While I’m working on new stuff, the Gunn series continues. Turns out I had more in the archives than I thought.
Raw Feed (2003): Human Voices: Science Fiction Stories, James Gunn, 2002.
“Introduction” — Useful introduction which talks about the origin of all this collection’s stories and how they relate to Gunn’s other works.
“The Old Folks” — In the collection’s introduction, Gunn explains how this story (seemingly written in 1962) went unpublished until Harry Harrison bought it for his Nova Two anthology and then it was reprinted in a best of the year anthology. Gunn said that it was rejected by sf places as not being sf, and mainstream magazines as being sf. The reactions are understandable. There really isn’t anything of a fantastical nature in this story — at least fantastical in terms of technology or science, no violations of expected history as in a time travel or alternate history story. Yet, this story has a science fiction feeling. If Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Tim Powers’ fantasies are “secret histories”, this is a secret sociology. It postulates that old folks, at least in the retirement village of this story, are engaged in a bitter struggle with their children and those younger to spoil their kids, spend their money to leave nothing to inherit (yet present the illusion of a possible inheritance to manipulate the young) and generally avenge themselves for the trial of having children. And, as Gunn wryly notes, it’s a self-perpetuating conspiracy since the young become the old folks
“The Voices” — It was nice to revisit this very literate story from Gunn’s classic novel The Listeners with its cynical journalist protagonist and the frequent allusions to Dante.
“Fault” — This story, as befits a 1975 story set in San Francisco, has a surprising amount of sex and drugs for a Gunn story. I liked its story of the dilemmas facing the city’s mayor as he has to decide, based on the infant science of earthquake prediction, whether to evacuate the city. He decides to do it. The earthquake doesn’t happen. Hundreds die in the evacuation. The cost is over a billion. The people move back. The geologists appear with another prediction. As the mayor notes, he couldn’t order another evacuation if he wanted to, and an earthquake of 8.5 on the Richter scale hits the city in the final sentence.
“Guilt” — This is one of Gunn’s philosophical stories. Here the central premise is that society’s criminals are those who don’t feel enough guilt. A vaguely described instrumentality and/or conditioning program is set up to make people feel the proper amount of guilt. If they don’t, an almost anonymous judge induces something like a panic attack in their bodies to make them feel uncomfortable. There are two characters: a judge who, with the aid of a computerized system, passes judgment on people, and the fiancé of a woman he thinks she has been unfairly judged guilty. The philosophical questions Gunn raises are valid — the morality of punishing people preemptively, the deadening effects of suppressing guilt, corruptibility of the judges, the effects on the arts of sublimating guilt. However, the story never moved me. The scenes where the man encounters various street performers who coerce him into acting out bloody dramas seemed too literary in their references to Oedipus (and, by nature, stagey though that didn’t bother me). The pressure on the judge to convict more was realistic but wholly expected. The ending, where the judge is punished with a surge of guilt, didn’t really move me.
“Child of the Sun” — I read this story just to see what had been changed from its original publication to its inclusion in Gunn’s fixup novel Crisis!. Only the beginning has been changed, and it is quite similar to the opening of the novel. In the collection’s introduction, Gunn says that the idea for this story and its companions collected in the novel Crisis! started out as a potential weekly tv show. That explains a lot about the shortcomings and format of that novel.
“The North Wind” — I liked this story a lot and not only because it’s set in one of my favorite disaster settings: an ice age. The story is simple. A farmer refuses to flee the coming glaciers because his ancestors have farmed the land for a long time, and his family, killed by looters, is buried on the ground. He sees the seemingly miraculous presence of an unmarred girl frozen in the ice. Her presence fascinates and tempts him into joining her in the ice. Eventually, however, he hears the “ancient voice of humanity demanding struggle, demanding survival”, and he heads south to help man survive. Gunn also does a nice job with capsule descriptions of the chaos the new ice age wrecks and different survival strategies including underground communities in Montana and Wyoming waiting for the ice to retreat.
“Among the Beautiful Bright Children” — This is a curious story, later incorporated into Gunn’s novel The Dreamers and originally written to appear in a Harlan Ellision’s Dangerous Vision title that was never published. I liked it, but, frankly, I’m not sure I understood the ending. The ending seems to imply that the historian does dream since he seems to be taken a capsule of simulated memories labeled “Abelard”. At first, I thought Abelard was a plague historian since there are familiar sounding accounts of the Black Death scattered throughout the story. However, research taught me that Abelard was a medieval philosopher predating the plague. It seems the historian is writing a history under the influence of an artificial persona. Like his classic The Joy Makers, this novel is concerned with the question of living under illusion or in the realm of struggling with reality. This future seems decadent like that of The Joy Makers. (Gunn doesn’t clearly opt for reality here. After all, his protagonist is popping memory capsules.) The Abelard connection is reinforced when a young woman seduces the historian by adopting the personas of famous women including Abelard’s love Heloise. I thought the notion of a woman being quite seductive not by changing her outward body but her inward memories and personas was interesting. The historian, here, comes off as a figure pitied by the young members of a society he doesn’t understand in its rich decadence, pitied and found rather contemptible. However, he has more of a core than the “bright children” since his ex-lover shouts at him that she has no reality beyond what she pops in synthetic memories. I suppose the plague interludes serve a symbolic function of showing a plague of decadence destroying the humanity of this future.
“The Futurist” — While this story has a good beginning and some valid insights into human psychology, it’s marred by a technocratic liberalism right out of the fifties which, I suspect from his other writings, is sincerely held by author Gunn. The intriguing plot is an indestructible Sphinx statue showing up in front of the United Nations. After a year, a visitor comes out. He/she turns out to be a time traveling historian from the future who hands out some advice about how to deal with the problems of the future. She scandalizes the delegates from France, Russia, and America (though, of course, about different things) with hints of a world of strange family arrangements, extreme sexual freedom, genetically engineered children grown in vats, and that is somewhat more socialistic than 2009’s America. (As the traveler points out, it is sort of a meaningless question much like someone from 1909 asking if America of 2009 was socialist). She further scandalizes them by stating humanity should try to give up legislating morality. The counterargument given is that religions and governments exist to do just that. The time traveler responds that with a bit of moral relativism that each society has morality appropriate to them. The time traveler then goes on to say that society can really only be molded by deciding what technology to develop. However, as the time traveler notes in the story itself, the consequences of technology can not be foreseen in their entirety which renders even that argument meaningless. The only really good point about the story, beside its beginning, was the time traveler pointing out that “misery isn’t terminal” and that, if the delegates were transported to his future, they might become accustomed to living there but they would never be at home there. The time traveler also points out that the future is ushered in because, even though they don’t want to live in a specific future, it beats no future. In his introduction to this collection, Gunn says that Kim Mohan, editor of Amazing Stories, called publishing this story one of the great pleasures of his editorship. I don’t see why.
“Man of Parts” — This is a fun story inspired by a comment by Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. With the feel of a horror story, it tells of a man who becomes convinced he can alleviate or prevent the suffering and death of others by removing parts of his body. You can read the story as mental delusion or that the protagonist really does magically help others by his sacrifice. And, as the opening paragraph itself says, you can see it as a story of death and suffering and self-mutilation or a story of self-sacrifice and miracles and “feel good about the human race”. The bit from Smith that inspired by the story was his remark that a man, on hearing about the death of millions of Chinese, might go about his own business but that the thought of losing his little finger the next day would cause the man no end of worry. Obviously, Gunn turns that notion on his head with his self-mutilating miracle worker who eventually gives his head (after loping off his limbs), ingeniously taken off in a moving hospital bed, to prevent World War III.
“The Gingerbread Man” — In the collection’s introduction, Gunn says this story was intended as a response to Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” (though only a very few readers picked up on this and the identical names of the protagonists and the dates in both stories). Gunn, an expert in Asimov’s fiction, sees the ending of that Asimov story as exceptionally sentimental compared to the rationality of most of Asimov’s fiction. Here, Gunn’s protagonist has more and more of his body replaced with cyborg substitutes and finds himself becoming a better person, more “truly human”, as he rids himself of the moral frailties inherent in the flesh.
“The Day the Magic Came Back” — Gunn says he wrote this story as a response to what he saw as a longing for worlds, expressed as a growing “fascination with fantasy and fantastic phenomena”, where magic works. When a doctor discovers a man who really can heal people magically, he explains the consequences to a nurse of a world where magic has returned. It won’t stop with healing but will expand to create wealth and warfare, a world of no controls where only those chosen by some mysterious process or entity will have the power once developed through the hard, long study of science. The return of the magic, argues Gunn, is a return to the medieval. He makes a valid argument that science transformed the world and “created democracy and affluence and individual choice”. This is one of those good stories that takes notions of religion, though here only in the vaguest sense that magic works, and looks at the implications.
“The Lens of Time” — According to his remarks in the collection’s introduction, Gunn, in the mid 1990’s, decided to do his own “reflexive” story about sf, here Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1858 story “The Diamond Lens” which, in the notes to the story in his anthology The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells, he claims is the “first modern science-fiction story”. This book fictionalizes the first meeting between O’Brien and his friend Dr. J. D. Whelpley and the discussion that leads to the creation of O’Brien’s story, “The Diamond Lens”. In this thoughtful story (whose details are all true except that of the conversation, Gunn notes), the dialogue between the earnest Whelpley, a devoted microscopist, and a distracted, ruminating O’Brien is not only a discussion of the transformative powers of mid-19th century science and technology but also the aesthetics and purpose of sf. Whelpley wants O’Brien to write a story showing how the world might be transformed by science, particularly the discoveries made possible through the microscope. O’Brien wants (and did) to write a romance story about a microscopist viewing an unattainable object of his desire through a novel lens (whose existence is owed to murder and theft). It’s not that O’Brien disagrees with Whelpley’s contentions, only the practicality of his goals. Whelpley wants to make the public aware of how science will not call down God’s wrath but free him from Nature’s tyranny. O’Brien wisely notes that nobody has that power, and that the only people changed by poetry and literature are those who don’t need to be changed, that “The people you want to reach don’t read Harper’s or The Atlantic.” (The argument that people who read literature are better is one I don’t buy. I wonder if Gunn is, perhaps, looking back on a career where he once thought he could mold minds through his writing.). I was interested to learn, in Gunn’s introduction, that Whelpley published his own sf story, “The Atoms of Chladni”, in 1859. I’d be curious to read it.
“The End-of-the-World Ball” — Of course any story that takes place during the last three hours of the first millennium (the story was first published in 1989) is going to be dated. And there’s the brief psychological disquiet with the story taking place at the World’s Trade Center in New York City. The literary contrivance of having a bunch of disasters (nearby novae, climatic change, volcanoes, war, overpopulation, societal breakdown) seeming to reach a crescendo on New Year’s Eve was interesting. And I liked the character of Paul Gentry, specifically compared to Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich in that all three are overblown “propheteers” of disaster whose predictions were, at best, overblown. (This is interesting, especially, since Gunn really does seem to feel, in his Crisis!, that pollution and overpopulation and resource depletion threaten humanity, so he shares Gentry’s views though clearly regards his cynical profiting from them as unseemly.) I liked the sudden kiss that mathematical catastrophist Ng-Smith plants on his male ex-grad student. But I didn’t really understand the ending where ex-gymnast, ex-doctorate of philosophy, ex-actress, ex-hedonist Barbara Shepard hurls herself over the building at midnight in what seemed to be a fatal expression that Christ was returning. But, even though Gunn hints at something big happening in the new millennium, we don’t know if it does. I suspect Gunn’s point, especially knowing how he values man’s struggle to survive and develop, is that, as character William Landis notes, “. . . it’s not catastrophe I’m afraid of. What I fear is our love of catastrophe.” Various characters have a vested interest in catastrophe. Gentry profits from it. Ng-Smith seeks to reduce it to mathematical equations of predictability. CNN reporter Sally Krebs professionally covers it. Landis studies it but doesn’t thrive on it. We can’t know the future, I think Gunn is saying, so we shouldn’t live like the world is going to end.
“The Giftie” — Interesting story where evidence of alien contact (and diagrams of their superior technology) are hidden in a book of seemingly crank ufology. Our protagonist tracks down the author, with the help of an elderly bookseller, who turns out to be an ex-SETI researcher whose writings got him thrown into an insane asylum by mysterious government forces. There are several knowing references to plot elements of spy novels. Gunn says this is the first installment of a fixup novel he’s working on, and I’ll be curious to read it. This is, in an odd sort of way, a self-referential work in that it was inspired by the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact (a rebuttal, to be specific) which, in turn, was inpsired by James Gunn’s The Listeners which, in turn, was partially built on Sagan’s scientific work.
More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.