Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Amis/Conquest, Spectrum 2 (1962)

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (edd.), Spectrum 2: A second science fiction anthology. Gollancz, 1962.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad.

This is the second of the Spectrum anthologies edited by Amis and Conquest, in which they present a handful of high-quality science fiction stories originally published in the late 1940s or early '50s. These two writers are both known in-genre and respected in literary circles, and part of the agenda behind these anthologies (explicitly recounted in the introduction) is hinted at in the epigraph:
‘Sf’s no good,’ they bellow till we’re deaf.
‘But this looks good.’—’Well then, it’s not sf.’
This volume includes stories by authors as legendary as Aldiss, Asimov, Dick, and van Vogt, as well as luminaries whose names may be less familiar to twenty-first century readers. Pieces range from visionary and thrilling, to silly and dated, but all are important examples of their type, and fit as well into the literature of the mid-twentieth century as they do into the history of the genre. I picked up a battered copy of the Pan paperback reprint of this volume from the £1 clearance shelf in a London bookstore, and this review will be one reader's personal reaction to each of the eight stories within.

The opening story, Wyman Guin's 1951 story 'Beyond Bedlam', is both the longest and one of the most dated pieces in the collection, being a slightly silly tale of a future society in which schizophrenia has become the norm, and people's alter egos are strictly controlled by drugs and allowed to live for 50% of the time each. The background is set with one of the most clumsy excuses for an info-dump in the writer's arsenal: a history project delivered by a schoolgirl in front of her classmates. The necessary drama is provided by a couple who cheat the system in order to have an affair with someone they should never meet, who should be a repressed personality while the other is "on top". The society in which the story is set is stuffy even by 1950s standards (albeit more sexually liberated), and the characters are flat and unsympathetic. I suppose there could be a social/political moral to this piece, along the lines of the pressure to conform finally persuading even the rebel that their punishment is for the good of society (in the manner of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published only two years earlier, and is immeasurably more mature).

A second, shorter story is a much better read: 'Bridge' by James Blish, first published (in Astounding, like fully half of the pieces in this volume) in 1952. Not really a character piece, although there is an unconvincing romantic sub-plot between the protagonist and a slightly petulant, not-terribly-competent female co-worker. The glorious hero of this story however is the giant planet Jupiter, in the swirling gases and raging storms of whose surface a group of human engineers are building a massive bridge of ice. The constant perils of this fragile, continent-sized structure, buffeted by the planet, built by robots controlled from orbit, in constant danger of collapse and failure, make an image as beautiful and alien in its own way as Solaris, the sentient but unutterably alien planet-ocean. When it turns out that the bridge is an experiment, an exercise in testing and developing physics and engineering rather than having an end in itself, it becomes even more beautiful: like life, it is all process, not object; all experience, not outcome.

The first overtly political piece in this anthology, Brian Aldiss's 'There is a Tide' (1956), involves a meeting between two very different brothers on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. One a poet, the other a hugely influential geo-engineer, they have different attitudes to the sculpting of the African landscape to modernize the world, as they do to the huge genocide that wiped the white race of the planet within living memory. A sensitive and daring story, Aldiss brings down the wrath of the Earth on the heads of his hubristic protagonists, faces them with a history that never forgets nor forgives atrocities, and a civilization that is even more at the mercy of the Earth than the world is subject to the engineering of an advanced society. The first reading of this story is a little odd, because a "reveal" in the final page feels a bit cheap, but the second reading shows how this was prefigured and consistent throughout the tale. Certainly one of the better, more convincing stories in the collection.

The only story I had read before picking up this classic anthology was 'Second Variety' (1953) by Philip K. Dick, a creepy Cold War story set on the devastated battlefield, where allies and "Ivans" alike are at the mercy of the "claws", automated weapons designed to evolve and be the ultimate, unstoppable killing machine. Unlike the 1995 Hollywood Screamers, which sets the war on a distant mining world, includes a light-hearted sidekick, slick dialogue, a romantic interest, and a pathetic slushy ending, Dick gives no redemption to his world or his characters anywhere in the piece. This is another Dick story about humans' ability to destroy themselves, and our inability to tell real people from convincing fakes. With existential panic and shattered-earth despair, this story is both more modern and more gripping than any other piece in this volume. Amazing to think it was written in the same decade as many of these others.

Isaac Asimov's 'The Feeling of Power' (1958) is simultaneously the most old-fashioned and—as is often the case with Asimov—the least dated story in the volume. A slightly silly, but clearly allegorical tale about a future in which humans have become so reliant upon calculating machines that no one has the ability to perform even basic multiplication. Sad to think that this cautionary tale is even more important today than it was in the 1950s (if we think in terms of scientific and logical literacy as a whole, rather than merely arithmetic).

Another very silly story, and one whose origins in 1955 (Astounding, again) make it a bit difficult to take seriously, is 'Sense from Thought Divide', by Mark Clifton. Involving an engineering exercise to harness the power of (offensively stereotyped; admittedly charlatan) swamis and psychics, equally unconvincing and unsympathetic characters, a plot revolving around the person-management skills of an amoral and patronizing boss, and science that is neither speculative nor credible, left perhaps the least memorable story of the anthology for me.

Much more memorable, if a somewhat typical classic scifi plot, was A.E. van Vogt's 'Resurrection' (1948). Aliens visit an uninhabited but clearly far future Earth, and set extremely cautiously about resurrecting one or two long-dead humans they find preserved in a museum to try and find out what happened to the planet. As they move from distant history to more modern (and posthuman) corpses, they find that the natives have acquired some quite incredible powers, and end up taking awful measures to try to ensure the survival of their own species from the terrible people they have awakened. The plot is all very dramatic and genuinely gripping, although the characters (being both alien and 1940s military stereotypes) are not very interesting or sympathetic. Certainly a well-written story and worth reading (and perhaps imitating).

The last piece in this volume, 'Vintage Season' by Henry Kuttner (original 1946) is one of the most interesting and original tale in the collection. At the start of the story, with a tone almost suggestive of Lovecraft, a rather weak-willed protagonist welcomes three unsettlingly alien guests to a rented wing of his house, while his fiancée persuades him to try and eject them to make more money from a prospective buyer. The alien guests turn out to be both more tenacious and more alluring than either the buyer or the fiancée, and the host finds himself drawn into an affair with a quite unreal woman and mesmerized by the entertainment technologies and media she surrounds herself with. Of course, in this twisted tale of alienness, timelessness, and fate, the protagonist is lost even before he is exposed to things he should never know, and his weakness of character means he is powerless even before forces beyond his imagining are ranged against him. When the final tragic climax comes, all this means it is hard to mourn the shallow society that is suffering such painful toils; nor is there much comfort in seeing the hollow sophisticates that will follow in a later age. A quite bleak and inventive piece.

Interestingly, this 48 year-old collection of the "worthy" science fiction of its day contains a round mix of stories. From those that are as silly and forgettable as one might expect of pulp literature from the middle of the last century, to those that contain the genius and fire that make them the recognized classics they are, via a middle few that are surely worth reading for all their flaws, and which I should probably never have picked up were it not for this exercise. I'm glad that I did.

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