" 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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ontario Trip 3, Stuart Cloete "The Blast"





Congo Song, Stuart Cloete, 1944, Collins, Toronto

This is the final post on the books I picked up on a recent trip to Ontario to visit family. I have to admit my purchase of Congo Song, was based entirely on the lurid cover and the equally lurid synopsis on the back cover. While I could see it falling in line with my interest in gene or pulp fiction the SF element seemed absent. Then I looked Stuart Cloete up join Wikipedia and found the following information.

"Cloete was among the pioneers of the by-now voluminous literary subgenre depicting the aftermath of nuclear war. His 1947 novelette The Blast is written as the diary of a survivor living in the ruins of New York (published in 6 Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, ed. Groff Conklin, 1954)."

Wikipedia also noted that "He was educated in England at Lancing College, a school which at present gives out a yearly prize in his honour to a student who excels in literature and creative writing."

In 1943 Cloete also published a short story called "Congo", which appeared in the anthology Things With Claws, I mentioned this title in my post on horror anthologies with covers by Richard Powers on my HPL blog,


http://dunwichhorrors.blogspot.ca/2016/04/horror-anthologies-and-art-of-richard.html.



I was born in Windsor so a review from the Windsor Star on the back of Congo Song is an added bonus. I did notice editions with a more Harlequin inspired cover by George Meyers for anyone offended by Congo's sailor cap. Having read the two short stories, I suspect I will not read Congo Song anytime soon, if ever.

"Congo"; reprinted from Story Mar.-Apr., 1943 "Congo " seems not unlike the typical scientist goes to the jungle, odd stuff happens tale, that could often be found in early pulp magazines like Argosy, Amazing Stories or Weird Tales. Professor Le Grand, his assistant, our unnamed narrator, and the Professor's young blonde, pregnant wife, Helena Magrodvata, who we are told is of Graeco-Russian extraction have come to Africa to study rubber trees. In due course Helena has a baby boy who unfortunately dies of a snake bite. Helena is inconsolable, on the verge of madness until a female gorilla is trapped by the natives. She is pregnant and Le Grand, who is something of a man of all seasons, he has also been experimenting with a serum against tropical diseases on himself, his assistant and his wife, delivers the baby by Cesarean. Of course Helena immediately decides to raise the gorilla. At this juncture the narrator notes "Again, what did we know of Helena, with her mixed blood, her strong instincts, and her veins full of experimental serums?" (142) Within the year the entire party returns to Brussels and some 8 years pass. The gorilla now named Congo has been raised as a human infant complete with sailor suit. I think we can all see where this is going.

Congo as noted above is pretty typical of the pulp tales of the period, marred by hints of misogyny and racism which would probably become even more intrusive in a longer work. The characters are fairly one dimensional and despite the fact that Cloete is South African the description of Africa lacks the depth of atmosphere we might get in other stories set in exotic locations in works by Rider Haggard, Robert Howard, Henry Whitehead or Jack London.

"The Blast", 1947 original version published in COLLIER'S, April 1946. It is interesting to read a nuclear war story written within a year of the end of WWII. Certainly Cloete, at least for the purposes of his story, saw things very differently that an author writing in the 1960's or 1990's might. " Immediately after the war, an arms race begins, " There was only a state of fear. There were only rumors-stories that Russia and Spain were only a year behind us in the atomic race. These two countries were, of course, at opposite ideological poles and were a constant threat not only to each other, but to the world. "(10) as well there are Nazis in South America, and an ineffectual UN monitoring program that is stymied because countries have begun to produce miniaturized atomic weapons. Our unnamed narrator, a writer of South African descent, living in New York at the time of the blast is starting his record of events some twenty years after the blast. By his estimate the current year is 1972. The actual blast damage he witnessed was quite localized with damage outside the area caused mainly by falling debris or fires so much of the city is left intact. After the initial explosions, retaliatory attacks are launched until the entire world in involved. Shortly after the nuclear attacks, a disease called the Red Death, possibly an out of control bacteriological weapon, wipes out most of the survivors. Now the narrator, a man in his seventies lives alone in New York. The first half of the story is quite interesting. One quibble I would have is that it appears once the bombs dropped a version of prohibition era Chicago appears. "For forty-eight hours, cars roared through the streets and tommy guns spat from the cars." (14) but this chaos ends as the population crashes. The narrator although saddened by the death of his wife, and the fact he ate his pets, a dog and a kinkajou, seems mostly untouched by the demise of everyone else, indeed a cozy catastrophe soon breaks out. The term cozy catastrophe was coined by Brian Aldiss in The Billion Year Spree, when I reread Aldiss’s description in the now The Trillion Year Spree he characterizes 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.” (316) And except for occasional bouts of loneliness Cloete's New York seems cozy. He has moved to a cave located beneath the Chelsea Hotel for warmth, where he has accumulated great paintings including a Poussin, Renoir, Vermeer etc. books and wine. New York has come to resemble the island in Swiss Family Robinson where every animal Cloete has ever heard of, mostly escapees from local zoos roam freely leopards, tigers, polar bears etc., have all successfully multiplied. Colette obviously has given his world building a lot of thought and he likes lists. There are also mutants, enormous mink five feet at the shoulder and eighteen feet long and gigantic wolves weighing half a ton. Since our narrator likes to hunt he has breed packs of huge dogs that he rules with an iron fist and makes the best it. "Everywhere there are small woods, clumps of trees, and little streams and rivers. There are large numbers of flowers, many of them completely new, at least new as wild flowers. Varieties of roses which usually had to be budded now grow wild, as do gladioli, dahlias, tulips and every other kind of bulb. Hyacinths, daffodils and crocuses cover large patches in solid mats of color; they lie like scatter rugs on the green floor of the city; and nothing more beautiful could be imagined than coming across a great striped Bengal tiger asleep on a carpet of purple crocuses in the first warm afternoon of early spring, or seeing a red and white wild ox standing belly-deep in orange gladioli." (22) It does sound nice, but into this Eden a worm or rather two appear for in our narrator's seventy-third year, he sees two young blonde girls, early twenties actually, armed with spears and mounted on horses, the one animal his New York lacks. He avoids contact but it is the knowledge that he is not the only survivor that encourages him to begin writing down the record of his experiences.

Spoilers and Quibbles.

It is with the introduction of the young women that things really go south for me. They are travelling as part of a all male Native American hunting party in case interpreters are needed. The girls, daughters of the white Indian agent and his wife who died in the blast where adopted by an "Indian squaw". Later a prospector joined the tribe and "instructed the girls in their mother tongue and in his version of history, geography and mathematics. They knew the multiplication tables and could add subtract, divide and multiply-arts which made them valuable to the Indians, who called them in when such obscure calculations were necessary." (59) Our narrator is captured but eventually wins the natives over in part because of his skill with large calibre hunting rifles something they apparently lack the intelligence to master. "I was, faced with an ethical problem. The Indians, who had discovered heavy rifles similar to mine in some of the stores they had entered, wished me to instruct them in their use. I could see nothing to be gained by such instruction, so I tried to explain to them that this was white man's magic and so strong that it had destroyed all the white men in the world but me, turning its forces against them in retribution for their own misuse of its power." (63) When the recoil from one of the rifles breaks the collar bone of a young men they learn their lesson and make our narrator a member of the tribe. This also apparently entitles him to the "girls' who despite having been raised in the tribe since infancy, prefer a seventy-three year old racist jerk to any of the young men they grew up with. I think my problems with the second half of Cloete's "The Blast" are pretty clear. Written in 1946 it treats the Native tribe as first contact savages meeting Columbus or Cortez for the first time, no war veterans here, its all bows and arrows, spears and a few Springfields. In Clifford Simak's A Choice of Gods, the earth is also mostly unpopulated and one of the Native American tribes has returned to a more traditional lifestyle. But this is depicted as a conscious choice, a young woman of the tribe unhappy with this lifestyle is allowed to leave to begin using the last remaining library to further her education. Colette's native's are apparently incapable of learning by observation, the rifle, or picking up concepts like mathematics, content to leave the intricacies of such magical knowledge to whites. There is also an element of middle aged wish fulfilment, Heinlein anyone, and, I suspect, a real fear of racial mixing that insists that the old white guy gets the girl(s).


Monday, May 9, 2016

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. 





Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ontario Trip 2


More treasures from the trip East.
 Three Richard Powers covers  
The Anderson cover is by Gene Safran


A very atmospheric cover for Needle by Hector Garrido
The Conklin is uncredited, The Dillons did Synthajoy
and a very mod? cover by Kelly Freas for the Bulmer




Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley


The Status Civilization, Robert Sheckley, Signet S1840, 1960, cover by Richard Powers.                                                                                                                                I have decided to make a concerted effort to read some authors from the 1960's and 1970's which I had previously neglected for no good reason. This impulse has been strengthened by following Joachim Boaz's wonderful blog, Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations which has covered a number of intriguing titles and authors from this period. I have to admit the wonderful Richard Powers cover made my first choice easy. The novel starts when the protagonist, Will Barrent wakes up on a space ship with no memory of his previous life. Upon landing he finds out he is a convicted murderer sentenced to the prison planet Omega. He also learns that the life expectancy of a new prisoner is 3 years and that once on the planet the society is run entirely by the prisoners with no intervention by the guards or earth authorities. On Omega Barrent finds a highly stratified society where murder is a perfectly legitimate method of raising one's status. And so he begins to rise in Omega society assisted on occasion by a mysterious young lady who provides both weapons and information that help Barrent survive. Omega does have laws, but these are not shared with new arrivals who must learn them by trial and error if they can live long enough. Thus Barrent is launched into a series gunfights and gladiatorial contests in an attempt to stay alive and learn how Omega society functions. Barrent also realizes that he has no affinity for criminality and murder despite his obvious success in these areas. I really enjoyed this novel, Sheckley has a reputation as a satirist and humorist, writing styles that do not normally attract me. The creation of a crime based society leading to the inversion of "normal" societal values offers many opportunities for satire and parody, for example at one point Barrent is brought before the Kangaroo Court for the crimes of non-drug addiction and religious impiety. However in this novel I think Sheckley avoids going overboard, instead he tempers comedic elements by presenting an interesting plot and characters. The reader can focus on the events that shape Barrent's actions as he attempts to navigate the complexity of Omega society and the conflicts that arise from his own memory loss. For as he begins to talk to other prisoners he realizes that none of them can agree even on the most basic facts about the Earth, the planet they have left behind. 

In the Status Civilization, Sheckley has taken a fairly hoary sf trope, the prison planet and elevated it to a higher level. He fits a lot into a slender 127 page novel. There is a great deal of action but also a great deal of mystery adding to the suspense. The new prisoners have to deal not only with their own memory lost, but also the veiled nature of Omega society and their lack of agreement of the nature of the society and planet that has sentenced them to Omega in the first place.

Spoilers

 The elevation on this novel over the normal prison planet novel occurs when Barrent escapes and Sheckley shifts the focus from Omega to Earth.  By this point I had began to ask myself questions about the organization of Earth's judicial system and Earth society as a whole. It is a tribute to Sheckley's skill in plotting this novel that he avoids the all too common info-dump to answer these questions. Instead Barrent assumes the role of Opinioner (a type of government researcher or census taker) which allows him to delve into the layers of Earth society by interviewing citizens and then follow the various threads these interviews reveal. The novel's conclusion is satisfying in part because, like real life there are still questions and challenges ahead and Sheckley has avoided a tripe and predictable denouncement with everything neatly resolved.