Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis


This week we’ve got alien sex, AI hell, a brain in a machine forty million years in the future, and a mind in a machine at the precipice of a black hole, via stories from before the Golden Age through the New Wave to the end of the millennium.

James Blish (1921-05-23–1975-07-30)

“How Beautiful with Banners” (Orbit 1, 1966)

Blish is best known for his novels or the long stories that were fixed up into novels (various forms of “Surface Tension,” “Beep,” A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, etc.), but here tells a shorter and (I think) more isolated tale with interesting observations along the way, such as how “four years in the past” is “a long distance, when one recalls that in a four-dimensional plenum every second of time is one hundred eighty six thousand miles of space…”

Dr. Ulla Hillstrom is on Titan, observing examples of a species of “flying cloaks” while wearing the latest in high-tech astronaut gear, which makes her especially interesting to a cloak in a way that may have disastrous and/or transformative consequences.

This tale of many things, including sex both human and alien, may try to do too much and is certainly overwritten (though consistently so) but it is an extraordinary, um, conception, and a bizarrely effective blend of the classic problem story of woman against nature and New Wave concerns and conclusions. It also seems like the soundtrack to the story, both superficially and otherwise, could be The Rolling Stones’ “She’s So Cold.”

Harlan Ellison (1934-05-27–2018-06-28)

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (If, March 1967)

As we learn in an embedded story midway through this one, after starting WWIII, some warring nations created AIs which merged into AM, which then killed off all of humanity but five people, all of whom it torments endlessly in a technological Hell. Prior to that, we are introduced to those five and their torments and, after that, we witness a crescendo of agony and violence before the final denouement of silent horror.

Ellison’s stuff worked extraordinarily well when I was a teenager, although seemingly less so now. It packs a punch, though the punch is often a flailing, shakily guided one. For instance, AM expresses its hate directly in both powerful and juvenile terms which the protagonist then characterizes.

AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue-hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork. AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched, and devised new ways, at his leisure, there inside my mind.

Certainly, there’s an objective correlative to this speech. Certainly, either way, the sentences should be arranged so that maggoty pork follows ground babies as much the greater horror. Certainly the “every” and “ever” and then more “new ways” is precise.

Still, by aiming at a Poe-like single effect and then just throwing everything at it that occurs to him, Ellison does achieve a generally memorable story.

Neil R. Jones (1909-05-29–1988-02-15)

“The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)

Professor Jameson wants to outdo the Egyptians and preserve his body for as long as possible after he dies, so devises a plan to have himself launched in a rocket into orbit around the Earth which his nephew duly implements when the time comes. So far, so good. Forty million revolutions of the Earth around the sun later, the Zoromes enter the Solar System, looking for things to excite them. They were once biological beings but had their brains implanted in conical heads with six eyes all around (plus one on the top) which are mounted on cubical bodies with four articulated legs and six tentacular arms and are now, barring accidents, effectively immortal. They discover Jameson’s satellite and, with him being dead and a possible source of information and excitement, they revive his brain and transfer it to one of their body-types. Jameson comes back to life and consciousness in a state of understandable confusion and, then, while observing a tidally locked Eath orbiting close to a red sun, and facing the prospect of being the last man alive with nothing but Zoromes (however nice they are) for companions, he feels crushing loneliness and hopelessness vying with the possibilities of a boundless future in waves of suicidal conflict.

This is very much a scientifiction story which has a direct reference to Haggard, nephews doing things for extraordinary voyages like Burroughs, “sleeping” people like Malory, far future Earths like Wells, characters with names like “25X-987” like Gernsback, and backyard rocket inventors like most everyone, and which influenced others in turn [1]. While it starts at the end of Jameson’s life, it starts very much at the beginning of any possible narration and continues through step after step with almost nothing but description and explanation until the end, though the narration is full of such weird ideas and imagery as to scarcely need a great deal of conflict. Readers might ask why Jameson thought it was so important to preserve his corpse or they might grant that some form of permanence is a common desire; might find the technological notions sloppy (to be extremly generous) or handwave it; and might find some of the writing, in which telescopes possess “immense” power and things travel at “inconceivable” speeds to be nearly as sloppy, though it’s generally reasonably crisp on a line-by-line basis. Many SF stories might have had a happy immortal or angsty last man and I thought it was interesting that this had both in one. While it certainly won’t suit everyone, I’ve had the Jameson stories in the Pile for a long time and, having finally read one, I’m curious about how the series progresses.

Geoffrey A. Landis (1955-05-28)

“Approaching Perimelasma” (Asimov’s, January 1998)

Eleven centuries prior to the opening of our story, which may be set in the early Fourth Millennium, wormholes were discovered and manipulated. They play a significant role in the protagonist’s journey into a black hole. That protagonist is a one-millimeter tall humaniform construct with a variety of powers including necessarily UV vision, variable hyperspeed and ultraslow perceptions, and staggering resistance to gravity and tidal forces, with an uploaded personality from a novelty-seeking post-human, and he plans to fly a peanut-sized spaceship into the black hole with the aim to explore, experience, perhaps find information that will lead to the holy grail of FTL travel and, just before he becomes trapped forever, to use a wormhole to escape. Naturally, things don’t go right from a couple of perspectives and the effort to deal with at least one of them draws on some quick thinking, quick action, and chance.

There are some stories that have SCIENCE FICTION emblazoned on them, burning like a nova, casting most other stories into relative shade, and this is one. There are concepts sprinkled several-to-a-page resulting in repeated mind blowings and, because it’s in initially elliptical, confusing present tense, has a ship named Huis Clos (as well as a funny nod to Frederic Brown), and is about psychology as much as physics, it’s even literary, too. Fun for the whole family! I feel like I gave away too much but that also seemed like the minimum to have it make sense. Rest assured, there’s one or two gems about the protagonist and one or two climaxes that I didn’t detail and, even if I had spoiled everything, nothing would be spoiled because it wouldn’t capture much of anything of the actual experience of reading the story which takes just a few pages to strain and unchain your brain with an expedition into a star as a mere appetizer, which makes you think about life and death and pseudo-religious concepts on human and cosmic scales and is just everything science fiction, and short science fiction, ought to be. I was thinking this was one of my favorites of all time and it absolutely still is.

[1] Asimov himself credits the Zoromes with influencing his conception of benevolent robots.