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”

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”

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”

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,

Looking back in my posts after posting a review of volume six in this series, I see I hadn’t posted anything on volume one. I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, I didn’t make notes on the last story in the book.

That makes this a …

Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2006.Robert Silverberg 1

Introduction” — An interesting introduction to this, the first volume in what Silverberg says is the third attempt to collect his stories. Silverberg continues to amaze me with his prolificness while not working weekends and while in college. Here he casually mentions all the stories, as a professional writer (not working weekends but while in college), he sold in the years 1953-58. He says that he will let his mediocre sports and mystery stories languish. Silverberg is unapologetic about being a hack to fund sf projects he did care about. It was only years later that he discovered that the writers he admired, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon weren’t supporting themselves by in the same way. Leiber had an editorial job. Bradbury sold to the high paying slicks. Sturgeon simply lived near starvation — which Silverberg decidedly didn’t. However, he is happy to reprint his early pulp stories which he thinks show compentency and that he has affection for.

Gorgon Planet” — Silverberg justly points out that this, his first professional sale, is nothing special. But it is pretty good for an eighteen year old, and he’s right in showing that he had an early command of effectively linking exposition and dialogue. The plot itself is a lackluster retelling of the Perseus-Medusa myth in a sf context. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. One: To Be Continued,”

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

The PKD series continues with a rather expensive academic book that I loaned out and never saw again.

Don’t loan your books out, kids.

Raw Feed (1989): Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, eds. Patricia S. Warwick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1984.Robots Androids

Introduction“, Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg — Despite the glib and (at least as far as I can tell from my reading of Dick’s work so far) silly assertion that Dick’s war robots are similar to machines planned by the military and the retreading of the now familiar analysis of Dick’s theme (the nature of reality and humanity), this introduction did have two valid observations. [The older Marzaat certainly thinks we have lurched a lot closer to Dick’s killer machines.] The first is that Dick believed that to preserve your humanness you had to forswear allegiance to any ideology, be unpredictable (unlike the machine which is programmed for predictability), unconstrained by predictability. This explains the characterization of Dick’s protagonists whom we are supposed to empathize with. The second is the point that Dick has a definite propensity to confuse the line between human and machine (a crucial element of his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) with machines being quite human and humans being cold and unempathetic.

The Little Movement” — More of a fantasy than sf story . We never find out exactly where the toy soldiers come from, their larger purpose, or if they are part of a larger plot. This story is not particularly moving, but it does show some Dick characteristics: the dangerous toy whose harmless appearance is deceiving; mysterious, battling forces present in the universe with humans in the middle; and the hint of Dick’s concern with individual perceptions of the world with the in passing reference to the different worlds of adults and children. And, of course, there is a oh-so Dick baroque plot twist at the end.

The Defenders” — I’d heard about this story and read Dick’s The Penultimate Truth so the main plot feature of this story — that robots were faking a war to keep humans underground — was not a surprise. What was a surprise is, unlike in The Penultimate Truth, the robots are not doing this at the behest of manipulative, selfish masters but for altruistic reasons. Ironically, Dick, the anti-authoritarian, sees the initiation of the One World state as good and his characters pragmatically unite to rebuild the destruction and wildly exalt in the possibilities of the future. Unlike the vicious robots of The Penultimate Truth, these robots are kind but firm and view man as needing one final temper tantrum before uniting into one culture. (I don’t buy Dick’s argument that cultures who lose moral goals opt to civil war.) [I’d say it’s when cultures differ on moral goals.]

The Preserving Machine” — A light hearted story (with a black statement) showing Dick’s love of music. I fully agree with music being a wonderful, terribly fragile product of culture. [No, I’m not sure what younger self meant by “terribly fragile” — subject to the availability of technology? musicians?] I liked the fantastic notion of a machine turning music into animals (with oddly appropriate results including the final scene of the Beethoven beetle building a mud hut). Yet the story has a odd, rather depressing theme if I’m interpreting it right: the beautiful products of man’s cultures — the art, ethics, philosophy — are all fragile and, like living forms, respond to evolutionary pressures of the environment and mutate into unrecognizable forms. Dick’s depressing conclusion seems to be that art is doomed. He ties this into a curious religious point: that God must have felt humiliation and sadness at seeing his creation in the Garden of Eden respond to evolutionary pressure. A strange conclusion I’m not sure I agree with. But I do agree culture is fragile.

Second Variety” — If you read enough Philip K. Dick, you begin to become familiar with some of the turnings of his mind, anticipate his plot twists. That was partially the case here. I did immediately suspect the first David (with the disturbingly lethal Teddy bear) of being a crab. Towards the end I suspected Tasso. However, Dick still managed to catch me by surprise with Klaus being a crab, and I thought Dick was going to be sneaky and simply have no second variety crab — have the implication of the second variety’s existence be a plot to demoralize both sides and create general paranoia. Speaking of paranoia, this had some fine, powerful moments of such on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The plot of robotic soldiers slaughtering humans while disguised as such reminding me of another movie: The Terminator (at least as much resemblance as Harlan Ellison’s “Soldier”). [Harlan Ellison famously sued director James Cameron which is why later prints of the movie acknowledge the works of Harlan Ellison.] Dick did a very effective job of describing the bleak, post-nuclear landscape and the violence, confusion, and rush of combat. Clearly the crabs are a stark example of Dick’s theme of thanatos: they are animal-like creatures utterly dedicated to destroying life, the ultimate realization of the Frankenstein theme, a weapon turned against both sides. They may, has Major Hendricks implies, have unrealized potentialities they will realize after the war, but we don’t see them. Indeed, the fact, like all other life forms, they’ve taken to killing each other seems a good thing at story’s end. However, that introduces an ambiguous note: are the crabs just another life form (they certainly are creepy) albeit made of metal? Has man introduced them only in his folly? Or has he served as a creator, passing man’s torch on (probably not a valid reading given Dick’s stated use of the robot/android metaphor)? Tasso does say we always did nice work. Irony or gratitude from created to creator? Ah, that Dick ambiguity. I do not, incidentally, see Tasso — as the story notes state — as a prototype for Dick’s consuming female. The characterization isn’t very similar.

Imposter” — A line from Blade Runner (though not scripted by Dick it accurately conveys his sensibilities) kept coming to mind when reading this: “How can it not know what it is?” Despite the rather telegraphing title, knowledge of Dick’s plotting proclivities, and a vague knowledge of this story from reading past criticisms, this story still caught me by surprise at the end. I thought, all through the story, that Spence Olham was a robot but, at story’s end when the real Olham’s body is first thought to be the robot’s, I thought he was human. Dick gets you whatever your original preconception was — a typical feature of his stories. I thought the portrayal of a self-deceived machine feeling unjustly persecuted was poignant. I also found it ironical that self-knowledge was what finally triggered the U-Bomb. A notion occurred to me that the robot could be a metaphor for all those evil people who really, truly don’t feel they’re evil, a threat, and are being persecuted.

Service Call” — This is one of those stories about a visitor from the future who can’t even really be questioned because human culture has changed so much. I liked this story a great deal. The idea of eliminating war (an extreme manifestation of disagreement) by imposing ideological (of whatever flavor) conformity is ironic given Dick’s values. He hated war, but he also hated conformity. This story has some of the moral ambiguity of Dick’s “The Last of the Masters“: good achieved at perhaps too high a cost. The idea of having a machine, willingly buying it, to insure your ideological conformity is both scary and funny (“Why be half loyal?”) and great entertainment. The end, with the swibble consortium securing their past, was unexpected.

Autofac” — Another very good story in which Dick invests his machines with animal-like qualities. Here the autofacs (I was reminded of the delightfully crazed autofac — the only part of the novel I really remember — in Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Dies Irae.) plan, war (like the crabs in “Second Variety” waging war on each other seems a major step in becoming another lifeform), and reproduce. This is another story of Dick’s where people try to thrust off oppression, succeed, and don’t get the expected results. Rebellion, good, evil are not clear cut things in Dick’s life. There is also an intriguing element of satire: the factories of production protecting themselves, reproducing, serving humans second, an economic system perpetuating itself. Given Dick’s view and economic separation) from the conspicuous consumption of the fifties, this is an outsider’s disapproving look at that cultural phenomenon (this story was written in 1956). I also thought Dick’s description of the bleak, blasted landscape and the many trappings of the autofacs was quite effective.

To Serve the Masters” — This is another one of Dick’s many stories with an ambiguous ending. The robots may have been irrationally destroyed by man because of religious fanaticism or they may have truly been a threat to man. There is a hint, as the story’s introduction says, that the former is true with the brutality of the humans. There is little more to this story than Dick’s well-crafted (the injured robot was rather poignant) ambiguity and plot twists.

War Game” — This is another of Dick’s lethal (well, here only subversive) toy stories.  The idea of a Monopoly-like game that manipulates people psychologically to facilitate economic conquest via surrender was interesting, but Dick didn’t sufficiently work out the details of how the game could do so. Maybe Dick’s point was the power of games to shape world views.

The Electric Ant” — I disagree with Warrick’s and Greenberg’s contention that this is the most important and powerful short story in Dick’s corpus. I can think of better stories in this anthology alone. It certainly is, as they say, quintessential Dick, but this story has several problems which make it a prime example of Dick’s thematic obsessions imperfectly realized in a story. Dick entirely ignores the question of pre-destination which logically arises from the plot. If all of Garson Poole’s stimuli are punched on tape then all of his stimuli is predetermined. Also Dick, in the act of expressing his theme, ignores the idea of blocked perception not being the same as the unperceived object not existing. Dick, I believe following the path of Hume (but I couldn’t say for sure being woefully ignorant of philosophy) equates unperceived with non-existence. Also, someone had to construct Poole so there is an objective reality somewhere. This story exhibits too much ambition on Dick’s part. He tries to incorporate too much of his philosophical concerns at the expense of the story which is interesting but ultimately a failure.

The Exit Door Leads In” — A strange, at times funny, story by Dick of a college of the future where the moral and psychological education of an individual is even more important than vocational knowledge. (The idea of an institution conducting secret moral and psychological tests is hardly a new one in sf.) You kind of feel sorry and depressed at Bob Bibleman’s (an obvious bit of symbolism, the Bible being the ultimate manifestation of institutionally encoded morality) fate. Dick makes us empathize with him and then assigns him back to the dump mercilessly. In most sf stories of this type, the protagonist passes the secret test. Bibleman disappoints Mary Lorne and gets the cold approval of a robot at story’s end. When the test was revealed, I thought Dick was going to go for a typical — for him — ending and make you wonder if the Panther Engine was real and Bibleman’s expelling a retaliation or if the stated facts were true.

Frozen Journey” — A fitting end for the anthology. This story of a man wracked by guilt and plagued by an increasingly inaccurate perception of reality seems a spiritual autobiography of Dick in his last years. [Let me repeat that Tim Powers, who knew Dick in his last years, said he was definitely not crazy.] Victor Kemming’s life of fear and anxiety, of spiritual visitations, of agony over his complicity in the death of a bird (a pointed reminder of how Dick valued life), seems Dick incarnate. The story is quite sad in its depiction of psychological deterioration and severed relationships. Like Dick’s life, it is poignant and blackly funny.

 

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

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading “The Craft of Science Fiction”

Countdown to Midnight

It’s Bobbie Burns’ birthday. Grandpa MacDowall would not be happy I’m not doing anything to celebrate it.

Sorry, instead of something Burns related material, you get this, a continuation of the Norman Spinrad series.

Raw Feed (1991): Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War, ed. H. Bruce Franklin, 1984.countdown-to-midnight

Nuclear War and Science Fiction“, H. Bruce Franklin — I read this book after reading Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation which included a perhaps apocryphal story about leftist Franklin saying he was taking up scuba diving because the revolution will need frogmen. I wanted to read it when I’d be most sensitive to Franklin’s insinuation of politics into the collection. Franklin talks about the early (pre-1945) sf depiction of nuclear weapons and the feedback between sf and science, and vice versa, in the development of these weapons. (Franklin has also written an entire written book on this subject.) That part’s interesting, but Franklin’s politics began to show. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg become “alleged” spies. Franklin makes the patently false claim that the U.S. did not warn Japan prior to using the first A-Bombs. In fact a warning and appeal to surrender were given before each of the two detonations. Various military officials, including Eisenhower, are quoted as stating that the A-Bombs were unnecessary. Their saying this does not automatically make it true. The claim, probably partly true, that A-Bombs were used to have a better bargaining position with Russia is made. The tacit assumption here is that Russia was no real threat to U.S. or world freedom when the opposite was proved true before and after WWII. It is alleged that the U.S. could have ended nuclear terror by destroying its bombs when only it had some. This ignores other nations’ research efforts which had, or would have, started and the effect of spies like the Rosenbergs. [To say nothing of all the other Soviet agents who had penetrated the Manhattan Project.] Franklin sees no difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. is chastened for its efforts to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Franklin apparently choses to ignore Soviet post-WWII belligerent imperialism. Its disarmament efforts are sincere while evil America threatens the whole world, in Franklin’s eyes, by not capitulating. Franklin also cites the hard to believe assertion that American military thinkers were convinced each technological advance in nuclear weapons systems would lead to permanent superiority. I doubt they were ever that naïve.

To Still the Drums“, Chandler Davis — This very political story (circa 1946, I suppose the title’s “drums” are war drums) has not dated well. It involves a soldier stopping a military plot to involve the U.S. in a war — with atomic weapons much like ICBMS — against Congressional wishes. This story cites the old chestnut that preparing for war and building weapons ultimately leads to war and the use of the weapons, not necessarily consciously but almost as an inevitable social dynamic and metaphysical precipitation. More than forty years of atomic cold war has proven this supposition wrong as has the almost universal restraint in the use of chemical and biological weapons. As for Congress being a naïve dupe of alleged militaristic technophilia for nuclear weapons, that most definitely is not true. Congress has often said no to new nuclear weapons systems. Continue reading “Countdown to Midnight”