Review: The Short Fiction of Lester del Rey

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-01-01 and received some sort of tweak on 2016-06-10. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (I’ve also done a review devoted exclusively to The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”)

After months of intermittent activity, I’ve finished reading the virtual “Collected Stories of Lester del Rey Plus” (62 stories and a novel, ~1550 pages). He only published five original collections in his lifetime: …And Some Were Human (1948; cut vt 1961), Robots and Changelings (1957), Mortals and Monsters (1965), Gods and Golems (1973), and then went back to the beginning with the very large Early del Rey (1975). Of them, …And Some Were Human and Gods and Golems are definitely the best and Early del Rey is definitely the worst, though it is, by definition, a collection of all his previously uncollected early work intermixed with autobiographical material intended to show his development and give some “writerly” advice and so on, rather than a body of fiction carefully selected on its own merits. Since that collection was in chronological order and I had all the other stories from the period, I read them all in chronological order and, after that, kept reading the later stories in publication order (re-reading in the case of the GG stories and a couple-three strays).

(The “Plus” is because I also read the uncollected “Nerves”, Nerves, “Evensong”, and “Robots’ Return”. He didn’t re-collect the first after it was cut from the paperback version of his first collection because it was a novella he’d expanded into the second (a short novel) in the meantime. Either is superb if you don’t have the other but the novella version is better. The third is from Dangerous Visions (1967) and he never collected a story published after 1964. The last is actually by Robert Moore Williams, which I read because del Rey wrote “Though Dreamers Die” as a sequel to it. Del Rey improves on the original there.)

Del Rey’s early stories are often quite sentimental, in the sense of playing on emotions, and that never completely disappeared from his writing. His later stories can be quite gritty and dark, but there are early examples of that, too. He wrote quite a bit of fantasy along with his SF – the fantasy sometimes being the Unknown-style rationalized fantasy, with some verging on the slick style. His SF is sometimes hard SF but often sociological or psychological. He seems about as comfortable with one as the other. He wrote more SF but edited more fantasy and I think he says somewhere in Early del Rey that he prefers fantasy, which surprised me. He has a fascination with biblical phrases and themes but takes some, let’s say, unconventional approaches to them. And he has a strangely jaundiced and negative view towards aspects of modernity and big city life but it tends to result in either dark griping stories or a yearning for transcendence or ancient elysian fields rather than a Simakian/Bradbury-esque exaltation of the recent rural past or general failure to engage with modernity. Stylistically and structurally, he’s often a pretty pulpy writer which some might not be able to appreciate but he can be quite adventurous, especially conceptually and, after all, he was chosen by Ellison to lead off Dangerous Visions.

Probably the most remarkable thing I noticed about my reading was that, while I’m a hit-or-miss guesser generally, I could usually tell that a story was going to be a twist story or have a big reveal and guess what that twist/reveal was. I don’t know if that’s on me or del Rey or some weird synergy but, if you value truly astonishing twists and have the same guessing quotient I had, that might be an issue.

Anyway – to the point: I also have a copy of The Best of Lester del Rey from the great Ballantine “Best of” series and a little game I played was rating all the stories without looking at The Best of contents and then seeing what happened at the end. Of my top 10 stories, there was no reason, by his lights, for del Rey to include “Nerves” or “Though Dreamers Die”, and “Anything” was too similar to at least one other story to make a good balance (and does have a significant flaw) and, otherwise, all my top stories were in The Best of:

  • Helen O’Loy” (1938) is a tricky tale. It was his second story and first great success, like van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” or Asimov’s “Nightfall” but, in my opinion, unlike those stories, allowances have to be made. This is a sentimental tale that might be seen as sexist today and the novelty of the robot companion concept, however risque it might have been in 1938, has largely worn off now. But it’s still a pretty neat and historically significant tale and was chosen for the SF Hall of Fame in the 60s.
  • The Day is Done” (1939) is another of the early sentimental stories but is extremely effective as it details the last neanderthal and his interactions with the new-fangled critters.
  • The Coppersmith” (1939) is a great fantasy about elves rendered unconscious by air pollution and, while it misses climate change, reading a ’30s fantasy story about peak oil was pretty fascinating. It’s also a great bit of characterization/conception.
  • The Wings of Night” (1942) is a Don Stuart-like tale that contains many implausibilities and wouldn’t even be attempted today (even suitably modified) but the evocation of the last of an ancient telepathic race on the moon produces benefits more reasonable stories miss.
  • For I Am a Jealous People” (1954) is a fascinating tale about an alien invasion of earth that has god on its side and how a preacher and his atheist doctor friend respond. This is the sort of tale that just grabs you and becomes very vivid and involving.
  • The Seat of Judgment” (1957) is, in many ways, a much more “dangerous vision” than the story actually in Dangerous Visions (1967), dealing as it does with a bit of pretty explicit alien sex a la Farmer’s “The Lovers”, combined with alien (and human) religion a la Martin’s “A Song for Lya” along with even a tiny dash of Anderson’s Flandry.
  • Vengeance Is Mine” (1964) is about space invaders wiping out humans, leaving a robot (later joined by another) to create more robots and bring the religion of Man to the galaxy while hunting the perpetrators.

A story to note from the second-tier of good stories is “And It Comes Out Here” (1951) which is a sort of time travel story for people (like me) who (often) hate time travel. Most time travel stories feign a sort of “time travel logic” that is completely illogical – this tale is completely logical about its illogicality – it dives right to the center of the nonsense and embraces it. Campbell made a rare editorial error in rejecting this because it didn’t do anything. This is true, but that’s the point. It’s a useless story because time travel is nonsensical. But it’s a clever and fun story.

Beyond this, my second set of favorites and del Rey’s don’t intersect but that’s really just a case of disagreeing on which merely good-to-fair stories to include to fill up a big collection (16 stories, 366 pages). The only thing noteworthy is that del Rey selected “Into thy Hands”, perhaps due to his fondness for allegory, but I hated that one. I also didn’t much like “The Years Draw Nigh” (thin, implausible, overwhelmed by malaise) or “The Monster” (second-rate van Vogt), though they have their good points. But otherwise, the half-dozen remaining selections are at least okay.

So if you’re really inspired to dig into del Rey, it can be fun and worthwhile in a way but he’s really not a “completist” author. I do strongly recommend The Best of and one version or other of “Nerves” (novella version available in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol.IIB) as essential, though.

Review: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen by Lewis Padgett

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-07-12. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos (and updating a blocked youtube link), it’s unchanged. (Particular apologies for the muddled presentation in the “spoilers” section at the end).
ttatfcDate: 1951
Format: Hardcover
Cat#: –
Pages: 254
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Gnome

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen is a 1951 Gnome collection subtitled “Two Science Fiction Novels” and credited as “By Lewis Padgett”. These days, that’s usually taken to mean “by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore” but I don’t detect very much Moore in these – more van Vogt and premonitions of Harness and Dick, et al. Also, my estimated word count of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” has it fall solidly in novella territory and even The Fairy Chessmen falls right on one side or the other of the 40K line which only technically defines novel length and is not anything most people today would recognize as a novel. Either way, they are very hard to find. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was serialized in the January and February 1947 issues of Astounding and has only appeared in book form in the Gnome edition (and a facsimile) and a 1963 UK paperback while The Fairy Chessmen was serialized in the January and February 1946 issues and renamed to The Far Reality when it appeared in a companion UK paperback and to Chessboard Planet when it appeared in a 1983 UK paperback with three other stories.

This is an interesting collection because it could be argued that the stories would be better served if they were collected separately, given their similarity. But it can equally be argued that they are companion pieces and can be usefully compared and contrasted, so make a natural collection.

Though “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was written last, it’s presented first, so I’ll deal with it first. The essence of the story seems to be that, after WWII and an abortive WWIII, the Global Peace Commission (a sort of souped-up UN successor) has taken control of the world and enforced a stasis regarding technological and social change to avoid another war. So now, in the vicinity of July 7, 2051, Joseph Breden is a guardian of Uranium Pile One, a symbol (and, to a degree, a fact) of GPC’s power. He has been conditioned to see his job as one of the most important in the world. So, as if dreaming that shooting his coworker and causing an atomic disaster wouldn’t be disturbing enough, he lives in terror that the omnipresent all-seeing psychiatric monitors will detect that he’s no longer fit to serve. Meanwhile, Ilsa Carter and Philip Jeng are prime operatives in a conspiracy to upset the GPC’s apple cart and start the human race moving again, though it cost the lives of millions. Included in their numbers is the Freak, a radiation mutant who they believe can see the future that they are working to build where people have great technology and live for centuries. (There are other mutants about, such as Joseph’s brother, Louis, who is described as merely hyperintelligent and suffering from a minor blood disease.)

The story follows something akin to the van Vogtian method of throwing in a new character or more every chapter for the first few chapters and complicating the story at each step, sometimes shifting into overdrive via abrupt transformations, such as in the middle of chapter four. This makes the story very difficult to discuss without giving a misleading impression or giving things away. Suffice to say, there is an intense feeling of paranoia, lots of mutants and occasional acquisitions of superpowers, lots of people not being who we thought they were, conspiracies, recomplicating cosmic vistas, and more. Alas, there are van Vogtian lapses, too, such as those very superpowers leading to a “fiat plot” that still stumbles badly in at least one aspect at the end. It’s an enjoyable read and has something to say and does many things well but is significantly flawed at the same time.

(For a fuller discussion, see the spoiler sections at the end.)

While not flawless, The Fairy Chessmen is a much better story. Again, we have shrinks and bureaucracy as Robert Cameron is Civilian Director of Psychometrics. Unlike Breden, he quickly retreats to the background (although he remains important) and center stage is taken by his second, Seth Pell, and especially his third, Ben DuBrose. Again, there is madness and conspiracy, as Cameron is hallucinating and DuBrose and Pell seem to be involved in a sort of conspiracy. Again, there are permutations in which things are not quite how they seem. But this is a different scenario, in that “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” was about an imposed stasis of all-out peace and this story is about an unstable equilibrium of all-out war. Eurasia has been partly taken over by a mixture of nations and races in the aftermath of WWII and on into WWIII. They call themselves the Falangists but it’s unclear whether they’re descended from the actual group or (more likely) just adopted the name. They are at war with the US and, in order to make (apparently very weak) atomic bombs as ineffective as possible, the US has become decentralized except for vast underground war cities. From these secret warrens, which are all accessible to each other by underground trains which twist and turn so that every city is 15 minutes from every other and no one knows where they are, a war of technicians controlling robot armies is waged akin to our own cybercommands and drones and whatnot. But, of course, it’s not as simple as that. We’re shown Duds, which are giant reflective bubbles that one day appeared over the landscape and gave off mild radiation and were utterly impenetrable. Eventually, they sort of decayed but their forcefields still exist. They’re taken to be failed Falangist weapons. And a weapon that is succeeding is a magic equation that is driving all the techs and scientists who try to solve it insane. (I unfortunately can’t help thinking of Monty Python’s “Funniest Joke in the World” here.) But not just insane – it appears that people who can solve part of it or come close to doing so attain special powers and suffer special effects, such as case M-204 who levitates in a coma or the poor guy who laughed (there’s that Joke again) before collapsing to a point and dropping to the center of the earth. My favorite line comes when two men are discussing the crazy nature of the equation and the bent, fractured, illogical universe it implies.

“Two plus two make five?” DuBrose said.

“Two and whee make diddle plus,” Pastor corrected.

(One thing that does puzzle me, though, is that no one seems concerned that the attempt to solve the equation is the equation’s purpose. In other words, if you’re fighting a technical war and your enemy is destroying your best minds by making you try to solve an equation, maybe throwing all your resources into solving it is exactly what you should avoid doing. Whether this is true or not, it seems like a possibility that some character should have raised and it would even heighten the paranoia. Another stray note – despite approvingly quoting the lines above, a weakness in both stories is strangely weak dialog. It’s not hard-to-say George-Lucas-style dialog but it just doesn’t read as lively and natural speech from lively, natural people.)

Back to similarities with “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, we again have mutants with special powers such as Billy Van Ness and his “ETP”, or extra-temporal perception – he sees the 4D timeworms of all things. And, again, things turn out to be not so simple as a war between the US and the Falangists but discussing the nature of the conflict would spoil it. Again, see below if interested.

The essence of solving the equation is given in the title. Fairy chess is an actual thing, in which chess is played with some or all of variant boards, pieces, and rules. People are going crazy because of their rigid world views crumbling in the face of this equation and it takes a Lewis Carroll-like game-playing, flexible, unorthodox mind to have the skills to solve it and the mental resilience to deal with the results.

Thus the plot, but a core thematic element is responsibility and madness, along with flexibility and inflexibility. The reason Cameron is off-stage for much of the story is that Pell and DuBrose are trying to protect him from full knowledge of the situation and a crippling sense of responsibility. But responsibility can have a wider scope and it’s not always clear who should be responsible for what. In this, I feel like the plotting (still made of high-grade van Vogtian silly putty) and the theme are much better than “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, not to mention that the manifold weirdness of this tale is even weirder. I haven’t even mentioned that Mr. Diddle Plus becomes God, for instance. Both stories, but this most of all, are great edge cases for anyone trying to define “science fiction”. This story brilliantly anticipates the incipient Cold War and, as I’ve said, even the cyberwars of technicians of today. It’s even full of neat touches like the opening scene with its motion-sensitive “window” of a beautiful sunny field which turns out to be a video display piped from the surface while we are deep underground, yet really is a window when it slides back into the wall to reveal the nightmarish abyss of the underground city beyond. But, in the general scheme, there’s really no science here at all and it’s pure fantasy. Yet the magic equation and all the fantastic things that derive from it are approached with a purely rational, scientific world view.

Whatever genre it may be, it’s recommended.


Spoiler Section

Spoilers for the middle of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”: It turns out that the Freak is not seeing the future but is seeing probability continua. Worlds that do or could exist alongside the world of this story. This world is designated Alpha while Beta has had a similar history but has gotten moving again earlier and Gamma is a place ruined by plague and other worlds have been vaporized by hyperatomic accidents and Omega is the primary continuum the Freak is in contact with. The person at the other end, bizarrely, is John Van Buren, descendant of the President. The only thing I can think of here is that Van Buren seems to have gone to great lengths to avoid war and I guess his ancestor is supposed to have learned better, but I’m not sure.

Spoilers for the end of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”: Where the story most falls down, IMO, is that the first character we’re introduced to and who maintains the focus throughout the vast majority of the story and who is supposed to have the critical task of causing the atomic disaster and even becomes Instinct Man with mutant superpowers of his own, ends up failing in his task, sort of consciously making his mutation recessive, and being carted off by the GPC to be interrogated off-stage. So Ilsa, Louis, Jeng, and Van Buren thrash out the idea of magically setting off the disaster via a directed charge differential when Alpha and Beta’s continua are brought into contact, using the entropy differential to trigger the pile. It could be argued Kuttner was trying to make a point about “instinct is not enough” or something but I don’t really see this and it’s still a dramatic failure regarding Joseph and complete handwavium regarding the final plot solution.

Spoilers for the middle of The Fairy Chessmen: Daniel Ridgely shows up as a minion of Secretary of War Kalender but turns out to be a time traveler from an era of an even more war-oriented culture than the story’s present and he has supplied the Falangists with the equation. Incidentally, this is why Cameron is going mad: magic rays are connected to him and the Falangists are zapping him with equation madness. But even that is not the whole story.

Spoilers for the end of The Fairy Chessmen: Ridgely has given them only a partial equation and not only knows the complete equation, but has a “counterequation” as well.

Continuing to spoil the story generally, I feel this story handles the “disappearing initial character” element much better. Breden is the intro character; is almost always at the forefront; has the critical climactic mission; and fails and is removed while the real finale occurs. I can’t see this as anything but a mistake. Cameron is the intro character but quickly recedes into the background for the most part while DuBrose (along with Pell for a bit) becomes the protagonist. This is for Cameron’s protection, so makes sense, and he never completely drops out. And then the finale doesn’t involve him in a critical sense but just as part of the whole thing, and then we focus on him for thematic purposes at the very end. So this is a success in that regard. And while this is a silly putty plot, the magic equation is given through the bulk of the story and even the counterequation is introduced before the end and the ETP was in the background all along but its application is reasonably non-obvious to the characters and requires preparation which takes time to set up so it seems slightly less handwavingly preposterous compared to the last-second “should have been obvious to Van Buren” continua-charging of the Pile. And, while both stories have something interesting to say (not to mention saying it in a fascinating way) I feel like the “war as a state of being” story has even more to it than the “peace stasis” story. Ironically, we live in a world with aspects of both, but the “war” resonates more.

I do wonder who was right, though. The Fairy Chessmen ends with DuBrose maturing and viewing things flexibly and thinking perhaps the future has been changed and so it’s a “happy ending” for him. But Cameron views the future as set, sees himself as responsible for creating it, and descends into a self-triggered madness. If the future that produced Ridgely is the future we’ll have, I feel Cameron is right about his (and our) responsibility. But I can’t help but think that DuBrose is right in having the flexible attitude our story has been promoting all along. Perhaps both are necessary statements to make.

Review: The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert (Doubleday, 1956, hc, 192pp.)

Four men in a sub (to say nothing of the God).

During a war with the Eastern Powers, the nuclear sub Fenian Ram‘s job is to cruise into enemy territory to steal a cargo of oil. “Ensign” John Ramsey has been assigned to the four-person crew as the new electronics officer. However, he really works for “BuPsych” and his true mission is to find out why the last electronics officer went insane. As if this weren’t tense enough, the failure rate of these missions is shockingly high, the insanity may be the commanding officer’s fault, a dead body is found on the sub, and the killer spy may be one of the crew.

In the course of the mission, Ramsey struggles with both wanting and not wanting to fit in, experiences debilitating fear, has several near-death experiences, and gets to know Engineering Officer Joe Garcia, First Officer Les Bonnet, and the overtly religious and rigidly self-controlled Commander Harvey Sparrow (whose last name is likely another Biblical reference). It culminates in his getting to know himself and learning something about the nature of the world and sanity within it.

This was serialized in late 1955 in Astounding as Under Pressure (which is a good title) and has been reprinted as 21st Century Sub (which is not) but its original book publication was as The Dragon in the Sea which is taken from Isaiah 27:1. (“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea”.)

Though it took me awhile to get around to it, I was inspired to read it after re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent The Deep Range years ago and wanting another undersea adventure. That’s really about all the two have in common, though, with this being focused on religion and particularly Freudian psychology, though it does also have the nuts and bolts of existence in a sub in wartime. It has more in common with several of Herbert’s other books which have a psycho-religious focus but something that sets it apart is its style: Herbert’s often strikes me as clotted and heavy but this was pleasantly spare and straightforward. On the other hand, an annoying aspect of the book (perhaps meant to reflect a continuous and inescapable voyage) is that there are no chapters and not even all that many blank lines dividing sections. My main reaction is that, while I can’t wholeheartedly endorse the book as it is, I could endorse the novella it should have been. With four main characters, one main objective, and one main (though complex) theme, and an atmosphere of pressure, it would have worked superbly as a “Nerves”-like novella. As a novel, it took me a long time to read because it was very easy to put down, but it has its good parts and the ending is very compelling and provocative.

Review: Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies

Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies (Pyramid, 1964, pb, 155pp.) R-1029

“Introduction”
“The Man Who Returned” by Edmond Hamilton
“Spider Mansion” by Fritz Leiber, Jr.
“A Question of Etiquette” by Robert Bloch
“The Sea Witch” by Nictzin Dyalhis
“The Strange High House in the Mist” by H. P. Lovecraft
“The Drifting Snow” by August W. Derleth
“The Body-Masters” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
“Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard

‘Tis the season to be crawly, so I thought I’d review something in keeping with those spirits the day before Halloween. Weird Tales is a selection of stories published between 1931 and 1942 in the magazine of that name. The selection is credited to Leo Margulies, a publisher and editor involved with several SF magazines, but was (appropriately enough) ghost-edited by Sam Moskowitz. Presumably, Moskowitz also wrote the uncredited three-page introduction, which describes some of the history and character of the magazine, as well as the short introductions to the author of each story.

Being Weird Tales, the magazine included SF and fantasy as well as horror and two of the less successful tales in an otherwise very successful anthology represent those categories. Long’s 1935 story, “The Body-Masters,” is set in Cosmopolis in the year 5678 with a protagonist named V67 who is a Gland Surgeon. Seems almost everyone in this (dys|u)topia is a doctor, some of whom essentially vivisect maladjusted people with the aid of a strange pseudo-anaesthetic. This milieu and its robot mistresses are used to explore the atavistic emotion of jealousy and the notion of ideals. In one sense, this is a bad story but it is strangely imaginative and tackles a theme in a way that brought to mind Robert Silverberg’s “The Throwbacks” which, oddly, I just posted here though I reviewed it long ago. Almost half of Dyalhis’ long fantasy, “The Sea Witch,” is given over to repetitive descriptions of the nude woman an old man finds coming out of the sea on a dark and stormy night. Much is made of her archaic knowledge and speech but the narrative style is at least as archaic. Finally, the tale of magic revenge in a literally Byzantine plot unfolds in the second half after mixing New England, Norse myths, and reincarnation. I can see how some might enjoy this tale, but I didn’t.

While you could stretch “The Sea Witch” to fit some notion of horror, it’s essentially a fantasy as told. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist” also requires some stretching, though less so. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach. Moving more definitely into horror, Bloch’s “A Question of Etiquette” also deploys its style to good effect. Through the eyes of a census taker who has been drugged by the witch he had the misfortune to interview, we witness the wild night of her Sabbat and his strange fate. The narrator’s tone, which moves effectively from black comedy to phantasmagorical fear without varying the same basic pitch, is remarkable.

Several stories, such as “Sea Witch” and “High House” are New England tales and/or snowy. Derleth’s “The Drifting Snow” is another of them. In it, through an aunt who doesn’t like the curtains on one side of the house to be opened and a niece-in-law who feels a compulsion to open them, we learn a family secret from the past which led to a very strange sort of revenant who entices more to join her number. Aside from that, this is an oddly pleasant tale of a family get-together. Strange, but fairly effective. Another snowy story is Hamilton’s piece about “The Man Who Returned.” John Woodford wakes to find he’s been buried alive. The opening horror gives way to a strange inversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the irony keeps on ironing. It’s odd that a man so sick he’s been taken for dead is so vigorous in this tale which is also overly reliant on coincidence but it’s otherwise pretty effective and, despite being reminiscent of Poe, is also unusual. Leiber’s “Spider Mansion” is another tale that has some echoes of Poe (and is the sort of thing which, dammit, Janet, had its influence on The Rocky Horror Picture Show). With its “Negro” servants and psychologically twisted midgets, its obviously not a contemporary story but when a couple arrives at the creepy house of a person they think they know one dark and stormy night, the host, a midget-turned-giant via the superscience of his brother, hosts a morbid dinner and regales them with his own diabolical “genius.” Meanwhile, another horror lurks about the house and grounds and things must culminate in damsels in distress, swordplay, and fire. While an element of the ending can be made plausible, it takes some work and the title gives away what is held as a reveal in the story but this is otherwise fine, freaky stuff.

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. The Leiber, for instance, is very good, but is quite fantastic from the start, which may not allow some readers to get into it and the superscience may be effective for some and a distraction for others. This tale’s prosaic opening and initially very basic horror works much more certainly. Lovecraft’s style, for instance, works very well for his tale but Dyalhis’ (at least for me) was fatally damaging. This story skips any possible problem with that and just tells its tale. Again, with the Dyalhis, the disparate mythological pieces don’t mesh that well for me whereas this tale’s antebellum relics and imported voodoo fit superbly. Highly recommended.

Review: The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl

The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl (Doubleday, 1962, hc, 248pp.) LCCN: 62-11295

“Introduction” by Frederik Pohl
“At the End of the Orbit” by Arthur C. Clarke [aka “Hate”]
“On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” by O. R. Frisch
“A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison (Joseph Samachson)
“The Heart on the Other Side” by George Gamow
“Lenny” by Isaac Asimov
“The Singers” by W. Grey Walter [excerpt]
“The Invasion” by Robert Willey (Willy Ley)
“To Explain Mrs. Thompson” by Philip Latham (R. S. Richardson)
“Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis [aka Chan Davis]
“The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle [excerpt]
“Chain Reaction” by Boyd Ellanby (Lyle and William C. Boyd)
“The Miracle of the Broom Closet” by W. Norbert (Norbert Wiener)
“Heavy Planet” by Lee Gregor (Milton A. Rothman)
“The Test Stand” by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine)
“Amateur in Chancery” by George O. Smith
“The Mark Gable Foundation” by Leo Szilard

Frederik Pohl’s introduction to this 1962 book begins by talking about how remote science has become from the layman’s perceptions and common sense, moves on to talking about how science fiction is aptly named because it is fiction infused with the sensibility of the scientific method, and concludes by talking about how yesterday’s science fiction reader has become today’s scientist and how that cycle will continue. Along the way, he cites Sturgeon’s law which indicates that 90% of SF is trash and has the corollary that that is unremarkable because 90% of everything is trash. Fortunately, though not everything in this book is gold, it defies any specific application of Sturgeon’s law. Of the fourteen stories in this collection (leaving aside the excerpts of novels by W. Grey Walter and Fred Hoyle) I recommend four and little of even the remaining 71% is trash.

Several of the 71%, especially early on, fall into a couple of classes and some of each of those classes share a common attribute. In the “more science fictional” class and having the attribute of reading well even if they don’t ultimately succeed, I’d place Arthur C. Clarke’s “At the End of the Orbit” and Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction.” The former deals with a spacecraft coming down in the ocean (a motif repeated in “Heavy Planet”) where a Hungarian diver with a hatred for Russians develops a plan to exact vengeance on the cosmonaut inside. While the narrative is intense and interesting, an element is clearly contrived and the whole thing plays on sentimentality. The latter involves a group of scientists visiting a colleague in an insane asylum. That man has been committed because he claimed to have calculated that the end of the world would be brought about by the experiment they are all involved in. That experiment has just taken place and they’ll all find out whether the “mad scientist” could have possibly been right any minute now. The scenario is compelling but I have to wonder if this is how the other scientists would spend what might be their last day on earth and there is a far more severe problem with the end which I can’t reveal without spoiling it.

Remaining at least somewhat science fictional but being less interesting from start to finish, George O. Smith is not represented here by any superb “Venus Equilateral” story but by “Amateur in Chancery” which is much like several recent SF stories I’ve read lately in that it depends on a scientific organization being indistinguishable from anarchy and involves a character who is almost literally “too stupid to live.” A sort of jump gate is established from Earth to Venus and a woman impulsively pilots a vehicle through it. Seeing a native Venusian, she assumes the atmosphere must be breathable but is rendered comatose when she exits the vehicle, doomed to die quickly but not so quickly that our scientists back on Earth can’t try to figure out how to explain to a primitive living under clouds the concepts of “left and right” so he can press the correct button to return her to Earth. All this is communicated via a telepathic human girl. There are some nice points about frames of reference and common assumptions but the story obviously constructed to make these points is deficient. The one story in the book I have a hard time finding anything good to say about is George Gamow’s “The Heart on the Other Side.” A man must win the hand of his girl by proving to her shoe-manufacturing father that his theories about there being Moebius regions on Earth is correct and, to do so, he takes a shipment of right-shoes to the Amazon to turn them into left-shoes which will help the father’s business because demolishing pre-existing methods of production and replacing them with trips to the Amazon will somehow be more economical. On his return, the suitor believes he has failed, so throws away all the shoes but discovers something on his return. This seemed more like a very old romance story with a wide streak of silliness than SF.

Speaking of things that don’t seem entirely like SF, the “more fantastic class” includes “A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison, which may be talking about entropy-reversing particles but refers to them as “demons” which contributes to the fantastic feeling. The tale of people aging backwards is strangely interesting until the end, which is probably intended to be humorous but is definitely anti-climactic. Similarly, Philip Latham’s “To Explain Mrs. Thompson,” which examines the difference between describing and explaining, also maintains interest as it takes the reverse approach and deals very matter-of-factly with the apparition of a man’s dead wife in telescopes pointed towards Andromeda with tension rising as the phenomenon comes closer to the Earth before the tale reaches its anti-climax. On the other hand, I never engaged with W. Norbert’s “The Miracle of the Broom Closet,” about a remarkable and devout janitor at a lab in Mexico contributing to an odd interplay between science and religion.

Moving to 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. Leo Szilard’s “The Mark Gable Foundation” 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. While perhaps not a “satire,” O. R. Frisch’s “On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” is certainly satirical and an example of the sub-genre of “science fiction stories written as science fact articles.” As such, it’s lacking in fictional qualities but the notion of a future atomic-powered society discovering the radical notion of burning coal to supply power has its interest.

The last set is made up of stories which are both excellent and fully science-fictional (except one which is even further away from fantasy in being almost mainstream). Isaac Asimov’s “Lenny” is a Susan Calvin robot story in which a robot is “born” malformed through a fluke and doesn’t operate as designed but can learn. This story (not the greatest of the robot stories, but a good one) tackles several issues from the Heinleinian motif of “specialization is for insects” to methods of increasing interest in science to corner cases of the Three Laws but also focuses on Susan Calvin, herself. Asimov is not usually given credit for characterization (and didn’t take it, himself, arguing that ideas were more important in SF) but Susan Calvin is a significant and complex character creation, not least in gender terms. Created in the 1940s as a fiercely intelligent, independent, and scientific woman, she is sometimes portrayed as “unfeminine” while simultaneously having “intuition” and other supposedly feminine characteristics. Either way, this complexity is part of why she’s such a remarkable character and comes into play in this story.

Robert Willey’s “The Invasion” deals with a mysterious alien invasion in which a ship settles down and takes possession of a hydroelectric power plant. One man uses good old-fashioned engineering, sticktuitiveness, and professionalism to attempt to thwart their mysterious but deadly designs.

Similarly, Lee Correy’s “The Test Stand” involves a professional man in an era of safe rocketry narrating his experiences as a younger man when it was not safe. When a test firing failed, he and a co-worker were put into a situation which was akin to defusing a bomb, made all the more nerve-wracking by the fact that the man’s wife and child had come to see the experiment. The man learns something about himself and his job. In terms of dramatic plot and psychological effect this is reminiscent of Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” and is excellent and, being published in 1955, its subject of rockets certainly puts it into the category of very-near-future-SF but the story’s one flaw is that it could be written about literally having to defuse a bomb with much loss of science-fictional interest but little other change.

Finally, Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot. Considering each of the “science” and the “fiction,” “The Test Stand” is superior in the latter while this is superior in the former but both are highly recommended.

Review: The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

This originally appeared on my old site on 2013-12-19. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (Note: this isn’t especially spoilery in novel terms, though I come closer to it than usual and it does contain spoilers for some of the individual stories contained within as chapters. Also, it isn’t quite time for this in the sequence of my Silverberg reviews (Nightwings and a few other stories were supposed to be next) but I’m not ready to do those yet.)

rs-twi

Date: 1972-09 (originally 1971-07)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: Q5176
Pages: 174
Price: $0.95
Publisher: Signet (originally Doubleday)

The World Inside is one of Robert Silverberg’s relatively few fixups [1], being composed of six stories published from 1970-71 [2]. It was published in book form by Doubleday in July 1971, though the book I read was the September 1972 Signet paperback.

The stories feature distinct plots (though they aren’t very strongly plotted) but recurring characters in which a peripheral character in one story will be a main character in another and vice versa. They all share the same basic setting (Urban Monad 116) and, together, paint a picture of a future society in 2381 where overpopulation has been embraced and many billions of people actually take up less land area than they do now, as almost everyone has been packed into immense skyscrapers called “Urban Monads”, several of which form physically proximate but socially isolated “constellations”. Within these vast and heavily populated buildings, a velvet-gloved dystopia lurks behind lots of late 60s/early 70s sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Almost all of Silverberg’s 70s works are a barrel of laughs but this one is even more Leonard Cohenesquely suicidally depressed than most. And I have a hard time taking the physical and social structures seriously. But it is a very thought-provoking book that focuses on a kind of social science fiction that seems to have undeservedly become less popular than it was. The books that most spring to mind in connection with this are Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (for the overpopulation), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (for the hedonistic dystopia), and both The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (for the claustrophobia/philia and the packed/isolated social structures).

The first chapter/story (1/”A Happy Day in 2381″) uses the “strange visitor gets a guided tour by the native” method of showing us this timid new world. The native is the sociocomputator, Charles Mattern, and the stranger (whom we never see again) is Nicanor Gortman who is visiting from a terraformed Venus which has a horizontal social structure more like what we’re used to. (Siegmund Kluver, who stars in the final story, is a side character here.) Via the proud tour guide, we learn that procreation is a religion, that men prowl the building at night, randomly sleeping with other husbands’ wives which is considered “blessworthy” by all – indeed, to refuse is a capital offense, which results in getting sent “down the chute” to have one’s combusted matter provide energy for the urbmon. At the start of our story, Urban Monad 116 has an ominously young population of 881,115 and the “Chipitts” constellation (what used to be the region of Chicago to Pittsburgh) has a population of 40,000,000 [3], while the earth has a population of 75 billion. Aside from natural births and deaths, it’s one less by the end of the story as we meet a “flippo”, or someone who just can’t handle so much utopia and starts attacking people but is apprehended and disposed of. “It has been a happy day in 2381, and now it is over.”

Chapter 2/”In the Beginning” introduces us to Aurea Holston and the idea of people just short of flippos and what happens when an urbmon becomes overpopulated by even its own standards. A misinformation campaign is launched magnifying the number of volunteers who will be shipped off to a newly built urbmon and however many necessary people fail to volunteer are randomly drafted. Since the urbmon is the whole world any of them know and womblike in many ways (while being symbolically phallic as well) this is too traumatic for some, such as Aurea, who is sent off to be reprogrammed when she too vocally expresses her inability to accept her fate. If “blessmen” (priest-like) or “consolers” (psychologist-like) can’t pacify her, the “moral engineers” will. I guess the title must refer to “the beginning” of a new monad or perhaps to the “new” Aurea but it’s not very clear to me.

Chapter 3/”All the Way Up, All the Way Down” is Dillon Chrimes’ story. He plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group. His is the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-iest story of them all, perhaps, being a musician who takes a drug and has sex while high so that he becomes one with the building. But it’s a Silverberg story, so he comes down.

Chapter 4/”The Throwbacks” may be my favorite of the tales. In a way, it’s silly but I still like it. Jason Quevedo is a historian whose thesis is that the humanity of the urbmons has become genetically distinct from, e.g., 20th century humanity due to rigorous self-selection for surviving in a very distinct environment. Modern humanity is free of jealousy and sexual hangups and so on. His wife, Micaela, disagrees with his thesis. This story is not all that much more strongly plotted than the rest but due to the psychological paranoia and the sense that a crisis is approaching and some nice misdirection as to its nature (I thought Jason might well be going batty and imagining everything, for instance, but wasn’t convinced either way) this story was more compelling than some others. I also enjoyed its historical perspective and some of Jason’s reflections on profanity and so on. And, of course, the real point of subversion and being alone together was more optimistic and less punitive than most of these tales.

We were introduced to Michael and Stacion Statler in “The Throwbacks” but they (primarily Michael) star in the novella that splits “We Are Well Organized”: “The World Outside”. Michael is on a work detail which enables him to forge an exit/entry pass to… leave the building! There follows an exciting and interesting, if largely conventional, tale of meeting strange aliens in a strange world, though the aliens are just farmers and the strange world is the farmland and a village outside the urbmon. It’s interesting that the urbmons are much like spaceships that never take off (which is thematically significant, in my opinion) but that Silverberg doesn’t have the city fed by internal hydroponics or some magic but has a secondary culture outside growing good old-fashioned crops (albeit with robot help).

Finally, Siegmund Kluver, who’s a social climbing administrator/ruler-to-be and has been popping up throughout the book finally gets his own story. At a climactic part of his testing for rulership, the story stops, goes to “The World Outside”, and then picks up in Chapter 7 where it left off in Chapter 6. Mattern and Chrimes reappear and the concepts of the blessmen, consolers, and moral engineers and many other themes reappear. And it’s another happy day.

One of the things I think is particularly interesting about this book is that, despite sledgehammer negativity, the urbmon’s dystopia has its subtleties. While there is some monitoring of exits and entries and there are cops of a sort and at least one character has a sort of personal paranoia, there’s little of the “police state” feeling of, e.g., a Nineteen Eighty-Four. While there is a small administrative elite, there is not much of a feeling of the oppressed masses being controlled by the few, so much as the masses controlling themselves. And it’s also reflective of our own current (1970 or 2013) society, as much good SF is. There is an ultimate death sentence for extreme non-conformity but, to a greater or lesser degree, that applies to all societies. And the groupthink has most people self-brainwashing themselves into thinking the urbmon is great and even being unable to survive outside of it. Which applies to a greater or lesser degree to our own technological society (and by “technology”, I mean fire and skins and caves and I certainly mean plows and whatnot, as well as computers and drones). And, in its own terms, it’s interesting to think about a society where, despite a population of billions, procreation is “blessworthy” and the great evil is “sterility”, which trickles down to figures of speech like we might say something is a “bummer” – it’s a “sterilizer”. And, as I say, it does make one think about being “trapped” on “spaceship earth” whether inside or outside an urban monad and what that does and will do to us as a species – what must we become if we stay here – what must we become to leave?

On the other hand, I find it odd that, in a world full of flippos, people are supposed to leave their doors unlocked so “nightwalkers” (always male) can come in and sleep with whomever they happen to find in a given room – and how this doesn’t result in more collisions of ten people in one room and none in nine others (not to mention other logistical/timing problems). And I was never clear on whether, in this procreative society, the children of a given woman had a variety of unknown fathers or not. And I can’t believe societies as distinct as the inside and outside (far more different than even our own urban and rural societies and with no movement from one to the other) could exist in harmony rather than splitting apart entirely. And, while some nods were made to the physics of heat and waste management, I’m not sure about even the architectural feasibility of his monads. So this is more in the way of a very solid-seeming, literal-feeling fable (underscored by the somewhat disconcerting present-tense narration) than an actual blueprint of a future. But it’s a book that was interesting to read and bears more thinking about. I can understand its being nominated for the Hugo award [4]. At this point, I wouldn’t say that it was great, but it’s certainly good and worth checking out.


[1] Some, perhaps all, of his fixups were:

  • To Open the Sky (1967)
  • Nightwings (1969)
  • Majipoor Chronicles (1982 connected collection)
  • Roma Eterna (2003)

[2] The full contents (each story simply being a chapter except for “We Are Well Organized” being split into two discontinuous chapters) are:

Chapter Title Date Source Category
1 A Happy Day in 2381 1970-02 Nova 1 ss
2 In the Beginning 1970-12 Science Against Man ss
3 All the Way Up, All the Way Down 1971-07/08 Galaxy ne
4 The Throwbacks 1970-07 Galaxy ne
5/7 We Are Well Organized 1970-12 Galaxy ne
6 The World Outside 1970-10/11 Galaxy na

[3] The current population of the Chicago and Pittsburgh metro areas alone is about 12 million. “If this goes on,” I don’t see it taking 368 years to less than quadruple.

[4] Silverberg declined the nomination, though it’s probably more accurate to say he withdrew its nomination, presumably to give the Nebula-winning A Time of Changes, which was also nominated for the Hugo, a better chance to win (but it still lost to Phil Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go).

Review: Doyle After Death by John Shirley

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-08-05. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. I said I wouldn’t exclude this century and this is an example (of fantasy, even). There’s a retrospective near-coincidence in that I was calling for a TV series based on this and the very different but also redemption/afterlife-oriented The Good Place premiered 2016-09-19. Further in the Near-Coincidence Dept., it’s opening its final season in a few days.

[Cover of Doyle After Death]
Date: 2013
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-30500-8
Pages: 341
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Witness Impulse

Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don’t, a bartender who wants to make sure he’s good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.

Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be “deformulated” in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.

John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it’s often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He’s asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.

“Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?”

“No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees – claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest’s plants talking. The birds, of course – and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well – wouldn’t care for it, I don’t think. Unsettling.” (70-71)

The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a “psychic storm” which straddles chapters “Seventh” and “Eighth” when Doyle announces:

“…Ah, here is the storm right on schedule.”

He nodded towards the window – which began rattling in its frame.

Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing’s grip on the frame that rattled it.

Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window…

[Chapter break to enhance the antici… pation.]

The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.

They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord – they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving… (178-179)

The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It’s not that any of this is utterly absent but it’s only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can’t get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it’s on Doyle’s relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it’s on Fogg’s relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there’s nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it’s not good and reasonable but it’s only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn’t “do” the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely “spot on” but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.

There’s another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book’s strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I’d like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque “found family” and “dramedy” to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it’s not all “fun” in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do – and few would believe we would in the same way – so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.

In sum, I don’t know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it’s a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.