Book Review: Irrational Numbers, George Alec Effinger (1976)


(Michael Flanagan’s cover for the 1976 edition)

4.5/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

George Alec Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me (1972) exemplifies the elements of the New Wave movement that continue to fascinate me, i.e. a fascination that compels my endless OrbitNebulaUniverse, etc. anthology purchases!  Effinger’s short fiction holds the same allure—he tackles a vast variety of subjects and themes: trauma, commercialization, sports, and biological apocalypse are paired with the daily experience, the mundane.  Interested in SF about a man obsessed with his fish tank confronting his disintegrating relationship and the end of the world?  A regimented cult, or psychological experiment (?), organized around Mithraic ritual and the memorization of arms manuals?  If so, Effinger is your man.  Erudite.  Compelling.

Recommended for all fans of New Wave SF.

Brief plot summary/analysis

“Lydectes: On the Nature of Sport” (1975), novelette, 4/5 (Good):  An unnerving story with two narratives in parallel: The Representative of North America (i.e. dictator) writes a chummy letter to his buddy, and fellow dictator, The Representative of Europe.  The letter contains a translation of a manuscript discovered on the planet of Lydectes.  The contents of the manuscript tells a Greek-esque story of King Herodes and his friends who discuss the ephemeral nature of fame and entertainment.  Their philosophical implications of their discussions play out in the letter exchange between the two dictators.

“And Us, Too, I Guess” (1973), novella, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  The disintegration of the relationship, and all its daily micro-agressions and struggles, parallels the end of the world—a biological apocalypse, i.e. the daily disappearance (and ramifications) of one species at a time due to environmental degradation.  What loss registers for us?  Dogs?  A bacteria that could have a greater cascade effect on other species?  When do we start to fear our end is near?  A haunting, and uncomfortable,  read…

“25 Crunch Split Right on Two” (1975), novelette, 4/5 (Good):  A beautiful and affective story with a slightly unorthodox (at least for SF) plot–a NFL player named Eldon MacDay discovers that the most severe blows of his opponents trigger lucid memories of his wife.    Physical pain allows him to relive his past.  And of course, it takes a profound toll on his body and mind.  Devastating, emotional.

“Hard Times” (1973), shortstory, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Justin and Bo, two old college buddies, reminisce about their drunken adventures as freshman at Yale.  Bo reveals how he killed a young woman while drunk.  Justin decides to turn his friend in.  The scene fades.  Queue another moral dilemma.  And another.  And another.  As the permutations unfold, a doctor whispers through the haze, “you had a difficult test this time.  Your mind put up a tough defense” (93).  But where does the fantasy end?  And, will even an upright purpose eventually step over the line?  And the implications of a future world where such torture is perquisite for employment terrifies.  Again the syringe drips…. This one hits in the gut i.e. the Rock Hudson writhing in pain à la John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) sort of agony.

“At the Bran Foundry” (1973), shortstory, 3.5/5 (Good):  The oddest and most distant story in the collection… At first glance it feels as if the explanation eludes below the surface of the whimsy and madcap events. “At the Bran Foundry” feels like an advertisement told as adventure tale or some manifestation of industry through the lens of “Bugs Bunny cartoons that were made during the war” (100)—the Key Club heads to the Bran factory.  But the Bran factory doesn’t seem to make cereal, or, it does make cereal if cereal “was recently dug out of the rich fields of ore located in the Laurentian highlands of Quebec” (103).  A strange concoction…

“Curtains” (1974), shortstory, 4/5 (Good):  War as spectacle.  Death as entertainment.  Standard tropes in anti-war SF…  But, Effinger’s tale rises above rest.  Sergeant First Class Steve Weinraub finds himself in charge of the regiment and confronted with a crisis—the magazines describe his men as a “shabby troupe seemingly dedicated to defending our borders in the tritest ways imaginable” (110).  So, Weinraub conjures a spectacular plan to put on the best performance possible, a scene right out of the movies.

“How It Felt” (1974), shortstory, 3.5/5 (Good):  In a post-technological world, seemingly immortal post-humans shift bored with their existence modify their personalities and engage in “repetitious sexual gratifications” (128).  Vivi, the only one who seems to have emotions, considers her “talent” a form of “panic” (129).  She wishes she could cast of her emotions as they interfere with her relations to her lover Moa.  Vivi decides to engage in a new “campaign of studied carelessness” (129)…  As the immortals engage in acts of sheer aggression and destruction it appears her desire is achieved.  Immortality engenders the destruction of emotion.

“Biting Down Hard on Truth” (1974), novelette, 5/5 (Brilliant):  The best of the collection—worth the price of the book.   Deserved an award nod in 1975….  Mac, Willie, and Willie’s wife Sam are members of a highly regimented cult with Mithraic undertones and iconographies.  The cult leader Jennings has them take endless notes on bombs and armaments, notes that mysteriously disappear from the page.  Evenings are spent watching old adventure films à la Slaves of Blood.  And their lives seem to parallel the films they watch! As escape from the laws and regulations seems possible sheer panic sets in.  Cyclicality elicits a hopeless feeling that its is all a figment, a psychotic extravaganza, an obsession seemingly concrete…  Mac proclaims to himself, “It’s a very interesting psychological experiment” as Jennings provides “a rigid life, and now he’s removing the laws that we’ve always used as props.  It’s pathetic, when you realize how simple he is.  And these poor people!  They’re helpless” (158).

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Irrational Numbers, George Alec Effinger (1976)

    • Copies go for mere pennies online! Grab a copy!

      That said, you’re right, his work doesn’t really feel like Ballard. Perhaps Effinger is the love baby of Ballard and Sheckley…. hmm…. (?) One of Effinger’s more endearing trademarks is a substantial dose of Americana (which, normally isn’t something I go for, but, he is such a great writer that a SF story about the NFL–i.e. trauma, loss, pain, self-harm–actually works!).

  1. For me, Effinger’s stories fall squarely in the absurdist category. Absurdism was very influential in Englanbd in the early 60s: Spike Milligan, NF Simpson, early Tom Stoppard, but I don’t think it had much impact in the US except maybe in Barthelme, though John Sladek and some of Tom Disch’s less famous stories in the mid 60s fit the category, and maybe Arthur Byron Cover’s books in the mid-70s.

    I hate sports but I still enjoyed Effinger’s story collection Idle Pleasures, so pick up a copy if you find one.

    If you ever watch the Coen Brothers’ film Miller’s Crossing, Effinger said he could be seen at several different points during the scene where Albert Finney punches Gabriel Byrne. Much of the film is shot in New Orleans where Effinger lived and he got work as an extra in several scenes.

    • Yes, a few of his stories have absurdist elements but I would not clump them all together because many in this collection do not — for example, the far future “Hard Times”, “How it Felt,” and the more traditional drama (if it’s SF at all) “25 Crunch Split Right on Two” …

      Yes, I have seen “Miller’s Crossing” (can’t wait for their new film “Hail, Caesar!” which will be released in a few days) but had no idea that Effinger was an extra. Interesting…

      • A Bird in Time I think was one, I read a couple of comic novels about time travel which were rather good. His blisteringly good When Gravity Falls trilogy, as original now as when it was written (perhaps more so since it features a Muslim protagonist who becomes a better person in part by finding meaning in his faith, which is extraordinary in a cyberpunk series).

        I’m sure I’d love his shorts. Such a talent.

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