Birthday Reviews: Clement, del Rey, Walton

The week’s birthday stories blur the line between man and machine and explore religious and gender conflict.

Hal Clement (1922-05-30–2003-10-29)

“The Mechanic” (Analog, September 1966)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of Space Lash from 2014-05-06.

In “The “Mechanic,” Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone with 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 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 dealing with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

Lester del Rey (1915-06-02–1993-05-10)

“For I Am a Jealous People” (Star Short Novels, 1954)
“The Seat of Judgment” (Venture, July 1957)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of The Best of Lester del Rey at Black Gate from 2018-10-27.

“The Seat of Judgment” is an astonishing tale from 1957 which involves the titular form of punishment which is almost incomprehensibly horrible, incestuous group sex, and fairly explicit alien sex. An old colonial official of a decaying Earth empire returns to a planet of green marsupials, where he’d been instrumental in averting a religious uprising a generation before, and is tasked with repeating his feat. Despite the natives having only goddesses, a male prophet has arisen and the priestess and the official work together (the latter somewhat unwillingly) to deal with him. The twist to this tale is truly brutal and the whole is fascinating from multiple angles which include personal, historical, social, and religious. “For I Am a Jealous People” is another remarkable tale of religion. Rev. Amos Strong and Dr. Alan Miller are friends despite the latter’s atheism and the two friends go through a vicious and multi-faceted ordeal when aliens invade Kansas. The two friends are nicely characterized individually and together and the Reverend’s quandary about what to do when God is not on our side is compelling. His ordeal rivals Job’s and some may find it excessive but others will find it seizes them and won’t let go.

Bryce Walton (1918-05-31–1988-02-05)

“Too Late for Eternity” (Startling Stories, Spring 1955)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from a discussion board post from 2014-09-27.

“Too Late for Eternity” is stark raving mad, but thoroughly competent and effective. It’s about how women live longer than men. Do they ever. The longevity difference started innocently enough but the gap continued to widen:

And then the Third World War. Records, statistics destroyed. A lot of men destroyed too. And after that, three women for every man.

Matriarchy. The women had taken over. And a lot of those women hated men and hated science. Some of them formed anti-male cults. Who needs men?

They took over everything, Joad thought, lying there with his face pressed against the floor. Everything.

Joad is about 120 and comes home to find the young up-and-coming business exec he’d recommended to his wife in bed with her, as is natural when it’s time for the old guys to be retired and the ever-youthful wife needs someone with more, um, stamina. Hilariously, in this matriarchy where women control everything, the morning after her wild night with her new guy, she makes both men breakfast. There are similar persistent 1950s notes through this 2700ish matriarchy and the Freudian weirdness and misogyny is kind of staggering, though it is counterbalanced by an eventual misandry – let’s just call it a general misanthropy. But a couple of aspects of the story really work. First, it’s a completely whacked-out future that has a compelling nature – like Pohl and Kornbluth on a bad day. Bad acid day. And the protagonist’s pain and anger at getting old and being replaced and finally getting wise to how he’s been programmed to accept everything–and how he doesn’t accept it–is quite effectively portrayed. It’s kind of the madman or Ancient Mariner effect of a guy grabbing you by the lapels and conveying a tale of lunacy with such intense conviction that it works. And he hits a lot of birds with this stone – age, sex (kinda shocking sex for ’55, I’d think), gender, cults of beauty, pointlessness of some societal ambitions, the bad aspects of exaggerated masculine and feminine traits, etc. Wild stuff.


Edit (2020-06-04): Added images.

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.