Book Review: This Side of Infinity, ed. Terry Carr (1972) (Zelazny, Silverberg, Aldiss, Lafferty, et al.)

3.25/5 (Collated rating: Vaguely Good)

Soldiers in mech armor plagued by existential crisis. Asexual insectoid aliens pretending to be human. Children wielding pet apes as weapons. This Side of Infinity, ed. Terry Carr (1972) gathers eight kaleidoscopic visions from stalwarts (Roger Zelazny and Robert Silverberg) to lesser known authors (David Redd and George H. Smith). As a collated whole, this is a solid collection without a defining standout masterpiece but worth acquiring for the sheer variety and hallucinatory power of it all.

Recommended for fans of late 60s/early 70s SF.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

“The Reality Trip” (1970), Robert Silverberg, 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in the May-June 1970 issue of If. An occasionally humorous exercise in discomfort, “The Reality Trip” (1970) places an asexual insectoid pretending to be a human in a compromising scenario. Mr. Knecht attempts to resist the attentions of Elizabeth Cooke, the woman down the hall. She pushes her overwritten poetry on him. He sends it to his home world. Fearful that she will see him when he attempts to eat through a gash in his protoplasmic housing or ascertain other differences in his anatomical nature if he gets too close, Mr. Knecht becomes the only “man” able to resist her “charm” which increases her obsession. Mr. Knecht reaches out to another insectoid alien (only in dire emergencies can contact be made) and attempts to terrify Cooke via ravenous insect sex. She’s even more intrigued!

While plagued by Silverberg’s common awkward descriptions of female characters (that in no way represent what an asexual insectoid would think about a human woman and is instead Silverberg speaking through his alien character), this is still recommended for fans of weird late 60s and early 70s SF. “The Reality Trip” takes 60s liberalized views of sexual revolution into truly alien directions.

“This Mortal Mountain” (1967), Roger Zelazny, 3/5 (Average): Nominated for the 1968 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. First appeared in the March 1967 issue of If. Zelazny’s story explores the forces of obsession and how we let those strands entangle our souls. The Lady looms like no other mountain in the known universe–taller than the atmosphere, forty miles high…. And Jack Summers wants to climb it. Lengthy sequences of mountain climbing unfold as if lifted from an autobiography of an Everest explorer. The mountain, cue awkward metaphors of the mountain as woman to be conquered and undressed (“It was amazing. She was still topless”), seems to have its own mysterious intentions. I enjoyed the theme of obsession and heroic drive but disliked the twist(ish?) ending and forced imagery.

“Sundown” (1967), David Redd, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): First appeared in the December 1967 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On an alien planet humans journey to the northern continents apparently unaware of the long periods of darkness. The colonies die out. Their histories are buried under the snow. The story uses fantasy terms (trolls, The White Lady, dryads, sprites, etc.) to describe the events that unfurl. While excavating the metal resources of an abandoned colony, the White Lady learns of human plunderer heading to the northern wastes. He seeks to acquire the “living-rock” around which the aliens live (89). A strange war between the two forces unfolds in the icy wastes… Is this an apocalyptic collision? Will humans move north once more? This is a moody story that tantalizes yet feels unsubstantial. I want to explore more of Redd’s fiction.

“Toys” (1967), Tom Purdom, 3/5 (Average): First appeared in the October 1967 issue of Analog Science Fiction. This is the first Purdom story I’ve read. What I knew about his work was limited to his SF Encyclopedia entry and random reviews I’ve encountered over the years online. Gideon Marcus wrote a positive review of his short story on polygamy “Courting Time” (1966) over at Galactic Journey [note: he’s friends with the author and republished I Want the Stars (1964) with Journey Press]. I’ll keep an eye out for more of his early short fiction and his 70s novels Reduction in Arms (1971) and The Barons of Behavior (1972).

In a future where memory, knowledge, and skill-enhancing technologies are widely accessible, a chasm emerges between the the haves and the have-nots. Children pressure their cash-strapped parents to acquire the best gadgets (both for entertainment and intelligence enhancement). Charley Edelman and Helen Francarro are crack policemen paid the big bucks to bust children holding their parents hostage. Complete surrealistic chaos ensures involving gorilla and elephant pets, Indian clubs, Fencing foils, TSA-58 memory creating drugs…. Negotiation with children isn’t an option.

“Toys,” while not the most cohesive tale, crams together an array of ideas in a bombastic onslaught of violent chaos. Purdom’s speculation about the transformative nature of intelligence enhancing gadgets, while outrageous, does lay bare the drastic effects it might have on those who cannot acquire them.

“Ride A Tin Can” (1970), R. A. Lafferty, 4/5 (Good): First appeared in the April 1970 issue of If. As usual, Lafferty crafts a SF tall tale that is simultaneously humorous and disturbing. The Singing Pig Breakfast Food Company sponsors an investigation of the mysterious goblin-like alien Shelni. Outsiders have long speculated that the Shelni are primitive and possibly non-sentient due to their lack of language. The folklorists Vincent Vanhoosier and Holly Harkel quickly discover that the Shelni can indeed communicate but need a language provided to them! Harkel appears to deeply empathize with their way of life and transforms more and more into a Shelni over the course of the story. The most appealing section are Shelni oral stories, now that they can be conveyed via a language (how were they conveyed before?), that provide a window into their culture and worldview. Vanhoosier writes the report knowing the sad destiny of the Shelni and how their fates are entwined with the Singing Pig Breakfast Food Company.

Recommended.

“The Last Crusade” (1955), George H. Smith, 4/5 (Good): First appeared in the February 1955 issue of If. This story exemplifies why I adore anthologies containing authors that I wouldn’t seek out otherwise. A good portion of George H. Smith’s output was comedic SF smut with titles like Sexodus! (1963) and Those Sexy Saucer People (1967). “The Last Crusade” is evidence of occasional quality short fiction as well!

Confused soldiers for the Peoples Federal Democratic Western Republics in mecho-armor suits ramble across the ruins of Paris speculating about the nature of their conflict with the Peoples Federal Democratic Eastern Republics. The seductive voices of the enemy interrupt their sad ruminations promising rewards if they cross enemy lines and turn over their armor: “Listen to this big first prize: $100,000 dollars in gold! And then we have an expense paid vacation in the scenic Crimea and a band new factory special Stalin sportscar” (163). “Can’t you even remember who you’re fighting?” asks Ward of Whitey (163). They debate on which side they first fought and whether not they’d previously been been captured and indoctrinated by the enemy to fight again.

Few historical events fascinate me as much as Vice President Nixon’s appearance at the 1959 Kitchen Debate in Moscow. Four years earlier than Nixon’s sparring about TVs and housewives with Nikita Khrushchev, “The Last Crusade” narrows in on the emptiness of American commercial “freedom” as a reason for conflict and a representation of American superiority. Whitey asks “If we got washing machines and they ain’t, then what are we fighting for?” (165). Other soldiers attempt to rationalize the conflict in terms of pulp fiction narratives of good vs. bad. Smith lays bare the confusing historical segue from WWII conflicts with the Nazis to conflict with the Communist who had been one-time allies (166).

In all the blackness there’s a tragic hilarity to it all–the confused mechanized soldiers slogging through the mud with the voices of the enemy in their ears while feeding candy to the PTSD afflicted children they’ve liberated. It’s hard not to see the story as an exasperated response to the Korean War in which the Cold War turned hot and 40k American lives were lost for little tangible reason. This story is a winner.

“Resident Witch” (1970), James H. Schmitz, 3/5 (Average): First appeared in the may 1970 issue of Analog Science Fiction. This is the first Schmitz story I’ve read. I quietly radical story due to its proactive and self-assured young female protagonist–Telzey Amberdon. In the the middle of a robochess district championship, Telzey receives a call from Wellan Dasinger who needs her telepathic services. A man who might be murdered by his brother must be found! Telzey, despite her young age, forcefully convinces Dasinger and and his assistant Wergard that she can do far more than telepathic sensing from a distance. One gets the sense that telepathy is a rare skill in this world and one that the government prefers to not rely on unless as a last resort. It’s fun. It’s a bit breezy and slight but unusual it’s depiction of women not as love interests or sidekicks but independent individual

A competent story with a refreshing main character.

“…And the Stagnation of the Heart” (1968). Brian W. Aldiss, 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in the December 1968 issue of New Worlds. A deliberately metaphorical tale, “…And the Stagnation of the Heart” takes place in a wrecked future India. Clement and Caterina Yale, immortal due to an alien syndrome yet weak and prone to earthy disease, journey via helicopter to the recently abandoned city of Calcutta after the collapse of its government. With distinctive speech patterns reflecting their age and increasing detachment, both grow frustrated with their normal-aged guide, a Pakistani heath official named Auyb Khan. Khan stops the helicopter to hunt immortal goats who threaten to destroy the few remaining crops of the millions of refugees. Tensions flare partially rooted in the continuing legacy of British colonialism. Khan struggles with the Yale’s depiction of immortally as a burden with the human suffering of the normal-aged forced to abandon their homes. The helicopter—with its distant vantage point—places the immortals as uncaring observers who reduce the tides of desperation and decay into grandiose proclamations of the “human condition” (227).

Recommended.


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23 thoughts on “Book Review: This Side of Infinity, ed. Terry Carr (1972) (Zelazny, Silverberg, Aldiss, Lafferty, et al.)

  1. Confused soldiers for the Peoples Federal Democratic Western Republics
    …please tell me what other kind there could be…that committee-horse (ie elephantine) word-salad name says it all without saying a damn thing.

  2. I love the idea of Silverberg as an insectoid alien—though far from asexual in reality! He really is atrocious when it come to dealing with women as human beings, with human thoughts and feelings. A master craftsman perhaps, but with a large dollop of sexism. Maybe par for the course in the 50s and 60s, but there were other male writers less tone deaf then Silverberg.

    • Hello Anthony, it’s good to hear from you.

      Here’s the standout quote: “She was wearing bright corduroy slacks and a flimsy pink shawl through which her breasts plainly showed. Small tapering breasts, not very functional-looking. When she saw me studying them her nostrils flared momentarily and she blinked her eyes three times swiftly. Tokens of lust?”

      But yes, I agree. Both elements exist simultaneously in so much of his work — a master craftsman with great ideas and world combined with a “large dollop of sexism.”

      As I might have mentioned before, I get the sense that Silverberg is aware of what he’s doing. Mostly due to a passage in The Second Trip (1971): https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2013/03/03/book-review-the-second-trip-robert-silverberg-serialized-1971/

      Here’s a quote from the pertinent part of The Second Trip review: “However, the character of Paul comes off as a stock character of Silverberg’s novels — someone who objectifies women (for example, there is not a scene that transpires with Lissa where he does not describe her breasts). At moments Silverberg attempts to rectify this — there’s an intriguing easy to miss moment where Paul wonders if such a simplistic view of women was programmed into him by his creators: ‘Maybe it’s because I don’t understand people very well, being so new in the world, he thought. Or perhaps one of the doctors built his own archaic attitudes toward women in general into me — does Gomez, say, see them only as extensions and pale reflections of the men they live with? Mere bundles of foggy emotions and woolly response?’ (88). Despite this statement, I found Silverberg falls prey to what he warns against.”

      • It’s good to be back chatting with you! I feel that you would have had to be utterly unreflective to have missed the pointed criticisms of second wave feminism in the late 60s and 70s. Perhaps Silverberg wrestled with such as many others did. I just find it hard to read him now without a certain distaste—tho to be fair i’ve read little of his work after the early 70s. One of his works I quite like, Dying Inside, has a exceedingly distasteful protagonist who I dare say contains a fair slab of Silverberg’s more reflective observations upon himself! One of these days I’ll have to talk to you about Hawksbill Station—novel vs short story. I prefer the latter whereas the novel has a “great” example of Silverberg sexism. I also have other issues with the novel…

        • Yeah, I tend to agree with that assessment. Edmund Cooper comes to mind as someone utterly unreflective of second wave feminism in that period.

          I adore both Dying Inside and Hawksbill Station. Both are reviewed on the site. The former has a short non-analytic review and the latter was from the first few years of writing — so take them as you may.

          As for the differences with the novella and novel, I do not know as I haven’t read the original Hawksbill Station story, yet…

          • I’ve read very little Edmund Cooper. I’ve been wanting to read Seed of Light ever since reading your review of it—purely for the gen ship with dash of Stapeldon vibe. I’ve definitely read your review of Hawksbill Station. I’ve framed a reply many moons ago based on this review and my preference for the short. Who knows, maybe I’ll even write it out one day! I’ve also read your review of Dying Inside. I surely haven’t read everything on your site, but i can’t be that far off!

            • Haha, yeah, I thought you might have. I also mentioned those reviews just in case anyone else was curious about the conversation.

              Seed of Light is one of those novels I perpetually think I overrate. It’s still probably interesting.

              George H. Smith’s story in this collection was the shock. It felt a bit like a 50s take on a bunch of seemingly patriotic soldiers (in mech suits) who you quickly realize are deeply traumatized and confused…. with a good dash of 1984 (for good or bad). Definitely not the best written story ever but it surprised me.

            • I’ve hardly touched any fiction for 6 months! I am however lucky enough to be on holiday—left today. Been balancing reading A Canticle for Leibowitz (again) and chatting with you while on the plane. I have some more sf plans for the break including (and speaking of gen ships…) Frank M Robinson’s 1991 novel The Dark Between the Stars.

      • I have only read two of his, I think, five novels. (I understand he recently published another.) One of those is his Romance of Four Worlds: The Casanova Quartet — linked novellas. I can recommend his recent anthology (with ther terrible title) Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons. With the death of James Gunn and William Nolan, he and Robert Silverberg probably have the longest career of living sf authors. I reviewed Romance and Five Against Arlane.

        • Yeah, I was not aware of how much he’s been publishing more recently. I am far more interested in pre-1985 SF (the historian in me with an area of study) so I’ll continue tracking down his older work.

          • My impression of his earlier work is that it has some nascent themes of his later, better stuff.

            A laser focus is not a bad thing for a blog as opposed to what I do.

  3. “The Singing Pig Breakfast Food Company”? Ha-ha-ha! What a name for a food company! A nice variety of authors, as usual for a Carr anthology. Again, I loved the vaguely humorous cover by Freas. Would be good on an anthology of Lovecraftian space-horror stories.

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