Unpulped #17: Tongues of the Moon by Philip José Farmer

Tongues of the Moon

Tongues of the Moon (1964)

Prologue

I couldn’t finish either Poul Anderson’s THE STAR FOX or Robert A. Heinlein’s FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD. Both were terrible: Anderson’s book in the expected ways re: space capitalism, space imperialism, and space sexism, and Heinlein’s in long-established SFF tradition of sexist, authoritarian libertarianism. I only got about ten to twenty pages into each, and so didn’t feel like they’d be worth writing up.

Logue

And so I decided to read one of my favorite writers who had a book in the Unpulped box: Philip José Farmer. The book in question is called TONGUES OF THE MOON and I’d never heard of it and there’s perhaps a reason for that.

The reason: It’s not very good.

Compared to most of the Unpulped novels I’ve read so far, it isn’t bad. There isn’t a lot of overt sexism or racism–or there is, but it’s emblematic of characters we are supposed to hate rather than being the seeming default worldview of the author.

The story is this: A thermonuclear war has broken out on Earth destroying all life there, which leaves the colonized moons and planets of the solar system as the only survivors. These colonies were shared, generally, by different competing powers on Earth, but after Earth’s governments are gone, they fight among themselves, eventually devolving into an echo of what happened to Earth–a struggle between the atheist communists which had controlled most of the planet (America included) and the Catholic fascists who held out in South America.

Most of that is somewhat obvious from the brilliantly cartoonish cover. The cover is detailed enough to even include the deep space colony ship which, for some reason, was designed to look like a miniature Earth, and that plays a sort of major role in the first part of the novel.

So what’s holding me back here from loving this book? Maybe it’s that most of the Farmer I love either takes an old idea/character and reworks it (A BARNSTORMER IN OZ, the RIVERWORLD series) or his novels play with a central, unavoidable and fascinating conceit (THE WORLD OF TIERS and DAYWORLD). Farmer is wonderful at creating characters and making them live and breathe in a short amount of time. Of course, most of them are almost Bond clones, not in terms of womanizing or suavity, but in how they manage to get out of scrapes easily, and how there’s really very little doubt they’ll succeed in succeeding.

[Is that a symptom of pulp SF? That the hero always wins out, in the same way that Romance novels are required to have a happily-ever-after? This isn’t true for Philip K. Dick, and I’m sure it’s not true for countless other writers, but maybe for a specific sub-set of pulp novels where the power fantasy of the hero is key?]

The most troubling part of this novel is how the hero, an American Soviet officer named Broward, falls fully in line with the it’s-them-or-us mentality when considering the future of the human race. Earth is dead! The only chance for a future is in the colonies! And the majority of the surviving population is on Mars! And yet Broward goes along with his superior’s plan to get a world-buster bomb from Earth and destroy Mars, even though there are thousands of people living there and only a few hundred, at most, living on the moon.

Not to mention that all of this takes place after he’s seen humanity destroyed by the same hatred of the other and political strife Broward’s helping to keep going after countries and political philosophies have become, in some way, meaningless. So we are to hope for the success of this hero (sorry, “hero”) who is willing to kill thousands even though he knows that might mean the end of the human race entirely?

It’s true that he doesn’t look down on Jews (as his superior does) and doesn’t see making the women still alive baby factories as the proper solution for their future (again, as his superior does). Although, since his argument for the latter is that he doesn’t want to share his lover, it’s hard to see that as fulfilling a belief in the autonomy of women so much as an example of irrational possession of another.

Is this a result of the book being published in 1964? Or is it something underlying Farmer’s writing that I simply haven’t recognized until now? Is it like my reaction to reading Poul Anderson again and finding his beliefs and writing style are nothing like what I remembered?

Gue

I don’t think there’s any other Philip José Farmer in the Unpulped collecton. I’m not sure if I’m glad or sad about this. Not having any more means I don’t have to continue confronting one of my literary heroes, one of the first writers where I decided I would collect every one of their books.

And yet, is it good to see someone I respect as a writer fail? Does that mean it’s more likely I can be of equal or better rank someday? (You know, when we’re all ranking writers as though there’s only one standard of good writing, rather than a vast array of writers all expressing their unique voices…) There’s no denying he’s a good writer, and that he engages with ideas in an interesting (rather than reductive) way. Unlike a majority of the books I’ve read for this series, TONGUES OF THE MOON isn’t bad.

It just could’ve been much, much better.

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Analog June 1975

Analog June 1975

Analog June 1975

1.

As expected: Current events are past events and past events are current events. The editorial starts the issue off by talking about Science vs. Faith and how the public confidence in science and experts is being constantly and consistently eroded. Although this isn’t as direct and uncanny a connection to Trump as the Nixon essay (and how much of the country is complicit in empowering Nixon) it highlights one major aspect of Trump’s administration: the favoring of belief over evidence, the cult of personality over reliance on science (and people who know stuff, in general, through long years of study).

I suppose I’m still so much expecting artists who want to sell to also avoid politics that I’m a little shocked with each editorial, where Ben Bova says, “Thank you for coming to my magazine, where we are going to think and disagree and that’s okay, and it’ll especially be okay once you realize you’re wrong.”

2.

I love Roger Zelazny. And if I’ve ever talked to you about influences in my fiction writing, Zelazny is always at the top (along with Philip José Farmer) in terms of writers I first loved and whose DNA is intertwined with mine, even if that’s now mostly something you have to dig for. He’s one of the authors who collect, and so I’ve read most every novel he’s written.

And I’ve read the one serialized in the next three issues of Analog: Doorways in the Sand. I know I’ve read it, because I have the book, and I remember reading it. The problem is, I have no memory of the book except in the most vague sense, and those memories only come back after I’ve read the part I now remember. You’d think aliens disguised as kangaroos and wombats in order to fit in on Earth would be memorable. Apparently not.

This is a novel which is invented on the fly (or is designed to seem that way), where every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, each new chapter begins after that cliffhanger has been resolved, and the meat of each chapter is going back to figure out how exactly the main character survived. It’s a dizzying read in many ways, not just structurally, but also because Zelazny loves throwing philosophy and mystery into his books, so that action is as much dialogue as it is things being done, and often more so.

3.

Barbara Bartholomew’s “Wheel of Fire” involves a man who takes a trip back to the past to live another person’s life for a vacation from his own. If you’ve wanted the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Picard finds himself living an entire other life on an alien planet in a few seconds, that’s sort of what this is like, even if the main character only has a few days in another life: the result is the same. He goes back, learns some lesson, returns. He does nothing, actually, because he’s locked into the other person’s life and actions, so an observer rather than an actor. Well-written enough, but cynical and darkly unsatisfying.

4.

James Gunn’s “Fault” is similarly lacking in action by the main character, making it more of a horror story than an exploration of character or a cautionary tale. There’s a risk of a disastrous Earthquake in San Francisco, and scientists urge evacuation. Evacuation reluctantly occurs, at the behest of the main character, but then when nothing happens, everyone comes back to town, and THEN the earthquake occurs.

Whatever. The story is also filled with casual misogyny. We even start off with the MC sleeping with an underage girl because he’s, I don’t know, bored? He’s married, but “wanted to glory another moment in his masculinity, in his ability to bring an inexperienced girl to passion and repletion.”

Who said that literary fiction had the monopoly on shitty stories about washed-up men sleeping their way to salvation?

5.

“Swiss Movement” by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin takes the idea that the Swiss have, for centuries, trained each of their citizens to be assassins, and that they kill their way through politicians, business leaders, etc. in order to achieve the global politics they want.

Exciting as it sounds? Whatever you might think, no.

6.

This issue ends with “Snowball at Perihelion” by Glen Bever, another romp into the sort of sexist writing which aims to be James Bondian. A courier ship captain becomes the love interest of a space princess who is also a political force and a CEO and manages to save her and a small planetoid and become a hero.

It’s bad. Here’s how it ends.

“Within seconds I had the squirming, protesting girl tucked under one arm while ‘Uncle T. J.’ watched approvingly.

She stopped struggling long before we got back to our suite.”

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Awards Eligibility Post 2017 (or WHEEEEEEE!)

In awesome news I found out about by happy accident, 2017 is my first year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (specifically in SFF). And this is because 2017 was the year I had my first professional sale in science fiction and/or fantasy. (Okay, well, just science fiction.)

That first professional sale in science fiction also happens to be my only awards-eligible publication this year. If you’d like to read it, you can do so here:

“The Librarian” at Escape Pod. (Because it’s an Escape Pod story, you can also listen to it if you prefer. The reader there does an amazing job.)

So what this means is that, for this year, I’m eligible for both the Hugos and the Campbell awards, in case anyone out there reading this is able to, and planning on, voting for those.

If not, enjoy the story anyway (it’s one of my favorites) and let me know what you think.

p.s. Here are the eligibility requirements for the Campbell Award  in case you think you might be eligible as well.

 

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Analog May 1975

Analog May 1975

Analog May 1975

Finally! An Analog from the past (mostly) full of stories I enjoy reading! Both well-written and not laced with sexism/colonialism/racism! It’s a miracle!

First, Political Relevance Alert: This issue opens with a Ben Bova editorial against Nixon and his corruption and how the country must rise up to end the corruption and how did we even get to this state in the first place? Substitute Trump for Nixon and it still makes a great editorial today (and, again, makes me feel like we’ll survive the current regime people have survived such things in the past). I don’t read literature to escape, but if I did, this would be the equivalent of tunneling out of your prison cell to surface in the prison yard.

On to the stories, which are less politically-minded, but still relevant in how they address the way SFF is, and always has been, a political medium.

List Tuttle and George R. R. Martin’s “The Storms of Windhaven” is perhaps the first story I’ve read that fully engages me, and that I enjoyed pretty much without reservation. The story is about a group of messenger-fliers who use solar sails as wings on a stormy planet with islands as the only land mass. The culture is extremely well-realized, but what draws my in is the reality of the characters and their feelings. The main character is a girl who has been flying, but who is soon to lose her wings to her younger brother because of outdated tradition, and her tale is full of sadness, pride, and love, and is so well-done. I’m not surprised the story was expanded into a book years later.

Unlike many of the stories that are overtly sexist or classist, this story is also notable for the depth and care put into its female characters–and for the fact that, in this world, there is no difference between the sexes in terms of jobs or respect or ability. Which is a welcome, welcome change.

Michael Sutch’s “Nascent” is another good, enjoyable story, this one dealing with the creation of intelligent dogs by the military to provide cheap and able troops. Half of the story is told via the POV of the dog Charlie while the other half focuses on the men judging his performance. And the tale is really engaging and well-realized, despite its “fear of the UN World State” scare tactics which posit:

  1. The world is UN controlled, and if a country isn’t able to provide its share to the world economy, then the UN sanctions another country to invade the first to spur both economies onward.
  2. There is a surplus of everything, and so most people don’t have to work in order to live–there aren’t enough “necessary” jobs to go around. One gains citizenship via military service, and those who don’t are looked down upon.

Both are points which are more ill-thought symptoms of a half-baked dystopia than real world-building. But if you ignore those political aspects, Sutch comes up with a well-written story that’s easy to read.

So, I finally found a writer worse that Poul Anderson in terms of sexism. Oh, what a joy it is! Perhaps this is because W. Macfarlane’s story “Country of the Mind” is trotting out the War Between the Sexes as its major conflict, and there are so many established tropes there that anyone who is just using it as window dressing ends up lazily drawing cliche after cliche from the air.

I mean, to just imagine that this was written a year or two before James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and be so different in its portrayal of women. This story could’ve been from the thirties or the fifties. And, really, that’s not a fault of the writer (the writing IS the fault of the writer), but of the editor choosing a story that’s just so, so bad in all sorts of ways. Even laying aside the sexism and crappy world-building, the writing is unimaginative and also, at times, simply incomprehensible.

Selections from “Country of the Mind”:

“The woman behind the desk was a different brand of cookie” (pg. 118)

“A freeze-dried witch sat at the center and nodded her head.” (pg. 122)

And there’s more. But I’ll say no more about it.

I haven’t read much Algis Budrys, but his story “A Scraping at the Bones” makes me think I need to read more. It’s a straightforward noir sci-fi detective story where there’s really no mystery. Instead, it’s a character piece about what it means to live in a particular future world where everyone is watched and everything is prescribed by computers, and how one person’s acceptance of that system is undermined. I’ll always take seductive writing of a standard plot over a complex plot with crappy writing (as you’ll know if you read my stories), and this story fits that definition nicely.

Lastly, we have a story from Spider Robinson in his Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series, “Two Heads are Better than One.” I’ve never read any of Robinson’s work before, and if the rest of his stories are like this I’m not sure if I’m missing much. It’s well-written, and the characters are sketched out instantly with just a few key details. However, this story is just a joke. It’s a very well-dressed joke, but just a joke all the same. One of the Unpulped books is a Spider Robinson, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in the future. Right now, I’m not looking forward to the reading I’ll have to do in order to say it.

p.s. Just a short note here about how Lester del Rey HATES Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dhalgren. Hates is not perhaps strong enough: del Rey loathes this book. And while I find Dhalgren hard to recommend for everyone, I think the book is fascinating and strange and amazing in so many ways, while del Rey thinks all copies should be unbound and used for toilet paper. It’s fascinating to read such a bile-filled review of something I enjoyed. Also, I learned that apparently the title is a reworking of Grendel, which casts new light on the novel for me.

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Analog April 1975

The health debate from forty years ago!

Analog April 1975

“…listen to your Alpha and Theta brainwaves!” said the Analog ad.

Listening to my brainwaves, I realize that one of the most unexpected things about reading these ancient Analogs from the year before my birth is how much they speak to today. I don’t mean how some of the stories fit into my own reading history (such as the section of Haldeman’s THE FOREVER WAR in its original publication as a serial novella). No, I mean how the politics embedded in the magazines leap out to yell, “Hey, you! This was going on even then! What’s changed? Tell me, man, what has actually changed?”

Because in this issue we have the regular editorial replaced with an essay debate between F. Paul Wilson and Alan E. Nourse (both SFF writers and doctors) about National Health Insurance. And forty years later we are fighting about the same thing, with almost the same talking points. The government should stay out of health care, just like it should’ve stayed out of Vietnam! The purpose of a government is to take care of its citizens, and it will do so whether there is insurance or not, so let’s make sure the government has a system in place to manage health and control costs! Government should stay out of people’s affairs! Government, by definition, IS the affair of the people!

There is no conclusion to the debate, though both lay out their points solidly. Just as there is no real solution to the other facticle in the magazine, that of robot workers replacing their human counterparts. Well, James S. Albus proposes a solution, but doesn’t seem hopeful it’ll take: mainly, that governments should provide standard incomes for their citizens, because the wealth of a government should be, at its base, owned by the citizens that make up the government–and in a situation where labor is divided from capital, how else does one make sense of capital?

To be fair, my understanding of economics is…poor.

Another thing that’s poor: my knowledge of older SFF writers. I assume that if I haven’t heard of a writer (like Wilson or Nourse) then they couldn’t have been that successful or good (even though I know that popularity has nothing innately to do with longevity). But Wilson has written a ton, published bestsellers, and is still writing. Nourse wrote both YA and adult fiction, and one of his books donated its title to Blade Runner.

Those bits are perhaps the most interesting things about this issue. There’s a story by Brenda Pearce called “Crazy Oil” where the twist is not a twist and the only female character is pretty much set decoration. “To Be or Knot to Be” by Alecs Baird is a joke story about aliens who are pieces of rope for whom knot-tying is sex. Oh god is it a waste of space. Thomas Sullivan’s “The Sixth Face” is basically a spy-thriller with Russia/Asia as the antagonists to the West (another sad echo coming down to us today). Its worst sin is the lack of tension.

Then there’s Gregory Benford’s “Doing Lennon” and the last part of Gordon R. Dickson and Harry Harrison’s “Lifeboat.” They are both well-written, which is a plus. But Benford’s story doesn’t really do much with a man from our time freezing himself in order to pretend to be John Lennon in the future (obviously, Lennon hadn’t been killed yet, so this story is not just an alternate future but an alternate future written from an alternate past). But “Lifeboat” has grown on me, even if the first two parts of it seemed lackluster or full of problematic views of society (untreated in any way by the text). What this serial would gain by having it all sewn together into a single book is that the questioning of that society would come sooner, because it’s all here in the last part. Again, not that easy solutions are given to class issues and the inherent disparity between labor and administrators, but that there’s a path drawn to a better, fairer society.

I wonder. I’m doing these write-ups as an exercise in understanding SFF history, and how writing often reflects that history. What do you want as a reader? In-depth evaluations of the stories? More general thoughts (as with this review)? If you have an opinion, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

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Even the Grass (The Samizdat experiment poem #2)

It’s true, I’m going to be publishing a few of The Samizdat poems out of order. If you want to always get them in order along with occasional awesome broadsides of the poems designed by Jaime Questell, you can pledge the Patreon here for $1 a poem to support both political poetry and various charities.

As for this poem, it seems to grow more true as time goes on, as the White House becomes the Muddy Gray House, no longer emblematic of a shining city but instead a back room filled with cigar smoke. If the head of a government is insane, how can the body be anything but?

Even the Grass

And soon no one will call Stalin’s government anything but a government of insanity and treason.
~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Even the grass is tearing itself up by the roots.
Even priests drag down prayers from the heavens.
Even our organs are organizing against us. If I remove

my lungs, I remove the need for clean air. This is the logic
I was born for. Some other people were born
but this is not their poem. They have no poems

or need for poems, the insurers tell me. Even the grass
needs taking care of. Even a dull mower gets the job done.
What are we left with? A denuded ground, a desert of dirt

a stiff rain washes into the river. Even the sun
is blind. Steeped in its gloried light, even the grass
stretches up like arms, grasping for as much

as the muscles and tendons will let them take.

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Unpulped #16: Earthman’s Burden by Poul Anderson

Sometimes I think I don’t write about a book immediately after reading it so that the bad feelings have time to fade. If I wrote in books, this one would be furiously underlined, bracketed, and starred. I’d be having one-sided arguments in the minuscule margins. There’s be so many highlights, the pages would become beautiful rainbows.

And then sometimes I think I don’t write about a book immediately after reading it because I hope it’ll transform into something beautiful in hindsight, time and memory sanding away the edges until I can see what’s beautiful hiding underneath. The book as sea glass or driftwood.

Instead, we’ve got “The Adventures of the Incredible Hokas” which are not all that incredible, and generally uninspired and somewhat boring IN ADDITION to being sexist, racist, and imperialist. In all of Poul Anderson’s books-made-of-stories so far, I’ve found no stories which are worth reading, that stand out as memorable rather than workmanlike.

(And, yes, this is a collection co-written by Gordon R. Dickson, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this book and the others I’ve read by Anderson. Does that mean his writing is bland? That it easily takes on the color of whoever he’s writing with? Or that Dickson’s writing is also literary mayonnaise? I don’t know, because I’ve never read Dickson outside of this book, and Anderson’s already so grimed in my eye I don’t think I can judge his writing in an unbiased way anymore.)

The Story: Ensign Alexander Braithwaite Jones of the Interstellar Survey Service crashes on Toka far from where he needs to be in order to rejoin Earth society and be rescued. On his way to safety, he encounters alien teddy bears (the Hokas) acting like they are in the Old West (the movie version) because they are simple-hearted mimics and the first humans on the planet showed them Westerns. Anyway, he helps them commit genocide against the other alien race on the planet, and he becomes the official ambassador/liaison to Toka. Hijinks ensue for the next five stories where, in each, the Hoka attach themselves to another genre, from opera (via Don Giovanni) to space patrol stories (a la the Lensman series).

As you might guess from the above, the Hoka are used for comedy and Braithwaite Jones is the straight man in all the comic scenes. Which might be fine, I suppose, if the comedy was funny. (And who knows, maybe it was funnier in days of yore, but I think it more likely the stories came off like not-terrible SNL sketches: okay in the moment, maybe even eliciting a chuckle or at least acknowledgement that was you just read was a “joke,” but not even worth repeating the next day, forgotten instantly.) But the comedy isn’t funny. And it’s not just the naive and inane Hoka played for laughs, but also women (Isn’t it funny when women (professional women with their own jobs) fight over men, and are just working the job angle in order to get married HAHAHAHAHAHA) and alien races (which are basically non-white person equivalents, dominated for monetary purposes by Earth people).

I mean, there’s an alien race called the Pornians. From Pornia.

And it’s not even good writing. Each story starts off with Braithwaite Jones in the same position. The Hoka take on a role, and he is AMAZED and ASTOUNDED that they would behave so strangely, and oh my God, what will he ever do? (Answer: He’ll bumble along and manage to save the day by accident, then take all the credit.) What we’ve got here is the equivalent of an inoffensive sit-com in SFF story form.

Strangely, there is some self-awareness of the imperialist aspect of the stories in one of the interstitial pieces written (I believe) to connect the stories.

But I have been increasingly nagged by a very basic doubt–a doubt of the value, even the rightness, of the Service’s very raison d’etre. Is it possible that our problem of “civilizing backward planets” is only a subtle form of the old, discredited imperialism of Earth’s brutal past? Have I merely been turning my wards into second-rate humans instead of first-rate Hokas? I don’t know. In spite of all our pretentious psychocultural tests, I doubt if anyone really knows.

I know. And Braithwaite Jones knows, despite all his protesting, just like Poul Anderson knows, even if he hides it behind the ignorance of a fictional persona.

I mean, admitting your doing something shitty doesn’t really matter if you continue doing that shitty thing. Like with the depictions of women (even though there’s never a point where Anderson or Braithwaite Jones admits their sexism) which continues wherever women are present in the stories. For example, the final one where Braithwaite Jones’ wife crash lands on a planet and is desperate for rescue only, apparently, because the local food will make her fat.

No, seriously, that’s her main motivation.

“But there’s something in it! High calories or something. I’m putting on kilos and kilos. Alex, you’ve got to come right away!”

Right. No real fear of, you know, having crashed on an alien planet without a way to return home.

You know, I want to be done with Poul Anderson. And I don’t really think I have much more to say about him–each book pretty much repeats all the faults from the previous books without having any redeeming qualities. So I’m skipping out of three of the four Anderson books I have left in my Unpulped stash.

However, there is one book of Anderson’s which was nominated for a Nebula the same year Dune won that award. This is The Star Fox and it’ll be my final foray into Poul Anderson. It was nominated for a Nebula award, so how bad can it be?

I intend to find out.