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.

NLNFLSH1988
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”

Advertisements

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”

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

The High Crusade; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

I’m reading Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World trilogy, a well-done tale of British Tommies from the Western Front of 1916 to an alien world. (And, when finished, it will go to the bottom of the long list of reviews to be written up.)

It put me in mind of this, the first version I know of a story putting human soldiers from human history into war on an alien world.

Raw Feed (1992): The High Crusade, Poul Anderson, 1960.High Crusade

A really fun book in which the plucky, bold Sir Roger de Tourneville not only repels the invading Wergorix from Earth but, through bluff, boldness, and intrigue builds a star empire.

This book reminded me of a couple of stories though with very different outcomes. 

The first is the story of King Arthur. The affair (never sexually consummated) between Sir Owain and Lady Catherine and the betrayal (unsuccessful) of Sir Roger reminded of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere (Lancelot, like Sir Owain, is charming).

The ability of the low tech Englishmen to thwart the Wergorix (no metal to be radar visible, masters at hand to hand combat and sieges, crossbows in space) reminded me of the struggles of the fighter jet pilot to best WWI aircraft in Dean McLaughlin’s “Hawk Among the Sparrows”. Military tactics and technology evolve to fit a certain environment. The victory is not always won by the high tech forces. Sir Roger has a nice bit when he says

“ … while the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home. Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

It’s the guile of Sir Roger (though he modestly says he’s “no master of it … no Italian”) that wins the day.  ‘

I was reminded of historian William MacNeill’s thesis that Europe came to dominate the world because of the fierce, prolonged struggle between its different states, a struggle not duplicated elsewhere where one power soon came to be supreme. [This is put forth in his The Pursuit of Power.] This novel is sort of a forerunner to MacNeill’s thesis (which may not be original). (Did the Italians become Machiavellian master of intrigue because they were balkanized so long?)

I liked the humor when aliens interpret Christianity and other aspects of mediaeval culture as being signs of possibly advanced powers, and I liked the English complaining about the barbarous aliens with their lack of wood carving and ornamentation. Brother Parvus was unintentionally witty in his unsureness as to the righteousness of Sir Roger’s cause (and whether congress between man and alien is bestiality).

I also liked the comparison between the breakup of the Roman Empire and the Wersgorix Empire.

Parallax perspective on this is provided by Vintage Novels.

 

More fantastic fiction is indexed by title and author/editor.

Slow Lightning & “The Longest Voyage”

The look at the Future Boston shared world series looks at the expansion of Steven Popkes’ “The Egg” and, since it was the other half of this “dos-a-dos”, a Poul Anderson story — which has nothing to do with Boston.

Raw Feed (1992): Slow Lightning, Steven Popkes, “The Longest Voyage” by Poul Anderson/Slow Lightning by Steven Popkes, 1991.TORDOB30

The first part of this short novel was Popkes novella “The Egg” which I’d read before and liked. The rest of the story wasn’t as good though it did fill in some details of this universe.

Structurally the story is very interesting.

It’s three episodes (the first being “The Egg”) which could stand alone. However, the episodes are set chronologically out of sequence, and characters from the preceding ones often show up as minor characters in the next one.

In “The Egg”, orphaned Ira Bloom and alien nanny Gray are the main characters.

In the second story, Ira’s parents are the main characters and the tale of Gray’s discovery is told. The story ironically ends happily though the reader knows both of Ira’s parents will soon be killed in a labor dispute.

The last story tells how Ira’s aunt and mother became orphans. Continue reading “Slow Lightning & “The Longest Voyage””

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,”

Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a look at one of his anthologies that characteristically mixed fiction (not always science fiction either) and nonfiction.

The fiction selections were reprints and writers selected from the slush pile.

Unfortunately, this is the only one of his anthologies I have complete notes on.

Raw Feed (1987): Imperial Stars, Vol 1.: The Stars at War, eds. Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, 1986.Imperial Stars

Introduction: Empire”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle logically expounds on the thesis that empire is the government most natural to man and that its time, no matter what democracies naively think, is not done. He also well shows the advantages of empire and that empires can take many forms including the possibility the U.S. is heading toward empire.

In Clouds of Glory”, Algis Budrys — Good story but would liked more exploration of how Agency would open way for an Earth empire. Extensive surgery and conditioning of main character was reminiscent (or, rather, predates) Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. Would have liked more on future Earth history and how global government founded. Technically, story is interesting in that all military action occurs off-stage and story is a “thought-piece” on historical and political matters. Not as good as other Budrys I’ve read.

The Star Plunderer”, Poul Anderson — First read this story in Brian Aldiss’ excellent anthology Galactic Empires. I only remembered the bit with a slave revolt, but I liked this  story the second time as well. Pournelle, in introduction, goes further with rationalizing space barbarians (How, in story, did they get the tech to begin with?) than Anderson does. Anderson has a talent for invoking flavor of epic in language. Manuel Argos, who brings order out of an environment obviously reminiscent of late Republican Rome though he is personality-wise, no Augustus. He is a cold, manipulative, ruthless character who unsentimentally realizes what desperate measures need to be taken. Not a pleasant character but realistic one. Excitement and desperation and the degradation of servitude were all well-depicted. Nice touch in Earth being liberate, and an empire being established, but this is subordinated to the poignancy of narrator losing his love. The only flaw of story was the rather cliched early description of their romance, and Kathryn “instinctively” choosing a figure like Argos. Love is never so simple or instinctive a matter. Continue reading “Imperial Stars, Vol. 1: The Stars at War”