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Donnerjack by Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold, Avon, 1997, $24.00, 502 pages
American Goliath by Harvey Jacobs, St. Martin's Press, 1997, $24.95, 346 pages
Slippage: Previously Uncollected, Precariously Poised Stories by Harlan Ellison, Houghton Mifflin, 1997, $22.00, 303 pages
I remember how shocked I was when Frank Herbert died back in 1986, and then Robert Heinlein in 1988. Isaac Asimov's passing in 1992 sent a tremor through me, but by then it had sunk in that these losses were only going to become more frequent. The shock had faded, but a broader melancholy had replaced it.
Roger Zelazny's death in 1995 stung me afresh, because he belonged to a later era. I hadn't prepared myself to see writers of the '60s and '70s start vanishing from the world already. And now Judith Merril is gone. Though she was, chronologically, more a contemporary of Asimov's than of Zelazny's, she'll always remain in my mind a part of that rebellious adolescent period that has become known as the New Wave.
The loss of Judith Merril left me thinking about that Wave, kindled a curiosity about its legacy. I thought I'd take a look at what some of the writers identified with that raucous period were doing today, since most of them are still with us, still writing—and some, like Zelazny, left new work only now seeing publication.
As editor of the British magazine New Worlds, Michael Moorcock was one of the central figures of the New Wave, and over the years he has continued to push the boundaries of the genre in his own fiction. His most recent novel, The War Amongst the Angels, is the third book in the sequence begun in Blood (1995) and continued in the short story collection Fabulous Harbors (1997). It's devilishly hard to convey its substance in any kind of traditional summary, but I'll try: War is concerned mainly with the history of "the Rose," or Countess Rose von Bek, née Margaret Rose Moorcock, before the events of Blood, and with her fate and that of her comrades Jack Karaquazian, Colinda Dovero, and Sam Oakenhurst thereafter. Moorcock presents us with a surreal blend of alternate history, metaphysical fantasy, and autobiography which works like an enchantment, a dream-vision that never collapses into an entirely rational order. The Rose inhabits a post-War Britain wherein eighteenth-century highwaymen still ply their trade, preying on the trams of the tyrannical Universal Transport Company. Teenaged Rose joins these honorable thieves for a time, but soon she learns to walk the silver roads between the worlds of the multiverse (which eventually lead her to the events of Blood). She becomes a player at the Game of Time, the eternal struggle between Chaos and Order.
Over the decades, Moorcock has continued to interweave his various fictional worlds, uniting the tales of Elric with those of Jerry Cornelius with those of Ulrich von Bek, and The War Amongst the Angels carries that process to new heights, blending those fictional—and largely fantastical—worlds with details from Moorcock's own life, a portrait of life in post-War England that's not far from purely mimetic realism. Scenes of the Rose's youth often read like plain mainstream fiction; the exploits of the highwaymen recall Dumas and Sabatini; and the battles between Chaos and Order are so space operatic they verge on parody. Moorcock delights in this juxtaposition: the tone lurches and shifts enough to make the reader seasick, but Moorcock makes it work.
Indeed, this may be Moorcock's most experimental fiction to date: he comes as near as I've seen anyone do to dispensing with linear narrative altogether, without reducing his tale to a hodgepodge of disconnected parts. It's virtually impossible to keep all the stray details straight as the story shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, timeframe to timeframe. One moment we're reading first-person Rose, then third-person Karaquazian, then first-person Dovero, and struggling all the while to keep track of when each scene is supposed to be taking place in reference to the others. Occasionally a detail in one scene will seem to contradict a detail from another. Yet, for all the confusion, Moorcock achieves a coherent effect. We emerge at the end feeling that we've lived a story—a story perhaps larger and richer than could have been told in a more linear, internally consistent fashion.
The War Amongst the Angels certainly upholds many New Wave ideals—the focus on human values in fantastical circumstances, the striving for greater and stranger levels of literary complexity—but there's something different as well. Moorcock isn't simply carrying on the tradition: he's reconsidering and revising it. An aura of maturity pervades the book, a sense of distance and the wisdom that comes with it. In his earlier books, the forces of Chaos and Order seemed purely antithetical, and the eternal conflict between them often seemed more meaningful than any less mythic way of life, but in this sequence of books a different feeling has taken root. The challenge that the Rose and the others face is in keeping the two sides in balance—so that they can return to their lives in the smaller-scale world of the everyday. At one point the war in heaven has spilled the bodies and body parts of angels all over the Rose's childhood country home, killing some of her old friends, poisoning the ground and the nearby lake, and it (literally) brings home the sense that it's the simpler reality that's more important. Warring angels only make misery for people.
It's not hard to read into that a commentary on the long-standing Old Wave-New Wave conflict (which continues today, though rarely under those headings), and Moorcock encourages such a reading with his scenes en homage to the pulpy days of Planet Stories. He remains true to the central ideals of the New Wave, but he yearns for a balance, a marriage of those values to the spectacle of the Old, a cessation of hostilities. In The War Amongst the Angels, Moorcock comes to fulfill the Old Wave, not to abolish it, and in the process he's produced a fascinating, spellbinding work of imagination.
I've often thought of Roger Zelazny as the American counterpart to Michael Moorcock—there seems to me more than a passing resemblance in Zelazny's Amber to Moorcock's multiverse. Not to imply any debt or imitation, one to the other; but it bespeaks some commonality of vision, and perhaps something characteristic of the New Wave. The blending of mythic adventure with quotidian reality, sword and sorcery with the swinging '60s; the fascination with games of chance and nihilistic heros; the metaphysical concept of a higher reality of which we can all be seen as a reflection. ("The old story," as Moorcock puts it, "which is echoed by our own.")
Zelazny's course later in his career did not much resemble Moorcock's, however. While Moorcock turned his hand to mainstream fiction and more experimental elaborations of his older work, Zelazny followed the shouts of the crowd, mining the familiar territory of his most popular creation—Amber—and, for the most part, stripping it of the flourishes which had made it more than run-of-the-mill action-adventure stuff. While Moorcock took more chances, Zelazny took fewer. (At least in his novels—his ambition was undiminished in his shorter work.)
That trend continues in Donnerjack, described as the "penultimate" collaboration with Jane Lindskold. It's the story of John D'Arcy Donnerjack, one of the three men behind the creation of Virtù, a vast virtual-reality realm with a significant life of its own. It's a place where people from the "real world," Verit&233;, go to work and to play, but it's also home to thousands of large and small artificial intelligences—genii loci who maintain the various realms of Virtù—and, it seems, to mythic entities from the world's many religions. Death, we learn from the start, maintains his own Virtùan realm called Deep Fields, where all the old programs go.
Donnerjack unknowingly falls in love with a woman who is a "proge," and watches her die in his arms in their Virtùan paradise. Distraught, but determined, he pursues her to Deep Fields, and there makes a classic pact with Death: he gets Ayradyss back in return for constructing a grand palace for Death . . . and his first born.
Since it's well known that Veritéans can't breed with Virtùans, Donnerjack thinks it's a deal that can never be fulfilled, but to his surprise Death returns Ayradyss to him in the flesh—in Verité. And, sure enough, she's soon pregnant. So Donnerjack marshalls all he knows of Virtù to protect their child from the grip of Death, but he fails: Death penetrates his defenses to take back Ayradyss, and Donnerjack makes another trip to Deep Fields, where he negotiates for his boy's life, and gets at best a brief reprieve. Death is ever tricky; he leaves the boy, but takes Donnerjack himself at his first chance.
And so Donnerjack becomes the story of Jay Donnerjack and his own battle with Death, which becomes part of a larger battle which the gods of Virtù plan to bring to Verité. It's up to the boy, with the help of various friends—including a girl who is also the product of a Virtùan-Veritéan union—to oppose the gods themselves, with the whole of the universe at stake.
Donnerjack lacks any greater levels of complexity, but it's entertaining enough, and it displays many of the stylistic quirks that make even Zelazny's lesser books a pleasure. He and Lindskold skilfully mingle sober and earthy tones—"In a simple act of animal gratitude, the phant . . . returned hurriedly to trample the shit out of it"; "The Brass Baboon farted cherry bombs"—and Zelazny's gift for colorful imagery makes Virtù much more than a retread virtual environment. But what makes Donnerjack stand out is the poignancy of its focus on Death. Jay saves himself and saves the world (come on, you know he does!), yet Death holds the final dominion, carrying off his father and mother and his elderly best friend before the book is done. Indeed, one of Jay's tasks is to defend Death—"who most of humanity view as the greatest enemy of all"—from the attacks of one of the Virtùan gods. Donnerjack gives us a glimpse of what may have been Zelazny's own feelings about his approaching end, grim acceptance coupled with great sadness and an increased appreciation for the love of friends and the pleasures of imagining. Though the book is not among his best, it does provide some glowing testimony to the greatness of the man.
Harvey Jacobs is not a "core" New Wave name, but he started publishing stories during the same period, and his work unquestionably shares some of the traits of the writers who earned themselves that designation. In fact, Jacobs's case makes a good argument for "New Wave" as descriptive of a time period, not a particular group of writers or a concerted literary movement. The New Wave penchant for violating taboos, for mingling tones, for unifying "high" and "low" art, and for humanitarian values, were cultivated in the '60s in many areas of life and the arts, not in SF alone.
Where Moorcock and Zelazny draw on ancient myths in their work, Jacobs chooses for his latest novel, American Goliath, something more recent and home-grown: the fraud of the Cardiff Giant, an infamous happening from the middle of the 19th century. His story, in outline, sticks pretty closely to the historical facts, insofar as they're known: George Hull, a wealthy New York cigar maker, conceives a plan after hearing a preacher claiming that the "giants in the earth" of Genesis had actually lived on American soil. Hull commissions a rough-hewn statue and has it buried on the poor farmland of an upstate relative, "Stubby" Newell, then he contrives to have it "discovered" in the fall of 1869. Experts from Yale and Cornell debate its nature—is it the petrified remains of an ancient giant, or merely an ancient statue?—but few suspect it's a hoax. Soon Hull and Newell are raking in profits from the thousands who make the pilgrimmage to see the Giant, and they're planning a nationwide tour, when the great showman P. T. Barnum gets wind of their gimmick and decides to make it his own—even if he has to fabricate his own copy of the "original" Cardiff Giant.
Where Jacobs departs from the historical record is in his portraits of the characters involved—George Hull and Stubby Newell, their wives, and assorted other denizens of the small towns of Onondaga County, New York. And the Giants, Hull's and Barnum's, whose voices we hear throughout the story. Jacobs's work has always shown an abiding concern for the cruelties that humans visit upon each other, particularly those of racism and intolerance, and he does an excellent job of implying a contemporary moral viewpoint without violating the spirit of the time and place of his tale. Heart-wrenching scenes with Indian children being taught about Jesus, newly-free blacks looked down upon by their white peers, and a Jewish dowser who's nearly hung when the Giant is first discovered reveal the frequency of prejudice not so very long ago, but Jacobs's good-humored tone never lets the story become lost in the issues—we laugh and cry as the Indian boy, Herbert Black Paw, disputes in confusion with the Reverend Turk: "Because a hungry man is given fruit by his woman is no bad thing," Herbert says about the tale of Adam and Eve. "To seek wisdom from such a magic fruit is no bad thing." And he's beaten for his insolence.
Like Moorcock and Zelazny, Jacobs is more interested in achieving truths of the heart and of mood than of any rigorous limitation of his imagination, and thus we get similar juxtapositions of tone in American Goliath, particularly in the voices of the Giants: "Logic tells me there is but one Source," thinks the stone that will become the original Giant after it's taken away by George Hull. "Then how am I to explain this edgy suspicion that I'm under new management?" And later, as it plays host to throngs of religious seekers under a tent on Stubby Newell's farm, the Giant ponders his success as compared to Jesus': "I'm better box-office."
As if to confirm Jacobs's unity with the other writers of the New Wave period, there is even a hint of commentary in the dialogue between the two Giants later in the book. Barnum's Giant envisions a future of driven technological purpose, reaching for stellar empires ý la Heinlein, while Hull's Giant insists on a more humane vision: "Where's the escape?" he asks. "To a land without love? . . . I'm all for building empires and a trip to the stars. But can't we sip from the Dipper without breaking its cup?"
There's no greater gift that the New Wave gave to SF than that resistance to futures "without love." Few SF writers today consider such compassionless fates for the race, and we have writers like Harvey Jacobs to thank for that. . . .
. . . and writers like Harlan Ellison, too. His latest collection, Slippage, though imbued with meditations on mortality and loss and more than a small helping of autobiographical note, continues Ellison's mingling of pulp SF themes and concepts with passionate, fiery, kaleidoscopic prose and a rage undimmed from his younger days. At their worst, the stories here are uninspired SF conceits brought to life with the power of Ellison's writing ("Chatting with Anubis" and "Keyboard" for two); at their best, they are classics to rank with the many gems of Ellison's long career.1
1I should note that a couple of the stories I regard as classics here—"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" and "Mefisto in Onyx"—were published in Omni while I was working there, and I had a hand in editing them. Not a big hand, but enough to make some readers feel a twinge of doubt. All I can say is that I thought these stories were wonderful at the time, and since they've held up in my estimation after years have passed, I don't think my judgment is skewed by what small role I had in their publication.
"The Man Who Rowed," like Moorcock's War Amongst the Angels, serves as a challenge to anyone who feels that literary experimentation only takes away from the power of the "story" (as if that thing could be in some way distinguished from the manner of its telling). The story of the wandering god-like Levendis and his whims of divine intervention wouldn't have half the power were it told in more straightforward form. In the hands of masters, the juxtaposition of disparate tones communicates something essential about the world which less daring narratives cannot grasp. One day Levendis raises everyone's IQ by 40 points, and on the next he lowers it by 42 points. On another he takes violent revenge upon racist skinheads who are beating up an interracial couple. He saves a 19th-century New York prostitute from syphilis so that she may bear a child who will save the lives of millions, and the next day causes a "fully-restored 1926 Ahrens-Fox model RK fire engine" to appear in a mini-mall in Arkansas. As Jacobs does, Ellison vents his rage over injustices large and small without seeming to preach; he accepts the capriciousness of the universe while decrying the evils men do.
"Scartaris, June 28th" is a kind of sequel, a series of (mostly longer) episodes with the same divine trickster who is losing his taste for the game, but redisovers it at the end. It ranks with "The Man Who Rowed" as one of the two or three best Ellison stories of the past decade, and I think the form of both pieces says something about Ellison's work in that span. They're assembled of pieces, scenes too short or undeveloped to be whole stories in themselves but when assembled as parts of a larger vision become filled with extraordinary power. Several of the lesser pieces in Slippage—"Anywhere But Here, With Anybody But You," "Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral," "Go Toward the Light"—strike me as great beginnings of stories that either peter out or never take on that resonance of larger implication that makes "The Man Who Rowed" and "Scartaris" so effective. They might have been better off as parts of another such ensemble piece.
"Mefisto in Onyx" is a different sort of story altogether, told in a more conventional narrative form that fits it perfectly. It's the tale of Rudy Pairis, a well-educated but drifting black man who was born with the power to read people's minds, their "landscape" as he calls it. It's a power that has brought him mostly pain and isolation, since even the best people, he's found, harbor secret thoughts and feelings you'd rather not know about. Rudy's drafted—by one of the few people he's close to, power lawyer Allison Roche—to plumb the mind of convicted serial killer Henry Lake Spanning, to see if he really committed the atrocious crimes for which he's been sentenced to die. And it's not just the hunger for the truth that drives Allison: she's in love with Spanning.
The plot itself, while gripping, isn't what makes the story's mark: it's the character of Rudy Pairis and the transformation he undergoes during the course of the tale. He's awakened from his wallowing in self-pity to reclaim command of his life. The magic is in the way Ellison walks the thematic line: Rudy's transformation in no way blunts his passionate feelings about the injustice of the world, no more than Levendis's whimsical use of his powers compromises the tragedy and cruelty of fate. As Zelazny and Lindskold do in Donnerjack, but with much more power and heat, Ellison simultaneously shows us the grim facts of life, rages at them, and tells us to stop whining and get on with things. That's the reality we've got to work with; make the best of it.
Slippage displays the essential benevolence that drives Ellison's famous fury: he's angry because he wants justice, he wants goodness to prevail, he wants the weak protected and the bastards hung from a tree—and he knows it won't happen, that in this real world bad guys get away. His remains a refreshing, sobering voice, devoted to the most honorable quest of the human heart: to accept the losses and injuries of life, the slippage, without giving up the determination to hold on to what you can. Raging at the dying of the light.
We need more voices like his.
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Copyright © 1998–2013 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide