Tiger! Tiger!

Another summer of mission creep following the pattern with Ambrose Bierce and Kathe Koja.

I was just going to review the last two books in James Gunn’s Transcendental Trilogy and then one thing led to another.

This one is a Gunn rarity. My signed chapbook implies only 126 were printed.

Review: Tiger! Tiger!, James Gunn, 1984.Tiger! Tiger!

Gunn concludes his introduction to this short novel with:

The year is 1952 when the short novel was written; or, if you prefer it is a portion of the Planet Stories of 1955 or 1956, [Gunn sold the story to Planet Stories, but the magazine folded in 1955 before it was published], although, to be sure, “Tiger! Tiger!’ was not typical Planet Stories stuff and you will be disappointed if you expect science-fantasy or adventure. I don’t know why Planet Stories bought it. This was a new direction I was trying to take, a direction illustrated by my first novel, This Fortress World (already underway, although it would not be published until 1955), which tried to combine gritty naturalism and literary skills, and by the stories in Station in Space.

I had not yet taken it as far as I wanted to go – there is, for instance, the kind of romantic subplot that I thought was necessary in those days, and moments of action that I thought readers wanted. If I were writing the story today, I’m certain I would leave them out. But I couldn’t write the story today.

This is a story of aliens “monitoring our technological development” as Gunn says in that introduction. He’s not certain he had yet read Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel of Eternity” aka “The Sentinel”. He had certainly read Ted Sturgeon’s “The Sky Was Full of Ships” and wanted to take the idea in a different direction.

There are several things here that makes this a characteristic Gunn work despite his reservations how he wrote it: a flawed hero, literary allusion, a tone of melancholy mixed with hope, that gritty naturalism – though, as he remarked, less gritty than later works, and even a prefigurement of his later Gift From the Stars.

Our flawed hero is Lester Blake, an astrogator in America’s space program which has put up a space station and a base on the moon, an ex-alcoholic, divorced, balding, a man who is evasive about his age because he feels old, and something of a career failure in that he didn’t become an astronaut as hoped.

The literary allusion, as you can guess from the title, is to William Blake’s “The Tyger”, and Gunn gets a surprisingly effective amount of power in working its lines into a story about a mysterious body orbiting Earth.

The story starts with Lester Blake, operating on a hunch and knowledge of previously anomalous observations of cosmic rays, the aurora polaris, and radar detections, aborting a scheduled relief mission to the moon base.

His partner, at the White Sands Rocket Base, manned by the U.S. military, is Rich Dodge. He’s everything Blake isn’t: an actual astronaut, young, handsome, confident, easy with the ladies.

Yet, Dodge supports Blake in his possible insubordination even though the latter urges him not to damage his career by doing that. There is the inevitable inquiry.

Base Commander Brigadier General van Devlin is convinced by Blake that something strange is in a circumpolar orbit and that it’s not natural. Blake mistakenly does not contradict Van Devlin’s belief it is a Russian weapon. He thinks it’s alien. Van Devlin’s aide, Colonel Allen, is out for Blake’s head though. They have history. Allen married Blake’s ex-wife Sarah, and it was that divorce that precipitated three years of heavy drinking by Blake.

Tony Fazio, a troubleshooter in the base’s research division, backs up Blake’s belief that the orbiting object, dubbed by Blake “the Tiger”, is artificial.

Fazio, Blake, and Dodge meet to discuss what to do – not that the decision will be in their hands since Van Devlin has contacted Washington and the Pentagon with the recommendation the object be destroyed. They are joined by a third member, Jeff.

Jeff, actual name Jessica but her father wanted a son, is the object of Blake’s love from afar. But she hangs out with Dodge, and Blake thinks she can’t be interested in him, an older man, divorced, and ex-drunk.

The romantic subplot Gunn talks about is this relationship, and he does lay it on a bit thick at the end when the two get together after Jeff convinces Blake she really loves him and was just waiting for him to realize it.

The group ponders the Tiger. What is its purpose? Surveillance? A weapon? What happens if it is destroyed? How can its technology, which may give humanity the path to the stars, be harnessed? Is it really the source of observed cosmic rays?

The action part of the story comes in with the second half of the story.

The base is locked down with no communication to the outside, and the group decides van Devlin’s plans to destroy the Tiger need to be stopped. Word of the Tiger’s existence has already been leaked to the outside world, but the spin of a Russian threat has been put on it.

The group hatches a plan for Blake to get off base and contact the media about the possibility of the Tiger being alien, and not Russian, in origin.

Spoilers ahead.

When he goes to a nearby town, Gunn’s gets to put some gritty detail into Blake’s contacting, via phone and letter, a reporter he knows. The town was built for workers building the White Sands base, but it is still a sleepy small town 15 years later. When Blake goes into a nearly deserted bar to make a phone call and, later, when escaping the MPs sent after him once his exfiltration from the base is discovered, a small town hotel. The bartender is surly. The hotel clerk is asleep. Gunn also characteristically details the layouts of those buildings.

Returning to the base, Blake is charged with espionage. He learns van Devlin has been removed from command and Allen is in charge. In jail, he even gets a visit from ex-wife Sarah who tries to talk him into retracting his analysis. In exchange, Allen will drop charges against him.

Eventually, though, Blake’s contact with the media pays off. The world begins to consider the Tiger may not be Russian. Russia denies it is and calls for a UN investigation.

Blake is released. He reunites with Dodge who tearfully confesses he implicated Blake because Allen threatened to end his career as an astronaut.

Blake, the would-be astronaut, forgives him and tells him he understands. It’s at this point the subplot with Jeff and Blake is wrapped up.

But there’s one more sting in the tale. The missile targeted for the Tiger is still on the launch pad, primed and ready to go.  Van Devlin suicidely launches it, and the Tiger is destroyed.

The story ends with Blake and Fazio forming a company to investigate commercial space travel, and the aurora polaris has vanished.

Space travel enabled by alien technology is, of course, at the center of Gunn’s Gift from the Stars. Depiction of a space program, as with Gunn’s Station in Space, is realistic given it’s pre-Sputnik. The air of melancholy, lost opportunities for alien contact, prefigures Gunn’s greater The Listeners.

As Gunn says, this is a 1952 story (set in 1967). Explicit references to the Red Scare are here, of course. With all the exposure since 1952 of Soviet espionage and subversion in America, the gulf between Red Scare paranoia and Red Scare reality was less than what midwestern liberal Gunn implies. (His autobiography Star-Begotten mentions him being puzzled at his wife going to see Senator Joseph McCarthy at a rally and finding him charming.)

Of course, the story, with its depiction of nationalism and a military only being concerned with immediate security and not long range concerns, fits in with Gunn’s view of science fiction as racial fiction with the race being humanity as a whole.

And, with Blake’s activities at media manipulation, Gunn, even before his professional public relations career, shows an interest and knowledge of that field.

 

 

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

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The Joy Machine

A Star Trek novel? Has this blog sunk that low?

Actually, no, not that I have anything against Star Trek novels though this is only the second one I’ve read.

When I was young, before I ever saw Star Trek on tv, I read James Blish’s Star Trek books.

However, this book has James Gunn on the cover, so that’s why I’m covering it – sort of.

Low Res Scan: The Joy Machine, James Gunn based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, 1996.51UY69511UL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

As Gunn notes in his afterword, this novel provides a symmetry to the start of his professional relationship with Sturgeon. Galaxy editor H. L. Gold hired Sturgeon to re-write Gunn’s “Breaking Point” for publication. Approached by some ex-students of his who had got their hands on an unproduced Star Trek script by Sturgeon, Gunn was hired to lengthen it into a novel. Furthering the symmetry, “Breaking Point” actually started out as a play.

Sturgeon, of course, wrote the classic Star Trek episodes “Amok Time” and “Shore Leave”.

As Gift from the Stars exists in a feedback loop with Carl Sagan, this novel exists in a feedback between Gunn and Sturgeon. Sturgeon took up the ideas of Gunn’s They Joy Makers, and Gunn added some further thoughts of his own on the pursuit of happiness.

I’m not going to pass judgement on the story, summarize the plot, or comment on its qualities as a Trek tale though I will add that one LibraryThing review noted that the characters don’t sound exactly like we would expect, and I agree. Continue reading “The Joy Machine”

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”

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

And the PKD series continues with a look at the second volume of his collected short stories.

Raw Feed (2000): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, 1987.PKD 2

Introduction”, Norman Spinrad — A very useful introduction in which Spinrad points out how Dick’s short stories, right from the beginning (these stories are from 1952 through 1955), were different artistically and thematically from other sf writers. While author collections, as Spinrad rightly notes, often have a sameness of style, incident, theme, and character and Dick was no exception, his sameness was unique. Spinrad sees Dick’s overarching theme to be a concern with empathy, the quality that distinguishes man from the mechanical, sometimes thinking, “pseudo-life” (particularly weapon systems) that menace his heroes. And those heroes are usually ordinary people trying to survive worlds of time paradoxes and shifting realities or the menacing security state. Spinrad notes that Dick didn’t do “action-adventure formula” stories or space operas or mad scientists or “fully-developed alien civilizations” or stories with “real good guys versus bad guys”. Dick did not write stories in a consistent universe or future history or feature recurring characters. But the most interesting claim by Spinrad (and I tend to believe he’s studied the matter) is that he invented the multiple viewpoint technique in sf (a technique Spinrad is fond of, indeed he took it to its extreme in “The Big Flash”). Spinrad claims “few if any writers” used it before Dick and that all writers who used it afterwards owe a debt to Dick.

The Cookie Lady” — Fantasy tale of vampirism by the title character who lures a boy with cookies and steals his life. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

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,”

Sandkings

When I was much younger I was rather taken with the short fiction of George R. R. Martin. One story, “Nightflyers”, even got made into a movie of the same name. An obscure movie.

However, I wrote no notes on those so this is the only book of Martin’s short fiction I’ve written about.

I have not read anything in the Game of Thrones series nor watched the series. And I probably won’t ever do either.

Raw Feed (1995): Sandkings, George R. R. Martin, 1981.Sandkings

The Way of Cross and Dragon” — An interesting story with a distinctly mediaeval flavor.  This is part of Martin’s loosely connected Commonwealth (I think that’s the name [Martin’s ISFDB.org calls it the Thousand World series] series and features an Inquisitor of the Order of the Knights of Jesus Christ dispatched to put an end to a particularly intriguing heresy. That heresy is the best and most inventive part of the story and called the Order of Saint Judas Iscariot. The heresy is based on a lively mishmash and confusion of myth and history (with the cover of divine curses having altered memories). Judas starts out as an ambitious youth and child prostitute and then becomes a necromancer, sole tamer of dragons, and lord of Babylon. Then he moves to mutilator of Christ and, via Repentance, an apostle. After the crucifixion, he angrily kills Peter and is rebuked by Christ upon Peter’s resurrection. Judas has his gifts of tongues and healing removed and is told by Christ he will forever be remembered as the Betrayer. Eventually, after living more than a 1,000 years, he finds favor with Christ again. He consents to have Judas’ true history remembered by a few. As entertaining as this heresy is, it’s just a frame to hang a philosophical tale on about the attraction beautiful lies have be they political ideologies or religions. Only a few can stare at the true universe which has no afterlife, no Creator, no purpose for human life, and no chance for the human race to leave a permanent memorial. (Martin once described his stories as being search-and-destroy missions against romance.) One of those few is the inventor of the heresy who cheerfully admits he made the whole thing up (including forging supporting historical documents and altering others). He belongs to a conspiracy of Liars, a very long-lived group who takes it upon themselves to invent beautiful lies (including perhaps Christianity) for those who can not gaze upon the truth of the universe like they can.

Bitterblooms” — A story exhibiting Martin’s lyrical, fantasy flavored prose. Essentially this is a story of a woman abducted – at least it seemed to me – by a stranded space traveler and forced into a love affair (a lesbian one) but this is very matter-of-fact and not salaciously played up. She escapes but develops a permanent taste for travel and, in her dying moments, thinks fondly of her time on the spaceship. This is part of Martin’s loose Avalon series. Continue reading “Sandkings”