Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCXVI (Gore Vidal, Pat Murphy, Kris Neville, and J. T. McIntosh)

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

1. 200 Years to Christmas, J. T. McIntosh (1959)

From the inside flap: “For almost two centuries the huge spaceship had speared its way through the stars, bound for another two hundred years of travel before it would put down on a new planet, a new home for the Earth people.

On board the metal-enclosed worldlet were four hundred people; the last survivors of Earth. It was up to them to start life anew, to correct the mistakes their ancestors had made.

But as the tenth generation neared maturity, the idly passengers found themselves face to face with these same problems–and this time there was no place to run and hide or to postpone their answers. For their miniature society was changing faster and faster. And the spaceship suddenly seemed destined to end as a starbound coffin.”

Initial Thoughts: Yes, this is half an Ace Double. I’ll feature the less interesting side in a later post. For anyone that has been hanging around the site as of late you’ll know that I’m on a mission to read all the available pre-1985 generation ship short stories (and novels). Even Christian apologist takes… And this one looks like a solid and perhaps standard take on the subgenre. Count me in!

2. Mission: Manstop, Kris Neville (1971)

From the back cover: “In the ever-increasing flow of stories of science fiction and science fantasy, the name of Kris Neville has long been recognized as first-rate.

Unlike many writers, Mr. Neville has a crisp and staccato style that is both arresting and refreshing, and it is a pleasure to find an author who does not beat his subject to a verbal death. He assumes his readers have opened their minds to all possibilities, and that they have a cultivated intelligence. Or course, the question arises: Cultivated where? By whom… or what?”

Contents: “Mission: Manstop” (1953), “Hunt the Hunter” (1951), “Take Two Quiggies” (1950), “Underground Movement” (1952), “Experimental Station” (1950), “marginal Error” (1953), “The Toy” (1952).

Initial Thoughts: I’ve read a handful of Neville’s short fiction–including his enticing fix-up Bettyann (1970). I featured his short story “Cold War” (1949) more recently in my review series on subversive accounts of space travel and the astronauts that journey across the void.

3. Messiah, Gore Vidal (1954)

From the back cover: “In this brilliant and savage novel, the author of Myra Breckinridge, The City and the Pillar and Two Sisters has devised a shocking entertainment: a startling revelation of the perverse passions that seethe beneath the California sun. Messiah is a man whose demonic urge and terrifying force of personality make him the prophet of a world-wide religion based on the worship of death. Messiah is horrifying…. compelling… prophetic.”

Initial Thought: I’ve never read a Gore Vidal work–speculative fiction or non-genre. I have a few potentially apocryphal stories about Gore Vidal, rats, and the Tiber that I learned from a Classics professor who hung out with him in Italy… According to SF Encyclopedia, “Messiah […] is a dark satire on religion set in the Near Future, in which a creator of a death cult becomes – with the aid of the narrator (Eugene Luther, two of Vidal’s given names) – a new messiah who teaches a defeatedly secular America how to worship death.” Count me intrigued.

4. The Shadow Hunter, Pat Murphy (1983)

From the back cover: “He is the hunter–primitive, bold, magical.

Swept from an ancient past into a future of brilliant and terrifying possibilities.

Where the powers of animal spirit meet the wisdom of the all-knowing computer.

Where mastery depends upon a science as old as humankind and a courage as timeless as tomorrow…”

Initial Thoughts: I’ve never ready anything by Pat Murphy. I’ve long thought her later novel The City, Not Long After (1989)–despite its later publication date–sounds like something I’d adore. I rather dabble, as always, around the edges first.

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14 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCXVI (Gore Vidal, Pat Murphy, Kris Neville, and J. T. McIntosh)

  1. Oh dear.

    I had occasion some years ago to review the magazine version of 200 YEARS TO CHRISTMAS, which appeared in the UK SCIENCE FANTASY and is most likely little changed in its Ace Double guise, which review I dump below, but not without warning that it contains MASSIVE SPOILERS and you or others may wish to avert your eyes and move on.

    Next up, in [issue number] 35, is the frequently irritating J.T. McIntosh, whose “200 Years to Christmas” (which later became half of an Ace Double, under the same title) is, to my taste, typically bland and implausible.
    Two centuries along in a 400-year generation-starship voyage, a social cycle has been established: the Militarist Age is followed by the Freedom Phase, the Golden Age of Art, the Dark Age, Know-More, the Gay Phase, and Revival. The story starts at a pretty wild party, by the standards of 1959. But the Gay Phase is about over, and we see Revival start, first as a voluntary movement, then as a compulsory Puritan social order, which lasts until a couple of people are sentenced to death for fornication. Everybody’s had enough, and Revival falls apart in the face of a rather mild rebellion. This all takes about four years, as I read the story’s chronology. That seems to be part of the point. McIntosh declares at the end that the ship-dwellers “were compressing five thousand years of change into four hundred years. They couldn’t help it.”
    And why are they doing this? “There could be no end to the swinging of the pendulum.” This of course explains nothing and to my mind is even more ridiculous than Asimov’s Psychohistory.

    • No worries re-spoilers. I rarely read something not knowing at least a bit about what happens. But yes, I don’t expect great things from a McIntosh novel. It’s all part of the project to read all the the stories published in this era.

      I have, of course, identified and written about some spectacular ones.

    • I agree. I have not read any of her work. This is not considered her best work so this might not be where to start. However, I tried read a few lesser known works first before diving into the “best.”

  2. I think John’s review of 200 YEARS TO CHRISTMAS is more or less in line with my views, except that I can tolerate McIntosh’s blandness rather more than John. But, yes, the Eternal Cycle stuff is pure B. S. I’d rather see Generation Ship stories that posit new and different societies due to the unusual environment.

    But McIntosh, to my taste, was usually oddly readable, even as one noticed the thinness of the background, and the implausibility.

    Pat Murphy has done some very nice work, but I confess I don’t even remember hearing about THE SHADOW HUNTER. And the only Neville story I’ve read from that collection is “Hunt the Hunter”, which is decent stuff. Neville was a good and somewhat underrated writer. The only Vidal novel I’ve read is MYRA BRECKENRIDGE, though I do remember noticing MESSIAH back in the day.

    • I’m always fascinated in how the idea/conception of history operates in science fiction. My actual area of focus was historiography (the study of history writing and historical rhetoric).

      But yes, I know what I’m getting into if I give it a read!

      From what I’ve read so far I also describe Neville as an underrated author. I know Malzberg had kind words for his work.

      What is your favorite Pat Murphy? M’s Winding Path–who left a comment–is also intrigued by her work and might want to track one down that doesn’t fall within my rather more restrictive chronological restrictions — hah.

      • The most celebrated novels by Pat Murphy are surely THE CITY, NOT LONG AFTER and THE FALLING WOMAN. (And the story “Rachel in Love”, which is excellent.) But may favorite by her — sheerly enjoyable books — are the Max Merriwell trilogy: THERE AND BACK AGAIN, WILD ANGEL, and THROUGH TIME AND SPACE WITH MAX MERRIWELL.

        Alas, THERE AND BACK AGAIN is hard to find, because the Tolkien estate got pretty evil about it.

  3. MESSIAH is rather good, in my opinion.

    I’ve read it twice: once back in the 1970s when I came to the US as a kid and read most of Vidal — then very much a going concern, of course, getting into fights with Norman Mailer on TV and so forth — and then recently, like a couple of months ago, because I wanted to see how Vidal managed to sell what is, on the face of it, a tricky concept to sell. (Essentially, I guess, that people –or at any rate, Americans — are so conformist that they’ll all flock to join a death-worshipping religion which valorizes mass suicide, so that religion then dominates US society for generations.)

    When I re-read MESSIAH, I found it was highly achieved in some scenes — often the critical ones, depicting the difficult stuff — and good all through. The tone of the writing reminded me a little of some of Gene Wolfe’s older stuff, since the novel is told in 1st person POV by a narrator who’s very old and in exile from the US in Egypt, and who’s recounting the events of the religion’s formation as a far from disinterested participant since he was declared a heretic.

    MESSIAH was actually the book, in 1954, that got Vidal’s literary career off the ground, after (1) he’d published three rather humdrum post-WWII books, the third of which, THE CITY AND THE PILLAR, had temporarily sunk what career he had because of its treatment of homosexuality, and (2) he had been reduced to writing a half-dozen quickie detective novels under the name Edgar Box (one written in five days, Vidal claimed).

    As I say, I’d come to think of Vidal’s fiction as undistinguished because, firstly, his essays and non-fiction became what people have rated Vidal for; secondly, I came to find his historical novels increasingly drab and boring back in the days when I read them; and, thirdly, when he wasn’t writing historical novels, he was writing pomo non-realist satires that I didn’t like then. (I might like the latter now; Italo Calvino rated them highly and they all contain SF elements.)

    But no: Vidal could write.

    • I look forward to reading Messiah — especially as I know little about Vidal’s work beyond his reputation. Do you want to know the possibly apocryphal story my professor told me about his time with Vidal in Rome that I mentioned above?

      • Absolutely, I want to know it.

        After writing my comment above, I got into a discussion with my brother on the subject of catty gossip about Vidal. Basically, alcohol damaged his brain in the end. Vidal said he’d be an alcoholic were it not for the man he lived with, Howard Austin, and once Austin died, Vidal became that.

        Even before, though, he struggled. Paul Theroux visited him and Austin in Italy and while Vidal had a strenuous work ethic, putting in 10 hours a day (but keeping three different careers going, as fiction-writer, essayist — which demanded much research — and journalist, which sort of made that 10 hours daily more doable) once dinner time came, Vidal put away all or the best part of a bottle of whiskey every night. Theroux relates that at one point Austin turned to him and said, “Look, it’s the famous American aristocrat with his pants around his ankles.”

        • Again, perhaps my source exaggerated a bit but this is what I remember. I took a few classics courses while getting my PhD with James Franklin (a professor of domestic Roman architecture, Pompeii and the like). Franklin obviously spent a ton of time in Rome and its environs and seemed to have known Vidal as an acquaintance or even friend (I don’t remember how he phrased it). Well once Franklin was at his favorite barber in Rome with Vidal and the staff started secretively bringing towels with something wrapped in them out of the barbershop. They were worried that Vidal would see…. and Franklin latter learned that when the Tiber floods large rats that dwell under the city are forced upward out of pipes and into basements. And a few were loose and trapped in the bathroom… and they needed to get them out in case Vidal needed to use the facilities!


          • I doubt any exaggeration is involved. Rome, even more than London — which began as a Roman colony — is conspicuously a city of many historical layers on top of one another, with much surviving underground from many different eras — the catacombs from the 2nd-5th centuries AD, etc. So the rats story is perfectly likely; it might even be possible in parts of London near the Thames.

            And men of a certain age may have problems with weak bladders, especially if they’re drinkers. Vidal would have been about seventy when Franklin encountered him in Rome.

            Fairly innocuous in the scheme of things. I was half-expecting a story about under-age rent boys or something, but probably just as well it wasn’t.

            • Yeah, the story is definitely innocuous. It came up in some lecture on the absence of evidence for public bathrooms in Imperial Rome–they suspect that wooden platforms were placed over the Tiber or something which haven’t survived or some other temporary structure–unlike other Roman cities. Rome is one of my favorite places. Not only do I have a minor in Latin but my actual PhD concerned 13th century medieval accounts of Ancient Rome. I’ve been to the city eight times! (my parents teach study abroad in Italy so I’ve visited them quite a bit).

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