Review: “Anniversary Project” by Joe Haldeman

WordPress wished me a happy third anniversary today so I thought I’d review an anniversary story. My first thought was Isaac Asimov’s “Anniversary,” but that’s a sequel to “Marooned Off Vesta,” and I thought I’d just go with one story, so I decided to go with Joe Haldeman’s “Anniversary Project.” It was first published in the October 1975 Analog and, while I also have it in the Haldeman collection Infinite Dreams, I read it this time from the Dozois omnibus Exploring the Horizons (which combines Explorers and The Furthest Horizon).

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.

Review: The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert (Doubleday, 1956, hc, 192pp.)

Four men in a sub (to say nothing of the God).

During a war with the Eastern Powers, the nuclear sub Fenian Ram‘s job is to cruise into enemy territory to steal a cargo of oil. “Ensign” John Ramsey has been assigned to the four-person crew as the new electronics officer. However, he really works for “BuPsych” and his true mission is to find out why the last electronics officer went insane. As if this weren’t tense enough, the failure rate of these missions is shockingly high, the insanity may be the commanding officer’s fault, a dead body is found on the sub, and the killer spy may be one of the crew.

In the course of the mission, Ramsey struggles with both wanting and not wanting to fit in, experiences debilitating fear, has several near-death experiences, and gets to know Engineering Officer Joe Garcia, First Officer Les Bonnet, and the overtly religious and rigidly self-controlled Commander Harvey Sparrow (whose last name is likely another Biblical reference). It culminates in his getting to know himself and learning something about the nature of the world and sanity within it.

This was serialized in late 1955 in Astounding as Under Pressure (which is a good title) and has been reprinted as 21st Century Sub (which is not) but its original book publication was as The Dragon in the Sea which is taken from Isaiah 27:1. (“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea”.)

Though it took me awhile to get around to it, I was inspired to read it after re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent The Deep Range years ago and wanting another undersea adventure. That’s really about all the two have in common, though, with this being focused on religion and particularly Freudian psychology, though it does also have the nuts and bolts of existence in a sub in wartime. It has more in common with several of Herbert’s other books which have a psycho-religious focus but something that sets it apart is its style: Herbert’s often strikes me as clotted and heavy but this was pleasantly spare and straightforward. On the other hand, an annoying aspect of the book (perhaps meant to reflect a continuous and inescapable voyage) is that there are no chapters and not even all that many blank lines dividing sections. My main reaction is that, while I can’t wholeheartedly endorse the book as it is, I could endorse the novella it should have been. With four main characters, one main objective, and one main (though complex) theme, and an atmosphere of pressure, it would have worked superbly as a “Nerves”-like novella. As a novel, it took me a long time to read because it was very easy to put down, but it has its good parts and the ending is very compelling and provocative.

Review: The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl

The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl (Doubleday, 1962, hc, 248pp.) LCCN: 62-11295

“Introduction” by Frederik Pohl
“At the End of the Orbit” by Arthur C. Clarke [aka “Hate”]
“On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” by O. R. Frisch
“A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison (Joseph Samachson)
“The Heart on the Other Side” by George Gamow
“Lenny” by Isaac Asimov
“The Singers” by W. Grey Walter [excerpt]
“The Invasion” by Robert Willey (Willy Ley)
“To Explain Mrs. Thompson” by Philip Latham (R. S. Richardson)
“Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis [aka Chan Davis]
“The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle [excerpt]
“Chain Reaction” by Boyd Ellanby (Lyle and William C. Boyd)
“The Miracle of the Broom Closet” by W. Norbert (Norbert Wiener)
“Heavy Planet” by Lee Gregor (Milton A. Rothman)
“The Test Stand” by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine)
“Amateur in Chancery” by George O. Smith
“The Mark Gable Foundation” by Leo Szilard

Frederik Pohl’s introduction to this 1962 book begins by talking about how remote science has become from the layman’s perceptions and common sense, moves on to talking about how science fiction is aptly named because it is fiction infused with the sensibility of the scientific method, and concludes by talking about how yesterday’s science fiction reader has become today’s scientist and how that cycle will continue. Along the way, he cites Sturgeon’s law which indicates that 90% of SF is trash and has the corollary that that is unremarkable because 90% of everything is trash. Fortunately, though not everything in this book is gold, it defies any specific application of Sturgeon’s law. Of the fourteen stories in this collection (leaving aside the excerpts of novels by W. Grey Walter and Fred Hoyle) I recommend four and little of even the remaining 71% is trash.

Several of the 71%, especially early on, fall into a couple of classes and some of each of those classes share a common attribute. In the “more science fictional” class and having the attribute of reading well even if they don’t ultimately succeed, I’d place Arthur C. Clarke’s “At the End of the Orbit” and Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction.” The former deals with a spacecraft coming down in the ocean (a motif repeated in “Heavy Planet”) where a Hungarian diver with a hatred for Russians develops a plan to exact vengeance on the cosmonaut inside. While the narrative is intense and interesting, an element is clearly contrived and the whole thing plays on sentimentality. The latter involves a group of scientists visiting a colleague in an insane asylum. That man has been committed because he claimed to have calculated that the end of the world would be brought about by the experiment they are all involved in. That experiment has just taken place and they’ll all find out whether the “mad scientist” could have possibly been right any minute now. The scenario is compelling but I have to wonder if this is how the other scientists would spend what might be their last day on earth and there is a far more severe problem with the end which I can’t reveal without spoiling it.

Remaining at least somewhat science fictional but being less interesting from start to finish, George O. Smith is not represented here by any superb “Venus Equilateral” story but by “Amateur in Chancery” which is much like several recent SF stories I’ve read lately in that it depends on a scientific organization being indistinguishable from anarchy and involves a character who is almost literally “too stupid to live.” A sort of jump gate is established from Earth to Venus and a woman impulsively pilots a vehicle through it. Seeing a native Venusian, she assumes the atmosphere must be breathable but is rendered comatose when she exits the vehicle, doomed to die quickly but not so quickly that our scientists back on Earth can’t try to figure out how to explain to a primitive living under clouds the concepts of “left and right” so he can press the correct button to return her to Earth. All this is communicated via a telepathic human girl. There are some nice points about frames of reference and common assumptions but the story obviously constructed to make these points is deficient. The one story in the book I have a hard time finding anything good to say about is George Gamow’s “The Heart on the Other Side.” A man must win the hand of his girl by proving to her shoe-manufacturing father that his theories about there being Moebius regions on Earth is correct and, to do so, he takes a shipment of right-shoes to the Amazon to turn them into left-shoes which will help the father’s business because demolishing pre-existing methods of production and replacing them with trips to the Amazon will somehow be more economical. On his return, the suitor believes he has failed, so throws away all the shoes but discovers something on his return. This seemed more like a very old romance story with a wide streak of silliness than SF.

Speaking of things that don’t seem entirely like SF, the “more fantastic class” includes “A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison, which may be talking about entropy-reversing particles but refers to them as “demons” which contributes to the fantastic feeling. The tale of people aging backwards is strangely interesting until the end, which is probably intended to be humorous but is definitely anti-climactic. Similarly, Philip Latham’s “To Explain Mrs. Thompson,” which examines the difference between describing and explaining, also maintains interest as it takes the reverse approach and deals very matter-of-factly with the apparition of a man’s dead wife in telescopes pointed towards Andromeda with tension rising as the phenomenon comes closer to the Earth before the tale reaches its anti-climax. On the other hand, I never engaged with W. Norbert’s “The Miracle of the Broom Closet,” about a remarkable and devout janitor at a lab in Mexico contributing to an odd interplay between science and religion.

Moving to Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective. Leo Szilard’s “The Mark Gable Foundation” opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans. While perhaps not a “satire,” O. R. Frisch’s “On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” is certainly satirical and an example of the sub-genre of “science fiction stories written as science fact articles.” As such, it’s lacking in fictional qualities but the notion of a future atomic-powered society discovering the radical notion of burning coal to supply power has its interest.

The last set is made up of stories which are both excellent and fully science-fictional (except one which is even further away from fantasy in being almost mainstream). Isaac Asimov’s “Lenny” is a Susan Calvin robot story in which a robot is “born” malformed through a fluke and doesn’t operate as designed but can learn. This story (not the greatest of the robot stories, but a good one) tackles several issues from the Heinleinian motif of “specialization is for insects” to methods of increasing interest in science to corner cases of the Three Laws but also focuses on Susan Calvin, herself. Asimov is not usually given credit for characterization (and didn’t take it, himself, arguing that ideas were more important in SF) but Susan Calvin is a significant and complex character creation, not least in gender terms. Created in the 1940s as a fiercely intelligent, independent, and scientific woman, she is sometimes portrayed as “unfeminine” while simultaneously having “intuition” and other supposedly feminine characteristics. Either way, this complexity is part of why she’s such a remarkable character and comes into play in this story.

Robert Willey’s “The Invasion” deals with a mysterious alien invasion in which a ship settles down and takes possession of a hydroelectric power plant. One man uses good old-fashioned engineering, sticktuitiveness, and professionalism to attempt to thwart their mysterious but deadly designs.

Similarly, Lee Correy’s “The Test Stand” involves a professional man in an era of safe rocketry narrating his experiences as a younger man when it was not safe. When a test firing failed, he and a co-worker were put into a situation which was akin to defusing a bomb, made all the more nerve-wracking by the fact that the man’s wife and child had come to see the experiment. The man learns something about himself and his job. In terms of dramatic plot and psychological effect this is reminiscent of Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” and is excellent and, being published in 1955, its subject of rockets certainly puts it into the category of very-near-future-SF but the story’s one flaw is that it could be written about literally having to defuse a bomb with much loss of science-fictional interest but little other change.

Finally, Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot. Considering each of the “science” and the “fiction,” “The Test Stand” is superior in the latter while this is superior in the former but both are highly recommended.

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.

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.

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.