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Bugs by John Sladek

Macmillan, 1989, 215 p.

Bugs cover

Sladek was one of those writers who contributed to the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960s. His SF always had a kind of sideways slant, not as bonkers as R A Lafferty but not conventional in any way.

This novel has a Science-Fictional premise in that it postulates the creation of a thinking robot but is designed more as a satire on the contemporary corporate culture of the 1980s and of USian manners, usages (Tea tier tgo for “To eat here, or to go) and sexual mores. It also rather spectacularly blows out of the water Gene Wolfe’s first rule of writing: ‘never name a character Fred.’

Said Fred is Manfred Jones, an English writer who has come to New York at the behest of his agent only to find that the project he had been lured with does not exist. His wife, Susan, is disgusted by their cockroach infested rooms and soon flies back home. Fred applies for a job as a technical writer at VIMNUT Industries in Minneapolis. He is mistaken for someone else and taken on – as a software engineer – and the misapprehensions go on from there.

He is rescued from a cloud of gnats by a Soviet spy calling herself K K who, of course, “speaks” with v replacing w, omits words like ‘a,’ ‘the’ and the odd ‘it,’ and says ‘darlink’ rather than darling and tries to recruit him. Various organisations offer him money over the phone, he is investigated by the IRS even though his pay-check from VIMNUT, which becomes Cyberk Corporation before he even joins, then later VEXXO, only one of a string of companies in the book constantly being renamed, while Fred’s British accent also leads to him continually being asked, “Why don’t you Brits bugger off out of Ireland.”

The whole is interspersed with background news items – most with ludicrously named reporters such as Aramis Whiteflow and Porthos Floog – on the killer targetting the Little Dorrit Restaurant chain. There is, too, an ongoing set of presidential sanity hearings. (If only, I hear you say.) There are embedded quotes from Bookends era Paul Simon songs and explicit references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose fate the robot fears, especially after it is kidnapped and blamed for a death that took place during the incident.

Bugs is entertaining and clever, a perfect light read for lockdown or any other time, but sensitive souls should note there is a character described as a Negro who at one point says to a receptionist, “all you gotta do is put it in your ad: No niggers need apply.”

Pedant’s corner:- Talos’ (Talos’s,) “all he could do was to put down the chair” (all he could do was put down the chair,) caviar (caviar.) “Seeing her though tears” (through tears,)

Women of Wonder, Edited by Pamela Sargent

THE CLASSIC YEARS. Science Fiction by women from the 1940 to the 1970s
A Harvest Original, Harcourt Brace, 1995, 446 p, including 20 p Introduction by Pamela Sargent, 14 p “About the Authors”, 1 p “About the Editor”, 13 p Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women 1818-1978, and 2 p Permission Acknowledgements.

 Women of Wonder: The Classic Years cover

Since it covers some of the same ground it was odd reading this at the same time as All that Outer Space Allows. (I tend to read short fiction during the day and novels in the evening.)
In the Introduction Pamela Sargent traces the history of women writing SF which goes back a long way even if you discount Mary Shelley. It is true, though, that the profile of female SF writers certainly became more prominent in the 1970s. The stories in the book are listed on the contents page by the date when they were first published. I have included those dates below.
No Woman Born by C L Moore (1944) explicitly riffs on the Frankenstein story. Here a female dancer who died in a theatre fire has had her brain preserved and placed in a wonderfully supple metallic body so that she (it?) can continue performing. “‘The whole idea was to re-create what I’d lost so that it could be proved that beauty and talent need not be sacrificed by the estruction of parts or all of the body.’” The usual philosophical considerations apply.
In the war-ridden, radiation-raddled world of That Only a Mother by Judith Merril (1948) there has been an increase in the mutation rate, but the worst cases can be predicted and prevented. Infanticide committed by fathers is also on the rise. Margaret gives birth to a daughter while her husband is away on war service. The child is precociously gifted as regards cognitive development and speech. The father does not realise anything else might be amiss till he returns.
Contagion by Katherine McLean (1950) is set on a planet where a newly touched down expedition discovers previous settlers, who it turns out were severely affected by a disease they called melting sickness. Only certain genetic strains are able to survive.
In The Woman from Altair by Leigh Brackett (1951) the title character has been brought back from Altair as his wife by, David, one of the famous spacefaring MacQuarrie family. His brother Rafe, never eager to go into space, and his girl-friend Marthe begin to have suspicions when odd things start happening in the MacQuarrie household.
In a time of cold-war stress Short in the Chest by Margaret St Clair (1954) features the curious military custom of dighting, sexual encounters between members of the various armed services in order to relieve inter-service tension. Marine Major Sonya Briggs takes her problems with it to a huxley – a philosophic robot.
The box of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box (1956) is the invisible possession of Sue-lynn, a pupil in the narrator’s class. It nevertheless has weight and is where she goes to retreat from the world and find herself.
Death Between the Stars by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1956) is the tale of Helen Vargas, forced by circumstance and against all Terran norms and expectations to occupy the same cabin as a telepathic alien on her way back to Earth to avoid the outbreak of a war. The treatment of the alien by the prejudiced crew dismays her but its telepathic intrusions are equally disturbing. In death – brought on by its inhumane treatment – the alien finds a way to prolong its life, and study humans in secret.
The Ship Who Sang 1 by Anne McCaffrey (1961) is the story of the brain of a child malformed at birth but taken and grown inside a metal case eventually to become the controlling entity of a spaceship. She finds she can sing at any pitch and register.
The aliens in When I Was Miss Dow by Sonya Dorman Hess (1961) – who started her writing career as plain Sonya Dorman – can take various shapes at will and are able to be reconstituted in tanks. However, some of them are dependent on sulfadiazole which they can earn by working for humans. Our narrator reconstitutes as Miss Dow (recquiring her to have two brain lobes) and finds she is attracted to Dr Proctor, the human colony’s head biologist, whose assistant she becomes.
The Food Farm by Kit Reed (1966) is where our narrator is now in charge. Sent there by her parents to get over her addiction to binge-eating, a habit encouraged by hearing the singing of Tommy Fango on the radio, she rebelled when Fango visited and she was not allowed to see him, sought him out and discovered his main predilection, which she now seeks to fulfill.
The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline (1967). “Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family, which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.” Yeah, right. More like, “a woman’s work is never done” – and sometimes undoes her.
The Power of Time by Josephine Saxton (1971) uses the word Negro, likely to be frowned upon nowadays. It reverses the usual way of cross-Atlantic transactions. An English woman buys the whole of Manhattan island (previously owned by a descendant of native Americans) and transfers it to Leicestershire.
False Dawn by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1972) is set after an environmental apocalypse. A woman armed with a crossbow makes her way across the devastated landscape, trying to avoid the Pirates and mutant hunters. This contains the usual violent scenes accompanying such tales.
Nobody’s Home by Joanna Russ (1972) posits a future time of resource plenitude where people can travel the world at whim via transmission booths and hold parties willy-nilly. Leslie Smith turns up at one of these and puts a downer on it.
In The Funeral by Kate Wilhelm (1972) all non-citizens are the property of the state. This is a dystopia, with pre-echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, where Carla has been brought up under the educational tenets of Madame Westfall. The funeral of the title is Westfall’s. She had hidden some secret knowledge the powers that be want to uncover. Carla finds the hiding place.
Vonda N McIntyre’s justly award-winning Of Mist and Grass and Sand (1973) tells of an incident in the life of a healer whose medicines are incubated by snakes before they bite the sufferer to “inject” the cure. Her clients of course fear her reptilian companions.
Another celebrated piece of feminist SF is The Women Men Don’t See2 (1973) published by Alice Sheldon under her pen name of James Tiptree Jr. Given that at the time of publication many thought “Tiptree” was a man, the story’s title is deliciously ironic. In it a plane with three passengers, our narrator Don plus a mother and daughter, goes down off the Yucatán peninsula. Don’s fantasies about female abilities are soon disabused as Ruth Parsons turns out to be very capable indeed. Also when he mentions women’s rights she tells him, “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like … smoke. We’ll be back where we always were. Property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.” Sadly, probably only too true. However, the intrusion of aliens near the end into felt like it came from another story altogether.
The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons by Eleanor Arnason (1974) tells how a cigar-smoking, tea-drinking, silver-haired maiden of thirty-five in a world where the usual bad stuff is on the news writes the story of the title, a somewhat schlocky enterprise which will read as bad as it sounds.
In Ursula K Le Guin’s The Day Before the Revolution (1974) an old anarchist, inspiration to her followers remembers her life of struggle and ruminates on what it all means. “Favouritism, elitism, leader-worship, they crept back and cropped out everywhere. But she had never hoped to see them eradicated in her lifetime, in one generation; only Time works the great changes.” She also comments on how people see her. “How brave of you to go on, to work, to write, in prison, after such a defeat for the Movement, after your partner’s death, people had used to say. Damn fools. What else had there been to do? Bravery, courage – What was courage? She had never figured it out. Not fearing, some said. Fearing going on, others said. But what could one do but go on? Had one any real choice, ever?” Human and humane.
The Family Monkey by Lisa Tuttle (1977) is an oddly constructed tale told from four different viewpoints of the adoption by a couple in Texas of an alien who crashlands in their graveyard. He is effectively part of the family down several generations. The concept of sleep is alien to him but when he finally achieves that state he experiences the humans’ dreams – and some of them experience his. The story contains the word “nigger,” reflecting the time and place in which that scene was set.
A totally immune-compromised woman is the ideal choice for the first interstellar human traveller in View from a Height by Joan D Vinge (1978.) Her trip gives her a perspective on life.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“When they were forced to, Central Worlds shrugged its shoulders” (either ‘it was forced to’ or, ‘their shoulders”,) “sound issued through microphones rather than mouths” (microphones take in, they do not emit sound. Loudspeaker is the appropriate word,) “her throat microphone” (her throat loudspeaker,) “spoke to Jennan only through her central mike” (through her central speaker.) 2“A flock of ibis are circling us” (a flock of ibis is circling us.)

The Persistence of the Rime

The Rime of course is that of the Ancient Mariner (a nickname bestowed on a 1980s full-time team’s part-time goalkeeper of my acquaintance – he taught in the same school as me – on the grounds that, “he stoppeth one of three”) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In another piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, Philip Hoare, remarks on the poem’s continuing relevance, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick through to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and beyond.

(Aside; when I hear the word, “Albatross!” I nearly always think “Gannet on a stick.”)

The instant recognition of the lines, “Water, water, everywhere” and “all creatures great and small,” he says, have become part of the lexicon.

At which point my senses pricked up. All Creatures Great and Small is nowadays best known as a television adaptation of a James Herriot set of novels.

But surely, rather than from the Rime, that quote comes from the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful of which it is the second line? To my mind that is a much more likely source for a collective awareness of the phrase than the poem.

The hymn’s writers may well themselves have been inspired by the poem and its almost identical line “All things great and small” (which is followed by “For the dear God who loveth us; He made and loveth all,”) itself very close to “The Lord God made them all.” However that is not quite what Philip Hoare claimed.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t’ elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

Transformation by Mary Shelley

Alma Classics, 2019, 105 p plus 7 p Note on the text plus Notes.

 Transformation cover

This is a reprint of three of Shelley’s short stories originally published in the 1830s in the literary annual The Keepsake. “Spelling and punctuation have been standardized (sic), modernised and made consistent throughout.”

The first and title story, Transformation, is the tale of a prodigal waster, keen to worm himself back into the good books of his sweetheart’s father, offered a body swap by the devil to effect the desired outcome. The writing is obviously of its time but to modern eyes, overwrought.

The unfortunate narrator of The Mortal Immortal seemingly spurned by his beloved, inadvertently drinks an elixir concocted by his employer, the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa, and finds, eventually, he is immortal – or, at least, very long-lived. This is in the now long tradition of unexpected consequences stories.

The final tale, The Evil Eye, is a story of thwarted inheritance, skulduggery, child kidnap and coincidence in the Greece and Albania of Turkish times, apparently influenced by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Thomas Hope’s Anastasius and Prosper Mérimée’s La Guzla. It suffers a little through being told rather than shown to us.

Reading these stories in the twenty-first century is an odd experience. What may, when written, have seemed fresh and new is perhaps diminished by the time that has since elapsed and the many authors who have followed in Shelley’s wake.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bloomsbury, 2006, 174 p. First published with the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, 1818. This edition also contains ii p Why You Should Read This by Benjamin Zephaniah and 35 p Extra! Extra! of snippets dealing with the history of the author’s times in the style of a modern tabloid newspaper and 3 p listing significant events in her life.

 Frankenstein cover

This is seen in some quarters as the prototypical Science Fiction text though other fantastical tales of course preceded it. It is also an example of Gothic Fiction. The outlines of the story are part of the general background, Frankenstein a cultural reference point (though the name is often attributed to the “monster” rather than to its creator,) as a symbol of meddling gone wrong. The book itself is one I had never got around to till now.

Shelley’s tale is narrated, sometimes at third hand, in the letters of one Robert Walton to his sister, telling of his meeting with Victor Frankenstein on the ice plains of the Arctic Ocean and embedding the relation of that man’s moment of hubris in his act of creation, and the monster’s response to its various rejections.

Unlike in film versions the mechanics of the animation of the creature are not gone into, nor the moment of creation (beyond the opening of an eye.) Such considerations are left mysterious, which arguably means the novel is not Science Fiction, by some later definitions of the term. The ethical consequences for Frankenstein, his responsibility for his creation’s welfare and its actions are the main themes of the book. To create a being in a distorted image so that it is reviled, to refuse it suitable companionship, is a heavy enormity. I found my sympathies lying with the creature, even despite its own iniquities, which, again, occur off-stage. As with the Greeks, hubris leads to nemesis.

The epistolary form, the different forms of phrase and rhythms of story-telling of the Gothic to the modern are a hurdle, but not a high one. In any case I’m glad I finally read it. For completeness if nothing else.

Pedant’s corner:- several archaic spellings – phænomena (oh what a delight,) minutiæ (ditto,) oxyds (oxides,) stept, paradisaical, outstript, æra (era,) doated ,wrapt, controul, pennyless, phrenzy – and usages – sprung, sunk, lighted. Otherwise; “the greatest fluency of potassium and born” (boron???) “and laughed aloud Clerval at first attributed” (is missing a full stop after aloud,) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “when the heavens poured forth its waters” (their waters, surely?) “endeavouring to identity every spot” (identify,) eventufl (eventful,) “nothing is so painful to the human mind as as a sudden change” (only one “as” necessary,) “these are are virtuous” (only one “are”.)

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