The Write Off Post

I’ve reached the blogger equivalent of bankruptcy

The blogging obligations have piled up the last five months. As other bloggers have noted, sometimes the books and stories slip out of your mind, and it’s not worth going back to them.

No sunk cost fallacy here.

Not even a real effort to firmly grasp an author’s arms to stop their slide into the pit of obscurity. At best, a half-hearted, weak snatch at their sleeve going by.

Sorry. Some of them deserved better.

This isn’t a rundown of everything I’ve read lately. Some of the books are going to get the usual treatment.

(After reading this whole post, you may think I should have went with a constipation metaphor.)

Low Res Scans: Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction, Darrell Schweitzer, 2015.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One, ed. David W. Wixon, 2015.

Future Crime: An Anthology of the Shape of Crime to Come, eds. Cynthia Mason and Charles Ardai, 1992.

Dinosaur Fantastic, eds. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1993.

Alternate Warriors, ed. Mike Resnick, 1993.

Alternate Outlaws, Ed. Mike Resnick, 1994.

I never actually intended to do a full review of Darrell Schweitzer’s Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction. A lot of plot synopses would give a bad impression of the varied tones and emotions of Schweitzer’s work.awaiting-strange-gods

As Pete Rawlik noted in his review in issue 329 of the New York Review of Science Fiction “a trope that Schweitzer often repeats, that of an unwilling companion who is constantly drawn back into the company of a more dominant personality whose story must be told.” In the context of a story not included here, “A Servant of Satan”, Schweitzer refers to this as “what I call the Old School Chum story, which I’ve written several times. The narrator tells of some remarkable person he met in his youth, who led him on an improbable, frightening adventure …”. That structure is used in several of the stories.

It should be noted that, unlike many writers, Schweitzer, though he has been writing critical works on Lovecraft since 1976, took up Lovecraftian Mythos tales only recently in his career.

And “Mythos” as in mythology is the appropriate term. Schweitzer uses the pantheon of Lovecraft’s aliens as we use the gods of classical myths – handy symbols, shorthand and fodder for stories that can venture very far in tone and subject from Lovecraft. It reminds me of what I recall Alan Moore saying about using DC Comic characters as ready-made symbols when he took over writing for Swamp Thing. (Though it could have been Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. Do you really think I’m going to take the time to fact check in this posting?)

Schweitzer uses Lovecraft for purposes of horror, but awe and terror are not the only emotions in his stories using the Gentleman from Providence’s fiction.

Thus the teenage lovers of “Innsmouth Idyll” are in a Ray Bradbury-flavored coming of age and mutation story. The adults of “Class Reunion” return to the Orne Academy (as in Simon Orne of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) in a story that sets off middle-aged regrets about lost opportunities against the secret occult purposes their parents have committed them to.

Original to the anthology is “The Head Shop in Arkham”. Sure things end horribly, but things are amusing on the way with references to Poe and underground comics. Human-like resentment seethes behind the words of the ghoul-narrator in “The Warm”, a parallax on Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”.

Schweitzer isn’t content to riff on Lovecraft exclusively. He has created his own weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania – home to a long lived cult. It shows up in “Why We Do It” and “Hanged Man and Ghost”.

Several stories feature young, threatened protagonists or absent fathers. A young girl can break dimensional barriers with a scream to escape in a story with a horror plot and non-horror joy, “Sometimes You Have to Shout about It”. A young orphan boy is brought to the house of an English relative in “The Runners Beyond the Wall”, another story related to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The survivor of an abusive family meets “the stone man” who guides him into alternate dimensions but not away from his despair in “Howling in the Dark”.

Schweitzer shows his historical interest – though, unlike S. T. Joshi’s introduction, I don’t find his historical erudition all that remarkable even for a pre-Internet age – in “On the Eastbound Train”, which fuses elements of Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow, Lovecraft, and Byzantine history, and “Stragglers from Carrhae” which is narrated by a Roman legionnaire wandering the desert with a fellow survivor of that crushing Roman defeat. Medieval Europe in the era of the Crusades is the setting of “The Eater of Hours” which seems to be part of a series featuring the extraterrestrial Chronophagous.

Schweitzer is a skilled borrower of other authors’ voices and themes. “Ghost Dancing” is a Cthulhu Mythos story run through Donald Westlake.

One of the best stories belongs to no series: “The Corpse Detective”.  A bit of Kafka (the narrator, a private detective, says “the investigation is not going well”) in a story set in the Dark Place, a land of the dead. But the dead are vanishing, becoming undead, and the Minister of Dreams hires the narrator to investigate.  It’s a conservative world of tropism and habit where politeness prohibits mention of the sensual world of the living the inhabitants remember to varying degrees.

Definitely worth a look if you are interested in modern weird fiction.

i-am-crying-all-insideI feel bad about the next short-shrifted author: Clifford D. Simak. Open Road Media has finally released all his short works. (Don’t make the mistake I did and buy a paper copy. I’m not at all sure their multi-volume publication of Simak’s short fiction will get paper editions.)

Chris over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased has been taking a close look at them, and I urge you to check his site out. I really hope someday to thoroughly cover Simak’s work, but it’s not going to be now.

Installment Plan” from 1959 is one of those anthropological stories (why are those aliens acting so weird?) common in 1950s and 1960s science fiction. Simak is best remembered for his dogs-and-robots novel City. This story cuts out the dogs but the human-robot relationship is described in terms of man and dog. A team from Central Trading is sent to a planet to make a trade deal with the local aliens who have a herb, podar, which is the perfect tranquilizer. (Don’t get smug about 1950 Americans and their tranquilizers. We consume a lot more prescription psychotropics today.) An interesting ecological detail is that humans have tried to cultivate the herb, but only some protozoan on the aliens’ planet allows it to grow there. The robots of the story have skill modules they swap out of their bodies according to the task at hand.

But it’s what happens at the end to the story that makes it memorable and another version of Simak’s wariness about capitalism.

I have to admit that the main point of interest for me in Simak’s “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” was finding out what was considered cutting edge, taboo breaking science fiction by Simak when he wrote this for Harlan Ellison’s never published anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Like Simak’s “Desertion”, it has a man transformed into an alien form. A new body requires new goals, new drives, new urges right? Not to mention new thoughts and emotions. Our hero is very definitely not grateful for his transcendence.

Simak had a fondness for time travel and “Small Deer”, set in a geologically accurate version of Wisconsin’s past, is a fine example. It’s a tale of a mechanical genius and his idiot savant friend building a time machine to watch the dinosaurs.

Simak’s “Gleaners”, from 1960, seems partially an answer to T. L. Sherred’s famous “E for Effort” from 1947. The latter story imagined the documentation of the historical past made possible with time travel causing international chaos when cherished historical myths are overthrown. Spencer, the protagonist of Simak’s story, specifically rejects the notion that his time travel agency, publically chartered Past, Inc, is going to undertake a similar project with religion. What it does do is retrieve lost artifacts and genealogical research for wealthy patrons. But political pressure is starting to be brought to bear to change that policy. There are also nice asides on the psychological toil on Past, Inc’s temporal agents as they spend years in the future, with no ties beyond vacations, to their home time.

Ogre” with its sentient, musical plants, a possible plot to subvert human civilization, and an annoying, rules spouting robot accountant was also a standout story. I’m usually a sucker for “vegetable civilization” stories.

The collection has an example of one of Simak’s western stories too.

Open Road Media is not collecting Simak’s stories in the order they appeared which is probably a good thing.

And next we have three anthologies from the early 1990s. As to why I was reading so many 1990s anthologies now, I will come to in another posting.

Future Crime turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable anthology. Also surprising was that four of the twelve reprints were either from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That was ok with me. When I was young and wasn’t reading science fiction yet, I used to read Ellery Queen’s regularly.future-crime

Standouts (or, it must be admitted, stand out in my memory after three months) were several.

Isaac Asimov again churned out, with 1976’s “The Tercentenary Incident”, another paean to rule by technological elite. It turns on whether the president of the World Federation is or should be a robot. It all seems even more divorced from political plausibility 40 years later when centralization and elites do not seem to be doing too well in managing the world.

I was an admirer of John Shirley’s cyberpunk work of the 1980s, particularly his A Song Called Youth trilogy, but I had forgotten how good and serious and grounded in plausible tech (as far as contemporary science went) it was. “The Incorporated”’s hero senses part of his memory has been wiped and learns it was because he developed a “Media Alarm System” which detects “special interest distortion” in the news.

Orson Scott Card’s “Dogwalker”, from 1989, was his celebrated foray into cyberpunk. Now it’s suspenseful and gripping enough, but I suspect a lot of its acclaim came from the damaged nature, a perpetually thwarted puberty, of its narrator, the Password Man.

I’ve long heard of Harry Harrison’s “I Always Do What Teddy Says”, and it was enjoyable with its bunch of discontents in a future near-utopia plotting its overthrow via a child’s toy.

As you would expect, a fair number of these stories turn on speculative technologies and the world they created, so it’s not unexpected that, if you’re one of these people who don’t like dated science fiction, you’ll find their worlds, lacking our internet or the mobile devices that became so prevalent, stale after their near quarter century ago appearance.

One story that surprisingly isn’t as dated as you would expect is C. J. Cherryh’s “Mech”, original to the book. Set in a future Dallas, it involves a police call about an assault at an upscale apartment building. If rewritten today, it would involve drones and robots, but here one of the responding officer’s serves as a human sensor platform with his partner combining his feed with other data. The ending surprisingly opens the story into much broader political concerns.

Also original to the collection is George Alec Effinger “The World as We Know It”. It’s part of his Budayeen series with the same narrator as those novels. Do I remember much of its plot? No, but then I don’t remember much of the Budayeen novels’ plots. I just remember liking the world and narrator’s voice. Same here.

Alan Dean Foster is probably one of science fiction’s most enthusiastic world travelers and often giving to setting his stories in parts of Earth that don’t often show up in Anglophone science fiction. “Lay Your Head on My Pilose”, also original to the anthology, isn’t at all fantastic and involves a womanizing con man embarking on a new scheme in South America.

I’ve read a fair number of Mike Resnick’s anthologies. He tends to have a stable of writers he goes to again and again.

dinosaur-fantasticI’m not sure why I bought Dinosaur Fantastic – perhaps some temporary paleontological enthusiasm (I’m more interested in straight geology).

I was expecting, frankly, a lot of time travel stories and dino resurrection stories a la Jurassic Park, and there are certainly stories in that category. But a surprisingly number aren’t either, and that led to a relatively rich theme anthology.

However, if I would have thought about it for a bit, I should have realized how many metaphorical and symbolic uses our culture puts dinosaurs to.

Capitol punishment via mind transference to the Jurassic is the idea behind Robert J. Sawyer’s “Just Like Old Times”.

Time travelers introducing dinosaurs to Ancient Rome is only the beginning of a sort of wacky alternate history in Robert Sheckley’s “Disquisitions on the Dinosaurs”.

Gregory Feeley’s “Ways of Looking at a Dinosaur” surprised me. Normally, I’m not keen on metafiction and Feeley’s piece is that. It combines rumination on the symbolism of dinosaurs while spinning off several mini stories on the theme. However, it was one of my favorite pieces. However, it gets points taken off for the mealy mouth piece of pc rhetoric of “… the nineteenth century discovered that the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old”. No, it wasn’t “the nineteenth century”. It was European scientists.

Sure you know where Frank M. Robinson’s “The Great Dying” is going with its contemporary research into the possibility of a dinosaur plague, but it’s a sure-footed and enjoyable journey.

Bill Fawcett’s “After the Comet” is exactly what you would expect, but I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of the old writer of animal tales, Frank Ernest Thompson Seaton.

The speculation that St. Columba encountered the Loch Ness monster is the idea behind Laura Resnick’s “Curren’s Song”. Another story with particular historical resonance, for a 1993 anthology, is Jack Nimersheim’s “The Pangaean Principle” with is ex-Soviet scientist hero and ruminations on vanished worlds geological and national.

Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Whilst Slept the Sauropod” is a fable like story of an isolated island with its own dinosaur.

David Gerrold’s “Rex” is a nasty combination of domestic troubles and household dinosaurs – miniaturized T-Rexes to be specific.

And anyone with a fondness for conspiracy theories will love Roger MacBride Allen’s “Evolving Conspiracy”. Chock full of conspiracy theories, the one it’s most concerned with is the very grand and very encompassing evolutionist-Communist conspiracy.

As you could probably tell in my reviews of the Mike Resnick edited anthologies Alternate Presidents and Alternate Kennedys, I was frequently annoyed by purported alternate history stories that don’t pick up the heavy speculative burden of what a change in history would mean. Rather they do the far easier moment of change. And that moment of change often isn’t very interesting or plausible. (As part of my generally slipshod approach to this posting, I am not going to critique the finer points of the alternate histories either.)alternate-warriors

However, in reading the introductory notes to one of the stories, I realized that Resnick really never intended for all the stories to be serious alternate histories. These books use historical figures for jokes and odd juxtapositions.

Alternate Warriors is the least interesting of the two. As you might expect, we get a lot of stories that rely on the startle factor of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and St. Francis of Assisi as warriors.

Still, there are some high points.

Resnick’s own “Mwalimu in the Squared Circle” centers on a real, if obscure, historical story. General and President-Elect-for-Life Idi Amin Dada of Uganda challenged Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to a boxing match to settle the war between their two countries. The challenge is accepted here.

Yes, Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s “Because Thou Lovest the Burning Ground” is a Ghandi gone bad story – gone Thuggee as it happens, but it’s atmospheric and has details on the Kali worshippers.

Maureen F. McHugh’s “Tut’s Wife” is a serious, moody look at what its heroine must do to preserve the Kingdom of Egypt. Judith Tarr’s “Queen of Asia” is a well-done look at how Persian Queen Sisygambis confronts Alexander the Great. Mercedes Lackey’s “Jihad” is a plausible seeming look at T. E. Lawrence’s conversion to Islam.  However, essentially, these are “how things changed” stories which end with the reader being invited to speculate how history will develop – as if the same questions couldn’t be spurred by regular history books.  Both Tarr’s and McHugh’s stories end with their heroines seeking marriages not seen in our history. Essentially, that’s just stretching out the moment-of-change concept and not a real alternate history

Marilyn Monroe has connections to Castro and Che Guevera in Jack C. Haldeman’s II “The Cold Warrior”. Despite not being much interested in the Kennedys and Marilyn, I liked this depiction of Monroe as spurned Commie agent.

It was Resnick’s introductory notes for Beth Meacham’s “One by One” saying it was “a true alternate history” that tipped me off that these anthologies are, by and large, not real alternate histories.

Meacham’s story is probably the best in the book charting into our time the consequences of a different life for American Indian Tecumseh. It’s tale of irredentism in which the Alliance Warriors Society continues the Two Hundred Year of the Shawnee Alliance with the European invaders. Perhaps inspired by Balkan events at the time of the writing, it still, with its Army Counter Terrorism units operating in several parts of America, seems contemporary and, for me, a fictional (though I doubt Meacham intended this) argument that whites and Indians could never equally and peacefully inhabit North America.

Dishonorable mention for the book goes to David Gerrold’s “The Firebringers”, a cheap, implausible, and bad literary collage depending on odd juxtapositions. We not only get some tired arguments about the immorality of using the A-Bomb and with the following characters:  President Cooper, Bogey the bombardier, General Tracy, Drs. Karloff and Lorre, Colonel Peck and Colonel Regan, and Captain Fonda, etc.

alternate-outlawsAlternate Outlaws is even less a real collection of alternate histories, but it is at least unchained to the cheap ironies and paradoxes of humanitarians and pacifists turned warrior.

Pride of place actually goes to David Gerrold’s “What Goes Around”. Charles Manson’s the subject here, still criminal, but a different sort of criminal. An alternate Harlan Ellison shows up under his pseudonym Cordwainer Bird.

The only real clue to the identity of the heroine of Beth Meacham’s “A Spark in the Darkness” is a back cover blurb about Helen Keller as a safecracker.

Thomas Paine lives a much shorter life, and dies in England, in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Common Sense”.

The James Gang goes straight and play a large role in early Hollywood westerns in Allen Steele’s “Riders in the Sky”.

Frank M. Robinson puts his knowledge of pulp and early science fiction history to good use with “One Month in 1907” which features Hugo Gernsback, affectionately known as “Hugo the Rat” by some early pulp writers.

Walter Jon Williams’ plays it straight in “Red Elvis”, the cover story. Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Giving Head” features Sigmund Freud trying to learn what makes the Red Baron so good at what he does.

Most of the rest of the stories are extended jokes, and I gazing at the table of contents again only brings back memories of a few after reading them only a couple of months ago. (And I can’t be bothered to go into the details of others.)

Comrade Bill” from John E. Johnston III is about a certain ex-President. “Good Girl, Bad Dog”, from Martha Soukup, features a certain famous canine gone rogue. As for the rest, well, I remember a lot of jokes but specifics have already faded from my mind in the less than two months since I read the book.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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One thought on “The Write Off Post

  1. Pingback: Selected Short Fiction of Kathe Koja | MarzAat

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