(David McCall Johnston’s cover for the 1971 edition)
3/5 (collated rating: Average)
Preliminary publication note: The UK and US editions of the New Writings in Science Fiction anthology series (1964-1977) varied in content—even volumes indicated by the same number. They are often treated as separate entries in the isfdb.org anthology listing. I read and reviewed the US edition.
The back cover of New Writings in Science Fiction 7 (1971), ed. John Carnell promises a form of “future shock”—plunging us into a world derived from ours but foreign and alien. Is the collection successful? As with the three other volumes in this anthology series I’ve read—New Writings in SF 4 (1965), New Writings in SF 6 (1965), and New Writings in SF 9 (191972)–the answer is a mixed “somewhat.”
In the volumes I’ve explored so far, Vincent King is the biggest surprise—i.e. an author I had never read who produces regularly solid work. As with “Testament” (1968), King’s “Defence Mechanism” (1966) evokes “existential emptiness” in a fascinating decaying city. The best story in the collection, William Spencer’s “The Long Memory” (1966) likewise evokes an entropic metropolitan environment, a burrowing and vast city, that offers intriguing speculations on memory and surveillance.
If there’s a theme that connects the majority of the stories, its the social effects of future urban landscapes.
Let’s explore Carnell’s editorial vision of…
“The Pen and the Dark” (1966), Colin Kapp, 2.5/5 (Bad): I’ve voiced my main problem with Colin Kapp at length in my review of “Hunger Over Sweet Waters” (1965), Kapp is the type of “hard-sf” author who revels in scientific minutiae at the expense of character, theme, and plot. The same problems can be found in The Unorthodox Engineers sequence of short stories that “The Pen and the Dark” is part of. These stories adhere to this pattern 1) strange world causes strange disaster. 2) Brilliant yet unorthodox engineers and scientists save the day. 3) Extensive lectures dampen all tension and excitement.
In “The Pen and the Dark” the unorthodox engineers arrive on the planet Ithica. The object of the investigation is the mysterious alien mushroom dome called the Dark: a “black and fearsome thing which reared above then was decidedly not of Earth” (3). Around the object (an area called the Pen), purpose unknown, a seemingly alien logic pervades: a “penumbral shadow of reduced effects” (4). Into this odd landscape inhabited by mysterious physics and possibly alien life, the unorthodox engineers traverse… with devastating ramifications.
“The Pen and the Dark” fits firmly into the humorous characterized SF subgenre of “Big Dumb Object” story. The alien object is fantastically alien and mysterious! Ultimately, the story has a cool idea, mind-numbing lectures, and a terrible ending that comes close to excusing genocide. In Kapp’s vision it’s the science that matters, not the lives it impacts….
“Gifts of the Gods” (1966), Arthur Sellings, 2.5/5 (Bad): Bryan Dudley sips his morning coffee only to be interrupted by his wife: “There’s something in the garden” (35). Filled with satirical comments about British housing and clumps of dirt posing as “gardens,” the “Gifts of the Gods” tells the bland story (with a somewhat funny “twist”) of alien metals appears in large quantities across the suburban landscape. Dudley assumes the metal has a value and purpose. But larger and larger and larger quantities appear….
“The Long Memory” (1966), William Spencer, 4.5/5 (Very Good): The absolute best story in the collection. But then again, I’m a sucker for Spencer’s tales of urbanism gone amok that populate Carnell’s publications—for example, his equally smart overpopulation-themed “Megapolitan Underground” (1964).
Deep within an underground megalopolis experiencing entropic death throes, Harben spends his hours in claustrophobic room in the heart of things. The city’s surveillance systems spill into residential space, the tapes fill in hallways, pushing the inhabitants into smaller and small habitations…. Crowded in by mechanisms—“he was like an astronaut in one of those early primitive spacecraft, jam-packed with essential, bulky gear” (59)—Harben interprets the reports of the surveillance computer and relays his findings to the city planning committee. He observes radicals calling for the end of surveillance. He types reports of the dwindling storage space as the spools endlessly spool. His waking mind continues to work. His subconscious mind acts. Or is it the other way around? Harben isn’t entirely sure.
While the end is not shocking, “The Long Memory” is crowded with claustrophobic images. Harben, nestled within, drifts and drifts as the data overwhelms, bifurcating his awareness…. Recommended for fans of SF on surveillance, entropic landscapes, and dystopic urbanism.
“The Man Who Missed the Ferry” (1966), Douglas R. Mason, 3.75/5 (Good): One of two Mason stories in the collection, this appears to be his attempt at a New Wave literary story. While I applaud Mason’s attempt, the final product suffers from the lack of a powerful image to add depth to the obtuse “reality” that unfolds… One day Arthur Sinclair a low-level clerk in a shipping office, who for twenty years has cross a river on a ferry or by tunnel, walks across the water. And suddenly, as if experiencing a rebirth, he enters a transformed city. A vision of deliverance from the mundane? Or, a minor miracle to liven up the poisoning miasma of daily drudgery?
Considering Mason wrote the miserable and programmatic Eight Against Utopia (1966), it’s fun to see him attempt to widen his range. It’s not entirely successful.
“The Night of the Seventh Finger” (1966), Robert Presslie, 2/5 (Bad): Presslie, one of Carnell’s staples, spins another banal anthology filler. Snippy comments about the suburban lives of teenagers and their vices suggest a social commentary… But it’s tacked on, like a row of rhinestones, and adds nothing to the story that unfolds. A trollish “man” with a seventh finger, stalks the teenage Sue Bradley, who spends her days smoking, snorting coke, and finding dates. He protests “I will not hurt” (101) when she attempts to run away. But unlike her other admirers, he has a different message and revelation…. I doubt you’ll finish the story to find out.
“Six Cubed Plus One” (1966), Douglas R. Mason (as John Rankine), 1/5 (Bad): This is what I expected Mason to produce! Sarah Joy, the high school student all the teachers disturbingly lust after (there are extensive descriptions of her tight sweaters etc.), suddenly becomes smarter than everyone expects. In this future teaching means supervising students plugged into self-adjusting teaching machines. An undescribed event (it doesn’t seem like the machines were even tested) results in the glorified personal computers gaining sentience via the children! And Sarah Joy is their mouthpiece—and she threatens violence if the teachers don’t do as she says.
Could not complete this one.
“Defence Mechanism” (1966), Vincent King:, 4/5 (Good): In the far-future, a huge city complex rots into the ground. Within its levels dwell the sun-deprived tribes terrified of the exterior expanse…. Occasionally tribesmen band together to fight “the alien.” The aliens (if they are even aliens at all), enter the city and search in its rubble. Their purpose is unknown. And no one cares to learn it. An alien hunting expedition takes the narrator to levels he didn’t know existed, and the outside beckons.
King’s story mimics the generation ship format—a moment of revelation reveals the true nature of the past and the world of the present. His prose is clipped and simple. But the effect is a powerful one that mimics the limited experiences and knowledge possessed by the city’s survivors. Punchy action. Powerful images.
(David McCall Johnston’s back cover for the 1971 edition)
For book reviews consult the INDEX
For cover art posts consult the INDEX