Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book #4 2012

This is the only anthology Robert Sheckley ever edited (1980). As such, I've been curious about it for a long time. How would the stories he selected reflect Sheckley's own tastes, his own aesthetic sensibilities -- or would they? How diverse would the anthology be in approach and tone?

Given the tricky theme -- not-particularly-serious end-of-the-world stories -- I was expecting some hits and misses. And that was exactly what I got (with perhaps several more misses than I would have liked). As an anthology, I have to admit right upfront, it's not particularly strong. Part of the reason is that several of the stories are not as original/clever as they might think they are, though that's an admittedly relatively minor and highly subjective indictment. A stronger issue is that several of the stories are not well crafted, bringing the overall level of professionalism and execution down. There's also a kind of residual post-New Wavish experimentation that dates some of the material. Mind you, there's a couple of real stingers -- the Harrison and Disch pieces come to mind -- but more mediocre work than I would have cared for (most of the rest). Sheckley seems to have invested in several new writers (at least, new to SF), who apparently didn't do much after their appearance here. A shame. Here are some brief reading notes regarding each story.

The Last Days of (Parallel?) Earth by Robert Sheckley
This seems to be pretty characteristic of late 70s/80s Sheckley. It's not exactly stale, but it's not particularly compelling either. I think Sheckley's exhaustion with SF, and even his own satirical/philosophical madcap approach to SF, shines through. In fact, it's deliberately cultivated through the mainstream-ish storytelling stylings -- but the purposeful angst isn't quite enough to carry the free-flowing conversational narrative. Overall it's entertaining, but unsurprising and forgettable. Minor Sheckley.

The Day After the End of the World by Harry Harrison
Definitely one of the highlights. This made me laugh out loud several times, but the underlying bite remains. Harrison does a fantastic job of mocking SF end-of-world tropes in a zany, quickly paced but thoughtful parody that adds several new twists/dimensions just when you think you have it figured out. It feels effortless, for which Harrison deserves credit. I haven't read a lot of Harrison's short fiction, and this made me go out and buy several of his retrospective anthologies (including a massive book collecting 50 years' worth of his short fiction, a collection that quite rightly reprints this story). Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a minor classic within this sub-genre.

A Very Good Year . . .  /  Fire and/or Ice / Exeunt Omnes by Roger Zelazny
A challenging triad of apparently disconnected stories by Zelazny. Well, perhaps the word "stories" is too generous; vignettes might be more appropriate. I enjoyed the technical playfulness, and the narrative virtuosismo, but only the first story fragment really resonated with me. It's based on a fascinatingly melancholic time-travel scenario that could have been developed, perhaps, to greater effect at longer length.

Sungrab by William F. Nolan
This is one of Nolan's Sam Spade "hard-boiled" space detective stories. There's nothing wrong with it, but it seems woefully out of place in this anthology. The case of the Big Lizard and Onion, and the bad guy's plot to tow away the Sun (!) hardly seem to qualify this as genuinely apocalyptic, and if you've read previous Spade stories this one offers little new. Disappointing, perhaps more due to than context than any inherent deficiencies.

Where Are You Now, Erik Scorbic? by K. Copeland Shea
This slipstreamish satire about a young, mentally-challenged boy who appears to be the last baby born on Earth, and his eventual encounter with a member of the opposite sex, has a few charming moments but  doesn't work for me. This is one of several writers Sheckley seems to have granted a chance at a professional sale, who later haven't appeared elsewhere.

Bud by Ian Watson
I've enjoyed a number of Watson's stories (and novels) throughout the years, and this is clever and provocative enough to warrant a recommendation. In the future humans encounter aliens who reproduce asexually, or through "budding," apparently the most common form of procreation in the Universe. The aliens are assisting with the budding of Jupiter, so that the Giant Red Spot may slough off and become its own planet. As usual when one tries to recap a Watson plot this all sounds unlikely, but it provides Watson with a neat platform from which to launch some (perhaps a little heavy-handed) observations about the nature of human sexuality and motivation. Still, the ending is simultaneously funny and poignant, for which it deserves kudos.

The Making of Revelation, Part I by Philip José Farmer
A look-at-me-I'm-clever story that stretches its central conceit way too thin; in this absurdist comedic outing God hires Cecil B. DeMille, Harlan Ellison and Satan to film the final Apocaylpse. A couple of chuckles, but light and fluffy and overlong (and completely fantastic, with no hint of SF).

Rebecca Rubinstein's Seventeenth Birthday by Simon Gandolfi
Best recounted as meandering narrative about a young girl who loses her virginity while Sol goes nova. Couldn't become invested in any of the characters; the world-building seemed kind of preposterous; and the POV kept switching, maddeningly, so I wasn't sure whose perspective we were being offered, or why we should care. Along with Shea, Gandolfi never seems to have published again within SF.

The Revelation by Thomas M. Disch
I loved this. It's like the right way of handling some of the same absurdity that Farmer mis-employed, and to  profound effect. Premise: Ingmar Bergman finally receives indubitable confirmation of the existence of God, but must then to learn to live with this knowledge, and to keep a terrible secret that God confides in him. Disch's craft is impeccable. In lesser hands this could have been trifling or obvious, but Disch turns it into a quietly moving, spiritual commentary by making us care about Bergman's metaphysical struggle. The final line is perfect; brilliant, and devastating. If only we could have had more stories like this one.

Nirvana Is a Nowhere Place by Joel Schulman
Fenton is the assigned comptroller of heaven; 3.5 billion souls are about to die in a thermonuclear holocaust --will there be room for all them? Run-of-the-mill entertainment.

Heir by J. A. Lawrence
This is a curious story, dedicated to Ursula LeGuin, no less, and with an afterword by the author. A colony of extraterrestrial termite-like beings faces possible extinction. That may not sound like an interesting idea, but the interest here is all in the execution. Lawrence makes the termite creatures his POV character. Admittedly, this makes for many befuddling scenes, at least at first, but I dug the "otherworldly" feel of it. Once the effect wears off, I'm not sure there's much that stands out.

The Kingdom of O'Ryan by Bob Shaw
In his collection of reviews and essays Up Through an Empty House of Stars, David Langford sums up this story well:

"'The Kingdom of O'Ryan' is a tall tale in the best manner of Shaw the humorist, building up from an elaborately familiar con operation to a tongue-in-cheek homily on the dangers of conning people too successfully: the suckers' faith ends up moving mountains, not to mention planets."

The initial scheme, involving horse-racing bets, is adeptly handled, the characters are strong, and the last line is  depressingly funny.

Just Another End of the World by Maxim Jakubowski
A fine, somewhat elegiac note on which to end the anthology. (In some ways, this is a cheat, since it's a mostly serious take on the theme, but I suppose it's not entirely downbeat). A bunch of SF writers survive the apocalypse and must rebuild civilization. Jakubowski uses real writers as his characters, thinly disguised. Ike French, for instance, is Isaac Asimov (Ike follows easily from Isaac, and Paul French was a pseudonym Asimov used on his Lucky Starr adventure stories). There were some writers' identities I couldn't figure out, so perhaps that bears additional investigation. Anyway, though that little trick adds a flavor of meta fun to the story, it would still be a good piece without it.

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