Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.

[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.

Birthday Reviews: Chandler, Delany, Vinge

This week’s birthday reviews give us two novellas around a novelette and the trio takes us from ships of deep water to gambling dens of Mars and ships of deep space where we meet merfolk, cyborgs, and stranger things.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-03-28–1984-06-06)

“Giant Killer” (Astounding, October 1945)

Insofar as this story depends on a reveal at least midway into the story and another at the end, this doesn’t work at all because what is revealed should be obvious to most readers. Insofar as it depicts a strange society bent on eradicating members outside its bounds of normality while that society exists in a world it doesn’t really comprehend and insofar as it engages the reader’s interest by creating characters with strange powers fighting with each other and the powerful and inscrutable giants who dominate that milieu as some of them come to understand it better, it’s a fantastic success. It even goes beyond this in being quite philosophical and thought-provoking without stopping the action to pontificate. Very good stuff.

Samuel R. Delany (1942-04-01)

“Driftglass” (If, June 1967)

The protagonist was modified into a merman as a boy and then was modified further when an underwater industrial accident crippled him. Now near middle-aged, he spends much of the story with his fisherman friend and with the next generations of merfolk, contemplating his past and their future. The “south of the border” setting and elements like fishing for marlin (albeit in a way you’ve never been able to fish for marlin before), along with its viewpoint stoicism which observes many people who are less stoic, puts me in mind of a weird sort of Hemingway, though the style is more elaborate. Either way, the milieu is vivid and the characters breathe (whether in or out of water).

Joan D. Vinge (1948-04-02)

“Fireship” (Analog, December 1978)

If “Fireship” makes you think of something off the shoulder of Orion, you may be disappointed as this is not that. The “fireship” is a metaphor for the protagonist, which references ships set on fire and sent into an enemy’s armada. On the other hand, if you weren’t thrilled by The Snow Queen, you may still enjoy this. It’s a proto-cyberpunk story in ways, dealing with Ethan Ring, who is the symbiotic cyborg personality of a computer, ETHANAC, and Michael Yarrow, a sort of guinea pig or sacrificial lamb chosen to test the mind-machine connection because he was expendable. Having become a new being with the instinct for survival, Yarrow/Ring becomes known as a thief (and plays a mean game of cards) which results in his flight to Mars where he gets sandwiched between a dictatorial tycoon and the operatives trying to overthrow that ruler. In addition to the cyborg and the seedy underworld characters, it even has a faint whiff of noir style or at least a sardonic tone. While I don’t entirely buy some of the psychology of the conclusion, it contains interesting ideas that are at least worth entertaining and the whole story is involving and exciting.

Birthday Reviews: Schenck, Shirley, Szilard

There seems to be something serendipitously similar to these selections.

Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12–2013-12-02)

“The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” (F&SF, September 1978)

On the dark and stormy night of January 19, 1892, the schooner H.P. Kirkham runs aground on a shoal and will shortly break up, taking the lives of the sailors aboard her if Keeper Walter Chase can’t lead his crew in their surfboat to the rescue and a safe return, defying the storm and massive waves and… entities from another “time-using” continuum which Chase enters as his will leads him to break the shackles of his “energy-using” continuum and cause modifications to all of existence in his efforts to save the crews. The beings are conservative sorts and Chase is having the effect of creating radical change.

The mainstream parts of this tale are very exciting and effective. The “speculative” (fantasy) parts, which move in and out of foreground focus like someone turning the knobs on binoculars, have a sort of conceptual appeal but also teeter at the abyss of pretentiousness. Still, it’s a lively and thought-provoking tale.

John Shirley (1953-02-10)

“The Incorporated” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1985)

Jim Kessler is wandering around, feeling like something is missing. It turns out that he had an idea that would be dangerous to his wife’s corporation, so she turned him in and they erased it from his mind. This is set after a terrorist attack which destroyed the economy and most people view the corporations in which they live, move, and have their being as their family and even their god. Kessler talks to a lawyer about getting his memory or at least his idea back but the lawyer is also tampered with. Later, when he realizes she’s contacted the corporation again and it’s going to happen to him again, he leaves her. When he goes to a “techniki” (hacker) friend and the wife tracks (or is led to) him there, the story ends with a bang.

I’ve read this story several times over several years and it (alas) always rings true. It may speak of Japanese business models and of “cassettes and compact discs” but the terrorist attacks, the corporate control and the media manipulation (which Kessler had invented a way to circumvent) all speak to today. It’s very effective at depicting a mixture of the ordinary (people just trying to get by) and of things that shouldn’t be ordinary (tyranny and mind control). This is far more effective than most more monochrome dystopias and it’s not just frighteningly plausible but actually frighteningly accurate. It’s less science fiction and more a rendering of reality which strips away the comforting “Hey, at least the trains are running on time” normalization of authoritarianism. The ending (which is sort of a double-jointed bit of action and a suspended denouement) is perhaps not as effective as the establishment of the milieu and the characters’ conflicts, but it’s sufficient. [1] Among the many arresting lines (for either stylistic or conceptual reasons or both) there are dark lines such as “She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said, lose my life” and those wonderful cognitive dissonance lines such as after the lawyer has explained how Kessler’s memory was edited and how that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube when Kessler says, “Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back in by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.” So I strongly recommend you ordinarily induct this story.

Leo Szilard (1898-02-11–1964-05-30)

“The Mark Gable Foundation” (The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961)

[Reprinted from my review of The Expert Dreamers.]

This opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans.

[1] It is also, fittingly enough, “incorporated” into Shirley’s superb Eclipse (volume one of the Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy) which makes its ending more of a middle.

Review of The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate

My first article for Black Gate was just published.

Lester del Rey was born in Minnesota in 1915 and died in 1993. One of his boldest fictions was claiming that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes, when it was actually Leonard Knapp. However, it was his other fictions, beginning in 1938 for Astounding, and his work as an editor, a reviewer, and in a literary agency, which resulted in his being made a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1991.

Full review at Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”