Thursday, November 7, 2019

Forgotten Book: The Creatures of Man, by Howard Myers

The Creatures of Man, by Howard L. Myers

a review by Rich Horton

Is this book forgotten? Perhaps not -- it was only published in 2003. But the author was all but forgotten until his work was resurrected by Eric Flint and Guy Gordon. They have since pubished another collection, The Reign of Infinity, with his novel Cloud Chamber and a few more stories. Here's what I wrote back in 2003:

Eric Flint (often with the help of Guy Gordon) has been putting out a series for Baen books of collections of stories by older authors, now mostly forgotten. He began with a series of several books by James Schmitz, which when they get around to reissuing The Witches of Karres will have returned all of Schmitz's published stories to print. He has also put together collections by Randall Garrett, Christopher Anvil, Keith Laumer, Murray Leinster, and Tom Godwin. All these authors have long stopped writing, and all but Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) are dead. [Crosby (aka Anvil) died in 2009, after I wrote the first version of this.]  All but Laumer were also primarily associated with Astounding/Analog and John W. Campbell. (Laumer published stories in Analog under Ben Bova's editorship, but I don't know of any he sold to Campbell.) (Well, Leinster was prolific enough that you couldn't say he was "primarily" associated with Astounding -- but he did publish a lot there.)

While I've found these collections to be of variable quality (I like the Schmitz books a lot, for instance, but the one Anvil book I read was rather poor), I do think the project as a whole is admirable. Flint has resurrected a lot of competent adventure-style SF of the 50s and 60s -- rarely great stuff but often quite enjoyable. I must admit, though, that I was surprised by his latest project -- a collection of stories by Howard L. Myers, also known as Verge Foray. I knew the name Foray as an Analog writer of the late 60s -- I didn't know the name Myers at all. I had an image of "Verge Foray" as the ultimate "late Campbell" writer. Offhand he didn't seem to me a writer much in need of resurrection. That said, I have to admit I'd read very little of his work -- a couple of Analog stories that seemed psi-obsessed to me, in line with one of Campbell's most annoying hobbyhorses.

So I picked up a copy of The Creatures of Man, ready to give Myers a fair try. This book includes 19 stories, a good portion of his total output. Another 5 or 10 stories and one novel (Cloud Chamber) exist. Myers was born in 1930, and published a story in Galaxy in 1952 ("The Reluctant Weapon" -- a pretty good piece, actually, one of the best in the book). He published nothing more until 1967, when "Lost Calling", as by "Verge Foray", appeared in Analog. He was quite prolific over the next few years, publishing a passel of stories in Analog as well as a few in Amazing, Fantastic, F&SF, If, and Galaxy. He died only 41 years of age in 1971. His stories kept appearing through 1974 -- his last, "The Frontliners", appeared in the July 1974 issue of Galaxy -- the issue just preceding the first one I ever saw. The novel did not come out until 1977. I can only assume that he left a pile of unsold stories which his mother (I'm guessing, but he seems to have been living with his mother when he died) kept marketing. All told, an interesting, and rather sad, career arc. Flint and Gordon assert that had he had the chance to continue developing, he'd have been a major author. I'm not so sure -- the later stories do not seem particularly to show an arc of improvement, though to be fair he may not have quite "finished" those that appeared after his death. I will say that he had some interesting ideas, though his prose was pedestrian, and his characters, especially the women, were totally unconvincing.

How was the book? It's a tale of two halves. The first half has some nice stuff. As I've mentioned, "The Reluctant Weapon", a story about a lazy superweapon abandoned by a long lost Galactic race, and its encounter with a backwoods Earthman, is a pretty fair effort. "Fit for a Dog" is a biting story of an ecologically challenged future earth and the evolved superdogs that inhabit it. "All Around the Universe" is not bad either, about a dilettantish man in the very far future, when the economy depends on "Admiration Points", and his search for a mysterious planet. It's both fairly witty and nicely imagined. And several more stories in the first half of the book betray a pretty fair SFnal imagination.

The second half of the book is devoted to a cycle of stories Flint has dubbed "The Chalice Cycle". Most of these are part of Myers' so-called "Econo-War" series, which began in Analog and concluded (long after his death) in Galaxy. These are set in a post-scarcity future in which two human federations of worlds are engaged in a mostly-nonviolent (with exceptions) "war". The idea is that even though people's needs are easily met, so ordinary competition for resources is unnecessary, people will stagnate without some sort of meaningful struggle -- hence, the "econo-war". The stories' setting reminded me (in a contrasting way) of Iain Banks's Culture, enough so to make me wonder if they weren't among the stories that Banks has said he was reacting to when he devised that setting. At any rate, Myers's take on things seems almost uber-Campbellian.

The various Econo-War stories involve the two sides in the War coming up with technological advances, giving first one side then the other a temporary advantage. There are some cute SFnal ideas involved, mainly the way people travel through space -- naked, with some implanted tech to provide protection, inertial suppression, and breathing, etc. However, I was mostly unconvinced -- I think one story in the setting would have been plenty -- the eventual 6 seemed tedious.

There are two pendant stories. One, "The Earth of Nenkumal", is more a "magic goes away" story -- it's a novella from Fantastic in 1974 that is set in the long past on Earth, when magic is being suppressed by the evil efforts of the "God-Warriors" -- a long period in which religion will take the place of magic, with concomitant misery, is forthcoming, and the hero, a repentant God-Warrior, is recruited to help one of the last magicians hide a powerful good luck charm for eventual use when magic returns. It's an OK story, with a decent twist at the end, but I was severely bothered by the sexual politics. It opens with a gang-bang on a table in a bog-standard fantasy pub -- fully consensual on the woman's part (she's a barmaid), but icky to me nonetheless. (The idea is that in the utopian magic world people are so unhungup about sex they just do it all the time, in public, with pretty much anyone.) It may be totally unfair of me to say this, but when you hear that the writer of such a scene was still living with his mother at age 41 you are hardly surprised. Towards the end the hero rapes a woman who soon after is grateful to him for having done so and asking for more. Ickier still, she is sexually mature but less than ten years old mentally. Perhaps I should have been speculating along with the author about such enlightened non-standard sexual mores, but I couldn't really play along.

The last story is "Questor", and it's about an Econo-War participant who lands on Earth looking for a fabled object which will give the holder good luck. Apparently this is the object hidden in "The Earth of Nenkumal", linking all those stories together. Well, OK, but I really think the link unnecessary and silly. However, "Questor" taken alone is actually a decent story, and interestingly it predates all the other "Econo-War" stories.

(Just to complain a bit more about Myers's sexual politics, the last Econo-War story features a mutated super girl who spends the story looking for a similarly mutated superman with whom to have kids. It wasn't actively offensive like the rape stuff in "The Earth of Nenkumal", but it was cringe-inducing in its portrayal of the woman's attitudes.)

So, in sum, I can't strongly recommend The Creatures of Man. It's an uneven book, with some OK stuff, some promising stories. Nothing I'd call a lost classic, but some pretty fine stuff. On the other hand, plenty of pedestrian stuff, and some downright icky stuff. I'm unconvinced by the editors' argument that Myers had the potential to be a top writer in the field, but I'll allow that if he could have developed his skills he had a decent imagination and he might have done some pretty good work.

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