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January 2001
 
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Books
by James Sallis

Immodest Proposals: The Collected Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume 1, by William Tenn, NESFA Press, 2001, $29.00.

From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, by Fredric Brown, NESFA Press, 2001, $29.00.

Dossier, by Stepan Chapman, Creative Arts Book Company, 2001, $13.95.

Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link, Small Beer Press, 2001, $16.00.

Meet Me in the Moon Room, by Ray Vukcevich, Small Beer Press, 2001, $16.00.

The satirist always carries two guns. His big service revolver fires bullets of Extrapolation, Cautionary Tale, Irony, Derision, Exaggeration and Raucous Laughter. But it's the little thrown-down in the ankle holster that gets you. Just when you think he's out of rounds, he hits you with the Idealism beneath it all.

Phil Klass, traveling not at all incognito under the name of William Tenn, is one of the marvelous generation of sf writers including Heinlein, Asimov, Sturgeon and Phil Farmer, a generation that, while not inventing the genre, largely codified it. Like rock and rollers in the Sixties, they conceived of themselves as half barbarian, half elite; they thought they alone could speak for a world utterly changed, and that their art, in turn, would change the world again for the greater good. Such sense of mission inspires prodigious effort and creativity but can leave a terrible chaff behind once the engine runs down. Mad Ireland hurt Yeats into poetry. Sturgeon only damaged himself into silence. Alfred Bester died from all accounts a bitter man, with one final flamboyant gesture willing his literary estate to the bartender who'd stood by him those last few years.

But that's youth itself, you say, that urgent sense of mission, that vitality. And surely the final days of Sturgeon and Bester had more to do with failures of character than with genre shortcomings?

"There's something wrong with science fiction as it developed in this country, " William Tenn said in a 1975 interview. "There's something particularly shallow, peculiarly tied to the pulps."

Little surprise, then, that Tenn, while regaling us with stories of the glory years, might prove at the same time a bit cantankerous. Like many musicians I know, despairing of that life's difficulty, he's continually giving it up. Till one night he notices fingers drumming in sequence on the table top. . . .

Phil Klass always wanted the barriers down. An earnest advocate of Campbell's Astounding, he never read it "for the simple pulpy jazz effects, but for the same reason I read Thomas Mann and André Malraux then, and Jorge Luis Borges and Olaf Stapledon later: it opened up large imaginative vistas and raised questions about where my species was going."

Those busy folk at NESFA now offer, to accompany similar collections of Anthony Boucher, C. M. Kornbluth, Charles Harness and others, this first of two volumes bringing together William Tenn's entire science fiction output. It's a welcome collection, ranging from Tenn's first published story, "Alexander the Bait" (Astounding, 1946), through classics such as "The Flat- Eyed Monster" (Galaxy, 1955) and "The Liberation of Earth" (Future Science Fiction, 1953), to Tenn's sole space opera "Down Among the Dead Men" (Galaxy, 1954) and "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi," written in 1974 for Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy & Science Fiction. Thirty-three stories all told, with marvelous afterwords from Tenn and an engaging introduction by Connie Willis. In one of those afterwords, speaking of his inquiry into totalitarianism in "A Man of Family," Tenn remarks the attraction science fiction has for him: "Only in science fiction could such a fictional investigation be attempted, because only science fiction provides the theater where the character of a society rather than that of an individual can be elaborated."

Lots of poking about in society's cracks here. Lots of great aliens at one and the same time comic and profoundly unsettling. This is classic science fiction at its best, stories rivalled only by Avram Davidson and a handful of others, 600-plus pages of William Tenn striding purposefully towards you grinning, ideas in one hand, joy buzzer in the other.

*     *     *

Also out from NESFA is From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, another writer to whom ideas are central. Sometimes, as in Brown's trademark short-shorts, the idea's all there is, and, as Barry Malzberg points out in his introduction here, people often pass along the "plots" of Brown's stories, his ideas, with no notion of their source.

Like William Tenn, Brown was of that generation of writers that came along in the interregnum between pulps and paperbacks. As with many others, he moved easily between genres, and had he never written a word of science fiction would be well remembered for his battery of fine mysteries such as The Fabulous Clipjoint and The Screaming Mimi. There were thirty novels in all. I've no idea how many stories. Originally six collections, I believe. Some years back, Dennis McMillan published nineteen volumes of stories culled from the pulps before giving up.

Stories collected here run from 1941 through 1965, including well-known tales like "Etaoin Shrdlu," "Arena" and the brilliant "Come and Go Mad" alongside a bucketful of short-shorts.

Like your champion storyteller at the local pub, Brown is at his best when he has a point to make, and he makes those points with rare economy. Nothing better illustrates this than "The Weapon," his parable of the atomic age, in which an anonymous visitor to the "key scientist of a very important project" leaves a loaded revolver with the scientist's retarded son. Or, alternately, one of his last stories, "Puppet Show," a marvelous piece of writerly sleight-of-hand set in the West where Brown spent his last years, in which no, it's not the weird stick man, nor the grizzled prospector, nor the handsome young fellow into whom the prospector metamorphoses, but the mule, that's come as emissary to mankind. "Puppet Show" brings to completion a host of Brown first-contact stories, many of his best among them.

In for the penny and let the pounds be damned, Brown is more stand-up comic than satirist. He's the guy scampering around behind, mugging and doing pratfalls, giving the speaker donkey ears, while the professor - or the culture - gives its earnest speech.

A valuable man.

*     *     *

Moving right along, more accurately hopscotching some thirty to sixty years (Don't look down!), we come to Dossier, a collection of stories by Philip K. Dick Award-winner Stepan Chapman. These stories, it occurs to me, well might seem to Tenn, Brown, that generation, artifacts of an alien culture. Several appeared not in genre magazines but in literary quarterlies such as the Chicago Review. Most are brief, some little more than parables. The science fiction writer I'm most reminded of is David R. Bunch, but in these stories' deliberate irreality, in their firewalled partitioning from our world, they strongly recall Tommaso Landolfi.

"All sorts of weird things go on in this town," one begins. "It's not my fault that no one besides me ever notices them.

"Late on any clear autumn night, there are things made of origami that flutter around the street lamps. When the first frost hits town, I find these little paper things dead in the gutters, dozens of them, neatly folded from rice paper."

In another: "Now and again we'll get a tidal wave or a sea monster. But on the whole, life here is uneventful. Which is just how we like it."

Though there are stories here, rather grand stories in most cases, epic and elemental, they're carried forward on mood and image as much as narration. Chapman has an uncanny ability to write from inside resolutely other worlds, evoking entire characters, chains of thought, whole realms of human experience, in a phrase or paragraph, as in the conclusion to "The Prison of Sod":

"As his last fire burned out, the old hermit stopped breathing.

"He had lived his entire life on the frozen wastes inside my brain. Several other hermits like him are living there still. They live far apart and never meet one another. I don't know where they come from, these hermits, or where they go when they die, or what they mean.

"But sometimes other people see them behind my eyes and turn away."

Here you'll find Chapman's idiosyncratic takes on heroic fantasy ("The Quest"), primitive myths and the fairy tale ("The One-Armed Elek," "At Her Ladyship's Suggestion"), alternate history ("Minutes of the Last Meeting") and alien invasion ("An Example of Ataxia") as well as the Stanislaw Lem-like fable "A Legend of the Wheelgirls."

"Stories can be dangerous," that last one concludes. The one I've been unable to get out of my mind for weeks now.

*     *     *

We've crossed, I suspect, a great divide.

Though they grew up on it, I doubt that it ever occurs to Stepan Chapman, Kelly Link or Ray Vukcevich to ask, Is this science fiction? Or to feel that writing it (when they do) requires justification. Brilliant writers such as Tenn and Brown stormed the gates and broke through; today's young turks are as likely to embrace the influence of Barthelme, Borges, Joanna Russ and Carol Emshwiller, or for that matter Mark Leyner, as of Heinlein and Phil Farmer.

Kelly Link's stories in Stranger Things Happen are marvels in the deftness and assurance of their writing as much as in subject matter. They are all about intersections, those corners of consciousness where parallel worlds for whatever reason get bent to contiguity.

"All last week I felt like something was going to happen," one begins, "a sort of bees and ants feeling. Something was going to happen. I taught my classes and came home and went to bed, all week waiting for the thing that was going to happen, and then on Friday I died."

Another:

" 'When you're Dead,' Samantha says, 'you don't have to brush your teeth . . . '

" 'When you're Dead,' Claire says, 'you live in a box, and it's always dark, but you're not ever afraid.'

"Claire and Samantha are identical twins. Their combined age is twenty years, four months, and six days. Claire is better at being Dead than Samantha."

Yet, crowded smack up against wonder, there's always the mundane, the unremitting dailyness of our lives: "A few years ago, Jack dropped the c from his name and became Jak. He called me up at breakfast one morning to tell me this. He said he was frying bacon for breakfast and that all his roommates were away. He said that he was walking around stark naked. He could have been telling the truth, I don't know. I could hear something spitting and hissing in the background that could have been bacon, or maybe it was just static on the line."

Few writers render the textures of daily life, the terrible entwine of its ordinariness and its marvels, as well as Link.

Often enough, indeed, her stories seem not so much created as somehow dredged up from our inner selves, dimly remembered from dreams, or from childhood perhaps. In a sense, too, they're all ghost stories. For what Link knows is that we are all transients, clinging to the hard surfaces of this world and to our memories in hope not to fade away.

*     *     *

As an admirer of Ray Vukcevich's novel The Man of Maybe Half-a-Dozen Faces and with fond memories of stories encountered over the years in Pulphouse and various anthologies as well as in these pages, I turned with interest to this initial collection.

That's when the truck hit me.

The whole point of a collection (besides entertaining you, of course, and believe me, that is not a problem here) is to demonstrate a writer's range, let you get the full impact of his work in a way that exposure to individual stories over a period of time can't afford.

So here I am, flattened.

And here is Vukcevich on transcendence and the American dream in a story running just over 1000 words:

"In those days, I was a big, bearded, bald guy with an ax, grinding down the boulevard in my '57 Chevy, looking for something pretty to chop.

"These days, a woman who calls me Mary feeds me chocolate chip cookies as I snuggle on the lap of the man who calls me Kitten. The man has his hand on my thigh. We watch TV. I know I've got a milk mustache. I know it looks cute."

Or this episode from the married life as only Vukcevich can disclose it:

"So I come home to find her sitting on the hide-a-bed with this brown paper bag over her head. She hasn't turned on the lights. There are shadows everywhere. I can just make out the name of the grocery store printed in upside-down letters on the front of the bag. She's wearing one of the big bags.

" 'What are you doing?' I say.

" 'Don't talk to me,' she says."

There are thirty-three stories here, most of them no longer than a few pages, none of them much like anything you've read before, many, like "Finally Fruit" or "Whisper" or "Doing Time," profoundly unsettling. On a personal level, returning to it again and again, I find "We Kill a Bicycle" far the strangest and most unsettling of all, though other readers doubtless will elect "Home Remedy" with its tale of a man's thoroughgoing efforts to eliminate the roaches living inside his head. Included, by the way, in "Rejoice," are some of the worst puns and most shamelessly non-sequitur literary allusions ever put to paper.

These are funny, savage stories, all flint and steel, scraps of flannel, pratfalls and prideful weirdness, sparks falling away into darkness.

"Stories can be dangerous," Chapman wrote. Yes they can, and should, be. And in the case of all the writers covered here, indisputably are.

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