Asimov’s Centennial: Earth Is Room Enough

Earth Is Room Enough by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 192pp, 1957

After receiving comments indicating that he wrote too many space stories [1], Isaac Asimov responded by making his second collection of all-1950s stories also be a collection of all-Earth-based stories. It is a very well-constructed volume which contains seventeen items, with substantial pieces placed at the ends, within which other substantial works alternate with less substantial ones (including one poem after the first story and one before the last). The strongest tales are the ones at the ends and the one in the middle (which is the collection’s sole Robot story). [2] It also contains an unusual number of fantasies and, on the other hand, stories which are about or mention Multivac, the “ten-mile-long” computer which structures society as orderly and rationally as this collection is structured.

The first and longest item in the book (filling a quarter of it) is just such a story. In “The Dead Past,” Arnold Potterly is a professor of history with a mania regarding Carthage, which leads him to petition the government for use of the chronoscope (which is manipulated through interactions with Multivac), through which he can see Carthaginian history and absolve them of the things history has blamed them for. When his request is refused, he commits “intellectual anarchy,” defying this society’s strictures on directed research and suborns a physicist into attempting to create their own chronoscope. That physicist suborns his uncle, a science writer, into more illicit deeds. At that point, the story morphs a couple of times to reach its conclusion.

This is a significant story and ultimately successful, albeit imperfect. While the physicist and his uncle come to life, they are structurally as much conveniences as characters, a part that is not yet the climax feels like it possibly could have been a better climax (and the actual ending seems a little sidewise from what has gone before), and the story is sometimes too “on message” and has a strange message, besides, playing devil’s advocate for the notion that perhaps unfettered scientific research might be bad and government intrusion could be benevolent though it may not be painting certain things as either good or bad but simply inevitable. The human-interest angle with the professor and his wife dealing in their own ways with the loss of their daughter, the complex nature of the chronoscope, the depiction of how grants can be used to control avenues of scientific research for good or ill, is all effective and makes for a compelling and thought-provoking tale.

At the other end, “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” focuses on a day in the life of the head of Dreams, Inc. (which deals in “dreamies,” or a sort of virtual reality). He first deals with the parents of a boy who may have the potential to become a “dreamer,” then a government official who wants to know more about the illicit pornographic dreamies made by others and threatens all dreamie makers, including Dreams, Inc., with censorship, then an employee who is panicked about their competitors, Luster-Think, moving into low-quality mass-market dreams and, finally, with the company’s star dreamer who wants to quit because the creation of his art has taken over his life. Through these angles, we can contemplate aspects of art and artists. While perhaps a bit too directly translated from non-fiction (about fiction) to fiction, it’s a well-done story with good observations and details which really does imagine its new art form in believable detail (with the “overtones,” multiple layers, clouds visualized with synaesthetic associations of touch and smell, and so on).

In between, with “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” Susan Calvin returns briefly to bestow TN-3 on a woman whose husband will be going out of town for awhile. “Tony” is a sort of butler, maid, gardener, interior decorator, and much more, including a component of an experiment. The transformations the two go through are effectively drawn and anticipate some women’s reactions to Spock and the like; though various people of today may find things to dislike for various reasons, it’s a well-done story.

Of the other substantial tales, “Franchise” and “Jokester” are not so substantial that they fully require their length and are hard to accept literally but “Franchise” is a Multivac story about elections being decided by Multivac interviewing a single citizen as a sort of satirical “if this goes on” of polling and does stress the importance of voting in its way. “Jokester” is another Multivac tale in which Multivac provides an astonishing answer to some questions given it about jokes. I don’t buy all the details of the analysis of humor and the ending isn’t strong, but it does include some demonstration jokes which, as conventional as they are, were worth a chuckle. “Someday” is another tale which at least cites Multivac, but is more about people in the future having become dependent on machines and having forgotten how to read or write since all media are audiovisual, as dramatized through two kids who despise one kid’s low-quality story-telling machine and who learn about writing from an oddly antiquarian teacher and resolve to learn it… so they can use it to send secret messages in a club. It ends on a rather un-Asimovian note.

One of the more interesting tales is “Living Space,” which is an “Earths Is Room Enough” parallel-worlds story in which each family gets a world of their own (except for the poor saps who have to stay on “Earth proper” to make the base work), using alternate Earths where life didn’t develop. The first complication to this is excellent (presenting us with the viewpoint of lebensraum, which is handled with remarkable equanimity) and the second makes an even bigger jump but I feel like Asimov didn’t realize quite what he had here, as this could have been a great story but ends quickly and simply as merely a good one.

There are also two substantial fantasies in the Unknown style long after Unknown‘s demise. One is a bizarre tale in which insects are elves (or vice versa) and is one of a few (such as “Dreaming”) which deal with writing or similar things, as Jan Prentiss is writing a story for Horace W. Browne’s Farfetched Fantasy Fiction [3] which he insists is most definitely not “Kid Stuff” when he is confronted with the appearance of malicious imperial bug. The other is “The Last Trump,” which initially reads as a brilliant parody of “Resurrection Day” which simply renders it as literally and rationally as possible but which gets distracted by its angel’s efforts at encouraging the Chief to indulge in some sophistry at the end.

Of the less substantial pieces that fill the gaps, “The Foundation of S.F. Success” and “The Author’s Ordeal” both apologize to W. S. Gilbert and presumably take his lyrics and replace the words while preserving the meter/tune. The latter probably took more effort and creates an effective headlong effect while satirizing how SF stories are generally written but the former is an even funnier and more clever self-satire of Asimov’s Foundation stories.

There are also two more fantasies. “Gimmicks Three” (originally published as “The Brazen Locked Room”) is a fantasy with a science fictional twist (only partially realized) on the “deal with the devil” motif. “Hell-Fire” is another science fantasy about the hellish power of the atomic bomb which relies on its moral more than its structure.

The remainder of the slighter pieces are SF. “The Watery Place” is one of several of Asimov’s groaner pun short-shorts involving a sheriff’s comical failure to realize he’s making first contact. While not exactly a pun, “The Message” is a time-travel piece going back to WWII which may be even more groan-worthy. “The Fun They Had” seems to be a sentimental piece about schoolchildren of the future looking back on schools of the past. The best of these is “The Immortal Bard,” in which a drunken physicist at a party reveals his ability to transport people from the past and tells the English professor something shocking. Like many of these (the SF parody poems, “Dreaming,” “Kid Stuff,” etc.) this has a strongly personal element as Asimov had a running struggle with critics telling him what his stories really meant.

While this collection only has the three really great pieces (plus the excellent minor piece of “The Bard”), there are several near-great or extremely interesting pieces and all the rest can be casually enjoyed, so this is a very good collection overall.


[1] I think it may have been James Blish who said in a review, “Come home Isaac, all is forgiven!” but I can’t find the quote now. If anyone knows it, please drop me a line. I’m certainly not going to complain, as Earth is not room enough for me, but it’s true that his Foundation novels, Empire novels, half the Robot novels and stories, and The End of Eternity, in a sense, are all mostly off-Earth.

[2] Contents:

  • “The Dead Past” (Astounding, April 1956)
  • “The Foundation of S.F. Success” (F&SF, October 1954)
  • “Franchise” (If, August 1955)
  • “Gimmicks Three” (F&SF, November 1956)
  • “Kid Stuff” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, September 1953)
  • “The Watery Place” (Satellite, October 1956)
  • “Living Space” (The Original Science Fiction Stories, May 1956)
  • “The Message” (F&SF, February 1956)
  • “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (Amazing, April 1951)
  • “Hell-Fire” (Fantastic Universe, May 1956)
  • “The Last Trump” (Fantastic Universe, June 1955)
  • “The Fun They Had” (Boys and Girls Page, December 1951)
  • “Jokester” (Infinity, December 1956)
  • “The Immortal Bard” (Universe Science Fiction, May 1954)
  • “Someday” (Infinity, August 1956)
  • “The Author’s Ordeal” (Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1957)
  • “Dreaming Is a Private Thing” (F&SF, December 1955)

[3] Asimov is presumably conflating editors Horace Gold, John W. Campbell (or perhaps Robert W. Lowndes), and Howard Browne and keying on the magazine which published this story, Gold’s Beyond Fantasy Fiction.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Martian Way and Other Stories

The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.95, 222pp, 1955

Contents:

  • “The Martian Way” (Galaxy, November 1952)
  • “Youth” (Space SF, May 1952)
  • “The Deep” (Galaxy, December 1952)
  • “Sucker Bait” (Astounding, February and March 1954)

After thirteen books (eleven of them science fiction and all of those either new novels or collections made up of the Robot and Foundation stories which were almost entirely from the 1940s), Isaac Asimov’s fourteenth book was a collection of exclusively recent stories, and generally long ones at that. This was the first of three 1950s collections devoted to 1950s stories (to be followed by Earth Is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows).

Contrary to the usual method, this collection spends the best for first. “The Martian Way” is a novella which opens with Ted Long and a companion Scavenger hunting for the expended shells of multi-stage rockets which float around the system between Earth and Mars. Getting this valuable metal is how these Martian colonists make their living. However, an Earth politician named Hilder starts an anti-Waster movement, using the notion of Earth people “giving” things away, such as this scrap metal and the water the Martians need to survive, as a way to build up resentment against them and secure political power for himself. Matters come to a head when other politicians lack the spine to stand up to Hilder’s demagoguery and he convinces Earth to shut off the water supply to Mars, despite the cost being less than a thimble from a pool. Long has seen this coming and has been trying to convince the Martians to do things “the Martian way” and go to Saturn where there’s plenty of water in the rings but, as Thomas Jefferson perceptively observed, “Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The Martians believe the “common knowledge” [1] that a voyage to Saturn would be too long to take and remain sane but Long argues that Martians have adapted to different conditions and the time/distance argument is an Earth limitation. And, when the Martians are facing rationing and, ultimately, death or a forced return to Earth, the evils are insufferable, so the Commissioner greenlights Long’s dangerous idea. There follows a fascinating journey to the ringed world with some genuinely beautiful moments as most of the water prospectors spend their off-shift parts of the journey “space-floating,” that is, tethering themselves to the ship and trailing it at a distance, enjoying the euphoria of weightless infinity. [2] On arriving at Saturn’s rings (more beauty), a prodigious engineering project is undertaken to get a giant chunk of ice back to Mars and matters reach a new head when it takes longer than expected, the food is running out, and they have perturbed the orbit of their chunk and are about to collide with another mountain of ice.

Other than the wonderful (and sometimes frighteningly dangerous) experiences in space [3], one of the main features of this tale is the notion of change. At the start of these events, there is an “umbilical cord” from Mother Earth to Mars but the Martians are changing, whether they know it or not. While Earthmen couldn’t stand to be cooped up in a ship for extended periods, “Mars is a ship [4],” and Martians are better equipped to deal with these new demands. In fact, while blissfully floating, Long has the vision of generation starships populating the galaxy over eons and feels those ships must and will come from Mars.

A minor feature of this tale, however, doesn’t work as Asimov intended. He’s stated that he was satirizing McCarthy in this tale and was expecting a significant reaction but, on not getting it, theorized that he may have been too “subtle.” It’s not that it’s too subtle but that it focuses on the wrong thing. McCarthy was a power-hungry demagogue (as is Hilder) and this element and the spineless collapse of the people who are supposed to serve as checks and balances are acutely observed. However, McCarthy was specifically about “un-American activities,” which is to say, suppressing free thought and free speech through dishonest intimidation over “loyalty.” Hilder is about “anti-Waste,” or distorted bean-counting, used to agitate supporters. Had it been written later, the “anti-Waste campaign” would have applied better to Proxmire than McCarthy and generalized demagoguery isn’t specific to McCarthy but applies to many politicians. (Oddly, both the McCarthy and Proxmire satires combined could apply to the current occupant of the White House.) Regardless, Hilder serves to bring about the crisis in dramatically successful terms and the incomplete satire doesn’t harm the story which I see as a larger, positive take on the adaptability of humanity rather than a topical, negative take on politics, anyway.

Otherwise, I only notice a couple of problems in this tale. First, while Mars may be a harsh master, the benignity of Earth may be overstated and, similarly, while Mars may have a society that is growing more powerfully, I wouldn’t expect an Earth that was helping to support a recently colonized world to be quite as static as is assumed here. Second, while the plot does contain great challenges, it seems to move a bit too smoothly. Those minor quibbles aside, this is a superb, essential tale.

After that peak, there’s a marked descent in the next tale, followed by a climb back up. If “The Martian Way” has some Heinlein to it, “Youth” initially reads like a tale by Bradbury or Simak. In it, a youngster (“Slim”) is entrusted by his new friend (“Red”) with a secret: Red heard something like thunder the night before and found some animals in the morning. He’s put them in a cage and thinks they’ll be a passport to a life in the circus. Slim’s dad is an astronomer and Red’s dad is an entrepreneur. They talk about the aliens Slim, Sr. has made contact with and how this may get the species out of the rut caused by the apocalyptic wars of times gone by. But it’s strange… the aliens should have been here by now. There’s more to it than this and, whether you’d enjoyed it this far or not, you may find the story damaged or taken to a new level by the rest but, for me, I wasn’t that thrilled to begin with and was ultimately less so. [5]

The Deep” is a shorter and better novelette than “Youth” which opens with an editorial chapter which states that worlds die and species who don’t do what they can to avoid it will die with them. Then, in a way that somewhat anticipates The Gods Themselves, we witness the race of a dying world attempting to escape their (likely ironically symbolic) underground caverns where they huddle around the last heat of their planet and we fly in an airplane above Earth with a woman and her newborn on their way to visit her military husband. The plan is for the desperate race to expend virtually all their remaining energy on a single roll of the dice, in which a teleportation station will be specially materialized at the world they’ve detected (Earth) and one hero will inhabit the consciousness of one of the beings of that world to press the button on the machine to do what’s needed for “normal” teleportations to follow below the Earth’s surface. When the alien unsurprisingly comes to inhabit the consciousness of the infant on the plane, the mission becomes much more traumatic and difficult.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Asimov almost, though incompletely, “burns the motherhood statement,” as Greg Egan might say, in that the psychic egg-laying aliens live in a society where the good of the community is paramount so that any bond between mother and child is considered a perversion. Naturally, the alien is shocked and disgusted to learn that humans have eggs inside their bodies, give live birth, and have close familial bonds. This causes an additional tweak to the plan. Another virtue of the story is the weird and well-drawn scene of what happens when the alien inhabits the infant and how it seems to each of them and the others on the plane.

The collection ends with another novella, and the longer of the two. “Sucker Bait” takes its title from the notion that some planets seem too good for colonizing to be true. In a chaotic phase of expansion, a world coming out of an ice age which is in a stable orbit around two suns was settled but became a sort of lost colony when all its inhabitants died after a couple of years. Over a century later, in a more formal Confederacy of over 83,000 worlds, a ship with a corps of scientists as passengers returns to the world to try to figure out what went wrong. [6] The main thrust of this one is about specialization being for insects (or these scientists). However, one psychologist has his human computer along who eidetically (and somewhat autistically) absorbs every bit of data he can which may provide some unusual and valuable insights.

In addition to being an example of the classic “lost colony” type, this story is also a mystery. However, while the clues are present in the story, the revelation still feels like it’s pulled from thin air. More significantly, the tale is a little too focused on its (very good) didactic point about specialization within much knowledge being equivalent to much ignorance. Also, structurally, the whole situation is slightly contrived and the story is too long for its content.

It’s easier to create a longer list of what’s wrong with this than what’s right but the right still outweighs the wrong. The situation, characters, and ideas are all interesting (and the dangerous unassailability of people’s “professional opinions” is effectively portrayed). In addition to the beautiful passages in “The Martian Way,” this also has wonderful moments such as describing the effects of the double sun on the planet’s significant ice caps. With that and other elements such as one of the suns producing a disturbing effect with the vegetation and the psychologist’s amusing gimmick with “chromopsychosis,” it seems like a massively updated, more rigorous take on Neil R. Jones’ “Planet of the Double Sun.” Going the other way, I wonder if one of the inspirations for Herbert’s later “mentats” didn’t come from the main character of this story.

In sum, the title story is worth a book all by itself, but the other stories provide nice additional value.


[1] You can take the boy out of Astounding but it’s hard to take Astounding out of the boy. This was published in Galaxy and has Goldisms like a virtual ad for “waterless dishwashers” on Mars but this upending of “common knowledge” is pure Campbell.

[2] This is all the more remarkable for being written by a guy who was afraid to fly and years before any man had been in space. Asimov was pleased that some of the astronauts did report a feeling of euphoria as he’d imagined.

[3] One thing that’s particularly notable and enjoyable about the environment of this story is its difference from much earlier SF with its harsh Mars and its vast solar system with an unusually and accurately spacious asteroid belt. The asteroids in this are apparently even rockier than we now suppose, necessitating the jump to Saturn’s largely icy rings but it’s a very sober, “Bonestell” sort of Solar System.

[4] “Spaceship Mars” doesn’t predate the notion of “Spaceship Earth,” but certainly predates its general use from the 1960s, though it’s used in a different sense here.

[5] I’d like to make two more points about this but they would completely spoil the story.

[6] One of the operational theories is that it was some sort of plague. When one character says he knows all about “the 2755 para-measles epidemic” and “the 1918 influenza epidemic,” I couldn’t help but think, “Missed one.”

Review: Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg

In my coverage of the stories Robert Silverberg published from 1963-1975 it’s no more time for me to post a review of Born with the Dead than it was to reprint the review of The World Inside but I’m going to anyway. This is revised from a post I made on an SF discussion board on December 19, 2012 to remove irrelevant antipathy to Silverberg’s introduction to the collection (Isaac Asimov’s “cheerful self-appreciation” entertains me but Silverberg’s bitter self-appreciation didn’t) and in an attempt to at least slightly improve it generally, but the substance is unchanged.

Born with the Dead is subtitled/blurbed “Three Novellas About Here and Hereafter.” The stories all hail from 1970-74 but, other than things like the topicality of population pressures and futures set in what is now the past, they don’t feel especially dated. While not hard SF, one of the stories even contains something close to e-books and print-on-demand while another has a HUD/GPS of sorts.

The title story is well-regarded by many, including the author, whose introduction describes how he packed into it his “deepest thoughts about love, marriage, boredom, obsession” and complains about how it lost an award. However, I prefer the winner, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya,” which deals with many of the same topics in a much more dramatic and convincing fashion. That’s not to say “Born with the Dead” is a bad story–far from it. It’s about a husband who can’t let go of his “rekindled” wife after her death while she wanders about with her new undead friends without care for her previous connections. This central idea is good and passages in the story are splendid but I think it could have worked better as an evocative “prose-poem” sort of short story because it didn’t consistently grip me over its span as a novella. While it’s obviously about love, marriage, obsession, and boredom, and boredom is effectively conveyed, the rest is not as effective over the course of the story and I don’t think or feel all that differently or profoundly about those topics after reading it. Further, the “deads” aren’t detailed in any plausible way—making them purely literary—and the way the society of “warms” interacts with this phenomenon is also implausible, to say the least. This is fantasy in science fiction’s clothing.

Despite being less renowned, the other two stories in the collection worked much better for me. “Thomas the Proclaimer” is similarly a fantasy story told in science fictional terms in that a ruffian/rogue-turned-prophet instigates a moment of world prayer in 1999 (story written in 1971) which causes the world to stop moving for about 24 hours. From that fantastic starting point, a realistic story (except in the magnitude of its satire) of millennial and historical delirium takes off. The “march to the sea” (when the calculating Plato/Saul/Judas character allied to Thomas tries for a second miracle) is an unforgettable depiction of sheer mass madness. But there are also many subtler satirical touches of, for instance, the multiplying sects and interpretations.

Going” is one of four story ideas given by Isaac Asimov to Silverberg and three other writers for an anthology. It starts out almost feeling like an Asimov story with much dialogue but becomes more Silverbergian as it deals with a society in 2095 where medical advances have made possible prolonged, vigorous lives which almost always reach the 13th to 19th decades. Given this, a social structure has come about where people are voluntarily euthanized whenever they feel like to make way for new lives. The focus is on the spontaneous decision of a famous composer to Go. He heads off to a House of Leavetaking where he tries to tie up his life’s loose ends and prepare himself to die. This raises all kinds of thought-provoking ideas. One is on the nature of societal “use” where the government encourages the less useful members of society to Go sooner and the more, later. There’s a somewhat appalling elitism (present in Asimov’s original idea), where “useful” seems to mean “creative” and “not useful” seems to mean anything else, including physical labor, raising children well, and being nice. Then there’s the subjective idea of how it would be to live/die in such a way (would you give up a semi-immortal life? when? why?), along with the objective idea of what sort of government and citizenry would have things this way and how they would afford it.

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 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: Space Lash by Hal Clement

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-05-06. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged.

Cover of Space Lash

Date: December 1969 (originally January 1969 as Small Changes)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: 8039
Pages: 206
Price: $0.60
Publisher: Dell (originally Doubleday)
Contents (modified from IFSDB):

Page Title Year Cat Var.Title
7 Dust Rag 1956 short story
27 Sun Spot 1960 short story Sunspot
49 Uncommon Sense 1946 short story
66 “Trojan Fall” 1944 short story Trojan Fall
80 Fireproof 1949 short story
96 Halo 1952 novelette
113 The Foundling Stars 1966 short story
128 Raindrop 1965 novelette
175 The Mechanic 1966 novelette

Dust Rag” is a tale of electrostatic dust difficulty on the moon and is a classic-style problem story, as are most of the tales. “Sun Spot” involves a scientific observation mission based on (in) a comet as it approaches the sun. “Uncommon Sense” is an especially clever tale of a man whose two villainous assistants are trying to maroon him on an alien world. Acute observation and scientific understanding of the fascinating indigenous life forms come into play. ““Trojan Fall”” (don’t ask me why the title is pre-quoted) is an unusual tale in that the focal character is a bad guy. It deals with orbital mechanics. “Fireproof” takes the more usual perspective of the good guys trying to deal with a bad guy who doesn’t understand the interactions of fire, atmosphere, and gravity. “Halo” involves some very unusual alien farmers and indicates we might not appreciate our asteroid belt enough. “The Foundling Stars” features broadly similar aliens but in the context of two human scientists trying to prove that stellar formation is or is not a purely random result or requires a particular process to account for varying densities. This perhaps does the best job of directly portraying the scientific endeavor. “Raindrop” is perhaps the most elaborate tale in the collection, being about a bunch of comets being gathered up, melted down, and turned into a giant water balloon in space, in which our two workers and their new genetically modified bosses get into conflict – underwater in space! John Varley’s “Blue Champagne” (1981) has some similarities to this one. And the collection concludes with “Mechanic” in which Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone in which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism (a la Moya in Farscape) and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and then the last third deals with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

One of the recurring features of these stories is that Clement just dives right in – the stories are not deliberately obfuscated – rather they end up being quite clear – but it sometimes takes a few pages for the reader to get his bearings, producing excellent sfnal cognitive dissonance followed by the sensation of learning and finally knowing. Also, Clement is not generally given much credit for characterization (as is the case with almost all critics and hard SF writers) but he’s actually quite good at producing individuals by concisely detailing their different experiences, areas of expertise, expectations of causes and effects, and reactions to them. It’s not a “tell me about your childhood” characterization on one hand or a “this guy talks with a funny accent” characterization on the other, but serves to populate each tale with distinct individuals who nevertheless serve a social/archetypal purpose. Unfortunately, the greatest weakness in these tales is that, while well and logically plotted in most senses, the overall arc usually ends in some anticlimactic twist, or so it seemed to me. Some might react to this as a classic “ah, you got me – nice fresh perspective or humorous element” but I reacted more along the lines of “huh, well, the main story was great up to that point, but at least the ending doesn’t ruin anything even if it doesn’t finish it off with an ascending bang.”

Be all that as it may, I very much enjoyed the collection and it indicates that, while Ballantine’s The Best of Hal Clement (1979) did a fine job in collecting the best (taking “Dust Rag” and “Uncommon Sense” from this collection), it still didn’t have room for everything (at least “Raindrop”, “The Mechanic”, the fairly short “Sun Spot”, and possibly even “Halo”/”The Foundling Stars”) and this is a worthwhile supplement. It appears to be very purposefully arranged, too – I liked all the stories (perhaps “Trojan Fall” was my least favorite) but the first three and last two are the strongest, so that the middle is okay but it starts and ends very well.

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

berserker.jpg

Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.

Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

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Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.


* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).

Review of The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate

My first article for Black Gate was just published.

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

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