Saturday, November 7, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories (and capsule novel reviews) of R. A. Lafferty

 R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) was one of the most individual of SF writers. He began publishing in his mid 40s, with much of his early work appearing in Pohl’s magazines (Galaxy and If). His primary mode was the “tall tale”, and he attracted attention with the stories that appeared in his first collection, Nine Hundred Grandmothers, and then with his early novels, such as Past Master, Fourth Mansions, and The Devil is Dead. He appeared regularly in magazine and anthologies for a couple of decades, after which his work, which had either outworn its popular welcome or become too individual for a wide audience, mostly appeared in small press publications. I enjoyed a great many of his short stories, though I tended to find his novels a bit uneven, or a lot uneven.

Below are reviews of a few Lafferty stories I've reread recently in old magazine or anthologies, plus very short capsule reviews of two early novels.

If, September 1960

And finally, far and away the best story in this issue is Lafferty's "The Six Fingers of Time". I didn't recall the story though I've surely read it before: it was in Nine Hundred Grandfathers as well as a couple more anthologies. I would venture to say that it is the first really significant story Lafferty published. I liked it a great deal.

It opens with Charles Vincent waking up and discovering that time has nearly stopped for him. At first this is a source of puzzlement, then concern. But he does get caught up at work! Later he uses his advantage to pull silly tricks like undoing women's clothes (reminding me of Nicholson Baker's novel The Fermata). Eventually he learns a modicum of control over his power, and is approached by a shady man who seems to have much greater abilities in this area, and who talks of a link to extradigitalism (Vincent has a partial extra thumb). The end of the story is strong and mysterious, with references to the "smell of the pit", and a chance at much greater power -- but at what cost? And, of course, an eventual inevitable ending. Quite a fine piece of work.

Galaxy, April 1961

“All the People” is a very early Lafferty story. The voice is familiar, if not fully developed. The story is pretty good, if a bit more traditional than usual for Lafferty. It's about a person cruelly called “Tony the Tin Man”, he thinks because his father was a junk dealer. But in reality he's a “restricted person”, a cyborg attached to a computer, able to sense the feelings of all the people in the world, and so to detect if any are unexpected – perhaps invading aliens. And how would a “restricted person” react to an invasion?

Galaxy, August 1961

"Aloys" is a shortish Lafferty piece, decent and fairly characteristic work. The hero is a spectacular scientist, but na├»ve and poor and obscure, and when he is given an award he is subverted by a typically Laffertian secret society. It's best for its portrayal of Aloys himself. 

The Reefs of Earth

(Cover by Richard Powers)
The Reefs of Earth is an early R. A. Lafferty novel.  This is the first Lafferty I've read since reading Flann O'Brian, and I was struck by a certain resemblance.  I don't know if this is just some value of common Irish storytelling tradition, or if there is some direct influence.  This story tells of an extended family of alien "Pucas", marooned on the "Reefs of Earth", and how the children plot to avenge their parents.  Madly readable, but it doesn't really come off.  For one thing, almost all the characters are really quite unpleasant (by design, for sure).  And the cockeyed narrative logic, interesting by fits and starts, is just annoying on occasion.

Fourth Mansions

(Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon)
For all I'm reading lots of 1999 books, I'm trying not to neglect the past. I'd never read R. A. Lafferty's Fourth Mansions before, one of his best known novels.  It's a wild book, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has read Lafferty.  It's about a young newspaperman who stumbles on a multi-faceted plot to rule the world, involving "people" who live for many centuries, occasionally emerging to foil the hopes of normal humans, and another group of people who have learned how to psychically merge into a new sort of being, but who don't know how to use this power for good, and further people like the "patricks", who are vaguely supposed to be on the good side, I think. The newspaperman is pursued and hounded by several of these forces, and put in the madhouse, and so on.  Another young man gains certain powers and tries to overturn civilization for apparently good reasons.  It's all unstructured as heck, and sometimes boring, but sometimes weirdly fascinating, very original, quite ambitious in theme; and in the end just barely a success on its unique terms.  

New Dimensions II

“Eurema’s Dam” is in the “tall tale” dimension. Eurema is a Greek word that means, roughly, “invention”, so the title means, “mother of invention”, and the theme is, more or less, “stupidity is the mother of invention”. The hero is Albert, “the last of the dolts”. Because he isn’t smart enough to do anything himself, he keeps inventing machines to do things for him. Of course, it turns out that those machines are useful for lots of other people as well. So Albert gets rich. But he doesn’t really care about that. And what really ends up bothering him is that the machines he creates think he’s a dolt, too, and when they take over … well, you see where it’s going. It’s a fun enough story, but it doesn’t have the true inspiration, the magic, that I find in his best stories.

Odyssey, Summer 1976

And Lafferty's story, "Love Affair with Ten Thousand Springs", is pretty characteristic of him, about a man who loves springs and their "pegeids" (analogous to naiads). They are all imperfect, and the pegeid at the center of this story turns out to be imperfect in a scary way. Plenty of linguistic invention and verve, but probably a bit too long, too rambling. Minor Lafferty, really.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Gordon R. Dickson

 Gordon R. Dickson was born November 1st, 1923, so his 97th birthday was a few days ago. I realized I hadn't ever done one of these short fiction review assemblages for him before (I did review his Ace Double The Genetic General/Time to Teleport), and so I put together a collection of all the short fiction I'd happened to write about when discussing old SF magazines. Then I remembered that the cover story of the very first SF magazine I ever bought, the August 1974 Analog, was by Dickson, and I figured I should write about that too! But that required some excavation in my boxes of old Analogs, and thus this birthday review is a bit late!

Astounding, February 1952

"Steel Brother" may have been the first solo Gordon Dickson story to make a lasting impact. It's about a Solar System Frontier Guard, Thomas Jordan. The Frontier Guards man a somewhat implausible series of station at the edge of the Solar System, which each control a phalanx of robot ships that attack the aliens that periodically try to invade. Thomas Jordan has just taken his first command, and he's convinced he's a coward. He's also afraid of the implanted connection to the stored memories of all his predecessors (the "steel brother"): he's heard stories of people losing their identity and being overwhelmed by the memories. So when his first attack comes, he funks it, and almost lets the alien ships through, until he finally allows the "steel brother" to help -- and learns a lesson about, well, comradeship. There's a typically Dicksonian ambition, and a sort of ponderousness, to the story -- which nonetheless didn't really work for me, it seemed strained.

Universe, December 1953

The other novelette is also light comedy: "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound" (9200 words), one of Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson's Hoka stories. I've never been as big a fan of the Hoka stories as many readers, though I think to some extent I burden the entire series with my dislike of the one late novel, Star Prince Charlie, which I think was quite poor. This story is decent enough, though not really great. The Hokas, of course, are teddy bear like aliens who love to imitate fictional models -- in this story, obviously, they are imitating Sherlock Holmes. Much to the distress of a human IBI agent who is tracking down a nasty alien drug runner who has chosen to hide near the Hoka equivalent of the Baskerville mansion.

Galaxy, January 1954

The novelets are Gordon R. Dickson's "Lulungomeena" (6500 words), and Winston Marks's "Backlash" (8800 words). "Lulungomeena" is a story that is mostly OK but that relies on a contrived and annoying trick ending. It's about an old spacer, about to retire, and a young kid who is bored by the old man's tales of his home, Lulungomeena, and frustrated by the old man's claim to have once been a ready gambler, who gave up the habit. The kid wants to get a chance at the old man's savings, and also to shut him up. He finally baits the older man into a large bet ... and then the trick ending. One interesting detail is that the story is narrated by another older spaceman, who identifies himself as a Dorsai. The earliest story Miller/Contento list as part of the Childe Cycle is "Act of Creation" (Satellite, April 1957). This one seems at least linked (or perhaps part of a beta version of some sort).

Orbit, July-August 1954

"Fellow of the Bees", by Gordon R. Dickson (7700 words) -- very slight but modestly entertaining. A somewhat implausibly vicious Empire comes to a remote planet to press gang crewmembers for their space navy. Most implausibly of all, they plan to press gang EVERY adult between about 20 and 60! The day is saved by the good fortune that the politically appointed admiral of the fleet is a bee lover, and by some implausibly brilliant space navy tactics masterminded by an old lady using the planet's merchant fleet.

Venture, March 1957

“Friend’s Best Man” is a Gordon Dickson sociological set-up story … really a very Campbellian sort of thing. A rich man comes to an isolated frontier planet to meet an old friend, and learns that the friend has been murdered by a local nogoodnik. And that despite the dead man being universally popular, and the nogoodnik largely reviled, and the facts of the case not being in dispute, nothing is being done about it. The reason soon becomes obvious – the planet is labor-starved, and they can’t afford to lose the work done by the bad guy. The only solution is for the rich visitor to replace him – then justice can be done, and the bad guy punished. But will the rich guy have the balls to give up his easy life for the hard work of a frontier planet? Dickson is here straining to make a point, a point that frankly I don’t believe for a second. The strains of the setup show, and there is no examination of the ultimate stresses – and resulting loss of productivity – that such a system would cause. 

Astounding, December 1957

The other story that presents the humans are inherently superior idea, much more explicitly, is Dickson's "Danger -- Human!". (Silverberg's story, to give it its due, doesn't really suppose that humans are inherently superior, just that some sort of local historical accident has resulted in humanity being ahead of the nearby aliens in development.) In "Danger -- Human!" an alien group is monitoring Earth. It seems that humans are the descendents of a race that two or three times before has risen from obscurity to dominate the Galaxy, not to the benefit of the rest of the intelligent races. One of the monitoring guys decides to kidnap an human, a New Hampshire farmer, to study him and figure out if humans are still dangerous. Bad idea ... (as we could guess immediately). The main problem is that the human superiority is essentially asserted, not proven, unless we are to conclude from a final revelation (unless I misunderstood it) that the guy broke through an impenetrable field of some sort that humans have psi powers. (Which would really make the story stupid.)

Analog, August 1974

This is the first SF magazine I ever bought, from the newsstand at Alton Drugs in Naperville, IL, sometime in July of 1974. I'd been reading SF from the library with great dedication for a couple of years by then, and reading anthologies like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Nebula Award Stories collections had shown me that there were magazines that published the stuff.

That day there were three magazines next to each other, the August issues of Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. I bought the Analog first because it still had a certain reputation in my mind -- derived mostly from Campbell's 1940s "Golden Age". (I also liked the John Schoenherr cover.) I read through it quickly, and the next day I bought Galaxy, and the day after I bought F&SF.

The cover story is "Enter a Pilgrim", by Gordon R. Dickson. It tells of Shane Evert, a young man who works as a translator for the alien ruler of Earth -- Earth having been conquered three years before by the huge and technologically superior Aalaag. Shane dreams of some hero leading a resistance to the Aalaag, but on this day he witness the brutal execution of a man who had defended his wife from a careless young Aalaag. Later, a bit drunk, Shane is accosted by three human outlaws, but easily kills them all -- and in the mixture of shame and triumph he feels, something clicks, and the takes what (I can tell) will be the first steps of resistance to the Aalaag. Even at 14 I could see that this was not a complete story -- and indeed, three more stories followed (two in Analog, one in the anthology/magazine Far Frontiers), and they were fixed up into a novel, Way of the Pilgrim (1987). This took a surprisingly long time -- the other stories didn't appear until 1980 and 1985, and I never actually have read the novel, though I'm fairly sure I know the basic plot!

(That August 1974 Galaxy also features a story that is basically an appendage to a novel -- Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Day Before the Revolution", which to be fair isn't part of The Dispossessed, and works fine by itself. And I should note that Lester Del Rey picked the Dickson story for his Best of the Year volume.)

Cosmos, July 1977

"Monad Gestalt", Dickson's novella, is actually part of his novel Time Storm. It reads very much like a novel excerpt -- it's not very successful standing alone. The central idea of Time Storm is neat enough -- Earth (and, it turns out, the whole universe) is divided by "windwalls" into different times -- if you pass through a wall (which may be stationary or moving) you will end up in the same geographical location but at another time. Our hero (the first person narrator) is leading a group of people, including a few violent toughs, a scientifically-oriented man, a teenaged girl, a woman named Marie with a four year old daughter, and a tame leopard. The narrator has claimed Marie as "his woman" but doesn't love her. The teenager is attracting the attention of the leader of the toughs, a man named Tek. The group is trying to find a spot in the future that might hold a clue to the origin of the time storm. Indeed, they do eventually find a deserted future city -- deserted but for one inhabitant, an "avatar" of an alien intelligence. Guided by the alien plus a lot of totally ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, our hero finds another location with a sort of computer/gestalt connection, which will allow him to link with the other minds in his group and become a sort of supermind, able to deflect the time storm at least locally.

Faugh! Dickson sets up an intriguing premise in the time storm and resolves it with authorial fiat. (And stupid coincidence -- the narrator needs exactly eight people in his "gestalt" to gain full power. But there are only seven adults in his group. Not to worry -- the four year old can be combined with a genetically engineered ape that just happens to be nearby to provide slot number 8!) Add a very creepy romance that doesn't even have any emotional force -- the narrator all of a sudden just realizes that he wants the teenaged (young teenaged -- not much older than 14) girl for his own. To be fair, some of the problems I had with this story may well be the result of abridgement to novella length -- the full novel might allow more convincing development of some of these things.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Review: H. M. S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

 I really thought I had posted this to my blog long ago, but apparently not. O'Brian's birthday isn't until December, but what the heck, these are great books, I'm posting this now. I wrote this review, of the third novel in Patrick O'Brian's incomparable Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels back in 1997. H. M. S. Surprise is still probably my favorite of all the series, though all 20 books are completely worth reading. 

Review Date: 28 December 1997

H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian

First published in 1973

In praising Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books I am on well-trodden ground. In a sense, it is superfluous to do so: so many people, of such varied and excellent taste, have praised these books to the skies that further lauds from the modest likes of me are hardly necessary. Nonetheless, it gives me pleasure to express my delight in books I enjoy, so: onward.

I began reading the Aubrey-Maturin books with Master and Commander, first in the series, just two months ago [back in 1997]. I have decided on a ration of one per month, so this month (December) I read H.M.S. Surprise, third in the series. So far, this is probably the best of the series, though as with other excellent series of books, it can be difficult to pick favorites: the joys are ongoing, and to some extent a result of the cumulative pleasures of the books, and each book has high points and low, leisurely strolls and heart-stopping battle scenes, love scenes, political wrangling, sailing jargon, and much more.

To briefly recap the first two books (I hope without excessive spoilers): Master and Commander introduces Jack Aubrey, a British ship captain, to Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naturalist/physician. Maturin is at loose ends financially, and Aubrey needs a ship surgeon for his new command, so what swiftly becomes a remarkable friendship is formed. The first book is set in 1801, and follows the doings of Jack's ship, the Sophie, in the Mediterranean during this phase of the Napoleonic wars. There are some ship battles, which are well done but not essential to the enjoyment of the book, but in general the book is a bit episodic in structure. Maturin is introduced to the sea, and becomes fixed as a ship's surgeon; Aubrey has some notable successes, which bid fair to set him up for life financially.

In Post Captain love interests are introduced for both Jack and Stephen: Jack becomes (after much travail) engaged to the beautiful and respectable Sophie Williams, and Stephen becomes involved with Sophie's widowed cousin, Diana Villiers, also beautiful but decidedly less respectable (in early 19th Century terms). In addition, Jack falls disastrously in debt, due to the criminality of his prize agent, and spends much of the novel evading debtor's prison. Stephen is revealed to the reader as a British spy and a fierce supporter of Catalan independence. The war with France breaks out again, and after a thrilling escape from France, Jack is given command of an experimental ship, the Polychrest, and despite its flaws leads a successful raid, gaining promotion to Post Captain (which appears to put him on some sort of "tenure track" in the Royal Navy). Still needing to be on ship (to stay out of reach of his creditors), Jack accepts a temporary position on the H. M. S. Lively, and with some other captains, captures a magnificent prize from the French. His financial future again appears secure.

So we come to H.M.S. Surprise. Political machinations cost Jack his prize money, and Stephen's cover in Spain is blown. As a result, and also because Stephen is scheming to see Diana again (who has been taken by her keeper, the Jewish merchant Richard Canning, to India), Jack takes command of the aged frigate H.M.S. Surprise, and is sent to Cambodia (stopping in India) to deliver the new British envoy to the Sultan of Kampong.

Thus the setup for a long, wonderful, account of the voyage to the Orient and back. The pleasures of this book are remarkably varied: high comedy, such as the famous drunken sloth incident; high adventure, as the men of the Surprise battle not only the South Atlantic at its fiercest, but also the French; and bitter disappointment and even tragedy, in Stephen's seesaw relationship with Diana, as well as Stephen's involvement with a young Indian girl. Indeed the plot of this novel is much the most complicated and well-constructed of the three O'Brian novels I've read.

The pleasures of this book, however, are not restricted to a fine plot. The ongoing development of the characters of Jack and Stephen, and of their complex and fully described friendship, continues to be a major achievement. In addition, the many minor characters are fascinating: the envoy Mr. Stanhope, Stephen's Indian friend, the various ship's officers and men, other ship captains, and so on. And O'Brian's depiction of the building of an effective crew, the relationship of captain to officers to men, is another fascinating detail, and something he revisits from book to book, as Jack encounters different crews in different circumstances. Finally, O'Brian is a fine writer of prose, with a faintly old-fashioned style, well poised to evoke the atmosphere of the time of which he writes to readers of our time, and consistently quotable, in his dry fashion.

One arguable weakness of these books in general is related to the fact that they are an ongoing series. This results in certain formulaic constraints: Jack and Stephen may be in great danger, but we can be sure that they won't die. Also, the books so far follow a similar pattern: Jack begins each book in financial distress (and the opening of the second and third books describe the reasons for his financial problems: in neither case are they his fault), and by the end is financially well set up. Also somewhat formulaic is the heroic nature of the two main protagonists: Jack is a truly brilliant seaman, and Stephen is a brilliant scientist and doctor. But these weaknesses are not important to enjoyment of the books: in particular, though Jack and Stephen are heroic in certain aspects of their characters, they are both multi-faceted characters, with terrible flaws and endearing crotchets in addition to their accomplishments. And they truly come across to this reader as characters of their time, and not 20th Century people cast back into the past. Even Stephen's very contemporary racial and religious attitudes are well-motivated by his background, and expressed in language which reeks wonderfully of his time: "Stuff. I have the greatest esteem for Jews, if anyone can speak of a heterogeneous great body of men in such a meaningless, illiberal way."

I recommend these books highly. It is with great difficulty that I restrain myself, upon finishing each book, from immediately starting in on the next one, though so far my one per month discipline has prevailed. I look forward eagerly to another year and a half or so of pleasure as I continue this series.