Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.


[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.


[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.

Review: “Anniversary Project” by Joe Haldeman

WordPress wished me a happy third anniversary today so I thought I’d review an anniversary story. My first thought was Isaac Asimov’s “Anniversary,” but that’s a sequel to “Marooned Off Vesta,” and I thought I’d just go with one story, so I decided to go with Joe Haldeman’s “Anniversary Project.” It was first published in the October 1975 Analog and, while I also have it in the Haldeman collection Infinite Dreams, I read it this time from the Dozois omnibus Exploring the Horizons (which combines Explorers and The Furthest Horizon).

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.