Three From Moderan: David R. Bunch

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #52, 53, 54 of 107: Three From Modern by David R. Bunch

How and why do we read old science fiction stories and novels? Our Facebook group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction is one explanation. The VanderMeers picked stories they want to save from obscurity and published them in this anthology. Their author introductions tempt us to read other stories and novels. Most people pick books that look interesting to them at the bookstore or read books friends or famous people on television recommend. A few readers might even read stories I write about on this blog. But sometimes readers pick books on specific themes or styles.

The past is full of great stories, but then new great stories are being published all the time. We’re torn between reading the latest versus the classic. Do you ever contemplate what you read and why? Or do you merely stumble upon your next read?

Our next three selections to discuss are three sections/stories from Moderan by David R. Bunch: “No Cracks or Sagging,” “New Kings Are Not For Laughing,” and “The Flesh Man From Far Wide.” The last appeared in the November 1959 issue of Amazing Stories, but the other two might have been written for the book, which first appeared in 1971. Evidently, Bunch was working on this weird theme for a very long time.

There is a new 2018 edition of Moderan from the prestigious New York Review of Books that contains an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. That might explain why the VanderMeers chose to include three stories by Bunch for our anthology. It’s kind of significant that NYRB reprinted this book. Here’s their sales blurb for it:

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.

What’s kind of funny is while I was researching Moderan, I discovered I owned a Kindle copy of the NYRB edition, which I haven’t read, and probably picked up as a $1.99 bargain book. I wish I could reprint VanderMeer’s introduction. However, you can read it by going to the Look Inside feature at Amazon.

Obviously, some people think this book is special, but my reading of these three sections has only mildly interested me. Reading the hype and history of the book intrigues me more, so I might be tempted to read the entire fix-up novel. I’d be even more likely if there was an audiobook edition, but there’s not. I tend to get into iffy books easier when I’m listening and a good narrator is helping me out.

Moderan first appeared fifty years ago. It was quirky then, written for a quirky time. We live in a much different time and quirky in a much different way. We live in what’s some people are calling the Post Doom era. That catchphrase merely means civilization is on the decline, and we’re already suffering climate change. The advocates for this philosophy suggest instead of hoping society will change and do something to avoid climate catastrophes, that we should start adapting to the new reality. This is an interesting concept for science fiction readers. Instead of reading endless Max Max post-apocalyptic futures, or scenarios of escaping Earth into space, imagine futures where we hunker down and endure.

Moderan is a book about post-civilization, thus making it timely for today’s readers. But will it resonate with them? Unfortunately, I think not. It’s too far future-ish. It’s told in an almost allegorical style. And it’s not literary enough, in my opinion, to widely appeal to readers of eccentric works. I believe being so long out-of-print attests to that.

Moderan imagines a post-civilization of cyborgs and mechanical beings, but not a realistic one. It doesn’t work as science-fictional speculation or extrapolation, thus making it a kind of odd fantasy world. Thus I believe its appeal is going to be limited. I imagine readers who love outré fictional worlds, such as the novels by Mervyn Peake or the short stories of R. A. Lafferty could enjoy Moderan. That kind of fiction only works for me when I’m in rare strange reading moods.

Yet, thinking about this book makes me think about post-civilization novels. I’m afraid science fiction hasn’t done a very good job of imagining the real possibilities. The only works I can think of are recent novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially New York 2140 and The Ministry of the Future.

Because we’ve actually entered into a post-civilization phase I have to wonder how readers will react to all the old science fiction that imagined a much different post-civilization existence? Science fiction has produced endless speculations, but now that we opened Schrödinger’s box and reality is gelling on what will be, will science fiction change course?

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James Wallace Harris, 12/1/21

“Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #51 of 107: “Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki

“Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki is an entertaining New Wave/experimental story told with traditional storytelling techniques that first appeared in English in the January-February 1989 issue of Interzone but originally appeared in Japanese in 1968. I don’t know how translations work, but “Soft Clocks” feels very English, like something from the Mod/New Wave 1960s. Strangely, it reminds me of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, but then both are about a love story set on Mars.

“Soft Clocks” blends the imagery of Salvador Dalí with science fiction and psychiatry to create an antic avant-garde science fiction tale. The setup for the story is DALI OF MARS, a rich artist living on the Red Planet, hires a psychiatrist from Earth to select the best suiter for his granddaughter, Vivi. Vivi has many suitors, either because of her money, or her beauty, but probably not her personality. She is anorexic and has been treated by the first-person narrator from Earth when Vivi is 18 and visiting Tokyo. This psychiatrist referred to as Doctor, has come to Mars to interview Vivi’s many suitors. She is now 21. The Doctor is also in love with Vivi but considers it unprofessional to vie for her. He interviews several strange men who want Vivi, hoping to find a man who can handle her fragile personality. Vivi is technophobic, creating several problems for the story.

“Soft Clocks” comes across as a collaboration of the weirdness of Philip K. Dick and the silliness of Robert Sheckley. I would never have guessed it was written by a Japanese science fiction writer. Soft clocks are an invention of professor Isherwood, mechanical devices made from rheoprotein. They are editable and look like the floppy timepiece in the famous Salvador Dalí painting.

This story was entertaining, but not great. “Soft Clocks” has tasty ingredients. It has decent characters, a decent plot, a good setting, and zany imagery, but doesn’t quite bake into a delicious dessert. I never cared for Vivi, who is the object of desire for many of the characters. Actually, I was more drawn to Carmen, a kleptomaniac prostitute, a minor character. Humor in science fiction is hard to pull off. On another day, this story might have tickled my funny bone, but not today. “Soft Clocks” reprint history suggests it was never a popular story.

This not quite working was often true for Sheckley’s funny science fiction stories. However, Sheckley’s stories sometimes transcended their silliness. That’s what’s missing from “Soft Clocks” for me.

Rating: *** (close, but no cigar)

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

“Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

I was reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg when I got diverted by the group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I had left off at the beginning of “Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The story originally appeared in the May 1956 issue of F&SF and might be Kuttner’s last SF magazine publication before he died in 1958. It was the last story that Asimov and Greenberg ran in their Great SF series by the husband and wife team.

I’ve been reading The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) in order since 2018 and want to get back to that series and finish it. This really is a great anthology series but they’re out of print. That’s a shame. You can find them on ABEbooks and eBay but they are going up in price every year. There are pdf copies on the net if you look around. I wish DAW would reprint them and get someone to continue the series. Robert Silverberg did do #26 (1964) with Greenberg for NESFA Press which connects nicely into Wollheim/Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction anthology series that began in 1965. However, I like how Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating SF stories for each year decades after the fact.

I can’t say I agree with all their choices. “Rite of Passage” is a well-written tale full of ideas but little emotion, something I’ve been talking about lately. Lloyd Cole is the Black President for the Communications Corporation. Kuttner and Moore have imagined a future where people believe in magic, and Cole is the president of black magic. Corporations also have white presidents.

Here’s the kicker, magic isn’t real, but everyone believes in it. Cole’s job is to cast evil spells under contract for his clients. “Rite of Passage” is about how Cole wants to get revenge on a man who stole his wife by appearing to kill him for a client, thus providing a cover-up for his own intentions.

“Rite of Passage” is rather long, a novelette that feels like a novella. Most of the content is world-building Kuttner and Moore use to flesh out the background of the story. I only enjoyed two pages of the story, which I believe is the inspiration that Kuttner and Moore used for writing the story:

Evidently, the stress of 20th-century life made people lose their critical thinking abilities embracing magic, with corporations exploiting that vulnerability. This is a neat idea. It’s even somewhat prophetic, but political parties are exploiting peoples’ irrationalities. This neat idea is not enough to give this story a heart. Lloyd Cole is not a nice guy, so we’re not sympathetic for his devious efforts to get his wife back. It’s somewhat ironic that others use magic against Cole, and he succumbs even though he knows magic is not real.

“Rite of Passage” is a case where the story is dominated by ideas, appealing only to our intellect. I’m sure some readers will find it amusing and even entertaining. Obviously, Asimov and Greenberg did, but I didn’t. If I had felt for Lloyd’s love for Lila, I might have cared more. Lila drives Lloyd’s revenge, but she’s only an idea, not a real character. It’s a shame that “Rite of Passage” didn’t have the depths of emotions shown in “Vintage Season.” They both seem to have the same amount of world-building.

The classic science fiction story from 1956 that Asimov and Greenberg did include having powerful emotions is “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight. It’s doubly impressive because the protagonist is truly unlikable. Yet Knight eventually gets us to sympathize with him.

Probably the most remembered SF story today from 1956 is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. It’s another intellectual story, but it has a tremendous sense of wonder, the favorite emotion of science fiction readers.

James W. Harris, 11/27/21

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones was so uninteresting to me that I wasn’t going to write about it. Then I got to thinking about the comments posted by Joachim Boaz for the last story. He didn’t like my statement “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.” Besides disagreeing with it, he thought I was being too absolute. I should have clarified things by saying, “For me, fiction works best when it’s not solely intellectual.”

There’s nothing emotional in “The Hall of Machines” and it has generated lackluster support on our discussion of it. But Austin Beeman commented, “Since so much of Sf is setting, story and characters are not always necessary. Found this story beautiful and haunting. Really enjoyed it.” Evidently, stories without emotions do have their fans.

I could have amended my original statement to say, “Since I’ve gotten older, fiction works best when it’s not only intellectual” because I can remember a time when I liked stories just for their neat ideas. But even then, none of those stories would rank in my list of favorite stories.

I remember trying to read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a novel with many fans and critical support. However, I thought Pynchon was only being clever and just couldn’t find anything to love about the characters or plot and quit reading. My guess is fiction that focuses on intellectual entertainment has admirers and that’s why Joachim was so annoyed with my statement. But I still assume most readers want an emotional connection with fiction. That doesn’t mean those same books can’t have intellectual value, I’m just saying it’s the emotional connection that makes readers love a story.

If you look at any list of best novels or short stories, most, if not all, succeed because of their emotional impact. “The Hall of Machines” has nothing for the reader who wants a character to care about. I was surprised by how little I could find on Langdon Jones. Wikipedia redirects queries on his name to the entry on New Worlds magazine. I could only find one photo of him on Google. I haven’t read anything else by Jones, but if “The Hall of Machines” is typical for his fiction, I can understand why he’s not remembered.

Evidently, the VanderMeers do like stories with an intellectual focus. It explains why I haven’t liked several of these stories we’ve already read. I should be less critical of their inclusion because I’m guessing from Joachim’s complaint such stories do have their admirers. I apologize.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

“Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany was my favorite young SF writer I discovered back in the 1960s when I was growing up. I started out reading Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, but they were all old writers who had been around for years. Delany, Le Guin, and Zelazny were a new generation, SF writers who began publishing in the 1960s as I began to read new science fiction as it came out. They felt exciting and different from the old writers I loved. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is still “The Star Pit.” But looking back, I realized I only liked a very few works by Delany: “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, Nova, and Dhalgren. I bought his collections, Driftglass (1971), Distant Stars (1981), and Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) as they came out, but I never got into his short works, or later novels like those stories I first read in high school.

I’ve read “Aye, and Gomorrah” several times over the years and I think it’s an impressive work, especially when you consider it’s Delany’s first published story, and was the closing story in the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. However, it doesn’t excite me like my favorite Delany stories. And when I think about that, I think it’s because I resonated with Delany’s colorful space opera at a time when I was an immature teenager daydreaming of space adventure. Later on, in the late 1970s I read Dhalgren, and I was impressed with its adultness and size. Actually, I was impressed that I finished such a large novel. It was full of vivid imagery but not thrilling action, like my favorites.

Most of the stories in Driftglass except “The Star Pit,” but including “Aye, And Gomorrah” are interesting to me intellectually because I’ve read some of Delany’s nonfiction books, and they hint that his short stories were somewhat autobiographical. Delany was traveling during those years and he put his life experiences into his science fiction stories. I’ve been wanting to find the time to read In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume 1, 1957-1969 to see if that hunch is true. Delany does appeal to my literary side and there are times I want to study his early work by delving into his biographical information, and literary criticism. But that’s a whole different kind of fun than just reading a science fiction story for science fiction fun.

“Aye, and Gomorrah” uses science fiction to explore sexuality and gender, but it feels more literary than science fiction. That isn’t a criticism, but a way to explain why I like it less than Delany’s space opera. And I must also admit, sexuality and gender have never been important themes in my fiction reading. If you’re part of the lowest common denominator in any group, then understanding unique members is via abstractions. I do a lot of nonfiction reading about sexuality and gender in hopes of achieving insight, but it’s always intellectual. And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.

Maybe here’s another angle of explanation. I love the music of Bob Dylan. I’ve bought most of his albums over my lifetime as they came out. But I favor Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde way above all the other periods of Dylan’s career. There are times I’m into his folk period, and other times I’m into his Christian albums, and other times I’m into Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but nothing compares to his 1965-1966 period to me. I’m the same way with Delany. I can get into his other periods, but I’m really hung up on “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, and Nova.

I’m sure artists hate when their fans fixate on a period. I bet Le Guin got tired of everyone talking about The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven and not reading her many later novels. And Heinlein probably got sick of all his fans who couldn’t get beyond his 1950s novels.

When I read “Aye, and Gomorrah,” I want to analyze it like an English assignment. And that has its fun aspects, but it’s not why I read science fiction. And I believe this line of thinking explains why the VanderMeers included so many stories I don’t like. They get excited about literary aspects of science fiction that I don’t. And that’s cool.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/23/21

“Student Body” by F. L. Wallace

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #49 of 107: “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace

I’m curious why the VanderMeers jumped back to 1953 with “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace? Our last story, “Day Million” was from 1966, and we’ve been going pretty much in year order. And even though “Student Body” has a small level of popularity, it is a big step backward. Project Gutenberg reprints “Student Body” online probably because the copyright wasn’t renewed for the March 1953 publication in Galaxy Science Fiction.

F. L. Wallace, according to ISFDB, produced science Fiction from 1951 to 1961, mostly short stories in the magazines, with only one novel to his name, Address: Centauri, published by Gnome Press in 1955. F. L. Wallace is essentially a forgotten SF writer. ISFDB doesn’t even have a photo for him. Nine of his stories were reprinted in one of those cheap megapacks on Amazon, again probably from copyright neglect.

In their introduction to the story, the VanderMeers writes:

“Student Body” (Galaxy, 1953) showcases Wallace’s adroit handling of environmental issues in a manner more sophisticated than that of most writers of the era other than Frank Herbert (at novel length). Complex issues involving both alien contact and the impact of invasive species are housed within a tense plot. Although “Student Body” received no particular accolades upon publication, it endures as an example of a work ahead of its time—a future classic.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t find the story adroitly handling environmental issues or being more sophisticated on the topic than other writers. Neither is the plot tense or first contact complex. “Student Body” is a nice little magazine story based on a somewhat interesting idea. Like many SF stories from that era, Wallace gets an idea and clobbers together a minimal plot and characters to present the idea. Just compare it to “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz, a story we read earlier from 1955. That story was no great shake of a story but deals with alien ecology far more adroitly, with more tension, complexity, and characterization.

“Student Body” has been reprinted in some decent anthologies, so it does have its fans, but I’m not one. The problem of the story, a constant threat of new animal life on the colony planet is somewhat interesting, unfortunately, its solution is unbelievable. Undermining what charm “Student Body” does offer, is spoiled by a plodding narrative structure. My hunch is Wallace was inspired by stories by Eric Frank Russell, especially “… And Then There Was None” from 1951, but “Student Body” lacks its charm and sophistication in dealing with an alien world.

I will admit the story starts out promising a load of fun. The colonists sleep outside the ship on the first night and wake up naked. That’s a promising premise for a potential funny story. Unfortunately, Wallace abandons that tack quickly, asking us to believe a small rodent-like creature gnawed the clothing off the people while they slept, and no one notices or woke up. If Wallace had solved that mystery in a different clever way, this could have been a fun story. But it’s like that old advice to writers, don’t show a gun unless you use it in the plot. Don’t titillate the reader with mass nudity unless you have a funny plot solution.

Rating: **+

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James Wallace Harris, 11/21/21

“Day Million” by Frederik Pohl

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #47 of 107: “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl

“Day Million” by Frederik Pohl comes in at #25 on Dave Hook’s 125 Top SF Stories list. That’s pretty good for a story that appeared in a third-rate men’s magazine back in 1966. I was 14, so I wasn’t buying Rogue at the time, although I would have been mightily excited to have any men’s magazine back then. (Full nostalgic disclosure – I wouldn’t have read “Day Million” or any of the printed matter.) I did read World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967 edited by Wollheim and Carr, which reprinted the story, but I don’t remember reading “Day Million.” When I reread that anthology last year I remembered most of the stories, but not that one. Either I didn’t like it and skipped it, or it was so over my head that it made no impression.

When I finally got around to reading “Day Million” a few years ago I was impressed. And I’m still impressed. Pohl’s speculation about the far future and post-humans is quite nifty, and I think his philosophical points are still valid today. However, I’m not so sure it’s a short story. If the table of contents had listed it as nonfiction, and the editor introduced it as a speculative essay about future sex and romance I wouldn’t have quibbled.

Pohl tells us about Dora and Don in this hipster-voice that’s 50% of the entertainment value of the story. Of course, I don’t know if hipster would have been the right word for 1966. Playboy, the famous competitor of Rogue, promoted itself as the sophisticated guide for the swinging male, AKA, The Playboy Philosophy. I wonder if Pohl originally submitted “Day Million” hoping it would run right after the centerfold.

I thought Pohl’s idea of imagining day million was brilliant, although I’m not so sure humans will be around for our millionth day, and if we are, be that different. A lot of science fiction written since “Day Million” seems to assume we will — does that mean Pohl set the trend? Many modern stories have post-humans like those in “Day Million.” And Pohl seems pre-enlightened for our emerging acceptance of transexuals.

I’m not really attacking this story when I quibble about it sounding like an essay. Pohl knows how to tell a real story. Pohl is jazzing out by rifting on the structure of storytelling, but I also think he’s cheating. I’m talking about the old rule of show, don’t tell. Infodumping is telling a story. And this story is all infodumping. Pohl tells us that Dora and Don have a genuine relationship. It would have been masterful storytelling if Pohl have shown Dora and Don being in love so we truly felt and understood it, and not just told to us by a smart-alec narrator begging us to disbelieve him.

Pohl should have taken the time to give us The Crying Game, but revealing Dora’s lack of X-chromosome in some less crude but clever science-fictional way. And as we’ve already learned way sooner than day million, that a beautiful transexual female isn’t hard to accept. It would actually be much harder to make his readers believe an amphibious post-human would be attracted to cyborg post-human. Even harder to make believable, is showing people in the future being emotionally satisfied with a virtual mate.

Remember, Pohl only tells us these things will be true. Intellectually, we might want to believe the future will offer all these possibilities, but when it comes down to it, Pohl never even offers us any intellectual evidence, much less triggers emotional resonance through showing us dramatic evidence.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/19/21

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty

If my memory serves me right, and more and more I suspect it seldom does, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” was the first story I ever read by R. A. Lafferty. I’m pretty sure I read it in World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The last scenes. where Ceran Swicegood is winding his way down into the hill seeing smaller and smaller grandmothers is what stuck with me. I vaguely remember being somewhat charmed and feeling somewhat WTF. This was weird science fiction, but it was amusing. The next thing I read by Lafferty, was half of an Ace Double called Space Chantey. I passed this book to my friend Connell and George and the three of us got a lot of laughs out of it. After that, I read Lafferty’s stories but none of them were as much fun as these two. I often wanted to like them, and sometimes I was mildly amused or even somewhat impressed but never entirely loved.

This time when I read “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” I was far more taken with the story than any of the other times. Maybe it was because I was listening to When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon and they were putting me into a receptive state. Music sometimes does that for me when I’m reading. Or maybe the story fairy sprinkled magic reading dust on me. Who knows, but this time I enjoyed “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. That’s always wonderful when it happens.

Check out these opening paragraphs to see if you’re charmed by Lafferty’s words:

Ceran Swicegood was a promising young Special Aspects Man. But, like all Special Aspects, he had one irritating habit. He was forever asking the question: How Did It All Begin? 

They all had tough names except Ceran. Manbreaker Crag, Heave Huckle, Blast Berg, George Blood, Move Manion (when Move says “Move,” you move), Trouble Trent. They were supposed to be tough, and they had taken tough names at the naming. Only Ceran kept his own—to the disgust of his commander, Manbreaker. 

“Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood!” Manbreaker would thunder. “Why don’t you take Storm Shannon? That’s good. Or Gutboy Barrelhouse or Slash Slagle or Nevel Knife? You barely glanced at the suggested list.” 

“I’ll keep my own,” Ceran always said, and that is where he made his mistake. A new name will sometimes bring out a new personality. It had done so for George Blood. Though the hair on George’s chest was a graft job, yet that and his new name had turned him from a boy into a man. Had Ceran assumed the heroic name of Gutboy Barrelhouse he might have been capable of rousing endeavors and man-sized angers rather than his tittering indecisions and flouncy furies.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 502). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

There are times in my life when I also tried to contemplate how it all began so I can’t help but identify with Ceran Swicegood’s quest. I’ve always thought there should be nothing — our existence should be impossible. I wish Lafferty could have given us the explanation. I’ve always concluded that because we’re here, that means never-existing-nothingness is an impossible state. From that assumption, I assume reality is the unfolding of every possible state of being. And that includes a dimension where a guy name Ceran Swicegood visits a planet where there’s an infinite number of grandmothers that might know the real reason.

R. A. Lafferty knows the pain of contemplating our existential origins and considers it a big joke.

“Tell me,” he pleaded in agony. “All my life I’ve tried to find out how it began, how anything began. And you know!” 

“We know. Oh, it was so funny how it began. So joke! So fool, so clown, so grotesque thing! Nobody could guess, nobody could believe.” 

“Tell me! Tell me!” Ceran was ashen and hysterical. 

“No, no, you are no child of mine,” chortled the ultimate grandmother. “Is too joke a joke to tell a stranger. We could not insult a stranger to tell so funny, so unbelieve. Strangers can die. Shall I have it on conscience that a stranger died laughing?” 

“Tell me! Insult me! Let me die laughing!” But Ceran nearly died crying from the frustration that ate him up as a million bee-sized things laughed and hooted and giggled: 

“Oh, it was so funny the way it began!” 

And they laughed. And laughed. And went on laughing…until Ceran Swicegood wept and laughed together, and crept away, and returned to the ship still laughing. On his next voyage he changed his name to Blaze Bolt and ruled for ninety-seven days as king of a sweet sea island in M-81, but that is another and much more unpleasant story.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 507). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I was only sixteen during this period in my life when I first read these stories. I attended Coral Gables High School in Miami, Florida, and worked at the Coconut Grove Kwik Chek bagging groceries. I was into science fiction, rock music, space exploration, and the counter culture. It was a time when I was discovering new science fiction as it was published after several years of reading old science fiction books I got from various libraries. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were my big three during the 1964-1966 years. My next big three were Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny. Plus I was discovering all kinds of new writers in the annual anthologies edited by Donald Wollheim and Judith Merril. It was during this period, I began subscribing to F&SF, Galaxy, and Analog, and joined the Science Fiction Book Club. By then I was a science fiction addict.

For over forty stories I’ve been waiting to reach this period in the VanderMeers’ anthology. And in just a few stories we’re going to zip right past this time period I love so much. I wish we could stay much longer. Plus, there are some other stories from 1966-1967 that people really should know:

  • “The Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny
  • “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
  • “The Last Castle” by Jack Vance
  • “Neutron Star” by Larry Niven
  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Faith in Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritiz Leiber
  • “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

And that’s not counting the memorable novels from those two years:

  • Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  • Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
  • The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Roberg A. Heinlein
  • Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
  • This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Using Lafferty’s idea from this story, I wish humans made a little copy of themselves from each year of life. I’d love to have a shelf of little Jims that perfectly remembered each year. That way I could ask my former selves what really happened.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/16/21

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #45 of 107: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison is #3 out of 125 on Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading List of SF short stories. That’s pretty impressive since Hook’s list is a meta-list generated from several lists. And we’ve finally reached the time period in The Big Book of Science Fiction when I began reading stories as they came out in the magazines. However, I didn’t catch this Ellison in the December 1965 issue of Galaxy, but in Wollheim’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966. (I did buy that issue of Galaxy a year or so later in a used bookstore, probably for about 10 cents. That’s when I first learn to love science fiction magazines.)

If you noticed, Ellison wasn’t mentioned on either cover nor did the story get any interior illustrations. Evidently, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” wasn’t immediately recognized as a future classic. But it didn’t take long to become one of the most anthologized SF stories ever.

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1966.

But I don’t know why. Ellison’s razzle-dazzle prose to me is merely yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” Sure, it’s a fun anti-establishment story from the 1960s. And I liked it a lot better back then. But now, I find its over-the-top wordy antics felt just like I felt watching the first episode of Batman back in 1966 — campy to the point of being embarrassing.

Like I said, when I was young Ellison’s stories impressed me with all their screaming and sneering and self-righteousness. Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary were cool too, in the sixties. But looking back through decades of hard-earned maturity, they now only look like clowns.

I got to see Ellison lecture twice, and both times I hung around afterward when young people tried to disagree with him. He was the fast draw that all the gunslingers wanted to take on. You didn’t want to be standing too close to them either because Ellison would roast them with his fire-breathing dragon replies. When I was young I enjoyed seeing Ellison’s skill with words, especially when he used his sharpest wit. Now, not so much.

That doesn’t mean I dislike this story or dislike Ellison. I will always love the guy who wrote: “Jeffty is Five.” I’m just burned out on all his famous pyromaniac-prose stories. I need to read through his collections and find some quiet tales suitable for my old age.

Besides, I like being on time and I get irked at having to wait for people that aren’t.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/15/21

“Darkness” by André Carneiro

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #44 of 107: “Darkness” by André Carneiro

The VanderMeers made my reading expectations too high when they quoted A. E. van Vogt saying that “Darkness” by André Carneiro was one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written. It was good, very good indeed, but not great. Also, they misled me by saying it was a “depiction of a world where people are suddenly blind.” It is a story about everyone not being able to see, but they do not go blind. I read the story twice trying to discern exactly what happens and the best I can tell, light stopped working. The people could still see, but light from the sun slowly dimished, as did light from flashlights, matches, stoves, fires, etc. The world is thrown into darkness.

This is a disaster story with its usual plot arc. A man, Waldas comes home and begins saving water and gathering foodstuffs when he realizes that all sources of light are beginning to fade. Finally, when no one can see anything, people outside his apartment begin yelling for help. Waldas decides to share his resources with his neighbors with children but ignores all other pleas from other apartments and outside on the street. Eventually, Waldas realizes he must go out and search for food and plans to steal it from a nearby market, but when he gets there finds the shelves empty. On his way home be becomes lost and his finally rescued by a blind person, Vasco. Vasco is already skilled at getting around the city and takes Waldas back to the Institute for the Blind. Members there are helping a few people, and agree to help Waldas and his adopted family in exchange for water Waldas had saved in his bathtub. They bring back the water and family and live at the Institute until they realize the food is running out. The group then decides to go to a farm owned by the Institute, and the blind people lead the non-seeing people out of town. Eighteen days later light begins to seep out of light sources again, within a day or two, light returns to normal. Waldas returns to town to see how people have survived and found more people living than he assumed.

Near the end, we are told:

But, as their eager eyes took in every color, shade, and movement, they gave little thought to the mysterious magnitude of their universe, and even less to the plight of their brothers, their saviors, who still walked in darkness.

What is Carneiro telling us? Is he saying people are blind to the wonders of reality, even after they’ve been given a great object lesson? Is he saying people just adapt to any situation without wondering about the why of things? Maybe I’m taking this story too much for granted like Waldas and the people of his world took light for granted. Maybe I’ll appreciate this story more in the future.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/15/21