Graven Images, edited by Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg.
This collection consists of three 50-odd page novellas detailing how the Arts are depicted in science fiction. Co-editor Malzberg points out in his introduction that this is pretty rare; sci-fi deals largely with the tangible effects of scientific extrapolation, while the Arts deal with extrapolation in the realm of philosophy and metaphor. So, is there a point to a science fiction perspective on the Arts? Perhaps, perhaps. As new technology is applied in artistic areas (who among sci-fi authors predicted downloading music from the Internet?), there is a need to explore the effects of this intermingling of science and art. Next question: do these stories succeed? Let's take them in order.
“Oh, Lovelee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree,” by Richard Frede. I cringed when I read the title, so there's a prejudice of mine laid bare. I'm sure it's meant to be “poetic,” it simply fails from my perspective. The story concerns a painter; he is hired by a jet pilot to reproduce the sky seen upside-down from a fighter jet. He is taken up in a jet to experience the view first-hand, and a problem occurs. This book was published in 1977, and while I wouldn't say this story SCREAMS “1970s,” it certainly mentions the decade in a very loud voice. The worst aspect, though, is the outrageous padding throughout three-quarters of the story. The flight above the skies, and the odd twisted ending are very well done. This would have made a nice, memorable 10 page story. At 50-plus, however, it outstays its welcome and seriously treads on its host's goodwill. I suspect Mr. Frede may have been bored while writing, or felt the need to pad and not known where to do so effectively. In the first few pages, he gives us a detailed list of the branches of knowledge the artist must learn to prepare for his flight, a detailed list of the contents of a refrigerator (with prices) and throws many delays at his artist to keep him out of the skies. During these delays, nothing of interest happens. Perhaps that's the point, but it gets very, very tiresome, and to be quite frank, steered me away from any thought of seeking out more of Mr. Frede's work. Alas and alack and etc. The last few pages partially redeem the story (or at least make me think I had not totally wasted my time) and also throw in the only sci-fi element here. Mind, it's a nice little doozy, but the trip there wasn't worth it. That ten-page story is terrific. The fifty-page one that surrounds it, smothers it to death.
“A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye,” by Charles L. Grant. Another oh-so-precious title, I have to wonder sometimes if authors don't choose such titles precisely because they would drive potential readers away. And then they can transmit the secret code to those who remain. Um, at any rate...this story concerns an actor, who plays roles in some kind of video programs designed to be fed subliminally to the very young. The roles have to do with symbolism and accepting one's place in society—apparently (though not explicitly) some kind of mind-processing in a Brave New World sense. This guy, however, isn't happy with his work; he'd be much happier in live theater, but that's nearly dead in his world, an occasional curiosity at best. I'm not sure what it is about actors—this one, like the lead character in Walter M. Miller's Hugo-winning “The Darfstellar” strike me as being incredibly unsympathetic. In fact, downright unlikable. Perhaps I just don't like actors.
Or perhaps the problem is that acting for this character is an obsession, and like most obsessions, if you can't convey its depth and power to a reader, it falls flat and simply makes your protagonist look simple-minded, self-destructive and ultimately uninteresting. If I can't share or at least mentally justify a character's motivation, I can't care what he does or what happens to him. As an example, some years back I saw a movie called The Gambler, starring James Caan. Near the mid-point of the film, Caan's character borrows a huge amount of money from his mother to pay his mob debts ($150,000 is the figure I remember). He promptly bets it all on a football game. At this point, he has already seen how the mob brutalizes those who can't pay them back. I understand how gambling is an addiction with tremendous power over its victims, but I found Caan's actions so unrealistic that I did something I pretty much never do: I walked out of the theater.
In Grant's story, his protagonist feels so strongly about the live theater that he beats (and apparently cripples) several playwrites. No real motivation is given for the attacks (something about their plays being responsible for audience withdrawal), and yet I'm supposed to worry when he's nearly caught by the police? Sorry, I don't think so. I feel for those writers more than for this guy. And thus, for me the actor here becomes a villain and I can't care about him. (This attitude about the police also stamps the story thoroughly as a product of the 1970s—yeah, sure, some people commit crimes, but the police, man, they're like, way worse than criminals. Sorry, not interested.) I can't help but contrast this with Bradbury's Farenheit 451, where the argument of the Fire Chief is presented as lucid and reasonable, and the passion for books also made real for the reader.
Having trashed the story, I would like to say that Grant's writing style is smooth and moves along at a good clip, even in the quieter character moments. I was particularly struck by this passage, in the dark of the bedroom: “I rolled over onto my side, one arm up against my cheek. I tried to see her, but couldn't. But I saw her anyway.”
On the other hand, there's this: I “whistled a song I once knew. It would have been nice if it had been a lullaby my father used to sing. Would have been. But it wasn't.” This is—well, really bad. Really damn bad. It sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb in an otherwise fine field of prose. Should have been sheared off early on.
Reading this over, I think I've been a bit overhard on Mr. Grant's efforts. Guilty. I guess I feel that Mr. Grant's better than average writing is placed in service of less than average ideas. I liked Mr. Grant's writing style. In future anthologies, his name won't put me off. But I'd rather not be disappointed again. Hello?
“Choral,” by Barry N. Malzberg. Time for two confessions: I love the work of Barry N. Malzberg. I have sought out and acquired his books whenever I could, and I got the present book from eBay when I learned that it was autographed by Mr. Malzberg. (It kind of looks like an autograph. It's very tiny.) So, be forewarned that I will indulge Mr. Malzberg where I would strike a lesser author aside.
Second confession: Some years ago I read the novel Chorale, which was apparently expanded from this novella. So I know the basic plot. (You can forget things, but you can't unlearn them.) This also means that the story's discoveries were pre-determined before I began reading.
Even so, “Choral” turns out to be the best piece of the three. For one thing, Malzberg leaves his sense of humor operational. The arch-theorist of time-travel chooses to commit suicide by choking to death on a handful of thimbles (trust me, it's funny). Beethoven has problems with the orchestra performing 5th symphony, the chorus revolting during the 9th symphony, sausages, and computerised language translation...but then, it's not really Beethoven. Beethoven is actually a time-traveler named Reuter.
Malzberg's concept is that the discovery of time-travel led to the discovery (or perhaps just the supposition—Malzberg is vague here) that the past does not actually exist at all; it is only inferred from its impact on the present. Thus, teams of time-travelers must go back and re-live key events from the past in order to assure that these events actually happened to affect the present. Confused? So are the characters here, who blindly go about their appointed tasks, convincing themselves that it is all necessary. Most of Malzberg's stories deal with small, inadequate men unable to cope with the titanic historical responsibilities that are suddenly thrust upon them, and the subsequent collapse of their psyches. Naturally, Reuter also begins to disintegrate, but unlike most Malzberg heroes, he takes charge of the situation, leading to a strange ending and a great final line.
So, ultimately, of the three stories, one's pretty bad, one's so-so at best, and one is pretty good. It makes me wonder about the origin of this book, and my speculation is that Malzberg wrote his story, realized it wasn't long enough for a book on its own (until years later, in expanded form, that is) and called some friends to try and get it out in book form with some companion pieces. I'm not sorry that I read all of them, but had it been me, I would have gotten out the editing shears and called a few more friends.