no critical faculties 4: michael moorcock (presents) best sf stories from new worlds 4 part 1

Published by Panther books in 1969 as the fourth entry in a series (the internet tells me) of 8, this yellowed copy of Best SF Stories From New Worlds 4 made its way to the humid upstairs of The Only Bookstore In Chiang Mai Not Run By A White Dude, where I found it That One Day The Cat Was Looking For Attention, and One Of The Owners Chased It Off, and I Was A Little Annoyed Because I Liked That Cat.

But I still bought the book from them.

I’m familiar with New Worlds not because of Ballard, which would seem the most natural route for me, but because of Moorcock. Though I’m much more a fan of the former than the latter, I came upon a recent New Worlds anthology while looking through a shelf devoted to the latter, and now it sits on my shelves at home. I remember absolutely nothing about it.

These things happen.

I haven’t the depth of knowledge or the inclination to talk about New Worlds in general, here, so let’s just say “it was kind of important in its fashion”, and move along to the beast itself: Moorcock furnishes an introduction, both to the anthology as a whole and the individual stories therein. It’s the nature of these things to be a bit hyperbolic; a bit, you might say, too hopeful.

It is not old fiction with a bit of new subject matter injected into it to give it a semblance of life, or a bit of fancy icing coated over it for the same purpose; it is not new fiction dealing with old subject matter. It is what science fiction has been trying to be for some years; it is the fiction of the future.

The techniques being developed by New Worlds writers will become the conventions of a form of fiction that will have had its antecedents in Sterne rather than Swift; that has looked to Mervyn Peake, Ronald Firbank, Boris Vlan, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Harry Matthews and a few others as its immediate antecedents; a way of telling stories in print that cannot yet be told in any other medium. It is fiction for the future, for the McLuhan Age, and it is developing an aesthetic quite as strong as that of the novel or the traditional short story.

It is fresh territory and it excites its authors and their excitement is conveyed to their readers. It is fresh territory being discovered and conquered and seems at this stage, to be infinitely exploitable. Look at these stories with care. Some are strange jewels mined from the virgin rocks of a new world. Some look familiar, but contain unfamiliar facets when held up to the light. Some may even be slightly flawed in the cutting. But all of them will make you richer.

Already it’s expanded my semicolon horizons so at least there’s that.

The intro is interesting, but a bit unfortunate, since it sets me up these fourty years later to HAVE MY MIND BLOWN. There are ten stories, one poem. I’ll step through them one-by-one, as is the common protocol with these things.

b.j. bayley’s the ship of disaster – Interesting ideas, but heavy-handed in its exploration of them. What Moorcok tells me the story is about in his introduction pushes my buttons (“the idea of altering consciousness in an altering environment”), but I found the execution lacking. Possibly, I just couldn’t get past Bayley’s style:

The great Ship of Disaster rolled tirelessly over the deep and endless ocean. Long she was, strong and golden, and the sombre waters washed like oil beneath her prow. Yet a ship of disaster she truly was: vapours obscured the air about her, and nowhere could a horizon be seen. Her crew knew not where to find land, and already her hasty provisions ran low.

Maybe this affectation of an archaic, labored style (at one point he uses the phrase “and Lo”) is meant to be appropriate to the story of a race of bitter elves being eclipsed by man as the earth itself rejects them, but it didn’t work for me.

fritz leiber’s the square root of brain- After fighting through the previous story it was nice to see a familiar name, a name I could trust, a name I could count on. I sort of love Leiber, though my experience of him is limited to the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, plus a scattering of his standalone novels.

In this case, he did not disappoint me.

Moorcock’s intro calls “The Square Root of Brain” “light”, and it is. Light, and readable despite certain experimental elements rather than the turgid attempt at heavy import I had just worked through. It was a quick, refreshing read. Briefly: The near future; there is a Hollywood party. People with Identifiers like Modest Young Man rove between “starlet-looking girls with intelligent, beautiful, blank, faintly worried expressions, as if they had just begun to wonder whether they were still also flesh and blood as well as decor.” Coversations are had about war, politics, religion, media. In less than ten rapid-fire pages these conversations give a broad sense of this future America, leading up to a final-page reveal that’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is clever, natural, fun.

The narrative is regularly broken by selections from The Universal American Encyclopedia. Usually, these come in the middle of a sentence being spoken, and it’s a tribute to Leiber’s skill that this gimmick doesn’t really break the flow of the story. The entries seem to serve as vague commentary on subtext and, sometimes, as a way of fleshing out the world, or at least providing context for the attitudes of the characters in an elliptical way. In addition, the first and final excerpts suggest a sort of self-reflexivity, which implies a thing or two in light of the end of the story that I’m probably not smart enough to articulate.

I’m confident that if I wasn’t so lazy I could mine “The Square Root of Brain” for all sorts of subtext, but the surface pleasures are there, and more than enough for me.

harvey jacobs’ in seclusion- For straight-up cheap thrills this story cannot be beat (at least not in this collection). The story of a famous couple du jour’s much-publicized retreat into seclusion and the lonely. hungry monster from the deep who interrupts them is, Moorcock says, “Jacobs in a minor key,” but he goes on to inform me that I will “find it very funny,” which I certainly did. Have an excerpt:

‘Darling,’ Monica said, ‘forgive me. There’s always room for improvement. And its not easy for me either with every erectable male person in the whole wide world wanting to have sexual congress with me. Sometimes at night I can feel my fans dreaming so hard I practically drown in seminal fluid.’

‘Don’t I have that too? Jay said. ‘The women plus the queers.’

‘Cheer up,’ Monica said. ‘It’s so clammy and dismal out. We’ve got hours to kill and I’m not sleepy. I’m not the least bit sleepy. Tell me a story. Tell me how it was when you first saw me.’

‘No.’

‘Please.’

‘Stop tonguing your upper lip.’

‘I will.’

‘I first saw you in your first flic, Beloved Runt, and my breathing clamped. I thought at last the Lord hath made a broad sufficient unto me.’

‘Fabulous.’

‘And I thought I’ve got to have her. So I met you and had you.’

‘What a way to tell it,’ Monica said. ‘How you hate me. You left out the entire love play sequence.’

‘You came at me so quickly I had no time for love play.’

‘I came at you? Jay, I was a star while you were doing improvisations in the Village.’

‘I did not say that you had no distance on you when we met.’

‘I was discovered at fifteen.’

‘I’ll be you were.’

‘It was never like that. Never.’

‘Baby, you saw more ceiling before twenty than Michelangelo in a life of decorating.’

‘You are a filthy mouth. A sore loser. And don’t ask me to calm you down when the going gets rough. Whisper never talked like you talk.’

‘Whisper Jones weighed fifty pounds when you married him and thirty-four ounces at the divorce.’

‘Annulment.’

‘All he wanted was custody of the oatmeal. You broke that boy’s spirit.’

‘And Sherril? Didn’t her pubic hair fall out from nerves?’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Never mind. It was all over town. Her follicles shrivelled from mental cruelty. Hell it must have been mental.’

 

And that’s just the dialogue.

It’s light, goofy fun with no redeeming social value told with constant, clever abuse of the language. I sort of loved it.

langdon jones’ transient- I wonder what Mr. Moorcock has to say about “Transient”?

This story reflects Jones’s dawning understanding of the potential of his own vision and indeed, of mankind’s…

Oh.

Well. “Transient” opens strong, both narratively and stylistically. The prose is robust (yeah, I said it), and it delivers a strong opening hook: the narrator is dying, his brain in its final electric gasps. Over the next few pages, he recalls a sort of birth into conciousness and the too-short life that follows. The unusual nature of this life and eventual “death” is finally revealed in the most painfully explicit, clunky way ever.

But a good effort until then.

d.m. thomas’ the head rape- I was all set to make fun of this tiny slice of science fiction poetry, but when I read the damn thing found it surprisingly effective. Not great, but effective. Moorcock says

He is best known as an sf poet and this one is pure sf — it could not have been anthing like as good if attempted as prose.

…and I believe he is right. In Twenty-six lines (plus a brief epigraph) Thomas evokes a strong image of an event and the imaginary social framework necessary for that event to occur. He gives the action, he frames the action; he tells a nice, unpleasant little story and then gets the hell out. At the same time, his metaphors and images are a bit obvious. It’s a triumph of storytelling but not of aesthetics.

 

brian aldiss’ the source- Also Sprach Moorcock:

This strange story is much more conventionl in structure and because Aldiss felt that ‘if people can write stories strictly according to Einstein or Korzybski, I thought I’d have a shot at doing a Jung…’

In some Far Future a handful of humans return to earth on the hunch of one, who is searching for “the peak of man’s greatness”. They find “the cradle of mankind” succumbed to entropy: crumbling, abandoned cities; People living in small settlements still clinging to this ridiculous thing called “religion.” Our spacefarers have “treatments that could make them purely rational creatures, or extend their lifespan for thousands of years, or transfer their inelligences into other minds.” Most of the party have little use for a place where “political and governmental organizations, without which great civilizations cannot survive, were entirely lacking.”

The earthmen also do crazy things like make music “with punctured wooden pipes”, keep pets, and let their children “run free and play.” Philistines.

So everyone wants to take off but the leader, who develops an unhealthy fixation with this religion nonsense. He goes in search of the settlement’s major religious site, where he takes a dive through the archetypal swamp and comes out the other end resolved to stay there on earth with these backwards people. The others leave him. It ends on a note of romantic primitivism, I think.

It’s well written, technically strong, and did nothing for me, aside from causing me to compare it to Ballard, unfavorably. Still, one of the better stories so far. Just not my cup of tea.

-to be continued or so i claim-

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~ by ironcupshrug on 12/23/2009.

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