Birthday Reviews: Ballard, Foster, Jones, Swanwick

This week, I have a double shot of musical plants and one posthumous fantasy which all, in different ways, feature a man and a woman, as well as a warning about war which features the human and the inhuman. (Things came up, but apologies for the belated Ballard and for leaving only a few minutes for Jones.)

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J. G. Ballard (1930-11-15/2009-04-19)

“Prima Belladonna” (Science Fantasy, December 1956)

I first read this and another Ballard story in Judith Merril’s Best of the Best many (many) years ago. They made quite an impression on me and yet it took me until relatively recently to get any Ballard books and I still haven’t read them. Anyway…

This is the tale of a sort of summer romance in the future in which people are in Recess(ion) and lazing the days away. Our narrator is a relatively industrious seller of musical plants (choro-florist) who meets an exotic golden-skinned woman with insect eyes. Its narrative approach combines the British SF authors’ fascination with vegetation and an almost Heinleinian casualness with the furniture of the future. Its prose style consists mostly of straightforward sentences composed of simple words combined in turn with some polysyllabic Latinate inventions. Together, these elements create a dreamy realism of faintly musical prose suited to the story.

That said, it is, as Hawthorne might say, very “symbolical of something” but isn’t actually particularly science fictional. Extract the science fiction and, as long as different metaphors for the psychosexual dynamics of the prima belladonna and the man who glances off her are substituted, the story doesn’t fall apart. But it is a good piece of writing, either way.

Alan Dean Foster (1946-11-18)

“Ye Who Would Sing” (Galileo, December 1976)

American Alan Dean Foster also writes a tale of musical vegetation but his orchestral orchard is quite detailed and made to seem literal and true while at the same time showing, as Congreve said, that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

John Caitland is returning from an elliptically expressed job (presumably of assassination) when he’s caught in a storm and crash-lands in a remote hidden valley. The valley’s sole inhabitant is the research botanist Katie Naley who nurses him back to health. He finds that the valley is full of the last surviving Chimer trees which are worth uncountable millions after having been harvested into presumed extinction due to both their musical appeal and their inability to reproduce off-world. He greedily bides his time, learning and healing, but also changing in ways he doesn’t understand.

This is almost diametrically opposite from Ballard’s impressionist post-romanticism, with music being a classical balm in a highly structured tale in which the plot and concrete complex ecology bear much of the weight and provide much of the interest while the style is usually workmanlike but sometimes descends to saying things like “An aroma redolent of fresh bread and steaming meats impinged on his smelling apparatus.” But it is a compelling science fiction story, either way.

Raymond F. Jones (1915-11-17/1994-01-24)

“A Stone and a Spear” (Galaxy, December 1950)

After WWII, scientists continue to work on superweapons for the next war– not just of the atomic variety, but biological weapons and others. This prompts Dr. Curtis Johnson to think of the saying about not knowing what weapons WWIII would be fought with but knowing that WWIV would be fought with stones and spears. He’s on his way to try to bring Dr. Hamon Dell back to his war work after Dell had mysteriously abandoned it to become a farmer. When Johnson gets there, he encounters a strangely changed Dell who is dying in great pain and reveals part of the mystery which leads Johnson to meet with other men to learn more of the mystery which may change Johnson’s life… if it doesn’t end it.

Much like Haldeman’s Forever Peace, I don’t actually like this story in ways because I despise Rousseau’s notion of “forcing people to be free” and I also don’t like blaming science for the world’s ills. Still, it is a tense and exciting tale which raises interesting issues with no simple resolutions.

When one of the men talking to Johnson says, “Certain cells of the brain are responsible for specific characteristics. Ways of altering these cells were found” and talks about how this could be used to introduce “wholesale insanity” in “entire populations” and when they talk of countries being “committed to inhuman warfare” so that “each brutality prepares the way for the next” it seems timely. The irony is that, in my opinion, that’s just what the story seems to ultimately advocate – an inhuman peace more brutal than war.

Michael Swanwick (1950-11-18)

“Radio Waves” (Omni, Winter 1995)

Opening with “I was walking the telephone wires upside down, the sky underfoot cold and flat with a few hard bright stars sparsely scattered about it,” this posthumous technofantasy of electronic aeolian harps quickly develops a ghostly milieu with its own rules and logic, introduces us to Cobb (the tattered and mild shreds of a bad man in life), the Corpsegrinder (his nemesis), and the remains of a woman he initially knows only as Charlie’s Widow. Fighting against the impulse towards and revulsion from joining the cosmic background radiation as well as the soul-stealing Corpsegrinder, he actually finds his relationship with Charlie’s Widow to be perhaps the most significant thing.

I love posthumous fantasies in general and the freshness and power and sheer imagination of this one make it one of the best. I’m not sure how well it would fare today as we don’t seem to be capable of forgiving much these days but it’s an excellent story.

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4 thoughts on “Birthday Reviews: Ballard, Foster, Jones, Swanwick

  1. I’ve yet to find a Foster story that resonates with me. You are correct about the common features of his prose and sensibilities (at least in the stories I’ve read of his so far). I’m mote in the Ballard camp — haha.

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    • He’s got a few good stories and, as a fan of short SF, I appreciate his doing it, as he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to. Still, I think he’s generally better at novels. Midworld, Nor Crystal Tears, the not-generally talked about but oddly fascinating The Man Who Used the Universe, and some others. But, given that you’re in the Ballard camp, I don’t know if any of those would pull you out of it. 🙂

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      • I’ve read a handful of short stories and found them on the saccharine side of things — or lite-hearted satire that never really resonates with me.

        But yes, I have a bunch of his novels including the first two you mentioned by haven’t read them yet.

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  2. Pingback: Birthday Reviews: Complete Linked Index to Authors and Stories | Featured Futures

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