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.

Birthday Reviews: Bretnor, Stableford, Watt-Evans

This week’s birthday boys bring us a bassoon, a bullet, and burgers! The one is used to turn interdimensional critters into weapons, the second is a metaphor for a genetic endeavor with unforeseen and dramatic consequences, and the last is sold at a place where no one really knows your name.

Reginald Bretnor (1911-07-30/1992-07-22)

“The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” (F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950)

This is essentially a fantastic comic variation on “The Pied Piper” but, since it makes reference to dimensions and time, you could let it fly as SF if you wanted. In it, we’re at war with Bobovia and lecherous old moron/”chenius” Papa Schimmelhorn has invented a sort of bassoon with a tuning crystal in it which makes the gnurrs come from the voodvork out. He takes it to the public Secret Weapons Bureau which is intended to filter madmen and pranksters out but he gets in and, eventually, a pantsless lieutenant runs into the general’s office telling him they have an effective new weapon. The general, who hates new-fangled gadgets and believes the finest way to fight future wars will be with a sword atop a horse, is initially resistant but, when he’s convinced that the gnurrs who eat almost everything inanimate are actual animals, he’s more willing. There follows a dizzying ride in which the bassoon weapon is deployed by Papa alongside a crew of swiftly and repeatedly promoted soldiers before things inevitably go wrong and the day must be saved again.

This has a serious point regarding fighting the last wars, but is otherwise quite light. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and, while it’s not a side-splitter, its farcical but mild humor was grin-worthy throughout and chuckle-inducing more than once.

Brian Stableford (1948-07-25)

“The Magic Bullet” (Interzone #29, May-June 1989)

Lisa Friemann is a scientist and police officer but, on this night, she’s been called in to shed light on a case because she knows the scientist who has been shot and whose lab has been destroyed, killing the thousand mice he had for genetic experiments. She knows him very well, in fact, though perhaps not as well as she thought, as they’d had a sexual relationship for decades and he won’t tell her what’s going on in his final time before dying – at least not until the national security cop has to take care of other aspects of the case and leaves it in Lisa’s hands to get something out him. When he does finally tell the tale, it involves his experiments, a chance discovery with apocalyptic implications for half the human race, and his other lover.

If I understand this story and if Lisa is supposed to be the hero of it, rather than just part of it, then I ideologically dislike it but, aesthetically, the four characters mentioned above and their conflicting motivations are used to produce interesting dynamics which make a story which is arguably two infodumps feel sufficiently dramatic. The scientific ideas in this are of the biological/sociological sort which drove much of the author’s work in the late 1980s through the 90s and are stimulating and weighty enough to be used in that extended way. There is also the interesting (disturbing) line about “the so-called Plague Wars, which might not have been wars at all, but which wiped out a third of the human race in the early part of the century.”

Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26)

“Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (IAsfm, July 1987)

The narrator starts out his tale as a sixteen-year-old needing money with not many options in Sutton, West Virginia, so he talks Harry into giving him a job at Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers. Harry warns him that he gets some pretty strange customers and not to stare or bother them or anything. Eventually, the narrator learns that Harry wasn’t kidding, especially when the three topless women come in and, later, the flying saucer parks in the front lot. As time goes on, he learns what’s going on and tells us about it. He also starts feeling like Sutton isn’t a place he wants to be any more and is about to take a very dangerous and irrevocable step when he has a transformative conversation with one of the strange customers.

This is a very hard story to describe because, in a way, there’s almost nothing to spoil and you can talk about 95% of it but that seems intrinsically spoilerish anyway, so you can hardly talk about any of it. What you can say is that it’s told with a very believable narrative voice which contemplates its central science fictional concept in a very effective Everyman way and ends just so. It’s a very personable story and fun to read.

Asimov’s Centennial: Conclusion of Phase One

It’s taken awhile but this post will complete the first phase of my Asimov Centennial Project. I’ll review three last stories which will complete the coverage of I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy and provide an index to all the coverage of Asimov’s output from 1939-1950.

Robot and Foundation Stories

The first story to be written outside the timeframe of The Early Asimov and the final regular story to be written and included in I, Robot is “The Evitable Conflict.” In it, Stephen Byerley (who first appeared in “Evidence”) is now World Co-ordinator and dealing with a problem he wants Susan Calvin’s help with. A fascinating portrait of an Earth which has been reorganized into four Regions with Vice Co-ordinators under Byerley is painted and, in each of them, there are subtle but disturbing problems with what should be the perfect guidance of the Machines (or computers, or stationary robots, which still fall under the domain of the Three Laws which ensure no harm can come to humans). An array of impossible possibilities is presented, such as machine error (impossible by design and Law) or human error (impossible because the errors would produce other inconsistencies). Byerley believes it may have something to do with a “Society for Humanity” which is opposed to the role of machines in society. Susan determines that that is correct, but not in the way Byerley thought.

There are two problems in this successful story. A minor one is that, while the thematic fireplace element at the open and close and the trips through each of the Regions of the world demonstrates the story’s excellent structure, it’s almost too excellent – a little too deliberate and obvious. More importantly, the solution to the problem is supposed to rely on logic and it is logical at every step of the way except the sophistry involved in expanding a premise which anticipates a major, and more earned, change later in the Robot sequence. Still, the problem is suitably puzzling, Byerley and Calvin make for an interesting pair, the future world is imaginatively unusual (if a bit schematic), and there is substantial philosophical material to think about if the reader wants to, and a very good puzzle if that would be enough.

While not strictly a story, Asimov did add three or four thousand words of a framing narrative around and between the stories in I, Robot in the form of a reporter recalling, in 2064, a couple of interviews done with an elderly Susan Calvin in 2057. It rearranges the individual stories from their published order and weaves them into a narrative which describes how, after the last world war shortly before Calvin was born in 1982, the first limited robots were developed at the end of the millennium, grew in abilities, and essentially came to run the world. In the meantime, the nations of Earth coalesced first into Regions and then into the Federation of those Regions while, beyond Earth, interplanetary travel and commerce was developed, culminating in the hyper-drive and the first colonies around nearby stars.

While not dramatically plotted as an independent story, it does portray quite a future history and does powerful work in amplifying the Robot stories into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

(This framing story is not available apart from this book. For instance, one of the weaknesses of The Complete Robot, aside from the fact that it became incomplete, is that it arranges the stories differently and drops this text. On the other hand, The Complete Robot contains two stories not otherwise available in book form.)

The Psychohistorians” was not initially published in a magazine like the other Foundation stories, but was written to ease the reader into the series as presented in book form and to lengthen the first volume of the trilogy to something more like the subsequent volumes.

Young Gaal Dornick makes his way from his small, remote world of Synnax to the capital world of the Galactic Empire, Trantor. Still deep in sensory overload, he finds himself being questioned by a stranger and explains that he’s a mathematician who has come to Trantor to work for the psychohistorian Hari Seldon. Leaving that meeting, he returns to his room and is surprised to meet Hari Seldon, himself. He’s even more surprised when Seldon proves to him that the Empire is near death. And he’s yet more surprised the next morning, when he’s arrested by the Commission for Public Safety and finds himself on trial, along with Seldon, for being a danger to the Empire which has a chance, however slight, of resulting in his execution. A courtroom drama with twists and turns then follows.

Even as an independent story, this would be pretty good and, as an establishing piece for the stories which follow, it’s excellent. Gaal is a sort of stereotyped “country boy in the big city” but is effective and Seldon steals the show as the Obi-Wan/Yoda to his Luke. (In fact, Gaal literally tells him he stole the show in one scene.) Trantor and the Empire are suitably stupendous. The fascinating concept of psychohistory is conveyed clearly, quickly, and dramatically.

(By the way, somewhat akin to the framing story in I, Robot, this story begins with a quote from the “Encyclopedia Galactica.” In the original versions of the other stories, some have quotes from the works of a Ligurn Vier and many have none at all. The Ligurn Vier quotes were rewritten as Encyclopedia Galactica extracts and more were distributed throughout the trilogy. The Foundation stories work superbly either way but the book version does result in a different perspective on the Encyclopedia (and related issues).)

Index

In the future, I’ll be reviewing Asimov’s works more or less by the book. While, on the one hand, there were some fairly extended periods where he published no new SF novels (1959-81 saw only the novelization of Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the original novel The Gods Themselves in 1972) and, on the other, there were no extended periods in which he didn’t publish a story in the magazines, he still shifted his focus to books generally and I think it will be better (certainly easier) to cover them that way. What has been covered so far are the contents of the following books:

  • Pebble in the Sky (1950; alternate version from The Alternate Asimovs (1986))
  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Foundation and Empire (1952)
  • Second Foundation (1953)
  • The Early Asimov (1972; paperback version published in two volumes (1974))

Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) and Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) each include one story from this period and The Rest of the Robots (1964, paperback version containing only stories as Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robot (1966)) contained three.

They’ve been covered in the following posts:

(Half of Foundation is in “Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943” and the other half is in “Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945” while I, Robot and The Early Asimov are split over all the posts.)

I’ve also covered the first volume of his two-volume, 640,000-word autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, in the following posts:

Birthday Reviews: Benford, Deutsch, Farmer

This may be the first installment of a new regular feature of Featured Futures in which I post some of the upcoming week’s birthdays and review at least a story by one or more of the birthday boys or girls. This covers January 25-31, so please join me in wishing a happy birthday (whether they can hear us or not) to Gregory Benford, A. J. Deutsch, and Philip Jose Farmer.

Gregory Benford (1941-01-30)

“And the Sea Like Mirrors” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

Some stories open with a confusing scenario which either is–or, just as bad, seems like–a sign of incompetence but some open with a confusing scenario which is skillfully presented and some of the enjoyment of the story comes from its gradual clarification. With such stories, reviewing them is hard because you have to give away some of that in order to say anything at all. So I apologize for that and assure you that Benford skillfully presents a strange situation in which a man and a woman are on a raft in an ocean and who then deal with alien critters before revealing that we’re not on an alien world, but on an Earth which has been invaded by aliens who have sown our seas with a variety of life, some of which swarms and attacks like piranhas. Our two characters are the only survivors of a ship that was sunk by these beings. This is, indeed, a dangerous vision not to be read lightly and which succeeds wonderfully on the purely dramatic level of “survival at sea (plus alien invaders)” but which also has thematic depths such as contemplating the extent to which changes without may change us within.

A. J. Deutsch (1918-01-25/1969-11-11)

“A Subway Named Mobius” (Astounding, December 1950)

Deutsch was a respected scientist, but in science fiction terms, he was something of a one-hit wonder, writing only “A Subway Named Mobius.” In it, an elaborate subway network in Boston receives one more element that pushes it into infinite topological complexity and train 86 disappears. Most of the story deals with the station manager and a mathematician trying to understand what has happened and to determine what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s one of those simultaneously funny and freaky stories because the disappearance of 350 people is no laughing matter but lines about a very confused and frustrated manager (“Whyte gripped the edge of his desk and prowled silently through his vocabulary until he had located some civil words”) are. The story is hard to take as actual science fiction and it doesn’t really do much but it’s something like the spatial version (with some temporal aspects, too) of del Rey’s “And It Comes Out Here.” Regardless, it maintains interest.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-01-26/2009-02-25)

“Sail On! Sail On!” (Startling Stories, December 1952)

I first read of Friar Sparks many moons ago and have read it several times since but it never ceases to amaze. In just a few pages, Farmer puts us on the Santa Maria in what appears to be an alternate world in which Roger Bacon has become a saint and his order has created marvelous things. Things like the “realizer” our good Friar with the large nose and large thirst operates which causes millions of cherubim to line up to convey messages over vast distances (a sort of telegraph interpreted through a different lens). But this is shown to be the least of the changes in what is actually an instance of the omniverse which carries on to a gigantic conclusion. Strongly recommended.