Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#24: Short Takes: Anvil/Clingerman/Edmondson/Kaye/Lem

More authors from whose work I only want to mention a book or two. As the title implies, these will be short takes -- typically a paragraph per book-- with little attempt to present a balanced picture of an author's writing. Today's offerings will tend towards the lighter side.

"Pandora's Planet" (***), by Christopher Anvil (published in 1972 and based on a 1956 short story), is light-weight, but fun. It begins with the conquest of Earth by the Centran empire. The typical Centran is loyal, trustworthy, obedient... let's just say, not too bright. Oh, and trusting. The sort of entity you'd love to have visiting your used car dealership. Having won the war, the Centrans find themselves losing the peace, as Earthlings begin to sell them not only used cars, but also used religions, cults and ideologies. Parts of the book area bit jingoistic by today's standards, but it still amuses.

"While you were on this planet, Horsip, did you happen to have any experience with a...ah..." -- Roffis glanced at the document flattened onto his desk -- "'glorious sun- drenched quarter acre on the warm sandy shores of a hidden inlet on Florida's unspoiled west coast...'?"

"A Cupful of Space" (***), by Mildred Clingerman, is an anthology (1961), something I've been steering clear of in these reviews. Few of her stories are best-of-the-year material, but many are (much as I regret the overworked adjective) charming. The stories tend to be of unambitious scope -- touches of the weird in suburban neighborhoods, 1950s women (these are 1950s stories, with all the social norms that implies) in other-century circumstances. My favorite of these is "The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak", in which a woman who'd have been much more at home in the nineteenth century meets a man who wishes to return to the nineteenth century. If you like good but unambitious short stories, and you see this book in a used book store, pick it up.

Garnet looked at her in surprise. "Why, I came to warn you about Nina. She bites. She kicks. She pinches babies. She aims her tricycle at the behinds of nice old ladies and never misses the target..." -- from "The Little Witch of Elm Street"

"T.H.E.M." (***), by G.C. Edmondson (1974), is an odd mix of the comic and the serious. 'T.H.E.M.' stands for Theriomorphic Hellbent Enemy Mission. They're the monsters from outer space that are on the way to destroy the Earth. On our side is the Alliance -- which contributed some obsolete warships and some platitudes -- and every fighter the planet can muster. And one ship of misfits who wind up in just the right place at just the right time to capture a ship that *isn't* obsolete. At that point the book takes a more thoughtful turn, though this takes a while to become apparent. Although Earth doesn't know it yet, it has just been catapulted into a era of high technology, plentiful resources, unlimited destructive power, and the ethical problems that accompany them. It's a short book, well-written, thought-provoking, possibly too strongly influenced by Viet Nam era politics for many of today's readers. Readers who enjoy this book will probably also enjoy Edmondson's "The Aluminum Man", about a pair of (what else?) misfits who accidentally bring down civilization.

So far the Nishrub II had not dropped a single bomb. The Missiles were "clean" but the smallest would take out half a continent. Some people in South China had thought Jorf would not dare use them. Jorf had set up a computer analogue to predict how high the sea would rise if he were to bring the starship into stationary orbit over South China. The print-out had been sufficient.

"The Cyberiad" (****-) (1967 -- trans. 1974) may not be Stanislaw Lem's best book, but it's certainly my favorite. The book is a collection of tales about a pair of Cosmic Constructors -- super-gadgeteers in a robotic civilization. Silly and amusing high-tech fairy tales with an imagination and style that comes through quite effectively in translation from the Polish. (I'm not really sure what more I can say. This is the sort of thing that stands or falls on how good the writer is -- not on what he writes about -- and Lem is among the best.)

When the Universe was not so out of whack is it is today, and all the stars were lined up in their proper places, so you could easily count them from left to right, or top to bottom, and the larger and bluer ones were set apart, and the smaller, yellowing types pushed off to the corners as bodies of a lower grade, when there was not a speck of dust to be found in outer space, nor any nebular debris -- in those good old days it was the custom...
    -- from "The First Sally, or The Trap of Gargantius"

"The Incredible Umbrella" (***+) is by Marvin Kaye. You might think of it as a lighter and sillier version of "The Compleat Enchanter". It's a fixup novel, composed from three novellas written in the seventies. In the first and best of these, Adrian Fillmore finds himself in the world of Gilbert and Sullivan -- a world in which death sentences are easy to come by and (with adroit use of chop-logic) easy to avoid -- a world in which the most crippling birth defect would be tone deafness. Fillmore's adventures in this world eventually lead him to John Wellington Wells, the maker -- but not the inventor -- of the incredible umbrella which brought him to this universe.

The second novella takes Fillmore to the London of Sherlock Holmes -- and of the brilliant inventor of the umbrella, Moriarty. Moriarty gets away from Fillmore (and Holmes) in the end, and since he could have fled to any of an infinite number of worlds, there doesn't seem to be much prospect of tracking him -- until Mycroft Holmes points out a way to narrow down the possibilities. Part three takes Fillmore to a number of worlds before Moriarty is finally traced to his hiding place in Flatland. (That's a spoiler, btw, so forget I told you.)

Parts two and three of "The Incredible Umbrella" are competent enough, but it is the first part which makes the book worth reading. Kaye has a great deal of fun making sense of a sort out of the anything-but-sensible universe of Gilbert and Sullivan, and people who enjoy their comic operas will enjoy what he's done with them. (By which same token, downgrade thebook to *** if you are unfamiliar with G&S.) I believe there is a sequel to "The Incredible Umbrella titled "The Amorous Umbrella", but I've yet to track it down.

"Peculiarities?" the sorcerer asked with surprise. "But my good man, our people study music from very babyhood. It is expected of them. To speak without an occasional chorus or solo is as unthinkable as to imagine that God did not put his Holy Orchestra above to manifest His Will to us! The music is Holy Tone, my lad, showing us the way to interpret His Intentions!" His face took on the fixed expression of one who dare not be contradicted on an axiom of faith.
Dani Zweig