• Short Story Review: “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick

    (Cover by Alex Ebel. Space SF, May 1953.)

    Who Goes There?

    With most authors I’ve covered they’re either new to me or I don’t know enough about them to get really nostalgic and defensive about their work; unfortunately I won’t have that vantage point with Philip K. Dick. Spoilers in advance, but it’ll be virtually impossible for me to pretend to be objective about Dick, who has been for a good decade one of my top five favorite authors—inside or outside of genre fiction. I had read “classic” science fiction before but Dick was the one who turned me into an addict. You could say I like Dick a lot. From his debut in 1952 to his untimely death in 1982, Dick pushed the boundaries of what was possible in SF writing, evolving over three decades into someone who still remains a unique voice in the field—despite all the folks who owe a debt to him. He’s also, perhaps not incidentally, a perennial favorite for academics and fanboys with degrees in the growing department of science fiction studies.

    Before he became one of the field’s top novelists, though, Dick started out as one of the best and most prolific of short story writers; in what was in hindsight a short time span (most of his short fiction was published before 1960), Dick sold dozens of short stories a year during his peak, with something like thirty short stories being published in 1953 alone. I don’t think even Robert Sheckley wrote this much in a single year. Yes, 1953 was a boom year for Dick, and today’s story, “Second Variety,” might be the most famous to come out of that batch, garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novelette and coming close to winning—only losing to James Blish’s “Earthman, Come Home.” Truth be told, I always found the Blish story hard to digest without prior knowledge of his Cities in Flight series, whereas Dick’s story very much works on its own terms.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If I was to go through every time this story has been collected and anthologized we’d be here all day, so I’ll restrict myself to reprints that are in print, since even then you have several options. First, if you want a free and accessible version that’s not a legal grey area, good news, somehow “Second Variety” fell out of copyright a while ago and now you can read it perfectly legit on Project Gutenberg, link here. I do recommend reading a copy that doesn’t include interior illustrations, as while the ones by Alex Ebel for the magazine publication (and on Gutenberg) are nice, they also allude to the two biggest twists in the narrative. For book reprints the best choices would be Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, The Philip K. Dick Reader, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. As for myself I also have The World Treasury of Science Fiction, a typical David G. Hartwell anthology in that it is fucking massive; proceed with caution.

    Enhancing Image

    Earth is fucked. The Cold War between the Americans and Soviets has long since gone hot and pretty much the whole planet has been rendered unhabitable. The American government, now in exile, has retreated to Earth’s moon. How they managed to build a moon base is beyond me. Meanwhile nearly the whole human population has either died or gone off-planet. “All but the troops.” Even the military is no longer organized, “a few thousand here, a platoon there,” with the only thing giving the soldiers a sense of cohesion being comms with the moon base. We start in one of the bunkers that are surely scattered throughout the scarred landscape, with Major Hendricks as our protagonist—a disciplined but otherwise unexceptional man who will prove to be our eyes and ears for the hell we’ll witness.

    A Russian troop runs across the battlefield with a message (unbeknownst to the Americans) before getting killed and torn apart by a pack of claws—little robots that have enough agility and raw steel to slash a man’s throat. The Americans wear badges that prevent the claws from going after them, as they should, considering the claws will go after anything that’s organic; even the rats that populate the trenches and holes of the ruined earth sometimes get caught up a claw’s blades. The Russian’s message reads that the Russian encampment is looking to make peace with the Americans, a call for a cease fire that naturally the Americans are skeptical about. One soldier needs to head over to the Russian base to agree to peace. Simple enough. Hendricks volunteers and the plot, such as it starts, is a simple point-A-to-point-B mission, assuming the claws never mistake Hendricks for the enemy and assuming the Russians don’t get themselves killed by then…

    Some backstory…

    The Americans were losing the war, and badly; thus a super-weapon was needed to push back the enemy, and in this case the Americans got the bright idea to build the claws. Now the claws aren’t just killer robots: these are robots that are not only rabidly bloodthirsty but also granted enough cognitive capacity to be able to reproduce themselves, in that they’re able to run their own factories where they can build and program more claws, independent of human input. Since the top brass couldn’t figure out a way to program faction loyalty into the claws (an RPG, after all, cannot know anything about nationalism), they’re designed to go after anything that moves, making them not-too-picky killers.

    Hendricks leaves, but en route to his destination he comes across a boy with a teddy bear who has apparently been surviving on his own. So, the boy is named David and he has a teddy bear. Did Brian Aldiss take inspiration from “Second Variety” when writing “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” or is this one of those weird coincidences? Anyway, Hendricks takes the boy under his wing until they’re stopped by a pack of what appear to be Russian soldiers, who at first seem to take aim at Hendricks—only to shoot David, blowing him to metal pieces and revealing him to have been a claw in disguise. Hendricks has unwittingly almost let a claw into the bunker with him, having mistaken the robot for a human. It wass a good job too; other than some strange behavior that can be explained by the fact that people become unhinged when put in isolation, the claw convinced the jaded military man that it was a real boy for a time. The blurring of the line between the real and fraudulent is a theme Dick will return to many times over his career, and while “Second Variety” was not even the first example of this, it was, along with “Colony,” an effective use of the theme to invoke horror.

    Speaking of which, I did say that I’d prefer you read a version that doesn’t come with illustrations, but I’ll allow the first of Ebel’s interiors, which gives away David being a claw but which I think still properly conveys the eeriness of the claws starting to replicate humanity. This is a reminder that much of what Dick wrote can be classified as horror, even though Dick is never talked about as a horror author—probably because, in the hierarchy of genres, horror, for Dick, always came second to science fiction. The two genres have had a symbiotic relationship since the days of Mary Shelley, but that’s a lecture for another time. Like I said, Ebel’s work is good.

    Hendricks meets up with a small group of survivors—some Soviet troops who have been cut off from headquarters. The implication, of course, is that there’s no longer any headquarters to get in touch with. The survivors are Rudi, Klaus, and Tasso, the last of these being a young woman whose relationship with the others is unclear. It’s here, in temporary safety (but are we really safe), where we get a further explanation of the claws, including the humanoid varieties, of which “David” is one. Variety I (mind the Roman numberals) is the Wounded Soldier, Variety III is the David, but nobody’s yet found what Variety II would be—hence the title. The idea behind the varieties seems to be not just extermination but infiltration, with claws posing as humans so as to make real humans let their guard down. Apparently the varieties were not the Americans’ idea…

    The claws are evolving; not only can they make more of themselves but they’re producing new models, with the varieties even being immune to the badges the American troops wear. Nobody is safe anymore. “It makes me wonder,” says Hendricks, “if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.” It’s possible for a David or a Wounded Soldier to trick an American bunker into being let in, which does not bode well for Hendricks when he eventually has to get back to HQ. Ah, but as long as the claws don’t get to the moon base…! Not to spoil things, but if you’re looking for an optimistic take on mankind’s future you make wanna look elsewhere is all I’m saying.

    A lot happens in “Second Variety,” which at first glance, going by page count, looks like a novella, but with a lot of scene breaks and short punchy bits of dialogue it turns out to be not as long as it looks. Still, this is a long novelette at 15,000 words, and Dick demonstrates his mastery of economical writing by keeping the pace of the narrative at a pop-pop-pop rhythm, only giving us a single lengthy infodump towards the beginning before letting short bursts of action and dialogue speak for themselves. It’s still a long story, but given how much Dick crams in here it’s a lot of bang for one’s buck. We spend enough time in the bunker with the survivors in the story’s midpoint that we’re lulled into a sense of security—which proves to be very false indeed. Everything goes to SHIT after this point, let’s see how.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The party starts to dwindle. Klaus kills Rudi on the suspicion that Rudi is a claw—or so Klaus claims. Turns out, judging from the organic remains, Rudie was not a claw, but the damage has already been done. Personally I would take this as a huge red flag with regards to Klaus, but for the time being he has plausible deniability. SURPRISE, Klaus is a claw too, only stopped from killing Hendricks as well thanks to an EMP bomb that Tasso carries, which would only really be useful against claws. You’d think this would absolve her of being a claw herself, but there’s one little problem with that: Tasso is the second variety. More successfully than David and even Klaus, Tasso manages to trick Hendricks into thinking she’s human until it’s too late to stop her. I wanna point out that this is not as much of a shock if you’re reading the magazine version or on Gutenberg, where we get an illustration showing a woman-shaped robot well before the reveal, but I also have to admit that the foreknowledge of Tasso’s nature does little to lessen the impact.

    Not that Dick’s stories tend to have happy endings, but “Second Variety” has to have one of the bleakest. Hendricks has just unwittingly let a claw take a ship to the moon base where the last of the American faction will probably get annihilated. As he’s fending off an army of claws and bleeding out he reflects back on the anti-claw bomb Tasso used on Klaus, and we get one of the most haunting final lines in a ’50s SF story: “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” A charitable reading of the ending is that the claws may destroy each other, having rid themselves of humanity at last, but Dick may also be implying that the end, for better or worse, is not yet. There will be no clear end to the destruction. There are quite a few post-apocalypse narratives that sprouted following the end of World War II, but unlike those other stories, wherein the fighting has more or less stopped at least, humanity being in too much a state of disarray to make matters worse, the ruined world of “Second Variety” continues to degrade itself, with machines simply continuing humanity’s “work.”

    A Step Farther Out

    Admittedly part of the fun of reading “Second Variety” is understanding the historical context behind it, because this is a Cold War story from start to finish. I actually watched Screamers, which is loosely based on this, the other day, and it just didn’t have the same punch—in part because it lacked the background of Cold War paranoia. In fairness to the filmmakers, Screamers came out in 1995; the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years prior. Sure, the claws are creepy, but the overall creepiness in the short story is greatly amplified by the constant uncertainty of things. We managed to stop the real Cold War from going hot, but in the ’50s it must’ve been easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, resulting in one of Dick’s bleakest narratives. And I’m here for it! Of Dick’s short stories, “Second Variety” is one of the most memorable that I’ve read; I suspect it didn’t find its way into any of the major magazines because a) Dick was too prolific at this point, and b) the story was too dark, at a time when editors—even the more liberal ones—preferred happy endings. Really it was their loss.

    See you next time.

  • Serial Review: All Judgment Fled by James White (Part 1/3)

    (Cover by Douglas Chaffee. If, December 1967.)

    Who Goes There?

    James White was an Irish SF fan-turned-writer who was one of the many authors to have found his footing in the ’50s, and it was in that decade when he started his Sector General series—about a massive hospital in space that deals with many alien species. Rather than focus on hardboiled adventure narratives, White seemed to prefer to write about issues that naturally arise from psychology and biology; he wanted to practice medicine, but economic troubles apparently led him elsewhere. With this in mind I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read anything by White prior to today’s novel, All Judgment Fled, which is a one-off and which was serialized in If, as opposed to New Worlds, where the Sector General series was published. All Judgment Fled is a Big Dumb Object™ story, published in the midst of several famous BDO stories (notably Ringworld, and, more regrettably, The Wanderer), but White looks to add his own flavor to the basic premise.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 1 was published in the December 1967 issue of If, which is on the Archive. (You may notice that this issue has been mislabeled on the Archive as the May 1967 issue. Somebody fucked up.) Also be aware that If and Galaxy under Fred Pohl’s editorship well actually Galaxy also had this issue when H. L. Gold was in charge have some pretty sloppy copy-editing, which may distract from the experience. Sadly there aren’t many paperback editions either; the most recent edition, from Old Earth Books, predates 9/11. The good news is that used copies still go for cheap.

    Enhancing Image

    In the near future (a future which rather closely resembles the space race in the years following the moon landing), a mysterious vessel is spotted orbiting our sun between Mars and Jupiter, “shaped like a blunt topedo with a pattern of bulges encircling its mid-section and just under half a mile long.” The Ship (with a capital S) is a massive cylindrical object that is no doubt artificial, and which has not responded to any attempts to contact it. Thus we have the Prometheus Project, a first contact mission wherein two small ships, P-One and P-Two, are sent out to rendezvous with the Ship. (If this sounds a bit like Rendezvous with Rama, keep in mind that All Judgment Fled came first.) Six of the sharpest minds in the space program, three to each ship, are set to spend more than five months locked up in tight quarters on their way to the Ship, with McCullough, the doctor on P-Two, as the closest we get to a protagonist. Perhaps not coincidentally, all six of the men chosen are unmarried; survival is not guaranteed.

    Aside from McCullough on P-Two we have Berryman and Walters; and on P-One we have Drew, Morrison, and Hollis. McCullough is the only one of the six to have sufficient medical training, and while the ships are always in communication with each other, they’re still a good distance apart as they voyage out to the Ship. Berryman and Walters are trained astronauts while McCullough is the outlier; meanwhile on P-One Hollis is the noobie while Drew and Morrison are the veterans. While it must’ve been tempting for command to hire all veteran spacers for the voyage, a more diverse team (in profession, though it must be said not in skin color or nationality) was probably for the best. Certain skills might be needed…

    Instead of six of the world’s acknowledged scientific geniuses there had been chosen four experienced astronauts and two under training who were not even known in scientific circles and were respected only by friends. All that could be said for them was that they had a fairly good chance of surviving the trip.

    Something about this novel that struck me is that you can tell that it was written when the space race about the reach its climax. The moon landing was still more than a year off, but Yuri Gagarin had left Earth’s orbit several years prior and it’s quite possible White wrote the novel immediately following the Apollo 1 tragedy. It was widely known by this point that being an astronaut was dangerous—that blood had already been spilled in the name of the US and Soviet Union outdoing each other. As such, despite the peppering of light sarcastic humor throughout (more on this in a bit), there’s still this persistent sense that Our Heroes™ could meet an unfortunate end at pretty much any moment. Of course, space is scary enough; the astronauts also have to deal with each other.

    The boys are stuck with each other, in living quarters “which compared unfavorably with the most unenlightened penal institutions,” having to eat paste through tubes, having to wipe themselves down with alcohol periodically since they can’t take water baths, having no idea at all what they’re gonna do exactly when they arrive at their destination. When Hollis comes down with a skin condition and McCullough has to venture out to P-One to take care of him, there’s some worry—not just for Hollis’s body, but his mentality, which doesn’t look good either. McCullough doesn’t have to prod Hollis for long before the latter starts ranting about his co-workers. “A person could say an awful lot about themselves by the way they talked about someone else.” It’s clear to McCullough that Hollis is threatening to have a mental breakdown—that he’s having paranoid delusions about Drew and Morrison, whom he claims have snuck a “Dirty Annie,” a small nuclear weapon, into P-One. Even after Hollis is calmed down, it’s clear that this man’s instability will probably contribute to later problems.

    Both the characters and the third-person narrator engage in some banter, which makes sense given the situation; few things deflate tension like humor. Actually while I have my reservations about the characters themselves, I don’t fault White for bordering the narrative with jokes—helped by White’s sense of humor (in my opinion) being often effective and unintrusive. While the BDO story had certainly not been done to death at this point (give it another decade), White’s deconstructing of the premise almost feels like commentary on the basic premise and how in reality, if we were to make contact with some alien vessel in our solar system, things would be much less glamorous than what Hollywood gives us. The lack of imput from the outside world, despite us being told about millions of eyes and ears keeping track of the voyage, only adds to the isolation and claustrophobia.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    So we finally get to the Ship, and we even meet some aliens, although these are far from little green men. The aliens are obviously intelligent enough to have built the Ship, but whether they’re capable of understanding human speech or even gestures is another question. “We know,” says McCullough at one point, “that they do not have fingers, and may have a two-digit pincer arrangement.” Turns out they have even less than that (or more, depending on how you look at it), with one alien looking like an actual starfish while another resembles a dumbbell. Between Hollis’s paranoia, Walters nearly dying from getting a tear in his spacesuit, and the aliens being totally unintelligible, Our Heroes™ have some work to do.

    Stay tuned.

    A Step Farther Out

    I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. I occasionally find White’s attempts at dry humor chuckle-worthy, but I’m not sure if this is the norm for him or something unique to this novel. We’re also about a third into All Judgment Fled and the action has barely started; this is not the fastest of reads, despite being short overall. At the same time White is focusing on things that are not normally dwelled on in Big Dumb Object™ stories, namely the logistical and psychological cost of coming into contact with a BDO in the first place. McCullough and crew are not the most vividly drawn of characters, but their uneasy dynamic should be fruitful for future conflicts. Given the nature of the aliens this may also prove to be an unorthodox first contact narrative, since we’re not dealing with humanoids or even seemingly aliens capable of verbal speech. I’m already prepping to start Part 2.

    See you next time.

  • Novella Review: “The Rose” by Charles L. Harness

    (Cover by John Richards. Authentic, March 1953.)

    Who Goes There?

    I had encountered Charles L. Harness for the first time only a few months ago, but I had known about him before then. Despite making his genre debut in 1948 and being active off and on until his death in 2005, Harness was not a very prolific writer and his reputation is pretty near to cult status. While his style and inspirations are no doubt products of the Campbellian Golden Age of the ’40s, Harness quickly showed himself to be a bit quirkier than his fellows, even endearing himself to the New Wave crowd in the ’60s. No doubt Michael Moorcock’s outspoken admiration for Harness, even reprinting a couple of his stories in New Worlds, contributed to Harness’s career getting a second wind in the latter half of the ’60s. Thing is, Harness went on hiatus from the field multiple times, most prominently from 1954 to 1965, and today’s story might be a reason for that break.

    The early ’50s saw the biggest boom the SFF magazine market would see for decades, and was by a good margin the busiest period for the field up to that point—yet even in this permissive climate, Harness was unable to sell what he must’ve thought was his magnum opus, “The Rose,” in the US. While “The Rose” is now highly regarded by those who’ve read it, even garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novella, it must’ve been too weird for anyone in American genre publishing at the time, so Harness resorted to submitting it to Authentic Science Fiction, a second-rate British magazine; it would not see American publication until 1969. “The Rose” was and remains one of the few true cult classics of science fiction to have come out of the 1950-1954 boom period, and I think its cult status is well-earned.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the March it doesn’t say March on the cover but ISFDB gives it as March publication and I’m not going by issue numbers unless I have no alternative damnit 1953 issue of Authentic Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in (confusingly titled) The Rose, which was available in the UK for years but had to wait to get an American release. Your two big (literally) print options nowadays are The Science Fiction Century (ed. David G. Hartwell), which is a very useful tome on paper but in practice may kill your wrists. A bit more practical is An Ornament to His Profession, a near-complete collection of Harness’s short fiction from NESFA Press, and I do believe that one is still in print.

    Enhancing Image

    Harness immediately gains points for making the protagonist of “The Rose” not only a woman but a woman with a disability. We have Anna van Tuyl, a psychogeneticist (a psychiatrist and a geneticist?) and a ballet composer, who also happens to have a couple physical oddities about her: the first is on her forehead, “two tumorous bulges—like incipient horns,” the second is what appears to be a hunchback. I won’t say what it is exactly, but in hindsight I should’ve seen Anna’s abnormal physique as heightened foreshadowing. Given her occupation and her search for grace (as both person and artist), Anna, with her horns and back, could be seen as an angel fallen to Earth, like Lucifer after the Fall. Thankfully Anna is not in constant pain, but as to be expected she does have some self-image issues, with both the narration and the interior illustration at the story’s beginning (courtesy of Fischer) almost making her out to be a witch out of Macbeth.

    Anna is both a scientist and an artist, being caught between science and art, a conflict that will guide the rest of the narrative. She’s composing a ballet titled The Nightingale and the Rose, which she’s almost done with but can’t bring herself to finish; in her defense she’s not only composing this ballet but intends to perform it, the only problem being that the Nightingale, a tragic figure, dies at the end to create a magical red rose. The Nightingale and the Student fall in love, but the Nightingale must sacrifice herself to turn a white rose red. I know what you’re thinking: “This is not very subtle.” And you’d be right, but then Harness makes no attempt to hide the parallel between Anna’s soon-to-be-dramatic life and the ballet she’s composing; indeed much of the joy of reading “The Rose” comes from connecting the dots for it as an allegory. Our intuition tells us that somehow Anna’s story won’t end happily for her, but how, why, and when are the questions that we remain eager to see answered. In other words, get your popcorn ready.

    “The Rose” can be partly understood as a series of dialogues, and the first big one is between Anna and her friend/colleague Matt Bell, who like Anna is preoccupied with art but unlike her (by his own admission) has no knack for creating it. Anna’s latest assignment is officially an eccentric husband to one Martha Jacques, but unofficially it’s both of them: Ruy and Martha Jacques, two personalities who are diametrically opposed in every way imaginable except for the fact that they’re both egotists, each thinking s/he is the center of the universe. Martha is a scientist who, like Anna, is close to finishing a grand project of her own, going by the name of Sciomnia, a vaguely described invention that is supposed to be an amalgamation of all the known hard sciences. The official subject, Ruy, is an artist and a Bohemian type who has apparently lost the ability to read and write. Ruy and Martha hate each other’s guts, which makes one wonder how they got together in the first place—but then art and science must always be bumping shoulders as well, fighting perpetually and yet often seen in collaboration.

    Ruy and Martha Jacques are a personification of what Matt deems an ideological battle for the future of humanity. “So the battle lines converge in Renaissance II. Art versus Science. Who dies? Who lives?” It’s clear that both Anna and Harness believe science is subservient to art—a viewpoint which probably turned off John W. Campbell from buying the story, despite it otherwise being a Campbellian narrative about human evolution. Actually the only other thing I can think of off the top of my head that preceded “The Rose” which can be compared to it is A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, also about a race of supermen destined to overtake “normal” humanity. I’m getting ahead of myself. “The Rose” is headier than anything by van Vogt that I’ve read, which is saying a lot, but it’s also far more openly detatched from the rules of everyday life and normal human behavior.

    Consider that Martha is a mega-bitch and Ruy cares for nobody but himself for most of the story, and the fact that somehow these two have not literally killed each other up to this point. Consider also that despite her rationality and her best interests Anna is drawn profoundly to Ruy once they meet, though to be fair to her there are a couple things about Ruy that would make him of great interest to her—namely that he too has the matching bulges on his forehead and a hunchback. The three main players in the narrative (Anna, Ruy, and Martha) all play roles that correspond to their ballet counterparts: Anna is the Nightingale, Ruy is the Student, and Martha is… the thorn, perhaps. Martha is the most one-dimensional of the three and her obsession with vindicating her scientific breakthrough doesn’t snowball into mania so much as call mania its home from the start. Of more interest is Ruy fitting into the role of the Student, taking part in “the dream ballet” that Anna has thought and dreamt so much about but is unable to finish.

    It could be that I’m a big fan of Princess Tutu, but I have a real soft spot for ballet as a diving board for allegorical—for characters in the supposed real world to take on the roles of fictional, even fantastical characters, whether they’re aware of it or not. Anna’s own inner conflict has to do with the fact that she sees herself in the role of the Nightingale—and in her ballet, the Nightingale dies at the end; yet it never occurs to her to change the ballet’s ending even if it means somehow altering her own fate. The Nightingale must die at the end. For love of the Student. To create the Red Rose. This is further complicated by Ruy being a rather unlikable fellow (although he’s not totally batshit like his wife), which bothers Anna immensely as well. While I’m pretty sure Harness agrees with Ruy’s side in the battle of ideas here to an extent, Ruy also has moments where his egotism reaches its apex and we get massive overbearing monologues like this one:

    “[Science] is simply a parasitical, adjectival, and useless occupation devoted to the quantitative restatement of Art,” finished the smiling Jacques. “Science is functionally sterile; it creates nothing; it says nothing new. The scientist can never be more than a humble camp-follower of the artist. There exists no scientific truism that hasn’t been anticipated by creative art. The examples are endless. Uccello worked out mathematically the laws of perspective in the fifteenth century; but Kallicrates applied the same laws two thousand years before in designing the columns of the Parthenon. The Curies thought they invented the idea of ‘half-life’—of a thing vanishing in proportion to its residue. The Egyptians tuned their lyre-strings to dampen according to the same formula. Napier thought he invented logarithms—entirely overlooking the fact that the Roman brass workers flared their trumpets to follow a logarithmic Curve.”

    For the record, I find these often entertaining, but they do also show that even the characters we’re supposed to root for are flawed. Anna sees Ruy as the Student when she meets him, but it takes time and some growing as a person (in his relationship with Anna) for Ruy to become the Student, as the one who is worthy of the Nightingale’s love. Anna makes it clear to everyone that she does not love Ruy, although Martha is not convinced; quite the contrary, despite hating her husband, Martha is at the same determined to see that nobody else can have him, with Anna apparently being the last person on the planet she wants as the one to cuck her. On the one hand this is mania to an extreme that threatens even the physical laws of reality, but it does make a sort of sense if Martha understands on some level that Anna and Ruy are set in playing out their roles.

    At this point you might be wondering: “This all sounds a bit odd, but how exactly is it science fiction? Nothing science-fictional has happened yet!” And once again you’d be right. As it turns out, though, Anna and Ruy having the horns and the hunchback are not just there for the sake of being there: these are characteristics of a mutation which will give these characters a lot more than what they would’ve thought possible. We’re not quite there, though. Like I said, Ruy lost the ability to read and write; the written word now looks like total gibberish to him. Anna runs an X-ray on Ruy while the latter is unconscious (for reasons too convoluted to explain here) and she finds something very odd indeed about his head—and by extension hers as well. Guess what, it has to do with the pineal gland.

    “Is the pineal absent—or, are the ‘horns’ actually the pineal, enormously enlarged and bifurcated? I’m convinced that the latter is the fact. For reasons presently unknown to me, this heretofore small, obscure lobe has grown, bifurcated, and forced its destructive dual limbs not only through the soft cerebral tissue concerned with the ability to read, but also has gone on to skirt half the cerebral circumference to the forehead, where even the hard frontal bone of the skull has softened under its pressure.” She looked at Bell closely. “I infer that it’s just a question of time before I, too, forget how to read and write.”

    Ah yes, the pineal gland, that old chestnut of science fiction; not as popularly used now in SF as it used to be, say, a century ago, but Harness knows what he’s doing when he brings up “the third eye” and how it had been alluded to in religious writings and art. Yep, art anticipating science yet again. That’s not the whole of it, though: the mass of tissue on Ruy’s back is not just a mass of tissue, but housing something much more important—almost like a second brain. (I told you this would get weird.) The horns and hunchback seem to have a connection, and not only that, but they allow for a kind of telepathy, hence how Ruy is able to do certain things without being able to read or write. Again this feels like it could fit into the Campbell mould, but it’s too heightened and anti-science (and really, too literate) to appeal to Campbell. What we have with “The Rose” is a hybrid of pulp SF conventions and a playing with themes that’s more ambitious than most SF being published at the time. I can see why editors were wary of it.

    I have to wonder if Harness’s struggle to get “The Rose” published made him wary as well, because as far as I can tell nothing he wrote post-hiatus went as “out there” as this novella, although that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in his post-hiatus work. Harness was a lawyer by day, but he was also an artist; his penchant for name-dropping and references falls in line with what certain New Wave authors would be doing a decade after “The Rose.” It’s appropriate that William Blake gets name-dropped at one point since while he is often considered one of the Romantic (with a capital R) poets, he’s a little too much of a weirdo to fit comfortably alongside John Keats and Lord Byron—never mind that he was a generation older than the other Romantics; incidentally (for we know he could not have intended this) Harness was also a generation older than the New Wave authors he fell in with. “The Rose” lacks the slickness in style that would often define the New Wave, but thematically it very much feels like a precursor—a story about the coming of a new race, itself a distant prototype for a new literary movement.

    One last thing…

    This is yet another example of why I love the novella mode—for literature generally but especially for science fiction. At (so I’d guess) a good 30,000 words “The Rose” would not make any sense if you cut the word count in half, but the stage it sets is also too small to justify a full novel. We’re given a handful of characters, a few ideas that can only be done in science fiction, a plot that never veers off its main course or gets distracted with sub-plots, and that’s really all we need to enjoy the story and for Harness to make his points. Its length may have contributed to editors not wanting it, but I think the length is more or less justified. Harness is not a poet on a line-by-line level, but his use of symbols and allusions is very much deliberate.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    You know I think this is special when I use this section to just tell you to read the damn story yourself. I’m not getting into the ending, only saying here that it’s simultaneously baffling and perfectly logical in the context of a narrative that operates on its own rules and nothing else.

    A Step Farther Out

    It’s not perfect, but “The Rose” is certainly memorable, and it’s amazing to me that Harness had it published unaltered but in far-from-ideal circumstances rather than change it to make it more acceptable to editors in the American market. Harness’s inability to get “The Rose” published in the US must’ve pained him, but ultimately he stayed true to himself and that artistic integrity paid off in the long run. By the time Harness returned to genre writing in 1966 he was no longer the maverick that he was in the early ’50s, but that’s partly because the field had caught up to him; he had been vindicated. It’s maybe too pulpy and overtly allegorical for more “sophisticated” readers and at the same time too sophisticated for diehard pulp readers of the era, but “The Rose” is what most good stories aren’t, which is to say it’s unique and there’s nothing else quite like it.

    See you next time.

  • Things Beyond: May 2023

    (Cover by Allen Anderson. Planet Stories, Fall 1949.)

    This will turn out to be a busy month for me. I’m gonna be a guest on one or two podcasts/streams with some people I very much respect, and I’ll also be flying out of my Jersey/Pennsylvania bubble to visit some friends I rarely ever get to hang out with in person. On the one hand this is all more eventful than what I usually deal with, but also I’ll have a bit less time to manage this site—which won’t stop me from putting in as much effort as I usually do. It’s draining sometimes, but that is how passion works.

    My personal life is gonna be busy, but also my review lineup is FILLED for May: we’ve got two serials, two novellas, two short stories, and finally a complete novel—our first one in six months. I know, the gap between novel reviews looks to be wide, but mind you that there aren’t too many of these “complete” novels in the magazines.

    One more thing: I mentioned in a past editorial that I think very highly of 1953 as a year when SFF flourished, in general and especially in magazine publishing, which was experiencing a bubble we would not see again until… now, basically. Strangely, I haven’t before covered ANYTHING from that year, so to compensate we’ve got two stories from 1953 in the lineup. 1953 was such a banger that I could probably get five years out of just reviewing everything that was published then.

    Enough wasting time, though, let’s see what we have.

    For the serials:

    1. All Judgment Fled by James White. Serialized in Worlds of If, December 1967 to February 1968. White is an author I’ve not read a single word of (or at least I think) up to this point, and given his philosophy with storytelling this feels a little criminal to me. When planning this post I flip-flopped between All Judgment Fled, Second Ending, and The Dream Millennium for my first White, since all three sound appealing, and ultimately went with this because I’ve also been meaning to tackle something—anything—that was published in If.
    2. Sos the Rope by Piers Anthony. Serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July to September 1968. Yes, that Piers Anthony. He actually appeared regularly in the genre magazines early in his career, when he was a promising young writer and people did not yet know the horrors he was about to unleash on the world. My only prior Anthony experience was the short story “In the Barn,” and let me tell you… that’s the kind of thing that puts you off an author for years. But maybe Sos the Rope, his second novel, will be good!

    For the novellas:

    1. “The Rose” by Charles L. Harness. From the March 1953 issue of Authentic Science Fiction. Retro Hugo nominee for Best Novella. Harness is one of those recent discoveries of mine that I’ve been meaning to explore further—made easier because Harness was not that prolific a writer; when he wrote he was fairly productive, but then he would vanish for several years. Harness apparently struggled to find a publisher for “The Rose” in the US, having to jump across the Atlantic and submit it to a filthy British magazine.
    2. “Enchantress of Venus” by Leigh Brackett. From the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories. Brackett is now most known for her part in the messy scripting process for The Empire Strikes Back, for her collaborations with director Howard Hawks, and for the rather unchararcteristic novel The Long Tomorrow. Much of Brackett’s fiction, however, is planetary romance a la Edgar Rice Burroughs, complete with swashbuckling antics. “Enchantress of Venus” is one of several stories starring Eric John Stark, the barbarian hero for the space age.

    For the short stories:

    1. “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick. From the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction. Retro Hugo nominee for Best Novelette. Not that I try to hide my biases anyway, but Philip K. Dick is one of my top five favorite authors—and he ain’t #5 on that list. But before he broke new ground as a novelist, Dick was one of the most talented and prolific SFF writers of the ’50s, with about thirty of his short stories being published in 1953 alone. “Second Variety” is one of Dick’s most famous short stories, and yet somehow I’ve not read it before.
    2. “Black God’s Shadow” by C. L. Moore. From the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It’s been two months since I reviewed Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss,” which was a reread, and true enough there was a two-month gap in publication between “The Black God’s Kiss” and its direct sequel. Only a year into her career and Moore had skyrocketed to being one of Weird Tales‘s most popular authors, with the adventures of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry getting started during this period. Moore is a favorite of mine, naturally.

    For the complete novel:

    1. Big Planet by Jack Vance. From the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories. Believe it or not, this is a reread—actually one of the first stories I remember reading via magazine scan. As is often the case with me, though, there are surely many things about this novel that I didn’t pick up on a first reading. Vance is not an author I’m strongly attached to, but he does fill a certain niche, being a planet builder par excellence and a crafter of gnarly planetary adventures when he feels like it. Big Planet represents planetary romance shifting away from the Burroughs-Brackett model (which is really science-fantasy), and injecting the subgenre with some semblance of scientific plausibility. But how does this novel hold up on a reread? Let’s find out.

    We have a nice mix of science fiction and fantasy, all of it vintage. We’ll get back to some more recent publications next month… maybe. You have to understand that I only cover so much in a given month and that there’s so much history behind the genre magazines. The roster, you may notice, leans toward adventure this month, between the Brackett, Moore, Vance, and probably the Anthony pieces; it just sort of turned out that way. Maybe given that I’ll be traveling soon I thought it appropriate to focus more on tales of high adventure for my site. Regardless, it won’t be a boring lot.

    Won’t you read with me?

  • Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 4/4)

    (Cover by Richard Hamilton. New Worlds, October 1967.)

    Who Goes There?

    Thomas M. Disch would’ve been no older than 26 when he wrote Camp Concentration, and yet he already had three novels under his belt, including the immensely bleak The Genocides. Like other New Wavers, Disch was edgy, transgressive, but also cultured, bringing a literary flair to the field that was previously the exception and not the rule. In terms of installments Camp Concentration is the longest serial covered on this site thus far, but going by actual word count it is certainly not the longest; indeed the book version is only about 180 pages, or I’d reckon round 50,000 words. A lot of that word count is spent on monologues, by the way. This is a very chatty novel that substitutes plot for character (kinda) and symbolism (oh yes), which may rub some people the wrong way. Disch is showing off here at least a little, but most of it I think is worth the trouble—most of it.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 4 was published in the October 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is not on the Archive but which can be found on Luminist, link to the New Worlds page here. Camp Concentration in book form can be found used easily, and if you want a fresh copy then the Vintage paperback is still in print.

    Enhancing Image

    Part 4 is the shortest installment, which means I won’t have as much to talk about—at least on paper. There’s about as much plot here as in the previous installment, which is not a compliment towards Part 3 I might add, but what’s more, Disch has one hell of an ending to give us; more on that later. To start things off, Louis has gone blind by this point: one of the inevitable symptoms of the super-syphilis (that’s what I’m calling it now) as we reach the end of the victim’s life. Shit’s not looking good for Our Anti-Hero™, and Louis is an anti-hero if anything; it’s not like he does anything heroic or has any grand scheme for escaping the prison. Indeed the novel’s ending depends on Louis being deliberately kept out of the loop by his fellow prisoners at Camp Archimedes, a true innocent who has no idea there’s been a secret plan to escape the prison this whole time.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Last time we heard that Dr. Busk had left the prison, or rather vanished into thin fucking air, and even at the end we still don’t know what exactly became of her. We do know that Busk had apparently contracted the disease, all but certainly of her volition, and in the months since we’ve been seeing the work of a super-syphilis super-spreader in the outside world. This is all a little silly. I have to wonder if Disch would’ve written this subplot the way he did had he written the novel in a post-AIDS world; more specifically Louis’s projections about the disease spreading, evidenced by quite a few stories being connected and making it clear that at least a couple million people now have the super-syphilis. To quote Louis:

    Within two more months 30 to 55 per cent of the adult population will be on their way to soaring genius. Unless the government immediately reveals all the facts in the case. Less specific warnings against venereal disease will have no more effect on promiscuity than thirty years of Army training films have had. Less, because nowadays we’ve come to place our faith in penicillin rather than in condoms. Penicillin, sad to tell, has no efficacy against Pallidine.

    Yeah, would not be the case if this was 1985 and not the novel’s version of 1975. I could go into a long tirade about how the Reagan administration completely denied the public knowledge of AIDS for four years after the first reported case in the US, and how misinformation from both news media and the government contributed to the spread of AIDS even after the public was made aware of the threat, but we’d be here for a while. In some ways Camp Concentration is creepy and prescient, helped by most of the novel only being nominally science fiction, but in other ways it very much comes from a point in time when the worst thing you could catch from doing the nasty was syphilis, which could be treated with penicillin—although that (rather conveniently) has no effect on the super-syphilis. Death is certain unless someone can invent a cure, and even if you were to become impossibly intelligent you only have months to use that intelligence.

    My point is that even if you had someone deliberately spreading the disease, the actual number of people infected after, say, a five-month period, would be waaaaaaay lower than what’s Louis’s estimating; his stats are bogus. Sadly as the novel creeps more and more into outlandish territory the harder it becomes to take seriously. I wanna point out that when I say “outlandish” I don’t mean stuff like Louis having dinner with a grossly obese Thomas Aquinas—stuff that’s clearly a product of Louis’s psyche—I’m talking real things that are supposed to be really happening in the world of the novel. Keep this in mind, because the ending Disch decides to go with is a real doozy. It’s here, in the home stretch, that the novel stretches my suspension of disbelief before finally snapping it in two with what is admittedly, to Disch’s credit, a clever twist if totally removed from reality.

    One more thing…

    It’s here, a bit in the last installment but especially here, where we’re introduced to yet another batch of characters who, like what’s-his-face from before, serve no purpose other than to mark time in the narrative. The cast of characters we actually care about has whittled down to Louis and Haast, which I know is not entirely accurate if you know the ending, but from the perspective of a first-time reader we’re left with two main characters, a goofy replacement villain, and some redshirts. In a way I can see why Disch opted for a bombastic and ludicrous ending, because the back end of the novel is otherwise lacking in both plot and character, only kept afloat by some poetry and musings on symbolic connections with other works.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    After having gone blind and suffered a stroke, it looks like Louis will be put out of his misery at the hands of Skilliman and his henchmen, with Skilliman (so it seems) having overpowered Haast but who may be losing control of the prison guards. For the first time in months Louis gets taken outside, into the cool air of the real world, and in a nice little exchange he asks if it’s day or night. Now of course we know that Louis can’t die because if he did then he wouldn’t be able to write about said near-death experience, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Haast ends up killing Skilliman and reveals that a) the guards are in cahoots with Haast, and b) Haast is not really himself. I wanted to build up to this more, but I may as well say it now: Haast is actually Mordecai, who you may recall had died two installments ago. A switcheroo of epic proportions had been committed a while back.

    I won’t dignify the explanation by going deep into it, but apparently Mordecai and the prisoners under his leadership had conspired to save themselves by… swapping their minds with the bodies of the prison staff. Okay. So Haast was in Mordecai’s body when “Mordecai” died of an embolism at the end of Part 2. Haast has, in fact, been dead for about half the novel. “Mordecai maintains that it was the thought of being a Negro.” What’s more is that Louis’s own life is miraculously saved when his mind gets moved into the body of one of the prison guards. This is rather hard to explain, and even harder to justify given what we’ve known about the mechanics of the novel’s world up to this point. I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say Disch jumped the shark when he came up with this deus ex machina, and yet I don’t think he did it because he was pressured by Michael Moorcock or anyone else. Looking back, the twist had been established as early as Part 2, although even so the bread crumbs Disch leaves are so small that only the most desperate of rodents would deem them a fine meal.

    I’m reminded of the A. E. van Vogt story “The Great Judge,” which has a twist ending very similar to the one in Camp Concentration, to the point where I have to wonder if Disch was inspired. In “The Great Judge” you’re given a mad scientist, an evil dictator, and the solution the mad scientist uses to take out the evil dictator, all in the spance of half a dozen pages; and yet even within the tight confines of a short-short story van Vogt alludes to the solution early on and implies that such a solution, though incredible, would be possible given what we know about the story’s world. Mind you that “The Great Judge” is far more removed from everyday reality than Camp Concentration and thus the mind-swapping is much easier to digest. I’ll give Disch credit in that the ruse is a good one because it’s nigh-impossible to predict, but it’s also like that because it’s so far-fetched. You wouldn’t expect the twist because it totally goes against your understanding of what is possible in what is, like I said, only nominally science fiction otherwise.

    I’m conflicted about the ending because while I think it’s ridiculous, and snaps my suspension of disbelief in half like a twig, it’s not predictable and it’s not boring—unlike a couple stretches earlier in the novel. There’s debate as to whether the ending of Camp Concentration breaks or redeems the novel, and I think that debate wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t such a flabby and uneven novel, even at its short length. It’s a fine novel, but it could’ve been even better had it been a 30,000-word novella, cutting out tangents and monologues that lead nowhere; then again I’m biased, as I think a lot of flawed SF novels would be better if they were novellas.

    A Step Farther Out

    I have issues with the endings, which brings it down half a point, but I can’t say it wasn’t memorable. I wanna accuse Disch of being outrageous for the same of itself, but I don’t think that’s the case. I also have to wonder how this novel would read as one unit, as opposed to four short installments, because goddamn did it feel longer than it actually was when stretched out like that. Not helping was also the microscopic type used in New Worlds during this period, which was seemingly made to be read by ANTS. And my ass is legally blind. Doesn’t matter too much, because if you want a taste of what New Wave science fiction is all about (sex, drugs, foul language, snobby literary references), then Camp Concentration is a good choice.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” by George R. R. Martin

    (Cover by Steve Hickman. Fantastic, May 1976.)

    Who Goes There?

    The idea that George R. R. Martin, perhaps the most famous living fantasy writer (or the most famous to not be a raging transphobe) right now, used to be mostly a science fiction writer would strike a lot of people as odd, but that’s the truth. I recommend picking up both volumes of Dreamsongs, the retrospective collection that covers Martin’s essential short fiction up to the turn of the century. The stories themselves are worth it, but Martin also wrote lengthy autobiographical introductions for each section (the stories are divided into thematically appropriate sections), and keep in mind that this was back in 2003… two whole decades ago. In his intro for the section containing “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” and a few other early fantasies, Martin gets weirdly defensive about what must’ve been a recurring criticism of him in fandom at the time: that he was a science fiction writer who “sold out” and started writing fantasy once market forces shifted.

    There’s no question that Martin’s priorities with genres changed radically by the time he started working on A Song of Ice and Fire, but the reality is that Martin was always more of a fantasist than a science-fictionist at heart. In the ’70s, when Martin started writing professionally, you had basically two options for getting short fantasy published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which tended toward fantasy of the whimsical Lewis Carroll sort, and Fantastic, which welcomed adventure fantasy but sadly also paid considerably less than F&SF. Despite the pay gap, though, it was Fantastic and not F&SF where Martin cut his teeth on short fantasy, with him calling “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” his first “pure fantasy” as a pro. Of course, by 1976 Martin was not just a pro but a Hugo winner.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the May 1976 issue of Fantastic, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in Songs of Stars and Shadows, but now you can easily find in the first volume of Dreamsongs. You can also read “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” totally free and legit online as a reprint in Fantasy Magazine, which can be found here. Really you have no excuse.

    Enhancing Image

    Martin’s third-person narrator, not quite omniscient, gives us the immediate impression that this will play out like a fairy tale—or at leaat part of a fairy tale. Like your typical fairy tale we’re given a broad outline of the plot in advance, along with something like a message we’re supposed to take from it. The narration borders on childlike, but this is ultimately still a fantasy for adults, though I’ll say right now that certain Martin hallmarks like gore and sexual assault are nowhere to be found; you can rest easy on that. Anyway, the narrator tells us that this story is incomplete, like so:

    We have only the middle, or rather a piece of that middle, the smallest part of the legend, a mere fragment of the quest. A small tale within the greater, of one world where Sharra paused, and of the lonely singer Laren Dorr and how they briefly touched.

    I have to admit that I assumed going in that Laren Dorr would be a woman, even though thinking about it, Laren is not exactly a feminine name. Unconscious bias maybe? Doesn’t matter, because while he’s not strictly the protagonist Laren is very much the character of interest here; he is, after all, the one who changes. Hell, there are only only two onscreen characters, plus one who is mentioned but never seen, plus a group of villains who are also unseen but who still very much lurk just outside the confines of the page. The real protagonist is Sharra, “the girl who goes between the worlds,” a warrior lady whom sadly we find out very little about. We start with Sharra, who is in pretty rough shape, having just escaped a violent encounter into Laren’s world, with a dark crown on her head that apparently lets her use gates between worlds—an ability that the Seven do not approve.

    Who are the Seven? We find out basically nothing about them, aside from the fact that they are supposed to be a pretty powerful bunch—perhaps a league of sorcerers—who can see across worlds. We know they’re evil and that also they wanna get their hands on Sharra, having already separated her from her lover (whose name I can’t remember).

    I’ve struggled to write about this story, despite its length, because a) the plot is very abstract, and b) very little actually happens. Sharra is a refugee in Laren’s world, and Laren, being the sole keeper of his castle, takes her in as a guest. Laren doesn’t want Sharra to leave but Sharra has to find the gate to the next world at some point. Laren is not necessarily a sorcerer but he’s certainly a powerful being on this world where he’s the only human: he has magical healing powers, for one, and is also seemingly immortal. He’s also in contact with the Seven, and may be in cahoots with them. We get this lengthy explanation for how Laren knew Sharra before she came to his world and how her arrival did not strike him as a surprise, despite him having been by himself for—let’s say a stupidly long amoutn of time.

    “You are Sharra, who moves between the worlds. Centuries ago, when the hills had a different shape and the violet sun burned scarlet at the very beginning of its cycle, they came to me and told me you would come. I hate them, all Seven, and I will always hate them, but that night I welcomed the vision they gave me. They told me only your name, and that you would come here, to my world. And one thing more, but that was enough. It was a promise. A promise of an ending or a start, of a change. And any change is welcome on this world.”

    Somehow this does not concern Sharra too much—certainly not enough for her to go scrambling for a gate. A few other things I feel like noting, because to his credit Martin does try to generate intrigue with the setting while failing to do so with the characters. Like I said Laren’s world is barren as far as civilization goes, with his castle being stuck in the middle of endless forest; the castle itself also seems to be alive, acting of its own accord by, for example, turning its windows into stone at night as a security measure. During the daytime, though, Sharra and Laren are free to wander and hunt outside the castle as they please—so long as Sharra does not find the gate that is surely hidden around here.

    Something I’ve noticed about early Martin is that he was preoccupied with capturing mood over plot and character, sometimes to his detriment. I don’t know what was going on in his personal life at the time that made him write several stories about isolation and feeling disconnected from other people, but then again, anyone who grows up in New Jersey seems to go through a social maladjustment phase. (I wanna point out that John W. Campbell, fellow New Jerseyan and someone Martin’s been open about admiring, had kind of a shitty childhood that no doubt impacted his capacity to get along with others in adulthood.) It could also be that it was simply an artistic thing of his—one that he’s never entirely gotten over. Consider how music is great at capturing emotions but not action (hence most rock operas are kinda lame from a narrative standpoint), and how some of Martin’s fiction is clearly meant to evoke music: “A Song for Lya,” “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” “Remembering Melody,” and of course A Song of Ice and Fire.

    (I mean given that it’s a series of really long novels it should be called An Album of Ice and Fire, but I can see I’m getting distracted.)

    Another Martin story I’m reminded of here is “Bitterblooms,” which has a somewhat similar premise, what with someone (a girl, again) being rescued by someone who might be a sorcerer/sorceress (only it’s a woman this time!), and there’s this wiff of Stockholm Syndrome you get from the pages. The difference is that there’s a tangible sense of danger in “Bitterblooms,” an actual conflict between characters that reveals their unsavory sides and puts them to the test. Sure, you could say there’s conflict in the story I’m reviewing here: Sharra wants to leave and Laren wants her to stay. The problem is that Sharra doesn’t wanna leave that badly; she’s not desperate to rescue her lover, nor does she ever come up with a scheme to get rid of Laren. Sharra thinks strongly about leaving for about a minute and then is easily convinced to stay for God knows how long; she may even think Laren worthy of a pity fuck or five. In other words, there’s no imminent threat and no reason to worry, with even the Seven apparently taking a nap through all this.

    Much of the story’s 7,000+ words is speant on Laren monologuing about how lonely he is and how much he had been hoping for the day when he and Sharra would meet and he’d be, momentarily, relieved of his loneliness; this is the fantasy equivalent of writing about the tragic tale of a man who has not gotten his dick sucked since the days before 9/11.

    There Be Spoilers Here


    A Step Farther Out

    It took me only a lunch break to read this, but much longer to come up with something to say about it. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” is almost as pure a mood piece as you can get—at the expense of plot and even basic conflict. When I reviewed Martin’s earlier story “With Morning Comes Mistfall” (review here), I was impressed at how much he was able to do in the span of a dozen pages; sure, it too was a mood piece, but it was rich in characters, themes, and even prose style. It could just be that I much prefer Martin when he’s writing SF over fantasy, as for some reason I rarely find the latter convincing. I’m reminded of when I read “Blood of the Dragon,” which was Daenerys’s chapters from A Game of Thrones edited into a novella, and I thought much of the dialogue was cringe-inducing. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” did not make me cringe, but it did bore me more than a little. I think Martin went too far in one direction in an effort to capture a specific mood, which strikes me more as play-acting than genuine feeling, which is actually a problem some of his other early fiction has.

    See you next time.

  • Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 3/4)

    (Cover by Peter Phillips. New Worlds, September 1967.)

    Who Goes There?

    A bit of a tangent here, but I do recommend reading Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” also the film based on it. People of a certain generation might remember The Brave Little Toaster, but it’s a relatively obscure movie now and the source novella is doubly obscure. A shame, because even when he’s deliberately writing for a younger audience (or at least a less jaded audience), Disch has tricks up his sleeve. Disch’s writing sometimes raises questions of gender, of war, of the human condition in general—which is to be expected considering he was part of a wave of queer SF writers who happened to come along around the same time in the ’60s. Another thing Disch and his fellow New Wavers had in common was a love of literature that fell well outside the confines of magazine SF; he had read Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Joyce’s Ulysses, and he wanted to make sure you knew that.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 3 was published in the September 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is… not on the Archive. But it’s on Luminist! Just gonna link to the magazine’s page here, rather than the specific PDF; you’ll know where it is. You can get a used copy, as far as the book version is concerned, or you could buy a fresh paperback from Vintage. Apparently there’s an SF Masterworks edition of Camp Concentration as well, if you don’t mind it being British.

    Enhancing Image

    Last time we were with Louis he was in the midst of an existential crisis—which continues quite merrily here! Now, in reviewing novels installment by installment I’ve come to notice more the workings of structure, and how a novel that’s being serialized on a monthly or bimonthly schedule might be written in such a way that the author deliverately deploys peaks and valleys in the narrative. With Camp Concentration there have been crescendos of action and/or plot revelation at the end of each installment, with the stakes and scale of the action widening or even narrowing accordingly. Most of Part 3 sees a profound narrowing of scope, but the intensity of the action has not ebbed—only been funneled into what amounts to a drama of values between two characters. Interestingly, we’ve done away with dates for Louis’s journal entries at this point, not that I noticed much of a difference.

    Not only is Mordecai dead, but Camp Archemedes has become generally a much smaller and quieter place in the months since that event. That’s right, we’re experiencing not so much a time skip as a time slippage, and like water through the gaps between his fingers the people Louis has come to know and (maybe) love have all left him, to go the way of Abraham. By this point he doesn’t even have fellow prisoners to chat with, now being stuck with Haast, the man he despises most and yet feels a strange pity for. And what about Dr. Busk, the token woman of the group? She’s left house. “She has been out of sight, in fact, since the very evening of Mordecai’s death.” Make sure to put a pin in this one, because it’ll come back much later.

    While the cast has shrunk, however, we do get a new character in that we’re finally introduced to the camp administrator—man by the name of Skilliman. Does that sound a lot like “skeleton”? Hmm. And oh boy, he’s Haast’s boss! Holding your breath for his actual arrival will be quite the challenge, though, as we don’t see or hear much from him for most of Part 3. Before we’ve even gotten a good word from the guy we’re immediately told, rather indirectly, to be wary of him, partly because of his name and partly his backstory, which does not give the impression of a fine role model. A (thankfully small) portion of this installment concerns Louis writing a short story that’s based maybe a little too much on Skilliman’s life, with Haast does not approve; and, though I would not be eager to agree with Haast, I also would not approve, more so for the reason I found the story-with-in-a-story borderline unreadable. The best I can say of Disch’s little experiment here is that since it went in one ear and out the other, I can’t say it was painful.

    What’s of more interest is the changing relationship between Louis and Haast, which is naturally adversarial to an extent but which also seems to strike both men as a necessary evil. Sure, Louis could give Haast the silent treatment, but then who else would he talk to? He’s already losing his mind, and his body is following suit as well. (I’m not sure how much time Louis has left, since he’s been infected with the Pallidine for at least a few months now, and the physical symptoms of the disease have made themselves very much known. Our boy is having a bad time.) It’s here that we get what might be the most telling exhange in the whole novel up to this point, and unlike the fiery monologues that came before this is but a brief dialogue between Louis and Haast that says a lot about both the latter’s character and the integrity of Camp Archimedes—or rather the lack of it.

    I did ask him, jokingly, if he too had volunteered for the Pallidine. Though he tried to make of his denial another joke, I could see that the suggestion offended him. A little later he asked: “Why? Do I seem smarter than I used to?”

    “A bit,” I admitted. “Wouldn’t you like to be smarter?”

    “No,” he said. “Definitely not.”

    Even the director doesn’t want it. In case it wasn’t clear before, Disch does not think highly of the prospect of artificially heightened intelligence, not that this is a unique view among SF writers. How many cautionary tales have there been, especially in old-timey SF, where the protagonist or some other character experiments so as to raise their brain power, or even to force themselves into evolving beyond normal human capacity? I’ve mentioned Flowers for Algernon before, but I’m also thinking of Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, wherein the suddenly heightened intelligence proves to be as much a curse for some people as it does a blessing for others. If you think about it, Camp Concentration is not unique in its pessimism, although the delivering of said pessimism certainly raises eyebrows. I honestly can’t think of a magazine SF story published prior to Camp Concentration that was as vulgar, as shameless, as filthy, and yet as literary in combination with the vulgarity. While he teeters on being edgy, Disch knows what he’s doing.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    So, about Dr. Busk. Apparently the camp staff, even with the help of a nigh-infinite budget, have been unable to track her down; not only has she left the reservation, she’s seemingly gone into hiding completely. Personally I find the mystery of Busk’s whereabouts a bit hard to believe. I was also reminded about the plot point that, at least according to Haast, Busk was, despite being a fairly aged woman, a virgin; the keyword here, though, is “was.” Oh yes, now we’re getting to the big reveal of Part 3, and I have to admit it’s quite the climax despite Skilliman’s lengthy and kind of insane monologue toward Louis threatening to weigh down everything. Skilliman, being a late addition to the play that is the novel, is not as convincing an antagonist as Haast or even Busk, and it’s possible that Disch is aware of Skilliman’s lack of actual personality; even Louis is ultimately unconvinced. “Suddenly he [Skilliman] was not Satan at all, but only a middle-aged balding seedy administrator of not quite the first rate.” Just as well, because soon human villains will be outdone but a much larger and more shadowy threat.

    (One more thing: we did get another new character, in the form of Bobby Fredgren, Busk’s replacement, but if I’m being honest I totally forgot about him while in the midst of writing this review; I had to check my notes again to be reminded of his existence. Indeed the few characters introduced in this installment seem mere shadows of their predecessors, which might be intentional; I hesitate to call this shallowness a flaw.)

    You may recall that the prisoners of Camp Archimedes were infected with a special kind of syphilis, and syphilis is an STI. Sexuality—specifically the grotesque side of it—permeates much of Camp Concentration, but it comes back with a vengeance at the end of Part 3 as we find out that the disease, previously contained within the camp’s walls, has found its way into the outside world. It’s implied, and most likely true, that Mordecai had sex with Dr. Busk not long before the former died, presumably with the latter’s knowledge (I mean it would be impossible for her to not know)—specifically that the good doctor took it in the rear. I know, the “it doesn’t count if it’s anal” joke, some things never change. More importantly, Busk has possibly been spreading the disease among other people, which sounds evil as fuck if I’m being honest, but also coldly logical from Busk’s perspective. After all, the terminal status of the disease has no known cure, but suppose you infected enough people and someone were to find that cure…

    Well shit, we may have a crisis on our hands.

    A Step Farther Out

    The plot thickens!

    For a bit there I was worried we had run out of momentum and were just gonna devolve into mad ramblings from Louis, but things pick up again and we’ve reached the precipice of what might be a delicious climax. We’ve been stuck in Camp Archimedes so long that I forgot there was even an outside world to think about, but that’s just what Disch was counting on anyway. The world suddenly opens up again, but not in a ray-of-hope kind of way; rather the horrors inflicted on the prisoners of Camp Archimedes now reveal themselves as a real danger to the outside world. I have heard from some reliable sources, however, that the ending for this novel is… not good; so I’ll be going into the final installment with modest expectations.

    See you next time.

  • Novella Review: “Memorare” by Gene Wolfe

    (Cover by Mondolithic Studios. F&SF, April 2007.)

    Who Goes There?

    People generally fall into three camps when it comes to Gene Wolfe: they haven’t heard of him, they respect him but they find it hard to get into his work, or they really go to bat for whom they believe to be one of the best writers ever. I fall into that second camp. Wolfe was no doubt brilliant, being more literary and sophisticated than most of his New Wave contemporaries. He sold his first story in 1951 but did not start writing again with any regularity until 1966, from then on becoming more or less affiliated with the original anthologies like Orbit and Universe that were cropping up at that time. Nowadays Wolfe is most known for The Book of the New Sun, a series of four (or five, depending on how we count Urth of the New Sun) novels that are meant to be taken as one whole. Even though I struggle to get through The Book of the New Sun personally, it’s hard to deny its mixing of far-future science fiction and low fantasy has a unique appeal.

    Today’s story, “Memorare,” is not a case of Wolfe playing with genre boundaries, though, being spacefaring sciennce fiction from start to finish. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has, over the decades, done several special author issues, typically involving a cover depicting the author, a tribue essay, and a short story or novella by said author which was specially commissioned for the issue. “Memorare” is a standalone novella that was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and for newcomers to Wolfe it may serve as a good introduction to his strengths—if also one or two of his weaknesses.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the April 2007 issue of F&SF, which is on the Archive. As far as reprints go, you have two options. “Memorare” got a chapbook release in 2008 from Wyrm Publishing, looking quite fetching due to the cover, which looks like a poster for a ’50s B-movie. That same year we got our second and final reprint, as part of Year’s Best SF 13 (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), marking its only anthology appearance. In other words, this thing has not been brought into print since 2008, which is a bit odd considering it was clearly an acclaimed work. Could we get a collection that focuses on Wolfe’s more recent short fiction maybe?

    Enhancing Image

    Gordon Van Gelder’s opening blurb for this story references Survivor (boy, what a dated reference that is), which is relevant because what follows is basically a survival adventure narrative. March Wildspring is a documentary filmmaker who at the moment is a bit down on his luck, trying to cobble together footage for a show on the asteroid memorials that are sprinkled around Jupiter and Saturn. He travels around in his ship, in a world where for some reason spaceships are called “hoppers,” with a “digicorder” which is basically a camera; I don’t know why Wolfe has a tendency to not call things as they simply are. This all sounds simple enough, even boring enough, since at first you might think that taking footage of mausoleums in space would be straightforward—but this is a Gene Wolfe story.

    In the future, certains persons of the filthy rich and famous (and perhaps insane) variety have opted to enshrine themselves in space, specifically in the asteroid belt where they could say, “I wanna build a tomb inside that,” and they might actually get their wish. The logistics to build one of these things must be a fucking nightmare, but Wolfe and the characters don’t dwell on that part so much aside from noting that, at least as far as the materials needed, it could be done. But should it…? To make things worse, these memorials sometimes have traps set in place for those who wanna do some graverobbing, which on the one hand makes sense if you’re someone who has some really valuable loot placed in your tomb, but also, this all sounds a little bit insane. I don’t know what it says about March that he’s also crazy enough to be doing this shit (the tomb-raiding) regularly enough that he wants to make a whole documentary about his experiences.

    Something that didn’t occur to me until just now is that world of “Memorare” is not that dissimilar from John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, in that the solar system has been more or less colonized entirely and people, more often than not, hop across moons and planets for the sake of tourism—of fighting off boredom. There are some differences. For one Earth has not been taken over by aliens in “Memorare” (indeed aliens are absent here, so cross that off the list), and also the solar system is a bit more dangerous in Wolfe’s story. In the Eight Worlds stories people are rarely in danger to the extent that their lives could end permanently; it’s actually quite hard to die for real in the Eight Worlds series, so conflicts not involving permadeath are preferred. But in “Memorare” people die permanently, and often violently. “Every year, five, or ten, or twenty don’t make it back,” says March when referring to fellow travelers among the planets.

    Right, one more thing. Certain tomb owners can cheat death (but not really) by reproducing their likenesses with a hologram or even an android; this is not the same as cloning and memory backups in the Eight Worlds, but it’s the closest people can get to life after death. The uncanny result of all this is that March can (and indeed does) interview what are effectively the ghosts of the owners of these tombs, as hologram projections or droids.

    The first half of “Memorare” is pretty episodic, with March hopping around before meeting up with his business partner and love interest, Kit, whom he desperately wants to marry but can’t—at least partly, according to Kit, because of their careers. I don’t wanna dwell on Kit too much because I’m not really a fan of her character—or the other leading lady of the story, for that matter. I’ll explain why in a minute, but let’s say Wolfe is setting up a love square that detracts from the narrative more than it adds. Few authors, even the good ones, do romance well, and Wolfe has yet to convince me he’s one of those few who can make it work. We’re soon introduced to Robin, Kit’s friend and, as it turns out, March’s ex. We had heard before that March is a divorcee, but apparently he’d been divorced twice, one of those times with Robin. Indeed Robin used to go by the name of Sue, but she had it legally changed.

    March and Robin’s relationship was not a happy one.

    Robin whispered, “He’s my ex. Kit.”

    “Jim?” Kit goggled at her. “I saw Jim. It was Wednesday night.”

    “Not Jim. Oh, God! I hate this!”

    March said, “It’s been years since the final decree, Kit, and the proceedings dragged on for a couple of years before that. I had abused her—verbally. I had said things that injured her delicate feelings. Things that were quoted in court, mostly inaccurately and always out of context. I had persecuted her—”

    “Don’t! Just don’t! Don’t say those things.”

    “Why not?” March was grim. “You said them to a judge.”

    “I had to!”

    Jim, by the way, is Robin’s current partner, a gaping asshole who for some reason talks like a 1930s gangster; we’ll get to him in a minute. The thing about Wolfe that tends to keep me at arm’s length with him is that he is basically never direct with the reader, opting instead to hide behind characters who are rarely honest with anything, even themselves, plus his thing for shrouding plot details in ambiguity. As far as the plot goes “Memorare” is actually straightforward for Wolfe, there’s surprisingly little in the way of narrative trickery, but that part about unreliable characters is still there—for what purpose I cannot say. The relationship between March and Robin is arguably the dramatic focal point of the story, yet it’s also the murkiest: for one we’re never sure how trustworthy either’s side of the story is, but Robin’s frazzled demeanor implies that her side of things is to be taken with a grain of salt. I have issues with this situation.

    Another problem I have with Wolfe, which I really do think is a shortcoming of his and not just a matter of personal taste, is his blind spot for writing female characters who are both sympathetic and three-dimensional; or rather he has a hard time doing either when it comes to women. I know, it’s not a unique criticism, especially for a man of Wolfe’s age, but what separates Wolfe from, say, Harlan Ellison, is that it’s not hard to figure out why Ellison has a misogynistic streak: he’s an angry short guy who went through one messy divorce too many. With Wolfe, however, the man’s writing is so controlled and so meticulous that I have to assume his light but conspicuous misogyny is there for a reason—only I can’t fathom what that reason is. Of the four main characters March is the only one who is allowed to never sound like a cartoon, but he’s also the only one who’s never framed as all that untrustworthy. Protagonist bias? Then again he’s very much not a perfect person; he makes mistakes and it’s his own personal hell, namely his relationship problems and more implicitly his crisis of faith (of course he’s Catholic, if only lapsed), that drives the plot.

    Wolfe is known for several things, among them his devout if also pessimistic Catholicism which crops up in his fiction, often only subliminally. Secular readers have less of an issue with Wolfe than, say, Flannery O’Connor, because unlike O’Connor Wolfe is never trying to convert the reader. For the record I do like O’Connor, despite not being Catholic or even Christian, because she’s so damn good at what she does (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a Catholic horror story, and one of the greatest horror stories ever written), but Wolfe’s worldview is despondent enough that he’s much more on the side of Graham Greene than O’Connor; or to put it more in the context of genre fiction, think of Walter M. Miller, Jr., although Miller was despondent enough to despair in the end. “Memorare” is certainly dark, though, with its constant imagery and talk of death, never mind the muddy relationships between the four main characters, with love and life itself on the line. About half the “characters” we read about are people who are already dead, their specters merely lingering in the dark rocky vaults of space.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The latter half of “Memorare” is concerned with what is supposed to be one of the most dangerous tombs in the solar system: Number Nineteen. This is a strange, even surrealistic place, host to a crowd of people and founded by someone whose name is somehow unknown, though he must have been unspeakably wealthy to have such an elaborate tomb constructed. Number Nineteen is basically a world unto itself, despite being only an asteroid; this naturally means that footage of the interior would go for a lot of money—if March and company can make it out in one piece. By this point Jim has caught up with the rest of the party and joined in the festivities. I really hate Jim. That’s okay, because Jim is the only character we’re unequivocally supposed to dislike. Everything that comes out of this dude’s mouth is bullshit, be it what he’s saying or how he’s saying it—never mind that, regardless of Robin’s testimony, it’s clear that Jim is an abuser and almost proud of it; his offscreen death at the end is a little satisfying.

    What’s far less satisfying, even horrifying, is Kit’s abrupt and violent death just as she and March are about to escape. It’s one of the most effective and disturbing little pieces of writing I’ve seen in a while, regardless of how I had felt about Kit’s character up to that point, made only more shocking because March does not react to it immediately. Robin chooses to stay behind so that March can escape, and sacrifice affects him deeply. The only good thing here is that the footage March got is, at least according to his boss, incredible, with his company buying it pretty much on the spot. Sure, his personal life may be ruined, but at least he’ll be all set financially. That’s gotta mean something, right? Obviously there’s some cynicism on Wolfe’s part about the exploitative nature of reality TV, which after all is documentary filmmaking taken to a more sensationalist level—ya know, like those shitty and problematic “true crime” documentaries that get popular on Netflix.

    But then we get to the very end.

    We get a list of credits for the documentary March wanted to make, with dedications to Kit and Jim. We also find out with these credits, however, that not only did March go back to Number Nineteen and rescue Robin (okay) but that they also… remarried in the time between the rescue and the documentary’s release? They’re both listed as editors with Robin taking March’s last name (again). Now, documentaries are mostly made in post-production; it could take a year or a damn near a decade to cobble together a documentary in the editing room. Regardless, there’s a whole story here with March and Robin getting back together that’s hinted at but which goes untold. The real issue I have is that everything we’ve seen up to this point indicated that no matter how much they might forgive each other and reconcile, getting back together would be a bad idea for both parties. Like obviously these two are a toxic couple—whether that toxicity is mutual or one-sided doesn’t matter ultimately. I suppose this is meant to give of us a ray of hope at the end, but as far as bittersweet endings go I find the sweet half far less convincing than the bitter.

    A Step Farther Out

    I’m a bit mixed on this one. The good news is that I went in worried that “Memorare” would be Wolfe in typical cryptic mode, and it actually ended up being more accessible than I expected. Despite being a pretty late work of his, “Memorare” is something you can recommend to someone who has not read Wolfe before and they probably won’t bounce off of it. Wolfe’s Catholicism is a bit more overt here than in much of his fiction (that I’ve read, anyway), but like any good storyteller he uses his worldview to enrich his work thematically and emotionally, which is very much the case here. The downside is that Wolfe’s blind spot when it comes to writing women rears its head with a vengeance in “Memorare,” the misogyny being turned up a notch or two for reasons I can’t fathom. I’m also not sure what Wolfe’s deal is with the anachronistic dialogue; given the chapbook’s cover there’s this running theme of “retro” science fiction, a sort of throwback, but I don’t understand what the purpose of that connection is. Despite my gripes, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wanna see this, and some of Wolfe’s more recent short fiction, preserved in a new retrospective collection.

    See you next time.

  • The Observatory: Science Fiction’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Oscars

    (From Everything Everywhere All at Once, 2022.)

    So the Academy Awards happened last month, whose proceedings were impressive for both good and bad reasons. I don’t mention it often, but I’m a film buff. I majored in film studies and for a couple years I tried (and failed) to find a position in that industry. Still, while film is my wife (on paper), science fiction is very much the mistress I love at least as much if not more—like with those lovey-dovey letters Albert Camus wrote to his mistress. As such I have a history of getting excited and subsequently let down whenever it looked like an SF film might gain that most coveted of film awards: the Oscar for Best Picture. Hell, in the 2000s we had two Hugo winners (for Best Dramatic Presentation) that were also quite eligible for taking that Oscar, those being Gravity and Arrival. Gravity is all style and no substance when you get down to it, but while Arrival had no realistic chance of taking on La La Land and Moonlight, it would’ve been a very deserving winner.

    Thing is, up until 2023 there was not a single SF movie that won Best Picture—an award that’s actually gone to a few fantasy films (including another Hugo winner with The Return of the King) and even a horror film with The Silence of the Lambs. But no science fiction. Indeed most of the classics in the genre, which nowadays are held up as high art and placed alongside such films as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, were not even considered for Best Picture. To think that 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most revolutionary film of its kind for a good decade, was not up for Best Picture, its biggest nomination being for Best Director (which it should’ve won handily). Blade Runner, even in its somewhat botched theatrical cut, would’ve been a fine contender, but not only was it not nominated for Best Picture, the legendary and absolutely BANGER score by the late Vangelis was not up for an Oscar either. The Empire Strikes Back, the best and most sophisticated of all the Star Wars films, was also snubbed, although, for what it’s worth, A New Hope was a major contender for Best Picture.

    Most recently, prior to this year’s Best Picture winner, there was Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s fresh adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. Villeneuve already won a Hugo for Arrival and he’d win another for Dune, but both movies, on top of being superb science fiction, were also Best Picture nominees. Dune swept the technical categories (visual effects, sound, etc.), but to everyone’s dismay and confusion, Villeneuve was not up for Best Director. HUH? How did this happen? Oh yes, this movie which conveys a sense of scale and awesomeness very rarely seen in any medium was apparently helmed by someone who did not deserve recognition for heading that visual strength and cohesion. (He got nominated for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, but you know what I mean.) Dune is not unique in this fuckery, though, because the decades-long relationship between science fiction and the Oscars can be boiled down to SF films doing well in technical categories but eating shit everywhere else. Amy Adams gave one of her best and most acclaimed performances in Arrival, but she got snubbed, I guess because great acting can be discounted if aliens are involved.

    Some truly bewildering snubs, especially for movies that in hindsight have aged better than their competitors… but recently this all changed, or at least a major exception was made. Yeah, you know I’m gonna talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once, albeit not in too much depth.

    I saw EEAAO in theaters twice, and that was about a year ago. I had been following Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan since their first feature together, Swiss Army Man, one of the most lol random but also charming indie films of the 2010s. A lot of people didn’t like Swiss Army Man, but upon seeing it some years ago I knew that we were dealing with giants in the making, which is why EEAAO‘s excellence did not strike me as a surprise. It’s a visual wonder of a film, especially impressive considering its small budget, and while thematically it’s not as deep or layered as it could’ve been, it does a lot with so little. The direction and editing were the highlights for me, along with costume design that, again, went pretty hard given the limited resources. The performances, despite the occasional silliness, were also all around excellent, with special mention going to Ke Huy Quan, who deservedly won awards at pretty much every ceremony.

    What surprised me a good deal more was how EEAAO not only instantly became one of the most acclaimed films of 2022, but how it built up an inertia for awards attention that it never lost. After a while I started to think, “Could this be the one…?” There were a couple things going against it, namely that it was released theatrically way back in March, and also that it was produced by A24, who for several years had a bad reputation for not bothering to campaign their movies properly during awards season. The biggest obstacle, from my perspective, was that EEAAO is unabashedly and unambiguously SCIENCE FICTION; it’s goofy and unhinged, but the basis for its universe-hopping hijinks is very much science-fictional. There’s an internal consistency and set of rules for how one is supposed to tap into the lives and “powers” of one’s alternate selves. The film’s logic is actually not dissimilar from a short novel I reviewed some time ago: Fritz Leiber’s Destiny Times Three. The line between a Campbellian Golden Age romp and a movie with a mostly Asian cast that came out last year is straighter than you’d think, but the point is that this movie was not Oscar material.

    Until it damn near swept on the big night, anyway.

    It won Best Picture, but it also became the first film in Oscar history to win Best Picture and also three acting Oscars. Only two films had done that before, those being A Streetcar Named Desire and Network. It was the first Best Picture winner to win more than five Oscars since Slumdog Millionaire. It was the second ever Hugo winner to also win Best Picture. It was, as I said before, the first SF movie to win Best Picture. It was both a critical and financial success, and already the Daniels have a blank check to do whatever the hell they want with their next film—this time with Universal writing the check. The Daniels are clearly intelligent, if quirky, filmmakers, but of their two films together only one has been science fiction, so I’m not sure yet if they’re students of the field or if they rather simply used science fiction as a diving board for a plot germ that couldn’t have happened without SF trappings. Villeneuve clearly loves science fiction for its own sake, for its capacity to explore all avenues of human thought and emotion in ways other genres don’t allow, but it could be that people in the film industry were charmed by the Daniels and their film because neither seemed all too loyal to any genre, never mind science fiction.

    The question I have at the end of all this is: Does this mean we’ve finally broken the glass ceiling with SF being respected by the Academy? Personally I don’t think so—not yet. EEAAO went up against big odds and won out, but it might also turn out to be the exception that proves the rule. True, it’s the second Best Picture winner in five years to feature a predominately Asian cast, and it did manage to get away with some insane gags and an overall lack of predictability; and yet EEAAO‘s runaway success tells us surprisingly little about the collective attitudes of industry folks who partake in these award circuses. We’ve been burned before. Remember Parasite winning only a year after Green Book? 12 Years a Slave the year after Argo? (I like Argo, but it’s a very by-the-book kind of movie.) Then we had Nomadland, a protracted Amazon commercial, and CODA, a movie nobody has actually seen. The Academy getting it right with EEAAO feels inexplicable, and that’s because it might have been. Maybe none of this means anything.

    We’ll see…

  • Serial Review: Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (Part 2/4)

    (Cover by Eduardo Paolozzi. New Worlds, August 1967.)

    Who Goes There?

    There’s debate as to when the New Wave of science fiction started, since certain works, such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, anticipated the transgressions made during that movement. Authors who would be often affiliated with the movement, such as Kate Wilhelm, R. A. Lafferty, and Harlan Ellison, also usually got their start in the field well before the mid- to late-’60s height of the New Wave. Another author who came around just in time was Thomas M. Disch, who in the ’60s saw pbulication on both sides of the Atlantic, in both the US (ohh) and the UK (eww), and aside from having the handicap of being a filthy British magazine, New Worlds proved to be the ground where Disch could be his saltiest and most transgressive. Camp Concentration saw serialization in New Worlds in 1967, just before that magazine was to run into some real legal (on top of the already financial) problems, and thus, regardless of its flaws (I do have some quibbles), it can be seen as emblematic of New Worlds during its peak, despite being written by an American author. Disch’s novel would see book publication in the UK the following year, although weirdly American readers would have to wait until 1969 for an American edition.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 2 was published in the August 1969 issue of New Worlds, which is on the Archive; and just to keep my bases covered I think this will be the first time I’ve linked to Luminist. Just be aware that PDFs on Luminist tend to be BIG, including this one, but at least its collection of New Worlds is more complete than the Pulp Magazine Archive’s. As for book versions there aren’t a lot of options, but it looks like the Vintage paperback is still in print and readily available, so yeah, probably go for that.

    Enhancing Image

    Before we get to the plot, which there isn’t a whole lot of for this installment, let’s talk about interiors and how they can relate to the stories they’re supposed to be illustrating. Sometimes an interior, depending on where it’s placed, can be illustrating something that has already happened in the text, or it can serve as a kind of foreshadowing, alluding to something that will happen later in the text but which, upon seeing the interior, we will not have read for ourselves yet. Part 2 of Camp Concentration opens with an interior by Zoline, depicting a rabbit on its hind legs kissing a cherub, which sounds transgressive but also like a non sequitur—for now. Believe it or not this is a pretty good use of illustrative foreshadowing, as it sets up the meat of what is to come in Part 2, though we’re not able to connect those dots yet. I guess it’s NSFW, given the cherub’s dingus is hanging out, but that’s also not an uncommon sight in religious paintings and sculptures.


    Last time we ended with a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus that went wrong, with the magic pixie dream boy George having fallen violently ill with what turns out to be a condition all the prisoners at Camp Archimedes have—a condition that gives them only months to live. George soon dies and there’s a funeral held for him; we didn’t get to know him very well, but he clearly serves as the sacrificial lamb for both Camp Archimedes and the novel, Disch seemingly telling us that even the most innocent of the lot are not safe. Louis, who was already an unhappy camper (lol) before this, threatens to have a breakdown.

    The prisoners do things to preoccupy themselves, partly because the drug they’ve been given has heightened their intelligence and thus their need to satiate cognitive activity, and partly to keep their minds off the fact that they will all die rather soon. Louis starts writing a three-act play of his own, titled Auschwitz: A Comedy, which perhaps for the best we learn very little about. This is one of those little things about the novel that can be taken as either simply edginess for the sake of itself or a bit of very dark comedy; I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I’m reminded of a line in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors wherein a character insists that comedy is simply “tragedy plus time,” a philosophy Disch might agree with—that is to say, once enough distance in time is made from a terrible event, that terrible event can be warped and recontextualized to become funny.

    Louis has another conversation with the camp doctor and local Ms. Exposition (not to mention the novel’s only female character), Dr. Busk, where we’re finally told what exactly the prisoners have been injected with, because it’s not just any drug. To make a long story short, the prisoners of Camp Archimedes have been infected with a highly advanced form of syphilis, that most horrible of vinereal diseases in a pre-AIDS world which sees the victim succumb to insanity, then death. Some famous people thoughout history were known, or at least suspected, to have contracted advanced syphilis, the most famous example probably being Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet, as Dr. Busk points out, these people who were ultimately ruined by the disease also seemed to have flashed of brilliance amidst the madness that could have been a direct result of the disease, and though he is loathe to admit it, Louis has to agree somewhat.

    But it has been suggested—and by some very reputable people (though they were not usually in the medical line)—that neuro-syphilis is as often beneficent as it is at other times malign, that the geniuses I’ve mentioned (and many others that I might add) were as much its beneficiaries as its victims.

    Meanwhile there’s an apparent rivalry between Haast and Busk with regards to certain activities the prisoners take up to preoccupy themselves, with Haast being on the side of the mystic and Busk being on the side of the materialist—a rivalry that involves Louis and Mordecai. Mordecai, last time we saw him, had taken a keen interest in alchemy, which by now has blossomed into an autistic fixation. It’s here that we get the most memorable scene in the installment, and the point of inspiration for that opening interior illustration. Mordecai, who by this point become perhaps a little unscrewed mentally, introduces Louis to his three “familiars,” those being rabbits who have also been infected with the disease and who subsequently only have a short time to live—though for them it’s a matter of weeks rather than months. The rabbits seem to all be male, for they also have incredibly swollen testicles because of the disease.

    That’s one half of the equation for the illustration, but we’ve not quite reached the other half involving the cherub yet…

    There’s an obvious parallel between the prisoners and the rabbits, with the two being treated more or less the same. Testing on animals, and rabbits especially, has historically been pretty common, to the point where the imagery of rabbits in cages in some laboratory has been shorthand for experimental (and unethical) testing. I do have to wonder if Disch was thinking of Flowers for Algernon when writing Camp Concentration, since the two have similar premises and play with the same notion of accelerated human intelligence. Of course, the premise of Flowers for Algernon is actually a bit more implausible because scientists, no matter how unethical, would not test their hypothesis on a single rodent and then greatly upscale that experiment for a human. Disch also uses his premise to comment on the US government’s gross treatment of protestors during the Vietnam war; it’s not hard to think the government at this time would see infecting a bunch of naysayers with a terminal disease in the name of “science” as a convenience, even killing two birds with one stone.

    I know I mentioned this in the previous installment, but the Tuskegee experiment, wherein dozens of African-American men were unknowingly infected with syphilis, was still in progress, unbeknownst to Disch and the rest of the American public. The lesson here is to never underestimate the potential evils of government—then or now. This is all made extra eerie since Mordecai is easily the most prominent black character among the ensemble, and it’s clear that he’s also been taking his condition not too well. We’re never sure how sincere Mordecai is being about his turn towards mysticism, but what’s not so ambiguous is that he’s dying, and he’s a man in the midst of an existential crisis. “The whole goddamned universe is a fucking concentration camp,” he says at one point, and for him that might indeed be true; for a terminally ill man, where freedom is impossible, life itself has become a prison where “escape” means death.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    Mordecai, with Haast’s approval, performs a religious ritual on Midsummer’s Eve, one which pushes Dr. Busk’s buttons, but while the not-so-good doctor is triggered in the short term (of course the one female character is a total stick in the mud), she feels morbidly vindicated when the “elixir” Mordecai has been working on seemingly has no effect; not only that, but Mordecai dies, pretty abruptly, before completing the ritual. Haast, who really did believe in Mordecai’s promise as an alchemist, feels betrayed by both his death and the lack of effectiveness of his studies, and he has quite the episode. Mysticism has failed, and materialism does not provide a cure for the specter of death which plagues them all.

    What’s strange about the series of revelations in this installment is that Louis treats his own terminal condition like it’s supposed to be a surprise; like sure it sucks that you’ll die from syphilis in a few months, but given what we’ve known up till now I would’ve just assumed that was the case. Of course it makes sense symbolically, in a deal-with-the-devil fashion: Louis and the other prisoners were trapped in more conventional prisons, ones which had shitty living conditions but which at least showed the posibility of release, and they made a deal with Haast where they got to live in an underground facility that was more like a hotel than a prison—only, unbeknownst to them, they had all been given death sentences. Still, I can’t always make sense of Louis’s reactions to plot developments, like how I also can’t tell if he’s merely a lapsed Catholic or an apostate; he certainly sounds concerned with the theological minutia of the Church scriptures.

    Speaking of which, the actual ending of Part 2 is a protracted dream sequence, which Louis is somehow able to recall in detail (writers beware that dreams, and the recollection of dreams, basically never work this way), wherein he has a rather odd conversation with a monstrously fat Thomas Aquinas, with cherubs as minions. Louis, eyeing one of the cherubs, notices something worrying about it, “the distressing inflammations that had swollen its tiny scrotum and caused the poor thing to walk with a strange, straddling gait.” Does this sound familiar? Now it all adds up… sort of. I’m still not quite sure what Disch means with the swollen testicles bit, but he’s clearly drawing a line between rabbits and people, with cherubs standing in for the latter. There’s also a subliminal homosexuality about all this, since both the rabbits and cherubs, given their genitals, are supposed to be male. (I know what you’re thinking: that sounds bioessentialist. I’m talking specifically in the context of the novel, which is so lacking in women anyway that male homosexuality is all but inevitable, even without Disch’s teasing.) What could it all mean, though? I’m not sure yet.

    On a final note, we’re one again reminded of the Faustian theme of man’s hunger for knowledge at any price, with Aquinas’s obesity being symbolic of his insatiable hunger for knowledge. Obesity is typically used in fiction as shorthand for a character’s greed (a gross demonizing of obesity that even left-leaning people are guilty of using at times), but at least here I can sort of look the other way since Disch is using it less to illustrate Aquinas (who after all is just a figment of Louis’s imagination here, and thus a projection of his own insecurity) and more to illustrate Louis’s character, not to mention how it ties into the novel’s general thesis. How problematic this all could be considered is a topic for another time, perhaps.

    A Step Farther Out

    Sorry for the relative brevity of this one, but given how short these installments are and how pressed for time I am I don’t see why not. There’s also not a whole lot to say with this one, since it has middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome written all over it—just replace “trilogy” with “quartet.” Something I’ve come to realize about this novel is that, structurally, it has peaks and valleys: there’s a long conversation or three followed by a Very Important Event™ that changes the course of the plot. We have scenes where characters are just talking, which in some way set up what’s about to transpire, followed by a crescendo wherein Louis’s world is rocked.

    Strange thing about Part 2 in particular is that we get basically two climaxes: the first one with Mordecai, and then at the end we have the dream sequence with Aquinas which, admittedly, bordered a little too much on padding for my liking. I think I get where Disch is going with the latter, symbolically, but given how short this novel already is I have to wonder if he drew out the dream sequence as long as he did because he realized oh shit, one of the novel’s major characters is dead and we’re only about halfway through. Still, it says something about the evocativeness of that symbolism that I’m still thinking about it a couple days after having read it.

    See you next time.