This week’s installment covers a record six birthdays which include stories of strange knowledge, strange intelligence, and sex and death. Three of the stories (those by Budrys, London, and Silverberg) are drawn from a single anthology, though that’s still less than three percent of its contents. The other three authors (Effinger, Green, and Smith) weren’t in that one and their tales are drawn from the other three books depicted.
Algis Budrys (1931-01-09/2008-06-09)
“The Man Who Always Knew” (Astounding, April 1956)
Algis Budrys is known, but not well known; he’s esteemed, but not greatly esteemed–and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know him and think he’s among the greatest. In this, a sad, tired man has a great weight on him and finally unburdens himself to (who else?) his bartender and, after he’s taken the plunge, Budrys says, “He did look happy–happy all the way through, like a man with insomnia who suddenly feels himself drifting off to sleep.” There’s just something about that line that Budrys has written a million of and even better, but it’s just quintessentially him. Anyway, this is a bittersweet tale about a man with a very odd and special talent which results in fame, fortune, and unhappiness.
George Alec Effinger (1947-01-10/2002-04-27)
“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” (F&SF, October 1984)
For a very different tale about very different kind of knowledge, Effinger here gives us a very funny tale in which the President of the United States describes the day the aliens came and what happened after. These aliens, the nuhp, are very friendly and helpful (when they can be, as they are backwards in some amusing ways) but have never heard of the phrase “de gustibus non est disputandum” and their know-it-all ways result in expected transformations in human attitudes toward them and some unexpected transformations of humanity and the world beyond that. From the president asking them, “And how long do you plan to be with us?” and then lamenting to himself that he sounded like “a room clerk at a Holiday Inn” to his later conversations with the nuhp about the Joy of Bowling, this packs in many laughs and, despite being nuhp-like, I say this is a better story than hollyhocks.
Joseph Green (1931-01-14)
“The Crier of Crystal” (Analog, October 1971)
Among the last stories John W. Campbell bought before his death was an installment in Joseph Green’s series that would be fixed up into Conscience Interplanetary. The background for all the stories is that a component of international human space exploration is the Practical Philosopher Corps, which is made up of “Consciences” who try to determine if anything, no matter how bizarre, has any intelligence on the explored worlds and, if they do, those planets may be studied but not exploited. In this particular tale, the protagonist Conscience, Allan Odegaard, is on Crystal, a world of silicon-based life-forms, the strangeness and beauty of which is evoked well. He encounters a plant-like form which seems to make random noises mixed with random words on this very noisy world. Determining if it’s intelligent and trying to communicate with it may be difficult, but performing the same tasks with a human politician who wants to cancel the Consciences may be even more so!
Jack London (1876-01-12/1916-11-22)
“A Thousand Deaths” (The Black Cat, May 1899)
A man (something of a Byronic figure) is drowning (something of a Shelleyan fate) when the story opens. He quickly tells us his backstory and then loses consciousness. But we know he doesn’t die because it’s first person and, indeed, he is awakened to find himself being resuscitated by a strange mechanical contrivance. His savior happens to be his estranged father, who doesn’t recognize him. What follows is a strange bit of temporary double deception as the father imprisons and repeatedly kills the son as part of his researches into death and resuscitation until the son develops a machine of his own. This doesn’t have the strongest plot and narrating in the first person doesn’t exactly maximize any potential tension (to be fair, I think this was London’s first story or nearly so) but the echoes of the other Shelley and H. G. Wells’ island and, of course, the psychological, even mythical, elements of the story give it quite a bit of power.
Robert Silverberg (1935-01-15)
“To Be Continued” (Astounding, May 1956)
This story’s opening line (abridged) is “Gaius Titus Menenius sat in his apartment on Park Avenue” which is an excellent example of cognitive estrangement (or very mean parents) and it turns out to be the former, as he’s a two-thousand-year-old Roman who ages very, very slowly. But, oh happy day, he learns he’s aged enough to be able to reproduce and goes about trying to do so, with some surprising results which leads to another round of surprise and one more for the kicker. This is probably a pretty good example of Silverberg’s earlier work in that it has a great idea, a slick execution, and an effective ending, though it’s a little sloppy in the details of its premise and doesn’t explore it in the fullness the general concept might merit. Still, it’s a clever tale with some sense of wonder along with some ironic humor.
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-01-13/1961-08-14)
“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” (Weird Tales, June 1932)
In this, one of Smith’s Hyperborean tales, we get the story of a money-lender who will spare nothing for a beggar and thus receives his weird from him for free: a doom which the money-lender scoffs at and forgets. Later, the time comes and quite a memorable night it is. The description of its start conveys how Smith’s 11 reverberated long enough for it to still be at least a six by the time it got to Jack Vance:
Avoosl Wuthoqquan sat in a lower chamber of his house, which was also his place of business. The room was obliquely shafted by the brief, aerial gold of the reddening sunset, which fell through a crystal window, lighting a serpentine line of irised sparks in the jewel-studded lamp that hung from copper chains and touching to fiery life the tortuous threads of silver and similor in the dark arrases. Avoosl Wuthoqquan, seated in an umber shadow beyond the aisle of light, peered with an austere and ironic mien at his client, whose swarthy face and somber mantle were gilded by the passing glory.
The form of this baroque tale is similar to many fables of retribution such as the one of Midas but the imaginative content and deft execution set it apart.