Birthday Reviews: Binder, Bradbury, Tiptree, Vance

Eando Binder (Otto has the birthday this week) introduces us to one of science fiction’s more significant robots while Jack Vance takes us to an ancient alien battlefield where the fighting’s just begun and Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) bring us visions of damsels with dulcimers in their completely different ways.

Happy birthday also to Vonda N. McIntyre (1948-08-28–2019-04-01). While not generally the biggest fan, I would have re-read and reviewed her remarkable “Aztecs” novella but I intend to read the novel expanded from it sometime this eon, so didn’t feel like getting into the novella right now. The birthday party is still full, anyway.

 

Eando Binder (1911-08-26–1974-10-14)

“I, Robot” (Amazing, January 1939)

Shortly before Isaac Asimov was to set his stamp on robot stories forevermore, Earl and Otto Binder wrote this bildungsroman/Frankenstein-revision about a robot with an iridium-sponge brain (it’s the platinum that makes Asimov’s robots so good) who was created by Dr. Link and raised and named Adam Link by him. The “to whom it may concern” letter structure written in a quiet space amidst much trouble makes it a little distant and it’s a bit sentimental, but it’s an interesting and effective tale now and was even more unusual when written. It’s good stuff for anybody but essential for Asimov and/or robot fans.

Ray Bradbury (1920-08-22–2012-06-05)

“The Anthem Sprinters” (Playboy, June 1963)

Everybody’s gotta love The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 but I’m actually not otherwise the biggest Bradbury fan. However, this is a story that I’ve read twice, with a grin the whole time both times. And it’s not even science fiction.

An American is in an Irish pub when he learns about a “bug under a microscope [which] is the greatest beast on earth,” in this case, the betting sport the gang has to entertain themselves based on what needs to happen at the ends of movies… unless still greater things intervene. Actually, while not SF, and without anything that flatly contradicts the natural world, this is a species of fantasy just because everything in it is imbued with such improbable joy.

James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-08-24–1987-05-19)

“Milk of Paradise” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

This story resists synopsis in the way that poems resist paraphrase and, as the references both within and in the title of the story to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” indicate, that’s not an accident. To put it baldly and rob it of its texture, Timor was the son of a scout who, with his father dead, lived with aliens as a boy until he was rescued at age 10. Now apparently a young man, he can hardly associate with humans who are repugnant to him, as he is to himself, for not being like those wondrous aliens. This is especially hard to understand for the people who come into contact with Timor because humans generally know of only one other species, the sub-human Crot. When Santiago shows up, strikes a familiar chord in Timor, and wants to take him on a space journey, Timor’s isolation changes and changes again, each time in an ambiguous way.

Much as the river Alph, the story flows in what seems like a reasonably clear and accessible way which engages the reader but is obviously going to be deeper than many stories. Even feeling that, the waters at the chasm burst out with surprising force and depth of psychological action. Perhaps it’s a restatement of the poem in science fictional terms or perhaps it’s a reply. It also may be tangential to all that, only borrowing the poem for a title and a quote, and be saying something about the extraordinary power (for good or ill) of formative events, or seeing with more than eyes or, conversely be about us and, as Nietzsche had it, that we may need our self-deceptions to survive. Either way, it’s a fascinating and powerful experience that may err on the side of obliqueness but is otherwise excellently executed.

Jack Vance (1916-08-28–2013-05-26)

“Sulwen’s Planet” (The Farthest Reaches, 1968)

Professors Gench and Kosmin and Dr. Drewe are the focal characters of a mission to develop a plan of exploration of Sulwen’s Plain on Sulwen’s Planet which orbits Sulwen’s Star. The plain is the scene of a 62,000-year-old battle where no less than seven starships of at least two races have crashed. Gench is a philologist while Kosmin is a comparative linguist and they are constantly stepping on each others’ hated toes. Drewe is a mathematician and Director of the mission. We follow the dangerously serious games of one-upsmanship between the two wordmen before a clever double-ending.

This reminds me of something else I can’t put my finger on and any reader would be justified in being disappointed in the insufficient use made of the fantastic setting (as well as being put off by the personalities of both Gench and Kosmin) but the setting is so fantastic while the action within it is so believable, the plot is so clever, and the final perception of Gench and Kosmin is sufficiently modified that it’s an enjoyable tale.

Birthday Reviews: Saberhagen, Wellman

The birthday boys of the coming week bring us tales of berserkers and balladeers.

Fred Saberhagen (1930-05-18–2007-06-29)

“Starsong” (If, January 1968)

Within a powerfully grotesque framing story about a doctor determining if the brains (some vat-grown, some removed from their bodies) within a liberated berserker base are human or not (and disposing of those that aren’t), is the story of Ordell Callison, the galaxy’s greatest singer, and his new wife, Eury. When playing a mating game of ship tag, one man plays with an unwilling Eury, she flees and, like a wolf running down a sheep separated from the flock, a berserker [1] comes out of hiding and captures her. Ordell learns of this, madly tears out after her, and is also captured. However, his song powerfully affects the cyborg humans that had been under the thrall of the berserkers and he has one chance to escape the base with her.

A great virtue and vice of this story is the fact that it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in science fictional terms. The vice comes from it being an extremely faithful adaptation that provides a rote feeling to the plot along with the discordant “singing SF” element but the virtue is that it is also a naturally powerful plot, is very creatively adapted, and even does some interpretation of the myth. Even more notably, it produces a very unusual and strong flavor which, while still very different, may come closest to some of the weirdness that is Cordwainer Smith. Effective and memorable.

Manly Wade Wellman (1903-05-21-1986-04-05)

“O Ugly Bird!” (F&SF, December 1951)

To borrow from the opening line, “I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you what” this story is like. John’s a traveling musician with a silver-stringed guitar on his way through the mountains to the Bottomless Pool when he meets Mr. Onselm. That unworthy turns out to be a hoodoo man keeping the few folks of the local population under his thumb with the help of an ugly bird – a purely unnatural bird, at that. Onselm is a sight, and the bird is even more so, and things are creepy enough but, when Onselm takes a notion to more thoroughly possess the shopgirl, Winnie, and gathers a small posse to run off the troublesome guitar player who’s also taken a more gentlemanly liking to the girl, things get more urgent and even creepier.

This is a hard story to describe because, on its surface, it’s very simple and very short as well, but Wellman paces things and reveals things and describes things just so, producing a really effective low-key horror combined with a winning perspective conveyed through John’s mountain voice. The one problem with this is that people seem to forget and remember a thing or two when it’s pretty convenient but the tale is a gem, otherwise, and the first of many stories and novels featuring John the Balladeer.


[1] If you’re not familiar with the series, berserkers are machines whose ultimate purpose is to eradicate biological life throughout the galaxy.

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.