Tag Archives: Fritz Leiber

Disch presents a ruinous anthology

While most of us listened, enraptured by the siren-songs of Technology, they [the authors included in this volume] have never ceased to warn of the reefs awaiting us on the other side of the song.

Title: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future
Editor: Thomas M. Disch
Year: 1971
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

ruinsofearthThe stories in this rather dark anthology were chosen for their relevance to its central theme. That theme is the catastrophic consequences of human behavior; it is the idea that through our own stupidity, we might have a very negative impact on our world, and possibly bring ourselves to ruin. In his introductory essay, “On Saving the World,” Disch presented some of his own observations of the foreboding changes in the human world during his lifetime:

One learned to live with the bombs largely by looking the other way, by concentrating on the daytime, suburban side of existence. [….] Now, in 1971, it isn’t possible to look the other way. It is the daytime, suburban side of existence that has become our nightmare. In effect the bombs are already dropping — as more carbon monoxide pollutes the air, as mercury poisons our waters, our fish, and ourselves, and as one by one our technology extinguishes the forms of life upon which our own life on this planet depends. These are not catastrophes of the imagination — they are what’s happening.

The sixteen stories herein are largely concerned with problems such as growing separation from nature, increasing industrialization and urbanization, overpopulation, pollution, and similar issues. Disch divided the anthology into four sections: The Way It Is, Why It Is the Way It Is, How It Could Get Worse, and Unfortunate Solutions. I was sometimes unsure why a particular story was put in a certain section, but I do like the overall structure. I also like the way Disch prefaced each story with a snippet of some real-life news or journal article or other scholarly work relating to the story’s subject.

The stories included in this volume are:

“Deer in the Works” — Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Three Million Square Miles” — Gene Wolfe
“Closing with Nature” — Norman Rush
“The Plot to Save the World” — Michael Brownstein
“Autofac” — Philip K. Dick
“Roommate” — Harry Harrison
“Groaning Hinges of the World” — R. A. Lafferty
“Gas Mask” — James D. Houston
“Wednesday, November 15, 1967” — George Alec Effinger
“The Cage of Sand” — J. G. Ballard
“Accident Vertigo” — Kenward Elmslie
“The Birds” — Daphne du Maurier
“Do It for Mama!” — Jerrold J. Mundis
“The Dreadful Has Already Happened” — Norman Kagan
“The Shaker Revival” — Gerald Jonas
“America the Beautiful” — Fritz Leiber

As with any collection or anthology, there is quite a range of quality here. Let me mention what I consider to be the successful stories. Houston’s “Gas Mask” is about the modern phenomenon of the traffic jam, and about how far people will go for their love of those hunks of metal called automobiles. Brownstein’s “The Plot to Save the World” is a neatly efficient encapsulation of how people can’t resist the allure of “progress,” even if that progress ends up destroying them. Philip Dick’s “Autofac” (for “automated factory”) is about the disastrous consequences of turning too much power over to machines. “Do It for Mama!” by Mundis looks at urban crowding — not only crowding of people, but of pets as well. “Roommates” is the basis for Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room!, and is a dismal portrayal of overpopulation. Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” was also of interest, combining several related issues — distance from nature, out-of-control industrialization, and the displacement of ordinary human values in favor of corporate values.

Some of the remaining stories fall into a middle area of mediocrity. Some had interesting points to make, but were poorly written. Others were written with adequate skill, but lacked any point I could discern. And then, finally, a few of these stories were downright horrible; one I would even label “unreadable.”

The whole thing averages out to an average anthology, with both highs and lows of quality. But that’s how most anthologies work out, in my experience. I did like the overall theme and structure of this one, and count it as a satisfactory reading experience.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆