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: Hamilton, Resnick, Webb

Purely by accident, the stories from this week’s birthday crew have the theme of immortality.

Peter F. Hamilton (1960-03-02)

“The Forever Kitten” (Nature, July 28, 2005)

Hamilton is known for galaxy-spanning doorstops but this is a short-short set fairly close to home in which a rich man is pressing a scientist to develop an immortality treatment as his youngest daughter plays with what seems to be a kitten. The treatment has worked on the feline but not yet on humans. When the hellion of an older daughter shows up, it initially seems to be a non-sequitur but isn’t and results in a minor, but economical and clever piece.

Mike Resnick (1942-03-05–2020-01-09)

“Death Is an Acquired Trait” (Argos, Winter 1988)

Resnick is probably most known for his great African-flavored stories but this one goes farther afield. A member of a species that has shed its corporeal bodies and become immortal shares their and his experiences in what turns out to be a very funny cautionary tale. Immortality is fun for awhile but forever really is a long time. One of the more notable things about this tale is how quickly it traverses infinite multiverses of time and space in such a throwaway manner.

Sharon Webb (1936-02-29–2010-04-29)

“Variation on a Theme from Beethoven” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February 1980)

I recall reading one of Webb’s novels long ago but no longer clearly recall its contents. Still, I suspect this novelette is fairly representative. In it, humanity has become immortal but has lost the ability to be creative, so selects some of their young people as candidates to be mortal artists (or immortals through their art) and these people have a day of choosing when they decide whether to continue their art as mortals, or to become immortal after all. David and Liss come from very different backgrounds and places in the solar system but both have artistic inclinations with his focus on music and hers on writing. They bond and we follow their time on Earth as they try to develop their arts and make their decisions.

It could be argued that the art/mortality equation is both familiar and forced and that this reads like it might have been written at a writers’ workshop, with that setting transposed into the story, but the theme is at least interesting and debatable, and the story is very well written. Both main characters (as well as David’s elderly music teacher) are quirky and breathe, the experiences feel real, and the conclusion is neither a contrived tragedy nor an unconvincing comedy, but a satisfyingly realistic mix of disappointment and hope.

Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People
by Katherine MacLean

Date: 1980
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 0-915442-95-7
Pages: 237
Price: $4.95
Publisher: Donning (Starblaze Editions)

Contents:

  • “The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
  • “Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
  • “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
  • “Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
  • “Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
  • “The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
  • “Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
  • “The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
  • “These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
  • “Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
  • “Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
  • “The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
  • “The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, rearranged the bibliographical information, added “ex libris” tag.