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 a 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.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rector, Around a Dark Corner (2008)

Jeani Rector, Around a Dark Corner. Turner Maxwell Books, 2008. Pp. 310. ISBN 9780956188403. £8.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

This is Jeani Rector’s second collection and an example of an author who is steadily improving and developing her style. She has definitely corrected some of the weaknesses evident in her first collection and moved from the some of the traditional horror tropes it contained to the grey-shadowed, more subtle regions of that gothic land inhabited by the writers of dark fiction.

The anthology opens with a gruesome, amoral and enigmatic tale involving ‘The Dead Man’ and his killer. The reader literally stumbles on an unnamed narrator who is trying to dispose of the corpse of the title. There is a lot of medical detail and the protagonist’s plight is engaging and unnerving, right up until the final, shocking moment.

Following hard on its heels is the rather clumsily titled ‘A Medieval Tale of the Plague’. As a story it is compelling and tense, the atmosphere of fear, the filth and horror of medieval London in the midst of the Black Death is well described and vivid. Tension is cranked up relentlessly as the feisty young heroine first tries to hide from the contagion, then escape the capital. A cracking good yarn, but the effect is spoiled by some very anachronistic and jarring transatlantic language; “I figured...”, “Next street over...” and “Hi...” for example. Not terms used by medieval English - as far as I know. This is a shame because the research and the ambience of the story were authentic up to this point.

‘The Spirit of Death’ is a corker; a tale of seduction and dark and very bloody rituals. Nicely atmospheric this one, and filled with a sense of encroaching doom. In ‘Horrorscope’ we have a disturbed son who is determined to make sure his horoscope comes true at any cost. Again, tightly plotted, well-written and nasty. ‘In any Language’ takes us to Mexico at the time of the American civil war as a deserter comes face to face with a very different violence to the one he has fled south to escaper. The actual horror is traditional, but given a fresh lick of paint by its setting and a lively, energetic telling.

Another disturbed gentleman with an unhealthy interest in ‘Maggots’into a horror of rotting flesh and obsession. There is enough detail and sensory description to make this a story to be avoided at meal time.

‘Flight 529’ is an oddity, a card Rector first revealed in her last collection Open Grave and one I like - the retelling of a true story. In Open Grave it was a personalised version of the genesis of the Ebola epidemic, this time it is the first-hand experience a man involved in a plane crash. The description of the awful realisation that something was very wrong, the terror of the descent, the preparation for imminent impact and the desperate fight for survival that follows all draw the reader in and puts you, white-knuckled, into that seat. The final act of great human courage is both inspiring and as good as any fictional account.

This is followed by my favourite, ‘Lady Cop’. This piece is Terry’s Favourite (I always have one) and a longer, first-person narrative that takes us into the world of a woman police officer. What makes this story stand out is a sense of authenticity and a strong emotional engagement with the protagonist. The cop is a rookie, anxious to impress but treated with disdain by her male partner and colleagues. The case is a nasty one, a murder. Step-by-step the story takes the reader through procedure, emotion, the tension surrounding the case and its brutal dénouement and aftermath. There was a sense of truth about ‘Lady Cop’.

Next is ‘The Golem’ about... well, it does what it says on the tin, and more so because it is a retelling of a Jewish legend. Set in the Prague Ghetto in the 16th century, the story centres around Rabbi Loew who is forced, reluctantly, to take desperate and supernatural action to protect his people from yet another wave of brutal persecution. The problem is that it is very hard to close the door on what comes through from the darker regions. This one is a good historical piece, with no anachronisms or jarring Americanisms. Leow’s dilemma is well presented and the story moves at a cracking pace.

The collection ends with a novella called ‘A Teenage Ghost Story’. Again, a clumsy title that gives too much away because essentially it is about a teenager and... well... a ghost. That said however, the story itself is another compelling, engaging tale that keeps those pages turning. The teenager at the centre of the tale is, thankfully, not the kind of whining, Oh-My-God princess Hollywood throws at us with its endless High School and then-there-were-none slasher movies, but a very personable young lady who quickly wins the reader’s affection. The supernatural element is perhaps not entirely original but the page-turning narrative does draw you in as it races neatly towards this dramatic conclusion.

The cover art is suitably gothic and provides the right feel for the collection. However, I’m afraid the publisher has messed up, certainly with my copy. The spine text is upside-down and off-centre. While not detracting from the stories themselves it doesn’t give the sharp, professional feel necessary to sell a book. And it is unfair to an author who has done her part in laying down some good prose and fine stories. Hopefully this has been rectified.

At her best, with ‘Lady Cop’ for example, Rector displays a keen eye for detail and an ability to engage the reader emotionally with her characters. The same, though to a lesser extent is true of the closing novella. There are some fine dark moments and enough morbid detail and nasty surprises to keep most horror fans happy. There are some predictable endings, but even they can be forgiven because the prose is friendly, likeable, the book is an acquaintance, relating some terrible and dark things that they heard about or experienced.

So, an immensely enjoyable collection of well-plotted and readable stories. There is a mixture of original and traditional–in the horror sense–work, but even the familiar monsters are given a fresh feel and there is no trace of tiredness to them. The historical and real-life re-telling is an interesting string to Rector’s bow, and one I hope she develops further, providing the research and attention to detail–particularly the dialogue–is sound. This is different and works well. Another admirable quality of Rector is that she has taken criticism of her first book on the chin and acted on it to produce a much improved and enjoyable work.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Dolan, Another Santana Morning (2008)

Mike Dolan, Another Santana Morning. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 195. ISBN 9780955318153. £5.99 / $12.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This collection stands out a little from the usual fare from small press favourite Elastic Press, by having a more laid-back feel than most. The stories collected here by Mike Dolan veer wildly from fantastic, through trippy, magical, realist, to allegorical, with a generous helping of childlike enthusiasm and innocence. A similar collection to this was first published in 1970, but fell victim to an obscure distributor (who specialised in porno rather than sci-fi) and disappeared rather quickly. The author has apparently not been active in science fiction in the intervening years, but he has come back strongly with this volume. In places the writing feels naive, the content perhaps dated (even in the case of previously unpublished pieces), but this is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of 1960s and '70s genre fiction that remains relevant and readable to this day, despite being obviously written in a different time.

Among the most vivid pieces in this volume is the title story of the original collection, 'Santana Morning'. An old man lives a lonely existence in the desert, with his dog and his dreams, when suddenly a young woman appears out of nowhere and moves in with him. This woman is so perfect, so dreamlike, so malleable, like something moulded from his very needs, that the story becomes pure sexual fantasy at this point. When he realises how young she is, on top of all this, he rejects her as an unrealistic dream, sending her away as though she never existed. His loneliness is somehow natural, deserved, inevitable, or at least better than fantasy would have been. It may sound somewhat bleak and moralizing, but this story is full of humanity, of sensitivity for a lonely man's emotions, obsessions and social weaknesses. Stunning stuff.

Another story from the original collection is 'Of a Yellow Summer', the protagonist of which is a tired old man, bereaved, tired and down, who buys a knock-off aerosol called "Summertime" from a huckster dwarf. The powerful vernal scent and colour and light of this unlikely product takes him back to his childhood, where he meets the one girl he ever (briefly) loved... This is a story with a clever, ironic twist on the "changing history" trope: the old man falls while averting the tragedy he has spent his entire dismal life blaming himself for. The story then switches to that of an old woman, who has been alone her whole life, meeting the dwarf and perhaps getting her own chance to relive and change history? As a science fiction story, the time-travel paradox is clumsily side-stepped; as a study of human nostalgia, guilt, and obsession with the past, it is sensitive, moving, and entertaining in equal measure.

A previously unpublished story seems to follow this theme: 'Of Another Yellow Summer' has a dystopian setting, with television news showing nothing but perpetual war, young people being conscripted to fight, and the old forced into "retirement". The protagonists are an old couple whose lifelong home is about to be repossessed because they are too old to keep it—the "Summertime" spray, unlike in the previous story, somehow transports the couple to a cheesy, mom n' pop neighbourhood with pretty lawns and a family that respects them. All this is rather clichéd, and the story is much weaker than the original it harks back to.

The volume opens with another new story, 'The Street of the Storytellers', in which a young would-be raconteur feels unable to compete with the established and experienced tells on the street around him. Wondering which of their stylistic techniques he should emulate in order to win an audience for himself, he finally decides just to be himself, which is the only honest tactic as well as the most effective, since only effortless storytelling is attractive to the listener. As well as being rather blatant allegory for the struggle of the writer to find a voice, I found this a little unconvincing, not to say naive—since it takes a lot of effort to give the impression of artlessness; true artlessness is either incompetent (and not much fun to listen to) or disingenuous. In fact it is only through the deep study of writing styles both past and present that you can choose a voice and be sure that it is your own. That pedantic point aside, as a story this works well, and it opens the volume appropriately.

'Some of My Best Friends Are...' is another story with rather crude allegory: this time it is humans' prejudice against intelligent orangutans that is being contrasted to the racism of American rednecks. The "irony"—that the chauvinist protagonist is himself black (in an splendidly colour-blind future USA)—is also delivered clunkily and as a punchline. The whole business is laid on rather thick, and I'm not sure who it was meant to convince.

One of the original stories, which really feels old-fashioned, is 'Journey by Heliodrome', the story of a travelling salesman who acquires a pedal-powered flying machine and uses it to fly all over the world and have amazing adventures. This piece is rather reminiscent of balloon-journey stories such as Poe's 'Hans Pfaall', and is therefore old-fashioned beyond anything else in this collection. Although this story lacks much by way of drama or climax, it is charming enough in itself.

One recurring theme in this book is a rumination on the nature of the sexes, specifically the different needs and therefore behaviours of men and women. Two stories in which this theory is propounded most explicitly are 'Trudy's Eyes' and 'Strange Lover', both supernatural horror stories of very different flavours: the former is a grim and joyless tale of a young boy trying to deal with the fact that his father is raping his sister; the latter of a woman trapped by a sexual presence seemingly created by her own masturbatory fantasy. Both stories are sexual in different terms—neither is erotic in a titillating way. The theory of the sexes, which is harmless enough in a pre-Mars/Venus context, is broadly speaking that men are always trying to give of themselves, to quest outwards, to spread, to invade others, while women, who contain an emptiness, seek to take others in, to fill themselves, to invite. Although this philosophical musing is less problematic and stereotyping than the crap you get in self-help books from the 1990s onwards, it is still at best pop-psych, describing the cultural fantasies of the Western male rather than exposing any psychological sexual dimorphism. In as much as it helps to drive the relationships between characters, however, this theorizing works as plot device, and perhaps should not be taken too seriously.

One of the most moving and sensitive pieces in this collection is 'Memory', a truly dark and tragic tale a of a little girl waking from unconsciousness after an accident with a little brass dog. She has been out for so long, it seems, that in her confusion and disorientation she might even be dead...

If I have sometimes been critical of the writing or the ideas behind these stories, it is in an attempt to be constructive and to put into context what is actually a very varied and competent collection. The horror is very strong; fantasy is quirky and charming, rarely too clichéd; there are trippy and surreal pieces that are almost prose-poems; even the overt humour is passably successful (which is really saying something, since this reviewer rarely finds "comic" stories to be the least bit amusing).

Some aspects of Dolan's writing need more work (but don't we all!). I hope this author is still writing, and will keep publishing in the small press and the genres that he has been absent from for so long. With this wonderful back-story, I have no doubt that a fresh start and new works will lead to the creation of many more excellent and moving pieces of writing.

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