(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1974 edition)
4.25/5 (collated rating: Good)
Ellison’s stories punch where it hurts. Approaching Oblivion (1974) is filled with transfixing tales about violent future racism (“Knox”), humanity’s last moments (“Kiss of Fire”), the desperate desire to change one’s own past (“One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty”), a last rebel against the militarizing system (“Silent in Gehanna”), and familial rivalry within a vast arcology (“Catman”), etc…
They are terrifying and vicious, immersive and gut-wrenching, and span from baroque far future speculations to near future warnings. Above all, they are well-written and intelligent. Many are infused with (pseudo) autobiographical content and lament the societal ills that Ellison sees as most pervasive and dangerous and most of the time he believes it’s futile to do anything about it.
Warning: I suspect some readers will find the nihilistic and caustic tone of the volume tedious. Ellison proclaims at the end of his introduction: “This is what tomorrow looks like, dummy” (16). And he can’t resist taking a swipe at the reader (and the American public in general), “if you hear me sobbing once in a while, it’s only because you’ve killed me, too, you fuckers” (16).
But the sobs are beautiful…
…and I need more of his collections.
For fans of New Wave SF and vitriolic social SF.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Knox” (1974) 5/5 (Very Good): The collection starts off with a mordant and literary story of a dystopic future plagued by racism — a future (perhaps) where the Patriotism Party holds great allure. The work is particularly hard-hitting due to the fact that similar white supremacist groups exist today. Knox rises through the ranks of the Patriotism Party by engaging in hate crimes, memorizing long lists of racial epithets, and practicing at the shooting range. Ellison masterfully pairs Knox’s growing hatred of minorities (and the events after his first kill) with the slow disintegration of his family (especially his love for his wife). Although ‘Knox’ is a product of Ellison’s day, these issues have in no way disappeared. A terrifying read…
“Cold Friend” (1973) 4.25/5 (Good): A vaguely SF story (speculative might be the better term) of man who dies of cancer yet spontaneously resurrects (or so he thinks). But when he awakes in the hospital he discovers the world has changed…. The people are gone, his town is the world, the food in the stores are always stocked and spoil, and strange effect that violate gravity occur at the edge of his world. Soon he is beset by barbarians that rush down the deserted streets which he fights off with paperbacks — and he sees a girl in semi-translucent white dress who seems to have unusual power over the nature of his world.
“Kiss of Fire” (1973) 4.25/5 (Good): A fantastic vision of a decadent and baroque far future…. In a vast space vessel that gathers the memories of the inhabitants of recently destroyed planets, Redditch, who programs their deaths — wanders the halls in a veritable malaise. This is a future where everyone has become bored with their near endless existence — the only thing that titillates and evokes emotion is death. Ellison pulls an intriguing trick that might put off some readers — the language, despite its incredibly flowery nature (“He drank ice crystals laced with midnight and watched their world burn”), feels oddly empty… Perhaps this references the vast array of stimuli the characters experience but remain unstimulated by. Whether this was his intention or not — the language might simply be overkill — the effect combined with the plot is rather disturbing.
“Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman” (1962) 3/5 (Average) does not contain speculative elements… Paulie played jazz and Ginny loved to listen night after night. And when Ginny dies Paulie gets depressed and wants to play at her grave. A simple tale told with some jazz-like verve…
“I’m Looking for Kadak” (1974) 4/5 (Good): I suspect that if I were Jewish (as Ellison is) I would understand more of this highly original story. Ten Jewish aliens remain on the planet Zsouchmuhn…. and one of them dies. Unfortunately, ten are needed to perform a sacred death ceremony. These aliens have many limbs and their souls speak long after they are dead… The dead alien’s soul tells the remaining Jews that they need to track down Kadak in order to complete the ceremony. One of the aliens sets out to find Kadak and discovers all the bizarre cults and religions Kadak once adhered to.
I would suggest that Ellison is commenting on the power of religious tradition — despite the far future setting and alien adherents, many of the Jewish traditions have remained intact. The story is filled with fun observations on tradition and religion, unusual rituals, and strange societies but is not for the fainthearted — many of the key Jewish concepts are conveyed via Yiddish phrases and Ellison’s accompanying index is necessary to understand what is happening.
“Silent in Gehenna” (1971) 4.5/5 (Very Good): Joe Bob Hickney is the last voice against the militarization of society: “You call this academic freedom, you bunch of earthworms! You call electrified fences and armed guards in your classrooms the path to learning?” (76). He’s the last rebel. Everyone else has succumbed. Joe demonstrates on a University campus but no one listens. Soon he is kidnapped and awakes far from the University — those who tends his wounds are other outcasts but utterly apathetic to the problems of the world. The apathy of everyone around him is devastating…
“Erotophobia” (1971) 3/5 (Average): An incredibly comic story in which Ellison ridicules one of the most prevalent cliches of the SF and F genre — the irresistible male hero whom all the young women run after… If Nate Kleisher ventures outside of his home he will literally be “loved to death.” Everyone, male or female, finds him attractive and go to great extremes to get at him. Afraid for his life Nate seeks out a renowned German shrink…. A fun satirical tale with a bizarre conclusion.
“One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” (1970) 4/5 (Good): A profoundly moving story of Gus Rosenthal — a foil for Ellison — who travels back in time and befriends his younger self. His younger self was ridiculed for being a Jew and ran away from home at a young age. Filled with autobiographical tidbits from Ellison’s own life, the work is filled with interwoven strands of nostalgia and longing to improve one’s own past.
“Ecowareness” (1974) 3/5 (Average): “Now isn’t that a nice story. And fuck you, too” (124). Ellison’s snarky “story” isn’t really a “story” but a swipe at his audience and the American public in general. In short we are screwing the planet and not doing anything about it…. A “fairy tale” about Earth and how many people it had to kill before people realized the damage they had wrecked.
“Catman” (1974) 4.25/5 (Good): The first half of the story is brilliant. The second half loses some of the power and momentum, and the ending is all too abrupt. The son is a thief who transports himself across the vast arcology of London stealing drugs. The father is a policeman, called the Catman, who hunts his son across the vast construct (with its waterfalls, oceans, gardens, habitation levels) with his mechanical animals — but only within his shift hours. And then there’s a society of half-men who live below ground who have sex with a large machine which seems to slowly consume their bodies and intelligence… And an unusual mother character who desperately wants her husband to catch the son so he gets his promotion….
“Catman” is a baffling yet transfixing experience. The images of a son being chased by his father — and an assortment of mechanical animals — across a vast future city is one of most memorable sequences of the collection. I’d love to hear your interpretations!
“Hindsight: 480 Seconds” (1973) 3.75/5 (Good): The only of Ellison’s works I’d previously read — in the collection Future City (1973) ed. Elwood… I enjoyed it more this time so I’ve increased the rating but kept the gist of the original review: The world’s cities have lifted into space, à la Blish’s Cities in Flight, due to an approaching planetoid which will crash into Earth. One man is selected, a poet, to stay on the planet (and die) so that he can send his impressions of the destruction of earth (to the flying cities) for all future generations of the displaced. The story is deeply evocative: How would we process the loss of our home world? And of course, our poet is unable to do justice to the event (is it even possible?) and has more personal concerns.”
(Bob Layzell’s cover for the 1977 edition)
(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1976 edition)
For more reviews consult the INDEX