Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.


[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.

The Incredible Shrinking Blog

One month ago, I said, “I hope the April Summation will follow in a few days and I’ll catch up completely before too long but technical difficulties may slow me down…I’m going to be messing around with a new laptop and, depending on how it goes, I may not be very productive for awhile.”

Well, since I’d previously avoided stuff like UEFI and GPT, I got to learn about that and, because I don’t think it was even an issue the last time it would have come up, I got to learn about “Secure Boot,” for three examples, but I actually got the system installed just fine and am the proud operator of a bouncing baby Slackware-current Linux system on my new HP laptop.[1]

Rather than any installation problem, what initially caused the extended delay was that I realized all my files, scripts, and more were horribly disorganized and out of date. Getting the system just exactly perfect has been much more tedious and is taking longer than expected, especially as other things seem to keep coming up. I’m still not 100% there, but the bulk of it is done.

While I was doing this, I was discouraged from rushing back to do reviews by the John W. Campbell business. In many ways (especially socioeconomic) I’m a pretty liberal guy, but I have next to no patience with “political correctness” or historical “revisionism” or any number of the other manifestations of “theory” prevalent these days. This has always been a drag on my enjoyment of current SF and contributed to the burnout I was feeling which led to my falling behind in March, but I felt like I was ready to get back on the horse and was making good progress catching up (having read all but the selectively reviewed zines through June) until I couldn’t avoid the laptop problem anymore. And while I was doing that, we got the Awards Formerly Known As Campbell. While the attack was vulgar and ignorant, it was also irrelevant to short SF. However, people who are relevant to short SF and should know better have not only failed to be voices of reason but have added to the unreason. It just underscores that I signed up to read a body of literature with a significant emphasis on creative ideas and positive visions of futures with technologically and rationally advanced natures and what I’ve been reading is mostly a subgenre of LGB,eTc. fiction[2] which is populated by Orwellian erasers of the giants whose shoulders they stand upon insofar as they are SF at all (or Wile E. Coyotes sawing off the limb they sit on). The great Katherine MacLean died recently. One guess as to who published her first story in 1949. One guess as to who published Asimov and Heinlein’s earliest, most influential work. One guess as to who published people as politically diverse as Poul Anderson and Mack Reynolds. One guess as to who elevated the genre from largely BEMs and blasters to a body of largely serious science-based speculative fiction with room for the occasional BEM and blaster both through his writing and his editing. No, I do not agree with everything he said on issues other than SF and it would probably be more accurate to say I agree with very little. But guess what – I don’t agree with much of what anyone says and I’m surprised (and dismayed) at people who do find others to be in lockstep with. I do think that he was one of the greatest editors of all time (when most of today’s editors can’t even present their authors as having a basic grasp of grammar and spelling) and every SF fan should hold him in their hearts as someone who helped make the field great.

So. You may have noticed my blog is not the blog it used to be. Well, “cancel culture” is the thing, right? I’m supposed to object to things on ideological grounds, rewrite history, make unpleasantness disappear, and not promote anything that’s not completely in accordance with the One True Way of Thought (which is My Way), right? So here it is.[3]

It’s ironic. As a lover of the unpopular field of print science fiction and the even less popular field of short SF, I made the promotion of contemporary short SF the purpose of this blog, only to have to admit that short SF has become unpopular for very good reasons and I now wish to do anything but promote it. From now on, this blog will focus on tomorrow through the past. Anything written in the 20th century will be covered and certainly not everything from the present century will be excluded but will be rare. More non-science-fiction items will probably also make their appearance. Because the nature of this blog has changed so radically, I expect the always modest interest in it to plummet, much like current magazines’ circulation figures, but I hope some people will continue to visit. If not, it’s still a price I’m willing to pay. I was just on a mistaken mission based on the notion that short/current science fiction was unjustly overlooked and still merited promotion when, really, it does not. There are great stories out there but not very many of them make it into professional anthologies, even fewer win awards, and the percentage of them is too small to make finding them on an unpaid basis worthwhile for any but the most fanatical. There are few, if any, magazines that I would even remotely consider subscribing to and, while I have always honestly praised the individual stories I saw as good and ignored or disapproved of those I saw as bad, how can I honestly continue to promote the current field at all with that fact staring back at me?

I want to say with crystal clarity that this is not “about” the Campbell thing and not even about the response of some people to it but it’s just the last straw from a systemic malaise in “SF” that has long been repelling me, like so many others, from the field and finally made me decide to abandon it in its current zeitgeist.


[1] It’s also the last HP laptop I will ever buy for several reasons. Also, running -current isn’t ideal – I haven’t run it in years and I’d rather have installed a release-version like the Slack 14.2 I was running on the previous laptop but, since Slack’s been living up to its name and hasn’t had an actual release in over three years, I doubted it would have worked on a new machine.

[2] I have recommended several good-to-superb pieces of fiction including or focusing on these characters or issues. I just feel these themes occupy fiction disproportionately and often eclipse any emphasis on true scientific (or even fantastic) speculation and/or are often inauthentically obligatory. It just really feels to me that, in genre terms, the tail is often wagging the dog.

[3] It pains me to have wasted a significant percentage of several years of my life (I’ve deleted 93.6% of this blog and J-Sun-Space, which contained some reviews going back to 2012, has been completely deleted, though I may bring some reviews of classics from it to this blog) and it pains me that recommendations of a few great stories by innocent people have been caught up in this, along with the comments a few people took their time and effort to write which were attached to posts which I’ve deleted. Similarly, it’s unfortunate some good sites which promote current SF aren’t on my sidebar and that my banner, which was designed by an ezine editor, has gone away.