Mister Da V., Kit Reed

mrdavMister Da V., Kit Reed (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Kit Reed has been publishing literary, thought-provoking, and darkly satirical sci-fi + speculative fiction + non-genre fiction since the late 1950s… And she is still going strong — her most recent novel Son of Destruction came out last year. Reed’s collection Mister Da V. and Other Stories contains three stories from the late 50s including her first published work, ‘The Wait’ (variant title: ‘To be Taken to a Strange Country’) and ten others from the 1960s. A few of the stories in the collection are not overtly science fiction — regardless, one could argue that all but ‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ contain speculative and/or sci-fi elements.

Most stories are deceptively simple moral fables that put a twist on everyday family life. For example, a mother daughter trip in the countryside becomes a sinister nightmare — ‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’). And in ‘At Central’ a boy’s harmless crush on a television actress causes him to uncover the truth about the world. ‘At Central’, ’The New You’, and ‘Automatic Tiger’ are the best of the collection. They are told with energy and wit and bitterly rip into the heart of things with relentless glee.

‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’) (1958): A dark and surreal fable in what might be a post-apocalyptical landscape (but perhaps that is a stretch). A mother and daughter head out on a car trip in order “to reassure themselves that there were other people in the town, in Georgia, in the world” (p 8). They arrive at the town of Babylon which appears to be a normal place. However, the town square is filled with beds under the trees where the ill and dying reside waiting to be cured. But, there are no doctors… The mother falls ill and doesn’t mind sleeping all day with the other ladies under the trees while various medicines are applied with the half chance that they work. And the daughter is forced to confront her new world and the wishes of her mother who doesn’t detect (or is purposefully oblivious to) the sinister undercurrents of what is really happening. The coercive powers of small town life allegorically embodied….

‘Devotion’ (1958): ”Harry Farmer loved his teeth” (p 24). He really loves his teeth. More than anything else in the world. And the world knows that he loves his teeth and while his friends’ teeth decay and fall out he shows his off with glee. But everyone must grow old but Harry has a plan to con his friends into believing his teeth are still perfect. Another slightly fantastic but sinister allegory….

‘The Reign of Tarquin the Tall’ (1958): An unusual assortment of characters — children and thirty-year olds — live together in a house. Lukey obsesses over his ant colony which he believes is a microcosm of the world “and if doesn’t like the way things are going, he’s going to take an axe and destroy the whole thing — and when he does, that the world will go too, under some bigger axe” (p 34). Martin and Leroy play with their play spaceship. And Tarquin declares himself king of the house and invents rituals of power…. And the truant officer — concerned with the kids in the house who have skipped school — threatens to destroy their strange existence.

‘Ordeal’ (1960): The first overtly science fiction story in the collection concerns a drugged future where most everyone resides in massive cities hooked up to machines which pump happy drugs into the system. But Dario isn’t interested in living this type of existence — he’s transfixed by the small bands of warriors who wander in-between the cities fighting their increasingly ritualistic battles. Soon Dario meets Andrew who had previously attempted to join the warrior band. But there are ordeals of entry to this exclusive group.

‘Judas Bomb’ (1961): A post-apocalyptic future where youth gangs have taken over America. Few adults remain alive…. And the youth end their lives — often fighting other gangs — by the age of twenty. Netta is the head of the Hypettes, the female members of the Hypos gang. Netta and Johnny set out to steal a bomb from a rival gang. She’s the only one who has a plan… Despite the heroic intelligent female character whom we root for, the context of her actions and the outcome is purposefully nihilistic. A march towards inevitable entropy…

‘Piggy’ (1961): In the hands of a lesser writer this story would have been giggle inducing rather than deeply moving. A mysterious form descends from the sky and impregnates a mare on Theron’s farm. Theron, a young boy, becomes intensely attached to the offspring of this mating, a strangely proportion/weak/oddly pink horse-like creature named Piggy. Theron discovers that Piggy, despite its physical ailments, has other properties… Theron’s father on the other hand is frustrated that Piggy can’t pull a card or plow. I found this tale moving, and as with many of her others, on the surface deceptively simple.

‘Mister Da V.’ (1962): The narrator’s father hatches a money-making scheme to create a time machine and bring Leonardo da Vinci to the present. Instead of showing the world the great man, the father keeps him cloistered upstairs while he writes a book on Leonardo. The narrator and the narrator’s siblings find ways to communicate with Leonardo and soon he escapes downstairs. But Leonardo isn’t happy with his existence despite the growing knowledge that many of the marvels did in fact come to fruition.

‘The New You’ (1962): One of the best of the collection — this was recently included in Ian Sales’ list of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women (although I would argue that ‘At Central’ is better)… ”Now — The New You” (p 109) the ad reads. All you have to do is buy the product and you will be transferred into a new body. Unfortunately, the old body still remains. Martha often pretends that she is more desirable and attractive. She even has conversations with her alter-ego, named Marnie, who possesses all the characteristics Martha wishes she had. Martha gives in and purchases the product. Marnie walks out of the box svelte, six inches taller, gorgeous, perfectly proportioned… Marnie and her husband become the center of attention, the talk of the town. But Martha still lives in the closet, eating chocolate, wandering around. A virulent and effective condemnation of commonly held conceptions of the relationship between beauty and worth. A particularly memorable and disturbing moment occurs when Marnie forces Martha to be a maid at their dinner party. Highly recommended.

‘Automatic Tiger’ (1964): Benedict means to get a present for his second cousin but when he brings home the incredibly expensive luxurious automatic, life-like, voice activated Royal Bengal Tiger he keeps it for himself. The Tiger seems to make Benedict more of a man…. And when their out running together he feels powerful, above the law. Soon he rises in the ranks at his business, successfully solicits his sultry secretary, the microphone that connects him to his tiger almost always around his neck. But soon he forgets about Ben the Tiger who gathers dust in the corner, whose luxurious whiskers droop and break. Explores similar themes as ‘The New You’.

‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ (1967): This contains neither fantastic or speculative elements and is the sole disappointment of the collection. The narrator, a cheerleader in grade school, wages a war against her history teacher Mr Armitage. Rivalries, cheerleaders, football players, etc — not my cup of tea.

‘Golden Acres’ (1967): Nelda and Hamish leave their home — compelled by their children — and head to a retirement home. The benefits promised are spectacular including around the clock medical care (and a hospital called The Tower of Hope), nice residences, tons of potential friends, clubs and societies. But then they arrive they discover that there are stringent rules on bedtimes and dinnertimes. “No clutter!” Mr Richardson proclaims sweeping their family photos away from sight…. Nelda and Hamish soon discover Golden Acres’ less golden core — is escape even possible? A satirical take on our treatment of elders.

‘At Central’ (1967): The best story in the collection. In an overpopulated future those who are able to procure housing sit in front of their televisions with their doors barred. Whenever an ad appears the TV’s coin slot guarantees the product is quickly transported to your home. Want the dinner the actress is eating? Simply insert coins and the chute will deliver it in no time… Experience the world through the TV. Van has a childhood crush on the actress Missy Beaton who winks at him through his personal TV set. Little does he know that his journey outside in search of Missy Beaton will result in him learning how much the world has changed since they locked themselves inside their rooms to escape the press of the crowds.

‘Janell Harmon’s Testament’ (1967): A vaguely fantastical story about a woman who cleans an immense castle owned by an Italian. She spends her entire time moving from room to room cleaning — cleaning becomes an obsession. When she gives birth she fears for the state of the castle…. And the dust that seeps over everything and the smudges and mold and wrinkles and diminishing sparkle of the candlesticks. She argues that castle, and the work it embodies, compelled her to act violently.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr / Souls, Joanna Russ

houstonHouston, Houston, Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr / Souls, Joanna Russ (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Back in the early 1950s, science fiction publisher Ace burst onto the market with a series of doubles – two short novels published back-to-back. The practice did not originate with them – it is properly known as tête-bêche – but they certainly popularised it in the US. Ace continued to publish their doubles until 1973. In 1988, Tor re-introduced the format, and in the space of three years published thirty-six doubles of novellas printed tête-bêche. All were reprints. Number 11 in their series was ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ by James Tiptree Jr, originally published in 1976 in the women-only sf anthology, Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Susan Fawcett and Vonda N McIntyre; back-to-back with ‘Souls’ by Joanna Russ, which first appeared in F&SF in 1982. Both novellas won the Hugo Award in their respective years. The Tiptree also won the Nebula Award. The Russ was shortlisted but lost to John Kessel’s ‘Another Orphan’.

‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is told mostly in flash-back. The protagonist is an astronaut aboard the Sunbird mission, a circumnavigation of the Sun. Though no details are given, it all feels a bit like Apollo technology – a crew of three, a command module, and an additional “day-room” – or at the very least based on space hardware of the time of writing. While flying close to the Sun, the Sunbird spacecraft is caught in a solar flare, which apparently throws it forward three hundred years in time. As the astronauts – commander Major Norman ‘Dave’ Davis, Bud Geirr and Dr Orren Lorimer – head toward where they believe Earth to be – the flare also rendered their windows opaque, but for one small section – they discover they can’t raise Houston on the radio. Instead, they overhear chatter between spacecraft which seem to be crewed by women. They make contact with one, discover Earth is not where they think it is, nor is it reachable by them, and learn something of the history of the past three centuries. It seems a plague rendered the human race sterile, and the population dropped from eight billion to two million. The population of the Earth is now chiefly female – Lorrimer at one point speculates on how the plague may have damaged the sex chromosomes to result in this.

As ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ opens, Lorrimer, Dave and Bud have been rescued by the crew of the Gloria, a spacecraft with a crew comprising four women and one man. The three astronauts have been unwittingly fed a drug, and it is affecting their behaviour. Lorrimer flashes back to their discovery that they had jumped forward in time and what they learned of the world of the future, and their subsequent rescue by the Gloria. Dave, already deeply religious, turns more so; and Bud, a stereotypical jock, acts more and more sexist and “alpha male”. It all comes to a head when Bud turns violent and tries to rape one of the women. Meanwhile, Lorrimer has figured out what it is the women have not told them…

In 1975, Robert Silverberg argued in an introduction to the Tiptree collection, Warm World and Otherwise, published in February 1975 that the author had to be male. Some already suspected Tiptree was a woman, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the truth became known. And yet this novella first appeared in a women-only anthology published in May 1976… suggesting at least some people were privy to the secret earlier. According to Wikipedia, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is “Tiptree’s most famous and most reprinted story”, and it’s certainly emblematic of much of her oeuvre. The future depopulated world is presented with rigour, and its details are slowly and cleverly revealed as the story progresses, The three astronauts, however, are not so much stereotypes as caricatures – especially Dave and Bud – and it’s hard to imagine how, in the Seventies, the novella could have been read as written by a man because of them. Yes, many of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were macho and sexist – but not all of them. By over-emphasising those aspects for the purposes of drama, Tiptree effectively turns the astronauts into single-note characters. It’s a disappointment, given that everything else in ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is so cleverly done. A flashback structure is hard to pull off, but Tiptree makes it work; and yet without that structure, the double ending with its two shocks would not have proven so effective. There’s Bud’s attack on Judy, and then there’s Lorrimer’s realisation of what the women intend to do with the three astronauts…

soulsThe other half of Tor double #11 comprises ‘Souls’, Joanna Russ’s only Hugo Award win. Initially, the novella reads like historical fiction, written as the reminiscences of a man telling of when he was a young boy at a German abbey run by Abbess Radegunde some time during the early Middle Ages – as the first line has it: “This is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde and what happened when the Norsemen came.” And it is very much a story about the abbess. She is someone extremely unusual, displaying a relaxed and quite modern view of her religion, fluent in any number of languages, highly-educated, and has in the past admitted to being able to view events over great distances. She is, in fact, suspiciously not at all like a Middle Ages abbess.

When a Viking longboat draws up on the shore by the abbey, Abbess Radegunde goes down to the beach to parley with them. Everyone knows what their fate will be – the Vikings are there to rape and pillage. But Radegunde persuades them otherwise. She freely gives up the riches of the abbey in return for the safety of her people. She claims knowledge of some members of the Viking band – through a cousin met in Rome – and it all seems a little convenient. After a little applied psychology, she extracts a promise from the Viking leader, Thorvald. However, during the Vikings’ walk through the abbey’s courtyard, someone panics and it all turns violent. Thorvald manages to re-assert order, but the promise he made is void. At which point, Radegunde… changes. She becomes a much harder and callous person, very different in personality, and seems to “take control” of Thorvald. The narrator, a young boy called Radulphus, is convinced she has become a demon. She takes Thorvald into the nearby woods where, she tells him, the abbey’s treasure is hidden. But there he – and Radulphus – witness strange humans he thinks are saints, bathed in bright light:

An odd thing was that as I came closer I could see they were not standing on the ground, as in the way of nature, but higher up, inside the shining, and that their white robes clung to the body so that one might see the people’s legs all the way up to the place where the legs joined, even the women’s. (p76)

Ignoring the fact that even a young boy in a German abbey in the early Middle Ages is likely to know what trousers are – indeed, the Vikings would be wearing them – it’s clear that Radegunde is certainly not who she professes to be. Nor is she a demon. It is never made entirely clear if she is from the future or another world, though the former seems most likely. Nor is her purpose – and she apparently was born and grew up as Radegunde – ever revealed. But then the story is really about what she does to Thorvald, and using Radulphus as the narrator allows Russ to filter it through an unsophisticated narrator, thus hiding the true nature of the “saints” and putting the onus on the reader to figure out the puzzle.

For all that ‘Souls’ is a polished piece of prose, and Russ evokes the setting well enough to mostly convince… the novella is over-shadowed by a later novel which follows a similar plot: John Fowles’ A Maggot (1985). It’s unlikely Fowles ever saw Russ’s novella, though his novel shares the novella’s central conceit. But Fowles’s novel evokes its period – a much later one, specifically 1736 and 1737 – far far better than ‘Souls’. In fact, familiarity with A Maggot does make ‘Souls’ feel a little glib and superficial, even though it is most likely far more indirect in style than is typical of science fiction of the time.

Tor double #11 presents a pair of strong novellas, though of the two I think I would sooner present ‘Souls’ as a better example of what the genre can do. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ drifts too close to caricature, and is too reliant upon science fiction reading protocols, to be an effective ambassador for the genre. This is not a problem ‘Souls’ possesses. Unfortunately, Russ’s novellas is sure to remind people of Fowles’ A Maggot, and it is not a comparison in which it fares especially well. It may be the better of the two novellas in the double – though it has been reprinted eight times and collected only once, which is half as often as the Tiptree; but that says more about science fiction than it does about the two stories.