Birthday Reviews: Harrison, Murphy, Reynolds

Harry Harrison (1925-03-12–2012-08-15)

“Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” (Science Fantasy #68, 1964)

Harry Harrison is probably best known for his justly beloved comic “Stainless Steel Rat” tales (or his “Bill the Galactic Hero” series, though I’m much more fond of his space opera parody, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers). Or perhaps his serious “Deathworld,” “Planet of the Damned,” or “Eden” books. Or Make Room! Make Room! (which inspired the movie Soylent Green). Or numerous other longer works. Or his numerous short stories. Here is a strange one in that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy though it feels like it almost must be one or the other. Either way, it’s an amusing, dark, efficient tale.

Amos Cabot is eighty-two years old. One day, he receives a magazine in the mail which is all about death. Furious that someone’s counting on him to die, he storms down to the magazine’s headquarters to find out what’s going on. From the circulation director, he learns that it is underwritten by its advertisers and is sent out based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.

“I ain’t going to die in two years, not me! Not Amos Cabot!”

“That is entirely up to you, sir. My position here is just a routine one. Your subscription has been entered and will be canceled only when a copy is returned with the imprint ADDRESSEE DECEASED.”

“I’m not going to die!”

“That might possibly happen, though I can’t recall any cases offhand. But since it is a two-year subscription I imagine it will expire automatically at the end of the second year. If it is not canceled beforehand. Yes, that’s what would happen.

After discarding the notion of marking it with “deceased” himself because he doesn’t want them to think they were right, Cabot devotes everything to outlasting the prognostication and matters move quickly to their ironic conclusion.

Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty

“Cold Comfort” (Bridging Infinity, 2016)

Pat Murphy is probably best known for her fantasy novel, The Falling Woman, as well as her excellent stories, many of which are science fiction, even hard SF like this one. (This is revised from a review I did on another website.)

A rogue scientist bounces around in the Great White (but Greening) North with a notion to create “methane sequestering mats” out of carbon tubes filled with bacteria capable of metabolizing methane. Since that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and great quantities of it are released when the so-called permafrost thaws, this could be very useful. However, no one listens to the scientist’s proposal until she engages in some relatively mild, discreet ecoterrorism by blowing up a remote frozen lake to make people realize the seriousness of the permafrost and methane situation. With key people not knowing she’s responsible, things begin to break her way and she sets about trying to save the world via crowdfunding, muskoxen, robots, and less likely things. Another problem arises when the political climate of the U. S. changes and has disastrous effects on the ecological climate (not that that could ever happen here). Her research station is shut down and she’s slated to be arrested for working with foreigners to try to save the world. Ever resourceful, she hides out until its safe again. The story picks up 30 years later and provides our cold comfort.

There have been too many recent examples of cli-fi but this is a good one. While the story lacks dramatic tension regarding the skillful protagonist, it has plenty of tension regarding the world’s situation; while it is bitter and cynical in part, it isn’t simply misanthropic; and while I don’t quite like the ending, I’m not supposed to. The bulk of the tale is packed with nifty ideas, details, ramifications and interrelations, and has an actual problem-solving bent.

Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13)

“Merlin’s Gun” (Asimov’s, May 2000)

Alastair Reynolds tends to write doorstops of novels only marginally smaller than Peter F. Hamilton’s bugcrushers and many of them and his excellent stories are set in the “Revelation Space” universe. Here’s something a little different.

Sora is a member of the Cohort, which has been at war for 23,000 years. (We’re told that the Cohort has been fighting the Huskers “ever since those ruthless alien cyborgs had emerged from ancient Dyson spheres near the Galactic Core.”) For her poor marksmanship, she’s on punishment detail, which saves her life when the rest of her ship is destroyed, killing everyone she knows. Her ship had recently done a slingshot around a neutron star but some of the Huskers survived their attempt to duplicate the maneuver and caught her ship in a lonely region of space. Due to her “familiar” (an assertively helpful symbiotic AI), she doesn’t commit suicide in grief but is put into suspension in her escape pod. She wakes to see cosmic ray abrasions clouding the port and finds it’s 3,000 years later. Her familiar has awakened her because a ship has entered the system. It turns out to be a Cohort ship from 7,000 years before Sora’s time. Since the Cohort has actually been degenerating in many ways over the course of the war, this is actually a more advanced ship than hers. When she allows herself to be rescued, she finds that it is piloted by Merlin, a figure of her mythology. The myth says that he’s on a “quest” to find a “gun” which will help the Cohort end the war. This is mostly true, but turns out to be much more complicated. She joins his quest, which takes them to an especially interesting solar system where they encounter automated defenses, Huskers lying in wait under the frozen surface of a moon, and much more. As violent and large-scale as things had been, it all turns out to be minor prologue to the grand finale. (Just as a hint, Merlin’s gun fires black hole bullets and that’s not even the most amazing thing about it.)

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that, later in the story, even the Cohort-Husker war shrinks, as we learn that the gun comes from a war 40-45,000 years before, shortly after the Waymakers (those who had created the interstellar network of altered regions which allow for faster-than-light travel) disappeared and that this, itself, is merely the middle part of galactic history. (These time scales aren’t as staggering as they sound since social evolution has slowed as many people spend centuries or millennia racing through space and not living second after second through normal time, but it’s still pretty wild.) And for those who want human stories, Sora is a real person who has suffered and has decisions to make and even Merlin turns out to be much more man than myth, however much he’s gone through (which is more than it seems at first). It’s stories like this that are why I love both science fiction and short fiction: big ideas on a vast canvas of time and space, told efficiently with zest and zip (all this is done in a 34-page novelette) [1]. “Goshwowsensawunda!”


[1] This is actually part of a series of stories and is even the third one of four in internal chronology, but it was the first-written, is self-sufficient, and, if memory serves, is my favorite of the three I’ve read.

Review: Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies

Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies (Pyramid, 1964, pb, 155pp.) R-1029

“Introduction”
“The Man Who Returned” by Edmond Hamilton
“Spider Mansion” by Fritz Leiber, Jr.
“A Question of Etiquette” by Robert Bloch
“The Sea Witch” by Nictzin Dyalhis
“The Strange High House in the Mist” by H. P. Lovecraft
“The Drifting Snow” by August W. Derleth
“The Body-Masters” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
“Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard

‘Tis the season to be crawly, so I thought I’d review something in keeping with those spirits the day before Halloween. Weird Tales is a selection of stories published between 1931 and 1942 in the magazine of that name. The selection is credited to Leo Margulies, a publisher and editor involved with several SF magazines, but was (appropriately enough) ghost-edited by Sam Moskowitz. Presumably, Moskowitz also wrote the uncredited three-page introduction, which describes some of the history and character of the magazine, as well as the short introductions to the author of each story.

Being Weird Tales, the magazine included SF and fantasy as well as horror and two of the less successful tales in an otherwise very successful anthology represent those categories. Long’s 1935 story, “The Body-Masters,” is set in Cosmopolis in the year 5678 with a protagonist named V67 who is a Gland Surgeon. Seems almost everyone in this (dys|u)topia is a doctor, some of whom essentially vivisect maladjusted people with the aid of a strange pseudo-anaesthetic. This milieu and its robot mistresses are used to explore the atavistic emotion of jealousy and the notion of ideals. In one sense, this is a bad story but it is strangely imaginative and tackles a theme in a way that brought to mind Robert Silverberg’s “The Throwbacks” which, oddly, I just posted here though I reviewed it long ago. Almost half of Dyalhis’ long fantasy, “The Sea Witch,” is given over to repetitive descriptions of the nude woman an old man finds coming out of the sea on a dark and stormy night. Much is made of her archaic knowledge and speech but the narrative style is at least as archaic. Finally, the tale of magic revenge in a literally Byzantine plot unfolds in the second half after mixing New England, Norse myths, and reincarnation. I can see how some might enjoy this tale, but I didn’t.

While you could stretch “The Sea Witch” to fit some notion of horror, it’s essentially a fantasy as told. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist” also requires some stretching, though less so. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach. Moving more definitely into horror, Bloch’s “A Question of Etiquette” also deploys its style to good effect. Through the eyes of a census taker who has been drugged by the witch he had the misfortune to interview, we witness the wild night of her Sabbat and his strange fate. The narrator’s tone, which moves effectively from black comedy to phantasmagorical fear without varying the same basic pitch, is remarkable.

Several stories, such as “Sea Witch” and “High House” are New England tales and/or snowy. Derleth’s “The Drifting Snow” is another of them. In it, through an aunt who doesn’t like the curtains on one side of the house to be opened and a niece-in-law who feels a compulsion to open them, we learn a family secret from the past which led to a very strange sort of revenant who entices more to join her number. Aside from that, this is an oddly pleasant tale of a family get-together. Strange, but fairly effective. Another snowy story is Hamilton’s piece about “The Man Who Returned.” John Woodford wakes to find he’s been buried alive. The opening horror gives way to a strange inversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the irony keeps on ironing. It’s odd that a man so sick he’s been taken for dead is so vigorous in this tale which is also overly reliant on coincidence but it’s otherwise pretty effective and, despite being reminiscent of Poe, is also unusual. Leiber’s “Spider Mansion” is another tale that has some echoes of Poe (and is the sort of thing which, dammit, Janet, had its influence on The Rocky Horror Picture Show). With its “Negro” servants and psychologically twisted midgets, its obviously not a contemporary story but when a couple arrives at the creepy house of a person they think they know one dark and stormy night, the host, a midget-turned-giant via the superscience of his brother, hosts a morbid dinner and regales them with his own diabolical “genius.” Meanwhile, another horror lurks about the house and grounds and things must culminate in damsels in distress, swordplay, and fire. While an element of the ending can be made plausible, it takes some work and the title gives away what is held as a reveal in the story but this is otherwise fine, freaky stuff.

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. The Leiber, for instance, is very good, but is quite fantastic from the start, which may not allow some readers to get into it and the superscience may be effective for some and a distraction for others. This tale’s prosaic opening and initially very basic horror works much more certainly. Lovecraft’s style, for instance, works very well for his tale but Dyalhis’ (at least for me) was fatally damaging. This story skips any possible problem with that and just tells its tale. Again, with the Dyalhis, the disparate mythological pieces don’t mesh that well for me whereas this tale’s antebellum relics and imported voodoo fit superbly. Highly recommended.