Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXIII  (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Lisa Tuttle, T. L. Sherred, and Robert Bloch)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1952)

From the back cover: “Want the computer to solve all your problems? Want machines to give you everything you need? Want to be taken care of from cradle to grave by an industrial society that knows what is best for you? Want to find out what hell is really like?

Then you are invited to visit Kurt Vonnegut’s funny and savage vision of a future that is somewhere between Animal Farm and Alice In Wonderland. You’ll laugh until you cry.”

Initial Thoughts: Of Vonnegut’s SF, I’ve only read the magnificent Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) more than a decade ago. The latter has faded a bit from memory. I am intrigued by his first novel. Here’s the synopsis from The Internet Speculative Fiction Database: “In the near future, when cybernetic automation has effectively separated people into two castes, the “engineers and managers”, and the remainder of the population who can find work only in “recycling and reclamation” or the largely useless military, an underground movement arises with the intention of rolling back those changes and giving the masses the dignity of owning their own, productive, work once more.”

2. A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories, Lisa Tuttle (1987)

From the back cover: “The ten stories collected here illustrate the range of Lisa Tuttle’s talent. In ‘No Regrets’ a poet reflects on the difficult choices she has made as her past returns to haunt her; in ‘The Other Kind’ a suspicion becomes a cruel reality; in ‘A Spaceship Built of Stone’ collective dreaming creates a new, and alien, version of the past.

These stories break through the calm of everyday life to reveal the shifting uncertainties that lie below. They show Lisa Tuttle to be one of the most exciting new voices in science fiction today.”

Contents: “No Regrets” (1985), “Wives” (1979), “The Family Monkey” (1977), “Mrs T” (1976), “The Bone Flute” (1981), “A Spaceship Built of Stone” (1980), “The Cure” (1984), “The Hollow Man” (1979), “The Other Kind” (1984), “Birds of the Moon” (1979)

Initial Thoughts: I’ve wanted this collection for a long while but it was always priced a bit out of my range. And then a cheap copy appeared online and I pounced!

3. Sneak Preview, Robert Bloch (1971)

From the back cover: “Long shot: The domed city of Hollywood, self-contained, functioning perfectly–as it has since it was sealed off against fallout generations ago. The camera moves in, follows a man in priestly white through the doors of Twenty-First-Century-Vox and into a conference room. He is joined by others–some clad in Technobility blue, some in the khaki of the Brass.

The man in the archaic business suit at the head of the table is ARCHER, His MGMinence. The camera tightens on his face. As he opens his mouth, his face dissolves to that of a young men, GRAHAM, who says:

‘Space Operas are important to social conditioning. The hero must be dark; the heroine, blonde; the monster, green; and the plot…'”

Initial Thoughts: Far from Bloch’s best known work…. definitely no Psycho (1959). I’m a sucker for SF satires of media and fiction/film about writing/creating movies. I suspect this will be middling at best but I’m willing to give it a shot. This is an expanded (?) version of the 1959 short story by the same name that appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories (November 1959), ed. Cele Goldsmith.

4. First Person, Peculiar, T. L. Sherred (1972)

From the back cover: “HOW FIRST CAN A PECULIAR PERSON GET? Which in itself is a pretty odd question. But it is in fact typical of science fiction, a field of writing which examines the usual the better to extrapolate the unusual, which revels in oddity, in looking at things upside down, or backwards, or even forwards, which delights in the strange juxtaposition, the reversed field, the apparent contradiction–and which is, indeed, the genre where T. L. Sherred is certainly one of the first and most significant of writers (although not necessarily peculiar).

His work is rare and precious and it is therefore all the more pleasurable to be the able to present this collection: FIRST PERSON, PECULIAR.”

Contents: “E for Effort” (1947), “Cure, Guaranteed” (1954), “Eye for Iniquity” (1953), “Cue for Quiet” (1953)

Initial Thoughts: Sherred only published five short stories (between 1947-1972) and two novels. I’ve previously procured Alien Island (1970) but have yet to read his work. I purchased his only collection due to “E for Effort” (1947) — “It describes, semi-humorously but with a fundamental pessimism, the consequences of a Time Viewer device that permits its users to view past and present events. Its inventor and his associate are successful at first, but are soon defeated by government forces; ultimately the existence of the “camera” in the hands of the US military causes a final Future War, as the victim-narrator has predicted” (SF Encyclopedia). Apparently the story had a quite different take on technology than Astounding Science Fiction‘s normal fare and was accepted in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s absence (SF Encyclopedia).


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35 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXIII  (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Lisa Tuttle, T. L. Sherred, and Robert Bloch)

  1. As best I can tell, SNEAK PREVIEW in book form is expanded from the Amazing piece — but the story in Amazing is quite long, indeed novel length, at something like 40,000 words.

    Middling would probably describe it.

    • I tried to read it a few days ago — and got about 50s pages in. We’ll see if I return!

      I am tempted to track down the story version online to see if there’s any interior art….

  2. I really should get hold of “Player Piano”. Considering it was published in 1952 it sounds right up the alley of my (slumbering) research project on the “science fiction spectacle”. The description reminds me of the contemporaneous Marx inflected theory of Cornelius Castoriadis, who spoke (from c. 1948 and onwards) of the transformation of capitalism and work into a society of mangers and subordinates—“dirigeants et exécutants”, often translated as “order-givers and order-takers”. It also reminds me of the nightmare vision that the situationists presented in the late 1950s and 60s of the coming “cybernetic capitalism” of the future (something that Sternberg riffs on in his novella “Fin de siècle”, which to my mind was directly influenced by the situationists).
    I’ve read Sherred’s “E for Effort” and loved it at the time. Indeed, I was a little puzzled that Campbell would have liked it (tho its techno-optimism, if a little downbeat, certainly would have tickled his peculiar fancies).

    • Is there evidence that Vonnegut was reading Castoriadis or was this more ideas that were in the air at the time that both engaged with?

      As always, I look forward to whatever you write as I always learn from your work about Marx and various later theories and movements.

      I wish I knew more about Situationists to understand what Sternberg was doing in “Fin de siècle” as I really enjoyed that uncomfortable nightmare of a story.

      For anyone perusing the comments who doesn’t know about Sternberg, check out my review: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/08/24/book-review-future-without-future-jacques-sternberg-1971-trans-1973/

      • I would say there is almost no possibility that Vonnegut was reading Castoriadis (who was then writing under a number of pseudonyms). There is a slight possibility that Vonnegut had stumbled across some contemporaneous “ultra-left” Marxists in the US like CLR James or Raya Dunayevskaya, who were broadly sympathetic to Castoriadis’ ideas.
        Apart from Vonnegut’s own experience with robotics, the ideas of the coming society of automation were “in the air” when he was writing. That would probably be a more fruitful thread of research, i.e. looking into 1950s visions of utopia and dystopia within and without SF.
        As to Sternberg and the situationists. There was no love lost between them! The situationists had often criticised a magazine Sternberg was involved with called “Planète”—mostly for being advocates of a vacuous futurism.
        Really i should just write that article on utopia and the situationists that i’ve been threatening to do for some time now, among all the other half finished projects that lie scattered around…

    • I will add here — in reference to the comment on Situatiionism — that I am working (with Eric Schwitzgebel and Helen de Cruz) on an anthology of great philiosophical SF. I’ve noted the Sternberg recommendation — and I’d be delighted to hear further recommendations for philosophical SF — especially from non-English language writers.

    • Player Piano should be required reading for all high school students of the modern era. It’s a cautionary tale whose message is more appropriate now than it was at publication. One of his sleeper hits.

  3. “Apparently the story had a quite different take on technology than Astounding Science Fiction‘s normal fare and was accepted in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s absence.”

    I’ve never seen any indication that anything was accepted for ASTOUNDING in Campbell’s absence–source for this? The implication seems to be that Campbell didn’t really like the story, but that seems unlikely since he selected it for THE ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGY a few years later.

    The notion that ASTOUNDING was exclusively techno-optimistic is a common misconception. See Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory” (1941) (nuclear weapons make dictatorship inevitable), Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands” (1947) (technology will deprive humans of freedom and a meaningful life), Moore’s “Vintage Season” (1946) (lots of technological progress will yield a humanity of superficial jerks who use time travel to watch spectacles of mass destruction), del Rey’s “Nerves” (1942) (devastating explosion in nuclear power plant), and on a closely related tack, Asimov’s “Nightfall” (1941) (the sight of the stars drives people so crazy they destroy their civilization overnight, and there’s nothing scientists and their explicators can do about it). See Barry Malzberg’s essay “Wrong Rabbit” in THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT and in BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS for more comment on this subject. Hint: technology that is benign and works right all the time doesn’t provide much dramatic tension for the readers.

    • That’s an interesting take on Campbell. Some of the stories you mention, though, have Campbellian “capable men”, who are perforce technically literate and, er, capable, saving the day with their technical know-how. Certainly, there is a justified horror in the face of the atomic genie, but this was far from techno-pessimism in Campbell’s case (particularly the endless paeans to the coming power of the atom prior to 1945), but rather a case of a particular technology. For instance, Campbell’s stable weren’t above using the dangers of technology as a plot device, all the way hailing technology as such as one of, if not the prime key to the triumph of the supermen of the future.
      Also, I don’t recall the spectators from the future being represented as a bunch of “superficial jerks” in Moore’s Vintage Season. Decadents—sure. Maybe even a tad nihilistic. Hmmm, the more I tap the more I think maybe you’re right!

    • Hello John, I cited but forgot to link the article on SF Encyclopedia. https://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/sherred_t_l

      Yup, I am definitely aware of the complexities behind the magazine and Campbell’s views and have read the magisterial Nevala-Lee monograph Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018). In this instance, I really am just summarizing what John Clute wrote in his encyclopedia entry as the author is new to me and I haven’t formed my own argument or views on him.

  4. I’d like to know the source for Campbell not buying “E for Effort”? I’ve never thought that for a second. Campbell — especially back then — knew a great story when he saw it, and he was fine with interrogation of technological supremacy. Heck, see de Camp’s “Judgement Day”, (ASF, August 1955).

    “E for Effort” has always seemed to me a very Campbellian story, in its negative way.

  5. And I suppose I should mention the other books. I read PLAYER PIANO a long time ago — I liked it, didn’t love it, but I honestly remember very little. And I like Lisa Tuttle’s short fiction a great deal — “Wives” and “The Bone Flute” are the ones I remember. Good work.

    • I’m most eager to jump into the Tuttle collection. I’ve been putting off some of her longer SF works (including collabs with Martin) until I can dip my toes into her solo short stuff. I might read it in the next few weeks if time permits.

  6. I’ve read “Player Piano” twice, but I thought it was dull. I suppose the writing was quite good, but I think the plot and structure was flawed. It was his first novel though. His next one, “The Sirens of Titan”, was much better, as were “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse Five”. His later novel “Galapagos”, is quite good too.

  7. Echoing John B and Rich H, Sherred’s ‘E for Effort’ is in line with Campbell’s editing style in the 1940s, when his mind still functioned. Not only is there no evidence he ever stepped away from controlling ASTOUNDING at this time, but Sherred’s story takes a very dark view of governments and TPTB, which would be perfectly complementary with Campbell’s later Bircherite tendencies.

    Historically, it’s probably the first significant instance of the ‘Time Viewer’ subgenre in ‘modern’ American magazine SF; i.e. the predecessor of stories like Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past,’ Damon Knight’s ‘I See You,’ and Budrys’s ‘The Silent Eyes of Time.’

    PLAYER PIANO is more interesting than some here have found it, I’d argue, though for not strictly literary reasons.

    It was the author’s first attempt at longer work, after he’d broken into the big, upscale magazines then publishing short fiction — COLLIERS, the SATURDAY EVENING POST, and such — a couple of years before. Before television took over, these markets paid incredibly well by today’s standards, so Vonnegut could sell just two stories to COLLIERS in one year (1950) and then quit his copywriting job at General Electric, supporting himself and his family (sketchily) on the proceeds.

    But he needed to write a novel and he wanted a big theme for his first novel. That theme was partly supplied by Vonnegut’s time at GE, but the book’s presiding influence is Norbert Weiner, and particularly Weiner’s book, ‘The Human Use of Human Beings,’ published in 1950.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norbert_Wiener
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Human_Use_of_Human_Beings

    Weiner was of course the genius behind the first cybernetic systems, so that when John von Neumann built ENIAC, the first digital electronic computer, at Princeton, he hired former Weiner’s teaching assistants and students from MIT to do it. Though if you know know only that about Weiner, glance at the Weiner wiki: he really was one of the great minds.

    Published the year Vonnegut became a freelance writer, Weiner’s ‘The Human Use of Human Beings’ said that automation and robotics are coming, and the human race will have choices about how those things get deployed. Among other things, Weiner predicted that if robotics and automation were merely deployed along a capitalist society’s usual lines, the resulting technologically-induced unemployment would be a catastrophe.

    And that’s Vonnegut’s theme. PLAYER PIANO has its failures. It drags terribly in places; it reads like an artifact from a vanished world because it’s so early 1950s USian, especially in its treatment of women; and later in the decade true-blue SF writers like Phil Dick would do far more interesting, quirkier takes on the theme (in stories like ‘Second Variety,’ ‘Autofac,’ and ‘Imposter’). But it was an honest, ground-breaking attempt to adapt the form of the mainstream lit novel as it then existed in the US to the challenge of depicting the impact of automation and robotics on society if corporate capitalist American society was allowed to proceed along its usual lines.

    And nothing indicates, of course, that we’ve advanced one step towards solving the problem that PLAYER PIANO depicted seventy years ago.

    • As for my vis-a-vis Vonnegut, I started reading him at about 13, pretty much began at the beginning with PLAYER PIANO, which I reacted much as the consensus here, like THE SIRENS OF TITAN a lot more, CAT’S CRADLE even more, was not really all that impressed with MOTHER NIGHT and GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, and thought SLAUGTERHOUSE FIVE impressive.

      I continued to BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, which is when Vonnegut’s tic’s really started to annoy me. I did try SLAPSTICK and didn’t like it, and I decided that Vonnegut had exhausted his barrel of tricks, and had nothing more to say.

      Perhaps that was an over-reaction, but if I’m going to be honest, nothing I’ve read about his later work convinces me that I’m missing a ton. I did read his essay collection WAMPETERS, FOMA, AND GRANFALLOONS, with its famous putdown of SF, “Science Fiction” which really annoyed me at the time. Since then I’ve reread that and can see that it was about half-right — it’s a bit lazy, certainly unfair, but it does hit on a couple of home truths.

      I think CAT’S CRADLE his best work, followed by SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.

      I also read VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL, by “Kilgore Trout”, in its F&SF serialization, obviously recognized the name “Kilgore Trout”, and as a naive 15 year old I did entertain the thought that it might have been by Vonnegut. But the true author (Philip Jose Farmer) was soon revealed, of course.

      • Had the same reaction to BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, so I used to think the same as you, Rich.

        Then I read BLUEBEARD which, published in 1987, is late-period Vonnegut. I cannot recall what random reason made me buy it — probably I was standing in a bookshop and read the first few pages to see how low into his schtick the old guy had slipped now.

        I was very surprised to find it was a really good, readable, funny, even somewhat optimistic mainstream lit novel — unlike either the old, classic Vonnegut or the then-extant tired Vonnegut of SLAPSTICK, DEADEYE DICK, and all those. (And there was nothing SFnal at all about it.)

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebeard_(Vonnegut_novel)

        I can only assume Vonnegut was a prisoner of his schtick in his later novels not because he simply didn’t have the chops to do anything else but, somewhat like an avant-garde jazz musician, he felt he had to stick to ‘his’ style (and maybe also he was a suicidal depressive and the schtick didn’t demand much work from him.) And in BLUEBEARD he decided to escape all that for one book, because it’s really not like anything else he wrote.

    • Norbert Weiner, of course! His work on cybernetics was a hot topic in the 50s, particularly in some of the leftist circles i spoke of to Joachim above. The promise more than the dangers of automation was taken up by many critics of capitalism as a pointer to the abolition of wage labour. Reading today what were then fairly widespread beliefs on the coming society of abundance and leisure can be a sobering and somewhat depressing. experience.

  8. ‘Reading today what were then fairly widespread beliefs on the coming society of abundance and leisure can be a sobering and somewhat depressing. experience.’

    We are ruled by Harkonnens.

    Or, anyway, the US is.

    • We have every right to be dispirited at the governance of the US. But to suggest that corruption, violence, evil, mismanagement, is confined to the US is a very weird sort of American exceptionalism I’ve seen a lot these days. There are a lot of horrifying goverments around the world. Russia. China, Hungary, Tanzania. UK. And, really one could go on forever.

      • Ruled variously by Harkonnens and Atreides, meanwhile we vainly wait for a saviour…
        Certainly, there are many badly ruled places in the world, though I would argue that all places are ruled badly to the extent that they are not self-governed (politically, economically, culturally, etc.).
        Speaking as a non-US citizen, I find that American exceptionalism can extend to misunderstanding the way the rest of the world is compelled look to the US, not merely because of its economic and cultural weight, but because the fate of the planet is intimately bound up with this dominance, whether one wants to acknowledge it or not.

  9. My comment here is both badly phrased and on the verge of being meaningless. What a combo! What I was struggling to get at here was something slightly tangential to the previous comments. I have found, in my life as a non-US citizen (nonetheless both deeply fascinated and repelled by aspects of US culture and life), that US culture has become the lingua franca the world presently finds itself within, whether we like it or not. There is much to admire regarding US culture. In particular, I find the very many stories of contestation and resistance from within the “American way of life” the most compelling. For instance, Melville’s Moby-Dick is an exemplar of such to my thinking. Nonetheless, these tales are often the hardest to hear amidst the welter of US triumphalism that is broadcast on all wavelengths: from the US state, its many conservative boosters, and even (and especially) its “liberal” medias. But I digress (though to be fair this is a fairly digressive point I am trying to make, though I am becoming less sure about it!). To my mind the “American exceptionalism” shared by all citizens of the US, and perhaps even and especially those that consider themselves liberal, leftist, and other varieties of self-criticising “estadounidenses” (a better and more accurate appellation that “American” to my mind!), is the irreducibly US centric focus they share—even when it comes to the critique of this. Perhaps I am saying nothing much of any worth here. The simple fact of the US economic and cultural dominance makes of this a fait accompli. Perhaps what I am trying to get at is the fact that the rest of us—which is to say the “rest of the world”—are caught up in the US imaginary for better or worse in a relatively non-reciprocal way. We look to the US as a model and reality, whether we love it, hate it, or a little bit of both or neither. I’m not sure if I am compounding my initial error here or assuaging it. But at the very least I am trying to address a certain discomfort I felt upon leaving my earlier comment floating there in all of its confusing ambiguity.

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