Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.

[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

Birthday Reviews: Barnes, Pangborn, Sturgeon

In terms of authors, “Happy birthday!” In terms of their stories, “Happy doomsday!” Here’s an apocalyptic triptych (though only one features full frontal nullity).

John Barnes (1957-02-28)

“My Advice to the Civilized” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1990)

In the near future, a few years after civilization has collapsed, a former historian and current sergeant in a Company gets ready for battle with an invading, sadistic, murderous, barbarian Horde and writes a letter to the future. Through this letter, we learn something of what happened, what is happening, and what will happen while we mostly get a half-dozen bits of advice which the historian expands upon in a reflective and heartfelt way, thinking heavily upon the loves of his life.

The relatively minor flaw in this story, for me, is its present-tense narration which is rarely a good idea and especially not here. If I’ve been writing a letter, get interrupted, and have returned to the letter afterward, I don’t write “I sit down to write more.” The far more important strengths are the strange believability of a strangely inexplicable collapse of civilization, how the civilized grow more barbaric in response to barbarism, the complex attitude toward both civilization and barbarism (with civilization clearly the favorite), and an interesting effect from its incomplete ending which can be read as completely tragic or somewhat hopeful depending on where you stop in your own continuation of the story. This is also (as it would often be) a timely story.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-02-25–1976-02-01)

“The Red Hills of Summer” (F&SF, September 1959)

After humanity has wrecked Earth, three hundred humans have fled in a spaceship (possibly one of a few) and has found a new world to attempt to colonize. Four people are chosen to go down and test its suitability before the rest may join them. A quiet religious woman, a high-strung and odd political theorist, a fairly ordinary guy (our narrator) and his wife descend to the planet’s surface. What follows is quite a bit of action as the group establishes a landing site, deals with the native life (none sentient but some quite dangerous), and with each other, mixed with some contemplation on why Earth went wrong and whether this world will, too.

There is often a divide between the usually sharp, pragmatic, literal, but sometimes thin “hard SF” and the sometimes deep, philosophical, metaphorical but usually fuzzy “literary SF” that I wish were bridged more often and better. I don’t recall having read Pangborn before (though I’ve certainly heard of him because Gardner Dozois was such a fan [1]) and I’d assumed he was pretty far into the literary territory but this story, at least, is a very nice blend. I do think the story has a couple of flaws (it obtains some of its conflict by having an implausibly poorly planned and executed mission and there is a moment of great tension for the characters at the end which depends on what immediately feels like overreaction so that the tension feels forced for the reader) and I wish “literary SF” didn’t so often depend on ruined Earths but this was generally a very good story which a variety of readers are likely to appreciate.

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-02-26–1985-05-08)

“The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (F&SF, October 1949)

On the planet Lihrt, a gwik creates a disturbance which causes a lab to be deserted which allows a young hurkle (a gwik pet) to unwittingly modify a gizmo and then accidentally fall into it, which results in the hurkle materializing on Earth. It disturbs a classroom, causing a very level-headed (but inexpert) teacher to try to deal with it, which results in a great change for both humanity and the hurkle.

This is told in an almost fairy-tale way which usually annoys me. In this case, it doesn’t, because this is a very funny (though also dark) story in which the “mimsy were the borogroves” methodology is put to great (and sometimes risque) use as we’re told how life went on after the disturbance at Lihrt and the gwik still “fardled, funted and fupped.” Sturgeon was one of the best and could do all sorts of stories from hard SF to fantasy to mainstream and from comedy to tragedy to horror. This particular one may not be his most momentous, but it’s entertaining.

[1] And I’ve got a couple of Pangborn’s books in the Pile, mostly on the strength of that.