This week’s birthday gang brings us a bittersweet comedy, a bitterersweet drama, a Halloween horror, and a mob-ridden monetary melodrama.
Neal Barrett, Jr. (1929-11-03/2014-01-12)
“Perpetuity Blues” (IAsfm, May 1987)
This is the tale of “Maggie McKenna from Marble Creek” and a hilarious tale it is, but also an affecting one that can be read as very sad and, yet, ultimately perhaps upbeat even so. Maggie’s a small-town Texas girl whose father has disappeared and whose mother has died when she ends up with her lecherous uncle and an aunt who’s primary advice is to for God’s sake never sit on anyone’s lap. Maggie deals with many people, some good and some bad, both early in her life and on her big move to New York to become a playwright. The most important early encounter is with Oral Blue, a albino-looking man who claims to be an alien and who dresses and lives in blue. How he and her stories entangle is profound and also very funny, as he talks about being attacked by “Mormon terrorists” on one occasion and then by Vikings on another, whom he describes as “worse than Mormons.” Later, her most important influences are the truckers who get her to New York (one of whom has a library where all the books are written by various people named “John”) and, when she arrives, she declares, “Lordy, it looks near as real as a movie.”
This sort of makes me think of Tom Robbins turned up to 11. One of the most effective elements is how it takes a narrative tone that has room for ironic/comic distance on the one hand and for Maggie’s subjectivity at the same time, as when we get a flash as through a microscope when we learn that Maggie “liked to wander over limestone hills where every rock you picked up was the shell of something tiny that had lived.” It’s a very engaging, funny, and layered story with a superb “voice.”
Gordon R. Dickson (1923-11-01/2001-01-31)
“Dolphin’s Way” (Analog, June 1964)
A scientist is trying to communicate with dolphins while fearing the budgetary ax will fall when a strangely attractive reporter arrives and begins asking him questions. Over the course of the story, we get his theories about tests aliens might have for humanity and how we might communicate with dolphins and then witness his pyrhhic victory. This is an excellent tale about linguistics, the Fermi Question, the nature of “humanity” and the cosmos. There is a problem with some gaps in the reporter’s knowledge, it seems to me, but this is about the only blemish on a story that does a great job of packing a lot of ideas into a very short and intelligent space and is also strangely vivid and concrete, perhaps due to its focus on clarity and essentials, allowing the details of place and sensation to achieve more than those in most stories do. This is also a good story to enrich the perspectives of those who see Campbell and/or Dickson stories in simple, monolithic terms.
Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-11-03/1943-06-12)
“The Spider” (Die Besessenen, 1908)
Happy Halloween! (And with minutes to spare.) This tale of a medical student renting a room in which three people have hanged themselves on consecutive Fridays is steeped in sex and death (or eros and thanatos, if you want to get fancy and Freudian) and combines a third-person omniscient presentation of the student’s diary, giving the best of both narrative worlds while the student suffers the worst of both psychosexual worlds. While I question its “psychological” underpinnings, it’s a creative and skilled dramatization of them and, while I can’t get into it without spoilers, it makes an odd antithesis to the preceding story. (Also, the little dash of number-play that I think I see is a twistedly amusing element.)
J. B. S. Haldane (1892-11-05/1964-12-01)
“The Gold-Makers” (The Inequality of Man, 1932)
The following is adapted from my review of Great Science Fiction by Scientists.
Several scientists have written SF stories. Many are surprisingly melodramatic and, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J.B.S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is a strong example, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining.