Tuesday, September 28, 2010

SF Masterwork #5 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The subject of classics and SF seems to come up a lot. In fact the reason I'm contributing to the blog is to expand my own classical education. So I'm reading this not only as a good story but also wondering if it deserves the Masterworks title.

I'll put you out of your misery before we start it definitely deserves that title. Lots of people have been commenting whilst I've been reading that it's one of their favourite SF novels and I can see why.

It hasn't dated for a start and the SF elements are vague enough that the reader can see them as either some futuristic invention or an extension of currently available technology. Though the central element is scientific but not technological.

The central concept is that humans have discovered they can Jaunte. That is they can disappear from one place to arrive in another in moments. There are limitations jaunting. Without knowing the co-ordinates of your destination jaunting usually leads to death plus there is are limits to distances with each person having their own range in which they can travel.

Bester does a strong job of leading the reader into the concept of jaunting from its discovery to its mass use. He also introduces us to Gully Folye who manages to survive in deep space, alone, for 170 days. When he finally manages to escape he brings with him a grudge and a secret that could change the world.

I say grudge but that really does understate the feelings that Gully has. He has nothing left apart from revenge. And through his quest we get to see and meet a future that has a potential war between inner and outer planets, a place where where you live doesn't have to be even close to where you work, where there are still people of obscene wealth and power, and you see that we can still be as base as we are now.

I am impressed with Bester after reading The Stars My Destination though in order to justify my feelings towards Gully I really did need to think of him of having a really big screw loose. Even after all the challenges and changes he goes though in order to enact his revenge fantasy he doesn't alter course even when he seems to have everything else going for him.

But he's forgiven for his behaviour and his methods. Drifting alone in space is going to drive you mad.

The thing that impressed me is that Bester manages to keep a few cards close to his chest which really do change the game when he puts them into play and it makes you wonder if Gully knew at the beginning what he does at the end if he'd actually take the same journey.

Saying that I don't see Gully as a sympathetic character and many of his actions made me uncomfortable but how much of Gully reflects to the attitudes of the time of writing and how much is unique to Gully I'm not willing to bet.

The Stars My Destination has stood the test of time and Gully Foyle is a character who has a journey and a tale to tell. He's also a good example of what you can do when you can focus. You can literally change yourself.

Well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SF Masterworks #80: Brian Aldiss, Helliconia

Life is at once both fragile and durable.  As the seasons change, various species wax and wane in response to the conditions.  The smallest shifts in climate can wreak havoc on complex ecosystems.  Historians in recent decades have begun to place more emphasis on climatic change as being a major contributive cause to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, as the Earth experienced six centuries of cooling that correspond almost exactly to the Age of Migration (400-1000 CE).  In addition, the spread of pathogens borne by fleas infesting rats have been responsible for plague outbreaks from the 6th to 17th centuries CE that weakened empires and changed the course of historical events.

British author Brian Aldiss in his three Helliconia novels - Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985) - explores this complex series of relationships between environments and human societies over a span of several thousand years on the distant planet Helliconia.  Helliconia is the fourth planet orbiting the junior partner in a double star system.  The entire premise of Aldiss' trilogy revolves around the seasonal changes on this inhabited planet, as Helliconia experiences two "years," one a "small year" of a little over 400 days where it completes its rotation around its star and a "great" year of nearly 2500 years where it and its star complete a circuit around the dominant stellar partner.  With a perihelion that is three times closer to the dominant "A" star than at aphelion, there are centuries (roughly 600 or so Earth centuries) where the planet is in "summer" and the climate causes the glaciers to retreat and permits humanoid life to flourish.  But with winter comes a shrinking of habitat and the increased danger of domination from the sentient phagors, who are better adapted for Helliconia's cold season.

Over the course of these three volumes, bound together into a massive 1300 page paperback edition, Aldiss charts a history of life, not just on Helliconia, but on a Terran space station and Terran colony on the aptly-named sister planet of Avernus, over the course of Helliconia's spring, summer, and winter seasons.  In his taking of a longue durée approach, Aldiss borrows elements of Olaf Stapledon's manner of covering thousands of years of imagined history.  However, this approach of covering decades and centuries in each of these three volumes is fraught with risks that the narrative structure would crumble under the weight of its vast history and the corresponding lack of unifying human characters.  For the most part, Aldiss manages to avoid this, although there are occasions in the third volume where the narrative creaks and groans under the weight of its accumulated detail.

Helliconia Spring begins with the planet only starting to emerge from its wintry hibernation.  The human-like population has begun to shake off the shackles of phagor domination, just as Earth colonists have begun to settle the more harsh environment of Avernus.  Aldiss keeps the story more focused on the characters here, as he introduces several sets of characters who have begun the long, slow process of reestablishing human civilizations on Helliconia.  On several occasions, he references past cycles of human-phagor domination, such as in this passage early in the first novel:

Lord Wall Ein replied with his usual authority.  "It was not always thus, or you and your men would have met a different reception, you with your poor weapons.  Many centuries ago, the Land of Embruddock was great, stretching north to the Quzints and south almost as far as the sea.  Then Great King Denniss ruled, but the cold came and destroyed what he had wrought.  Now we are fewer than ever we were, for only last year, in the first quarter, we were raided by the white phagors riding like the wind on their giant mounts.  Many of our best warriors, including my son, were killed defending Embruddock, and now sink towards the original boulder."

He sighed, and added, "Perhaps you read the legend carved on this building, if you can read.  It says, "First phagors, then men."  It was for that legend and other matters that our priesthood was slain, two generations ago.  Men must be first, always.  Yet some days I wonder if the prophecy will not come true." (pp. 126-127)

It is this referencing of a larger history within the context of the characters' (and by extension, their civilizations') interactions with their changing environments and their attempt to prevent another wintry cycle of decline occurring that makes for a major overarching plot throughout the three novels.  Aldiss demonstrates that a lot of thought has been put into how best to explore the possible connections between humans and their environments; we see, throughout the trilogy, numerous asides, usually a paragraph or two in length, if that, on the Helliconians attempts to "master" their environment and to stem the cycle of rise/fall that has plagued them over the past few great years.  Yet despite these best efforts at foreplanning, so many other internal and external factors (ranging from greed to ecological changes) combine to affect these plans to preserve civilization during the decline after summer's end.

Aldiss appears to endorse a sort of Gaia view of the relationships between beings and their environments, or at least he explores what type of story would emerge if such a hypothesis were in fact real.  He does not rely on a single set of occurrences to prove or disprove this belief in a quasi-aware biosphere; he shows how actions, such as those on the Earth station and on Avernus, can affect the course of events and that not all responses to environments will be identical or as (non)effective as prior events.  This culminates in the middle volume, where the balance between the individual Hellconian (and to a lesser extent, Earthling) histories and the greater history of the zeniths of competing civilizations is almost pitch-perfect.

However, there are some problems with the structure.  By the final volume, Helliconia Winter, the repeated cycle of events has led to a staleness in the narrative; the action is not as crisp and the narrative becomes bogged down in explaining the declines not just on Helliconia, but also on the Terran stations and even with Earth itself.  These explanations become a bit too much and they threaten at times to overwhelm the narrative itself.  The conclusion is interesting, not just because it ties in directly with the themes explored over the course of the trilogy, but how it leaves individual threads within this concluding volume open-ended for interpretation.  This is not to imply that there is a surprising or even a strong finale here, but rather that Aldiss has brought this fictional environmental history as far as it could go and it just halts as another cycle is beginning.

Helliconia is one of those insanely ambitious projects that is doomed to never achieve its full goals and yet it is that failure itself that makes this a worthy book to read.  Aldiss' attempt to display both a large, vivid macrohistory of Helliconia's environment and its denizens, as well as a microhistory of individuals caught up in their civilizations' rise and fall (and rise again, seemingly ad infinitum) is intriguing because of the sheer complexity involved in balancing the two.  The fact that he was able to largely navigate the Scylla and Charybdis-like shoals between focusing more on the macrohistory and concentrating more on the microhistories for the majority of this series is impressive.  It is very easy to forgive him for the narrative structural faults that begin to emerge late in the trilogy simply because of how much of his vision he was able to accomplish despite the limitations involved with this sort of story being told.  Yet this does not mean that the trilogy deserves a complete pass on its faults.  After a while, some readers (and I am one of them) want much more than an impressive setting or "world"; we want to see a vivid story that fully realizes an impressive setting and makes it not just an impressive jewel in an otherwise plain circlet, but rather a harmonic ordering of setting, prose, theme, and characterization to create a moving story.  Helliconia has the promise of several interesting stories, but by the trilogy's end, much of that promise was left unfulfilled.  But despite these flaws, Helliconia certainly stands as one of the "masterworks" of the past quarter-century, especially for how often it does succeed in the majority of its ambitious goals.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #40: Poul Anderson, Three Hearts & Three Lions

There was a man who had to be gotten out of Denmark.  The Allies needed his information and abilities rather badly.  The Germans held him under close watch, for they also knew what he was.  Nevertheless, the underground spirited him from his home and conveyed him down to the Sound.  A boat lay ready to take him to Sweden, whence he could be flown into England.

We will probably never know whether the Gestapo was on his trail or whether a German patrol simply happened to spot men on the shore long after curfew.  Someone cried out, someone else fired, and the battle started.  The beach was open and stony, with just enough light to see by from the stars and the illuminated Swedish coast.  No way of retreat.  The boat got going, and the underground band settled down to hold off the enemy till it had reached the opposite shore.

Their hope even of that was not large.  The boat was slow.  Their very defense had betrayed its importance.  In a few minutes, when the Danes were killed, one of the Germans would break into the nearest house and telephone occupation headquarters in Elsinore, which was not far off.  A high-powered motorcraft would intercept the fugitive before he reached neutral territory.  However, the underground men did their best.

Holger Carlsen fully expected to die, but he lacked time to be afraid.  A part of him remembered other days here, sunlit stillness and gulls overhead, his foster parents, a house full of small dear objects; yes, and Kronborg castle, red brick and slim towers, patinaed copper roofs above bright waters, why should he suddenly think of Kronborg?  He crouched on the shingle, the Luger hot in his fingers, and fired at shadowy leaping forms.  Bullets whined by his ears.  A man screamed.  Holger took aim and shot.

Then all his world blew up in flame and darkness.  (pp. 5-6)

Poul Anderson's 1953 novella (later expanded into the present novel form in 1961), Three Hearts & Three Lions is one of the more influential fantasy stories.  The creator of Dungeons & Dragons based his original schema around Anderson's Law/Chaos division and this may have been an influence on Michael Moorcock's Elric stories and Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard, which contains an allusion to Anderson's story.  Three Hearts & Three Lions is also one of the earlier examples of a portal fantasy (Mark Twain's satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court being perhaps the oldest of this form of fantasy story), a fact that actually can hinder some readers' enjoyment of this novel due to the plethora of imitators in the fifty-seven years since the original novella was published.

The quote above sets up the transfer of Dane resistance fighter/engineer Holger Carlsen from our world to a parallel Europe divided by the aggressive, Christian Holy Roman Empire-analogue and the wild, chaotic lands of Faery, which contain some malevolent spirits bound and determined to extinguish their western neighbor's holy powers.  Accompanied by a dwarf who speaks with a Scottish brogue and a shapeshifting woman with whom Carlsen falls in love, he slowly comes to realize that he is the long-prophesized knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions, the legendary Ogier the Dane of the chansons regarding Charlemagne's paladins.  Today, this is not a very novel concept, but a half-century ago, it certainly was influential enough on the D&D-related stories that followed.

Being influential does not equate to being a great story.  Anderson's novel reads in places like the fix-up it was, as some of the traveling scenes and adventures feel as though they were bolted onto the original narrative.  Anderson does introduce certain concepts here that he developed to greater effect in his 1954 Norse-influenced fantasy, The Broken Sword, including the power of Christianity and its relics and holy water to negate any magical use, but here it feels underdeveloped.  It certainly does not help that the prose is mediocre at best and at times really poor, as evidenced in that quote at the beginning of this review.  Three Hearts & Three Lions reads as if it were a good story off on a quest to find a decent prose medium by which it could be told, only to discover tragedy along the way.

Three Hearts & Three Lions may be viewed as a "masterwork" because of its influence on latter writers, but when a lot of its influences involve the inclusion of such incredibly cheesy tropes such as having a pugnacious dwarf that speaks as though it had wandered out drunk from a Scottish pub and with an ultra-noble paladin whose very hair and eyes might have been cast from Nordic Central, it is difficult to see much in the way of merit about this tale when its worst elements have begotten scads of horribly-derivative hack-and-slash fantasy in the fifty years or so since its initial publication.  Maybe I am not the ideal reader for this type of story, maybe Anderson is just too hit-or-miss with his narratives (as I did find The Broken Sword to be a much more realized fantasy story than this one), but I just could not help but to find Three Hearts & Three Lions to be one of his poorer efforts, one that I certainly would not raise up as being an exemplary fantasy quest novel.

Fantasy Masterworks #48: Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king's city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye.  Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman's life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen.  Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk.  Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him.  There was a streak of wizardry in him, like the streak of fire in damp, smoldering wood.  He spoke rarely to men with his brief, rough voice, but when he touched a horse, a hungry dog, or a dove in a cage on market days, the fire would surface in his black eye and his voice would run sweet as a daydreaming voice of the Slinoon River.

One day he left Mondor and went to Eld Mountain.  Eld was the highest mountain in Eldwold, rising behind Mondor and casting its black shadow over the city at twilight when the sun slipped, lost, into its mists.  From the fringe of the mists, shepherds or young boys hunting could see beyond Mondor, west to the flat Plain of Terbrec, land of the Sirle Lords, north to Fallow Field, where the third King of Eldwold's ghost brooded still on his last battle, and where no living thing grew beneath his restless, silent steps.  There, in the rich, dark forests of Eld Mountain, in the white silence, Myk began a collection of wondrous, legendary animals. (pp. 1-2)

Patricia A. McKillip's 1974 short novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, opens with the quote provided above.  In just two paragraphs, she has created a vivid backdrop and history around which she frames this story of love, desire, despair, and redemption.  It is a fable of sorts and it certainly contains elements of this ancient storytelling mode:  a vague past, rich characterizations, a temptatious moment around which the story revolves, and a stirring conclusion.  Such stories revel more in the atmosphere of the setting than in character development (since the use of archetypes is common in these tales and it is the interactions of these archetypes with the fully-realized backdrop that often appeals most to readers) and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld certainly will remind its readers fondly of the best fantastical fables of the past few centuries.

The story begins with one of Myk's descendents, Sybel, a sixteen year-old orphan, caring for her deceased wizard-father's fantastical beasts.  She is alone on Eld Mountain, undesirous of contact with the populace below in Mondor, until one day the Sirle Coren comes bearing an infant, an infant who through her deceased mother's side is a relative of hers.  This infant, which she names Tamlorn, is to be raised alone by her and away from his dread father, the aptly-named Drede.

Twelve years pass.  Coren returns to reclaim Tamlorn, but is rebuffed by Sybel, who worries that the youth will be used as a pawn in the Sirles' struggles against Drede.   However, Drede himself soon comes to claim his child and Sybel reluctantly parts from Tamlorn, although she sends a guardian bird, a Ter, to protect Tamlorn.  Sybel soon sinks into a depression and in her attempt to draw a mythical beast, the Liralen, she instead conjures forward the Blammor, a dark creature of shadow that induces fear.  Drede soon sends a minion to destroy Sybel, fearing her power and angry that she had possessed his son for twelve years.  This leads to an ending that is at once both literal and metaphorical at the same time.

Although the above description may seem at first glance to "spoil" the story, I would argue that it doesn't even hint at the beauty found within it.  McKillip draws upon various Celtic legends and their storytelling methods to hint at a dark, terrible tragedy that lies within the pursuit of hidden knowledge with darkness possessing one's soul.  Sybel's dark descent into depression and a desire to wreak havoc on Drede for his attempts to destroy her are reflected in the changes in her fantastical creatures.  Their anger, their hostility, and ultimately their violent acts are reflected in Sybel's mood swing.  Although some perhaps might find this story to be rather "simple" on the surface, McKillip layers this text with levels of metaphorical significance that have an impact far greater than might be expected from a novel that is roughly 200 pages.

In his review of McKillip's later series, Riddle-Master,  Neth argues that McKillip's work shows a clear influence from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth series.  I would argue that McKillip's writing is not dependent on what Tolkien accomplished, but rather that it, like some of Tolkien's tales, draws from the wealth of folklore and legends from Irish, Scots, and perhaps Welsh tales.  I am far from an expert on insular Celtic folklore, but I seem to recall there being stories revolving around different-eyed magicians, the connection between animals and mood, and the dangers of emotional responses to magical occurrences being hinted at in some Irish legends.   However, I do know that the way the story is constructed feels more in tune with stories that I've heard of Irish mythical heroes than anything I remember appearing in Germanic tales. 

Regardless of its ultimate source material, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a lyrical, evocative piece.  McKillip's prose invigorates the plot, making it feel fresh and important.  As stated above, her adroit use of metaphors to signify not just actual plot occurrences but also to denote the meanings behind those acts adds depth to the story, making it a far more complex story than it might appear at first glance.  The archetypical characters fulfill their roles almost perfectly and the end result is a short "masterwork" that hints at what the maturing McKillip later accomplished in her Riddle-Master trilogy and subsequent novels.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #22: Michael Moorcock, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen

Even after four centuries, the Elizabethan Age still carries magical memories for Anglo-Americans.  It was the age of Spenser (The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (among others, A Midsummer Night's Dream), and Sidney (Astrophel and Stella).  In fact, it was Spenser's The Faerie Queene that gave Elizabeth I her nickname of Gloriana and it is Spenser's mixture of fairy tales, intrigue, and the golden age of the English Renaissance that has strongly influenced Michael Moorcock's 1978 novel, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen.

Originally published in 1978 and revised in 2004, Gloriana perhaps may best be considered as a novel that was written to be a sort of dialogue with Spenser's epic poem.  Both Spenser and Moorcock present idealized forms of Queen Elizabeth I, but whereas Spenser's work primarily reads as a paean to the peace and prosperity of 1590s England, Moorcock's work is much more complex, both with its titular character and with its depiction of life in an alt-world Earth.

Gloriana opens with the Queen Gloriana ruling the vast empire of Albion, which stretches across most of Eurasia and is now expanding into the newly-discovered lands of Virginia, named after her.  Despite having had several lovers and illegitimate children, she is, like the real Queen Elizabeth I, unmarried and it is this and the matter of controlling her vast empire around which the action of the novel revolves.  The ruler of Arabia wants Gloriana to become his, so he in turn can plunge that pacific realm into a cleansing bout of war and destruction.  A courtier of his solicits the aid of Captain Arturus Quire to help him subvert Gloriana to this end.  Quire in turn is locked in a political battle with the old councilor Montfallcon, who had earlier served Gloriana's father Hern and who seeks to preserve her from becoming the despotic ruler Hern had become by the end of his reign. 

Although at first glance the central plot seems to be that of political machinations, Gloriana is much more than the summation of its plot.  Moorcock here perhaps has written his best prose, with Quire in particular standing out.  Some readers familiar with Mervyn Peake's villainous Steerpike (Moorcock did dedicate this novel to the late Peake and his wife Maeve, both of whom Moorcock had befriended in his youth) will see traces of that ambitious character and his thirst for power and prestige in how Quire comports himself around Gloriana's other courtiers, especially Montfallcon.  But there is another trait in common with Peake's Gormenghast novels, that of utilizing atmospheric effects to intensify what is occurring in several important scenes.  Passages such as the one below, taken from Quire's first meeting with the Arabian courtier, are representative of how Moorcock imbues his scenes with vivid descriptions:

Quire nods.  He clears his throat.  Along the gallery now comes a scrawny, snag-tooth villain wearing leggings of rabbit fur, a torn quilted doublet, a horsehide cap pulled down about his ears.  He wears a sword from the guard of which some of the rust has been inexpertly scratched.  His gait is unsteady not so much form drink as, it would seem, from some natural indisposition.  His skin is blue, showing that he has just come in from the night, but his eyes burn.  "Captain Quire?"  It is as if he has been summoned, as if he anticipates some epiurean wickedness. (p. 18)

It is this combination of memorable description with intriguing characters such as the aforementioned Quire and Montfallcon, among others, that make Gloriana a gripping novel.  However, there is much more to this novel than just memorable characters and detailed, interesting descriptions.  It is Gloriana herself and her um, "interesting" situation that makes this novel worthy of debate thirty-two years after its initial publication.  Moorcock is not content to have Gloriana reign contentedly over her vast, peaceful realm.  Rather, he introduces questions of sexual politics to this story that are controversial for many.  Gloriana has a sexual dysfunction; she cannot orgasm, no matter how hard she tries with both clandestine lovers and with inanimate objects.  This sexual dysfunction plays a major role in the book, as it is the flaw through which Quire manages to arrange his machinations and against which Montfallcon rails, increasingly strident, throughout the novel.  The original ending (printed as an "alternate" Ch. 34 in my 2004 edition) is very disturbing for some, who saw it as a glorification of a heinous act, while Moorcock insists that it is more symbolic of a larger issue of sexualization of Self and of Gloriana's politics around which the novel revolves.  It certainly is a provocative scene, one that forces the reader to reconsider what she may have thought the novel to be about, but it certainly does not make it easy for the reviewer to discuss without straying from the realm of reviewing and into the world of literary critique.  Speaking solely for myself, the revised scene works better, as it clarifies Moorcock's intents without lessening the shocking realization contained within that concluding chapter.

Gloriana is much more than a simple fairy-tale rendition of an idealized Queen Elizabeth I and her court and world.  It is a well-written, engaging tale that will remind some readers of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.  Quire, Montfallcon, and Gloriana's characters are vivid, well-drawn, and they serve to drive the novel forward at a quick yet not too rapid pace.  Gloriana is much more than what it appears on the surface, as Moorcock's exploration of sexual politics and how intimately connected a ruler's personality can be with his/her realm make this a novel that will linger in the reader's thoughts long after the book is closed.  It is not without its controversies, as certain events could easily be read as a glorification of certain atrocities; ironic, considering the efforts Moorcock has done to combat those interpretations of the novel.  It certainly is one of Moorcock's best-written efforts and its depth is much greater than the norm for novels of this sort.  Gloriana is a "masterwork" in its prose, characterization, and thematic content and it will continue to be a moving work decades from now.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

SF Masterworks #70: Walter Tevis, Mockingbird

Dystopias come in many shapes and sizes.  Some, such as George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm, revolve around totalitarian regimes.  Others, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, concern themselves more with a near-total abdication of personal responsibility by human societies themselves.  And some, such as Walter Tevis' 1980 novel, Mockingbird, explore the idea of a humanity too numb to care about its own joys, pleasures, and hopes.  Although each of these three main streams of dystopic writing have their merits, it easily could be argued that the third, represented by Mockingbird, in many respects most resembles our own societies, or at least an idealized version of them in the thirty years since Tevis' most famous novel was published.

Mockingbird opens in New York sometime in the future.  Human life has begun to fade into a tedious, numb existence under the dominion of the robots they have created.  There is no creativity; humans are "programmed" to be uninquisitive, unthinking beings who have no art and no literature.  Their lives are empty, devoid of the pleasures associated with creation.  It is a sort of hellish existence, where even the enjoyment found in sexual intercourse has largely been stripped away.  The human population has dwindled, with no new births during the last few years before the story begins.  Even among the robots, there is no contentment, no analogue to pleasure.  The most advanced class of robots, the android Make Nines, have all, with the one notable exception of Robert Spofforth, have committed suicide due to their all-too human-like awareness of the unbearable tedium of existence.  As the story begins, Spofforth reveals just why he still exists:

The door opened and Spofforth walked in and headed across the dark lobby toward the stairway.  He muted the pain circuits in his legs and lungs, and began to climb.  He was no longer whistling; his elaborate mind had become fixed narrowly now upon his annual intent.

When he reached the edge of the platform, as high above the city as one could stand, Spofforth sent the command to the nerves in his legs and the pain surged into them.  He wobbled slightly form it, high and alone in the black night, with no moon above him and the stars dim.  The surface underfoot was smooth, polished; once years before Spofforth had almost slipped.  Immediately he had thought, in disappointment, If only that would happen again, at the edge.  But it did not.

He walked to within two feet of the platform's limit, and with no mental signal, no volition, no wish for it to happen, his legs stopped moving and he found himself, as always, immobilized, facing Fifth Avenue uptown, over a thousand dark feet above its hard and welcome surface.  Then he urged his body forward in sad and grim desperation, focusing his will upon the desire to fall forward, merely to lean his strong and heavy body, his factory-made body, out, away from the building, away from life.  Inwardly he began to scream for movement, picturing himself tumbling in slow motion, gracefully and surely, to the street below.  Yearning for that. (p. 2)

Spofforth's sad existence, that of a hyper-intelligent, self-aware being in a world where both robots and humans alike have sunk into a morass of apathetic lethargy, is one of three main plot threads in this novel.  There are two humans, Bentley and Mary Lou, who have managed to escape the sort of dreary automation-like fate that had enveloped humans in this dreary future:

He had no conscious feelings about them, of the usually vacant-eyed, slow-moving and silent groups of them, going quietly from class to class or sitting alone in the Privacy rooms smoking dope and watching abstract patterns on their wall-sized television sets and listening to mindless, hypnotic music from speakers.  But in his mind there was almost always the image of one; the girl in the red coat.  She had worn that ancient coat all winter and still wore it on spring nights.  It was not the only thing different about her.  There was sometimes a look on her face, flirtatious, narcissistic, vain, that was different from the rest of them.  They were all told to develop themselves 'individually' but they all looked the same and acted the same, with their quiet voices and their expressionless faces.  She swung her hips when she walked, and sometimes she laughed, loudly, when everyone else was quiet, absorbed in herself.  Her skin was as white as milk and her hair coal black. (p. 9)

Mockingbird alternates between Spofforth, Bentley, and Mary Lou's viewpoints as they wander through a New York City and an United States that was listless to the point of death.  Each of them experiences iterations of this bland, nearly-lifeless existence that has grasped virtually all of humanity.  Tevis reveals the full horrors of this type of existence, where there are no hopes, no dreams; only the desire for existence to end.  Mockingbird moves swiftly, with few lags in the action of the novel.  Tevis has created here a setting that is so dark, so dreary that ironically it feels more "alive" as the situations that the three PoV characters experience become all the more dark and depressing.

Mockingbird is a powerful story, one that can be read as a metaphor for human life over the past half-century or so.  Nanny TV, or "my children were raised by TV and grew up under the computer," is a very real concern among educators and others who bemoan the declining interest in the fine arts and literature.  Those who have beheld those Ritalin-induced comatose schoolchildren will recognize something of that vacuous, absent look in the description given above.  It is not a pleasant subject to consider, one that often leads to recriminations rather than anything constructive to combat these developments.  Although life today is nowhere near as bad as it is depicted in Tevis' futuristic New York City, there are enough elements in common with contemporary society to make most readers pause and to reflect, perhaps rather loudly with a sigh, on certain trends in post-industrial societies.  Tevis' almost-prescient story contains a power today thirty years after its initial publication that makes it a true "masterwork" of dystopic fiction, one that deserves a place at the table beside 1984 and Brave New World.

SF Masterworks #69: Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dark Benediction

American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s best known work is his classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, but in the 1950s, his novelettes and novellas earned him high praise and acclaim for his treatment of matters of religion and morality in worlds, present and future alike, that often contain dark undertones to them.  Before discussing the stories found in this reprint anthology, Dark Benediction, a little bit should be said about its author, as Miller's experiences influenced his stories much more than virtually all of the other authors found in the Gollancz Masterworks lists.

Miller served in the US Army during World War II in the Italian campaign and he participated in perhaps one of the saddest episodes of that campaign, the bombing of the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.  From that moment in 1944, when a horrified Miller learned that instead of Monte Cassino being a German stronghold but rather a place of refuge for Italian women and children displaced by the conflicts between the Partisans, the Fascist Italian/German forces, and the Allied invaders, everything changed for Miller.  He converted to Catholicism in 1945, apparently due to his struggle to understand the world around him and the evils that humans commit, sometimes in the name of good.  Although Miller had a prior interest in SF, it was only during a period of time from 1951 to 1957 that he ever had any of his works published.  While three closely-linked novellas from 1955-1957, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, formed A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller wrote almost another three dozen stories during this period, fourteen of which are collected in Dark Benediction (the American edition, The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., was originally published in 1980).

Readers of A Canticle for Leibowitz will recognize the tone present in most of these stories, even though the settings are often vastly different.  Often there are characters thrust into nearly unbearable situations, facing moral crises of some sort or another.  In the first story, "You Triflin' Skunk!," Miller tells the story of a mother and her son, who has come into contact with a shape-shifting alien race who seeks to establish contact by forming bonds with the natives.  However, in choosing a family whose father/husband had deserted the family, things go awry.  Miller's almost laconic conclusion serves to underscore the emotional conflicts stirred up with this failed infiltration attempt.

This sort of story pattern is explored in several other stories in this collection.  In the second story, "The Will," Miller tells a story of a boy's faith and of time traveling gone wrong.  Near the end of this story, the boy Kenny's plight is summed up succinctly in this paragraph:

There was more to the note, but the gist of it was that Kenny had made an act of faith, faith in tomorrow.  He had buried it, and then he had gone back to dig it up and change the rendezvous time from four months away to the night of his disappearance.  He knew that he wouldn't have lived that long.

I put it all back in the box, and sealed the box with solder and set it in concrete at the foot of a sixfoot hole.  With this manuscript. (p. 29)

Although some might think at first that this gives away the story, this is far from the truth.  In "The Will" and also in latter stories such as the eponymous "Dark Benediction," Miller's ability to tell mini-morality stories that contain elements of personal apocalypses may remind certain readers of Flannery O'Connor's best fictions.  Both writers combine elements of Catholicism with Southern Gothic themes (although Miller's stories are never set in the South, the way he executes his stories and the tone several convey are reminiscent of this literary subgenre) to create disturbing stories that linger on well after the last page is turned.

Christianity factors heavily into these stories, with priests and other religious figures appearing, not always in beneficent roles.  The Devil also lurks deep in the recesses of several of these tales, or at least those personal demons (depression, desire, despair) that afflict so many of us from time to time.  Miller's stories work as they do because they recognize these dark forces within those, those forces that may lead us astray from our goals and aspirations, and they explore the ramifications of these conflicts within the conflict of stories that are set in possible futures or then-presents.

Miller's stories are rarely graceful.  The writing is direct and perhaps too blunt at times for readers who may not be accustomed to such straightforward treatment of themes revolving around thanatos and the dream of salvation.  But where the stories may lack in technical prowess, the raw power contained within them are more than sufficient to grab the reader's attention and to cause that reader to pause and to consider just what was read.  Many claim that SF is the literature of ideas and certainly that is the case of Miller's work, especially here in Dark Benediction.  This collection is perhaps one of the better examples of how SF writers in the 1950s questioned the world around them and how they provided their own spin on how technology and war influenced ways humans examined their environment.  A true "masterwork" of haunting, provocative stories, Dark Benediction still contains the power to move readers a half-century after Miller published his last work during his lifetime.