“Day of the Moron”

After “Dearest”, Piper published “Temple Trouble” which I reviewed as part of Paratime.

If the recent Piper stories I’ve reviewed don’t seem like anything particularly special, I’d agree with you. While I’m covering Piper’s work chronologically, I’ve reviewed some of his better work in my reviews of not only Paratime but also Federation and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. By this point in his career, though, he had only written stories showing up in Paratime.

But this is the first story of the current review series on Piper to that is interesting on its own merits.

Review: “Day of the Moron”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

This story didn’t beat the most famous 1950s science fiction work with “moron” in the title: C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s “The Marching Morons”. That story saw print in the April 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Piper’s story appeared in the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. However, Piper sent his story off to editor John W. Campbell in 1947. Why Campbell didn’t buy it right away is interesting, and we’ll be getting to that.

While Kornbluth’s and Pohl’s story had a eugenics theme, Piper was just aghast at what he saw as a general drop in intelligence. Piper scholar John F. Carr says:

To Piper the average working man was a creature of minimal competence at best, a prejudice I expected he picked up on the job while working with the laborers at the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

The science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s is full of massive, centralized technological projects, and this is one. Here it’s the Long Island Nuclear Reaction Plant which is getting a replacement of its manual control system with a “fully cybernetic” one.

I said in my review of Federation that the stories are from a time when you “you could engineer a culture the way you engineered a bridge”, and there is some of that here.

He is Scott Melroy, an engineer. He owns the company installing that cybernetic control system. And, as we’ll see, he knows something about social engineering too.

There were still, in 1968, a few people who were afraid of the nuclear power plant. Oldsters, in whom the term ‘atomic energy’ produced semantic reactions associated with Hiroshima. Those who saw, in the towering steam-column above it, a tempting target for enemy— which still meant Soviet— bombers and guided missiles. Some of the Central Intelligence and F.B.I. people, who realized how futile even the most elaborate security measures were against a resourceful and suicidally determined saboteur. And a minority of engineers and nuclear physicists who remained unpersuaded that accidental blowups at nuclear-reaction plants were impossible.

Melroy is in the last category. He already knows that there have been several “near-catastrophes” at the plant. The retro-fitting job has been going on three months, and work on the reactors is just starting. Melroy schedules a meeting with a psychologist, Dr. von Heydenreich. He’s surprised when a Dr. Doris Rives shows up instead. She is, of course, quite an attractive woman.

Continue reading ““Day of the Moron””

“Rebel Raider”

Review: “Flight from Tomorrow”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.

Review: “Rebel Raider”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.

Piper tried to get many nonfiction articles published in his lifetime, but, aside from some articles in his friends local shopping guide, he only succeeded once with this article on a famed cavalryman, Confederate Army Colonel John Mosby. It was published in True:The Men’s Magazine’s March 23, 1950 issue, and Piper was elated. 

John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer quotes Frederik Pohl’s (Piper’s one-time agent) “The Way the Future Blogs” about the story: 

“=Piper was a railroad man from birth. He lived in the Western Pennsylvania rail center of those great continent-spanning lines that appeared after the Civil War. That war was important to Beam. He had strong feelings about such concepts as heroism and personal honor, and he took sides. The side he favored was the slaveholding but militarily exciting Confederacy. Mostly self-educated, Beam was thrilled by the exploits of those dashing Rebel commanders, in particular by John Mosby, the Southern cavalry officer who made parts of Virginia uninhabitable by Federal troops or sympathizers.

When Beam mentioned to me that he had, on his own time and just for the fun of it, written a lengthy work about his hero, I reminded him of my Basic Maxim No. 1: ‘Writers write mostly for the fun of it. Agents exist to see they get money for having fun.’ So he turned the finished piece over to me, and I promptly sold ‘Rebel Raider’ for a decent amount of money. 

Piper was very happy to get fan mail saying he, a lifetime Pennsylvania man (apart from a brief foray in Paris), must be a Southerner. 

Continue reading ““Rebel Raider””

Of All Possible Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

The posts on William Tenn continue while I work on new posts.

Science Fiction Ruminations gives the parallax on this.

Cover by Bob Blanchard

Raw Feed (1998): Of All Possible Worlds, William Tenn, 1955.

Introduction: On the Fiction in Science Fiction” is William Tenn’s defense of science fiction. First, he argues that, contrary to critics, sf is about people as individuals or representatives of a “collective community”.  Second, popular art, which sf is, is helpful in attaining aspirations of artistic immortality. He argues that “a scientific error or two” would not mar classic sf. He explicitly mentions Robert A. Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, Frederik Pohl’s and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky as classics.  Responding to the old charge of sf as escapism, Tenn notes that new literary genres, be they novels or Elizabethan plays are always denounced as dangerous by an intellectual elite invested in the old forms. Tenn doubts that people read any fiction to learn more about their “unfulfilled” lives or gain a moral perspective. He thinks that people read fiction for escape, believable escape. Responding to the old and still present charge that sf has produced no Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Fielding, Tenn notes that Elizabethan dramatists produced nothing equivalent to Aeschylus either though it was the standard they were aiming for.  Good popular art has a certain primitive vitality and vulgarity, Tenn argues, which causes it to endure longer than boring art polished to the point of perfection.

Down Among the Dead Men” — This story, like Alfred Bester’s “Disappearing Act” published a year earlier in 1953, is a satire about the Cold War. Essentially both stories depict a society totally mobilized for war – and the qualities of those societies being destroyed in the act of defending them. I use to regard these stories as somewhat liberal whining about fighting the Cold War, but, in learning more about the total mobilization of America in WWII (which, of course, Tenn and Bester would have known first hand) and the encroachments of the government on liberty during that war and since, I appreciate these stories now. Here a decades long war with the alien Eoti has radically changed Earth’s society. Not only are millions dead and all of Earth mobilized, but, in a satirical point derived from the recycling drives of WWII, human soldiers, dead soldiers, are revived as ever increasingly sophisticated “soldier surrogates” or, in popular parlance, zombies. Sexual mores have changed drastically since Earth’s women need to pump out as many babies as possible. The narrator, his reproductive organs wounded – and the wound one of the few that are irreparable, is excluded from these couplings. I’m unsure whether to be glad, at the end, the protagonist as found a purpose and family (albeit a surrogate one) or horrified that familial and human sensibilities have been so distorted or wonder that humans are so adaptable.

Continue reading “Of All Possible Worlds; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Halfway to Anywhere — Volume 1

I picked up this slender anthology solely because it had a William Meikle story in it.

Review: Halfway to Anywhere – Volume 1, 2017.

Cover by Zach McCain

William Meikle’s “Stars and Sigils” wrings a couple of variation on his Sigils and Totems formula. First, the sigils and totems “house” in this futuristic story is on a space station. Second, the narrator doesn’t use it an expected way to reconnect with his dead friend Johnny. It’s an unusual entry in Meikle’s series.

J. G. Faherty’s “Heroes Are Made” reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s “What Dreams Remain”. Both feature protagonists who are willing to sell out the future (the future of space exploration in the Pohl story, the future of humanity here) for comfort and safety. Barry goes to his summer cabin with his annoying wife and kids, and they are attacked by aliens which appear as duplicates of the family. The aliens are interested in taking over Earth and are impersonating humans to do it. They need help in perfecting their methods, so they make a proposition to Barry: teach them how to impersonate humans and he can have a better life – albeit under alien guard – than he does now.

Daedalus” from Jeremy Henderson takes too long to get to an obvious conclusion. The whole story is basically the officers of a starship discussing what to do after it’s been learned that their terraforming efforts to make a planet habitable have killed off a large portion of an unknown group of sentient aliens. The officers have to decide whether to turn around and surrender to the UN and be tried for genocide, kill the crew still in suspended animation, or carry on with the expedition and try to help the surviving native sentients.

Continue reading “Halfway to Anywhere — Volume 1”

Walking the Night Land: Awake in the Night Land

The series on William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land continues.

Essay: Awake in the Night Land, John C. Wright, 2014.

awake_256
Cover by JartStar

After reading William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, I looked up some reviews and criticisms of the work. I was surprised to learn that a devoted group of writers still pay homage to the novel over a hundred years later and have extended Hodgson’s story.

The most extensive and highly regarded such work is this collection.

In his introduction, “On the Lure of the Night Land”, Wright describes himself, post-college, as a somewhat jaded lover of fantastic fiction who was pointed to this novel by a friend. Wright had been working on a piece called “Nigh-Forgotten Sun” which his friend thought was a takeoff on Hodgson’s novel. Wright, however, had not read the novel yet.

In those days, Hodgson’s novel was only available in two volumes from Ballantine Books. He was immediately captivated by the first volume. It was years, though, before he got to read the second volume. Still, Wright’s sense of wonder was rekindled with the heroic tale of Naani’s rescue, the eerie menaces and features of the Night Land that were full of awe and impenetrable mysteries. He loved Hodgson’s archaic “formal and gravid” language which captured the “dark, heavy, grim and gothic majesty” of the Night Land. Continue reading “Walking the Night Land: Awake in the Night Land”

Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading “Georgia on My Mind and Other Places”

Star-Begotten

Review: Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, James Gunn, 2017.51CAqNyrFQL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

Even James Gunn didn’t live all his life in science fiction, and the parts of his autobiography about his life outside that world are as entertaining and lengthy as the rest.

Of course, Gunn is a noted science fiction writer who first published in 1949 and has had new work published in 2018. He was the first to treat science fiction as an academic subject. He taught the craft of writing it for many years. He also was the man behind the Science Fiction Lecture Film series which filmed presentations of noted science fiction writers. You can find clips on YouTube and purchase the series from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction including one of Gunn interviewing Rod Serling.

But this autobiography gives you a sense of the man and something of his times.

It was a life, he acknowledges, governed by chance. One was meeting the woman he was married to for 65 years, Jane Anderson. It might not have happened if he hadn’t left college after his junior year in 1943 when we was finally called up for the Navy Air Force which he volunteered for shortly after World War Two started. Another chance event altered the trajectory of that Navy career when an unusually calm day, a condition in which Cadet Gunn was unused to, caused him fail to slow a plane while landing it solo for the first time. He became a washed-out aviator trainee. Continue reading “Star-Begotten”

Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.51jIRlPDtwL

Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.

Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.

I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.

Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice. Continue reading “Saving the World Through Science Fiction”

Kampus; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Essay: Kampus, James Gunn, 1977.

Kampus
Cover by Bob Larkin.

“It’s easy to loosen the reins of authority but difficult to tighten them again. That would have involved the kinds of effort we no longer were capable of making and would have revolutionized our society almost as much as you threatened. So we gave you the campuses. We walled you in. The serious scholars departed, and we left you here to play your games and survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would graduate. …

“You may think it’s ridiculous to have a mechanical Chancellor. But it is no more ridiculous than having mechanical students. And that is what you are, mechanically responding to stimuli like so many robots.”

The speaker is the Chancellor of the University of Kansas. It’s about 1998, and the students have gotten what they wanted after the Free Speech movement of the 1960s – a place to play their own power games and hierarchy struggles while complaining about social injustice.

In 1968, James Gunn, 45 years old and dealing with student unrest in his role as public relations director at the University of Kampus, started this novel. It wasn’t even conceived as science fiction though it uses the chemical memory theories of James McConnell. It was a to be a satire on the world, according to Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten (to be covered in a future post),

the student rebels might have made if they had been successful and imagined a near future when the college campuses had been turned over to the students, and real science and scholarship had gone elsewhere.

The recipient of the Chancellor’s words is Gavin, our unlikeable, Candide-like hero. He will discover that world the students have made is definitely not the best possible one. Continue reading “Kampus; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Transgalactic

Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.

Transgalactic
Cover by Thom Tenery

”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”

So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.

Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.

Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career. Continue reading “Transgalactic”