received. The show is 1960’s Stranger in Town a strange, rather ludicrous western version of The Fugitive. The amnesiac hero wanders from town to town searching for his identity while pursued by a limping man. This existential drama is pretentious and dull but, to the aliens, it’s the height of “televisual art”, and they want the story of the hero completed. Thus producers, actors, and writers of a stupid, obscure show are remembered far away as brilliant artists making a point about the non-universality of taste.


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