16 February 2023

Twisted Semantics

One of my ongoing projects is to create various Books That Should Exist—but don’t. Collected works of writers who have never been properly collected, for example. Textually sound editions of works nobody has bothered to look at properly. (Murray Leinster’s The Other World is an example.)

Two of my favorite sf series are Henry Kuttner’s Gallegher stories (Joe the can-opener is an outstanding character in any book) and Robert Sheckley’s A A A Ace stories. The former were adequately anthologized in the Gnome Press book Robots Have No Tails and my copy somehow survived the disaster that wiped out most of my library a decade or so back, so I feel covered there. But all my Sheckley collection, including my complete file of Galaxy, is gone. So I started assembling my ideal Sheckley collection, without regard for what has actually been assembled. The magazine publication of Mindswap for example, which I consider superior to the padded book version. The great stories like “The Seventh Victim” and “Skulking Permit” and “Ticket to Tranai.” And of course the collected A A A Ace series.

My hypothetical edition would include a non-Sheckley story—the James Blish parody that appeared in F&SF. As I’ve lost my file of that magazine as well—almost my entire extensive sf collection is gone—I was slightly at a loss to find it. Even the ISFDB failed me—at first. After going through its list of magazine contents for what I thought was the right era I chanced on a title that rang a bell—a very faint one. This had already happened a couple of times without paying off, but this time—BINGO!

The piece was “With Malice To Come” and it appeared in the May 1955 issue. According to Anthony Boucher the piece was “an astute and hilarious triptych of parodies of three familiar (far too familiar!) types of science fiction”. The titles of each were “A Feast of Reason,” “The Billion-Year Binge,” and “A Matter of Energy.” The first was the Sheckley parody I was looking for, the second a takeoff on Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles stories, and the third—well, I remembered it, but I couldn’t figure out the target immediately.

And, with good reason, I will note. James Blish was an accomplished writer—“Surface Tension” is a story I personally enjoyed—but he was an abysmal parodist. Here’s a short passage from “A Matter of Energy”:

“Joe,” I asseverated, “I’ve given you the invincible weapon to take over the Romans: twisted semantics. It can’t fail, but if it does, try twisted dianetics. Do you understand what you’re to do?”

“Yes, Cliff,” he lipped thinly.

So, we’re looking for an author who like strained synonyms for “said” and who is probably a follower of General Semantics and/or Dianetics. The former suggests some of the writers from the Space Opera days, while the latter suggests someone like John W. Campbell or A. E. van Vogt. Do either of these features suggest Mark Clifton?

Not to me. But Mark Clifton is indeed the target, and the specific story is “What Have I Done?” which appeared in the May 1952 issue of Astounding. The ending plays directly with the title:

“What have you done?” I hissed grindingly.

“I did just like you said, Cliff,” he replied defensively. “Soon as I had to do some figuring, I holed up in my room and plugged THROBAC into the nearest socket. But—”

“Get to the point!” I ordered commandingly.

“But Cliff,” he wailed protestingly, “you overlooked something. THROBAC operates only on AC current! And the first AC generator wasn’t built until after the 1830’s—A.D.!”

I was crushed. That small oversight—no, it was an undersight, typical of me, underestimating the extent of my own massive knowledge—must have blown every fuse and circuit-breaker in Augustan Rome. I rushed to the nearest history book.

What had I undone?

Okay, okay, I get it. But contrast the actual language of the original:

“We have made a study of this planet and have decided to colonize it.” It was a flat statement, without any doubt behind it.

I flashed him a look of incredulity. “And you expect me to help you with that?”

He gave me a worldly wise look—almost an ancient look. “Why not?” he asked.

“There is the matter of loyalty to my own kind, for one thing,” I said. “Not too many generations away and we’ll be overpopulated also. There would hardly be room for both your people and ours on Earth.”

“Oh that’s all right,” he answered easily. “There’ll be plenty of room for us for quite some time. We multiply slowly.”

“We don’t,” I said shortly.

I mean, “answered easily” and “said shortly” are hardly “hissed grindingly” or “lipped thinly”. It’s not even an exaggeration—it’s just plain wrong. As a sort of Astounding composite it might work—there are bits of van Vogt and H. Beam Piper maybe floating around in it—but other than the Joe character that Cliff couldn’t read it’s not exactly Mark Clifton. On the other hand, the basic premise is funny as hell, and the ending line stuck with me for years, even if I couldn’t remember the name of the piece it came from. But fundamentally, it’s a miss.

The same is true for the Sheckley, though there are some good shots in it. The Bradbury has its points as well. Maybe I’ll look at them in some future episode.

14 February 2023

Incoherence Meets Indecision

There are a thousand things I want to write about, but only nine hundred of them are coherent enough to put into the vorpal oven and bake until dry. And my ability to choose is paralyzed. Like the ass in the parable who starves because there is no basis for choosing between two equally desirable feasts, I write nothing because all the possibilities are so enticing. The grooves have worn deep in my brain.

I don’t remember how to write. My tenth grade English teacher taught us that the first paragraph should be an introduction that draws the reader in somehow. The thesis statement must be the first sentence of the second paragraph, no exceptions. (Once when I had enough points accumulated for the class to get an A that quarter no matter what else I did I deliberately wrote a paper in which the thesis statement did not appear until the final paragraph, which was also the conclusion. It didn’t seem to faze her—though of course she might not have read it at all, since it would make no difference to my grade.) But the mindscum principle really doesn’t work like that anyway. Where are we going? I’m not sure. How will we know when we get there? The text will come to a stop.

These may not be exactly rules, but they’re all I’ve got. Groping blindly into a pre-destined future (assuming the determinists are correct in their assumptions) is no guarantee of coherence, but neither is it assurance of failure. Whatever it is, it was baked into the framework of things since the universe first started unfolding. There’s reassurance there, along with fatalistic despair. If there’s no free will, how do we know we’re not all slaves?

I’m going to try to fight my way out of this paper bag, but the prospects look bad. What’s worse than bad? Abysmal, maybe. I’m going to post this as is, even though it never turned into anything, in the hopes that I will force myself into choice and coherence by displaying my incoherence and indecision for all to see. Maybe embarrassment will work when all else fails.

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