|On Books by Paul Di Filippo
Who—or what—is a NESFA?
The acronym stands for the New England Science Fiction Association, and you can find them at POB 809, Framingham, MA 01701. Or, more swiftly, online at www.nesfa.org. They are a fannish organization of deep roots and vast traditions, one of which is publishing books. The first NESFA Press volume was issued in 1972, so in just a short time the Press will mark forty years of book-making. As you might expect, they know how to do things properly by now.
NESFA Press, in a first for one of my columns, will be the whole topic this time around. Why? Because they are doing the Lord’s work, and you need to support them. By focusing on reprinting the classics—and even some obscurities—of our field, they are keeping alive SF’s heritage, entertaining the millions (we hope!) of representative genre readers, and educating new generations of writers.
In the March 2010 issue of Locus, Samuel Delany says, “I keep urging people not to forget the last hundred years of history. In 1911, Gernsback published Ralph 124C41+, and things have happened between then and now… The original texts that are so important to us were not written by academics. That’s the stuff that has to be studied and paid attention to, especially if another generation wants to come out and do something that’s better aesthetically. All aesthetic progress is a matter of taking advantage of the structures that are laid out by the previous generation and doing more with them. You have to know what was there in the first place.”
Now, no one in their right mind would dare to call Chip Delany an “Old Fart.” Multicultural, plugged-in, hip, a perpetual revolutionary, at once a dedicated artist, academic, and stone genre fan, he represents the apex of what SF has accomplished.
And Chip is telling you it’s not cool to be ignorant of the field’s literary history.
Are you going to listen to him, or lightweight, short-sighted know-nothings who disparage everything ever written prior to the launch of Google Chrome?
I’m going with Chip, and that means reveling in the offerings of NESFA Press, a few of which are examined below.
I think it’s a fruitful accident that Volume 1 of The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson: Call Me Joe opens with the title story now made famous as one of the myriad “inspirations” for Cameron’s Avatar. When this book was being planned, no one knew of the film’s details, so the focus on “Call Me Joe” is purely serendipitous. But that gives NESFA a great hook: “Read the story that inspired the hit film!”
Needless to say, Anderson’s groundbreaking concept is at least as affecting as Avatar, in one-tenth of the space, and with more intellectual rigor and less preachiness. First appearing in 1957, the story holds up exceedingly well, proving once again that cinematic SF always remains fifty years behind written SF.
But there’s plenty more in this first volume than movie templates, all of the stories working together to illustrate Anderson’s vast range. Take something like “Journeys End,” his well-known tale of the meeting of two telepaths. Purely humanist and emotional, something you might expect Connie Willis, say, to produce. “The Helping Hand” is as tough-minded a critique of cultural imperialism as anything being written today. “Backwardness” might have come from the acidic pen of William Tenn. “Flight to Forever” recalls van Vogt. And “Time Patrol” is pure adventure.
Anderson’s famous ability to appeal to the reader’s sensory empathy is on display everywhere. Take the opener to “Wildcat,” for instance.
“It was raining again, hot and heavy out of a hidden sky, and the air stank with swamp. Herries could just see the tall derricks a mile away, under a floodlight glare, and hear their engines mutter. Further away, a bull brontosaur cried and thunder went through the night.
“Herries’ boots resounded hollowly on the dock. Beneath the slicker, his clothes lay sweat-soggy, the rain spilled off his hat and down his collar . . .”
If you aren’t fully inhabiting Anderson’s depiction of the Jurassic just a few sentences into the story, you soon will be.
Is it too much also to hear a little Ballardian world-weariness and anomie in that opener? I think not, especially given that the story proves to be about the end of civilization. Anderson was no Pollyanna, and he knew and conveyed tragedy intimately. Yet at the same time, he remained generally optimistic about humanity’s potential and destiny.
One additional quality that leaps out: Anderson’s love of women and his ability to depict strong female protagonists, as in “The Sharing of Flesh.”
Volume 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness , continues the intelligent and attractive gameplan established by editor Rick Katze: to mix up stories of all types from all stages of Anderson’s long career. Additionally, this time, along with more of the poems that were a “bonus” in Volume 1, we also get some fine essays on the nature of SF.
Some new chords in the Anderson symphony resound here. The award-winning title story opens this volume on a Gene Wolfish note. “Operation Afreet” is a pioneer work of urban fantasy, and spiritual ancestor of the Fables comics. “A Little Knowledge” offers a taste of the legendary Polesotechnic League series. And of course, the themes from the first volume reappear, as with a second Time Patrol tale, “Brave to be a King”
These two volumes should whet your appetite for the ones to follow: at least two more are scheduled. By the end, you’ll see why Anderson earned his Grandmaster status—and you will not even have considered his novels yet!
Flights of Eagles
By James Blish
(hardcover, $29.00, 454 pages,
Jack of Eagles
Avon Books; 2nd THUS edition (October 1982)
The name of James Blish is recalled today mainly for his critical outpourings—collected in such volumes as The Issue at Hand (1964)—and for his Cities in Flight quartet (1955-62), a milestone that never seems to go out of print for very long. Additionally, Blish will always have a footnote in SF as the first fellow ever to novelize the Star Trek franchise, way back in 1967. But naturally, as a professional hard-working writer, he turned out scads more original fiction, too much of it unjustifiably neglected these days. So it’s a particular thrill to encounter Flights of Eagles, which follows NESFA Press’s previous Blish collection, Works of Art (2008).
The reader knows she’s in for a treat as soon as she starts reading Tom Shippey’s stimulating, dense, and closely reasoned introductory essay about the hybrid, genre-straddling nature of Blish’s work, half genre, half modernist. But if such academic pursuits are alien to you, just jump right to the novel that opens the volume, Welcome to Mars (1967). Here you’ll find 100 percent entertainment unmediated by scholarly discourse.
As finely constructed and as engaging as any Heinlein YA—and deserving to be as well known and respected— this book tells of the discovery of easy antigravity by brilliant teen Dolph Haertel. Haertel’s first, highly inpractical notion is to make his treehouse airtight, stock some provisions and oxygen, and take the whole shebang to Mars—and so he does. But when a key component fails on the surface of the Red Planet, he seems doomed, left to attempt survival with a pathetic handful of tools and materials. And then, at that point, his girlfriend Nanette crashlands on the Red Planet in Dolph’s packing crate prototype, bent on rescue but needing help herself.
Of course, the scientific details of Blish’s Mars no longer conform entirely to what we know today, although there are still plenty of remaining correspondences, such as lodes of buried water. But what matters are two things: the utter respect that Blish paid to the best science and technology of his time; and the superior and engrossing narrative itself. Both these aspects of the book are immaculate, and insure that the reading pleasure to be derived is nearly as great as when the book first appeared.
Blish honors the scientific method and the implacable, fatal nature of the laws of physics: a universe that would kill a man without malice in a second. But he also champions humanity’s ingenuity, sense of wonder, indomitableness, capacity for love and joie de vivre. This tale of maturation and exploration that Blish delivers—tinged with the genre’s eternal romance with exotic aliens, however improbable—will never grow old or passé.
Next up is a second complete novel, Jack of Eagles (1952), Blish’s first book-length outing. (Did I mention yet what great value these NESFA Press compilations are, containing as they do immense tracts of story for the money?) Blish sold his initial short story in 1940, so you can rightly assume that this novel will read as an assured debut, no amateur’s stumbling crash out of the gate.
Jack of Eagles is a kind of SF novel I don’t think is really being written any longer, because its subject matter has been subsumed into fantasy or horror. But once upon a time, when SF was the dominant and only mode of fantastika, the genre easily included tales of ESP and psionics—mainly at the behest of John Campbell, who was fascinated by such stuff. Blish’s usage of scientific reasoning and terminology to explain paranormal powers marks this book as pure SF, rather than any other kind of fantastika.
Blish’s book concerns one Danny Caiden, an ordinary fellow who is peacefully idling along as a writer at a trade journal. Plagued in a minor way for his whole life by bouts of precognition and remote viewing, he suddenly finds his mental instabilities exfoliating into undeniable wild talents. Trying to exploit them, he discovers himself getting deeper and deeper into trouble and debt. Add in a greedy young woman named Marla and her overprotective brother, and the fun is just beginning.
Blish’s somewhat cynical take on what would happen if extraordinary mental abilities were real is entirely typical of his worldview. He’s something of a contrarian and a mordant anti-romantic, and his lifelong love for the works of James Branch Cabell give a hint as to his attitudes and outlooks on the oft-times farcical nature of existence. Nonetheless, his heroes continue admirably to strive and endure through principled behavior. Danny’s climactic transcendence and utopian dreams are particularly touching and invigorating.
The third (short) novel, Get Out of My Sky (1957), concerns a solar system where two gravitationally linked planets feature populations who look at the universe through radically different cultural lenses. A study in understanding the Other, it looks forward to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974).
Editor James Mann rounds out his selection with four stories. “The Thing in the Attic,” despite its horror-genre title, is pure SF, concerning bio-modified humans and the jungle world they inhabit. “The Writing of the Rat” is another confrontation with otherness, as humanity comes face to face with the rodent-like galactic caretakers found on all the many abandoned worlds of the Milky Way. Tom Disch might very well have looked to “The Genius Heap” as inspiration for his own Camp Concentration (1968), since the Blish piece also concerns an experimental colony of artists tweaked into higher states of ability. And finally, collaborating with Damon Knight, Blish turned out “Tiger Ride,” in which the science of “ultronics” produces a sentient threat to the future of our species.
Owning a keen intellect, a well-developed sense of tragedy and farce, and a willingness to employ a rigorous calculus on an individual’s behavior and motives, James Blish might very well have been the Platonic Ideal of an SF writer.
Lester del Rey
The career of Lester del Rey falls neatly into two parts. The latter portion of his worklife was filled with book reviewing and book editing. And it is this stage of his life that is most problematical, and leaves the sourest taste in the mouths of many.
As a book reviewer, del Rey was notably mean-spirited, lazy, and retrogressive, opposed to innovation and change. I have a particular grudge against him, since he dissed UnEarth magazine, where I published my first story, as a worthless enterprise. Might I take this instance to remind folks that UnEarth also debuted William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, James Blaylock, Somtow Sucharitkul, Tim Sullivan, and others? Worthless? Hardly!
As a book editor, del Rey's tastes and commercial proclivities were problematical to many. So anyone viewing del Rey’s life from this perspective alone might have cause to dismiss him out of hand.
But what about the young del Rey? Ah, there’s the more interesting and worthwhile character! Excellent writer and magazine editor; mentor to many, including the young Harlan Ellison; progressive and revolutionary in his way; sociable founder of the fabled Hydra Club, and good friend to Fred Pohl. That’s the version of del Rey we need to preserve. And thanks to NESFA Press, we can.
Editor Steven H. Silver has assembled two mammoth volumes that offer all the evidence necessary to induct del Rey into the pantheon of classic SF forebears, the men and women who first uncovered the ore we all continue to mine to this day. The first book is titled War and Space, while the second has been christened Robots and Magic.
What can we say about del Rey the fiction writer, based on the stories in the first book? Let’s consider his first publication, “The Faithful,” from 1938. This story—reminiscent of Simak’s City (1952), wherein mankind is gone, and dogs inherit the planet—is full of poignant melancholy, a sense of cosmic evolution, vivid scene-building, crisp dialogue, unique narrative voice and economy of setup. Del Rey clearly had all the requisite authorial talents even at age twenty-three.
His humble working-class background comes across in a story like “The Band Played On,” whose hero is a spaceship pilot—on the garbage run! A devilish contrarian streak emerges in his famously blasphemous “For I Am a Jealous People!,” which finds humanity pitted in war against the literal God of the Old Testament. “And It Comes Out Here” is not only an ingenious time-travel story to rival Heinlein, but also a stylistic tour de force, narrated in second-person present tense. “The Luck of Ignatz” shows del Rey doing excellent screwball comedy along the lines of Bringing Up Baby (1938), with a Venusian zloaht standing in for that film’s leopard. The novella version of “Nerves” practically invents a new genre of medico-industrial near-future fiction. And “Moon-Blind” ventures into Fritz Leiber/Philip K. Dick territory with its surreal reality tampering. Additionally, there are stories that deliver more standardized thrills in more predictable, yet perfectly workmanlike fashion.
So overall, this first volume displays a writer of consumate technical skills who felt comfortable veering between experimental novelty and more cookie-cutter work, one whose general worldview tended toward the tragic—given the plethora of disasters in these stories.
During his prime, for roughly thirty years (1938-1968), Lester del Rey—after performing as John Campbell’s reliable and unassuming pinch hitter—was an unsung, unflashy bulwark of the field, moving it ahead by incremental steps. His dedication and artistry surely offset any perceived failings of his later years, as these two essential volumes handily prove.
As you might expect from its title, and its preponderance of copyrights citing Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds, the companion book highlights del Rey’s facility with fanciful fiction—though high-quality hardcore SF abounds as well. A story like “The Pipes of Pan,” with the Greek demigod becoming a jitterbugging musician, presages the work of Neil Gaiman, while “Though Poppies Grow” is a tragic tale of a fellow who doesn’t know his own mortal condition. Del Rey’s sardonic humor shows up in abundance, in such a story as “Hereafter, Inc.,” where a tight-assed fellow finds the afterlife not to his liking.
Del Rey possessed a sentimental streak, most famously on display in “Helen O’Loy,” that mildly controversial depiction of a loving robot wife. But there’s nothing wrong with some honest pathos, and other tales such as “Though Dreamers Die,” which finds the last individual human passing on the race’s legacy to robots, will evoke the expected tight throat as the author intended. By the time you reach Helen at book’s end, you’ll be applauding del Rey’s range and skills.
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"On Books" by
Paul Di Filippo, copyright
of the author.