Armed Camps, Kit Reed

armedcamspArmed Camps, Kit Reed (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

… and the men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark (p 19).

Kit Reed’s first SF novel Armed Camps is all about characters constructing narratives and conjuring visions in order to keep the aphotic tides of societal disintegration at bay. The two paralleled narratives – a woman (Anne) running from her past and a man (Danny March) slowly recounting what led to his own downfall – are two different ways of fighting off what is bound to come. An oppressive melancholy that never lifts soaks the passages, presaging the motions of the characters as if they are trapped in some Thucydidean manifestation of the cyclicality of history.

The style and content of Armed Camps is best described in context of the New Wave movement within SF of the late 60s and early 70s – but, it is worth noting that Kit Reed, unlike John Brunner or Robert Silverberg who had to radically depart from what they they had previously written (pulp) to construct their New Wave masterpieces, deployed a similar literary style in her first published works of late 50s. If you are interested in her earliest SF work I recommend the short stories collated in her 1967 collection Mister Da V, and of course, her recently published “retrospective” collection of shorts from her entire career as of now – The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories (2013).

Firmly a practitioner of social science fiction, Kit Reed has explicitly said in interviews that Armed Camps was her “why are we in Vietnam” novel – it is worth pointing out that the Tet Offensive, the largest military campaign of the war, was launched in early 1968. That said, unlike many anti-war visions of the period, I found Armed Camps a finely wrought commentary that does not resort to simplistic answers. Neither Danny March’s resort to terroristic violence nor Anne’s desperate adherence to pacifistic utopianism are presented as the way we can extricate ourselves from endless war.

Recommended for fans of New Wave and anti-war SF – and especially, for all fans of literary SF.

Kit Reed’s dystopic near future Earth is mired with unrest. A sort of police state exists, and gun ownership is ubiquitous and necessary for protection: A government inspector proclaims in shock, “Of course you need guns, everyone needs guns” (p 64). Likewise, war has manifested itself in an almost allegorical form that illustrates its endless nature – a sort of single combat with flame throwers is waged between vast military bunkers.

Danny March was one of the best soldiers who flamed countless enemies (p 33). However, after an incident – that isn’t divulged until the end of the novel – March, after he’s found guilty, is trussed on a pole above a military installation as punishment. The military panoply of his ritualistic punishment is piped to America’s TVs. In March’s interior monologue he proclaims morosely: “You wonderful folks at home have all turned to some other channel, you tuned out as soon as the ceremony was over and they rolled the scaffolding away, you couldn’t ever wait for that final drum roll, you tuned me out and forgot me, just like that” (p 11). One of Reed’s central themes are the rituals that we adhere to in order to find some solace in a chaotic space: The ceremony of March’s punishment is one of many such rituals within the text. But Reed argues that there’s a rather more sinister edge to ritual – just as TV audiences changed the channel to order to avoid seeing the more mundane realities of March’s life while fastened to a pole, ritual can obscure a rotten core.

March’s life plays out as an attempt to break from the ingrained military ritual and the seductive (and meaning generating) forces of tradition. His father was a soldier, his father’s best friend was a soldier, his mother wanted March to be a soldier after his father’s death, the military wants March to sign over his son to the military… March himself never had a childhood or someone to stand up for him – after his father’s death he has to “be the man” at a young age. However, he did find solace in the adventures of Captain White and “his dusky friend Hassim” (p 58) in the newspaper funnies: The Cap gets in trouble (but never dies of course) and Hassim comes and rescues him, repeat, repeat, repeat. As March languishes away his existence bound to his pole, he recounts how he found solace in the presence of Hassim. March, of course, is a stand in for Cap. Although never explicitly stated, Reed’s novel adeptly evokes the power that such stories had (and have) on youth – the ritual of reading, the stability of the plot, the simple messages.

The second narrative line follows Anne who is running from her past. As with Danny March, she is desperate to find meaning in her earlier actions. As she runs, she encounters others who have constructed meaning-forming rituals: e.g. at the Opera house, “men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark” (p 19). Later she encounters Billy, who, along with throngs of other wealthy individuals, parties away behind walls that block out the chaos of the streets in an unfinished mansion (p 29). Billy’s mantra is an empty one – the shallowest possible – “Be pretty and dance” (p31).

Eventually, Anne joins up with Eamon in Calabria. Eamon is a pacifist and Calabria is a series of ramshackle houses and barns located in a National Forest. He espouses radical pacifism and wants to believe that his idealism can be implemented. Anne buys into this vision completely but slowly observes Calabria fall into ruin…. Eamon himself, although the last to give up his own message, lashes out. And as Anne’s utopia crumbles she too is forced to confront what made her run.

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

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.