Birthday Reviews: Lee, Martin, Shiras, Wells

This is another busy week in which we experience a strange incursion into a relic of empire, get involved in an alien cult, meet a superboy, and suffer a cosmic cataclysm.

Tanith Lee (1947-09-19–2015-05-24)

“Into Gold” (IAsfm, March 1986)

Somewhere in the western portions of what had been the Empire, after a freshly fallen Rome, a princeling and his devoted companion are partly estranged when an Eastern caravan arrives, carrying a woman with strange powers. The companion narrates how the princeling developed an immediate lust for the woman and how everyone around him thought well of her as she became his wife and bore him a son, except the companion, himself. When the sorceress goes off with only her child and a single guard, ostensibly to cure a village suffering from disease, he recollects tales of child disfigurement and sacrifice by Easterners and sneaks off to try to prevent any evil she may be up to. Things, naturally, do not turn out as intended by anyone.

This is a richly-told tale full of imaginative sensory descriptions and details. I particularly like its tragic nature. It’s a case of hamartia rather than the characters being black-hatted villains. Their virtues are their flaws. The stoic taciturn surface of people barely keeping lids on bubbling passions is also appealing and well-done. It might have been better told in third-person, though. All tales are inherently artificial and the third-person, often omniscient, narrative approach may be the most artificial of them all but it’s precisely that which allows it to recede into the background, because artifice is most natural within artifice. You can simply say, “Okay, so some omniscient being is telling me this story,” and forget about the mechanics of it. With this tale, you have to constantly wonder how such a man as the narrator could have such wide-ranging information, be so sensuous in his perceptions, and have such a prodigious memory even when, for example, he tells you things about a parchment which depicts many things, including “three figures, judges of the dead from Aegyptus, I would have thought, if I had thought about them…” It’s not that you can’t do a story in first person, obviously – compare the brilliantly done appropriate subjectivity of Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” – but it’s actually a trickier thing to do and even the best authors sometimes unnecessarily strain credibility with it. Still, it’s a powerful and generally effective story with many appealing elements.

George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20)

“A Song for Lya” (Analog, June 1974)

When I started doing these birthday reviews, I was actually looking forward to this long novella from Martin’s science fiction days coming up and re-reading it, but I just don’t feel like I have the time now. Suffice to say, this tale of a loving couple’s experiences with an alien religious cult tackles many powerful themes, including most of those touched on by Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” (“death, love, marriage, boredom, obsession” – just not the boredom) and even more effectively. I recall it being a great story the first time through to my last re-read a few years ago (I guess) and vigorously recommend it.

Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23–1990-12-23)

“In Hiding” (Astounding, November 1948)

When a worried teacher tells a psychiatrist that one of her students seems generally fine but has something a little off about him, the psychiatrist begins a slow process of earning the boy’s trust and finding out what he’s hiding. Since it’s the core of the story and revealed fairly early (and is clear even before officially revealed), it’s no spoiler to say that he’s a tremendously intelligent superboy who has to hide how far ahead he is of everyone else his age, though Shiras holds back a little related material for the end (though it’s given away in the story’s appearance in book form).

In terms of science fiction, this is another John W. Campbell discovery, as this was Shiras’ first sale but her story has a nearly fatal flaw in that there’s little story. You’d think a tale about a boy hiding something would be full of drama but there is only the essential existential conflict without any instances of foreground conflict or any reversals. This, in a way, is a similar treatment of what’s handled by van Vogt in Slan and other such stories and it’s arguably more sophisticated but, while the desire for plotting, conflict, and excitement may be unsophisticated, it’s a desire I won’t hide and this story would have benefited from more of all that. Still, the characterization of the boy, his guardian/grandmother, and the psychiatrist is very well done and the realization of the “super” motif and what it would be like for a person to live among “puppies” is excellent. Because it’s all on a relative scale, it also works in a literal way. When the boy complains that most adults don’t want to learn or understand anything about the world but only preserve their rote attitudes and behavior, it touches on much of what really governs our world.

H. G. Wells (1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

“The Star” (The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897)

In what must have been a very odd Christmas issue, Wells here tells Fritz Leiber’s big novel, The Wanderer (1964), in just a few pages as a rogue planet smashes into Neptune, creating a fiery mass which is called a “star” more in the etymological than astronomical sense. This is all very interesting, at least to some humans (and others) but becomes much more urgent when a mathematician calculates that the star will pass disastrously close to us or perhaps hit us directly in its fall toward the sun. This is all very excitingly told with much imagination and careful selection put into both the astronomical and human elements of the disaster. Some may find the ending turns the story into a sort of bad joke or may find it transforms it in an interesting way (or maybe even a bit of both) but the whole thing certainly makes an impression.

Birthday Reviews: Niven, van Vogt, Williamson

This week’s birthdays include some especially high-magnitude stars in the SF firmament and bring us one pretty hard SF story and two that are very much not. Twice we go to Mars where non-Martian aliens have set up amazing superscience gizmos and once we take a trip to the Lesser Magellanic to try to find fifty lost suns.

Larry Niven (1938-04-30)

“The Hole Man” (Analog, January 1974)

Captain Childrey is a neat freak who is leading the expedition of the Percival Lowell to Mars. Astrophysicist Andrew Lear is a slob who discovers an abandoned base put on Mars by interstellar visitors ages ago. Lear believes it’s powered by a quantum black hole. Childrey does not and mockingly calls Lear “the hole man” in the sense of having a hole between his ears. The expedition does not go well.

This is a hard SF story with a strong human interest. The science fictional parts are engaging and well done but the problem with the story is that it’s deadly serious, but has a flippant tone which never really changes. That tone makes for enjoyable reading in the course of the story, but seems like a weakness in retrospect. Still, the ideas and execution of the tale are otherwise excellent from its great opening hook (“One day Mars will be gone.”) on to its personal and celestial conclusions.

A. E. van Vogt (1912-04-26–2000-01-26)

“Concealment” (Astounding, September 1943)

It’s kind of funny that van Vogt is known for his fixups (novels built up out of previously published stories) and that SF frequently suffers from infodumps when this reads like it went the opposite direction, seeming like an excerpt from a novel, and generally has the opposite of infodumps, being very cryptically in media res. It does go on to form the prologue to one of my favorite overlooked van Vogt books: The Mixed Men aka Mission to the Stars.

In it, the Imperial Earth battleship Star Cluster blazes past a “meteorite” weather station (for detecting and charting space storms of vast dimensions and durations) in the Lesser Magellanic where Gisser Watcher immediately destroys himself and his station to keep the knowledge of the locations of the Fifty Suns hidden from Earth. Mere atomic annihilation is not enough, of course, as Earth has matter transmission technology and the crew of the ship uses something akin to that to simply reconstitute him and his station after they’ve reversed course. What follows is a battle between Watcher and Grand Captain Laurr (Gloria Cecily) and her crew to hide or find the Fifty Suns that were established outside Earth’s control 15,000 years ago. Mental technology is brought to bear on Watcher, which initially has some effect but not much, as the Chief Psychologist says he’s resisted her attempt with mental power like one with an IQ of 800 despite initially having an “average” IQ of 167. As if that weren’t enough, his Dellian training gives him techniques to achieve heightened super-strength in the same way he can achieve heightened super-intelligence, which comes into play when things get physical at the end.

Basically, it’s all here: if you don’t like van Vogt, then you probably won’t like this; if you do, you probably will. In about fifteen pages, you get a concrete and literal milieu of fifteen millennia, multiple galaxies, multiple star systems (including one with ninety-four planets), and you get super-minds and super-strength, with cryptic openings (Lady Laurr is introduced as “she” and only given a plethora of names after a couple of pages) and abrupt, numinous endings. And this is just one story, and just the start of the book. Bigger, better, faster, more! Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

Jack Williamson (1908-04-29–2006-11-10)

“Nonstop to Mars” (Argosy, February 14, 1939)

When I saw it was time to celebrate Jack Williamson’s birthday, I thought I should really review one of his serious classics such as “With Folded Hands” but I kind of knew I wouldn’t be able to resist re-reading “Nonstop to Mars,” especially after the van Vogt.

Now that the cathion rockets have begun to take over, a guy like Carter “Lucky” Leigh is a bit outmoded, along with his career of flying planes nonstop from place to place for publicity and sponsorships. Things got even worse last time, as he was circumnavigating the Earth from Pole to Pole but got pushed out of the news by the “Stellar Shell” or the strange object that came into the system from Beyond and threatened to hit Earth, but actually landed on Mars. And they get worse still on his current flight from Capetown to Honolulu as weird atmospheric conditions and some strange sort of tornado damages his plane and forces him to make an emergency landing on a South Pacific islet. He’s surprised to get an answer to his distress call from a scientist on the islet and is even more surprised when the scientist turns out to be a woman. Not only that, but the woman is Dr. Elene Gayle, the very one who discovered the Stellar Shell and she has a dislike of publicity hounds – her boyfriend is a noble altruistic rocket pilot.

Some time goes by as they uncomfortably help one another and argue. Atmospheric conditions worsen and Gayle becomes convinced that her worst fears are true: the Stellar Shell was an alien ship and the aliens are using the tornado tunnel between planets to siphon Earth’s atmosphere to Mars. The Earth is likely doomed. Then Gayle’s boyfriend and another scientist arrive to take Gayle back to the mainland, leaving Leigh to take care of himself. He sets upon a plan that is bold, to say the least. In the final third of the novelette, he repairs his plane and, when the islet rotates under the siphoning vortex again, he takes it into the maelstrom for an unforgettable voyage which is only the first of his great challenges.

The history of science fiction is a bit askew in that “the 30s” really run from about 1926-1938 and “the 40s” run from about 1939-1949 but, despite this tale’s 1939 date, it really is “a 30s story.” The characterization of Leigh and the depiction of his life and skills are very good but the relationship of Leigh and Gayle is much like that of Hammond and Burlingame in Weinbaum’s recently reviewed “Parasite Planet” (1935) and the science obviously, um, strains belief. What’s remarkable is how Williamson manages to introduce even an atom of plausibility to it and how it’s so breathtakingly audacious that it’s all worth it, regardless. Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

Review: Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg

In my coverage of the stories Robert Silverberg published from 1963-1975 it’s no more time for me to post a review of Born with the Dead than it was to reprint the review of The World Inside but I’m going to anyway. This is revised from a post I made on an SF discussion board on December 19, 2012 to remove irrelevant antipathy to Silverberg’s introduction to the collection (Isaac Asimov’s “cheerful self-appreciation” entertains me but Silverberg’s bitter self-appreciation didn’t) and in an attempt to at least slightly improve it generally, but the substance is unchanged.

Born with the Dead is subtitled/blurbed “Three Novellas About Here and Hereafter.” The stories all hail from 1970-74 but, other than things like the topicality of population pressures and futures set in what is now the past, they don’t feel especially dated. While not hard SF, one of the stories even contains something close to e-books and print-on-demand while another has a HUD/GPS of sorts.

The title story is well-regarded by many, including the author, whose introduction describes how he packed into it his “deepest thoughts about love, marriage, boredom, obsession” and complains about how it lost an award. However, I prefer the winner, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya,” which deals with many of the same topics in a much more dramatic and convincing fashion. That’s not to say “Born with the Dead” is a bad story–far from it. It’s about a husband who can’t let go of his “rekindled” wife after her death while she wanders about with her new undead friends without care for her previous connections. This central idea is good and passages in the story are splendid but I think it could have worked better as an evocative “prose-poem” sort of short story because it didn’t consistently grip me over its span as a novella. While it’s obviously about love, marriage, obsession, and boredom, and boredom is effectively conveyed, the rest is not as effective over the course of the story and I don’t think or feel all that differently or profoundly about those topics after reading it. Further, the “deads” aren’t detailed in any plausible way—making them purely literary—and the way the society of “warms” interacts with this phenomenon is also implausible, to say the least. This is fantasy in science fiction’s clothing.

Despite being less renowned, the other two stories in the collection worked much better for me. “Thomas the Proclaimer” is similarly a fantasy story told in science fictional terms in that a ruffian/rogue-turned-prophet instigates a moment of world prayer in 1999 (story written in 1971) which causes the world to stop moving for about 24 hours. From that fantastic starting point, a realistic story (except in the magnitude of its satire) of millennial and historical delirium takes off. The “march to the sea” (when the calculating Plato/Saul/Judas character allied to Thomas tries for a second miracle) is an unforgettable depiction of sheer mass madness. But there are also many subtler satirical touches of, for instance, the multiplying sects and interpretations.

Going” is one of four story ideas given by Isaac Asimov to Silverberg and three other writers for an anthology. It starts out almost feeling like an Asimov story with much dialogue but becomes more Silverbergian as it deals with a society in 2095 where medical advances have made possible prolonged, vigorous lives which almost always reach the 13th to 19th decades. Given this, a social structure has come about where people are voluntarily euthanized whenever they feel like to make way for new lives. The focus is on the spontaneous decision of a famous composer to Go. He heads off to a House of Leavetaking where he tries to tie up his life’s loose ends and prepare himself to die. This raises all kinds of thought-provoking ideas. One is on the nature of societal “use” where the government encourages the less useful members of society to Go sooner and the more, later. There’s a somewhat appalling elitism (present in Asimov’s original idea), where “useful” seems to mean “creative” and “not useful” seems to mean anything else, including physical labor, raising children well, and being nice. Then there’s the subjective idea of how it would be to live/die in such a way (would you give up a semi-immortal life? when? why?), along with the objective idea of what sort of government and citizenry would have things this way and how they would afford it.