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”

Of Men and Monsters; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz mentioned William Tenn.

I like Tenn but see I’ve never posted about any of his titles. So, since I’m still catching on reviewing my reading of the past few months, I thought I’d give you this. The parallax is, of course, provided by Boaz.

Raw Feed (1998): Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn, 1968.

Cover by Boris Vallejo

I enjoyed this famous Tenn novel about men living in the walls of the “Monster” alien race that conquered Earth. (I have not read Tenn’s “The Men in the Walls” which the novel expanded.)

Tenn’s story is humorous and almost savage in parts. 

The title comes from John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, but the inspiration and structure of the novel seems to come from the Brobdingnag section of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

The plot starts as a variation on that favored by many stories and films featuring primitive or post-holocaust primitives:  a young man finds himself on the wrong side of tribal politics and questioning a religious taboo

Here the heresy is man’s Ancestor-Science is not as efficacious in battling the Monsters as advertised. After all, as the uncle who initiates hero Eric the Only into the heresy points out, it didn’t do humanity much good in resisting the Monsters. 

But Alien-Science turns out to be, in part, a scheme by Eric’s uncle to become Chief, a scheme that leads to a brutally suppressed uprising. 

Eric takes up with the more advanced “back burrowers” only to find their technology and knowledge of Monsters impressive but their military skills lacking. Eventually, he meets, marries, and mates with a woman of the Aaron People (after a funny scene where he tries to act dignified while assessing his mate’s physical wiles). 

In a way, this is one of those conceptual breakthrough stories. Eric learns that the tribal society he was born in was based partly on fraud: rigged visions used in naming initiate warriors and “enemy” chiefs who will band together to quell heretic Alien Sciencers. 

Continue reading “Of Men and Monsters; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 5

 

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The detailed examination of James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re still looking at that category of plots of circumstances where the setting is the modern world or the near future and the plot is built around a problem.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Past

Gunn notes this is similar to the “ancient being or primitive being in a modern human environment” plot. This plot, though, is centered around a modern man, and it is that man that provides reader identification.

This is primarily a plot of menace. Some kind of man, animal, plant, seed, or strange alien being comes into our world from the past. (Gunn doesn’t mention disease, but that’s obviously another potential menace.) The menace arrives from suspended animation, some temporal suspension, or time travel.

In threatening human supremacy in the world, this menace allows an examination and reassessment of some human trait, the assets and debits of human nature.

H. P. Lovecraft understandably gets cited as a prime example though Gunn regards his work as “more fantasy than science fiction”; however, he does concede Lovecraft did offer explanations of varying degrees of credibility. That’s a fair assessment of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft didn’t really consider himself a science fiction writer though I’d argue that, whatever the plausibility of the offered explanations, a story that offers a scientific explanation is sf on that ground alone whatever the intended emotional effect the author was going for. Gunn says Lovecraft was one of the few writers to successfully create a new mythology to be in the background of his stories. Richard Shaver’s stories are an example of failing to do that.

Understandably, Gunn cites John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as a fine example of this plot. However, he makes no reference of its probable influence of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on it.

All in all, Gunn is in favor of this plot as well-suited to many purposes, including a philosophical examination of humanity, and providing suspense, the all important “reader identification”, and drama.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another Dimension

Lovecraft and his followers in the Cthulhu Mythos aren’t mentioned here. Gunn sees this as a plot type in decline. (He also says Charles Fort frequently gets cited in this type of story.)

The limitation of this plot type is that it isn’t as flexible as the problems-from-the-past-encroaching- into-the-modern-world plot. It doesn’t seem to be well-suited to comment on “the nature of mankind”. (I’m not sure why Gunn thinks that. It isn’t obviously true.) What these stories mainly suggest is that “man is not the apex of creation”.

As a tool for a horror story, it works well even “though that purpose borders closely on fantasy”.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another World or Space

Obviously Gunn is right in stating this is a popular plot. The problems you can export from another place other than Earth are unlimited. The modern world can be contrasted to the strangeness outside it. Reader identification, as in all the plots set in the modern world, is high.

It also has a higher credibility, an easier suspension of disbelief, than using a plot that brings problems into the world from the past, another dimension, or the future.

It can easily provide that old sf standby, “sense of wonder”.

And Gunn makes the interesting point that it expresses science fiction’s

natural hatred of skepticism—that type of skepticism, at least, which refuses to admit the possibility of any happening out of the ordinary.

Gunn cites the popular “aliens judging Earth” variety of this plot.

He concludes with his high opinion of this plot’s literary value and ease of use for writers:

The form itself is one of the best developed in science fiction; interesting, effective, and occasionally significant stories have been written in this form, and it has promise of even greater merit if it develops its thematic possibilities along new and perhaps more productive lines.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Future

Gunn cites two stories here as excellent examples of sf craft: William Tenn’s “Child Play” and Henry Kuttner’s and C. L. Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”.

Both stories are about children’s toys from the future showing up in our world. In the Tenn story, it’s a “Bild-A-Man” kit. In the Kuttner and Moore story, it’s a toy teaching kids how to enter a fourth dimension.

But, in Gunn’s mind, those stories have no “particularly serious or significant nature”. C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” does. Specifically, it’s a commentary on overpopulation and dysgenics, and Gunn thinks, while it shows this plot, usually written and read just for pleasure, could do more.

The next post on Gunn’s thesis will look at a literary judgement Gunn got very wrong.

Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

Lord Kelvin’s Machine

The steampunk series continues.

Raw Feed (2002): Lord Kelvin’s Machine, James P. Blaylock, 1992.Lord Kelvin's Machine

I liked this sequel to Blaylock’s Homunculus better than that novel. (The Lord Kelvin of the title is, in fact, the famous physicist Lord Kelvin who makes an appearance as a character.)

Villains Ignacio Narbondo and Willis Pule are back from the first novel. Pule is now insane and forms a grotesque pair with his mother. The novel has an interesting structure and gets better as it goes along.

The opening chapter sets up Langdon St. Ives’ obsession with avenging himself on Narbondo for the death of St. Ives’ wife and his quest to resurrect her via time travel. (The Holmesian flavor of this novel is even stronger than the one in Homunculus. Narbondo is sort of a Moriarty figure to St. Ives and Parsons, the rather stuffy, socially connected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences who always keeps St. Ives out of it, comes off rather like Holmes’ Scotland Yard rival, LeStrande.) The opening third of the book involves St. Ives foiling a blackmail plot by Narbondo to pull a comet into the Earth via a powerful supermagnet. Blaylock provides an interesting story of how Narbondo is tracked down and how he ends up supposedly drowned in a frigid Nowegian lake. However, Blaylock never really explains why the opening chapter of Part I necessitates St. Ives being in Peru and how Narbondo’s earthquake generating scheme worked. The story follows St. Ives and ever competent servant Hasbro.

However, the novel’s story and humor really picks up with Part II which is narrated by a minor character from Homunculus, Jack Owlesby. Jack’s a pretty normal guy who chides himself for his fondness for good food and drink and naps and his wife and knows he’s not particular courageous. However, he’s competent and courageous enough to foil a renegade ichthyologist and his dangerous sidekick from Wyoming in their scheme to use the stolen supermagnet to down metal-bottomed ships and extort money from the Crown. He also has a run in with the weird Pules. Continue reading “Lord Kelvin’s Machine”

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82

Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2010.Palace at Midnight

“Our Lady of the Sauropods”, I called it, and when Omni published it in the September, 1980 issue, the cover announced, “Robert Silverberg Returns!” I imagined the puzzled readers, who surely were unaware that it was seven years since I had deigned to write short stories, turning to each other and saying, “Why, wherever has he been?”

There wasn’t anyone to turn to when I first read that story. I was alone in a pickup truck during downtime at a construction site in the summer of 1980. But I recall being slightly puzzled at the implication Silverberg had been gone.

With this volume of Silverberg’s stories, I enter that part of his career where I read a lot of these stories when they first appeared. Others I first came across in Bantam Spectra’s first in a series of one volumes collecting Silverberg’s stories.

Many I hadn’t seen before.

The Plots

A surprising number are fantasies or non-fantastic stories of Americans having strange experiences in Third World Countries. An American academic recovering from the “wreckage of his marriage” tries to wheedle his way into a mushroom-worshipping cult in Jerusalem in “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa“. Silverberg’s fascination with cacti and a story from his friend, botanist Paul Hutchinson, gives us “How They Pass the Time in Pelpel“. How the inhabitants of a remote village in Chile pass their time is following a strange auto race.

Silverberg has an admitted fascination with Mexico, “its mixture of tropical sunlight and eerie pre-Columbian darkness”, Mexican dance masks, and that shows in two tales. A collector of those masks has a chilling encounter with something that only looks human in a remote Mexican village in “Not Our Brother“. The death of Silverberg’s friend Philip K. Dick led to the Dickian reality-slip tale (rather like Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) “The Changeling” where, outside the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a man slides into a world where he has a wife and a new job. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82”