SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 3 (March 1993)

I meant to get this out yesterday but I had one more story to go and I didn’t get to the story until this morning. So without further delay, here are my thoughts on Volume 1, Issue 3 of SCIENCE FICTION AGE.

Essay: “Toiling in the Dreamtime” by Harlan Ellison

I loved Scott Edleman’s editorial on Harlan Ellison because it reminded me of the way I feel about Ellison and his writing. And I loved Ellison’s essay even more because of the way it provided a rare insight into the man who I consider to be one of the best American writers ever regardless of genre. His essay talks about where writers get their ideas, and in particular, how often times, his own ideas evolve from dreams (he gives his story “Lonelyache” as one example where this has happened. It was a pleasure to read in part because it did not sound like Ellison’s usual self. It was humble in its own way. Essays are harder to discuss than fiction so rather than discuss the essay, I wanted to briefly discuss Ellison himself.

I make no effort to hide those writers who had the greatest influence on me: Isaac Asimov, Barry Malzberg, and Harlan Ellison are in the top three. Ray Bradbury is in the top five. Joe Haldeman and Robert Silverberg in the top ten. Each of these writers brings something unique to the table and like an voice impressionist, each has something that you can grab onto and use as the basis for immitation. Asimov has his clear style. Malzberg his in-the-moment, sardonic wit. Bradbury has his metaphors. Harlan Ellison is the one who is unique. Harlan Ellison has emotion in his stories that I have never been able to manage in my own, even when I consciously try to imitate his style. It just doesn’t work because he has a gift for writing and understanding human emotion that I simple don’t have. And that is what make his stories so special.

Unlike most people, who would probably choose one of Ellison’s classic (“‘Repent Harliquin,’ Said the Ticktockman”, or “I Have No Mouth and I Must Screen”, or “Pretty Maggy Moneyeyes” or “Paladin of the Lost Hour”) as one of their favorites, my favorite Harlan Ellison story is “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”, which I first read in college when in appeared in the anthology for The Year’s Best Short Stories, 1993. I thought the story was brilliant (and somewhat like his 1968 classic, “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”). Traditional “horror” stories don’t scare me; in fact they often seem ridiculous to me. I’ve read two or three Stephen King novels and never felt myself looking over my shoulder in the middle of the night. In fact, I can think of only two stories that have ever freaked me out. The first was Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”. The second, and to a much greater extent (the story did have me looking over my shoulder when I first read it in college) was Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”.

Isaac Asimov is my favorite writer of all time and I never got to meet him. Barry Malzberg is also one of my favorite writers and although we’ve never met, I once wrote him a letter in the late 1990s and he wrote me a very nice reply. And we recently exchanged a few emails. But I have met Harlan Ellison in person on several occasions and that makes him all the more real to me as a writer. The first time I met Ellison was in July 1995, when I attended a lecture he was giving at the Learning Tree in Chatsworth, California. During that 3 hour lecture, he read a story that had just come off the typewriter, “Midnight In the Sunken Cathedral” and it was the first time in my life I’d ever heard a dramatic reading. I have heard other dramatic readings since then and none come close to the way Harlan Ellison did it. A few years later, I attended another lecture given in Marina Del Rey. At that lecture, Ellison was humble and announced at the beginning that he was nervous because one of his film idols, Dennis Sutherland, was in attendance. Sure enough, there he was in the back of the room.

For 8 years, I lived a short distance from the famous Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, CA. And on half a dozen occasions or so, I went to the bookstore when Harlan Ellison (who also lived nearby) was signing books. I would get my books signed and then find a seat somewhere nearby and spend hours listening to Ellison talk. I probably have 10 books signed by Ellison, but on the last time I met him, I asked him if he’d mind signing the book “To Jamie” and he smiled and said he’d be happy to.

And how about this for irony. One of my best friends, strausmouse lived just 4 houses down the street from Harlan Ellison when we were in high school. And I never knew it! His parents still live there and when I found out from Eric that Harlan Ellison lived on his street, I went looking for his house and sure enough, there it was, complete with the Ellison Wonderland sign and the gargoyles and everything.

People that I’ve met have mixed feelings about Harlan Ellison, and for good reason. He can come off life a real jerk sometimes. Isaac Asimov always said, however, that Ellison was a pussycat at heart and I must admit that I saw more pussycat than lion in my encounters with him. He talks the talk, and walks the walk, as Scott Edelman pointed out in his editorial for this issue, but he can also be a sweet and gentle man. And he appears to genuinely have a good time doing what he does. I once saw him write a short story in the window of Dangerous Visions. Chris Carter, of X-Files fame, gave him a one-line idea for the story: “The one-hundred year old pregnant corpse” and over the course of the next few hours, we all stood around watching the magic happen. Harlan Ellison produced a story he called, “Objects in the Mirror of Desire are Closer than They Appear”.

I’ve also met Ellison’s wife, Susan. In fact, she has contact me on two occasions. The first time was when I moved and she called to get my new address so that I would continue to receive my “Down the Wabbit Hole” newsletter. The second time, was when I got a short note from her, thanking me for the kinds words I’d said about Harlan in a letter I sent to him some time in the late 1990s.

You read the stories and often the men and women who write them are demigods, living on a different plane of existence and doing things that you only dream of being able to do. But then you meet them and see that they really are regular people like you and me, albeit far more talented. It’s part of the reason why fans like talking to science fiction authors. It gives us hope that we can make it too. Harlan Ellison’s essay in this issue was about dreams. At some point, nearly ever science fiction fan (at least the ones that I have met) has dreamed of becoming a writer. Getting to meet our heroes helps make the dream seem possible. It keeps us going. And, at least, in my case, after 14 years of writing, it most certainly played a part in making my dream come true.

“Day of the Dancing Dinosaurs” by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

What boy growing up doesn’t love dinosaurs? I can recall quite well the big blue-covered book of dinosaurs that I had when I was six or seven years old. Dinosaurs were cool because of their enormous size, compared with the more mundane animals we are used to dealing with today. And it is the dinosaurs size that made Arlan Andrews “Dad of the Dancing Dinosaurs” such a fascinating story. Certain dinosaurs were thought to be fast runners, but with the help of a remote-viewing time machine, two scientists discover that in fact, the big dinosaurs could not be as fast as was suspected. The physics of their construction and size would make it impossible. On the other hand, they witness a dinosaur dancing and build computer models showing that this type of movement is possible. During the course of story, the true nature of lizard-mammalian behavior is discovered and it is a horrifying discovery. Enough so that one of the two scientists commits suicide over it.

So there is the idea that makes the story fascinating, but the story goes the extra mile with the voice in which it is told. In my mind, it is a Heinlein-esque voice, swift, authoritative, sardonic, with a touch of wit. Some science fiction stories can over do jargon, but the voice given to the story made the array of s.f. jargon humorously appropriate: flexscreens, ultramicromechs, Greenos, humynkind, and my personal favorite, “old spec-phi flatfilms”.

I can’t help but wonder, though–and this could be completely coincidental–if this story was not written in reaction to the about-to-be-released blockbuster Jurassic Park. A few short lines in particular caught my attention and made me think that perhaps it was less than coincidence (remember, the story appeared in March 1993, three months before the movie):

Regardless of the old spec-phi stories, the possibility of cloning a dino was just fantastic. Too fantastic, really, when we had just lost a few hundred species of mammals in the last decade.

Since Jurassic Park was all about the cloning of dinosaurs, this seems too direct a reference to be coincidence.

Coincidence or not, “Day of the Dancing Dinosaurs” was a fun story to read. It brought out that six year old boy in me who loved dinosaurs and it was good to spend time with him. I hadn’t seen him in a while.

“Thy Kingdom Come” by Ben Bova

I have not read a lot of Ben Bova’s fiction before. I read his novel, Mars, and I’ve read a few of his short stories, but that was the extent of my Ben Bova experience, until I read “Thy Kingdom Come”. This is the first part of a two-part serial and I didn’t realize that until I got the climactic scene of the story and saw the words, Continued Next Issue. It is the story of Vic and Jade, a vagabond and a hooker, living in a kind of post-apocalyptic world. From the hints in the story, the world does not feel as though there was some kind of nuclear disaster. Instead it seems more social, like the kind of world I recall from William Gibson’s Virtual Light. Vic is in love with Jade, who has been arrested by the Controllers and is in a lot of trouble. So Vic goes to an underworld boss for help in getting her free. Get her free he does, but he finds himself caught up in a plot to set off a bomb designed to assassinate a world leader.

This story (so far) is good on a number of levels. It is told from the point of view Vic giving some kind of testimony, so you know he makes it through whatever happens. And yet the tension is still there. Vic’s voice also makes the story. He comes across as the kind of invisible millions of nameless, faceless characters that you might see on NYPD Blue being interrogated by Sipowitz for stealing video games from the back seat of a car. Most of all, it is the vivid descriptions of the ruined Philadelphia that make the story. I had no problem visualizing the slum-like places through which Vic and Jade tried to run, subway tunnels, bridges, dangers parts of a dangerous town, in the midst of a dangerous time. Gritty is a good word that describes the imagery presented in this story.

And speaking of imagery, Jim Burns illustration of for the story, and especially his illustration of Jade, is outstanding, by far the best illustration in the issue. Naturally, I can’t wait to read the concluding part of the story. It is one of the benefits of reading through a complete set of magazines that I don’t have to wait very long. The next issue is sitting on my bookshelf, ready to be picked up as soon as I finish off this one.

“Somatoys” by Ray Aldridge

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about “Somatoys” is wow! That story has some kick! It is the story of a man who lives alone on planet as a hermit, part of a religious sect that has harsh rules of celibacy. He is then taken slave to a sadistic creature who makes use of another captured slave, a woman or somatoy. What ensues is the trials through which the slaves go in order to simply survive.

One great thing about science fiction is that one story almost always reminds you of another story and there are all kinds of interrelationships and intertextualities within the genre. But occasionally, you come across a gem that is not familiar, that is not definable by past frameworks and “Somatoys” is one of those gems. It is an exploration of good and evil and there is plenty of that in s.f., but nothing quite like this tale is coming mind. There are the religious aspects, sects, cults, and those are familiar too within s.f. but the suffering and meaninglessness of it are rare. Science fiction stories tend to find reasons for the evil in the world and point fingers, even vaguely, in some direction. This story carves out a niche for itself, at least in my experience, as not quite like anything else I have read.

“Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall” by Connie Hirsch

The fantasy story this issue is an amusing re-telling of the Snow White legend. What makes it amusing is that the story teller is the mirror itself, and what makes it unique is that the story is told in second-person, where the reader is one of Snow White’s maids, who has discovered the mirror covered up in an old room. The story, as told my the mirror, is an attempt by the mirror to vindicate itself from any blame in the incidents that led up to Snow White’s near demise.

It was a fun story because the mirror had an amusing voice–the kind of voice one might find in a somewhat reluctant witness, forced to take the stand in a trial.

I wouldn’t quite characterize this story as one of the fairy-tale-like stories that I mentioned in my thoughts on volume 1, issue 2. But it was still a fun story to read.

Other items

One other thing about the issue that I wanted to mention. The back cover of the issue has an advertisement for Gateway, the computer game based on Frederik Pohl’s classic novel. There is a picture of the game box on the in the upper right corner is a yellow bar containing the words “256-COLOR VGA!” That made me laugh!

I’m trying to keep a more regular schedule on going through these magazines, but it seems to come and go in waves. In the future, I’m going to try for at least one a week, so as to provide a bit more regularity. That being the case, you can expect my comments on Volume 1, Issue 4 (containing stories by Ben Bova and Barry Malzberg, as well as an essay by Robert Silverberg) in about one week.

It’s hard work, but boy is this fun!