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)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Is About Independence

I was keenly aware last month that it might well be the last time I ever visted the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not that I had foreknowledge of my death--though I hope that's a long way off yet--but because in the not-too-distant future, there may not be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland anymore. Not if the YES vote in Scotland gets its way. Back in August, things were still at a slow boil: the NO side was consistently polling double-digit leads, and I was one of the few on my side of the Atlantic who even knew the referendum was going ahead. The only evidence I found for it was on my last day in the country, when I found a pro-independence sticker someone had left in Victoria Station.

The red symbolizes the blood that the newborn Scottish Empire will drown its English oppressors in, no doubt.

Today, everyone's blood is hot. It's less than a week to the vote and anticipation is running high--and on the NO side, so visions of near-apocalyptic problems should Scotland go its own way. From complaints of BBC reporting bias to rumors of MI5 agents in Scotland and whistlestop tours by Westminster's premier talking heads, the English political establishment is throwing all its weight into the "Better Together" camp. No doubt the government will sponsor a last-minute love-in for the Unionist side on Tuesday or Wednesday, much like the Canadian government did in Montreal's Place du Canada just before Quebec voted in 1995.

I've seen a lot of speculation that the reason Westminster is throwing so much weight into this is down to North Sea oil, oil that would become Scottish--and that's a pretty damn good motivation for a government to be committed to the unionist side. If Montreal was afloat on a sea of petroleum, I doubt Quebec's referendum would have taken the same trajectory.

But I don't think that's the whole story. It's not just about wealth, or power, I think--it's about fear.

Fear of failure. Fear of the idea that Scotland's independence would mean that the United Kingdom, which stood for three centuries against Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Margaret Thatcher's poll taxes, has failed.

Recently, Rachael Acks wrote a piece about divorce that you should read in any event, because it's rad. As I chewed on it, I realized that with just a few word replacements, it resonates with what's going on in Scotland today. Change "divorce" to "separation" and "screaming arguments" with "civil wars," but the idea that separation means that a country has failed is a strong one. Look at the United States, for instance: in the Hotel America you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. On the face of it, it's ridiculous--no country lasts forever, but what this policy does ensure is that when the United States does fall apart, it will be with screaming and gunfire and the throwing of dishes. I'm confident the States would never see a referendum as peaceful as Scotland's, because there is no place for it in the laws as they currently stand.

It echoes with a problem prevalent in our culture, I think; the notion that your life can be cheapened by other's choices. I'll admit there are risks inherent in Scotland going its own way, but there are risks in everything. A lot of the commentary I see from NO supporters, especially English NO supporters, revolves around how they would feel to have the United Kingdom separate--it's such a deep-seated notion that the first phrase I wrote there was "to have the United Kingdom break apart," as if the Scottish referendum is the equivalent of throwing fine china at the floor, and afterward everyone will have to sweep up and make do with what shards are left.

"We're not a failure," Rachael wrote. "Our relationship is not a failure. Because we made each other stronger, better people. We loved and supported each other through thick and thin until we reached a place in our lives where we couldn't support each other in that same way any more. It's time to continue loving and supporting each other in a different way."

Scotland and England made each other stronger, too. But just because a relationship has existed, that inertia alone shouldn't justify why it continues to exist if there's enough reason to reconsider--and with the way the polls have turned toward YES in the past months, a lot of reconsidering has been done up past Hadrian's Wall.

If Scotland chooses independence, it's not a failure of the United Kingdom. It's just a new day.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

No Vision So Dangerous...

The other day I was trying to figure out the best way, should I ever meet him, to piss off Harlan Ellison™. I mentioned this to the ever-helpful Shaun Duke, who advised me that both of the strategies I offered would likely result in (a) a chewing out--which, honestly, Harlan Ellison™ rarely needs much justification for anyway--and (b) assault, which wouldn't surprise me much either but is really far more trouble than it's worth.

You may be wondering why I would want to antagonize a figure like Ellison™. The answer is bound up in four charged words that have hummed with golden anticipation for more than forty years, even if more than a few bulbs have burned out: The Last Dangerous Visions. Never heard of it? If you're not one of the ones plugged into the history of science fiction or the fannish grapevine, there's no reason you should have. That's not how it was meant to be, though.

Let's go back briefly to 1967, when Harlan Ellison™ put out one of the most influential anthologies of the 1960s, Dangerous Visions. The thirty-three stories it contained were groundbreaking in their time, helping to define what the New Wave of science fiction literature was, and of a sort that were too "dangerous" to be published.

Today, of course, they're innocuous. Well-written, of course, but with the possible exception of one story, there's nothing that wouldn't make it into Clarkesworld or Lightspeed or even Analog today--back in 1967, they would have earned furious ten-page rejection letters from John W. Campbell--but that's the way history unfolds. Ellison™ followed up with the sequel volume Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which is definitely a reflection of its time; witness, for example, Kurt Vonnegut's "The Big Space Fuck," set in a world where giant mutated lampreys live in a polluted Lake Erie and the government is launching a rocket full of freeze-dried jizm to the Andromeda Galaxy. Envelope-pushing in its day, perhaps, but in a time where stories like Kij Johnson's "Spar" win Nebulas and make the Hugo shortlist, there's almost a quaintness to it.

The Last Dangerous Visions was to be the capstone of this project, a deep and towering work that would put everything that had come before to shame. Ellison™ talked the project to rarefied heights as he lined up a phalanx of everyone who was anyone in early 1970s science fiction, from old hands like Algis Budrys and George Alec Effinger to brash, young newcomers like Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card. Science fiction fandom waited in anticipation...

...and waited, and waited. You may note, from your privileged viewpoint here in the 21st century, that of all the ways you might describe writers like McCaffrey and Card, "newcomer" is not one of them. You may also note that with the exception of Card, all those writers have died. In fact, I've gone through the list of contributors that's up on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and of the one hundred and two names, forty-six are definitely dead as of 2014. Many more authors are flagged as having been born in the 1920s and 1930s--Harlan Ellison™ himself turned 80 earlier this year--and it won't take much longer for The Last Dangerous Visions to be a book of ghosts. If you're interested in all the sordid details of its stubborn non-existence, check out Christopher Priest's The Last Deadloss Visions.

"So what?" you might say. Vaporware isn't anything new; look at Duke Nukem Forever, for example. No, really, look at Duke Nukem Forever. It was to be the pinnacle of a well-liked, boundary-pushing game series, intended to reach new heights of popularity and so on... and look what happened. After fifteen years of being a punchline, it actually came out--something that still surprises me from time to time, honestly--but it couldn't live up to itself. What's more, it had been left behind.

The Dangerous Visions series was intended to be the vanguard of a new way of looking at things, an ambassador to show the world that science fiction didn't have to be just about rockets and rayguns and square-jawed white male engineers solving technical problems. But if The Last Dangerous Visions came out tomorrow, it would be a wet firecracker. Sure, the individual stories still have relevance and quality--but not in the context that the book was meant to provide. If anything, the book as a whole would be a time capsule of 1970s science fiction; of interest to a particular subset of fans, sure, but not much more than that.

It's possible to judge the quality of The Last Dangerous Visions to a degree; a handful of authors did recall their stories from Ellison™ and actually allowed the world to see them, but not many; by my search, there are fifteen ex-TLDV stories out there whose authors lived to see their publication in other places. But only to a degree. The kicker of it is that all these stories exist, sure--in a box in Harlan Ellison™'s house somewhere, for only Harlan Ellison™'s eyes. For any stories, this would be bad enough--but remember that Ellison™ was looking for the best of the best, the state of the art as it was in 1973.

There's a hole in science fiction that can be felt only by its absence. A hole that Harlan Ellison™ has refused to sew shut for forty fucking years. He had the capstone of his drive in hand, but for whatever reasons, he fumbled. He fucked it up. Today, The Last Dangerous Visions is irrelevant as anything but a historical curiosity. Given the degree of cultural shift, I'm confident that there is nothing in its evanescent pages that would not pass muster in a magazine today.

Beyond that, The Last Dangerous Visions was meant to be a showcase of up-and-coming authors with new perspectives... and that's another thing that hurts. Going through the ISFDB list, I found five authors whose only credit was the story that never appeared in TLDV, and many more whose careers seemed to hit a brick wall in the 1970s. TLDV, had it come out in 1973, would have been groundbreaking, a landmark, something to propel its writers to greater heights. How many stories could have been written, but now never will, because it never materialized?

Again, TLDV would be a forty-year-old snapshot. Writers like Ann Leckie and Seth J. Dickinson, N.K. Jemisin and Benjanun Sriduangkaew--they are some of the people on the genre's forefront today, they are the sort of authors that TLDV was made to showcase. But it didn't, and it never will. At this point I am confident that Harlan Ellison™ will die without completing The Last Dangerous Visions.

It's ridiculous. Let me put it into a bit of perspective here: had The Last Dangerous Visions come out when it meant to, all the way back in 1973, this year's Campbell Award winner, Sofia Samatar, would have been two years old. Ann Leckie, who swept every major award for Ancillary Justice this year, was seven. For many other people who are making their mark on the genre today, they wouldn't even be born for years to come.

That's why I want to piss him off. Because it would move the equation ever-so-slightly back into balance, after what he's done to science fiction.