“The Beak Doctor”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Beak Doctor”, Eric Basso, 1977.The Weird

I came to this story with trepidation. Basso is a poet. This story was first published in the literary magazine Chicago Review, and the introduction compared it to surrealist Alfred Kubin’s work.

I was right to expect little.

This is an interminable story of meandering, overly detailed description. (It’s 31 pages long, and The Weird does not have small pages.) There is lot of tedious descriptions of, among other things, lights and the pattern of lights, I suppose as contrast to the story being set in some fogbound, unnamed port city of the mid-20th century.

The story, such as it is, involves a beak doctor who is called to examine a naked, raped woman. He is wearing, it seems, mask and goggles something like the black plague beak doctors with their bird like snouts full of herbs, spices, and dried flowers. (Not actually invented until 1619.) Continue reading ““The Beak Doctor””

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“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”

The piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing last week . . .

Review: “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”, Bruno Schulz, trans. Celina Wieniewska, 1937.The Weird

Besides Lovecraftian fiction and cosmic horror, the 20th century’s saw another new variety of weird fiction. The monsters and dangers and eeriness weren’t from beyond mortal ken. They were the deformation of human institutions. The men and women who faced them were trapped in bureaucratic institutions, hospitals, and courtrooms. They faced not dark sorcerers with grimoires but implacable functionaries following some arcane procedure with unseen and inhuman logic which, of course, really wasn’t inhuman. It was a manifestation of the increasingly prevalent and effective mechanisms of central control that human societies developed.

Franz Kafka, of course, worked in this vein, and the VanderMeers’ introduction puts Schulz in that same camp. Continue reading ““Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass””

In Alien Flesh

Another day of not having thing new to post. Since Gregory Benford was mentioned awhile ago, I thought I’d give this, sort of Raw Feed though a bit skimpy on a couple of stories.

Raw Feed (1991): In Alien Flesh, ed. Gregory Benford, 1986.

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Cover by Joe Bergeron

Doing Lennon” — A famous story about an obsessed fan getting his ultimate wish to become his idol, John Lennon, via impersonating Lennon after being cryonically revived. The pathological nature of the fan, the thrill of pretending (without anyone to deny it) to be Lennon, “doing Lennon” as a drug-like experience, is well-depicted. The surprise ending, where Henry Fielding is confronted by a revived Paul McCartney, was truly surprising as was Fielding turning out to be a computer simulation, a simulation designed to help “Fielding Real” to better carry off his scam, a simulation that will betray Fielding Real because he has known the joy of “doing Lennon” (that phrase has not only a connotation of drugs but also of violence and sex — Benford uses language well and has a knack for titles) and plans on impersonating someone else if he can get his computer construct mind transferred to a human body.

In Alien Flesh” — A strange story of alien contact. The title contains the connotations of the story. Our protagonist Reginri is hired to put an electrical tap into the neural nexus of the alien, whalelike Drongheda — the problem is this involves crawling in a blowhole like opening. The word “flesh” is literally evoked in this operation. But “flesh” also has a sexual connotation, and this implication is realized when one of the expedition is crushed to death when — for the first time ever recorded — another Drongheda puts a tentacle in the “blowhole” (not a term used in the story, “pinhole” is) to mate and communicate and our hapless scientist is in the middle. It’s a disturbing image, being crushed to death in an alien, vagina-like structure by a penis-like tentacle. The image of sex and communication is odd, disturbing and memorable. The people who listen to the electrical output from the neural nexus find themselves oddly attracted to the aliens’ thoughts though Reginri suspects each person “hears” what he seeks. I didn’t find that element of the story as intriguing as the intimate blend of sex and communication which goes on, at some level, amongst humans of course. Continue reading “In Alien Flesh”

Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I don’t have anything new to post right now, I’ll respond to a mention of this collection on Classics of Science Fiction. And a reminder unusually relevant with this one — Raw Feeds come with spoilers.

Raw Feed (2001): Man in His Time: Best SF Stories, Brian Aldiss, 1989.MNNHSTMBST1989

Introduction” — Aldiss talks briefly about how he was influenced by the first Shakespeare play he read, The Tempest, and how the short story, unlike the novel, has no hero and, again unlike the novel, is never about the search for truth but features a truth of the author’s. Aldiss, responding to a critic’s remark that his stories don’t as much explain as mystify, sees mystification as a tool to reveal the truth that we do not know everything about the universe.

Outside” — This story is dated 1955 (It’s unclear if that’s a date of composition or date of publication.), so it’s possible that it may have been inspired, if Aldiss saw the magazines they were published in, some of Philip K. Dick’s earlier work (he is an acknowledged fan of Dick), specifically the Dick story “Imposter” which has published prior to 1955. On the other hand, it’s possible he came up with the idea for this story all by himself or was inspired by A.E. van Vogt, Dick’s model for some of his earlier stuff. The story here, a man sharing a house with some other housemates, a house that none of them ever leaves, that none of them even has the desire to leave though they can’t see out of it (and get their supplies from the “store”, a small room by the kitchen), and the man eventually discovering that the house is an observatory where humans observe captured, would-be alien Nititian infiltrators (they kill humans and shape themselves into exact replicas), and the man discovering that he is, in fact, one of those Nititian, is pretty Dickian.  The protagonist was so passive because Nititians tend to adopt themselves to the psychological coloration of the humans around them. In this case, a human observer in the house was in the passive, watching mode.

The Failed Men” — An interesting story, a witty look at the uncleavable union of culture and language. The humans of the 24th Century, called the Children by those of that future, are roped into the Intertemporal Red Cross mission made up of humans from many different periods in the future, to save the bizarre, strange case of the Failed Men, a culture of the 3,157th century. They are deformed in shape, and have, for some unknown reason, buried themselves in the Earth. They literally have to be dug out to help them. The 24th Century protagonist, and his comrades from the same century, find the Failed Men so disturbing that psychiatric hospitalization is required. There are hints that some action of the ancestors created the Failed Men, but no one can be sure. No one has been able to fathom the motives for the path they took.  It may have been religious or a failed attempt at transcendence. The Failed Men are no help in explaining their action. Their language is a melange of abstractions, some seemingly redundant, some seemingly contradictory — at least, to a non-native speaker. Continue reading “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

The Spy Who Changed History

Review: The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold History of How the Soviet Union Stole America’s Top Secret, Svetlana Lokhova, 2019.Spy WHo Changed History

I’m pretty sure that most biographers of spies think their book should be titled “the spy who changed history”, but Lokhova actually justifies her title.

Using archival information from the NKVD archives she came across in a previous history about Stalin’s Great Purge, she gives us the story of Stanislav Shumovsky the man who could be said to have made the Cold War possible.

How? Because Shumovsky was not only involved in stealing the secrets of America’s atom bomb but, perhaps more importantly, the means of delivering it – stolen American aviation technology that resulted in the Soviet Union’s Tu-4, its first strategic, transcontinental bomber that could nuke America.

Shumovsky was the first of the USSR’s very useful scientist spies, agents who not only knew the usual tradecraft but who also had the scientific expertise to know what to seek out on their own initiative, how to chat up loose-lipped scientists and engineers who were happy to talk to a fellow colleague, and how to use the gained secrets to develop Soviet technology. Continue reading “The Spy Who Changed History”

“The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

Since James Harris over at Classics of Science Fiction reviewed this story recently and since I’m not close to putting up any new posts, I thought I’d throw in my two cents about Aldiss’ work.

Raw Feed (1989, 2001): “The Saliva Tree”, Brian W. Aldiss, 1965.

TORDOB03A This is a fun pastiche of H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft. Aldiss isn’t as terrifying as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space“, his obvious model — though he does produce some scary moments in making his malevolent aliens tourists and giving us an image of space travel being the product of vicious, ruthless races, but he gives us gentle humor in his references to Wells (including all sorts of references to H. G. Wells titles and his inspiration for The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, and The Shape of Things to Come. Aldiss clearly reveres Wells. Aldiss gives a pleasantly Victorian love story with a rivalry between men. (He also gives us rather muted emotion, but I suspect that is part of the air he wishes to achieve.). Aldiss shows his skill in using literary symbols. The misshapen stuffed animals of Mr. Grendon are a reflection of the aliens altering Earth’s flaura and fauna. The Grendon farm uses lower animals the way the Aurigans use us. The destruction of the electrical systems — and the Grendon farm itself (symbol of socialism’s hope in the value and betterment of the common man) — symbolizes the destruction of the naïve belief in inevitable progress and the linkage of higher morality with higher technology.

Upon reading this story the second time around, I noticed a lot more allusions to the work of H.G. Wells than just (as I did the first time) some references to the titles The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds or the presence of H.G. Wells at story’s end. The first time I read it, I characterized it as a cross between H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.MNNHSTMBST1989

To be sure the basic plot follows the Lovecraft story: an alien lands on a farm, produces changes in humans and plants and animals that causes them to grow large, feeds on the altered organisms, literally maddens some people, kills even more, and returns to space. Aldiss compresses his story timeline relative to Lovecraft’s, has his protagonist intimately involved with the events rather than hearing about them second-hand as the narrator does in the Lovecraft story, has the aliens’ presence explained as a holiday outing, and has his protagonist drive the aliens off. (Of course, in the Lovecraft tale, as typical with a Lovecraft story, humanity is powerless in front of the cosmic menace and not all of it leaves at story’s end.)

This time I noticed the phrases that alluded to (at least, I don’t remember noticing them the first time around) H.G. Wells’ titles: “men like gods”, “food of the gods” (particularly apt for the enlarging effects suffered by the people, animals, and plants on the farm), and “the shape of things to come”. Of course, we’re to assume that Wells’ (this story seems to take place shortly after the publication of The War of the Worlds) gets some future titles from protagonist Gregory Rolles. The socialism — and lack of good socialist comradery on the part of the invisible aliens — of Rolles I caught the first time around. Continue reading ““The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”

Beyond the Fall of Night

Since I recently brought up Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, I thought I’d also mention Clarke’s earlier version of the story and Gregory Benford’s sequel.

Raw Feed (1991): Beyond the Fall of Night, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, 1990.BNDFLLFN1990

My reactions to this book follow three veins: comparing Part 1, Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” with the expanded version The City and the Stars, Benford’s sequel to Clarke’s novella in its own right, and the combination as a whole.

As an alternative to The City and the Stars, I liked the latter better than “Against the Fall of Night”. The novel gave full rein to Clarke’s mournful vistas of an ancient Earth where man huddles fearfully. The novella has the same feel but Clarke simply doesn’t have as much space to portray these emotions. Also the novel had many interesting details, notions, and speculations: the psychological and social effects of no new births in Diaspar — just recycling of personalities with undesired memories edited out — and immortality, the instant creation of desired forms of matter (for role-playing games and much else), the sex games of Diaspar’s inhabitants and their evolved state, the mysterious Jester and the more mysterious matter of Alvin actually being born not recanted, the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanamonde (dealt with here but not in as great detail), and the religion of the Master and the enforced silence of his robot servant to spare him embarrassment. The mere length of the novella lessens the tone and emotion that goes so far in making the novel a classic.

I’m not sure if Benford’s addition really stands alone, but I liked it. From what I’ve heard of his novels (I’ve only read his collaboration with David Brin in Heart of the Comet), this story has his characteristic concern with man’s evolution and his place in the vaster evolution of life and intelligence. The vistas of millennia are reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon I suppose, but this part reminded me most of the bizarre future of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Benford’s life forms are just as bizarre, even more rationalized (particularly the creatures whose consciousness exist in the magnetic fields of the galaxy), but less well described. Which is just as well. Benford’s creatures are too vast, too alien to be minutely described like Aldiss’. They can just be suggested. Continue reading “Beyond the Fall of Night”