Sorry about the lack of a column last month; I missed the deadline. As it happens, I didn't have anything to say anyway. (All right, I hear you muttering about that!) Not having been there in May, I have only scanty knowledge of what went on. I hear Ann got to debate herself.
Anyway, in June, we read the short story submissions for the ConFluence '97 Short Story Contest. I wasn't able to read all of them myself, but I enjoyed most of the ones I did read. I can't wait to find out the winner (announced at ConFluence)!
This month, we will be hearing from Karen Haigh, who programs for Xavier, the CMU robot who was a big hit at ConFluence '96. Our own Greg Armstrong showed us the hardware; now we can learn about the software! Remember, you can see Xavier in action in the World Wide Web at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~xavier. See you at the meeting!
Philip Klass (William Tenn) has been writing Science Fiction since his first appearance in the March, 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (edited by John W. Campbell, now Analog). Many of his stories have been anthologized and have appeared in best-of-the-year collections. He has published ten books, eight of his one work and two anthologies he edited. One of the two, Children of Wonder, 1953, was the very first selection of the SF Book Club. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. Phil holds the title of Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University, where he taught the second oldest regularly scheduled Science Fiction course in the United States. He has recently taught another Science Fiction course at La Roche College. This year, St. Martin's Press will publish his novel, Salvation, and a collection of his stories. He is currently working on his autobiography.
Okay, so it took me a while to get around to this one, Copyright 1968, and my printing (with a suitably lurid Vallejo cover) is 1975. And okay, our William Tenn's concepts have been repeated by others so often that today's reader might not care for this novel as much as those who read it when it came out. But it's worth a review in this reader's opinion.
The novel begins with a grabber first line: "Mankind consisted of 128 people." From there it proceeds to describe a radically altered future in which the aliens have subjugated Earth and reduced us to minor actors on what was once our own planet.
The structure of this novel is brilliant SF exposition, with the reader's view of the world presented undergoing a transformation and expansion about every twenty pages. The deceptively unadorned prose style masks excellent literary elements. There is also considerable wry humor.
Tenn also created a rather rare hybrid, as this novel is both a standard SF action novel and a nifty social satire. There is a frontispiece quote from Gulliver on the cover, and Swift is one of the very few examples of such a hybrid that comes to mind. (Pennsylvania's James Morrow is another.)
Dig up a copy, read it, and pester the author for more new works.
This collection of SF satire stories (Copyright 1968, stories first published 1948-65) is worth seeking out. I'm glad I did.
My main reaction to this collection is surprise that these stories haven't been more widely anthologized, especially in the perennial collections of classic SF stories. The quality of the writing, the sharpness of the wit, and the prescience of the pieces are all above the median of such collections on my shelf.
Satire is a tricky genre, and is very liable to becoming dated in very short order if it is too dependent on inside jokes and current references. After 30 or more years these stories show little tarnish, because Tenn fixed on universals rather than on specifics. The story "Generation of Noah" from 1951 looked forward to the bomb-shelter madness of the decade to come, but it remains a valid story because it is just as relevant to the militia/survivalist folks of today. "Null-P" which was first published in 1950 seems to be a devastating critique of the Reagan Administration, and I'm sure it will be fairly current five or ten decades hence. "The Masculinist Revolt", 1965, describes in comic terms the anti-feminist backlash that we find popping up everywhere today.
In each case these stories ring true because of the cynically accurate assessment of society and human psychology that underlies the wit. We are still falling to the level of Tenn's expectations, and his stories still work.
Let me venture to assert that Tenn is a first-class satirist, and to offer to explain why. Most satirists simply exaggerate the bad features of those people, ideas or movements that they wish to make fun of, engaging in what can best be described as partisan attack. This can be effective, and funny, but it neither lasts (because the targets and the sides tend to change rapidly with time) nor does it teach (because it simply confirms prejudices). But the essence of satire is not spoof but teaching. The best satirists are trying to make the readers THINK, to reexamine their preconceptions not reinforce them.
The best satire wields a two-(or more)-edged blade. It undercuts and challenges both sides of whatever propositions are under it's burning lens. It should make ALL its readers a little uncomfortable, and that is the pattern in this collection. The survivalist in "Noah" is both wrong and horribly right. The terrible choice given to the winning candidate for first man on the Moon ("The Dark Star") is not between the right choice and the wrong choice, but between two imperfect choices. We've been to the Moon, but this story works because it's about choice and not about the Moon.
These stories generally transcend their subject matter; and they're either troubling or hilarious. Or both.
This collection of eight stories wanders between the genres of SF, Fantasy and Horror. It also wanders through time, into space and gets sucked into a fat little girl's mind. The collection first came out in 1968, but the only thing that dated any of them in this reader's opinion was the use of the New York wise-cracking street reporter prose style Tenn occasionally affected.
The historical star of the collection is "Child's Play" which is the frequently anthologized classic about what happens when one Sam Weber finds himself the recipient of a package from the future. Specifically, the Bild-A-Man Set #3. Sam does no better than Pandora at resisting opening and experimenting with the box, and the results are disquieting.
The title story is "Venus and the Seven Sexes", an alien viewpoint tale that explores an extremely complex biological adaptation to a very danger-ridden planet. It puts quite an intriguing strain on the theory of civilization, and our very limited imagination of what family values might really mean.
I most enjoyed two eerie tales that partake most of horror. "The Malted Milk Monster" describes a man who finds himself trapped in the inner world of a gluttonous, and horribly selfish, child. Not a pretty picture, despite the occasional chocolate rainfall. "The House Dutiful" tells the tale of a man who finds that his dream home has been built on his wilderness property, though he hasn't hired it done. The house really takes care of him, too. We suspect that this is an alien artifact, that has been waiting to serve someone for quite a while. And we finally find out what the neighbors will think.
This is a fine collection, by one of the Masters.
This is the fourth of Tenn's books I've read and it does not disappoint. Put it toward the top of the list when you're searching through the dealer's rooms or the used bookstores of America. I am again convinced that it is an egregious error for mankind to have allowed these works to go out of print.
Some of the stories in this collection, while quite good, are of the Twilight-Zone-one-trick-story type that often feels a bit dated to today's reader. I am convinced that this is because we were raised watching the TV versions of just this type of story, so any originality is lost on us. "Project Hush" (about a secret mission to the Moon), "The Discovery of Morniel Hathaway" (where an unknown artist is visited by a critic from the future), and "The Human Angle" fall into this camp; but they are better reading than a current issue of one of the genre magazines.
"Wednesday's Child" is an intriguing sequel to Tenn's much-reprinted story "Child's Play" and puts a whole new slant on women's health issues.
"The Servant Problem," which studies the machinations surrounding the supreme ruler of a planet, who is 'The Servant of All' is biting and efficient political satire, and certainly not dated in its criticisms or psychological insights.
There are two other social satires of the better sort in this collection, namely "Party of the Two Parts" and "A Man of the Family". The first is a comedy of justice in relations between alien races and numerous planetary cultures - especially involving the different biological/philosophical presumptions. The second depicts a United States that has finally admitted its own (generally unspoken) premise: that money is the central family value.
This one's worth digging for.
How Like a God
by Brenda W. Clough
Review by James Walton
One morning, meek, mild mannered suburbanite Rob Lewis wakes up with the ability to read the thoughts of other people and manipulate those thoughts. He doesn't question this gift/curse at first, he is too busy straightening out lives. He forces a homeless drunk to give up alcohol and he reforms prisoners in a state penitentiary. It is not until he accidently affects the minds of his young twins does he realize his power may be dangerous. He finally wonders if he has the right to impose his will on others, no matter how well meaning he may be.
A frightened Lewis abandons his family and home and becomes a street person in New York City. He uses his power to sponge off rich people and winds up acting much more like Coyote or Loki than any benevolent god. (Hmm. Is it possible the author gained part of her idea from observing homeless people talk to themselves?)
How Like a God is Clough's retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh. How well does Clough perform this retelling? I don't know. I've never read the Epic. Many years ago, when faced with the choice of reading Gilgamesh or studying for a Chemistry final, I chose the latter. (Hey, Chemistry was my major, not ancient literature.)
Clough attempts to show us the despair and loneliness Lewis feels as he struggles to come to terms with his power, and she more or less succeeds. Parts of the book dragged as we watched Lewis wallow in his self pity and doubt, but real people sink to much lower depths with less reason, so things were pretty much true to life. (Peter Parker has used the same shtick for 30+ and he's as popular as ever.)
The scenes in which Lewis discovers the source of his "godhood" and deals with it are almost anticlimactic. The major confrontation leaves Lewis the victor but no wiser. By then he has some measure of control over his rapidly increasing power. And we never learn exactly why Lewis was chosen to receive the gift/curse instead of thousands of other who might have handled the power differently.
I suspect Ms Clough plans a continuation of How Like a God. We never learn the full extent of Lewis' power, nor do we learn the fate of his poor, abandoned family.
How Like a God has interested me in reading The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Volos, a minor angel in the choirs of Heaven, rebels against God and wills himself into human form. He is tired of obeying, tired of his ephemeral form; he wants the tastes of the flesh, experiences of the mortal realm: he wants to be a rock star. So on a dark L.A. night, Volos appears in human form on a rooftop above Sunset Boulevard; well, almost human form. He forgot to lose the wings. With the voice of a horny angel, the body of a minor Slovak fertility god, and the urge to be bad, Volos rises quickly to the top, singing songs like only a fallen angel can.
His entourage grows: Texas, a retired cop, Volos' security man, searching for his father, running from his wife and children, and trying to teach Volos what it means to be human. Mercedes, a climber and the homosexual lover of Volos, using the angel to get to the top. Burning Earth, Volos' band, along for the ride, but with growing concerns over Volos' past. And Angie, Queen of Angels, daughter of the Reverend Crenshaw, who has always lived a life of piety and repressed vitality, until she starts hearing her own songs, songs she thinks only she has seen, being sung by the unearthly Volos. And so Volos samples of human life. Only not everyone is happy to have a fallen angel on the Earth, especially the Reverend Crenshaw when his daughter runs off to be with him.
Metal Angel entertains and sometimes stimulates. Its plot is slow and simple, and the reader can not but see where it's going. This is somewhat of a let down. At 300 some pages, the books seems wordy, and the plot overly worked. I can see Springer getting to her point in about the length of a novella, or less. The idea of a fallen angel playing rock star sustains the novel through the first quarter, after which this grew dull. The final quarter, with its Reverend Crenshaw versus Volos crusade, was less intriguing.
Springer is a very character-oriented writer, as I've noticed from the previous book of hers that I've read. There the plot as well suffered at the expense of characterization. Nonetheless, there is nothing objectionable about this book, perhaps suggested reading for a flight or vacation, but nothing to seek out.
I am coming to appreciate Vance greatly. He truly deserves Grand Master status. In this novel, Vance tells the story of Ghyl Tarvok, a boy on the planet Halma, son of a master wood screen carver. Halma is ruled by the Lords, a breed of humans living high in their towers above the lowly serfs, artisans, craftsman, and bureaucrats. Through the outlawing of modern techniques, including duplication of any kind, Halma's craft goods are the best in the universe. Only the goods ranked first rate are sent for trade. But the craftsmen see little of the profit. The guilds handle all trading through the lords and the lords take a huge cut.
Into this world, Ghyl is born, but his father has little respect for the system and he raises him without the attention to the temple jumps, without the respect for the lords and guilds, but still with self-respect and honesty and dignity. Ghyl's father shows his son the illegal scrap of the legend of Emphyrio, of how he saved the world Aume from a war with its moon Sigil, how he rebelled and fought. Ghyl searches for the truth about Emphyrio and this launches him on a trip that leads him to Earth and back to Halma, leads him to rebellion and censure, but ultimately to truth that rocks his world.
This novel is fantastic, some of the best science fiction I have ever read. If you haven't read it, do so.
Set on the twin planets Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, this novel explores the relationship between man and alien. The novel is divided into three novellas, linked together by a single character, John Marsh, Terran anthropologist, searching Sainte Anne for signs of the original aboriginal culture. Spoilers abound ahead.
The first story centers on a child-clone, written from his point of view, as he grows under the tutelage of his robot-nanny, Mr. Millions. We come to learn that the boy is a clone of his father, who runs a first-class brothel. But the boy is more than a clone; he is the father's tool of self-examination and experimentation. Through the clones of himself, of which there have been many, the father is trying to perfect himself and to investigate his psyche.
The next story is a story from the point of view of a young native on Sainte Anne, living there as an aboriginal before the human settlers come. Sandwalker searches for his family who were kidnapped by the swamp-dwellers. Along the way, he befriends the shadow-children, ghostly killers and singers of songs. Also, he finds his long-lost twin brother who is a priest among the swamp-dwellers.
The final section is from the point of view of the Sainte Croix case officer assigned to John Marsh's case after his arrival from Sainte Anne. Held on charges of murder and spying, Marsh is jailed, awaiting death or release. The officer pages through the accounts of Marsh's journeys on Sainte Anne, his search for aborigines, and the odd truths he discovers.
I had heard much positive comment regarding this book and was taken aback by its obtuse and bewildering style. I struggled with it after the first story and found I had little interest in this bizarre culture that Wolfe has created. It is obvious that he has crafted this book to have some Meaning concerning individual identity. Unfortunately, I am too dull to see the subtle and grand point he is trying to make.
This is disappointing, as I admired his Book of the New Sun.
Lethem attempts to marry the style of the hard-boiled detective genre with ribo-funk, in this tale of Conrad Metcalf, Private Inquisitor. In Lethem's future world, no one asks questions: it's too impolite. The only people who can do so are the Inquisitors, the police of this future L.A. Drugs are legal and encouraged, and evolution therapy allows sentient sheep, kangaroos, and apes as well as babyheads, quickly aged children still in the bodies of toddlers. It's an eerie world, Lethem drags his depressed and depressing protagonist through.
Metcalf's former employer, urologist Maynard Stanhunt, winds up dead in a seedy motel. The prime suspect, the wife Celeste's farmboy brother, hires Metcalf to find the real killer before his karmic level drops below zero and he gets frozen for a few years. But nobody wants Metcalf nosing around, especially the Public Inquisitor Officers on the case. Before long, Metcalf's own karmic level is dropping, and he's facing time in the freezer too.
Who killed the urologist, who's the babyhead's real father, why is there a gun-toting kangaroo on Metcalf's tail? These questions and more will be answered by the end of the novel.
Lethem has been praised widely for this stylistic piece. I was less than thrilled. Tasting like a futuristic Naked Lunch, the dismal world painted of future L.A. shows us bitter, lonely people with no happiness but for the next snort of make. The main protagonist is no different than the world he lives in; he is as fatalistic, as lonely, as desperate, as addicted as the rest of them. His final choice is drastic and immoral. The world Lethem depicts becomes more and more lonely, coming to the point where no one is allowed to remember anything. Each person consults a talking memory that tells them what they think of subjects and people.
While it is darkly humorous, Gun, with Occasional Music is ultimately a pessimistic depiction of society gone to great lengths to isolate everyone. There is little hope in this novel and no one to root for. I was left wondering why I bothered reading it.
It's true that most of my reviews seem to be of out-of-print works, but much of the best in the SF genre seems to go into that state these days for no good reason. A case in point is this collection by the idiosyncratic short story writer, Howard Waldrop.
I've been a fan since I heard the title story of his "Night of the Cooters" collection read aloud, a hilarious rendition of what happens when some of Well's Martian invaders land among the good ol' boys of Texas. Also in that collection is the ultimate Boomer class reunion story "Do Ya, Do Ya Wanna Dance" that has one of the most effective endings in short fiction.
This collection also has a stand-out story that will appeal to lovers of the Greek myths. "A Dozen Tough Jobs" retells the labors of Hercules as the story of a work-release parolee in the deep south. Anomie, Mississippi to be exact. It's inside jokes from front to back, and just plain fun for the non-pious literati.
"Helpless, Helpless" describes a future plague; not of humans but of their computerized servants and the impact on civilized life. Fourteenth Century Europe comes again, and reminds us what our world is dependent on.
Many of Waldrop's tales take the form of homages to various cultural artifacts or trends, and there are fine examples here. "All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past" fills the world with the B-Movie monsters of the 50's and 60's. "What Makes Hieronymous Run?" drops its characters into the weird landscape of a Bosch painting. And "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" tells us whether the aliens appreciate doo-wop a cappella groups or not.
There's a sort of homage, or opportunity-for-redemption for Ernest Hemingway in "Fair Game", a fine mood-piece in a most surreal setting.
"He-We-Await" is the least satisfying effort in the collection, going perhaps once too often to the well of Egyptian immortality techniques. It has fine moments, though, and taps firmly on the buttons that make this a recurrent theme in film and fiction.
This book should be perennially on the shelf of every bookstore, but since it isn't, it's worth searching out so that it can be perennially on your own.
This one is more a near future cop thriller than Science Fiction. Very little of society has changed. People get old and die in so many years and cry about the same things. Drug related crimes are common place and the criminals have better weaponry than the police. The only difference is the weapons are laser pistols and cannons instead of 9 mm automatics. A coherent beam of light leaves no individual identification marks for the coroner to trace to an assailant, so murder investigations are nightmares.
Mitch Helwig is a "good" cop on the Toronto police force. He is frustrated by the laws he must obey while criminal activity rises and bad cops look the other way. But he is not above performing "black" operations, bombing criminal hideouts and killing bad guys.
Helwig is a stereotypical cop, making his job paramount and ignoring his family until it is too late. (His wife has an affair of sorts, but she was lonely.) The resultant separation leaves him emotionally wrecked.
But Helwig is also a dumb cop. After doing things designed to upset Toronto's criminal element, Helwig does nothing to protect himself or his loved ones. He never uses the professional paranoia a policeman must cultivate to stay alive. When a bomb meant for him kills two semi-innocents, Helwig and his partner are surprised, but they don't wise up. Helwig continues to travel blithely back and forth between his father and his daughter with nary a glance over his shoulder. The partner is foolish enough to answer his front door in the middle of the night without first looking through the peephole. No one wises up until the body count is much higher that it needed to be.
Of course, if it weren't for the rampant stupidity, there would be no reason to use Blue Limbo.
Blue Limbo is a method of bringing people back from the dead. Sort of. When someone dies, as long as the body is in good shape, future scientists are able to surgically implant a chip into the deceased's brain, allowing communication with the dead. The term Blue Limbo comes from descriptions of what the dead people see. They perceive only a large blue wall or screen.
The Blue Limbo technique, although experimental, proves useful solving murders. If a murder victim sees his killer, he can give a description. The bad guys are too dumb to realize that they should only shoot people in the back, never face to face.
This leads us to a high tech showdown, which would not have happened had Helwig and company been smarter.
If Green had given us smarter characters, Blue Limbo would have been a much different, better book. As it is Blue Limbo is a slightly substandard police thriller with a few Science Fictional elements. According to the blurb on the book cover Mr. Green has written several books in different genres. Perhaps he should stick with one or the other?
Ooops! Looks like Eric phrased his request for review reprints incorrectly! What he SHOULD have said was: If anyone would like to have additional readers for their reviews by having them reprinted in FANTASY COMMENTATOR, please drop Eric a note saying so. Email: "Davin@vms.cis.pitt.edu" Snail Mail: Box 90087, Pgh. 15224. Let's keep those cards & ltrs. coming in, folks!
Mary Soon Lee has the cover story in the August edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Mary Soon Lee has sold the short story "Heron" to the magazine TransVersions.
Mary Soon Lee's short story "On The Making Of Treaties" appears in the current issue (#87) of Space & Time. It's available for $6.50 from Space & Time, 138 West 70th Street #4B, New York, NY 10023-4468.
There will be a SF Group Book Signing at the Waldenbooks in Westmoreland Mall in Greensburg on Saturday, August 2nd. Come and talk with your favorite local authors. Volunteers are needed to staff a PARSEC table and pass out ConFluence flyers. Call the store at 837-8279 for times.
SF writer Karen Rose Cercone will be signing her latest book, Steel Ashes (a mystery! set in Pittburgh), on July 19 at 2:00 PM at the Squirrel Hill Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Murray Ave.
There is still some space on the PARSEC Flea Market table at ConFluence. See Diane Turnshek (863-1345) if you are interested in joining us. One hour of time sitting at the table in the dealer's room and $2.00 is all it will cost you.
Several PARSEC members will be attending the costume birthday party for Forrest Ackerman at MonsterBash the night of July 19th at the Ramada Inn in Ligonier. $10.00 at the door. Join us?
"Planet of the Vampires"
1965 Italian sci-fi film directed by Mario Bava.
Review by Henry Tjernlund
An odd little movie I saw a long time ago. Dark menacing space opera about a ship that is forced to land on a mysterious planet while investigating the disappearance of another sister ship. The planet itself is spooky to say the least. There is a constant fog hanging about s sharp slippery looking rocks. It seems perpetually dark and sinister. Anyone left to guard anything disappears after being lured away by sounds out in the dark mist.
The dead are buried on the planet sealed in plastic bags, beneath steel plates with interesting looking metal markers standing high and narrow. There is a particularly spooky scene where the markers topple into the fog shortly to be followed by the plates being push up and aside the burial pits. The re-animated crew members tear themselves out of their plastic wrappings and go about menacing those still living.
There is the typical Italian directed battle scene with lots of close ups of people grimacing and sneering at each other. Their weapons are low budget special effects that shoot a burst of flame out of the end so we know who is firing at who.
But the very best scene, worthy of a story all by itself, is when two of the crew members, one male one female, discover an ancient space derelict. (This should sound familiar all ready.) They venture inside to find the mummified remains of a large eerie looking alien. (Yes, that.s what I said.) In poking around they accidentally trip some mechanism that traps them inside. They eventually find and use an alien artifact to force a hatch open. This scene alone is exceptional and makes renting the movie worth while. Compare it to more recent domestic "original" productions.
The ship manages to lift off after a fierce battle between the last remaining crew and the re-animated zombie/vampires. I wont tell you who wins. The movie ends with a key component of the ships propulsion system, namely the "meteorite deflector", being damaged forcing them to land on the next available planet. A planet where the "primitive inhabitants still live above ground in steel and concrete structures" (hint, hint).
One of those movies worth checking out especially with a group of friends that don't mind throwing an occasional popcorn kernel at the screen. Or watch it alone with all the house lights out, preferable on a foggy night.
On Wednesday, 2 July, there will be a ConCom meeting at Mary's.
On July 12th, Karen Zita Haigh brings you "Current Robotics Research: How far are we from SciFi?" at the Squirrel Hill Library, 1 PM to 4:30 PM.
There was another ConCom meeting scheduled for Saturday, July 19th at Mary's.
Wednesday, 6 August is the date for another ConCom meeting at Mary's.
Our convention will be August 8th through 10th at the Marriott City Center downtown. Come and enjoy the BEST con in Pittsburgh!
September 13th will be the annual PARSEC picnic, just a bit delayed by the convention.
October's meeting will be at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic will be Computer Art.
Novermber's meeting will be the annual book trade/sale, and will be held at the Mount Lebanon Public Library.
To Contact PARSEC
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230
President: Kira Heston
Vice President: Wendy Kosak
Treasurer: Joan Fisher
Editor: G. D. Armstrong
Sigma Art and Layout Editor: Nancy Janda
Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.
Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.
This page maintained by Greg Armstrong.