(Gary Friedman’s cover for the 1979 edition)
George Alec Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me (1972), a complex and intense homage to the act of literary creation, ranks among my favorite SF novels. Heroics (1979), a deconstruction of myth and heroic quest, treads similar ground but in a more light-hearted manner. The sheer intensity elevates the former while the latter’s sincere examination of old age and loneliness still strikes with elegiac power. Both are highly recommended but What Entropy Means to Me or his short story collection Irrational Numbers (1976) might be the place to start…
Heroics (1979) transpires across a mythic landscape once called the United States. But this is not the heroic adventure story you are expecting! It is a strange landscape where the great prairie is covered with Teflon—“Teflon VII” (115) to be precise. A landscape where the once teaming masses have all but disappeared, most of the remnants live in houses that dot vast woods…. A world where “references to cities and their problems were difficult to comprehend,” and, “like dinosaurs; [cities] certainly had ruled the world at one time, but they were almost impossible to accept emotionally” (2).
The eighty-two-year-old Irene lives in one of these houses “in what had once been downtown Louisville” (2). She views herself as a link to the world that was. Michael, his wife, Constance and their daughter Alyse who allow her to live in the house think that Irene has “become slightly senile. Out of touch with her surroundings” but Irene was “caged in the house,” “she was caged in her body” (6). Thus:
“She felt discontent. She felt forgotten, abandoned, futile. She felt like an atrophied organ in the body of the family, a useless appendage, a vestigial remnant of something that had once been meaningful and important” (12).
Despite the general lack of knowledge about the past world, Irene and others obsess about collecting what remains. Alyse wants to collect stamps but does not know what they are or if they even exist anymore. Michael collects “stones and pieces of metal with words on them” while Constance collects “pins, needles, nails, screws, bolts, and tacks, all items that had been made useless by progress” (13).
And Irene collects 20th-century glass. Her collection, secreted away in her rooms, is the result of a seventy-year project inspired by a microfilm given to her in her youth. After Alyse breaks a precious depression-era butter dish, Irene resolves, despite her eighty-two years, to trek to the mythic land of California to find another.
She encounters the magical Glorian, the same Glorian in What Entropy Means to Me, who proclaims that Irene has “begun a true quest, and you have to follow it through, no matter what happens. I’m your Virgil, as it were, and we have a prescribed set of circumstances. You’ll have dangers and threats and temptations, just as every hero does […]” (36). Glorian claims to be sent by the Powers That Be and in the possession of Knowledge way beyond what Irene knows. As with all heroic templates, there is always secret knowledge and just enough is dispensed to prod along the hero, the deities cannot do all the work!
Irene enters Hell where she meets a version of herself, Purgatory where she must save children from veering cars, the Battle of Maldon in tenth-century England, gender switches, body switches, Lewis and Clarke in her mind, and cities decorated with flamingos under the drains of the Teflon plain….
Simultaneously playful and melancholic, Effinger satirizes with a storyteller’s pizzaz the artificiality (its tropes and manifest destinies) of the genre of the heroic quest. Irene is the last type of hero one would expect, and her quest to find a butter dish smacks of the most ridiculous premise conceivable in order to comment on the heroic genre. Despite the reflexive intent, Heroics is still about heroics. And our heroine is still a heroine—she abandons all that she knows and sets off in her old and infirm body, possessed by only her indefatigable spirit.
Reflection is not destruction. It lays bare what we might all expect in ways that are unexpected. George Alec Effinger might be one of the best SF writers to write about writing. And by writing about Irene to comment on writing, Effinger has created what might be my favorite hero.
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23 thoughts on “Book Review: Heroics, George Alec Effinger (1979)”
Could ‘Teflon Heroes’ possibly been a better title? I do like the simplicity of ‘Heroics’ though, as it speaks directly to the reader.
I definitely think that Heroics is a better title as the novel is about the nature of heroism… And, as I hopefully made clear, the artificiality (the gulf between lived experience and the literary portrayal) of the heroic quest genre.
But, it does have a certain ring to it 😉 Although, perhaps not the one Effinger wanted.
I’ve read several of his books, and really liked What Entropy Means to Me, but missed this one although I read the two published either side of it. Sounds interesting.
So you’ve read the novel published before Heroics (1979) — Death in Florence (1978)? I want a copy. I only have Relatives (1973) and Wolves of Memory (1981) left on the shelf…
Yes, but I didn’t get on very well with it. Don’t think I finished it. Quite enjoyed The Wolves of Memory, even if it was quite strange. A sequel to Those Gentle Voices, iirc., although that’s just a vague recollection. Apart from the 1st Budayeen novel, Wolves was the last book of his I read I think, although I’ve reread Entropy and Relatives more recently.
I think Those Gentle Voices operates alone. But yeah, as you know, Entropy is fantastic!
Could well be unconnected but I had a feeling the planet they’re going to in Those Gentle Voices is the same one in Wolves, although that’s set much later and may as well be a different planet…
Gonna have to check this one out.
Have you read any other early (I guess pre-1980s) novels by Effinger?
If the question’s for me, I also read Nightmare Blue but it took ages for me to get through. I was quite disappointed in it because of Entropy, and I really liked the Dozois’ short fiction I had read. (The Visible Man collection, maybe, or was that later… )
I’ve also still got Effinger’s little collection from 1989, Pulphouse’s Author’s Choice Monthly #1, which has half a dozen stories in it but the earliest is from 1982. Pretty sure I have at least one comic he wrote kicking about somewhere as well.
Also, stupidly, when I saw your review I confused it with Count Geiger’s Blues by Michael Bishop! But you like both authors, so that’s OK!
I think Nightmare Blue is supposed to be his single worst novel — despite the quality of his collaborator and his own fiction. I too love Dozois —> you might remember this review of “Horse of Air” (1970) https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/book-review-orbit-8-ed-damon-knight-1970/
Given he wrote the very skimable Zork Chronicles and co-wrote the utterly average The Red Tape War, Nightmare Blue being his worst is saying something! 😉
Nice review of Horse of Air. I should re-read some of his short stories.
Re the “Horse of Air” review — I have since read Silverberg’s “The Good News from the Vatican” and can confidently state that Dozois’ story is better and deserved the Nebula!
Returning to Effinger, I get the impression he wrote many of those for money. He was so sickly most of his life, etc. Although, I don’t know when his health concerns manifested themselves in a serious way.
Haven’t checked this out yet. I was never a big fan of Effinger. One interesting thing he did was a round robin novel completed in 1991 called The Red Tape War.. The authors would end each chapter in a near impossible situation and challenge the next one up to get out of it. Effinger was a last minute substitute. The project started years before. The never named third author’s material was rewritten by Effinger. It missed the mark but had a few good laughs.
Which of his stuff have you read other than The Red Tape War?
I read What Entropy Means To Me and a few short stories. Entropy got a lot of hype so I gave it a shot. Since that was back in the 70’s I don’t remember a lot about it only that I avoided any other novels and series. I had better luck with short stories,notably The Aliens Who Knew,I Mean Everything and and Paradise Lost.
I am an unabashed fan and proponent of What Entropy Means to Me (1972) — I argued in my review a few years back, and I stand by what I said, that it is one of the most effective New Wave SF novels as it blends experimentation with narrative and meta-analysis of the genre.
And, I find his short stories—at least in the collection Irrational Numbers (1976)—almost as good… Heroics is not his best work by far but still enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Hmmmmm…It’s been a long time. Maybe I should reread it.
Despite the hype, it is mostly forgotten now… Definitely be IN a New Wave mood!
That cover is hilarious. Makes me think of “Black Adder.”
I think it fits the novel well — it’s certainly a humorous read despite the seriousness of many of its themes (aging, etc).
Well, I must say, after a battery of average sf books, this was a wonderful change up! I agree with Joachim––this is a remarkable, if subtle book… its ramifications have not yet been followed… Perhaps it will continue to get better after the reading… a rare delight!