A place for new ideas to settle.

20 December 2016

REVIEW: "Analog" December 1972 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 4

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

Finally, George R. R. Martin! I haven't written an official review of his collection Sandkings yet, but if you only know GRRM because of A Song of Ice and Fire / "Game of Thrones" you're missing out on weird, grimdark science fiction!

Not that you'd guess it from the cover art on this magazine: there's some serious 70's blond coiffure going on there. (I guess that's its own special kind of horror...)

The Second Kind of Loneliness
George R. R. Martin

The diary entries of a man tasked with opening a wormhole for ships passing beyond the orbit of Pluto, as he awaits his replacement and the end of his tour of duty.

Except, this being George R. R. Martin, there's going to be an emotional gut-punch somewhere. (Anything else will ruin it; just read the damn story.)

I will say, though, that Martin's space stories (especially the ones explicitly set in his "Thousand Worlds" future history, are often bizarre and bizarrely poignant. If the excessive wordiness of the Thrones series bothers you, read some of his sf to convince yourself that Martin can actually spin one hell of a tale. He's also very imaginatively grimdark in the sense that the settings and stories end up being grim and dark without necessarily excessive violence and brutality. This story, for example.

Original Sin
Vernor Vinge

This might be sort of the opposite case to GRRM. Vinge is pretty well acclaimed as a novelist―two novels (A Fire Upon the Deep and Rainbows End) won the Hugo awards for their respective years, and two more (The Peace War and its sequel Marooned in Realtime) were nominated―but while I've read and greatly enjoyed Rainbows End I found this story somewhat lacking.

The setting is that the narrator, one Doctor Hikkonnen, is secretly working on longevity drugs for a race of non-human aliens, the Shimans, and the Earth Police Force wants to stop him. "Earthpol" does have the point that the Shimans are sort of like shark-headed kangaroos who have voracious appetites and die because they give birth to thousands of ravenous spawn at the end of their two-year lifespans―this is the only limiting factor to their civilizational growth in spite of their above-human-baseline intelligence.

On the other hand, maybe humanity deserves a challenge? (I think that's almost exactly the supervillain Vandal Savage's reasoning in Young Justice...)

While the setting is interesting, the social aspect to the story seemed both weird and preachy (the aliens were really only civilized because of the introduction of Christianity and its doctrines of sin and self-abnegation[???]; technological progress has been entirely co-opted by the Japanese to the point where technical terms are only in Japanese[???]). There was a bit of this in Rainbows End (specifically a scene where the University library's science fiction section is dumped into a machine to be shredded and digitized in the interests of a megacorp) but it had a bigger, meatier story wrapped around it. Here it's just odd.

When I Was in Your Mind
Joe Allred

This is sort of a different spin on "psychic surgery." Yeah, it involves psi (ding ding ding!) but Allred implies that natural psi is something sort of like the atomic forces: too weak to do anything at macro scale, but advanced technology can enhance the effect for useful work. And in this case it's more of a neural interface than anything spooky.

So anyway the story is about a famous psi-surgeon who's going to do a demonstration of brain surgery for hopeful med students, but things go wrong. It's a surprisingly straightforward "medical" story (in the sense of "E.R." or "House"... you know, not real) but with the sci-fi twist of having some machine-prosthesis/"Inception" style stuff. Pretty well done overall.

Sf social progress watch: It's THE FUTURE and we have machine-mediated brain-to-brain interfaces, but the med students are all male, and there are still secretaries (implied all female). Meanwhile in the actual future we're closer to gender parity among doctors and their secretaries than we are to full machine-facilitated telepathy and cyber-surgery.

Cemetery World (serialized; part 2 of 3)
Clifford D. Simak

Skipped; not going to read serials if I don't have the part 1.

P.R.D. and the Antareans
Miriam Allen DeFord

Another female sf writer! (There really are more than people think.) Too bad this story is sort of an eye-roller.

Pard
F. Paul Wilson

This is a weird one. The setting is during a new wave of human expansion into the galaxy, after a previous human stellar empire collapsed, so the scattered worlds have diverged somewhat, and the new Federation (hm) has a certain policy against re-introducing worlds to spacefaring civilization (hmmmm).

The actual plot involves the narrator getting infected with an unusual parasite, and also intriguing his way back into a quasi-medieval backwater world to rescue a cyborg spaceship brain.

It's definitely odd. But I found myself sort of enjoying it.


The next magazine on my shelf comes from 1973. So far my liking a story has tracked decently well with whether it was republished elsewhere after the magazine, or at least the ones that weren't republished have been ones I didn't like.

Well, the next magazine only has one story that ended up getting republished, so my expectations are low. We'll see how that plays out!

15 December 2016

REVIEW: "Analog" June 1970 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 3

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

This issue features a serial by Hal Clement, one of the top "hard science fiction" authors, and in his case it actually means something. Clement wanted to write a story on a world with both high and low gravity, and then invented a planet with just such a property: Mesklin.

Star Light (serialized; part 1 of 3)
Hal Clement

This story, part of the same fictional universe as Mesklin, features some of the same characters from the original Mesklin story "Mission of Gravity" as they explore a different planet, Dhrawn, under the guidance of a human science team in orbit. Dhrawn is another sort of contradictory world: huge, but not a gas giant, so the humans don't know whether to call it a planet or a star. Its gravity is also too much for humans to bear, but Mesklinites, adapted to a world of hundreds of gees, take 60g quite easily. The problem is that their technological culture was still in the "muscle-and-sail" stage when humanity first contacted them, so there are some interesting problems of how to keep the planet rovers Mesklinite-accessible.

"Interesting problems" is probably a good summary of the story's strong points. Dhrawn is a puzzle that Clement sets up and the characters have to reveal by experience. The weaker points are probably that the aliens don't seem alien enough. The description is certainly alien: Mesklinites are six-inch super-dense armored caterpillars that breathe hydrogen and are congenitally terrified of heights and overhanging objects (hundred-gee worlds tend to do that!)... but they talk just like humans would. By comparison, Larry Niven does better with Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus in Ringworld, though since they're also the sole representatives of their species he probably got away with less nuance. Iain M. Banks doesn't really try to make his aliens "alien" in the Culture novels, but he does make sure to have them all seem different. In "Star Light," though, Clement doesn't really differentiate the Mesklinites from the humans, and so muddles it.

Overall, I'm about 50/50 on this story.

A Tale of the Ending
Harry Harrison

This was a weird one. Two humans discuss the nature and history of humanity as they step through portal-like "Doors" connecting far-flung worlds, eventually arriving on a long-dead Earth to look at a museum to humanity... only to realize that maybe they aren't really human in the same way, after all.

It was an interesting setup, but as a standalone story it didn't really do anything for me.

Compulsion
James H. Schmitz

A story about psychic alien trees and the women who convince them that they can stop psychically addicting and mutating people into harmless parasitic organisms.

Lots, and I mean lots, of psi stuff, as well as implied ludicrous-speed FTL or something. But the idea is interesting, and I sort of want Schmitz to lean into the fucked-up weirdness even more in the other stories in this series.

This might also be one of a couple times I've run into a story that I sort of knew about previously, from one of Wayne Barlowe's illustration books. The first time was after reading about the alzabo in Barlowe's Encyclopedia of Fantasy Creatures and again in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series; this time it was the weird psychic jelly-slug Old Galactics. So that's fun!

A Matter of Orientation
Bob Buckley

An American AI space probe and a Russian AI space probe fall in love on Venus. Forgettable in the extreme.

Message to an Alien
Keith Laumer

A weird sort of military-sf story. It's about a guy who does the "wrong" thing to do the right thing by a race of aliens for whom actions speak louder than words (and so for whom lenient peace treaties are worse than useless). Of course, in the absence of actual aliens in real life, stories like this seem a bit jingoistic when real-life politics inevitably get read into them.


Another late-period Campbell issue of Analog, and it's... not great. But the next one on my shelf, December 1972, has a great (read: depressing as hell) GRRM story! Hooray!...?

14 December 2016

"Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans..."


I attended my first community meeting today. Or rather, a "homeowners heckle a City representative" meeting, but I suppose that's par for the course. But what was the stated root of all this anger? Homelessness. And drugs. And drug-addicted homeless people coming for your children and valuables.

You see, the City is proposing to lease a privately-owned lot for 1-2 years as a site for up to 50 "tiny houses," which will then be used as "low-barrier" housing for up to 70 homeless people who maybe can't get into a traditional shelter; one such "barrier" is drug use.

In other words the City is shoving down the throats of the homeowners dozens of drug-maddened freaks not two blocks from a school (no, five schools!) where they can abduct, chop up and eat, fuck to death, experiment on, sew together into a second-grade-centipede, feed to their chained beasts, sacrifice to the Old Gods... our children!

--

I may seem hyperbolic and sarcastic. That's because more than a few people in attendance were. Openly. Backed by more who didn't necessarily speak up. I finally understood, viscerally, what "siege mentality" means.

And, of course, here's the thing:

It's not a "done deal." The lot is just on the final short-list of places where the City wants to move forward but there's a lot left to decide.

The lot is private property (same, I might add, as the disgusting low-rate motels that are an Aurora Ave fixture) and will become a permanent low-income housing facility in the next three years or so pretty much regardless of what the neighbors want. Private. Property.

 "Low barrier" refers to any homeless person who would not be admitted into an existing shelter. This includes (1) single men, for whom there are no shelters in North Seattle (it's all women's shelters or rehab); (2) couples or families; (3) people with animal companions ("pet" often doesn't fully describe what the animal means to the person); (4) people with too many belongings; (5) people with drug problems, up to and including a full-blown addiction. These are not mutually exclusive categories, either.

Left undecided are (1) which categories will be prioritized (i.e. women and children first? Clean over using? etc.); (2) how many people will be admitted from the local area versus brought in from other parts of the city; (3) the exact rules about where and if drugs can be used.

Two of the schools are already being built two blocks from Aurora Avenue, which, as everyone at the meeting was fully aware, is a hotbed of drugs and prostitution and other crime. There should obviously be coordination between the Housing Department and School District, but if the School District wasn't already planning for the Aurora Ave status quo (with extra security officers and so on) that fuckup is theirs and a long time coming. It's not at all clear that shelter will worsen the problem.

Moreover, this isn't a fire-and-forget operation. The (private!) organization that will build the permanent housing has experience with "tiny house" encampments and assigns caseworkers to the sites. Too many of the people in attendance had a fatalistic attitude towards the homeless (left unspoken was a demand to just "round them up and get them away from here" which, fuck off) and weren't trying to see compromises or weigh (say it with me now) relative risk.

And there was so, so, so much argument-taken-directly-from-rectal-cavity being made. One guy near me confidently asserted (to the general air around him I guess) that "85% of the people on the street" can't be helped, and when challenged, tried to make a distinction about the "True Homeless" and whatever the fuck. Of course, he asked me if I'd ever talked to all the homeless people, but dude, I didn't make sweeping claims.

The biggest thing, of course, is the assumption that homelessness or drug addiction in themselves are some sort of moral failing. I really don't see how to jump to that conclusion other than by the "grace" of an extreme individualist philosophy or else a petty religion. I doubt most in the crowd were Objectivists but it's a safe bet that many attend churches, and many of those participate in charity outreach. And that's good... but implicit in many religious messages to the needy is a subtext about who deserves and who doesn't deserve help. Who sins and wishes to walk again in the Light, and who is unrepentant in defying the will of the Supreme Being.

But while there's a definite barrier to advancement out of homelessness (and kudos to the City rep who valiantly tried to reiterate this point) the barrier against homelessness is thin and flimsy indeed. I don't know any people who are homeless but I know people who were on the street or had to live out of their car for a while. And I don't get out much.

Moreover, the "moral failings" that seem to define the "unrepentant" homeless person in no way stop at the homelessness line. Plenty of people, unto the richest and privilegedest, commit crime (even petty crime!), exhibit tremendous drug habits, maybe make some money on sex webcams, I dunno. How many of the homeowners considered what sort of deviant behavior gets gotten up to in the homes and apartments in this neighborhood?

And finally, I'd love to unpack people's experiences and impressions of how crime happens around here. How do we know who's committing the crimes? Obviously the prostitutes stick around (I care about busting the pimps though) but is the guy sleeping in his trash-bag-packed van also the guy who's been prowling the vehicles on the street? I believe that break-ins violate one's sense of safety and trust, but it's a bad idea to extrapolate that feeling broadly across time and space and circumstance. Same with one's experience with drug addiction―there was a woman with valid anecdotes about dangerous drug addicts, but apparently for her this generalized to all drug users. And she works with the homeless... but is this an immutable fact of nature or a sort of social adjustment to expectations?

Now, it was interesting that many of the "zomg drug freaks" crowd were also seemingly supportive of a safe-use facility―their main concern seemed to be keeping drugs (literally) off the streets, out of the alleys, off the doorsteps, but they seemed to be willing to tolerate drug use in a safe space as one element of a pathway to recovery. Hopefully such a facility can be built; Aurora needs it.

Hopefully these views can be changed and the moral crusade abated; our humanity requires it.

REVIEW: "Analog" February 1969 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 2

The Christmas story involves outer space, so in the spirit of the season I'm going to review as many of my vintage science fiction magazines as I can before the new year!

With my single Galaxy copy out of the way, we move into Analog territory. Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, originally known as Astounding Stories and one of the other guiding lights of science fiction in its early years, was edited by John W. Campbell from the late 1930s until his death in 1971. Campbell was responsible for cultivating some truly prodigious sf talent and tried holding sf to at least some standards of quality... but he was also, to put it mildly, a crank. In particular to science-fiction concepts, he was a big believer in the theory of ESP or psi phenomena, as well as a fan of L. Ron Hubbard's pre-Scientology theory of the mind, dianetics.

This particular issue is from 1969, which is to say, right when things were getting real weird (again, putting it mildly!) in both science fiction and real life. It was fun to compare the change in style and tropes of 1969 Analog from 1954 Galaxy.

A Womanly Talent
Anne McCaffrey

McCaffrey is, like George R. R. Martin, a writer whom I knew from full novels long before I read any of their short stories. (I hadn't really understood the tight connection science fiction has with the short-story form until well into my sf-reading career.) And, again sort of like Martin, she wrote a lengthy series of novels that play with fantasy tropes and include dragons. The Dragonriders of Pern series was actually one of the first non-YA science fiction series I read as a kid, and I remember really enjoying the way McCaffrey gradually and plausibly shifts the world from a fantastic to a science-fictional setting.

This story, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Pern. It's about psi-enabled people (ding ding ding!) trying to gain legal protection from the U.S. Government, and one woman's heretofore unknown Talent manifesting in connection to the birth of her daughter. There are some interesting ideas presented here; in particular, the presentation of precognition as something like a mental earthquake is pretty cool, and the "X-Men" style politics of superpowers is always fun (in my opinion).

However, some of the other social aspects feel really dated―isn't it telling how speculative stories sometimes get the technology of the future more or less correct but almost always whiff on social changes? Ruth Horvath, the aforementioned woman with an unknown Talent, is an extremely stereotypical Mother. Full stop. Another character, a telepath, even comments that her thoughts are dominated by love and desire to provide for her husband and child. In a longer novel with more and varied characters it might not be so weird, but as one of the small handful of characters in a novella it's sort of eyebrow-raising. Still, I'd put this in the "good" bin.

You'll Love the Past
John R. Pierce

I remembered vaguely liking this story the first time I read it, but on subsequent reading I think I had just been glossing it. Unless Pierce was going for some (very bungled) satire, this story is really kind of racist.

The setup is interesting enough: a guy time-travels a few centuries into the future but it turns out he just stole the machine when its original owner was detained by the police. And the future society is a sort of Eloi-style "utopia" with cult elements. So far so good...

Except that the higher-ups, the "Heians" (which I think I originally thought were extraterrestrials) are pretty clearly described as Asian... and "Heian" spelled 平安 means "peace" in Japanese. At that point a lot of stuff started looking rather ugly: technologically advanced, sexless Asians keeping the mostly-nonwhite survivors of World War III as livestock? Ew. Now, as I said, it could be trying for satire: the main character is an unscrupulous asshole, and he might pull a "Sound of Thunder" and bring about the future by his own arrogance and ignorance... but... I doubt it. There's probably a reason it wasn't reprinted anywhere but this issue of Analog, according to the ISFDB.

Avoid it.

Extortion, Inc.
Mack Reynolds

In the harrowing far future of 2000 A.D., one of the last private investigators is hired by the government on a case of extortions and literal football-sized nukes!

Yeah, this is cheesy retro-future noir. I like that sort of thing. And I like how the main character solves the (not really too obscure) mystery because he's smart AND lazy. It's fun.

Wolfling (serialized; part 2 of 3)
Gordon R. Dickson

Skipped. I'm not reading serials from the middle or end.

A Chair of Comparative Leisure
Robert Scott Wilson

A mildly amusing but forgettable story about university department politics and psi powers (ding ding ding!)... but the concept ("What if a professor was a bad public speaker but also telepathic and could force the audience to daydream about the lecture?") is also all you really need to know. This story also wasn't reprinted anywhere else.


Overall this issue of Analog wasn't as surprising as the older issues of Galaxy, but I know that later issues (once Ben Bova took over as editor in the 1970s and 1980s) improve dramatically.

07 December 2016

REVIEW: "Galaxy" June 1954 -- Dimension X-Mas, part 1

Now is the winter of our discontent. But I don't want to blog about all that (yet). Therefore, and in anticipation of hopefully starting up a literary-review podcast about science fiction, I think it's a good time to read and review my small collection of sf magazines!

The first one up is also the oldest: the June 1954 edition of Galaxy magazine (scans of which are available on the Internet Archive; here's the particular edition). Galaxy was one of the premiere American sf monthlies during the golden age of sf magazines, alongside Astounding (later Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact). The radio program X Minus One drew heavily on Galaxy for its adaptations, and it published stories by many of the great sf authors of the time.

This particular issue was a random pull at an antique mall in Bellingham, if I remember correctly, so going in there was no guarantee that any of the stories would be particularly good. I mean, we're talking the 1950s here: a lot of the sf of the period, if it didn't remain famous up to the modern day (or maybe even then), is clunky or jarring to modern sensibilities.

As it turns out, I got lucky! Here are my brief thoughts on each story, in order of appearance:

Gladiator at Law (serialized; part 1 of 3)
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

I'm familiar with several of Pohl's stories as adapted by X Minus One and its earlier incarnation, Dimension X―in particular, "The Map Makers" and "Tunnel Under the World," both excellent. "Tunnel Under the World" was a particularly good satire on corporate control of personal life in the service of market research; that satirical spirit is similarly present in "Gladiator at Law." Only in this one, it's construction companies and corporate lawyers that rule everything thanks to "bubble-house" technology that makes the suburban sprawl of The Future(TM) a neglected wasteland.

The setup: One down-on-his-luck criminal attorney is approached by a woman and her brother who claim to be heirs to the biggest corporate fortune in the world... but is it true? And can he even begin to take on the megacorp?

This was quite an interesting first act, almost pre-cyberpunk in its setting. Pohl and Kornbluth's style holds up very well, with the occasional use of Fifties' phrases (for example, the particular way people used to use "sure"... you'd have to listen to lots of media from the time to understand, but I swear it's different).

Something for Nothing
Robert Sheckley

I love me some Sheckley: he does great, funny sfnal satire. X Minus One did an incredible and hilarious adaptation of "Early Model" which I absolutely recommend.

This particular story is a clever little parable: a regular Joe finds a "magic" box that gives him whatever he asks for when he presses its shiny red button. (Uh, did the Rick and Morty writers know about this story...? The people who pop in and out of existence when he asks for help reminded me a lot of Mr. Meeseeks... except that they were human.) But what could be the catch?

Overall, solid and a nice half-twist at the end. There are better Sheckley stories, but I thought this was still quite good.

High Man
Jay Clarke

I don't know anything about Jay Clarke; going by the ISFDB he was a very minor writer with two short stories to his name. This one is fairly predictable, but amusing on first read because of the epistolatory format―increasingly snarky letters between an emerging love/scam triangle.

Down Among the Dead Men
William Tenn

I didn't know much about William Tenn before reading this―he had a few stories adapted for Dimension X and X Minus One and I might have listened to one, but it didn't make an impression―but this ended up being a very interesting story and I want to read more from him.

The setup is that humanity is fighting a losing battle against technologically-superior bug aliens in the outer Solar System, and the chief weapon is actually sheer manpower (since the aliens reproduce massively, like insects). So the military starts recycling corpses to clone new soldiers. But how do those "soldier surrogates" feel about the whole situation?

The actual crisis of the story has almost a "Twelve Angry Men" feel to it, except that it's "Four Angry Clones and Their Commanding Officer." This could easily be read as a commentary on the status of non-white soldiers in the U.S. military, and I wouldn't be shocked to learn that that was Tenn's exact point.

See?
Edward G. Robles, Jr.

The setup: Four hobos stop an alien invasion of Earth. The details make for amusing reading. (The method of invasion, and why a hobo is the ideal defender against it, is really a clever use of what isn't an entirely original sf trope.)


Forget Me Nearly
F. L. Wallace

A murder mystery where the murder victim is still alive: but if you're the victim of induced amnesia and mental retrogression, isn't that basically murder? The actual twist reveal of who's who wasn't all that surprising, but the concept was still competently presented. A fun puzzle-box type story.