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Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee, Dey Street Books, 2018, $28.99, hc
Exceptionalism comes in all shapes and sizes. That of the white American male. That of the nation or tribe. That of the smartest one in the room. And being the smartest one in the room can depend on what room you choose to be in.
Science fiction folk often live with double consciousness, hunkered down in their cloister safe from the mainstream world's fraughtness while at the same time believing themselves to be, with their warnings and predications, firmly among that world's ordained saviors.
This is one of many patterns streaming through Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding, which combines a biography of John W. Campbell with a kinescope of the lab in which modern science fiction got invented. Campbell-centric, certainly, but with background, perspective, and textures carefully laid in: the history of magazine science fiction, sketches of early fandom in all its fledgling earnestness, tales of lost and self-immolated friendships, science fiction's place in the war effort, stories of desperation and hand-to-mouth existence, broadsides of L. Ron Hubbard's traveling magic-and-medicine shows.
Little surprise that ego and hubris abound here. To do the work against tremendous odds, to go on believing in the value of that work, creative individuals must believe themselves exceptional. Still, reading along, one wonders how such unchained egos as Campbell's and Hubbard's might ever have fit together into a room. The book's covers fairly bulge with their containment here.
Fellow long rider Isaac Asimov put it best:
Suppose you meet a man who asks you what your field of endeavor is and you tell him that you are the world's greatest living vertebrate paleontologist, which is, of course, what you are. And suppose that, on hearing this, the man you meet fixes you with a glittering eye and proceeds to lecture you for five hours on vertebrate paleontology, getting all his facts wrong, yet somehow leaving you unable to argue them. You will then have met Campbell.
And so we do.
Few question the importance of John W. Campbell. He changed the baby's messy diapers, taught it to walk, fed it well and gave nurture, and when it left home to go out on its own he never quite got over the loss, which he felt a desertion, sinking into one dodgy crusade after another, becoming (as many of us do) ever more stubbornly himself. Anything can save you if you grab it hard enough and hold on. John Campbell was a master at holding on. He held on to Dianetics, to the Dean Drive, to notions of a science of psychology and of society. And he held on—always—to belief in his own preeminence. "Campbell liked to say that the genre's true protagonist was all of mankind," Nevala-Lee writes, "but he saw it in terms of heroic figures, starting with himself."
This man, ensconced for so many years in his tiny office at the rear of a warehouse filled with rolls of paper for the printing presses rocking the floor from below, lived large. He wrote the classic stories "Twilight" and "Who Goes There?" He forged a science fiction for grownups, discovering and championing one great writer after another. He pushed America's attention toward science fiction not as some zany, shutaway obsession, but as quite possibly a handbook for mankind's survival.
And all the while those accomplishments took place, Campbell beckoned others close only to shove them away, demanded unquestioning loyalty from his circle of friends and contributors, took the smallest slight for a sword blow, mindlessly upstaged fellow players, expressed what were baldly racist and misogynistic attitudes even for the time, claimed degrees, knowledge, and competencies he absolutely did not have, grew ever more distant and alone. Sadness and doubt peer out from every wee crack in the gray fundament.
Campbell deserves, Nevala-Lee insists, to be seen as one of the key cultural figures of the twentieth century. He does. Yet in assaying this, we can't help but fetch up against the wall of his irascibility, mendacity, and unrepentant wrong-headedness—against what Nevala-Lee terms "the lunatic trajectory of his career."
This wonderfully researched, expansive biography—humor, perspective, depth all much a part of it—is a document of things all but lost to time's slurry, the portrait of a great editor in tandem with that of a genre's maturation. One might wish that more space had been given over to the creative work so central to these men's lives and this very book's existence, but that work gets passed over lightly: a few sentences for "Who Goes There?", a few lines for Stranger in a Strange Land. Granted, this is to personal taste; others would insist that biography is biography, criticism is criticism, and never the twain.
However we profess to believe it, both in our fiction and in our efforts to understand actual experience—in writing biographies, say—an individual's life is not a diagram, but a series of scribbles to which we attach meaning. Here are the scribbles. Here is a man's life.
Figures Unseen: Selected Stories by Steve Rasnic Tem, Valancourt Books, 2018, $34.99, hc
Great stories are stalkers. They want you. There's a need to them, a hunger. And while the damage they do is subtle and lovingly done, it's damage nonetheless—what Lawrence Durrell called "the thread of blood from the unfelt stroke."
Steve Rasnic Tem's characters are people you know, salesmen, secretaries, children, the sweet old man next door. They mean you no harm. Come sit by them and see how they're holding on to whatever rags of normalcy they can in a world where the strange and mundane have gone chockablock, where increasingly it gets so's you can't tell one from the other. They try to go on. They remember how things used to be. That helps sometimes. Till they start to wonder if how things used to be ever really was, if maybe they themselves are not quite real but ghosts, echoes, wisps of leftover stuff from worlds long departed.
Figures Unseen collects thirty-five stories from the 400 or more Tem has written, along with seven novels, in a career spanning decades. All these years, he's ranged freely among horror, science fiction, hardcore and noir, realist/mimetic fiction, and that dark verge of the weird given over to worlds we sense beyond this one but can never grasp.
It's a masterful collection. Story after story grabs you from the first sentence or image, shoehorns you effortlessly into familiar places you've never been, allows you into another life as it's coming apart or, perhaps, just coming to rest. These are sensuous tales, with gorgeously worked language and cadences. They breathe. Their hearts beat soundly beneath your own.
Vivian Sparks took her hands out of the soapy water and stared into the frosted kitchen window. There was a face in the ice and fog, but she wasn't sure which of her dead children it was. Amy or Henry, maybe—they'd had the smallest heads, like early potatoes, and about the same color.
Turns out it's Jimmie Lee coming home, a boy who's never been able to get his fill however much he eats—horses, cars, bears—until finally, at story's end, he does.
In "The Figure in Motion" a man whose life went empty with the loss of his wife begins to echo works of art in a gallery, becoming himself a part of the exhibits until gradually he vanishes into them to be seen no more.
Charged with assisting "The Poor" and given no resources to do so, a clerk one morning arrives at the office to find them in a line backed up outside his building and around the block. They move into the trunk of his car, into his bathroom, "hundreds of them, living and sleeping there."
He discovers one curled up under his easy chair and he stomps it until it's dead. …He finds the dead bodies stacked in his garage like cordwood.… The bodies of the poor fill his bedroom. He can't even find his wife any more.
Families are central to many of these stories: "Hungry" as mentioned above, "Houses Creaking in the Wind" with its man who's lost his wife and child and may be dead himself, the family of "When We Moved On" whose every acquisition and memento becomes physically a part of their home's structure.
Never programmatic or reductive, Tem's stories are as dense with meaning as they are with finely wrought language and emotion. They're in the best sense about things. (A personal favorite not included here, "In These Final Days of Sales," the deeply moving portrait of a salesman trying to make some sense of his life, may be everything you need to know about what capitalism does to us.) The stories of Figures Unseen shimmer with beauty, with felt reality, and with the mysteries forever at the heart of all our lives.
Moderan, by David R. Bunch, NYRB Classics, 2018, $16.95, hc
Even in the odd-duck world of science fiction and fantasy writers, virtually by definition a maverick breed, David R. Bunch stood out. Like Cordwainer Smith, Bunch wrote stories that seem not only to be about some other world but to come from that other world. They arrive in ours forever out of place, feet too large, ignorant of customs, off-balance and reeling, language a mish-mosh.
Which is precisely how I feel upon exiting a Bunch story.
I first came upon those stories in the late fifties and early sixties, in If and Fantastic and Amazing, later on in Judy Merril's Year's Best anthologies. The Little Sister and training-day stories in particular I remember terrifying and confounding me in equal measure. At the same time, poems and stories by Bunch were appearing in numerous small journals like The Little Magazine and Shenandoah. Many of these stories went to form Moderan, published by Avon in 1971. A second collection, Bunch!, appeared from Broken Mirrors Press in 1993. Both have been long out of print. Even upon initial publication Bunch's stories fared poorly with genre readers and met with (according to Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers) "varying degrees of outrage."
For bringing back Moderan, readers' thanks should go out yet again to New York Review Books, one of the few publishers who seems to be deaf to genre classifications and to publish, whatever its stripe, the outstanding. They deserve additional credit for including ten previously uncollected stories in this new volume, creating an even broader sample of Bunch's work.
Here in science-fiction land we talk a lot about world building. In the Moderan stories, Bunch conceived a world entire, cast himself imaginatively into it, and wrote from in there. He gave it to us as experienced, in fragments, in pieces; he showed us how it is to live in that world.
Here, as teasers, are some titles:
And here, more or less chosen at random, some beginnings:
It was early along in my Stronghold reign, after I had won me a couple of world Max Shoot-Outs and had established myself as the current Greatest Man, that I began to think again of other things.
He saw her, far across the ice-bright fields of plastic, a bouncing shape come toddling to show him her new-metal hands. And deep in his flesh-strips he felt a love tear try to surface, but of course it could not, because he had new metal eyeballs.
So, after a fighting year, the autumn came. Finally. The tin birds screamed south under the orange vapor shield and a made moon floated splendiferously over our land. The trees folded up and collapsed into the yard-holes, and the big bags went aloft from Central, the big brown leaf-filled bags floating high in the air and ready to shower us with ersatz autumn at the press of a switch in Seasons. And those brown bags, emptied and collapsed, would float to earth and, looking like the biggest of all fallen leaves, perhaps be found by tin men, or Go-Now men, or strange bleary mutant men roaming the homeless plastic.
That's the Bunch voice, cadenced, lyrical, even sing-song, as though stewed up from bits of advertising copy, diaries, public announcements, and low-yield political speeches. The text itself can prove visually discomforting as well, with runs of capital letters or exclamation points splayed across the page, unapologetic neologisms, paragraphs thick and knotty as tree trunks, dronelike repetitions.
Pick up any story by David R. Bunch. See how small a thing it is, a few pages. But feel the weight of it! And how, like mercury, it goes on moving, trying to escape your hand.…
Jeff VanderMeer in an excellent introduction here notes how Bunch's jaunty, upbeat, march-around-the-room style works in sharp contrast to the rudeness and gravity of his subject matter.
In Moderan, men live in solitary fortresses, ritual warfare has become the end-all of civilization and, paving the Earth with plastic, replacing their own body parts with metal, the seasons with clockwork, mankind has repudiated its place in the natural world—repudiated the natural world itself.
David R. Bunch clearly understood that we were—are—on a course to disaster, one from which Campbell's or Heinlein's "competent man" could not and cannot save us.
Maybe there is still time. Time to question the fundamentals of how we live in the world. Time to ease open the fortress doors and create new lessons for all Flesh Men and all Little Sisters.
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