Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Dangerous Reviews (2 of 3)

This is the second part of my ongoing review of the 1967 sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions.  Find part 1 here (for reviews of stories 1 through 11), and stay tuned for reviews of stories 23 through 33.

 12. "Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber

I think this might be the first time (for this collection) that, when finishing the story, my immediate thought was "I'm going to have to read more from this author."  Shame on me for being a fan of classic D&D and never having read Leiber before, but what can you do?

On the surface, this seemed like a classic American spooky tall tale, descended from Ichabod Crane through the genealogy of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.  There wasn't very much sci-fi, so maybe you can think of this story as the slightly more red-blooded cousin of Rodman's "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice."  Despite the (feigned?) simplicity of the first-person narrator's working-class point of view, Leiber's words are poetic and cadent and gleaming.  Just for the craft alone, I've gotta say WOW.

13. "Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley

Initially, I was put off by the Twilight Zone trope of the creepy kid with the weird powers, but Hensley took the idea much further than I've ever seen it taken.  Hats off to that.  The author's vision of the not-too-distant future was hugely pessimistic.  A fair bet in the 1960s, I suppose, but I'll never be a fan of the anti-Panglossian vision of the "worst of all possible worlds."  Still, Hensley kept the tension running high throughout, and the ending did kind of leave you wanting more.  So, on balance, let's say OKAY.

14. "Eutopia" by Poul Anderson

Quite interesting.  I've read some Anderson before, and he always seemed quite adept at exploring the fuzzy boundaries between sci-fi, fantasy, and other thematic corners of speculative fiction.  This story was no exception, because it contained a combination of:

(a) The classic trope of dimension-hopping adventures between alternate Earths,

(b) Philosophical musings about how human society should be ordered,

(c) Just a pinch of taboo-busting, to give it the dangerousness required for this anthology.

Did it really need (c)?  I probably would have been more comfortable with the story if that aspect had been left out, but it didn't ruin the story for me, either.  I'm actually curious to find out if Anderson ever wrote any other stories set in this interesting multiverse.  But, for this one in particular, I think I won't go farther than OKAY.

15. "Incident in Moderan" by David R. Bunch

Oh lord, I was actually rolling my eyes.  War Bad.  Yes, we get it. Maybe there's a smidge of something interesting here regarding the unintended consequences of transhumanism (i.e., uploading ourselves into robot bodies), but it's really just an unmitigated SKIP.

16. "The Escaping" by David R. Bunch

Editor Harlan Ellison really talked up Bunch's writing, to the point of giving him two back-to-back stories in this anthology.  This second one ended up being an abstract mood piece, without even a hint of sci-fi set dressing.  Maybe I should call it the outline of a thought of a seed of an abstract mood piece.  The words were engaging and surreal, but at just over 3 pages there wasn't nearly enough room to see how this seed might sprout into something truly interesting.  OKAY.

17. "The Doll-House" by James Cross

Sigh.  Not another Twilight Zone trope.  It had some interesting concepts, and some key details of its execution certainly appealed to the wannabe Greco-Roman classicist in me.  Definitely too heavy-handed on the condemnation of 20th century consumerism and status-seeking, but that's the 1960s.  I could probably write out exactly what Rod Serling would've said at the end.  OKAY.

18. "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" by Carol Emshwiller

Weird weird weird.  I can't quite tell if this story takes place in an alternate universe, or if it's our world and all the "dangerousness" was in the mind of the narrator.  The one main weakness of it, I suppose, is that I didn't truly understand what the author intended to convey until reading her Afterword.  Interesting concept, but mainly just OKAY.

19. "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight

Kind of a mix of the eye-rolling banality from stories #1 ("Evensong") and #15 ("Incident in Moderan").  Please just SKIP.

20. "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" by Theodore Sturgeon

The stories that I rank "okay" are a mixed bag.  Some I like, and some I don't like. This one I liked.  The writing popped and entertained.  I'm not sure I've read any Sturgeon before, but I can see clearly that his craft was on par with the greats.  The story was probably included in this anthology because of some solidly Dangerous™ squick, but you can see in my reviews that this doesn't automatically repulse me.  No, my avoidance to give the highest grade, in this case, comes from a violation of that old standard: "show, don't tell."  It's a 39-page story, and the story itself was almost over (except for a big reveal) by page 29.  Unfortunately, the big reveal came in the form of a dry 10-page monologue, told by one character to another.  Isn't that Ayn Rand's territory?  So close, but alas merely OKAY.

21. "What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" by Larry Eisenberg

Is it true that the worst thing you can say about a joke is "I don't get it?"  This wasn't sci-fi in the least, and although it was a mildly inventive take on the hard-boiled detective story, it just went nowhere fast.  SKIP.

22. "Ersatz" by Henry Slesar

I'm impressed that such a short piece could be so stupid, so offensive, and so pointless all at the same time.  Please skip this one.  If you read it, you'll think very much less of this collection and all its participants.  Every story here probably contains some little thing that marks it as having been written in the 1960s, but there's dated, and there's dated.

(In the author's afterword, there was an interesting question raised about whether fiction ought to highlight our best angels or our worst.  The case for the latter being that rose-colored glasses can sometimes blind us to real problems in our midst.  It's the case for 1984 and other dystopias.  But every piece of fiction need not play this role!)

I'll say it again.  SKIP.

- - -

Ack... only one "WOW" this time around.  That makes only 3 out of 22 so far.  Will the remaining stories change that ratio?  Come on back to see...

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dangerous Reviews (1 of 3)

Last December, I said I was going to wait until I was done reading all 33 short stories in the 1967 sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions before posting my mini-reviews.  Well, I'm not done yet, and I'm prone to procrastinate.  So I've decided to just post the first one-third of the bunch.  Maybe that will spur me to keep the reading and reviewing off the back burner.

In the following reviews, I'll do my best to avoid giving plot spoilers, but I won't hold back on anything else.  I'll sum up each review with one of three possible grades, which might be useful for readers who decide to pick up the anthology and want to avoid the clunkers.  Hopefully the names for the three grades (WOW, OKAY, and SKIP) are self-explanatory.  :-)

I won't be reviewing Harlan Ellison's introduction, or Isaac Asimov's two forewords.  They're interesting as character studies of these two titans -- and as an insight into some major sci-fi history -- but they're not what the seeker after visions dangereuses are really here for...

1. "Evensong" by Lester del Rey

Sorry, just a banal groaner.  I'm finding it hard to believe this was considered socially relevant, or even somehow remotely edgy, even in the 1960s.  SKIP.

2. "Flies" by Robert Silverberg

I'm sure I've read Silverberg before (I subscribed to Asimov's all through the 1980s), and I'd classified him in my mind as one of the good ones.  However, this story is pointless and unnecessarily crude.  Although the author's "big idea" is made abundantly clear at the end, (1) it's kind of just as stupid as that in the previous story, and (2) I can't quite believe the author thought readers would see past the shock-value and nod their heads sagely when seeing the big idea at the end.  SKIP.

3. "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederik Pohl

I liked this one.  It's very much a product of its time, and it's essentially all lead-up to a single punch-line at the end, but that punch line was kind of worth it.  OKAY.

4. "Riders of the Purple Wage" by Philip José Farmer

Holy crap... what a story.  At 30,000 words, it's the longest in the anthology, and so far it's been the most memorable.  A deep and phantasmagoric look into one possible future, and into the psyches of some of the people that inhabit it. The author cites Joyce's Finnegan's Wake quite a few times, but I think of it more as a crazy child of Joyce's peripatetic Ulysses, Jarry's absurdist Ubu Roi, and Huxley's soma-filled Brave New World.  If you can hold all three of those in your mind at once, you might be ready for the Purple Wage.  I fully acknowledge that, in a different frame of mind, I may have been turned off by the crazy stream-of-consciousness prose and the, um, vivid explorations of sexual taboos.  However, on the days I read it, its overall spirit and cleverness just happened to charm me.  I had to put the book down once every few pages to chuckle.  Its last words spoke to me directly.

This wild wild thing was definitely a product of the 1960s.  I hadn't heard about the Triple Revolution document before (and I can't say I'm a fan now that I have), but I've got to give Farmer points for extrapolating such an interesting future from it.  I also can't stop thinking about how this story fits into the wider scope of literature.  In addition to its forefathers Joyce, Jarry, and Huxley, I'm wondering if there was some influence from Tommaso Marinetti's blazing Futurist Manifesto.  Also, could it be possible that more recent fictions such as Idiocracy, Wall-E, and Demolition Man were influenced in some way by this particular dangerous vision?  WOW.

5. "The Malley System" by Miriam Allen deFord

The first half definitely went overboard on the "shock value" that seems to be an occupational hazard in this particular anthology, but I eventually understood the point of including it.  Interesting idea behind it all, but I'm fine with just saying SKIP.

6. "A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch

Aha, now this is how to do shocking content, without the need to go overboard on the gross factor.  Nice twist at the end, though the editor's introduction kind of gave it away.  (Read the story first, if you can.)  Bloch's tale inspired Harlan to write the next one as kind of a sequel.  OKAY.

7. "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by Harlan Ellison

Now look, Harlan is the reason I'm here writing about this book, but I was less than impressed.  Knowing the genesis of this story from the introduction(s), it honestly felt like an unnecessary addendum to Bloch's Juliette.  Harlan did include some fascinating (and new to me) deep-dives into a historical topic that I'd assumed was already rather played out.  But I can't be very enthusiastic about this 20-page tale, after Bloch essentially said it all in just 6 pages.

For all of the above, I might have said to skip this one, but it's Harlan, and I can never recommend missing out on his impassioned prose.  OKAY.

8. "The Night That All Time Broke Out" by Brian W. Aldiss

Mildly entertaining sci-fi conceit, for the 1940s or 1950s maybe.  Aside from one drive-by mention of Nabokov's Lolita, I can't figure out for the life of me how this milquetoast story got included in a purposefully Dangerous™ anthology such as this.  SKIP.

9. "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice" by Howard Rodman

This one still intrigues me.  Harlan's intro emphasizes how it may not seem initially very much of a sci-fi tale, and I agree that's it as subtle as all get-out.  Is it shockingly New Wave?  No, but that's kind of the point.  Definitely worth your time for fresh insight into the scope of history that transpired between the beginning and end of the 20th century.  WOW.

10. "Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick

The ordering of the stories is interesting, because right after the last one (which was so understated and homespun) we get the psychedelic's psychedelic, the gnostic's gnostic, the source of weirdness at the heart of Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Man in the High Castle.

Actually, this is the first prose of Philip K. Dick's that I've ever read. I was a bit worried that it would be a drug-induced stream-of-consciousness, a la Bukowski or Ginsberg, but it wasn't.  It wore the clothes of a 1960s-era science fiction story quite comfortably.  Of course, it had those Dickian tropes we hear so much about:  Is this the real world?  Am I the one having the mind-melting hallucinations, or are they having me?  There was a taste of the Lovecraftian, too, and it reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald."  In the end, it felt a bit unfinished to me, but I guess Dick himself was working out these ideas throughout his whole life.  A lot of fascinating stuff to chew on, but I think I've got to give it an OKAY.

11. "The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven

I dunno.  If Niven's goal was to create a plausible extrapolation of present (mid-sixties) trends to a horrific possible endpoint, then mission accomplished I suppose.  But now, 50 years later, the scenario seems a bit silly.  Sometimes the future doesn't happen like you think.  SKIP.

- - -

Stay tuned for reviews of the remaining 22...

Friday, June 14, 2019


Okay, I know the worst thing you can hear from someone is "Hey, let me tell you about this dream I had last night."  But in this case, I hope you'll indulge me.  If anything, it's given me some cool stuff to think about.

In the dream, I was at a middle-school reunion.  That in itself probably seems kind of odd to many readers, since those don't seem to be common.  In the late 1970s, I think some administrators in my school wanted to out-Montessori the private schools or something, so they created a weird experimental class for some of the 5th and 6th graders.  Lucky me.  That first year, our teacher looked and acted like Annie Hall.  The second year, our teacher was an ex-priest who yelled at us a lot about our apathy.  We didn't really learn a whole hell of a lot, but I'm still great friends with many of those weird kids.

Okay, the dream.  I could name the four classmates I was sitting with at this imagined reunion, but I won't.  In that bit of subconscious reality, we had all become scientists of some kind, and we had just (in an hour or two of chatting at the reunion) made a major collaborative discovery about how the human brain works.  We managed to prove, conclusively, that the brain actually does make a permanent record of everything it experiences -- both external perceptions and internal trains of thought -- and that aging does not degrade that record in any way.

Unfortunately, we also proved that it's completely and utterly impossible to retrieve those records past a certain point.  Something about the brain carefully laying down layers of cells on top of one another, and you'd have to destroy the brain to peel them back.

But still, we showed (somehow!) that nothing is ever really lost.

The actual first moments of my dream were maybe just 10 or 20 seconds of happy chatting about the fame and fortune that would soon be coming our way, once we published our amazing discovery.

I didn't mention that the reunion wasn't just for our little nerdy group.  There were hundreds of people there from many other classes and years at the same school.  Jocks, too.  Dreams can be very cliched, can't they?  The jocks mounted a kind of mock "attack" on the nerds.

It was actually just a jokey pantomime of an attack; nothing truly dangerous.  Although it was meant in good fun, it still impelled our group to laugh along for a second or two, then grab our drinks and find some more peaceful place to chat.

Dreams being what they were, we found ourselves in a much older and decrepit part of the building hosting the reunion.  It essentially was a huge rickety barn filled with junk.  Have I been watching too much American Pickers?

Ever the nerd, I sought out the piles of old books.  In waking life, I've been working a lot on my teaching, so in the dream I found all kinds of useful resources.  Old textbooks.  A module for teaching the stuff that I'm teaching right now, but with the theme of the Netflix show Stranger Things.

I also found a set of astronomy books, but they were filed alphabetically under the letter N.  The reason is that some of them had the title "Noctology."  The study of the night.  I swear to you that I had never heard that word before, and a Google search tells me that not many other people have, either.

That's essentially the dream.

And I'm absolutely entranced by the idea of being a full-on Noctologist.

Sure, I've always been a stargazer.  Readers of the blog have seen plenty of sci-fi fandom here, and a bit of actual astronomical musing, too.  It's under the stars, and only under the stars, where I feel an immediate emotional sense of divinity. I look up, remember what it is I'm looking at, and I think "Oh yeah, that's right. I love you. How could I have forgotten since the last time I was out here?"

But noctology isn't quite the same as astronomy, is it? About 25 years ago, I was introduced to the folk singer John Gorka, and saw myself in "Good."
I am good at night
I am good at night
Sun don't fit me right
I tried with all my might
I am good at night
I am good at night
There are plenty of other musical paeans to the dark side like this.  One that I think is kind of interesting is inserted subtly in just a single line of Poison's hair-metal ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."  You remember the line, don't you?  "Every night has its dawwwwn..."  For years, that line just passed over my head.  I assumed it was just conveying that old saw about it always being darkest before the dawn.  But look again, in context with the rest of the verse.
Every rose has its thorn
Just like every night has its dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has its thorn
Each line begins by talking about something good, then says how it can be ruined by one little flaw.  The night is the good thing, and the dawn is the flaw!  Good old Bret Michaels... closet noctologist.

I wonder how much more I should explore noctology as a frame of mind.  I kinda sorta started already a few years ago, with some thoughts on cosmicism.  There are traditions -- both real (Judaism) and fictional (Tolkien's elves) -- that start the new day at sunset rather than sunrise.  There's Mozart's star-studded Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.

Technically, she's the villain, but she's also enough of a force of nature to snag the only slot for opera on Voyager's golden record that was sent out into the darkest reaches of space.

Nocturnes and aubades.  Night owls and early birds.  Nuit and Hadit.  Cherry red and midnight blue.

There's a lot there to ponder, and I don't have a crisp ending to bring it all together.  Maybe coming up with the perfect words is a concept more appropriate for the stars.  The night is okay with letting stuff happen, then layering it over with other stuff.  Nothing is ever really lost, after all.