Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean
Donning (Starblaze Editions), 1980, $4.95 trade paper (237pp) ISBN 0-915442-95-7

“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.)


Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.

Review: Great Science Fiction by Scientists, ed. by Groff Conklin

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Mike Brotherton’s anthology, Science Fiction by Scientists, for Tangent. This inspired me to read Groff Conklin’s Great Science Fiction by Scientists, which I’d had laying around for awhile. It’s a 1962 anthology from Collier which includes sixteen stories (mostly post-WWII, including two original stories, but going back to 1926) written by people ranging from those with scientific training to those who actually¬† practice science. The stories themselves are sometimes surprisingly unscientific, though most of them are science fiction and some are pretty typical hard SF. Conklin makes the odd editorial non-decision to present them alphabetically by author which leads to a rather random feel and some odd streaks (for instance, the first story is a fantasy and the last six are fairly weak). It does have several strong stories, though.

Only two primary clusters really struck me, though there are another two lesser clusters. One is of surprisingly melodramatic stories which are, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is probably the strongest of these, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining. Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” may offend modern sensibilities, though it’s actually somewhat ahead of the curve of its time of writing (1926). It’s set in darkest Africa and deals with a scientist manipulating the tribe that has captured him, initially for self-preservation and eventually for more grandiose reasons. A couple of Europeans happen upon this situation and get involved. “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (John Taine), is another jungle tale, this time in a South American dictator’s realm and is a sort of “Jungle of Doctor Moreau” tale which creaks and clunks a bit with its exotic horror trappings involving strange fungi but is fairly readable. Norbert Weiner’s “The Brain” is another mob tale involving a brain surgeon. It’s odd that scientists, being especially interested in causality and probability would write so many stories in which the plotting is markedly contrived or convenient but there are several such tales here and this is one of them.

The second group involves entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or other issues, sometimes with the “crackpot” with the “crazy theories” really being a misunderstood genius and the only one who’s even close to being correct. The best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem. On the other hand, Leo Szilard’s “Grand Central Terminal” just has some aliens, on earth after we’ve blown ourselves up, trying to figure out why metal disks were placed in excretion chambers and trying to save a crackpot’s reputation by shooting down its crazy theories. Finally, “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling) is a rather weak piece original to this book which uses more confirmation bias and linguistic ambiguity to poke some fun at John “C”ampbell and his love of “psi.”

While the last two of those touch on humans doing bad things with the atom or otherwise going extinct, handling that subject isn’t their primary objective. It is the primary objective of Ralph S. Cooper’s fiction article “The Neutrino Bomb,” Louis N. Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (a “playlet in one act”), and Chan Davis’ more conventionally narrated “after the bomb” story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug.” None of these are particularly successful as fiction though Davis’ is the best of them.

Other than the interior of a ship in “Learning Theory,” we only leave Earth twice and move to a supposedly alternate Earth once. That’s disappointing in itself but perhaps the most disappointing story in the book for me was “A Martian Adventure” (aka “At the Perihelion”) by Willy Ley (aka Robert Willey). I was excited because: it’s Willy Ley; it’s Mars; it’s a long novella. It does have some good discussions of orbital mechanics and such but, alas, to call its plot “picaresque” would be kind and even I, who usually ignore “social datedness” as irrelevant, was struck by the approach to (even low level) native life and the human woman. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of “man against the elements” with “Summertime on Icarus” was superb, being strongly plotted and making me feel like I was on Icarus myself. Both stories, oddly, deal with extreme heat in space. The alternate world story is Miles J. Breuer’s memorable “The Gostak and the Doshes,” which tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.

Of the remaining tales, Conklin bizarrely selects Isaac Asimov’s fantasy, “What If…” which involves a married couple seeing alternate paths presented to them by a weird guy with a hypnotism ball. Conklin defends the selection by saying it’s “completely charming” and that it’s “by Asimov.” Well, everything by Asimov is by Asimov and I don’t pick up Great Science Fiction by Scientists to read even completely charming fantasies. It is a fine story, of course, but not a great choice. Then there’s “Kid Anderson,” an android boxer tale from R(obert) S. Richardson which has another contrived plot and isn’t very good, and the sociological “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver which is okay, but not particularly compelling.

To recap, I particularly liked:

  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • and perhaps “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley

If you have a particular interest in the anthology’s subject, I mildly recommend the whole thing but, if not, hopefully you can find some of the recommended ones elsewhere because you probably wouldn’t care for the anthology itself.