The Best of Murray Leinster

While I work on a review of a World War One history book, the pulp series continues.

Raw Feed (1999): The Best of Murray Leinster, ed. John J. Pierce, 1978.Best of Murray Leinster

The Dean of Science Fiction”, John J. Pierce — Besides being a brief summation of the stories in this collection, this introduction talks about Leinster’s themes and career. It also relates some surprising information about Leinster. His first story (a fantasy) was written in 1919 (no date for his last work is given – he died in 1975). He converted to Catholicism, and it relates information I knew already – Leinster’s career as an inventor of the optical Jenkins Systems used as a rear projection system in movies and tv. [Leinster’s actual name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins.] Leinster also emphasized rationality and was an admirer of Thomas Aquinas.

Sidewise in Time” — This story is the original reason I bought this collection. It’s generally credited as being the first parallel universe story, and it holds up very will since its publication in 1934. Later on this type of story was rationalized with, as in Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Here Leinster introduces some twists on the notion that many later writers didn’t. First, his plot does not simply have a character or characters leave their own timeline willingly or unwillingly. Leinster introduces the notion of a tile-work Earth where each bounded area enters a different parallel universe than its neighbors do. One world has a strong Viking presence, another has China settling North America, another universe still has dinosaurs, in another the Roman Empire still endures, and in another the South won the Civil War. Leinster’s main character is a mathematician, Professor Minott, who is the only person who knows a cosmological upheaval, which eventually thrusts a quarter of the Earth’s surface into other universes, is about to take place. But he tells no one. He hopes to use the event to become more than just a mathematics instructor in an obscure community college. He wants to find a universe where his knowledge and technology can make him king – and husband of one of his students. His attempts to do this are fascinating as are the alternating sections showing what happens to some when their homes are suddenly bounded by other universes. Eventually, the students Minott tricks into joining him on his adventure (and they don’t follow him willingly for long) leave him except for a female student with a crush on him. The universe settles down, but the story ends with not all the tiles returning to their proper timelines. This is the first example of a parallel universe story and still holds up well. Leinster puts forth many intriguing alternate histories and works out or hints at the implications of his idea, and I liked the notion of a man who seeks to use such a cataclysm to gain respect and power. It’s a very human idea.

Proxima Centauri” — This is, in its notion of sentient vegetable men, a pulpy story in conception, but Leinster carries it off well, and there are several elements which make it a sophisticated sf tale, especially one published in 1935. Leinster takes some trouble to describe the construction of an artificial ecosystem in his interstellar ship. That, the inclusion of crews’ families to facilitate morale, and a mutiny from the psychological effects of a seven year voyage to the next star were all, I suspect, novel in 1935. Leinster does a credible job rationalizing, via atomic physics, his starship drive but it’s still unworkable. The vegetable men of Proxima Centauri seem brutal, but Leinster cuts them some slack by rightly pointing out that that aliens made of precious metals would probably be met the same way by Earth men, and he tries to construct a biological rationale (which doesn’t really work but it’s the attempt that makes it sf) whereby these mobile plants need animal flesh to live and how it excites them (they’re destroyed just about all animal life on their world). Actually, they’ve learned to live on vegetable matter but instinctually still crave animal products. This may also be one of the first sf stories to introduce an alternative to a fire and metal technology: the Centaurians mold protoplasm to their ends. I liked the human commander, at story’s end, contriving to get all the Centaurians to return to their home world to eat their Earth trophies and celebrate a new source of animal matter. Then he blows the planet up with a sabotaged starship engine. Continue reading


Another in the James Gunn series while I work on some new stuff.

Raw Feed (2003): Crisis!, James Gunn, 1986.Crisis

I seem to recall that Analog‘s reviewer (all the stories in this novel first appeared in Analog), Thomas Easton, suggested that Gunn was assuming the role of guru as elderly sf writers are wont to do. Perhaps he was right.

I don’t know what Gunn’s motives were. If Gunn was trying to seriously address what he saw as the world’s most pressing problems, he succeeded neither in producing realistic solutions (with the possible exception of the pay-to-pollute scheme of “Will-of-the-Wisp — but that same story talks unrealistically about the benefits of massive recycling) or a work of much literary merit.

This novel’s origins go back to at least 1978 with the publication of the novel’s second episode, “Child of the Sun” which concerns itself with the 70s’ concern over energy shortages. And the rest of the book is typical of apocalyptic concerns of the late 70s to mid-80s (most of the stories were published in 1985). “End of the World” deals with the threat of nuclear war. “Man of the Hour“, probably the best story of the bunch, is somewhat atypical in dealing with the threat of dictatorship via a business magnate who offers job, business sense, and hope in a depressed America. “Touch of the Match” is about terrorism. “Woman of the Year” is about overpopulation. “Will-of-the-Wisp” is about pollution.

But the book has a very dated feeling about it. It is debatable how many of these problems still threaten humanity. The end of cheap energy seems a ways away yet — though I’m not as blithe as many about the validity of this eventually being a problem and the market finding a timely solution. Pollution is not as threatening now. The seriousness of overpopulation is probably more debatable now than in 1985 though, again, I’m not as sanguine about it not being a problem as the disciples of Julian Simon are. Continue reading

“Press Enter █” & “Hawksbill Station”

More Silverberg, this time mixed with some John Varley.

Press Enter


Raw Feed (1992): “Press Enter ”, John Varley/”Hawksbill Station”, Robert Silverberg, 1990.

“Hawksbill Station” — This was a relatively simple plot moodily told.  Silverberg postulates a government tyrannical enough to want to suppress dissent but wimpy enough not to kill people.  It just exiles them via time travel to the Late Cambrian.  Silverberg’s love and knowledge of paleontology and geology works well in setting the mood of the tale.  He also does a nice job portraying a diverse group of men (the women dissenters are in another era) banding together to fight the enemies of despair, madness, loneliness, and loss of purpose, and how some must prepare for the sudden shock of freedom.  A simple but well done story.  It’s also interesting to see in this 1967 story how vital Marxism was presumed to be in the future – right down to having splinter schools like Khruschevist.

“Press Enter █” — Samuel Delany has talked about Varley’s love of strong, competent women and prosthetics.  Here the character of computer whiz Lisa Foo with her large, silicon augmented breasts fits the bill on both counts.  This story is well-written:  fast-moving, slick, exposition which slides down easy.  Even the romance works here, and it’s an exciting.  This story won a Hugo and a Nebula.  However, reading it eight years, I suspect the effect is dulled.  This story was published in 1984.  The eighties saw the dangers, transcendent potential, and wonders of the cybersphere excitingly explored in sf.  The awareness even crept into the general public consciousness.  However, this tale has parallels to other sf tales in its plot.  Computer whiz Patrick William Gavin is the stuff of modern hacker legend and, I suspect, myth.  His gathering of confidential material, financial manipulations, creation of wealth by fiat, his cloak of invisibility in a computer age, his privileged position as one of the architects of important private and governmental information systems was in part reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s protagonist in My Name Is Legion, a book from the seventies.  The specter of a maleovelent artificial intelligence haunting the cybersphere shows up in the slightly earlier Vernor Vinge short novel True Names.  As in that story, the murderous artificial intelligence is escaped from a National Security Agency project, an experiment gotten out of hand.   However, in True Names the artificial intelligence was much more murderous, and, after manipulating people, came out in the open for battle.  The AI of this story seeks, above all, concealment.  His shadowy presence is reminiscent of Wintermute, the artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, also from 1984 and also the AI of Roger Zelazny’s “24 Views of Mt. Fuji by Hosaki”.  So, the basic story is not new.  Varley adds two new elements though.  One, the idea of a computer intelligence generated by a critical mass of microchips in the cybersphere connected (the analogy of neurons in the brain is made) by radio waves, telephone lines, and electrical lines.  This leads to the compelling final scene where the protagonist guts his house of all the electrical trappings of modern civilization to escape the murderous power of the AI.  That murderous power is Varley’s second new element.  The AI can compel people to commit suicide.  How is never explained but it provides the air of menace and gruesome, mysterious death required.  I suppose it was also added as a thematic complement to the narrator’s experience with Chinese Communist attempts at brainwashing as a prisoner of war in Korea.  How exactly it developed the theme of psychological coercion is unclear to me.  Perhaps to show that the machine is more terrifyingly effective at it then Chinese communists or, for that matter, the Khmer Rouge that imprisoned Lisa Foo.  Or, perhaps much more speculatively, it’s a comment on the innate capability of sentience to be evil.  Foo chides the narrator (and her lover) for only thinking Nazis, South Africans, and Americans are racist. She rightly points out that Asians have a long history of racism.  Perhaps this is Varley’s way of showing that humanity may not be the only intelligence capable of murder and coercion.


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