All four stories have a strong satiric element, and they are described by The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction as "sardonic". That description fits, though one of the stories is nearly straight drama in its tone while the other three are openly comic. There is a certain amount of thematic consistency as well, for all four stories deal in some degree with culture shock.
"Firewater" describes the post-first-contact world of Algernon Hebster, a Bill Gatesian figure who is on the verge of successfully dominating the world of business by applying technology acquired from the aliens. There is a growing backlash against the aliens, though, for a variety of psychological reasons, not least of which is that every human who seems to have been able to communicate with the aliens has gone stark, raving mad and developed awkward telekinetic abilities. The story follows events as both the government and the anti-alien forces try simultaneously to shut down the Hebster Empire. Enriching the difficulties, and the social observations of the tale, are the facts that the aliens trade in a way that seems to make no sense at all, and that they seem largely uninterested in us, though many of them study us incessantly.
The title story is a cute tale of a society that gets the dirty jobs in space done by a Gulag Archipelago of individuals who, in many cases, are working off the time for a crime they have not yet committed. The incentive is that if, very improbably, they survive the horrible dangers of distant planets and complete their sentence, they are given a warrant to commit the crime for which they have already paid the penalty. To commit the crime freely and without repercussion. The story then becomes a comedy of culture shock as two losers in life return to their society as famous men, and licensed killers. It puts quite a different perspective on things.
"The Sickness" is the nearly straight drama, with stylistic distortions caused by its strict Cold War theme. The Earth is months from final nuclear holocaust; everyone knows it; but India has attempted to forestall the crisis by sending a joint Soviet/American expedition to Mars. (One can't help but note the Apollo/Soyuz missions twenty years later and today's joint Mir missions.) Tensions are very high on board the spacecraft, with both sides prepared to seize the ship at the slightest provocation. Tensions are so high, in fact, and the threat of nuclear war so overwhelming, that the discovery of a functioning but abandoned Martian city seems to be more of a nuisance than a marvelous historical moment. Things grow suddenly worse when illness breaks out on board, threatening to topple the balance of power.
The final story is a delightful romp through a future America, entitled "Winthrop Was Stubborn." Five Americans of the 20th century are nearing the end of a visit to the 25th century, when it appears that they won't, as promised originally, be allowed to return home. The story is filled with delightful inventions and various examples of culture shock and differing adaptability by the folks from our time, who were chosen not by skills for exploration, but by lottery and by the need for them to have similar physical dimensions to five future travelers swapping places with them (a humorously inventive way to insert a conservation law into time travel!). Walls, clothes, and sidewalks are sentient; so is some of the food! Mob behavior is worked off by frequent visits to Shriek Field, and fear is faced in Panic Stadium. Moreover, individual rights are absolute, which is the reason that the tourists can't go home; they are not allowed to coerce Winthrop, who has become stubborn.
Reading this tale made me realize how few stories get their tension from just plain cussedness in one or more of the characters, though most of the tension in our real lives, or mine anyway, seems to come from that alone. Tenn works it very well. (Though Tenn doesn't specify, I can state with some assuredness, being of Welsh ancestry, that Winthrop must have been Welsh.)
The great delight of this story, as I mentioned, is the inventiveness of the background in the future, when machines do most everything. Many of them made me laugh, including the Oracle Machine which is portrayed as a general-purpose supercomputer that tries to give the best answer possible to any question, but which reminds one of Clarke's dictum about any sufficiently advanced technology appearing to be magic. Some of these futuristic machines have already come to pass, including the chess machine that can beat anyone, and has thus profoundly changed the nature and purpose of playing the game.
This collection is worth finding.
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