" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"
Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night
Thursday, December 24, 2015
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
One of the events that propelled me from a SF reader to a SF collector was receiving some books on SF movies and illustration from a friend. That gift and my subsequent collecting led me to a complie, at least in my head, a list of favourite illustrators. Frank R. Paul for the many wonderful covers, he did for Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories among others, with their vivid scenes of futuristic cities, science experiments gone wrong, men battling giants insects, aliens, dinosaur, machines run amok or any other threat he could envision against striking red, blue and yellow backgrounds. Virgil Finlay for his luxuriant interior b&w illustrations for pulps like Weird Tales, and his bubble-beckoning beauties on the covers of magazines like Famous Fantastic Mysteries. The longer I collect the more I love Paul Lehr's gorgeous illustrations, with enigmatically rendered figures amid the cones and curves of his dreamlike landscapes and cities. And of course there is Richard Powers with his robots, rockets and inexplicable machines nestled among backgrounds snatched from the dreams and nightmares of any number of surrealists. I first met him not on the wonderful Ballantine paperbacks I adore now but the hardcover series of Andre Norton novels from Harcourt, Brace & World books that formed a cornerstone of the libraries of my youth and coloured so much of my childhood interest in SF. So when I saw that..,
"Science fiction artist Richard Powers is among the Society of Illustrators’ newest Hall of Fame inductees"
quoted from the TOR.COM website, the link to the full post follows
Big Time, by Fritz Leiber, 1961 Ace Books D-491, 1961 cover artist Ed Emshwiller
This summer, I took a number of SF classics to the cabin to read. One was the Ace doubles version of Big Time by Fritz Leiber. I had read some of Leiber’s SF, Gather Darkness and A Specter is Haunting Texas but was more familiar with his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and his role as one of the author’s who corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft. To Arkham and the Stars is a wonderful tribute to Lovecraft’s body of work and sure to be enjoyed by all Lovecraftians. I found his The Terror from the Depths a Lovecraft pastiche interminable. In reading about his career I was surprised to find out how successful and important he was in the field, he had received some 5 Hugos, 3 Nebula, and 3 World Fantasy Awards, and my count could be off. Big Time initially published in two parts in Galaxy Magazine in 1958 was one of his Hugo winners. It can be found on most lists of important SF works and was included in the Library of America’s Nine Classic Novels of the 1950’s.
A review by Neil Gaiman of Big Time for the Library of America can be found here
Big Time is part of Leiber’s linked stories of the Change War, a conflict in which the two sides, referred to as spiders and snakes, send agents through time to alter historic events in their favour. Big Time takes place entirely within a small space time bubble, The Place, which serves as a recuperation station for agent/soldiers working for the spiders. It is staffed by three men and three women who act as a combination of entertainers, prostitutes, and therapists for soldiers involved in the war. Leiber and his parents were all heavily involved in the theatre and many reviewers have noted that the small cast of characters, short duration of action, and limited setting make it feel very much like a stage play.
All the characters recruited for the war, soldiers and support staff alike, were approached at the time of death and offered a second life in the Change War. The action begins when three soldiers, Erich von Hohenwald, a Nazi, Bruce Merchant, a British soldier from Passchendaele, and Mark, a Roman enter the facility. The German Erich and the narrator Greta Forzane an entertainer from Chicago are old “friends”. Later another three soldiers enter transporting an atomic bomb, Kabysia, a Cretean, woman, Sevensee, a Venusian satyr from the far future, and Ilhilihis, a silvery tentacled Lunan from the distant past.The main plot then revolves around the interactions of the nine characters, their feeling about their involvement in the Change War and the complications created by the presence of the bomb.
My reading indicated that Big Time was considered a more mature and complex story than the typical gosh wow insipidness that characterized much SF of the period. The plot elements rely more on the techniques of the theatre and locked room mysteries than on the common space opera tropes of ray guns and rockets. It was Big Time’s importance in the field that compelled me to finish, it despite my dislike of it on several levels. For one, I am not a big fan of theatre and found the setting and plot uninteresting, but the main problem was the unrelenting misogyny through out the story. I think Big Time is a perfect vehicle to begin a discussion of some of the issues concerning misogyny and racism in SF.
Big Time is of enduring interest for many, because it is very much a theatrical work, unusual for SF of the time. For example, one of the most important conflicts is resolved offstage using nothing but sound effects. Others may consider the work a antiwar story, the Change War certainly seems to be the ultimate futile conflict, as each change adds further complexity to the main time line until it is hard to determine who benefits, and the characters themselves acknowledge this. The aspect of the plot that I found most interesting is a twist created by the very nature of the conflict, the demon-doublegangers participating in the war are recruited at the moment of death, however, subsequent changes to the timeline mean that some of these deaths do not take place. The Nazi Erich, for example, is still alive in the real world and is currently the Commandant of Toronto after the Nazi invasion of North America, the event that resulted in the death of the entertainer Greta Forzane.
It is primarily but not exclusively the relationship between Erich and Greta that caused me problems. I think the best way to demonstrate this is some quotes from the text.
“ Yes, and we copied them. How resourceful does that make us? he retorted, arguing like a woman.” p24
“ Erich didn’t make a move to mix in either fight, which is my little commandant all over, using his fists on anybody but me is beneath him.” p106
“ which gave your dear little Hitler the world on a platter for fifty years and got me loved to death by your sterling troops in the Liberation of Chicago “ p14
It can be a mistake to attribute the attitudes expressed in a work to the author. It could be intended as satire, Swift did not actually intend to convert starving Irish babies to food. Or the plot elements could be intended as a straw man to bounce ideas off. Also, attitudes change over time, and any reading on older SF will expose you to ideas that are politically unacceptable or even horrific in the present day. Lovecraft for example was racist, and it appears that the World Fantasy Awards will discontinue awarding a bust of Lovecraft to winners of the award because of his racist views.
Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces Robert Jones, an incredibly stereotyped negro cook, into Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, (read p29 of the Ace Edition if you don’t believe me), while at the same time lauding the character of the ten Waziri warriors who accompany the expedition. David M. Keller, a popular author of the 1020’s, who wrote the oft mentioned The Revolt of the Pedestrians, penned an number of other entertaining stories. However he also wrote others that surprised me with their racist and misogynistic plots, even when compared to other SF of the period that I have read. These are old examples, and one might hope some attitudes change over time, but SF writers, despite their characterization as forward thinkers, sometimes seem resistant to change, in E.E Smith’s Lensmen series written in the 1930’s, only men and aliens, can have the powerful lens that allows one full status in the patrol, the only exceptions being Clarissa MacDougall and her children. Okay that was the 1930’s, however in James White’s Sector General stories of the late 1950’s and 1960’s only men and aliens are allowed the status of Diagnostician and access to the highest positions within the hospital.
I cannot tell you what Fritz Leiber intended with Big Time, what I can say is that I have read and enjoyed other works by Leiber but struggled to finish Big Time, and leave it at that.
The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F Jones, 1969, Paperback Library, was originally published as a novella in Startling Stories Sept. 1950. The ISFDB database (see Handy Resources) mentions that the cover is attributed to Richard Powers in The Art of Richard Powers, however ISFDB attributes it to Jerome Podwell. It certainly does not scream Powers to me.
I began reading this book after seeing the cover on the unsubscribedblog (see Blogs I follow). I was intrigued by the rather vicious looking frog on the cover and showed it to my wife, who asked if the frog was really an important plot element. I randomly opened to page 48 and read "We'll have the frogs" he said "They can give us sight and sound and companionship. We have each other." and I was hooked. Jones gives us a future world in which the majority of mankind are considered non-workers supported by a welfare state in which all production is created in automated factories. Initially the factories were computerized, however, "Computers that did man's thinking had become unwieldy cubes a thousand feet on a side, filled with millions of vacuum tubes relaying countless orders." (p 21). Rather than invent the microprocessor, Jones turns to cybernetics and the use of neurons from dead human brains to replace those pesky vacuum tubes. These cybernetic brains have been in use for 75 year, and currently 2 million brains are involved in the production of goods to support the worldwide welfare state. It is at this point that Dr. Albert Demming, the noted cyberneticist, is called upon to integrate a pair of brains in tandem using his new procedures in an attempt to circumvent a problem called adjustment collapse that occurs when new brains are brought online. Demming balks when he realizes the brains in question are those of his sister Martha and her husband John Wilkins, tragically killed in a car accident on their honeymoon. Demming's research has lead him to the conclusion that the brains are not actually dead. And of course they aren't. What follows is a fairly standard SF story concerning the efforts of a small handful of individuals, or parts thereof, to overcome a corrupt state However Jones does mix it up enough that I was kept guessing as the plot unfolded and the conclusion of the novel was not in my mind trite or predictable. That is not to say that the novel was without problems. It showed some of the typical flaws of SF appearing in pulp magazines in the 1940's and 1950's; hasty writing, logical gaps, poor characterization and almost comedic resolutions to some of the most dramatic encounters. Spoilers/Quibbles
Demming is murdered and his brain harvested when he threatens to announce that the brains were still fully conscious. The bulk of the novel concerns the efforts of John Wilkins assisted by Martha, Demming and his wife Kit, to tell the world of a conspiracy by the ruling elite.The elite not only know the brains are still conscious, but actually have people murdered for their brains. I will mention a couple of problems I feel Jones could have avoided with better plotting/editing. John and Martha are killed when their car is forced off a cliff. Jones may have staged it this way because when John is initially revived he believes his death was accidental only later coming to realize, as the extent of the conspiracy is revealed, that it was murder. However the idea that you would jeopardise the brains you want to harvest this way is problematic. Indeed a character involved in harvesting the brains mentions, unfortunately for him, that it is amazing the bodies they receive are so battered but the brains intact. Another problem I had was with the frogs themselves. Due to Demming new procedure John, Martha, and Deeming all have paranormal powers and the ability to act independently of the factory control programs. John uses this power to create small creatures to act as his eyes and ears. He settles on one eyed frogs with very vicious teeth (remember where I started). When he uses a frog to dispatch the thug who menaces Kit, the scene, for me, is more comedic than suspenseful. But when the frogs are used to attack and destroy the 20 to 30 members of the Society of Artificial Dangers, an armed anarchist group, who have attacked Kit it borders on the absurd. I wish Jones had simply introduced some larger more seemingly lethal tools as the tension and menace in the story ramped up, wombats with unicorn horns perhaps? Despite this I did enjoy the book, the conspiracy involves enough plot twists to keep me guessing and Jones avoids the typical Deus ex machina ending of so much SF of the period.
I took a number of SF books to the cabin this summer including the Berkley Medallion edition of A Plague of Demons with the Powers cover. While visiting my wife's family farm, which is down the road, I pillaged the library for SF titles and found the Warner Books edition with the cool skull cover by David Meltzer, these were my wife's books originally so they were not missed, how could I resist? The back covers, below, combine to give away the entire plot fairly effectively, so be warned! A Plague of Demons is a very enjoyable read, it is not deathless prose and it is festooned with so many of the standard tropes from the spy and sf genres that it is hard to count them. I had to add a number of labels to cover all the subjects. What I think makes this work for me is the almost breathless pace at which everything unfolds. Laumer gives you your money's worth in 159 pages. John Bravais, the protagonist, is a likeable character, reminiscent of the wise cracking but extremely dedicated agent/spy/detective from any number of novels. There are plot twists, hair raising escapes, nifty toys, and really scary demon dogs. Also, while it is not apparent to start, Laumer is moving his character in a very different story arc from the standard genre novel. There will be no blondes with a heart of gold for John Bravais. I have already added Laumer's A Trace of Memory to my to be read pile. Spoilers Plague of Demons starts with fairly standard espionage plot with John Bravais tasked by his handler Felix Severance with investigating the disappearance of soldiers from the battlefield. Warfare is conducted in fairly scripted battles which are monitored to enforce preset guidelines. Felix's group has determined that more soldiers are missing than can be accounted for in normal circumstances. The novel follows a fairly standard pattern, Bravais is followed, warned off by the authorities, given brand new top secret gadgets to test etc. What happens next is what takes it into the SF realm.
Bravais discovers that the brains of some death soldiers are being extracted by large dog "demons" with human hands. When he takes this information to the local general he finds the general is a super strong creature in league with the demons. Not to worry, John returns to Felix who admits he is member of a super secret organization overseeing the welfare of mankind and luckily he is also able to turn John into a a super soldier. What follows is a frantic chase with John menaced by increasing numbers of demon dogs who can move unrecognized by mankind. Felix is killed, John injured, stows away on a ship, is healed in a secret automated base, and eventually is killed along with a sailor he befriended on the ship. Wow what a strange ending, except this is page 109, I did mention there are 159 pages, so now we find out what the demon dogs do with the brains. If you have read Fritz Leiber's Big Time, feel the thrill of recognition and enjoy or if not prepare to be surprised.
The Committed Men M. John Harrison,
Panther Science Fiction 1973, cover by Bob Haberfield.
I have to admit that, after
reading Harrison’s Pastel City, I Googled to see what else he had done
and fell in love with this cover (so much so, I read a library copy rather than
my paperback edition). To supply some background Harrison is identified with
the New Wave and the writers Moorcock and Ballard especially.This book is
dedicated to Mike and Hilary Moorcock and the protagonist keeps a photo of J.G.
Ballard among the detritus he has accumulated in his Nissen hut.
We first meet the protagonist, Dr.
Clement Wendover in the prologue. As he watches the few remaining vehicles
traveling a motorway which has been fenced off, he has been told to, “contain
accident effects and protect the urbanized sections of the motorway from damage,” an accident occurs even as Wendover watches. This a
perfect introduction into the sensibilities of the New Wave. The lone observer,
ruined motorway, and inevitable accident scene are right out of the themes of
J.G. Ballard. We are quickly told that Wendover’s society has broken down
because an unexplained release of radiation has caused an increase in skin
cancer. As is often the case with apocalyptic science fiction, especially the
New Wave the cause of the disaster is unimportant the results are the main
driver of the plot. James Gunn, in his introduction to The Road to Science
Fiction #4, explains how New Wave writers differ from previous science
fiction “ The customary difference is that the cause of the change was often
omitted, because it was unknown or unknowable, and the people to whom the
changes happened seldom inquired into the causes because the changes were so
massive that causes were irrelevant or so mysterious that inquiry was futile,
or because the people were incurious, or were benumbed by events or life
itself, or had lost their faith in rational inquiry. The reasons why causes
were minimized may be various, but the effects were clear: Rationality was
short-circuited (if the causes are unavailable, solutions are so beyond reach
as to make the search unthinkable) and characters became victims.” We quickly
learn that Wendover at least realizes that things are only going to get worse
and this view is clearly demonstrated in the argument he has with his wife
Vanessa before she leaves him. Then, in a bit of authorial sleight of hand that
left me breathless with admiration, (I hate a lot of back story), the first sentence of chapter one begins “some
time, later” and we are off.
My impressions: while definitely New
Wave The Committed Men does not suffer from the heavy handed stylistic
excesses of some New Wave, we are spared badly written stream of consciousness
digressions, there is a straight forward story involving a journey/quest. I initially
characterized The Committed Men as a cozy catastrophe a category characterized
by such works as the Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes
by John Wyndham . The term cozy catastrophe was coined by Brian Aldiss in the Billion
Year Spree, when I reread Aldiss’s description in the now Trillion Year
Spree he characterises it this way “ The essence of cosy catastrophe is
that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy,
automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” P316 While
others have embraced and perhaps expanded this definition, by Aldiss’s
description The Committed Men is too bleak, the consequences of this
disaster for both the protagonist and society as a whole too severe, to fit
I also felt there was a connection to other more
conventional science fiction works like Search the Sky by
Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth in which the main character takes a rather
satirical journey to visit a number of interstellar colonies. As one might
expect from a New Wave novel The Committed Men is a much darker with a
fairly ambiguous ending. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed
it, at under two hundred pages it was a quick read with a compelling plot, lots
of action and twists that kept my interest. It is a perfect introduction to
British apocalyptic science fiction and New Wave themes in particular. One quibble is the rather, to me, inexplicable
meetings between several of the main characters and a rather oddly dressed
young man which seem to serve no real purpose. It was only after I finished the
book and Googled some other reviews that I learned that this was Jerry
Cornelius, a character created by Moorcock and incorporated into their works by
a number of other writers.
When we join Wendover after the
collapse of the British society he is living a fairly aimless existence snaring
rabbits for food and living in a junk filled hut. He avoids prolonged contact
with fellow survivors. This is an existance typical of many New Wave characters,
who often seem to be waiting rather that acting. That changes when Harper a
young man from the nearby community of Tinhouse and a dwarf named Arm, a
survivor from one of the local armies arrive. They enlist Wendover in a house
call to visit a newborn for the local strong man Holloway Pauce. Arriving at
the village Wendover finds the baby is a mutant covered with a dry leathery
skin. We learn that similar mutants have been born, but Pauce has killed them.
It is then Wendover acts
" At that point, Wendover
committed himself. Up until then, he had watched the decline of the world with
passive acceptance; taken refuge in dreams because he could not bear the
present. His memories had not been the stigma of senility but those of retreat.
Because the child represented somebody's future, he became involved with the present.
He shot Pauce without taking the pistol
out of his raincoat pocket. "
It is at this point we meet the
committed men, as Wendover, Harper and Arm, later joined by a young woman Morag
who nurses the child, begin their journey across the ravaged landscape. Along
the way we meet the bureaucrats, characters worthy of Swift or Peake, with
their papier mache heads and endless forms, “ The door opened fully on a
strange miscegenation. The disgusting head was set on narrow, stooped
shoulders. There seemed to be no neck. A thin pot-bellied body twitched beneath
it, dressed in dirt glazed black coat, grey and ragged woolen waistcoat and
grey striped trousers cut off just above the knee. The feet were bare, the vee
of chest revealed by the waistcoat covered with fine white hairs. On the left
lapel of the coat was pinned a small bright rectangle of orange plastic. The
huge head swung slowly to a stop, fixed on the group in CURRENT AFFAIRS.
“Papier mache,” mused Arm. Then, “Bloody hell; it’s a mask!” and the fanatic
followers of the nun Sister Dooley; (who sadly despite the cover illustration
does not actually fly a la Sally Fields but travels by hovercraft.) Through the
flashbacks of the dwarf Arm we are introduced not only to his own personal
demons but the military culture that has sprung up as local strongmen try seize
power. Harrison has presented a
consistent vision of a landscape changed by radiation. The characters do not
move through a landscape rejuvenated by the collapse of mankind, even the
endless rabbits they snare, the wolfhound who initially accompanied Harper and
the unicorn/pony of the mutants are crippled mutated parodies of normal animals
“ A crude bitless bridle decked with small pieces of polished tin and coloured
plastic-the source of the strange music- hung askew on the raw, fiddle-shaped
head. Wall-eyed and bemused, ewe-necked and goose rumped, it moved slowly, skin
alternately taut then sagging over big, ungainly bones. Discoloured areas that
might equally have been filth or skin cancers showing at
stifle and withers. Its knees were bloody. Some congenital deformity of the skull
had favoured it with an incipit horn, a short nub of bone growing from between
it’s eyes.” And the mutants themselves are no higher beings ready to create a
new utopia but primitives trying to adapt to a not so brave new world.