3.25/5 (collated rating: Vaguely Good)
Terry Carr’s original anthology Universe 4 (1974) contains a cross-section of early 70s science fiction–from oblique New Wave allegories to “hard SF” first contact stories with unusual aliens.
Despite clocking in last in the installments I’ve read so far– behind Universe 2 (1972), Universe 1 (1971), and Universe 10 (1980)—the best stories, R. A. Lafferty’s rumination on memory and nostalgia, Pamela Sargent’s bleak account of urban erasure, Alexei Panshin’s evocation of conceptual shift, and Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund’s first contact tale with aliens who claim to speak to suns, are all worth the read.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Assault on a City” (1974), Jack Vance, 3/5 (Average): Nominated for the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novella. This exotica-drenched vision of a far future wonder-filled city presents an upper-class heroine who puts those below her in their place (it’s best not to read too much into the social message, if Vance meant one at all). Bo, a hyper-macho drifter who works in the shipyards, and Waldo, a local noble, each encounter and become obsessed with the visiting Alice Tynnott, a member of the interstellar aristocracy. Both Bo and Waldo, who represent decadent urbanism obsessed with “vicarious experience” and “inner space”, let their obsession get the better of them.
As always, Vance excels at world-building. For example, fitting neatly into the novella’s ruminations of subjectivity and objectivity, the Hall of History contains tours that reinforce guided interpretations and grand narratives. Alice, “curious as to the local version of history” collides with the perspective of Bo, who thinks brutishly that “history was history” without any interpretive element (39). History as illustration of paradigmatic difference…
If you’re a Vance fan you’ll probably enjoy this more than me. I tend to be ambivalent towards his planetary adventure SF visions even when they posture in the general direction of the profound.
“A Sea of Faces” (1974), Robert Silverberg, 3.75/5 (Good): Utilizing new technology that allows one to enter a mind, a celebrated young psychiatrist, Richard Bjornstrand, attempts to treat a troubled patient named April Lowry. Despite warnings from his colleagues about the danger to both—“it’s the riskiest kind of therapy you could have chosen” (59)—Richard wanders the ever evolving landscape of April’s troubled mind.
Like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago novels and stories, the fractured human mind takes the form of a series of islands. In Silverberg’s formulation, they are masses in a continuous state of transformation and variation–dense forests, warm sand beeches, and single islands with “several distinct geographical zones” (63). And of course, Richard feels his control slipping as he wanders from isle to isle and his own sense of reality blurs.
A solid outing from one of my favorite SF authors. While it doesn’t have the searing power of his other medical-themed fictions such as Thorns (1967) of “The Pain Peddlers” (1963), but his metaphoric representation of a fractured mind as multifarious islands is moody and beautiful. Fits firmly into the psychiatrist as singularly deluded mold…. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hyacinths (1982) remains the only positive portrayal of a psychiatrist I’ve encountered yet.
“And Read the Flesh Between the Lines” (1974), R. A. Lafferty, 4.5/5 (Very Good): As expected, Lafferty weaves the most challenging story in the collection! First, imagine history as one would a memory–compressed, selective, porous, constantly rewiring itself. Now imagine a physical manifestation of memory—a throbbing room filled with ephemera of youth and the items of nostalgia and the language of comic books… This proximity of images collides with what could be an alternate-history, as a man ruminates out loud with his Australopithecus servant serving drinks. Memory as a passive myth-generating process? I want to reread this one and re-uncover its threads!
“My Sweet Lady Jo” (1974), Howard Waldrop, 3/5 (Average): The twenty-seven-year-old director of public information in the Space Science Services Administration, Edward Smith, a brilliant orphan, welcomes home colonists who left their comrades on the first colonizing voyage to Alpha Centauri. But Smith’s life, despite his prodigious rise to power, is filled with sadness as his marriage winds to its end. Melding the strands of “scientific romance” from the Gernsbeck era with 70s character driven interior visions, Waldrop fools with self-aggrandizing narratives progress and humanity’s desperation to explore outward. There’s no way to escape the troubles of the heart. There’s a gimmick ending that echoes that famous work of Greek tragedy.
While I am all for science fiction that satirizes our destructive desires to explore and exploit, I still have yet to encounter a Waldrop story that resonates with me.
“Stungun Slim” (1974), Ron Goulart, 2/5 (Bad): Executioner Josh Birley, beset with the monetary demands of his “willowy blond wife” Glendora, invents a new scheme to raise money (103). Goulart satires feel like anthology filler. I might smile a bit at their kitsch (lizard men, drummer androids) and empathize with the empty materialistic worlds he presents, but the details and characters pass quickly from my memory… and “Stungun Slim” is no different.
“Desert Places” (1974), Pamela Sargent, 3.5/5 (Good): An unsettling tale about the end of the world… Eggar Knute, Tiel Obrine, and Man Mountain L’ono are perpetually on the move as a city crumbles building by building around them. Eggar positions and repositions his cameras charting the mysterious act of urban erasure. Man Mountain L’ono whittles and whittles piling wood shavings across the floor. Tiel mumbles “I’m sick of it […] I want to settle down” (120). But a new building crumbles. And they must set off again.
This is the best Pamela Sargent story I’ve read yet. Unlike The White Death (1979), the detached way of telling adds a sinister touch—and all the dialogue (and repetitive speech patterns that emerge) and actions feel like they have happened countless times in the past.
“If The Stars Are Gods” (1974), Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. A hydrogen bomb-propelled alien starship arrives in the Earth solar system. Humanity, who has traveled only as far as Mars, sends the aging astronaut Reynolds to meet with the aliens. The aliens (giraffe-like grazers) appear to be on a pilgrimage to Earth’s sun: “it is yours we have sought the longest. It is so powerful. And benevolent” (135). Uninterested in visiting Earth or engaging with its petty politics, the aliens, due to the strange movements of their planet and a “brutal” sun, hold astrology as the ultimate knowledge. Reynolds, grappling with his own failed dreams and increasing age, sees the alien’s quest as meaningful. Or at least something to latch on to as he ages.
This is a delightful story of peaceful contact with a fascinating alien species. The hard-science touches combine artfully with its exploration of character.
There’s a chance that I’ll track down their 1977 novelization!
“When the Vertical World Becomes Horizontal” (1974), Alexei Panshin, 4/5 (Good): A surreal and metaphoric story about the world approaching a conceptual shift: “the city will be scrubbed clean” (171). Woody Asenion, controlled by his father, seldom ventures from the largest closet in their apartment. His father, a mad scientist sort, sends him to Brooklyn to find a rare piece of technology to control the world. Woody, with great trepidation, sets off holding the hand of his robot. Strange situations unfold. A character he encounters proclaims that “The Great Common Dream is changing and so is the world” (180). The robot disappears, but a metaphor of the fear of the unknown programmed into him by his father. Eventually Woody deviates from the path laid out for him…
Cory Panshin (Alexei’s wife), on her sadly defunct blog, discusses the conceptual shift the counterculture promised and his dreams of a new paradigm change. Mapping the dreams of the counterculture onto the story initially gave me pause due to the date. Nixon was in office, the movement has run its course, and the conservative backlash was in motion. Perhaps Woody’s final return to his father, after his momentary deviation, represents a return to the status quo? A world transformed but not in the way the radical dreams intended.
A fascinating little parable told in the language of a fairy tale… Recommended.
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