Bookending Purdom, or the Tom Purdom Project, Part 5

If I can not live like a man, I shall die like a man.”

At least that’s my version of Juan Belmonte’s final words. The famed bullfighter, suffering from the effects of multiple injuries in the ring, heart disease, and lung cancer, mounted his favorite horse one last time and rode back to his estate for a rendezvous with a handful of cigars, two bottles of wine, and a couple of hookers.

I’m not a bullfighting fan and only really know what little I do about Belmonte by coming across his Wikipedia entry. However, I thought of him when reading Tom Purdom’s first published story, “Grieve for a Man”.

Looking at “Grieve for a Man” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s story is about bullfighting, and its hero, matador Don Julian Artego, does say, near the climax, “I will show you what it is to see a man die.” However, Belmonte’s suicide was almost five years in the future when Purdom’s story was published in 1957. (You can read the entire story at Purdom’s website.) And, 57 years later, Purdom is still publishing, and that’s the occasion for looking at his first and most recent stories.

In the section of his biography talking about the story, Purdom evokes Belmonte as a symbol of his writing career, from then to now:

A young matador has just killed his first bull. He thinks of the future, of the possibility he will someday join the greats like Manolete and Belmonte. Then he finishes: “To know that you are good enough to be in the ring\For me, for now, that is enough.”

Purdom said be based the plot on the American folk story of John Henry. Artego, an aging matador, has to compete for the crowd’s attention in a world where robot matadors now exist. Artego is aghast that there could be any competition, any comparison between a flesh-and-blood matador facing death and a machine facing destruction. How could people not be interested in seeing “a man tempt death”?

But a younger matador, who has reconciled himself to the changing times, advises Artego that the crowd fears and is moved by a robot matador’s death because it is “the creation of a man’s mind. Isn’t it moving to see such a creation face destruction?”

Artego, for the sake of his art, comes out of a three year retirement for a match with a robot matador. In front of a crowd, the arena split in half via a force field, the matadors, one man and one machine, will face a bull to see who can move the crowd. Even the President, of Spain presumably, will attend the match.

Like John Henry, Artego dies in his duel. But, unlike John Henry, he doesn’t even get the satisfaction of victory. Only one old man in the crowd cheers his efforts. Even the sight of Artego’s blood does not move the crowd. In the end, Artego turns his back on the bull, waits for it to charge him. “‘I will show you,” he said, “what it is to see a man die.'”

But the crowd still isn’t paying attention, and this short, dialogue-heavy story ends as a dying Artego realizes it is not his death the crowd is concerned with: “They were watching the twisted pile of metal at the other end of the plaza. And their faces were bloodless from shock.”

The “Automation” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes that “The grimmer imagery of the automated future became more extensive in the 1950s.” That was shown particularly in various stories of professions being rendered obsolete. So, this story fits in with the general temper of 1950s’ sf.

However, the fear that technology will render our skills, our personality, and our bodies obsolete, that we might have to upgrade each to retain our economic viability and social status is a notion Purdom has explored several times.

In “Romance in Extended Time” the Casanova-like figure of Joseph Louis Baske loves a woman who is gloomy because, while genetically engineered to be the best possible, she is already “an imbecile by comparison” with younger humans. Where Artego seeks solace in making a statement by his death, the woman is told by Baske that she can’t be replaced in his heart, that the generation after her can’t live her life for her. Not a very comforting argument especially when considering the necessity of earning a living.

The hero of Purdom’s “Canary Land” tries to upgrade himself with implanted skills but that only insures he can do what the future considers unskilled labor just like his fellow immigrants. Purdom’s point here is that even trying to accommodate the demands and fads of the future does not guarantee success.

The general idea of bullfighting doesn’t seem to get talked about much these days. Even in the early 1970s, I can remember my sister reading some biography of a bullfighter. Now no one really talks about it or Hemmingway.

I suspect the influence of Hemmingway on science fiction writers has waned and is most strong on those who were at an impressionable age to imprint on him as a new literary phenomena. Joe Haldeman (b. 1943) is a noted Hemmingway fan. Purdom (b.1936) has expressed his admiration of Hemmingway who, of course, wrote about bullfighting. Another writer influenced by Hemmingway was Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). With 1967’s “Auto-da-Fe”, Zelazny also did a sort of bullfighting story but with a “mechador”.

Looking at “Bogdavi’s Dream” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s latest story, “Bogdavi’s Dream”, is in the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

I have no plans to start reviewing magazines, but I will make an exception for certain authors, and Purdom is one.

The novella is a sequel to Purdom’s The Tree Lord of Imeten. You don’t have to read the novel to appreciate this story. I didn’t — though I would have if I had started to reorganize my library earlier. I was about to order the novel when I found out I owned it already. I hope to cover it in a future review.

For all I know, the story might have started out titled The Conquistadors of Imeten. That was the title of a sequel to The Tree Lord of Imeten that Purdom actually wrote. He talks about the writing of both works in his biography.

The story involves a coalition of two alien races and some humans mounting a military expedition. The alien races are the Warriors, a tree-dwelling race of aliens and former enslavers of another alien race, the itiji, which Harold, an exile from the sole human settlement on Delta Pavonis II, forced the Warriors to recognize as equals. Joanne, Leza, and Harold fled the new regime that took over the human settlement on the planet and killed Harold’s father.

Now Emile, leader of that coup, has incited another tribe, the Drovil, against the Warriors and burned their home. A somewhat autistic itiji, Golva, has concocted a plan. Using their individual capabilities, the three races are to scale the plateau the small human settlement is on and depose Emile.

The attack is ultimately successful, but Purdom shows he can keep a lot of balls in the air. There is the alien biology and culture of Delta Pavonis II’s two native races, though, of course, that was mostly worked out in the 1966 novel.

There’s the mildly comic interspecies infatuation the titular Bogdavi has for Leza and the much more serious problems of the three groups co-operating to make the attack successful.

Purdom has an interest in military history so he might have had a model in mind for the assault. I thought of General Wolfe’s assault on Quebec during the French and Indian War, but the parallel, operationally and typographically, is far from exact.

Harold is the leader of the attack, a figure who has done much killing and has an interest in military history. But the story’s climax has Leza supplanting him in a sense.

The combat on the plateau, involving small groups and with the three dimensional element of antigrav floaters, is well plotted and thought out in terms of time, space, angles, weapon potential, and effective ranges. This is an example of combat in Purdom’s stories that owes a lot to his interest in wargames and makes the physical conflict in his “The Mists of Time” and “The Path of the Transgressor” so engrossing. Wargamers of a certain age might be reminded of a Steve Jackson microgame like G.E.V. or Ogre.

But, I think, there is something of a comment on contemporary history too for the story contemplates the dilemnas of “regime change”. Leza and Harold disagree as to how many collateral casualties are acceptable to get rid of Emile and his confederates.

Ultimately, they disagree on Emile’s fate after the attack succeeds. Harold, tired of killing, wants to let Emile just flee into exile. Leza, afraid of Emile using a weapons cache and the Drovils to cause trouble, kills him as he lies wounded. Harold may be the hero “sick of violence” and “burned up [of] all the emotions that drive warriors and soldiers” but Leza, the biologist, thrown into a violent situation, turns out to have the ruthlessness and acumen needed where Harold doesn’t.

The humans on Delta Pavonis II are a small group. There is some debate about the motives of Emile. Does he foresee a day when their imported and not to be replenished technology will fail and humans will need to enslave the itiji? Or do he and his henchman just like frightening people, the thrill of being a tyrant? I was reminded of the small scale struggles of the future humans in Purdom’s “Fossil Games”.

Purdom has said The Treelord of Imeten is one of his most remembered novels, so fans of that should like this novella. While I wouldn’t say this is top-drawer Purdom, it’s still skillfully done and worthwhile. My enthusiasm was perhaps muted because of the heavy presence of aliens, not my predominate interest in science fiction. Also, I have become very fond of Purdom contemplating futures where human personality and skills become economic commodities capable of upgrade and quantification, the power of the Information Age fully applied to human body and cultures. That element was lacking here.

And I’m glad to know that more Purdom is still in the pipeline for future publication

Earlier installments in this series:

Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons

The Tom Purdom Project, Part 2

Five Against Arlane, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 3

“A War of Passion”, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 4


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


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