Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #2: In the Imagicon

"In the Imagicon," by George Henry Smith
Appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1966

Then Cecily made him feel even sillier by leaning over and kissing his right foot with passionate red lips. "Oh, Dandor! Dandor, I love you so much," she murmured.

Dandor resisted the temptation to use one of his newly pampered feet to give her a healthy kick on her round little bottom. He resisted it because even at times like this, when his life with these women began to seem unreal, he tried to be as kind as possible to them. Even when their worship and adoration threatened to bore him to death, he tried to be kind.

So instead of kicking Cecily, he yawned.

I'm gonna let that quote up there just sink in for a minute.

For a genre that spent so much time yapping on about the future, Golden Age science fiction--in this case, one of the last shoots springing up in the mid-1960s, when the old fields were beginning to wilt beneath the New Wave--spent a hell of a lot of its time rooted in the past. Yeah, I know, science fiction is fundamentally about the time it's written in, and "In the Imagicon" by George Henry Smith--who previously brought us such towering works of literature as 1963's Sexodus!--could not be more of a product of the 1960s if it tried. This is the sort of stuff that proto-nerds who aspired to become Don Draper would read. I feel like it's quintessentially of its time, to the degree that it reads almost like a parody of it.

Leaping into the story, we are introduced to the foppish, indolent Dandor, who is in the process of being fed grapes, getting a pedicure, and being generally worshipped by women--a blonde, a voluptuous brunette, and cuddly twin redheads, and yes those are how they're described and essentially the limits of their characterization, and god damn, man, am I really meant to take this at all seriously? Is this supposed to be a laff-out-loud comedy piece? I DON'T KNOW ANYMORE, SOMEONE HOLD ME

Ahem. Moving on. Dandor's problem is that he's getting awfully bored by being waited on and worshipped in his "palatial palace," because screw you guys, it's 1966, you don't need more descriptive adjectives when you're probably half-drunk by now anyway. So he leaves, back out through the imagicon of the title, and we see Dandor as he really is: a pioneer on the frozen colony world of Nestrond, home of punishing storms and snows and ice wolves, and which really begs the question of why you'd cross light-years to colonize a place that makes Antarctica look appealing. What really makes it intolerable, though, is Nona, his shrew of a wife! Am I right, fellas? The narrative lovingly details her faults--"a big, raw-boned woman with stringy black hair, a broad flat face with thin lips and uneven, yellowish teeth. God but she's ugly, he thought as he stared at her." Now that he's back in the real world, Dandor's got work to do, and he hates it! So he digs up ice moss for the fire, fixes the cattleshed roof to keep the icewolves from attacking their space cows, digs a cesspool, and so on.

Nestrond, for all intents and purposes, was settled by people who not only made it to the end of the Oregon Trail without dying of dysentery, but found a starship there waiting for them.

Disaster strikes in the night when ice wolves attack--six-legged, because alien critters gotta have six legs, otherwise how're you to know they're alien? Dandor manages to see them off thanks to his trusty laser rifle, but not before one of them takes a good chunk out of him; good enough, in fact, to demand that his entire leg be amputated. Because, sure, they have enough technological infrastructure to support stuff like laser rifles and imagicons, but not indoor plumbing or twentieth-century medicine. Presumably Nestrond's colonists are, in fact, survivors of a failed expedition. Maybe they were the advance team and the main ship blew up in orbit--they are in dire straits, with the last of the morphine gone and no anaesthetic more sophisticated than whiskey. Nobody's to say.

Dandor is aghast over the loss of his leg, of course--not because of the pain, not because of how much harder it'll make it to scratch out a life, but because now there'll be no imagicon; he'll belong only to Nona. How, he asks himself, could she treat him this way? Yeah! How could she ever stay by his side in his condition and make him face the world? One has to ask why she even bothers, on a world where there are twenty men for every woman. I mean, she obviously sees something in this guy, or she'd have just walked out while he was on one of his imagicon trips, right? Wouldn't you want to have someone standing by you at a low point like that?

Not our Dandor! He knows just what to do--escape from the dreaded barbs of reality! Half-mad with pain and bleeding out from his as-yet-uncauterized stump, he drags himself until he seals himself up into the imagicon, "more dead than alive," and slowly fades away while the soft voices of his adoring palace women brush against his ears--

Except, in a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan--who would not be born for another four years, so at least he's not responsible for this one--Dandor wakes up, good as new, in the real world. In the palace. Because, you see, Dandor's palatial palace is reality, and it's Nestrond that's the product of the imagicon! On Earth in the year 22300, Dandor is on top thanks to a plague which killed all but a handful of men--many of whom "had not been able to stand the strain... too many years of having everything and every woman they wanted." Dandor created Nestrond as a place he could find "a taste of hell," without which "how could a man appreciate heaven?"

How could a man appreciate heaven.

Because this story is really all about the mens.

As I chip away at it, I feel like there's a pool of anti-woman sentiment bubbling underneath. Look at the difference between Earth of 22300, where men are powerful through their rarity and which is depicted as a warm, peaceful, beautiful place, and Nestrond, where women are powerful through their rarity and is explicitly described as a hell on multiple occasions. On Earth, Dandor is "sweetheart" and on Nestrond, he's "idiot." On Earth, he is fed grapes; on Nestrond, he's grudgingly served thin soup, stale bread, and rancid pork.

It almost reads like it's a parody of certain attitudes now. Nestrond reads like the sort of place any given MRA would come up with to describe a feminist world, and I'm confident that what MRAs yearn for is a world where they can all be Dandors. I have to wonder what the women might say if you asked them to describe their world. Are they happy feeding this guy, rubbing his feet, servicing him, when he descends into unreality as soon as they start to bore him? From where I'm sitting, this "heaven" seems pretty damn one-sided.

As I put this together, I had a realization: unlike Nona, who is given a rather detailed description to cement the hellishness of Nestrond, we're never actually given a description of Dandor. But I have a pretty good idea.

You want to hear the real punchline, though?

This story made the first ballot for the 1967 Nebula Award.


Previous Tailings
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

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