Thursday, May 16, 2019

Brian Aldiss, Who Can Replace a Man? / Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss

Aldiss, Brian. Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Signet, November 1967. (My edition)

A concise bibliography at ISFdb
Who Can Replace a Man? at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10
Signet, 1967

In a small white box in my dad's basement, I recently discovered a selection of books I enjoyed as an early teen. At that time I experienced a relatively brief affair with science fiction, focusing mostly on short stories of the 1950s through the 1970s, and some more contemporary 1980s novels. Among my favourite short story authors was Brian Aldiss, and of his collections I preferred this one. So I thought I would re-visit, thinking I would cringe at my immature tastes, but to my pleasant surprise, I breezed quickly through the book and, with some minor exceptions, enjoyed the collection perhaps even more under the guise of my more mature self. Nuances I likely did not catch as a youth, and a greater appreciation for dark fiction, no doubt adding to my enjoyment.

The collection is a good range of science fiction story sub-genres of and 50s and 60s: distant future, near future, hard science, political fiction, cold war paranoia, elements of fantasy, new wave and dark humour. The one constant is that each story contains some element of the dark, with an emphasis of pessimistic depictions of the far future, ill treatment of human values and individuality, and the ill consequences of a mechanized future. An argument can be made that these are the best of Aldiss's pre-1965 stories, as the original title suggest, with my favourites being  "Outside" and "Who Can Replace a Man?", along with "Old Hundredth", "Not for an Age" and "Man in His Time." The collection, however, also includes two pieces that can be excised to improve the whole: "Psyclops" and, mainly, the semi-adventure paranoia piece "Basis for Negotiation."

Who Can Replace a Man?     8/10
Infinity Science Fiction, June 1958. pp 58-66 (as "But Who Can Replace a Man?")
On a cultivation farm in a dystopian future, the agricultural robots learn that humans have become extinct. Their logical minds seek a plan of action, and a small group leaves for the city. A bleak story dealing with the idea of power and anticipates man's perpetual rule over machines (at least while machines have limited AI), Aldiss manages to infuse humour in what could have become a very dated robot story, but instead remains quite solid despite the obvious 1950s design of these over-sized machines. The story infuses robots with recognizable human traits, and has them, in their own dry logic, adopt an all-too human approach to conquest. In terms of technique, the pacing is excellent, as the quiet opening escalates nicely toward chaos, until we reach that great finale.

This story is generally highly regarded and readily available online.

Not for an Age     7/10
The London Observer, 9 January 1955.
Middle aged professor Rodney Furnell has become aware that he is perpetually re-living one single, average and mundane day of his life. Though he is unable to change his actions, his thoughts are independent, and he contemplates both his situation, and the crowd of faces surrounding each scene, as some future audience is watching each moment play out.

Little detail of the future society is given, only what is essentially necessary for the story. Aldiss is not exploring the world, but rather the individual and his tragic circumstances. As in many of these stories, the twist only helps to make a tragic situation even worse.

Faber & Faber, 1965
Psyclops     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #49, July 1956. pp 30-39
A father tries to telepathically warn his unborn son of some great impending danger.

This is among Aldiss's many experimental new wave pieces, first published in the new wave advocate New Worlds (edited by John Carnell). I did not care for the story when I first read it as a naive and impressionable teen, and still care little for it as a jaded adult. It is not a bad idea for a story, but some of the fetal ruminations, particularly at the start, are plain bad, and much of the incidental information dropping by the father, though required for the story, is awkward and unsubtle (How do I explain to unborn child and, more importantly, the reader, that I am miles away and he is drifting off course! Whadda ya know: I just did!).

Outside     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #31, January 1955. pp 29-37
Six people occupy a house. Their only communication with the outside world is via "the store," a closet where every morning they find food and other random necessities or luxuries. This morning there is no food, and one of the six, Harley, begins to question their circumstances, and tries to recall why they are confined to this space. An excellent science fiction suspense story, a product of cold war fears and paranoia. Great pacing and suspense, Aldiss sets up his clues quite nicely, resulting in an effective ending.

Dumb Show     6/10
Nebula Science Fiction Number 19, December 1956. pp 58-66
In the midst of a future war, Mrs. Snowden and her granddaughter live their meager lives in Mrs. Snowden's childhood home. As the artillery for this war is sound, all is silence and the landscape is diminishing as structures collapse. Another dark Aldiss story, made darker by its finish, and one among many featuring the potential horrors of war, as weapons technology becomes both more advanced and more creative. Though a good story, the characters are overshadowed by the theme, whereas stories such as "Outside" and "Not for an Age" manage a consistent balance between the two.

The New Father Christmas     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958. pp 69-74
Yet another dark future tale. In the year 2388, an elderly couple who oversee a mechanized factory, along with three "tramps" illegally boarding inside, appear to be among the last remaining humans on Earth. Christmas morning they gather for tea and discuss the changes around the factory, and their belief in the New Father Christmas. Claustrophobic and haunting, another technological horror story. Appropriately, the adults act like children, and we see how the world has progressed physically, whereas humans have digressed.

Ahead     7/10
Science Fantasy v6 #18, 1956. pp 96-109 (As "The Failed Men")
In the distant future a group of humans known as the Failed Men have buried themselves underground. The elite group, the Paulls, have meanwhile collected volunteers from different time periods to help them in handling this population. One man from their past (though our future) has become obsessed with why the group has "failed," and what they failed at, but the translating machine used to communicate with them can only translate literally, and the words lack meaning. An affecting and oddly powerful story. Re-titled "Ahead" for this collection, which in the story is what the narrator uses as reference to going to the future, its original title is far more accurate, as the story does not deal with the future, but with the isolation of this particular group, and the lack of clarity surrounding their failure.

Poor Little Warrior!     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1958. pp 125-130
In the distant future a man travels to the Jurassic age to hunt brontosaurus. A rare second person stream of consciousness story, effectively written as it adopts an aggressive tone and sarcastic title. The story features an average man, unhappy with his life, who clings to the hopes of escape via a marketing brochure. He is less a victim of the Jurassic as he is of his life, and cannot escape either. The story holds up well and has some cleverly thought out phrasing, such as: "...all destined in that awful jar-full movement to turn into bowel movement." (79)

Man on Bridge     6/10
New Writings in S-F 1, John Carnell, ed. UK: Dennis Dobson, 1964.
In a future where free thinking is prohibited and intellectuals are persecuted and forced to live in camps, a group of "cerebrals" has developed a technique of transforming men into entirely logical thinkers. One heavily lobotomized man, aptly named Adam X, claims to be a new breed of man. Though set seemingly in the far future, the story maintains an impression of the past, as it is heavily referenced with recognizable symbols of the past, such as military camps, the term "prole," and the rural farmhouse inhabited by our protagonist's family.

The Impossible Star     7/10
Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1963. pp 143-162
Four astronauts are stranded on a planetoid orbiting an incredibly massive and unusual star. As they attempt to repair their ship and communicate with the other two ships of their survey party, the members become increasingly aggressive toward one another. A good combination of hard science and psychological suspense. In this story neither space nor humanity is enviable, and the two combined is disastrous.

Basis for Negotiation     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #114, January 1962. pp 50-90
In a near future nuclear age, China declares war on the U.S. Britain declares neutrality, which results in civil tensions and inner turmoil. A university professor travels to London to oppose the Prime Minister's stance.

An overlong and dated story, very much a product of its time. It is saved by decent writing, an interesting eventual bit of irony (though after thirty-plus pages), and the fact that Aldiss does not preach but tosses out a couple different viewpoints. Each opinion is consistent in its claim that Britain is ruined, they differ only in the detail of which set of politics or social class did the ruining. Aldiss also hammers these points until they become dull. Interestingly, after its original printing in 1962, the story was included in three separate collections/anthologies by 1965, and in an omnibus collection in 1969, after which it fell off everyone's radar. It might only be remembered in the future for having been selected for inclusion in Aldiss's first Best of collection. (The anthology reprint was for a book edited by John Carnell, then editor of New Worlds where the story first appeared. This can imply that Carnell and Aldiss were really the only two who saw value in the story. Since they did work closely with New Worlds, perhaps it came about from a discussion or proposal of some kind. No other editor seemed interested in keeping it in print.)

Old Hundredth     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #100, November 1960. pp 62-73
Once again Aldiss presents us with a distant future Earth, only on this Earth there are no humans. At least not in form. Having long since transcended matter, humans exist as wisps of light, or as music or other forms of non-matter. On Earth dwell creatures to whom humans have granted sentience on their experimental Venusian labs, as Venus had long ago taken the place of the moon and revolves alongside Earth around the sun. We follow re-purposed giant sloth Dandi Lashadusa, a musicologist studying the "musicolumns" that house those who have trans-substantiated into music. Quite detailed and complex for such a short story, Aldiss succeeds in creating an unusual, potent world. With a touch of fantasy, Aldiss makes something so potentially abstract into a world quite concrete.

Unlike "Basis for Negotiation," "Old Hundredth" has been reprinted consistently throughout the decades since its initial publication. It was included in Judith Merrill's The 6th Annual of the World's Best SF (NY: Simon & Schuster, October 1961).

A Kind of Artistry     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1962. pp 6-27
In the far flung future, humanity has reached deep into the galaxy, taking on new knowledge and new ideas, and in doing so taking on new forms; only Earthborns retain some semblance of the original human being. One such man, Derek Flamifew Ende is tasked with making contact with the Cliff, a sentient asteroid that has crashed into a distant planet.

A complex story of ideas. The title refers to both suffering and happiness being "a kind of artistry." Humans have lost both purpose and drive as they have become self-preservationist. Derek lives with his "Mistress" in the matriarchy of old Earth, and while he is devoted to her, he is in constant need of being away from her. The secret of their relationship, which we learn late in the story, reveals how inward and self-interested this future society has become.

Man in His Time     7/10
Science Fantasy, April 1965. pp 5-32
Jack Westermark, the sole surviving astronaut of a British expedition to Mars, returns with an odd condition: He is living 3.3077 minutes in the future. The theory is that each planet exists within its own time frame, and while some might be ahead of Earth time, others might be lagging behind. (It is not explained why the affected astronaut returns to Earth maintaining Martian time, rather than re-adapting to Earth time, as depicted in a similar situation in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.)

The story is more philosophical than scientific, and above anything it is character driven. The plot is set up through a series of sequences, most of which are set at Westermark's home, and much of it through his wife's point of view. It was refreshing to read a story, among a number of heavily male-centric pieces, focusing primarily on a woman (uncommon for the period), and science aside, in a sympathetic and all-too human way. As interesting as the premise may be, it is presented as a tragedy, for both the victim and those around him. A short story finalist of both the Nebula and Hugo, it was included in Nebula Award Stories 1967 (co-edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison).

For more of this week`s Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Alan Dean Foster, Sentenced to Prism (1985)

Foster, Alan Dean. Sentenced to Prism. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, September 1985

Sentenced to Prism at ISFdb
Sentenced to Prism at Goodreads

Rating:     7/10

Del Rey/Ballantine, 1985
As a pre-teen in the mid-1980s, I read a modest of amount of science fiction, and for a few years enjoyed the campy works of Alan Dean Foster. I read about thirty of his books published in the 1970s up until about 1990, including a number of the novelizations. The books are quick reads and I found them to be colourfully imaginative, though many I found, even at that time, to be quite dull (Cachalot and Voyage to the City of the Dead come to mind). Eventually I abandoned his works for more complex books, and soon stopped reading science fiction novels, aside from a book or two a year. Then a couple of weeks ago I was rummaging through my parents' basement and came across a number of his, and other science fiction authors', books. And reminiscing, I thought why not.

I picked up Sentenced to Prism, which, though I've owned for many years (bought for $2.25 at the local secondhand bookshop that no longer exists, so the markings on the first page inform me), I have never read. Perhaps it was the glaring yellow cover that kept it at bay, or most likely I got tired of Foster's books before I got around to this one. Proof of the latter are the handful more paperbacks of his I came across, which I've never opened up.

What I found with Sentenced to Prism was a pleasant surprise: an enjoyable novel despite the light writing, two-dimensional characters, and seemingly lack of depth. The novel deals with an arrogant company research man named Evan Orgell who is sent to a newly discovered planet, Prism, to uncover the fate of a research team which has stopped communicating with home base. Orgell soon learns what a unique planet this is, and, following many unusual dangers, meets up with some native species with whom he forms an alliance. More than the plot, and certainly more that the non-character of Orgell, who we follow throughout the bulk of the story (aside from a couple of glaring point of view shifts), what makes the read a compelling one is the planet and its various life forms. Foster has the reputation for creating interesting worlds and species, but I don't recall his work ever being this imaginative and immersive.

New English Library, 1988
In addition to the interesting world is the late development of some thematic links, which help to elevate the book in the last few chapters from being a simple plotted fare developed only for Foster's imaginings to a narrative that contains, though simplistically, a point. The notions of "Associatives," of community and collaboration, is brought full circle when Orgell and his new friends encounter an unusual, chaotic creature that has its own interpretation of what a community ought to be, and what it can achieve. Furthermore, the idea of the alien Associative challenges Orgell in his own understanding of the purpose of community. The novel fails in that Orgell is so under-developed (we are told endlessly that he is selfish and arrogant, yet since the moment he lands on the planet he appears to be selfless and to understand the importance of team-work in the face of survival), that there is no real transformation from human-thinking to embracing another culture. This is no Dances with Wolves, or say, Toy Story. It is instead a contrived novel that is oddly a pleasure to read.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Joan Samson, The Auctioneer

Samson, Joan. The Auctioneer. New York: Simon & Schuster, January 1976
______. The Auctioneer. New York: Avon Books, January 1977 (my edition, pictured)

The Auctioneer at ISFdb
The Auctioneer at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Well received critically and commercially upon its initial release, The Auctioneer has since fallen into semi-obscurity. This unfortunate fate is partly due to the author's death shortly after the novels's publication, and the absence of a second book. I understand that Joan Samson was working on a second novel when she sadly succumbed to cancer shortly before the age of forty. While some novels persist in part because they are the author's only published work, such as John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and, most notably, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960; for many years at least, prior to the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015), there was no mystique around this author, nor an attached Pulitzer, to help keep this first and only novel in the literary consciousness. Regardless, the novel is still respected by those who have read it, and its near-cult status will ensure that it will continue to be read.

Or so I hope.

The novel focuses primarily on a family living in the fictional rural town of Harlowe, New Hampshire, comprising of John Moore, his wife Miriam ("Mim"), their four year-old daughter Hildie, and "Ma," John's elderly mother. Having lived their entire lives in that community, amid the hardships of rural farming, Samson explores the affects of a charismatic auctioneer, a contrasting outsider, who moves into the community and progressively takes over. By holding regular auctions to raise funds for the benefit of the town, Perly Dunsmore is able to manipulate those funds and the people they are meant to serve. Professing the values of the "old ways" in a town built on tradition, Dunsmore is in fact quite modern and progressive, albeit amoral, in a business sense, as the reader discovers in the latter parts of the novel.

The Auctioneer blends many elements into its narrative. It acts as mystery, thriller, horror and even family drama. The scenes of basic survival, as the family members struggle to maintain their livelihood when they have been stripped of most of their belongings, is for me the most vivid. With family dynamics at the fore of the drama, Dunsmore appears seldom in the novel, which is to the story's benefit. Dunsmore unleashes the tensions, but most of the drama is located within the family and within the community, only highlighted and elevated by the presence of this daemon-like figure, who at the end proves all-too human. The real daemon is that aspect of humanity that can allow such usurpation, and it appears Dunsmore's downfall is a result of the members of the community finding themselves in the same building facing that man, as only then do individuals find the courage to fight back.

The ending comes across as a little too convenient, and reveals an odd flaw in Dunsmore's otherwise perceptive understanding of human nature. Yet the novel is not about the ending, and it does not detract from the challenges Samson has set for her characters. These characters are well delineated, strong despite the predicaments in which they find themselves, and it is this strength and drive for survival that renders the situation so bleak, since they are unable to oppose the auctioneer. In particular it is the women in the novel who are both driven enough to fight back, while being rational enough to hold back, as they must defend the family unit. The men are driven more by vengeance, or frozen by the apathy of frustration and hopelessness.

Though the novel enacts a specific period with well-defined characters, it can nonetheless act as allegory. The auctioneer himself is the state rendering its citizens dependent on its continued presence, replacing a mild form of government with a kind of modern, capitalist totalitarianism. The pretense of communal ownership is false, and glaringly fails as its members are robbed of what is essentially theirs.

Also prevalent is the threat of urban sprawl, as large cities, in this case Boston, are overgrowing and becoming stifling to humans who long to connect with the peace of a past, uncomplicated life. Or at least what is envisioned by the urban mass to be an idyllic return to nature, ignoring the hardships that Harlowe's inhabitants have been struggling with for generations. The idea of urban sprawl threatening these communities and this way of life is splattered throughout the novel, as we learn more of Dunsmore's ultimate plan, not just for Harlowe but for the surrounding communities as well.

However one would wish to interpret the novel, it is a powerful work that is deserving of a read, and a later re-read. The weight of these ideas packed into a suspenseful novel adds to the tragedy that Joan Samson was not given the opportunity for a follow-up. Regardless, we should be grateful she has left us with such a profound work.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Robert Silverberg, The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities

Silverberg, Robert. The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities. New York: Ballantine Books, March 1972.

The Reality Trip at ISFdb
The Reality Trip at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     7/10

Between 1969 and about 1985, the world was subjected to the publication of a Robert Silverberg short story collection on an annual basis. Some of those years even experienced multiple collections. A prolific and fairly consistent writer, the material was plentiful, so that most stories did not need to wait long before being included in a collection; in fact, many were collected the same year they initially saw print, such as "Caliban" in this volume.

The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities was made up primarily of a small number of new, as-yet uncollected stories, with five of the eight first appearing between 1970 and 1972. The remaining three stories include two recycled pieces from the fifties, though "The Shrines of Earth" had not yet been reprinted, and the first-time collected Hugo and Nebula nominated novella, "Hawksbill Station" (1967), which had already re-appeared as a novel, an expansion of the novella, in 1968.

In Entropy's Jaws     8/10
First published in Infinity Two, edited by Robert Hoskins, 1971

Skein is a Communicator, a skilled telepath who can unite two minds with the purpose of effective communication. During a lucrative communication session, however, the connection damages his brain, and he no longer lives in a linear state, but experiences continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. Now Skein is searching for a purple planet that he has seen in his future which he believes can heal his damaged brain.

A riveting story, well structured and with a vividly created world for such a short piece. Skein is not very likable, a talented telepath who capitalizes commercially on his talent, yet Silverberg manages to reign in sympathy for this man, who undergoes a great transformation throughout his humbling experience. My favourite story in the collection.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972).

The Reality Trip     7/10
First published in If, May/June 1970

After eleven years in New York City, studying humans and transmitting copious data daily to Homeworld, an alien visitor must fend off the attentions and advances of a neighbor, Elizabeth Cooke. Cooke is a bohemian, a pot-smoking poet who is attracted to the alien's otherness, his loneliness and social distancing. A highly entertaining story, the first person narrative focuses both on the alien's struggle to deal with the attentions of Cooke, alongside his intense loneliness. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is never in the protagonist's mind the notion that such a relationship with such a human, or any human, can make up for his extreme isolation, and in addition, despite that loneliness, he is not interested in relocating until the situation with Cooke escalates.

Though considered to be among his best short stories, "The Reality Trip" was not included in any of the "Best of" anthologies for 1970. Terry Carr only began his run as sole editor of a "Best of" series the following year (he was previously co-editor with Donald A. Wolheim), and did include "The Reality Trip" in the relatively forgettable paperback anthology, This Side of Infinity (Ace Books, September 1972).

Black Is Beautiful     6/10
First published in The Year 2000. Edited by Harry Harrison. New York: Doubleday, February 1970

In the year 2000, Manhattan has been taken over by African Americans, as whites have moved out to the suburbs. The story follows an angry senior high school student, James Lincoln, who prefers to go by James Shabaz, as he festers with anger over the centuries of oppression blacks were forced to face in the hands of the ruling whites, and the seeming apathy of those in his community. The story envisions a future racial peace in the US as a result of total segregation, with different minority groups taking over different areas across the country. Like most racial stories of the period, this one is  certainly dated, though it is surprisingly not a bad read. It is, however, interesting that with all this seeming social progress, black men still speak as though they lived in 1970, when you think language would evolve differently with a reduction in the influence of white culture.

Ozymandias     7/10
First published in Infinity Science Fiction, November 1958
Published in the UK in New Worlds Science Fiction #94, May 1960

Exploring the rim of the galaxy is a vessel run jointly by the military and a small group of archaeologists. These two opposing groups struggle to compromise amid differing agendas, and the tension is thick, brought to a head when they reach a planet which the archaeologists wish to explore, whereas the military believes has no value.

The story begins in the third person, though this voice is eventually revealed to be one of the five archaeologists, which is an interesting shift not often used. Since the story is primarily about two distinct social groups, each appropriately stereotyped, the lack of individual characterization makes for a good third person tale. Though names of some of the minor players are given, we are essentially dealing with two distinct groups rather than individual characters, a detail highlighted by the fact that each group's only standout character is their leader. Though the military is responsible for the larger portion of the mission's budget, the archaeologists do have some contractual weight, and essentially force the ship down onto the dead planet for a week's worth of investigation. They quickly make an incredible discovery, and do their best to conceal it from the other party, which is not interested in extraterrestrial culture, but in practical materials, either resources or weapons technology.

By far the strongest of the earlier stories, it is elevated by its original and well structured narrative form, and pays off with a tragic ending.

Caliban     6/10
First published in Infinity Three. Edited by Robert Hoskins. Lancre Books, 1972

A man awakens in a future where physical beauty is the norm, and people can exchange their body parts and take on any appearance they wish. A world where everyone looks exactly alike. A blatant, humourous take on extreme conformity, basic body image issues and the need to fit into one's social circle. In this world, however, the other, that ugly time traveller, is accepted rather than ostracized, and while this future society attempts to mold him into one of their theirs, his difference is instead leaving an influence on the beautiful people. Certainly not original, but entertaining, particularly in light of the protagonist/narrator's self deprecation, and that breathing underwater scene. The title refers, of course, to the half-breed Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction #2 (NY: Ballantine Books, July 1973).

The Shrines of Earth     5/10
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1957
Astounding Science Fiction (UK), March 1958

Following three thousand years of peace, terrans on Earth have become passive and non-confrontational, focusing primarily on the arts. Among the colonies scattered throughout the galaxy, terrans have earned the reputation of being innocent and inconsequential. Yet when the terrans learn that a group of aliens plan a takeover of Earth as part of their conquest of the galaxy, they must find a way to defend themselves. Since they are unable to use weapons, they must rely on craft. A slight story, whose initial premise immediately reveals what is to come. The bulk of the story features somewhat repetitive scenarios that lead us to the obvious conclusion, during which one of the terrans expositorily explains the already obvious crafty plan to the reader. The weakest story of the collection, and not previously reprinted.

Ringing the Changes     5/10
First published in Alchemy and Academe. Edited by Anne McCaffrey. New York: Doubleday, November 1970

Humans take vacations via shunting: the act of entering another person's consciousness and thereby experiencing that person's life. When a malfunction occurs, a group of consciousnesses are separated from their bodies, and technicians must link them back together, by requiring that each person enter each separated body in turn, and for the person to raise their hand once they are re-connected with their body. However, there exists the risk that a person might deceive in order to permanently take on the identity of another.

Told through a series of experiences through a single consciousness, the story appears to be more invested in relaying diverse life experiences than in dealing with its themes of risk in this kind of technology. The focus also indicates that there is perhaps only so much to discuss with this idea. The weakest of the newer stories.

Hawksbill Station     7/10
First published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1967

In the politically rife and repressive future, those with strong opposing political views, rebels, dissidents and even philosophers, are sent to Hawksbill Station, a prison set up in the distant past. The trip to prison is a one-way affair, and lies in the Precambrian era, on a bit of land that would eventually lie underwater.

We experience this extreme penal colony through the eyes of its leader, a role earned through seniority. Vivid and detailed, with many characters and a suspenseful plot, this is an excellent novella that is tightly woven into its premise. It is odd, however, that the suspicious newcomer does not develop a better back-story when navigating through Hawksbill Station, or that he takes notes rather than leave details to memory, but these are small qualms as the story is overall fascinating and well developed.

The novella was expanded into a novel, and released by Doubleday a year after its original publication. In the UK the novel was published with the title The Anvil of Time. I will likely hunt this down at some point.

Included in:
World's Best Science Fiction: 1968. Edited by Terry Carr and Donald A. Wolheim. NY: Ballantine Books, 1969.
Best SF: 1967 (The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 1, UK). Edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison. Berkley Medallion, March 1968.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz. "Conjure Wife." Unknown Worlds, April 1943
______. Conjure Wife. Witches Three. Twayne Publishers, August 1952
______. Conjure Wife. New York: Ace, November 1977 (my edition, pictured)

Conjure Wife at ISFdb
Conjure Wife at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Fritz Leiber's tale of witchcraft run rampant in modern society was first published in a shorter form, in the April 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, edited at the time by John W. Campbell, and with illustrations by Frank Kramer. Conjure Wife saw print in its entirety in 1952, as the lead-in story for the triad Witches Three, alongside stories by James Blish (There Shall Be No Darkness) and Fletcher Pratt (The Blue Star). It appeared as a stand-alone novel the following year, published by Twayne Publishers in New York.

In brief, the novel involves a small-town college professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. A man of unshakable reason, he forces his devoted spouse to do away with all her charms and anything associated with witchcraft. Ever obedient, her purge has results that are entirely unexpected for our professor. Witchcraft and the competitive nature of academia are hand-in-hand in this well-regarded novel, Leiber's first.

Among the most interesting aspects of the novel is that, though the author is bound tightly to his narrator, both being intellectual and logical (Leiber was a competitive chess player, for one), it is the superstitious world that supersedes the rational. As much as we wish to believe the world functions the way that science would have us believe, it is the spells and charms that control our destiny and station in life.

Though the plot focuses primarily on how the supernatural drives our lives, the world Leiber has created is one of balance; the supernatural exists to balance out the rational. Without the rational there would be nothing deemed supernatural, as the latter would be the norm. In addition, the world is balanced by other factors touched upon in the novel, from big city glamour and debauchery to the conservatism of a small college community, to gender roles. Indeed, gender roles is among the most important elements of the novel, as men and women have clearly defined roles and are viewed apart by both society and individuals. Told through the point of view of a male rationalist, women are seen as the subjective and domestic counterparts of working men. It can therefore be read that what upsets the rational, male world order, is not the existence of the supernatural, but the reality that women are the driving forces of society. Our protagonist must, alongside with accepting that witches and their powers are real, accept that women make men's careers and are the driving forces behind the success of individuals and family.

There is a certain element of sexism in the novel, but this is a bi-product of the period, and not the result of misogyny. Leiber was specific with his plotting and writing, and despite a male narrator stating that women are largely irrational, this is an element of plot and character and not a comment by the author, as by the end of the book the reader understands that it is the woman who succeeds in overcoming all the challenges faced by the male narrator, both his academic and supernatural challenges. By the end of the novel, the husband plays the role that the wife has single-handedly devised in order to defeat the evil influences in their lives. During the climactic sequence it is she who is at the forefront of the action, battling the other wives, whereas he is standing well behind her, like a bodyguard watching attentively. The juxtaposition of the novel's opening chapters against this scene is worthy of a close look, as it is clear the husband has consciously given up the role of master of the house which he so firmly and rationally acted on when forcing his wife to do away with her superstitions.

Rather than being sexist, the novel is quite progressive.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patty Abbott's blog.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

John Saul, Asylum (1997)

Saul, John. Asylum. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief
Part Five: The Stereoscope

Rating:     4/10

And the hexalogy closes with a whimper. The final book of Saul's Blackstone Chronicles completes the serialized work as expected, since throughout the series there has been only one logical suspect behind the distribution of the asylum artifacts. I did not mind the explanation and can even forgive the sickeningly overt sentimental closure as it is in keeping with the rest of the text, but there is an immense flaw in this final entry that I cannot overlook.

The revelatory explanation for the strange events that have occurred in the town of Blackstone is altogether rational, and yet the events themselves are depicted as being supernatural. Therefore, the explanation contradicts the events they are attempting to explain.

For further explanation, here be spoilers:

The overarching plot deals with a number of objects mysteriously delivered to residents of Blackstone, and each of these objects leads to the downfall of the recipient and his or her family. Some of these objects, the doll and the locket, result in a kind of possession of a family member, whereas the handkerchief and the stereoscope cause characters to experience vivid hallucinations. The possession of these objects is the direct link to the downfall of the recipients, therefore there is a supernatural element at work, enabling these objects to psychologically disrupt the otherwise mentally stable victims. The only other alternative is to accept a series of incredible coincidences. As in, the people who received these objects, all five of them, just happened to go nuts shortly after coming into their possession.

There is nothing supernatural about the items that were distributed, nor about the person distributing them, and yet the presence of these objects resulted in supernatural occurrences. Perhaps if Saul had created a universe in which unusual occurrences are commonplace, we can buy these events. Instead, his world of small town life is too realistic and rational, as he depicts financial audits and traditional community history and relationships. This world is as real as our own, and we are nonetheless expected to believe that otherworldly events can enter this all-too-rational universe.

And now that my article is done I will go teleport to the park.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, simply link to them telepathically. Or visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Saul, The Stereoscope (1997)

Saul, John. Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope. New York: Fawcett Crest, June 1997.

The Stereoscope at Goodreads
The Stereoscope at ISFdb

Part One: The Doll
Part Two: The Locket
Part Three: The Dragon's Flame
Part Four: The Handkerchief

Rating:     6/10

So far the strongest entry of the series. Despite some suspense fiction cliches, Part Five of John Saul's serialized The Blackstone Chronicles is better paced and more focused than the previous books. It is through the focused narrative of this part that I became conscious that the presence of the mysterious, evil figure is distracting, adding little to the narrative, and actually decreasing the mystery element of the work as a whole, and I wonder what kind of read we would have if the scenes with the figure were excised.

Plot-wise, the main focus is on Bill McGuire, who unknowingly takes the cursed gift of a stereoscope into his home. His family is quickly (and forcefully) set up as ultra loving, with overly supportive wife Bonnie and sweet 'n innocent daughter Amy, along with the over-sized loving puppy. (Yes, yes, we can immediately foretell the fate of the beloved family pet.)

Side plots feature Oliver Metcalf learning more about his deceased twin sister's death, and on his wish to exorcise the demons of his past. Whereas Rebecca has been kidnapped and locked away in a cold room of the asylum. As these segments are brief and well interspersed, they come across as more effective than the sub-plots in previous volumes, and do not interfere with the main plot.

This level of focus should have been achieved by part four, since by then the formula of these little books have become too predictable and tired, and thereby part four comes across as the weakest; I for one hurried through its pages and paused before picking up "The Stereoscope." The denouement of "The Stereoscope" is, with slight variation, essentially the same as each predecessor, but does, with its elevated structure, act as a better precursor to the final volume than any of the previous books.

For more Friday;s Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

As of 24 December 2015