The Wesleyan Anthology
of Science Fiction
Arthur R. Evans, et al,
(Wesleyan University Press)Letter to a friend: I am reading a Wesleyan University Press Anthology of Important Science Fiction. I am astounded that so many of my hero writers were so bad: Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford D. Simak, Robert A. Heinlein, J. G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, and especially Ray Bradbury.
For instance, there is his 1950 story, "There Will Come Soft Rains." It is about the family house that wakes up after the A-bomb goes off, goes about its business --- mechanical mice to clean up, automatic kitchen, mechanical voices "Tick-tock, seven o'clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o'clock!" When I was younger, I always thought it to be the essence of compact story-telling, with a subtle beauty. Now I see it as flat and wooden, although "sf" writers, as they are called here, seemed to be the only ones in America who were able to make us all aware of the price of mutual nuclear destruction. Still, theirs was a socially and in many cases stylistically bleak voice.
But we also run into the opposite, finding that Frederik Pohl and A. C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were all not that bad. In Pohl's "Day Million," there is a beguiling line about Dora: "It would only confuse you to add that she was seven feet tall and smelled of peanut butter."
In Asimov's story "Reason," two scientists put together a robot to serve in the Solar Station 5, channeling power to the earth (How did he know of our coming hunger? This was written in 1940.) Robot QT --- named "Cutie" --- goes into revolt early on, finding god hidden in the control machinery of the space station. The humans are baffled that he would find the divine anywhere (he was not programmed for that) ... but it turns out that his concept of the godhead makes him perform perfectly.
QT ultimately imprisons the two, tells them that they are "too coarsely grained for absolute truth." "However, since it is the Master's will that you believe your books, I won't argue with you any more." His divine --- this is even more eerie --- seems a mechanical version of Allah: "There is but one Master."Finally, we find that Philip Dick is as good as they got. They say he was absurdly paranoiac. I had friends who knew him back in the 60s --- would occasionally bring him gifts of pot at his request ... even though it served only to nurse his multivalent fears. He would ask that they park blocks from his apartment, check every minute or so as they walked in to be absolutely sure that they were not being followed. They found themselves beginning at times to fear that not only were they being followed, but that the best minds of Washington might indeed be after him. In just such a way Dick is able to lasso the reader into an paranoiac tale from 1966, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale."
Douglas Quail, an impossibly timid man, finally signs up for a reprogramming of his mind to give him fake memories of a fake trip to Mars. Turns out that he had actually gone to Mars as an "Agent for Interplan," a government CIA-style organization. The AI false memory implant went awry, it turns out, because it had been implanted atop another even more improbable memory. If you get this book, read this story at once. It is too good, layers on layer of fear, terror, repression, and lies. Just like many people's lives; just like Philip K. Dick's richly imagined life.
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Of the moderns, after, say, 1965, I could find few worthy of our time and attention. Pamela Zoline's "Heat Death of the Universe" ... maybe: although it is more a grim critique of you and me and our marriages and our split-levels and the hidden routines, what Simone de Beauvoir called "the torture of Sisyphus ... housework,"
with its endless repetition the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out, marking time: she makes nothing, merely perpetuates the present."
One of my favorites from years ago is not here, alas. It's one by Hal Clements --- I have forgotten the title --- about a giant space-ship journey ... which turns out to be a tiny vessel moving between one drop of water and another. It was dug up for me by a friend, who wrote:
"Just a week or two ago, I picked up Asimov, a rather slapdash memoir by the author. I picked it up because it includes Asimov's own impressions of his fellow sci-fi writers, all of whom he knew personally. Did you know that Robert Heinlein was a naval officer? That Fred Pohl was a remarkably generous, helpful individual? That Cyril Kornbluth was not --- that he was an awkward young snotnose until the day he died, young? [In fact, Asimov himself was an awkward young snotnose in his youth, but he evidently mellowed with success.]"I liked Asimov, but on recent re-reading I find him flat and wooden. I recall being particularly impressed by Clifford Simak and Poul Andersen. I thought A. E. Van Vogt was fun but silly. The wonderful story about the spaceship in the drop of water was by Hal Clements, who was in fact a science teacher.
"Then, there is the Sturgeon story about a man who creates an entire civilization of tiny intelligent creatures living in a sort of sandpile. Once, in a peyotl-induced fit of clarity, I discovered that these very creatures had migrated to the house, were building a new civilization inside the weave of the rug in your living room.
"There was another wonderful story from the 1950s, I think by Bradbury, which was a spookily accurate forecast of our present. It imagined a strange future world in which everyone possessed a little communication device, a sort of miniature telephone, with which to remain perpetually 'in touch.' On public transportation, every passenger is constantly in conversation with someone else by means of these devices. The protagonist of the story, fed up wtih this incessant chatter, uses a jamming device of his own invention one day to cut off all the communication links on a bus. The other passengers, deprived of their umbilical links to their contacts, all suffer immediate psychotic breakdown. The protagonist, on the other hand, is so elated that he goes home and smashes his television set.
"These events are narrated in the first person. It is only at the end of his account that we learn to whom the narrative is directed. It is the prison psychiatrist, at the institution for the criminally insane to which our narrator has been remanded.
§ § §
"The sci-fi novels I still prize above all others are The Space Merchants and The Merchants' War by Kornbluth and Pohl. The plots are standard, dopey 1950s potboiler, but the incidental social satire is astounding in its prescience. I keep rereading them, and noticing that the satire applies in detail to contemporary America. Come to think of it, you have brought up a possible solution to my present malaise about fiction. Maybe I should spend more time rereading science fiction.
"By the way, when I was in Paris in 1999, I read a collection of Ray Bradbury stories in French, and I thought some of them (including the one about the automatic house) were quite fine. Maybe they improve when translated into French. The Olaf Stapleton novels, which I read just a few years ago (and reviewed in RALPH), were well-written too, for their genre, rather evocative."--- C. A. Amantea