Birthday Reviews: Spinrad, Waldrop

This week’s stories would seem to be opposites, combining to tell us a tale of two regions as we travel to New York looking for a beautiful thing and to Mississippi looking for ugly things but, as with humanity, there’s a deeper bond beneath their surface differences.

Norman Spinrad (1940-09-15)

“A Thing of Beauty” (Analog, January 1973)

thing-of-beauty

Mr. Harris sells the antiquities (which he calls the “old junk”) of a post-Insurrection United States which has fallen from power and Mr. Ito is looking to buy. He needs something for his “garden” that is just so – his wife and her folks don’t think he has any taste and he must prove them wrong to restore harmony to his home. So Harris takes Ito around New York in a Mach-whatever jumper, showing him the ruins and pointing out potential buys. Ito regretfully does not want the Statue of Liberty, would love to buy Yankee Stadium but can’t because his maniacal infatuation with American baseball would be seen as further lack of taste, and is exceedingly offended that he could possibly want the UN buildings. What he finally sees that sends him into fits of rapture is quite a comical twist and things twist again after that.

This is probably one of the first “Japan, the economic powerhouse, takes over the world” stories which took over much SF by the 1980s. It stereotypes a bit though much of that can be attributed to the antihero, Harris, who is not a nice man (though Ito isn’t either, really). He’s not so repugnant that the late humorous element doesn’t work but is unsympathetic enough that the complex ending also works on all levels.

This is one of Spinrad’s many not-so Star-Spangled Futures that were collected in a book of that name (along with some in Other Americas) and I wouldn’t steer anyone away from those but most of the stories in the first (and one of those in the second) can be found in his first two collections, The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and No Direction Home, which I heartily recommend, along with the novella Riding the Torch and the novels Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream, and The Void Captain’s Tale. I wouldn’t stop there, but I’d recommend starting there.

Howard Waldrop (1946-09-15)

“Ugly Chickens” (Universe 10, 1980)

ugly-chickens

The Turkey City Writers’ Workshop has a Lexicon and in that Lexicon is the notion that, “I’ve suffered for my art; now it’s your turn.” This is applied when “the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.” Well, in this story, Howard Waldrop (a founding member of that workshop) probably suffered for this art, but now it’s your turn to enjoy this masterpiece of a perfectly prepared story which inverts the critique by fusing seemingly irrelevant data into the plot and theme while contributing to a brilliant mood and voice. It starts when “a graduate student in ornithology at the University of Texas” is riding the city bus and looking at a book of extinct birds when a lady says to him, “I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time.” What he’s looking at in that moment is a picture of dodos and so begins his trans-world journey from Texas through the South to Mauritius as he floods us with amusingly conveyed fascinating information about the dodos and the Gudger family. As an example of the flavor, an early part of the journey is described thus:

Behind the Krait house were a hen house and pig sty where hogs lay after their morning slop like islands in a muddy bay, or some Zen pork sculpture. Next we passed broken farm machinery gone to rust, though there was nothing but uncultivated land as far as the eye could see. How the family made a living, I don’t know. I’m told you can find places just like this throughout the South.

And, like a good story of the South, while it’s informative, amusing, and captivating, there’s also an angry edge to the humor which comes from the underlying pain of deprivation and loss. There are recommended stories and then there are recommended stories and this is the latter.

Birthday Reviews: Leinster, Tall, Williams

This week’s stories (celebrating writers who all happen to be having at least their 112th birthdays) include a man incapable of understanding a Power, a contacted species incapable of speech and a contacting species incapable of telepathy, and a pair of lost explorers incapable of getting themselves back home, but they are more than capable of entertaining readers.

Murray Leinster (1896-06-16–1975-06-08)

“The Power” (Astounding, September 1945)

A professor of Latin has come across some manuscripts, including three related letters which he passes on to another professor. The letters were written in Italy in 1482 by Carolus to a friend and they detail his effort to follow a dead man’s path and summon a demon – a Power – who will provide him with knowledge and power of his own. Despite how it sounds, this is very much science fiction and that’s not the only reversal or transformation, as the initially fearful mortal human comes to a different relationship with the Power which changes yet again, with a couple of varieties of pathos, before an ending with an unusual blend of disgust and hope.

Leinster was the original “Dean of Science Fiction,” who began publishing it in 1919 and has written several top-rank stories of great variety but this is more unusual than most. It’s been well-received but isn’t usually mentioned in the first breath, so is still underrated to me (as is Leinster, himself). The story’s structure is solid and the style through which Carolus’ time and mentality is conveyed is effective, he and his Power come across as genuine beings, their motivations are solid, and their relationship provokes strong and varied emotions. The tale is well-suited to tackling its theme of the constraints of conceptual frameworks which can relate to everything from revolutions in worldviews to being able to read science fiction itself, as with Samuel R. Delany’s notion of reading “protocols.” It’s a rich story, a reasonably short story (with a great last line), and seems like it should be better known. Leinster is actually represented in the SFWA Hall of Fame with “First Contact” and he certainly should be, but I think he could also have been represented by a few others, including this one.

Stephen Tall (1908-06-14–1981-01-15)

“The Invaders” (If, August 1973)

Through the eyestalks of Red Spine, we witness epochal events in the history of the “canceroids.” It starts when a rockfall kills many and they are all fed to the Eater, a mutant crab-like being many, many times the size of his fellows who does nothing but demand to be fed constantly. When he’s fed this time with such largesse, he molts, becoming even bigger. And hungrier. Then some strange little bipedal creatures with pairs of tiny eyes arrive on Red Spine’s homeworld and first contact is complicated by the fact that the canceroids can’t speak and the invaders can’t use telepathy. An unusual period of wary mutual observation follows before the two events of the enlarged Eater and the invaders come together in a transformative way.

This is a fine example in the long line of “alien POV” stories which has an interestingly conceived ecology and social structure with almost Clement-like aliens (in that one of the main things which makes Red Spine, especially, alien is simply un-human logical equanimity). All of this is (pointed and clever) cover for its ethical and economic themes but both levels work. This is part of a series of stories and isn’t the most popular one since “The Bear with the Knot on His Tail” was award-nominated and this one is atypical in the series in that it’s the only one in which we see the crew of the Stardust from an alien point-of-view, but I like this one best of all. Readers don’t have to be torn by indecision, though since both were collected with four others in The Stardust Voyages.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19–1977-05-12)

“Flight of the Dawn Star” (Astounding, March 1938)

Graham and Sarl were exploring in a spaceship near the Sun when something went wrong and they found themselves hurled near a world surrounded by unrecognizable stars. With no hope of return and nothing else to do, they set off to explore this new world. They find a stupendous city which represented an inconceivably advanced civilization in its prime but which is now falling to ruin. This strikes Graham and Sarl as also inconceivable. What could have ended a civilization that could have built such a city? Then the pair find that the planet is inhabited after all, not by gods in the city, but by naked savages in the fields. Other than their nudity and carefree attitudes, they are beings much like the explorers and, it turns out, not so savage after all. They telepathically explain their blissful existence and hope the pair will join them. However the humans of a struggling Earth don’t think they’re cut out for such a life, so one of the natives offers to send them home. Both the native and the explorers have a couple of surprises in store.

This was published in Astounding fairly early in Campbell’s editorial tenure and has a kinship with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” (which I discussed last week), so it’s easy to see why it appealed to him. The writing initially feels awkward or overdone and the science is awkward and underdone, but this variant on Lotus-land ultimately casts a bit of a spell.