I have already discussed a few points about the premier issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE and these can be found here and here. In order to keep these posts manageable, in the future I will try and keep my thoughts to a single post per issue, but I can’t guarantee this will always be the case. That said, here are my thoughts on the rest of the premier issue of the magazine.
“Undercover” by Gene O’Neill
The thing that stood out most about Gene O’Neill’s story was how it was overwritten, and in my opinion it was the overwriting that made the story. The story itself is a tale of an alien super-secret agent disguised as a human, who is after the greatest villain of the galaxy, who, he assumes, is also disguised as a human. This is a funny, light-hearted story and much of the humor comes from how the story is overwritten. The protagonist has endless self-confidence, even after small failures. He is always certain he knows who the villain is, until he realizes that his target cannot possibly be the villain and then he does some kind of mental realignment and, with renewed confidence, goes after his next possibility with equal vigor. This is not slapstick, Douglas Adams-style humor. The humor comes from the style of the writing and the exaggeration of the characters. That said, I found it funny and although I felt it was a little slow to start, I ultimately found myself tearing through the story, wondering if this Austin Powers-manque would ever catch his villain.
“A Dangerous Knowledge” by Arlan Andrews
I had three years of philosophy in high school, and so coming across a story that dealt with the Pythagorean school had to interest me. This is one of those border-line stories that’s hard for me to define. If considered as an alternate history, it bears a loose relationship to L. Sprauge de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall in that a foreigner from another land is providing people with a technology, “a dangerous knowledge” that could ultimately change their lives. Taken as straight science fiction, this is a story about the introduction of a technology that seems almost like magic, and how a society respsonds to the technology–a common theme in science fiction. But rather than telling the story of a technology introduced in some future world, this tells of a technology introduced in a past world. The thing that I took from this story, whether or not it was intended, was a sense that sometimes, even the most skeptical of people can be fools.
“Anne” by Paul Di Filippo
I’m not a big fan of alternate histories. I just don’t read them very much. It could be a vicious cycle: I’m not a fan because I don’t read; and I don’t read because I’m not a fan. Another reason I’m not a big fan is that when I have read them, they often seem to stick to the same themes. The Kennedy assassination; Germany wins World War II, etc. There are exceptions of course. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one exception that makes use of the latter theme, but does it well. Stephen Baxter’s Voyage is one that makes use of the Kennedy theme and does it well. Paul Di Filippo’s “Anne” also does it well. “Anne” is an alternate history where Anne Frank escapes to the United States, where she becomes a famous actress, essentially the replacement for Judy Garland. Most of the story is told through a series of diary entries which is effective in this case because it is believable; we all know about Anne Frank’s diary. What I liked most about this story was the sense of realism in Anne’s thoughts and emotions. She goes through the stereotypical life of a starlet, ultimately ending up with a drunk, bruiser husband (Mickey Rooney!) whom she ultimately divorces in messy proceedings. Through this, she wonders how much better or worse her life would have been if she had never left her homeland. Since this is an alternate history, we know something about the quality of her real life, but I thought it was very touching and realistic for her to wonder, even with all of the success she found in America, if she would not have been better off never coming here.
“The Dragonslayer’s Sword” by Resa Nelson
I need to admit up front that I am not a fan of traditional fantasy. (I will discuss this in more detail in future posts, as this is debated within the letter columns of the early issues of SF AGE.) I read The Lord of the Rings way back when, and I enjoyed it, but I can handle only so much “high fantasy”. Magicians and sword fights and dragons are just not my cup of tea. I preface with this in order that you take my comments on “The Dragonslayers’ Sword” with a grain of salt. I can’t really judge the story in terms of other fantasy stories because I simply haven’t read enough. But as a story this was not a bad one. In fact, although I wrinkled my nose going into the story, I finished it pleased that I had given it a chance. The story involves dragons and swords and dragonslayers. But the story is not about these things. The story is about image: self-image and the image we project onto others. Within the story, this is treated literally. People have the ability to change the way to look, or to be changed, based on another’s perceptions. But the metaphor is clear: we are affected by how people think of us, and how we think of ourselves. This is the kind of story that a creative writing professor of mine would have made the following comment: “This is a terrific story; why did you have to hide it within the machinations of genre fiction?” I do think it is a good story; but unlike my professor, I think I understand why it is written as fantasy: it’s what the author enjoys writing.
Post script: in doing a search for Resa Nelson online, I discovered that The Dragonslayer’s Sword–a novelized version of this short story–is scheduled to be published late this year.
“A Tale From the War” by Don Webb
Of all the stories in the premier issue of SF AGE, “A Tale From the War” is the most pulpish, and I say that as a compliment. My two favorite eras in the history of science fiction are “the Golden Age” and the early 1970s. I like stories that have a pulpish feel to them because they remind me of stories written during the Golden Age. I don’t think this is a bad thing. The story is the tale of a man who is sent to a planet destroyed by a “mind bomb” to see if it is inhabitable for he and his comrades. While exploring the planet, he encounters a woman, with whom he falls in love. As the last two people on the planet, they have a whole world to themselves. Except, of course, that his comrades have sworn to destroy him if he didn’t return and let them know if the planet was safe. In some vague ways, this story reminded me of one of my all-time favorites stories, Alfred Bester’s, “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To“. The story moves quickly and has enough twists and turns (the way a pulp story does) to keep me reading faster and faster through the end. The descriptions of the effects of the mind-bomb are like something of out of Philip K. Dick novel. This is a fun story, a fun read, science fiction as it was meant to be read.
“Is This the Presidential Palace?” by Barry Malzberg
This story requires another brief preface. I am biased when it comes to Barry Malzberg. I’m not sure there is anything that he has written that I haven’t liked–haven’t thought was at least a step above the average in terms of writing, style, pure emotion. I’ve read dozens of his books and even more of his short stories. I’ve said how Isaac Asimov is my favorite writer, but no science fiction writer who has influenced own writing more than Barry Malzberg. When people as me who my favorite writers are, he is usually #2 or #3 on the list. Those familiar will Malzberg will understand this: he writes themes. He tells the same story over and over again, in slightly different ways over a set of core themes. He is the Woody Allen of science fiction (albiet darker); he is science fiction’s Robert Coover. His themes include psychotic personalities, particularly astronauts; the Kennedy assassination; and among his themes is the alien presence that drives someone mad (often science fiction writers). “Is This the Presidential Palace?” takes up the latter theme with typical Malzberg elan. One thing I love about Malzberg’s stories is that the characters often accept the most preposterous circumstances as if it is nothing more than Yet Another Thing To Deal With in their crumbling lives. So it didn’t surprise me (indeed, it delighted me) to find Henderson in a discussion with an alien hiding in the bedroom, looking for the presidential palace. Henderson is unable to help the alien, but the alien doesn’t accept that (or doesn’t understand that) and keeps looking to Henderson for help. Naturally, it drives him to drink. And his wife is fed up with the situation. But no matter how preposterous the situation gets, Henderson is taking it as though he is being frustrated by a pet–a dog–rather than by a little green man in his bedroom. As a Malzberg fan, you can’t avoid enjoying this story and my only complaint is that, as is typical of much of Malzberg’s short fiction, it is too short.
One more item that amused me about this issue was the “Games” column, by A.C. Crispin and Jason Crispin. They reviewed a Star Trek computer game (circa 1992 remember) and among other things, said, “The graphics are great–Kirk and the others walk around and manipulate tricorders, medical scanners, and various machines individual to each scenario.” There is a screenshot at the bottom of the page, illustrating these “great” graphics. Fourteen years later, with video games that look like live action movies, seeing a key-stoned screenshot referred to as “great graphics” amused me.
Next up, SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 2 (Jan 1993).
“A Dangerous Knowledge” is, indeed, about skeptical people who can be very foolish.
Taken from the phrase “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”, the story reflects upon what I saw (and still see, nearly 20 years later) as a fanatical obsession with scientific orthodoxy. In the real world, genius is sometimes cranky, sometimes weird, but sometimes also correct.
For example, at the time, “climate change” was just an emergent subject in the papers I was reading as a staffer at the White House Science Office. “Global warming” wasn’t even in the cards. But in the last year I have read suggestions that anyone not believing the latest variation of that story should be tattooed and put on trial. Burning at the stake next?
Arlan, it’s been a few years since I wrote that post (and read that story), but it still sticks with me. And I think your example of climate change is spot-on.