Book Review: The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6, ed. Michael Moorcock (1970) (stories by J. G. Ballard, Hilary Bailey, Carol Emshwiller, M. John Harrison, et al.)

Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1971 edition

3.75/5 (collated rating: Good)

Welcome to a postmodern museum of disordered landscapes. J. G. Ballard paints a cratered England as a new Vietnam. Langdon Jones reduces the operation of the world to a series of sculptural machines. Hilary Bailey weaves a dystopic England changed beyond recognition in mere years. M. John Harrison’s characters interact with cardboard cutouts on an imaginary set. And Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius flits between India and Pakistan’s present and past.

While there are a few duds, the cream of New Worlds will tantalize all fans of New Wave science fiction.

Brief Summary + Analysis

Mal Dean’s illustration of J. G. Ballard’s “The Killing Ground” in New Worlds (March 1969)

“The Killing Ground” (1969), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Very Good): “The meadows around the enclave formed the landscape of a drowned moon” (9). Ballard’s short fictions pull me into their orbits like old rusted screws and lost metal objects from under the floorboards  to Melquíades’ magnet.  “The Killing Ground,” perfectly illustrated in New Worlds (March 1969) by Mal Dean’s block print art, postulates a near future U.K. occupied by a technologically advanced America. Like the French holed up at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954), a group of Americans are surrounded by British revolutionaries revolting against the English puppet government in London. Major Pearson interacts with three nameless American prisoners, a wounded African American soldier, a young soldier with a bag filled with books, and their captain who tries to clean the Kennedy Memorial near where the prisoners are held.

The historical parallels postulate an America on the rampage with Vietnam-esque conflicts breaking out across the world.  Pearson seems to believe that a New Order will emerge, an awakening, a moment of change: “It’s achieved everything” (13).  The brutality perpetrated by Tulloch brings everything down to earth.

Beautiful. Stark. Intense.

Charles Platt’s illustration of Harvey Jacob’s “Gravity” in New Worlds (August 1969)

“Gravity” (1969), Harvey Jacobs, 4/5 (Good): Charles Platt’s illustrations for Jacob’s “Gravity” pair the heroic figure of the astronaut with the symbol of mundane daily existence, a visit to the supermarket. Jacob’s crass and hilarious tale tells of the adventures of the earthbound Bogardus Blik, who works a computer for the space program and romps with a heroic astronaut’s wife. While popping aphrodisiacs (“clams on the half-shell and navel oranges”) and watching the launch of his program’s rocket, Bogardus mythologizes himself. His earthy quest to bed the wives of heroes is but another sad manifestation of phallic posturings of the American space program. I find all of this humorous as Harvey Jacobs, according to Michael Moorcock, was involved in the promotion of the Moon Landing (which happened a few months after his story was published).

Charles Platt’s illustration of Harvey Jacob’s “Gravity” in New Worlds (August 1969)

Stories that subvert the cult of the astronaut—from Barry N. Malzberg’s nihilistic black comedies to C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Rocket of 1955” (1939), a dark flash fiction piece about swindlers preying on the dream of exploration—appeal to my overwhelming need to poke holes in grand narratives, to admit that humans are humans, and that history is no heroic wax museum cavalcade of what now should be. And Harvey Jacobs’ raunchy and lighthearted take on the “personal” side of the Space Race is a nice foil to the sad intumbated wheezes of Malzberg’s astronauts propping up show columns while sinking into Venusian mud or whispering “‘I’m demoralized” to a welfare officer. While Malzberg adheres to a relentless ideology of the dehumanization of modern man, Jacob flings rotten fruit with a giggle and a smile.

“The Eye of the Lens” (1968), Langdon Jones, 4/5 (collated rating: Good*): Preliminary Note:  This anthology combines all three parts of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych. I’ve reviewed them previously here. I’ve reproduced my original review of each section of the triptych with slight edits below.

“The Hall of Machines” (1968), short story, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  Part I of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych. An  observer researches the endless hall of machines, various earthly and human processes made mechanical, and speculates about the nature of the hall and presents “a picture that is far from complete, but which is remarkable in its specific detail” (38).  The entire hall and its machines is in motion, the Earth transformed mechanically, the world’s denizens move between and among the machines… Aquinas’ prime mover has set it all in motion, and it ratchets, wiggles, switches, twitches, manipulates, and cycles before the observer.  There are clear references to Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” (1941), notable the discussion of the nature of dimensions of the hall (is it infinite?), but Jones moves in other original directions.

The story is possessed by an almost meditative examination in excessive and obsessive detail of the workings of the machines, each reflecting in some way the process it embodies.  For example, the “Machines of Movement” in the “Interlocking Machine Room,” “on entering the room I found it to be full of giant metal crabs” (41) where “all the legs of these machines are connected by free-moving joints to the legs of the other units, and a movement of one causes an adjustment to the position of the other.  The whole room is in motion, and the machines twitch each other with an action that appears almost lascivious in nature” (42).  The Earth as a vast series of interconnected systems that trigger other systems, ad infinitum. 

One Machine of Death is “very large, sprawling, and complicated” and “appears to be completely functionless”—the researcher speculates that it “was constructed to be entirely symbolic in nature” (45), perhaps meant to end lives that no longer exist to end.  And another Machine of Death takes the form of a wall of metal, a single waste pipe exudes a stream of blood…

The Earth as Machine.  Beautiful, haunting, I will remember this story for a long time.

“The Coming of the Sun” (1968), short story, 4/5 (Good): Part II of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych.  Structured as a series of paragraph poems or individual scenes, that relate thematically to each other and are organized in sequence.  A cellar fire and interrupts a series of events (a discussion in a lounge) or, separate fiery metaphors interrupt distinct events and situations.  A man observes a clock burn, other scenes are inspired by the music of Messiaen, the section titles ring poetic, “Dead Book Images Spin in My Mind Like Snow” (71), “Catatonic Sun, Fill My Valleys” (72)… What is the meaning of this descent into fiery imagery, the interruption of the mechanisms that hummed in previous triptych panel’s “The Hall of Machines”?   The Sun, the “eye that sees through reality,” the eye of God, rips our conceptions to shreds… This tone story, a hallucinatory stream of violent/shocking images, will not appeal to all.  In a way, these are the specific types of events that the machines in Part I metaphorically represent.

“The Eye of the Lens” (1968), novelette, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Part III of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych.  The least satisfying and powerful part of the triptych takes the form of a film, the eye/sun/God of part II “films” the sequence of metaphoric scenes involving “A girl. A florist. A holy man” (1975).  Jones even includes descriptions of the soundtrack, the extras, etc.  The feel of the film evokes Godard and various other proponents of the French New Wave.  The story culminates as the girl confronts Jesus on the cross and proclaims him a sham, “So I judge your Father, and Find him  guilty” (89).  As the lens viewing the film (creating the film) is God or some other omniscient power, various human cycles are observed—the girl questions her existence, descends into unhappiness, and finally, the world around her is reborn.  The triptych/the trinity is complete.

“A Man Must Die” (1966), John Clute, 3.5/5 (Good): The majority of us know Clute best as a SF critic rather than author. Clute published three short stories in New Worlds  (seven short stories and one novel forms his entire published SF fiction output). “A Man Must Die” is a captivating first story!

Picasso Perkins III lives in a designed and highly artificial environment. Pseudo-humans called Oxen, more shadows of humans than human, guide him through a series of “lessons” that prepare him to take on the mantel of his illustrious ancestors on board the Starship Lunge gone amok (at some point in the past the ancestors appear to have turned on each other). The Oxen play roles but only can reveal so much about the nature of their existence. And soon, the artificial environment of his youth comes crashing down…. an a far more macabre future awaits.

I’ll have to track down Clute’s the other two New Worlds short fictions.

“In Reason’s Ear” (1965), Hilary Bailey, 3/5 (Average): In the near future (1970), John Wetherall returns to England after five years in Africa to find it transformed. The police are absent from the streets as youth mobs roam to and fro. His cab driver strangely suggests that the police should not be contacted after an armed robbery. John muses that his length of time in the disease ridden disquiet of French West Africa might have unnaturally formed his expectations of what he would encounter on his return. While the interior of the Untied Kingdom Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Mission feels the same, the words and actions of his colleagues suggests a growing tide of unemployment, racism, and youth violence…. Mr. Obutu proclaims that “Britain is no place for a coloured man” and decides to return to Lagos (99). And John’s salary is worth “about a tenth of what it was five years ago” due to government budget cuts (102).

Adding to the general unease is the government’s interest in John’s traveling partner Pardoe, who apparently had been the third man on the moon who crash landed in Africa. The effects of space travel have transformed Pardoe who fears the impact humanity will have on the reaches of space.

This is an odd story that, despite its passages of exposition on the state of the world, doesn’t answer the most pressing questions its lays out. As with Bailey’s Earth passages in The Black Corridor (1969), she effectively writes unease and societal disorder. That said, I did not find it entirely successful.

“The Ersatz Wine” (1967), Christopher Priest, 3.5/5 (Good): Priest’s early short story suggests just enough to be a mysterious invocation as fragments of reality (scenes and experiences flash like neon lights) and archetypal characters (voices—“Actor,” “Bingo-caller,” “Pop Star,” “the Artist,” etc.) whir past in an urban landscape. The end, and its enigmatic lines—“They took him back to the hospital, trying to think of some way of keeping his batteries charged. ‘My life,’ said the Actor, ‘is a constant lie” (133)–open up an array of interpretations. Is he a newly mechanized man experiencing fragments of “life”? Programmed experiences? Priest’s reoccupation with the intersection of observable phenomenon and the nature of “reality” feels embryonic but present.

If you’re new to Priest I’d start with the stories in An Infinite Summer (1979) and The Inverted World (1972).

“Lib” (1968), Carol Emshwiller, 3/5 (Average): I struggled with this one. An oblique story about a woman named Lib, “in molded rubber shoes with air holes in them” (134) (did Emshwiller foretell the existence of Crocs? hah), who struggles to find love and meaning in her life. While elevated by the stylistically taught yet distant prose, “Jack is fed up. Good-bye Jack. Wave to him. Out he goes. Old black sweater off into the twilight and that’s all there is of Jack” (134), I found the meaning somewhat elusive—relationships as a crutch towards “self-realization”?

I could not detect any clear fantastical/science fictional elements.

I greatly preferred Emshwiller’s “Animal” (1968) in Orbit 4.

Myrdahl’s art from New Worlds (November 1968) illustrating M. John Harrison’s “Baa Baa Blocksheep”

“Baa Baa Blocksheep” (1968), M. John Harrison, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Harrison’s fourth published SF story was published in a New Worlds  issue (November 1968) devoted to “All New Writers.” I enjoyed this enigmatic early Harrison story! It contains the same oppressive melancholy as  his better known works.

“Arm scuttled the streets like a bubonic rat–furtive by nature, flaunting in the exigencies of pain” (140). And so begins this experiment in form and content. Arm, disturbed by stark visions of “the city […] attempting to crush him” as if he were within a pile of “bleached conical skullheaps of Alexander” (140), attempts to get an avant-garde manuscript about the meanderings of a man named Gynt published. The scenes in Arm’s manuscript, illustrated by Myrdahl for the original New Worlds (November 1968) issue, involve Gynt observing and wandering through “Scene 10, which resembled a tumbled set of wooden building-blocks, ladders, and flights of hollow wooden steps” (141).

Block, another urban denizen withering away on scraps, joins up with Arm and enters the employ of Holloway Pauce. Holloway Pauce (the same name comes up in  Harrison’s The Committed Men), runs an experiment on ewes. Pauce employs Arm and Block to kill the sheep (I think) and leads them to greater acts of violence.

Arm’s story within the story feels like a manifestation of the actual story. A urban manifestation, as “physically real” as cardboard cutouts on a set, plays out an oppressive emptiness in which our characters attempt to interact and parse out. There’s a primal feel of entropic forces at play (the figure of Pauce), although their aims are indistinctive.

Recommended for fans of M. John Harrison!

Myrdahl’s art from New Worlds (November 1968) illustrating M. John Harrison’s “Baa Baa Blocksheep”

“The Luger is a 9mm Automatic Handgun with a Parabellum Action” (1969), Jerrold Mundis, 3/5 (Average): Imagine Ahab  from Moby Dick was a talking dog and Ishmael was the dog’s owner (I’m not exactly sure if the narrator in this short story is a direct correlate character or a hybrid). This bizarre scenario unfolds in Mundis’ strange series of normal daily dog and owner activities laced with deep philosophical meanderings with predictable climatic violence (I mean, if you’ve read Moby Dick you know what happens at the end). While I suppose one could break down the references and unfurl the philosophical underpinnings (the dog/Ahab as a manifestation of primal atavism etc.), I wasn’t interested enough to give the allusions more than a passing glance.

“The Delhi Division” (1968), Michael Moorcock, 4/5 (Good): Moorcock’s story is in the shared world of Jerry Cornelius. My voyage through the Jerry Cornelius universe is in its exploratory phases. Cornelius, an anarchist manifestation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion archetype, wanders through the confusing landscape (the story appears to shift between multiple moments in history) of post-colonial India and Pakistan (newspaper fragments from the present are interspersed throughout). Cornelius reminisces about his dead son and his own “sexual fantasies of grandiose and sado-masochistic nature” (169) replete with the Orientalist trappings of a past India (“cowed slaves”, “lavishly dressed rajahs”, etc.) I found the interplay between perspectives into India and Pakistan (and their conflicts) fascinating. Is Cornelius, who shifts between times, an agent of disorder in the various time frames? Inventive and metafictional—recommended for Michael Moorcock fans!


Reviews of other anthologies in the Best SF Stories from New Worlds series:

Notes

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

Enzo Ragazzini’s cover for the 1970 edition

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6, ed. Michael Moorcock (1970) (stories by J. G. Ballard, Hilary Bailey, Carol Emshwiller, M. John Harrison, et al.)”

    1. I suspect you have a better grasp of the main idea than me. Why does Arm write about the set (is it meant to be a parallel of the world in which he inhabits?)? What are Arm and Block actually employed to do? (kill a politician?).

        1. I enjoyed Moorcock’s “Behold the Man” (1966) novella: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/06/11/book-review-worlds-best-science-fiction-1967-variant-title-worlds-best-science-fiction-third-series-ed-donald-a-wollheim-and-terry-carr-1967/

          Haven’t read the later novelization. Except for some notable exceptions, I don’t enjoy fantasy. That said, haven’t read Gloriana — but, from what I’ve read about it pseudo-medieval mumbo jumbo and fairylands (even in an intriguing reworked England of Queen Elizabeth) don’t tickle my interest.

  1. 1) You’d HATE Gloriana.
    2) “history is no heroic wax museum cavalcade of what now should be”
    War of the League of Cambrai, eh?
    3) “The entire hall and its machines is in motion, the Earth transformed mechanically, the world’s denizens move between and among the machines… Aquinas’ prime mover has set it all in motion, and it ratchets, wiggles, switches, twitches, manipulates, and cycles before the observer.”
    Drat you, Dr. B! Now I must find this story!

    1. I do enjoy who Moorcock dedicated Gloriana to i.e. Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast (although I’ve only read the first one in the sequence). To appeal to me fantasy can’t be Tolkein clones, have fairies, or lots of bland medievalia (there are so many interesting medieval topics/ideas to integrate into fantasy if people actually read). Not saying Gloriana ticks all the boxes of the previous list and he’s more interested in Tudor England. Again, I suspect Moorcock does some intriguing things with his premise but my dislike of An Alien Heat (1972) bodes poorly….

      “The Hall of Machines” is available online. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gK71lUEVDCKq6yky17G4OQ65Peq3uPGG/view

      Although procuring this anthology or Langdon Jones’ collection linked above is worth your time. I was going to rewrite my original review so I reread the story. My views have stayed the same over the years on this one!

  2. I tracked down most of the Jerry Cornelius novels, stories, comics, etc. way back in the late 80s/early90s–was obsessed by them, indeed, albeit briefly in the scale of things. I’m not sure how I’d rate them these days, having since become more familiar with the literary modernism Moorcock was both trying to emulate and parody (it would seem). If you get a chance you should check out the filmed version of The Final Programme (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070289/)–but only after you’ve read the novel, of course!
    I loved that Charles Pratt collage of the astronaut pushing a shopping trolley. It’s fab, to speak the vernacular of the 60s… I gotta get me a copy of it.

    1. I think I would benefit from reading more of them at once. Reading one or two here over many years and there isn’t a great strategy to get a sense of the stories or identify a unifying logic. I still think Spinrad’s “The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde” (1969) is my favorite of the Cornelius tales. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/09/28/book-review-the-last-hurrah-of-the-golden-horde-norman-spinrad-1970/

      I want to read M. John Harrison’s take though!

      I’ve heard of the film version. And I have the novel somewhere…

      As for the Charles Platt (also an author) art, I’m a huge fan — the mundane paired with the American symbol of the heroic. They aren’t reproduced in the anthology I read though. I went back to the original New Worlds magazines the stories were published in to find some images to break up the text.

  3. I was intrigued to learn of the Ballard story in this collection………for it seems to me that Brian Aldiss stole the idea for his own short story, ‘My Country ‘Tis Not Only of Thee’ in the 1987 anthology ‘In the Field of Fire’:

    https://theporporbooksblog.blogspot.com/2020/04/book-review-in-field-of-fire.html

    It’s no secret that Aldiss was a slavish follower of Ballard, but that he would take a Ballard plot, and pass it off as his own, converts adulation into plagiarism. Or maybe Ballard gave Aldiss his blessing ? Either way, there is a backstory needing to be told here…….

    1. Thanks for visiting! And your fascinating comment… I’ll have to put Aldiss’ story on my SF and Vietnam Resource I’m compiling.

      I am hesitant to claim that Aldiss is plagiarizing without reading it. Some topics come up again and again, and while at first glance they are similar, put an intriguing and new spin on the idea. Ballard’s story, as is his norm, is focused on small actions: the interactions with the three American prisoners, the reason behind why the Captain cleans the Kennedy Monument, the brutal murder of the prisoners, and whether the Captain’s cleaning signals the American troops holed up to unleash their targeted assault. It’s a brilliant story!

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