" 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

Monday, May 9, 2016

Interzone; The 4th Anthology

Interzone; The 4th Anthology, ed. John Clute, David Pringle and Simon Ounsley, New English Library, 1990, cover uncredited, but this must be the House of Usher see below.

A few weeks ago I wanted to read something by Eric Brown. Wikipedia told me his story  "The Time-Lapsed Man won the Interzone readers' poll for the most admired story of 1988", and the ISFDB database led me to this anthology on my shelf. Since I can never read just one, I read a couple of other stories in this volume.

"The Time-Lapsed Man" by Eric Brown. Thorn is an Engineman, who while encased in a tank uses his mind to push his ship between the stars. During the last three months spent in the tank Thorn has been in a timeless  state of "flux" he has " been one with the vastness of the nada-continuum." Now Thorn has returned to Earth and will live an empty unfulfilled existence for the next three months until his next shift, in a passage reminiscent of Randolph Carter, in Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, we learn that  "Until then his conscious life would comprise a series of unfulfilled events; a succession of set pieces featuring an actor those thoughts were elsewhere. Occasionally he would be allowed intimations of rapture in his dreams, only  to have them snatched away upon awaking." p44. But as his current shift ends Thorn realizes that he cannot hear, and that if this continues, his very career as an Engineman will be jeopardized. Eventually in desperation Thorn contacts his doctor, and ex-lover Caroline Da Silva in an attempt to diagnose the source of his increasingly bizarre symptoms.  This story interested me on many levels. While our current knowledge of an astronaut's duties shows them to be a  fairly straight forward series of technical tasks similar to those of any operator of a fairly complex piece of equipment, Thorn's duties seem more reminiscent of the odd, highly romanticized experiences of pilots in the fantastic stories of Cordwainer Smith  "Scanners Live in Vain", "The Lady that Sailed the Soul",  The Game of Rat and Dragon or "Think Blue, Count Two". But Thorn is not a Smith character, he is more like the detached, disaffected protagonists of one of J.G Ballard stories, largely divorced from any reality but that manufactured by the demands of his own, largely interior mental landscape. Brown propels the reader through his story quickly with details of the relationship between Thorn and Da Silva juxtaposed skilfully with the increasingly isolating symptoms of Thorn's illness. The ending offers an interesting twist on our expectations concerning Thorn's eventual fate and makes for a very satisfying conclusion to a well structured story.

Tommy Atkins by Barrington J. Bayley; I have been quite impressed with the stories by Bayley that I have read and I have been picking up any of his novels I see. Bayley's stories often place his protagonists in strange surreal landscapes or situations resulting in bafflement or confusion for the main character with an equally inconclusive or ambiguous ending for the reader. This latest story, is powerful and thought provoking and it certainly did not disappoint. 

Harry in an engineer managing a munitions factory in a setting similar to Britain during WWI. Harry is a solitary figure, the only family member mentioned is his brother Terence missing in action at the front. Harry himself had volunteered during the early days of the war but been turned down for medical reasons. Now his job is considered a reserve occupation and he wears a War Work Badge to indicate his status. Despite this, Harry undergoes a lot of snubs including receiving a white feather denoting cowardice as a apparently healthy man amid a population where even the women and old men show signs of disfigurement and amputation. It is this world of air raids, rationing and unrelenting war propaganda that Harry has known since he was 14 and the war is now in it's 25th year with no signs of ending. Bayley tells us that Harry himself is now facing a nightmarish choice. It is at this juncture that Harry receives a pamphlet with the words "ENDING THE WAR An Explanation of the Tommy Atkins Movement." Wikipedia tells us that Tommy Atkins is a slang term for a common soldier in the British Army especially prevalent in WWI. Bayley's Tommy Atkins Movement is a peace initiative launched by common soldiers from both sides to end a war they feel has been prolonged because of excessive national pride and unwillingness by senior leadership to compromise or appear weak. The facts around the causes of the WWI are quite complex but it appears clear from my reading is that most countries felt it would be over in a few months. It was also a war that was greeted at least initially with a great deal of patriotic fervour by a number of the participants. Instead the war dragged on for years across muddy blood-soaked battlefields with vast numbers of dead and wounded and an entire generation decimated. Bayley extrapolates an even more horrific scenario, what if the war had continued, what if patriotism was taken to an unthinkably extreme and egregious level. What kind of choices would someone like Harry face? 

The Growth of the House of Usher by Brian Stableford; Of Poes's Fall of the House of Usher, Lovecraft in his Supernatural Horror in Literature p. 45 says; "Usher, whose superiority in detail and proportion is very marked, hints shudderingly of obscure life in inorganic things, and displays an abnormally linked trinity of entities at the end of a long and isolated family history–a brother, his twin sister, and their incredibly ancient house all sharing a single soul and meeting one common dissolution at the same moment." In "The Growth of the House of Usher", Rowland Usher describes his house to our unnamed narrator, as follows "My house simulates, by necessity, a more primitive kind of organism: a lowly scavenger which draws its energy from the organic detritus of the silt out of which it is constructed. It is no more sophisticated than many sedentary creatures which live in shallow seas, filtering food from the murky waters which overflow them. Its closest analogies, if you wish to think in such terms, are coral polyps, barnacles and tubeworms. Nevertheless, however primitive it is, it lives and it grows. 
Usher a recluse has summoned his college friend because he fears he will soon succumb to the same genetic malady that killed his father and his sister. Both men studied civil engineering using Gantz bacteria to convert formally unusable land including deserts and mountains into entire cities and Usher has chosen our narrator to execute his will which leaves the fruits of his research to mankind in general for the benefit of future generations. For this reason he wishes to introduce his friend and executor to  the nature of his experimental work and familiarize him with his greatest achievement, the House of Usher itself. Often when an author reworks part of a classic theme, be it by Doyle, Poe or Lovecraft the end result is a poorly executed pastiche that adds nothing to the original. Stableford is far too accomplished a writer for that. In the third paragraph Stableford has the narrator himself state of Usher's house, "Exactly to what extent he had been inspired by the coincidence of nomenclature that linked him with the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe I do not know, but there is surely some sense in which one of the true architects of that remarkable tower was a long-dead nineteenth-century fantasist, even though the other was a twenty-second century civil engineer." Like any good magician, Stableford clearly shows us there is nothing hiding up his sleeve before mysteriously producing his coins and flowers. And produce them he does, he merges the gothic style of Poe's original tale with the revelationary disclosures of the solitary scientist beloved of pulp fiction to tell a story in which nothing really comes a great surprise but whose elements add up to a very satisfying and original narrative. In the end, this story holds out the hope that this version of the House of Usher, can become a symbol of achievement rather than horror, or at least a weird (in the Weird Tales sense) and enjoyable addition to fantastic architecture. 

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