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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tolkien Vs. Lovecraft Smackdown Supreme, 2nd Round

Once more we try to ascertain which fan-favorite writer is greater, not by reading their work (too easy, too obvious!), but by reading tribute anthologies.

Playing for Lovecraft, we have Pickman's Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

It's the 90s, internet access means dial-up, and the narrator notices that Howard Pickman, a lovably pugnacious and semi-literate message-board member, has acquired a newly sophisticated, if antiquarian, prose style. Pickman has a new modem of uncertain origin, and it appears to be rewriting his online interactions, casting Pickman in a more loquacious, but also foul-minded, mode. He's winning flame wars (is that phrase is still in use? This Gen X'er has no clue) with hair-raising insults that the narrator alludes to but, tastefully, does not detail. Just as Lovecraft shied away from describing the structuring terrors of his tales, Watt-Evans draws a curtain over the foulness which this modem's version of Grammerly imposes on Pickman's self-presentation.

The story makes me nostalgic for a time when this whole internet thing was thrillingly new and mysterious. People were just beginning to suspect the risks of being extremely online, and Watt-Evans uses fantasy to demonstrate the way the internet changes how we interact with the outside world.

On the other hand, having established this premise of a sinister internet agent twisting your words and presentation, the story's payoff is a bit flat. Pickman unplugs the modem but it continues to make calls to someone, then Pickman's last online posts are gibberish that will be familiar to anyone versed in Lovecraft, then Pickman was never seen again; stay off the internet, kids!

And in this corner, playing for Team Tolkien, Terry (Diskworld) Pratchett, gone too soon, presents Troll Bridge:

Cohen the barbarian, an elderly but still spry hero, guides his wisecracking horse to a bridge that may have a troll under it; the hero always wanted to prove his mettle against a troll, and is only just now getting around to it. It turns out that a family of trolls lives under this bridge, and the troll-man of the bridge-house is deeply honored to do battle against a hero of Cohen's stature. His wife, though, has other ideas. Her brothers have gotten out of traditional troll businesses and done very well for themselves in other lines of work that don't involve killing or dying; she wishes her husband would stop living in the past (the whole troll bridge thing is yesterday's papers) and make a proper living. Rather than battle, Cohen and the troll rhapsodize about heritage and keeping traditions alive. Class consciousness and elegiac Downton Abbey-style heritage nostalgia get an affectionate skewering, and all ends peacefully.

There's something very British about using fantasy races to address class, where an American would use them to talk about race. When I was in college I used to loiter in my English professors' offices and talk until they threw me out about how C. S. Lewis was totally right about everything (I no longer hold this view), and one of them inveighed against Lewis for racism. My professor believed that the Dufflepuds, a race of obsequiously dull-witted folk in Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, were a colonialist caricature of native peoples. I believed, and still do, that they were a snobbish caricature of working-class Brits. 


Both stories are comic in tone, and use fantastical tropes to engage real-world themes (the life-altering dangers of the internet, the fading of Britain's reassuring yet stifling class structure). Watt-Evan's story is charming, but the conclusion is more a petering out than an enrichment. Prachett's story has the witty dialogue for which he's renowned, but also has passages of pellucid beauty. As a romantic hymnist of the natural world, he has perhaps not received his due. And he digs into his theme with particular insight; Watt-Evans explores his subject in a more glancing fashion (as, admittedly, I do) but in his defense, his topic was brand new, while British culture has been processing the end of empire for generations, giving Prachett a head start.

Verdict: Watt-Evan's story is prescient, modestly, and he writes with a warm literacy and unforced comic sensibility that eludes most would-be comic fantastical writers. On the other hand, Pratchett's story was the first entry in the Tolkien Vs. Lovecraft Smackdown that filled me with admiration and gratitude. (There's a part of me that's horrified that I'm stooping to affective fallacy, but I think that gratitude is earned by the story's finely wrought wit and attention to life. Pratchett was no idle daydreamer, but he transmuted his awareness of life into finely wrought fantasy.)

Team Tolkien is 2-0. Team Lovecraft needs to get a rally going.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Outlaws and Inlaws # 16 Featuring Manager's Doorbuster Dangerous Visions Inventory Liquidation-- all dangerous visions must go!

From Dangerous Visions:

Test to Destruction by Keith Laumer: If you think Science Fiction is greasy kid's stuff, Laumer isn't here to argue with you; he's here to roller skate out to your car with a heapin' platter of greasy kid's stuff. This is a supersized serving of desperate escapes, breathless chases, heartstopping leaps, and deathfacing confrontations. Some stories give you alien invaders; others give you human villains who say "You fool!" to their henchmen. Laumer gives you both in one story; what a value! And he delivers it all with practiced cliffhanger craft with no time wasted on fripperies that might blunt the freerunning forward momentum. Through it all our hero, a noble political revolutionary, wins the day and conquers both aliens and fascists.  If you like this kind of thing, rejoice! Laumer wrote a slew of books, just waiting for you.

There's a twist ending I didn't see coming, but mostly because I underrated the story as I was reading it. SF is loaded with cornball ubermensch power fantasies that embrace, rather than question, the nasty side of that equation. This story, to my condescending surprise, chose to question. Having granted his protagonist absolute power, Laumer shows the absolutely corrupted result. You fools!

Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad: Another account of an ubermensch gone bad. This time a Renaissance man who's a dab hand at anything he tries achieves one victory after another. Spinrad narrates the protagonist's biography with plausible-sounding step-by-step developments and engrossing long-joke structure. After winning it all, our hero gets cancer, and uses a cocktail of psychedelic drugs (it's the 60s, after all) to gaze within and face the enemy on the internal battlefield.

Turns out that if you journey too far within... you may never come out, man. Spinrad presents a sympathetic but fairly conservative critique of transcendental aspirations.

Auto-Da-Fe by Roger Zelazny: A matador faces down a succession of self-driving cars instead of bulls. Zelazny, best known for his Nine Princes in Amber adventure series, delivers on this with all the action and ironic romanticism the premise promises. His prose glistens with pulpy poetry, enriched with more highbrow and formalist literary stylings on an as-needed basis, then pulls out a finale that isn't exactly a twist ending; more like a rueful development. Non-human life is vanishingly rare now; matadors don't face down cars because that's preferable to bulls, but because there may be no bulls left. Ellison's comparison of Zelazny to Nabokov is barking mad, but Zelazny could turn a phrase more vividly and deftly than most SF scribes.

Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany: In his introduction to this story, editor and compulsive blatherer Harlan Ellison asserts that Delany is a real man's man, not some "pathetic little homosexual." Well, Delany is anything but pathetic or little, and 2 out of 3 ain't bad. Perhaps Ellison's slurring was a defensive reaction to the story's subject matter, which is cruising for sex. 

Delany rolls this out more subtly than I'm about to, but in the future, some people become Spacers, people who do the blue-collar work of maintaining space stations, etc. They are bodily modified to withstand the extreme conditions of space, and can, it is suggested, take off and land from anywhere, at anytime, but beneath their clothes is some "loose meat" which is an inevitable aspect of the surgical alterations. They are neither male nor female after the procedure, but they are erotically irresistible to some melancholy admirers. 

Spacer work isn't particularly well paid, and many Spacers pick up extra money by turning tricks. Spacers serve as an objective correlative for real-life sexual outsiders, and while Delany was married (to Marilyn Hacker, one of my favorite poets, who shares Delany's devotion to specific and carefully articulated imagistic detail) he cruised for male sexual partners, and has since written and spoken about this with a Rechy-like lack of shame. 

And with that, we bid farewell to Dangerous Visions. One area in which both Ellison and I have been remiss is articulating how each of the stories in this grab-bag is dangerous; after all, nothing is dangerous in the abstract. It's dangerous to people, things or ideas. My least favorite stories in this anthology think they pose a threat to one thing, but are actually only dangerous to something else; for example, Ersatz by Henry Slezar (discussed here) thinks it's dangerous to the military-industrial complex, but it's really only dangerous to trans people. Delany and Poul Anderson strike depth-charge blows for LGBT, and Ellison wriggles with titillated distress in his intros to their stories. In Dangerous Visions, reactionary dangers blare their vuvuzelas and wear their MAGA hats, while more progressive strains must tiptoe their dangers across the border.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy: Speaking of cruising, in this excerpt from the novel that inspired the famous movie (Midnight Cowboy, not Cruising), a handsome young man tries to scrounge a living in NYC after finding that women don't wanna pay guys for sex all that much. He hooks up with Ratso Rizzo, a long-time scrounger and survivor, and they try to find a payday wherever they can. We also learn how Rizzo ended up on the streets, and stare directly into his loneliness. Friendships between people who end up together because they don't have a lot of options is a subject I can understand, and Herlihy understands it as well.

Black Fire by Nelson Peery: A band of African-American hobos gotta handle some problems. Like hunger, health care, shelter? Well, probably, but in this excerpt the problems come in the form of dudes trying to kill you, including a lawman who revels in using his position of authority to murder hobos, especially black ones. I'm not clowning when I say that black hobo lives matter, and that blue lives matter as long as they're on the side of right, but these hobos give this cop what he deserves in a moving-train chase straight out of the movies.

From Plays in One Act:

The Bay at Nice by David Hare: In Soviet Russia, Valentina, a grand dame who once studied with Matisse, is called upon by a museum to authenticate a possible Matisse canvas. The experts are divided on its authenticity, and hope that her more personal insight will crack the case. Meanwhile, her daughter Sophia implores her for help getting a divorce from her ambitious husband so she can marry a sweetly nonthreatening lover. Valentina opposes the divorce with the conservatism of someone who was wild in her youth, turned from freedom to responsibility, and now can't bear to see anyone make, or own, the mistakes of youth and freedom for themselves. Hare is known for loving female characters who are almost too spiky and difficult to love, and Sophia loves her mother with the love of someone who knows from long experience how to handle such a tough old broken-winged bird. Another play I'd love to see performed, and performed properly.

Protest by Vaclav Havel (tr. Vera Blackwell): A soft-spoken revolutionary artist visits an old friend who is now a prominent TV broadcaster. The broadcaster privately laments the authoritarian government, and tacitly sides with the revolutionaries; but will he sign a petition and put his good standing on the line? A case of conscience for our broadcasting friend, who demonstrates the high-minded rationalizations people use to take the easy way out and still tell themselves they're choosing the path of greater valor. His cowardice should look familiar to a lot of Republican politicos who currently lack the nerve to publicly oppose President Dumber Tony Soprano, but doubtless Havel was skewering an old friend or two from Czechoslovakia's communist days.

From Calling the Wind:

The Lookout by Cyrus Colter: A socially ambitious woman can't help but stake out a party she hasn't been invited to. A parade of invited guests in their fine clothes pass by, and our heroine ruminates miserably on the profitable marriages they made, while her husband comes home from his unimpressive job to blog about short stories watch TV and fall asleep. Her bitter, detail-oriented observations on the extremely narrow social ladder for mid-century black women is a feminist indictment.

A Long Day in November by Ernest J. Gaines: This longer story begins as a portrait of the author (perhaps) as an anxious little boy. His parents split up and the boy carries the resulting displacement and anxiety to school. The child-centered gloom takes a sudden hairpin turn, though, when his dad picks him up at school and begins a quest to win his wife back. This involves running a gauntlet of angry old women who torment dad but also offer the wisdom he needs to remake his marriage. Poor dumb dad needs all the help he can get, and deserves all the tongue-lashings that he does get. The escalating abuse dad takes reminds me of classic slapstick comedy. All ends well, as the husband learns he'll have to sacrifice his bachelor-style freedoms to keep his wife at home. A terrific comic story spiced with sorrows. Far funnier and weightier than any of the whimsical joke stories that pop up in Dangerous Visions.

From The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century: 

How to Win by Rosellen Brown: A We Need To Talk About Kevin precursor. A mom struggles to raise a nearly impossible little boy who smashes everything in his path and drives everyone nuts. As in Kevin, Mom narrates, and is, perhaps, unreliable. Is her kid really so bad, or does she just not know how to handle him? The main distinction between the moms of the two stories is that this mom finds her way through all the agony to empathize with her kid and love him with all his faults. It's a frank, unsentimental confession about regretting parenthood; the kind of thing that makes me glad I stuck with cats.

Roses, Rhododendron by Alice Adams: I loved this one. The narrator's mother asks an Ouija board what to do about her failing marriage, and the board says to ditch the husband, take her teen daughter, and move south. Mom trusts the board, and her daughter narrates treasured memories of the time in North Carolina (hey, that's where I live!). She meets an elegant, literate friend, with intriguing, calm parents (so different from her agitated mom!) and practically moves in. The girls bicycle around the wooded town, suspended in greenery and aspirational book talk, while their parents struggle to get their own lives together. The narrator's wise reflections and reinterpretations of her childhood perceptions makes this memory piece far more than a nostalgic reverie, and the way she brings the past's ambiguities into focus demonstrates historical awareness on a personal scale.