Birthday Reviews: Clement, del Rey, Walton

The week’s birthday stories blur the line between man and machine and explore religious and gender conflict.

Hal Clement (1922-05-30–2003-10-29)

“The Mechanic” (Analog, September 1966)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of Space Lash from 2014-05-06.

In “The “Mechanic,” Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone with which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and dealing with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

Lester del Rey (1915-06-02–1993-05-10)

“For I Am a Jealous People” (Star Short Novels, 1954)
“The Seat of Judgment” (Venture, July 1957)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of The Best of Lester del Rey at Black Gate from 2018-10-27.

“The Seat of Judgment” is an astonishing tale from 1957 which involves the titular form of punishment which is almost incomprehensibly horrible, incestuous group sex, and fairly explicit alien sex. An old colonial official of a decaying Earth empire returns to a planet of green marsupials, where he’d been instrumental in averting a religious uprising a generation before, and is tasked with repeating his feat. Despite the natives having only goddesses, a male prophet has arisen and the priestess and the official work together (the latter somewhat unwillingly) to deal with him. The twist to this tale is truly brutal and the whole is fascinating from multiple angles which include personal, historical, social, and religious. “For I Am a Jealous People” is another remarkable tale of religion. Rev. Amos Strong and Dr. Alan Miller are friends despite the latter’s atheism and the two friends go through a vicious and multi-faceted ordeal when aliens invade Kansas. The two friends are nicely characterized individually and together and the Reverend’s quandary about what to do when God is not on our side is compelling. His ordeal rivals Job’s and some may find it excessive but others will find it seizes them and won’t let go.

Bryce Walton (1918-05-31–1988-02-05)

“Too Late for Eternity” (Startling Stories, Spring 1955)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from a discussion board post from 2014-09-27.

“Too Late for Eternity” is stark raving mad, but thoroughly competent and effective. It’s about how women live longer than men. Do they ever. The longevity difference started innocently enough but the gap continued to widen:

And then the Third World War. Records, statistics destroyed. A lot of men destroyed too. And after that, three women for every man.

Matriarchy. The women had taken over. And a lot of those women hated men and hated science. Some of them formed anti-male cults. Who needs men?

They took over everything, Joad thought, lying there with his face pressed against the floor. Everything.

Joad is about 120 and comes home to find the young up-and-coming business exec he’d recommended to his wife in bed with her, as is natural when it’s time for the old guys to be retired and the ever-youthful wife needs someone with more, um, stamina. Hilariously, in this matriarchy where women control everything, the morning after her wild night with her new guy, she makes both men breakfast. There are similar persistent 1950s notes through this 2700ish matriarchy and the Freudian weirdness and misogyny is kind of staggering, though it is counterbalanced by an eventual misandry – let’s just call it a general misanthropy. But a couple of aspects of the story really work. First, it’s a completely whacked-out future that has a compelling nature – like Pohl and Kornbluth on a bad day. Bad acid day. And the protagonist’s pain and anger at getting old and being replaced and finally getting wise to how he’s been programmed to accept everything–and how he doesn’t accept it–is quite effectively portrayed. It’s kind of the madman or Ancient Mariner effect of a guy grabbing you by the lapels and conveying a tale of lunacy with such intense conviction that it works. And he hits a lot of birds with this stone – age, sex (kinda shocking sex for ’55, I’d think), gender, cults of beauty, pointlessness of some societal ambitions, the bad aspects of exaggerated masculine and feminine traits, etc. Wild stuff.


Edit (2020-06-04): Added images.

Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis

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This week we’ve got alien sex, AI hell, a brain in a machine forty million years in the future, and a mind in a machine at the precipice of a black hole, via stories from before the Golden Age through the New Wave to the end of the millennium.

James Blish (1921-05-23–1975-07-30)

“How Beautiful with Banners” (Orbit 1, 1966)

Blish is best known for his novels or the long stories that were fixed up into novels (various forms of “Surface Tension,” “Beep,” A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, etc.), but here tells a shorter and (I think) more isolated tale with interesting observations along the way, such as how “four years in the past” is “a long distance, when one recalls that in a four-dimensional plenum every second of time is one hundred eighty six thousand miles of space…”

Dr. Ulla Hillstrom is on Titan, observing examples of a species of “flying cloaks” while wearing the latest in high-tech astronaut gear, which makes her especially interesting to a cloak in a way that may have disastrous and/or transformative consequences.

This tale of many things, including sex both human and alien, may try to do too much and is certainly overwritten (though consistently so) but it is an extraordinary, um, conception, and a bizarrely effective blend of the classic problem story of woman against nature and New Wave concerns and conclusions. It also seems like the soundtrack to the story, both superficially and otherwise, could be The Rolling Stones’ “She’s So Cold.”

Harlan Ellison (1934-05-27–2018-06-28)

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (If, March 1967)

As we learn in an embedded story midway through this one, after starting WWIII, some warring nations created AIs which merged into AM, which then killed off all of humanity but five people, all of whom it torments endlessly in a technological Hell. Prior to that, we are introduced to those five and their torments and, after that, we witness a crescendo of agony and violence before the final denouement of silent horror.

Ellison’s stuff worked extraordinarily well when I was a teenager, although seemingly less so now. It packs a punch, though the punch is often a flailing, shakily guided one. For instance, AM expresses its hate directly in both powerful and juvenile terms which the protagonist then characterizes.

AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue-hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork. AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched, and devised new ways, at his leisure, there inside my mind.

Certainly, there’s an objective correlative to this speech. Certainly, either way, the sentences should be arranged so that maggoty pork follows ground babies as much the greater horror. Certainly the “every” and “ever” and then more “new ways” is precise.

Still, by aiming at a Poe-like single effect and then just throwing everything at it that occurs to him, Ellison does achieve a generally memorable story.

Neil R. Jones (1909-05-29–1988-02-15)

“The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)

Professor Jameson wants to outdo the Egyptians and preserve his body for as long as possible after he dies, so devises a plan to have himself launched in a rocket into orbit around the Earth which his nephew duly implements when the time comes. So far, so good. Forty million revolutions of the Earth around the sun later, the Zoromes enter the Solar System, looking for things to excite them. They were once biological beings but had their brains implanted in conical heads with six eyes all around (plus one on the top) which are mounted on cubical bodies with four articulated legs and six tentacular arms and are now, barring accidents, effectively immortal. They discover Jameson’s satellite and, with him being dead and a possible source of information and excitement, they revive his brain and transfer it to one of their body-types. Jameson comes back to life and consciousness in a state of understandable confusion and, then, while observing a tidally locked Eath orbiting close to a red sun, and facing the prospect of being the last man alive with nothing but Zoromes (however nice they are) for companions, he feels crushing loneliness and hopelessness vying with the possibilities of a boundless future in waves of suicidal conflict.

This is very much a scientifiction story which has a direct reference to Haggard, nephews doing things for extraordinary voyages like Burroughs, “sleeping” people like Malory, far future Earths like Wells, characters with names like “25X-987” like Gernsback, and backyard rocket inventors like most everyone, and which influenced others in turn [1]. While it starts at the end of Jameson’s life, it starts very much at the beginning of any possible narration and continues through step after step with almost nothing but description and explanation until the end, though the narration is full of such weird ideas and imagery as to scarcely need a great deal of conflict. Readers might ask why Jameson thought it was so important to preserve his corpse or they might grant that some form of permanence is a common desire; might find the technological notions sloppy (to be extremly generous) or handwave it; and might find some of the writing, in which telescopes possess “immense” power and things travel at “inconceivable” speeds to be nearly as sloppy, though it’s generally reasonably crisp on a line-by-line basis. Many SF stories might have had a happy immortal or angsty last man and I thought it was interesting that this had both in one. While it certainly won’t suit everyone, I’ve had the Jameson stories in the Pile for a long time and, having finally read one, I’m curious about how the series progresses.

Geoffrey A. Landis (1955-05-28)

“Approaching Perimelasma” (Asimov’s, January 1998)

Eleven centuries prior to the opening of our story, which may be set in the early Fourth Millennium, wormholes were discovered and manipulated. They play a significant role in the protagonist’s journey into a black hole. That protagonist is a one-millimeter tall humaniform construct with a variety of powers including necessarily UV vision, variable hyperspeed and ultraslow perceptions, and staggering resistance to gravity and tidal forces, with an uploaded personality from a novelty-seeking post-human, and he plans to fly a peanut-sized spaceship into the black hole with the aim to explore, experience, perhaps find information that will lead to the holy grail of FTL travel and, just before he becomes trapped forever, to use a wormhole to escape. Naturally, things don’t go right from a couple of perspectives and the effort to deal with at least one of them draws on some quick thinking, quick action, and chance.

There are some stories that have SCIENCE FICTION emblazoned on them, burning like a nova, casting most other stories into relative shade, and this is one. There are concepts sprinkled several-to-a-page resulting in repeated mind blowings and, because it’s in initially elliptical, confusing present tense, has a ship named Huis Clos (as well as a funny nod to Frederic Brown), and is about psychology as much as physics, it’s even literary, too. Fun for the whole family! I feel like I gave away too much but that also seemed like the minimum to have it make sense. Rest assured, there’s one or two gems about the protagonist and one or two climaxes that I didn’t detail and, even if I had spoiled everything, nothing would be spoiled because it wouldn’t capture much of anything of the actual experience of reading the story which takes just a few pages to strain and unchain your brain with an expedition into a star as a mere appetizer, which makes you think about life and death and pseudo-religious concepts on human and cosmic scales and is just everything science fiction, and short science fiction, ought to be. I was thinking this was one of my favorites of all time and it absolutely still is.


[1] Asimov himself credits the Zoromes with influencing his conception of benevolent robots.

Silverberg’s Stories: 1966-1968

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Contents

  • “Halfway House” (If, November 1966)
  • “By the Seawall” (If, January 1967)
  • “Hawksbill Station” (Galaxy, August 1967)
  • “Bride Ninety-One” (If, September 1967)
  • “Flies” (Dangerous Visions, October 1967)
  • “The King of the Golden River” (Galaxy, December 1967)
  • “Passengers” (Orbit 4, 1968)
  • “Going Down Smooth” (Galaxy, August 1968)
  • “To the Dark Star” (The Farthest Reaches, August 1968)
  • “As Is” (Worlds of Fantasy, September 1968)

The first post in this series began with the first story Silverberg sold to Pohl under their special arrangement and jumped ahead to cover “Hawksbill Station” from this post’s period. The second briefly mentions the next five independent stories but focuses on the series of five stories which make up the book, To Open the Sky. This post will cover the stories between those and the series of three stories which make up Nightwings, except for the already-covered “Hawksbill Station” and “As Is,” which has never been collected. (This period also includes the one serial sold to Pohl from the many novels Silverberg was publishing: The Man in the Maze (Galaxy, April and May 1968). That is a good science fictionalization of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, using a human protagonist made intolerable to other humans by an alien-imposed psychic taint.)

Halfway House” and “Flies” are two very different takes on a “cruel martyr” theme. In the former, a terminally ill man goes through a “singularity” to try to make a deal with the aliens on the other side which will save his life. What he ends up having to do is take the place of the guy interviewing him and deciding the fates of other petitioners. The existential reality of this is not what he expected. In the latter, a spaceship accident kills everyone on board but aliens rebuild one man from fragments and “improve” him. What follows is a brutal reunion with his three wives while the main character meditates, with flat affect, on the Shakespeare line which gives the story its title. This was published in Dangerous Visions and there’s overreach for effect. Given that the terminally ill man sought his destiny while it was thrust upon the dead man, one might think the conclusions would be different but they’re not, much.

As the preceding deal with martyrs of sorts, so “To the Dark Star” deals with scapegoats. A human man, a modified human woman, and an alien go to witness the birth of a black hole. None of the crew can stand each other and one of them must experience a mind-shattering mental union with the black hole (or something like that). Each human vigorously tries to force the other to do it until something gives. The narrative voice doesn’t contradict the internal rationale given, which reflects poorly on humanity. However, as the story actually plays out, I think it’s rather a “psychic physics” problem, so to speak. Either way, it’s not a bad story but the science feels like fantasy and, even so, that background is more interesting than the foreground of unpleasant characters.

Bride Ninety-One,” which Pohl bought, has a vibe like “Day Million,” which Pohl sold a year and a half earlier so I assume that’s no accident. In this strange and somewhat humorous tale, contract marriages are the norm and a human and a Suvornese contract a six-month marriage with both going through some odd changes given that they are so different, especially since the Suvornese is intent on having a human-style marriage. It doesn’t stop there, though.

While all four of the preceding have their points and are more interesting than most of what I read today, I’d put them in the back half. Moving to the better tales, “Going Down Smooth” is a sort of black comedy (with binary/ASCII profanity) which is presented as the stream of consciousness of an AI that’s gone mad, perhaps due to having the job of dealing with insane humans. (The title comes from its commentary on humans losing their adverbs (which also bugs me) and has to do with “garbage in, garbage out.” Everything going down smooth… they mean smoothly.) There comes a point in the story where it gets some counseling of its own and it’s feeling much better now.

Passengers” isn’t much interested in declaring its genre but powerfully presents what may be an alien invasion in terms of demonic possession. Humans are taken for rides which are somewhat like blackouts in which they are essentially absent and generally amnesiac but from which vague traces may remain. Society has come to ignore people when they are being ridden and continues to muddle along. One of the conventions is that what happens while being ridden stays there but, when a man realizes he’s in love with a woman after both were possessed and had sex together, he seeks to break that taboo. The ending might be read differently today than then but I think the general blackly ironic intent persists. The description of the social and individual madness, topped off with the paranoia involved with not even being sure whether you’re possessed or not, is very effective.

In “By the Seawall,” Micah-IV is an artificial person guarding a vast structure which, along with a poison zone and an electrified zone in the waters, fends off seamonsters. While a couple of sectors of the wall have become famous for having threatening assaults from monsters, his section hasn’t and he wishes something exciting would happen. That’s granted when a person circumvents safety protocols and commits suicide by leaping off the wall and using a “gravity chute” to propel himself beyond the barriers to be eaten by the monsters. This is the first in a wave of suicides which perplexes Micah-IV so much that he goes to extreme lengths to understand it. As with “Passengers,” it’s unfortunate that it’s so overtly New Wavy with its refusal to explain the seamonsters and its downer (literally) core of the story, but the description of the wall, monsters, and suicides are extremely effective and the existential plight of everyone down to the protagonist has its resonance. I was impressed by the milieu and the story produced an effective feeling of weirdness. (Incidentally, this may have inspired a couple of recent (2017, 2018) stories in Clarkesworld by Finbarr O’Reilly.)

The King of the Golden River” could be called “Wife of the King of the Volcano People” because the King isn’t the main character and the Golden River is less impressive and relevant to the story than the volcanoes. It actually did have a variant title in its original magazine publication but that was “King of the Golden World” which makes even less sense. Be that as it may, it involves Elena’s search for meaning. She ends up on an alien world where the native inhabitants are close enough to human for non-reproductive sex and becomes the wife of a king. His people live on a double-peaked volcanic island and she worries about getting everyone evacuated when the time of eruption nears. What ensues leads to the defining moment of her existence. I like that we can think whatever we like about Elena and even she isn’t sure what to think of herself. The setting is a bit contrived but is as vividly drawn as the one in “By the Seawall” and the atmosphere of tension and the eventual action of the relatively basic plot is effective.