100 sf

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

#18: The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett

“No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.”--13th Amendment of the US Constitution

“There’s never been an act done since the beginning, from a kid stealing candy to a dictator committing suicide, that the person doing it didn’t think he was fully justified. That’s a mental trick called rationalizing, and it’s done the human race more harm than anything else you can name.”

“There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance. A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance.”--Rush, “Free Will

Two generations in the past, an all-out nuclear war ruined the cities of the world and led to the question of whether technology and scientific knowledge are worthwhile pursuits. The new ruling class of America, the agrarian New Mennonites, said no. Machines, electric power, atomic energy all come from the same source--evil. The New Mennonites enacted the 13th Amendment, a de facto ban on cities and progress. Civilization now stands still in the middle of a wheat field.

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) is best known for her career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Among other works, she penned, at least in part, two great Raymond Chandler adaptations: The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. And she also cowrote a little sci-fi picture known as The Empire Strikes Back. Many of her novels and short stories were seen as pulp, which isn’t accurate, at least in the case of The Long Tomorrow, a novel that is decidedly literary.

The narrative follows two young New Mennonite boys, cousins Esau and Len Colter. They live a small community called Piper’s Run. But they long for more. They desire a place where ideas are freely exchanged and machines aid human civilization. The main catalyst for these desires is the boys’ grandmother, who tearfully recalls her childhood days when planes filled the air, cars and busses crowded the streets, and folks had leisure and luxury. After witnessing the horrific stoning of an outsider thought to be from the mythical “Bartorstown” (perhaps the last city) and coming to realize the limits of New Mennonite living, the boys set off to find this last refuge of human progress.

However, Bartorstown may not exist. Or it may not be what they think it is. If it’s out there, it’s somehow connected to a traveling trader named Mr. Hostetter. And the journey contains many obstacles: lust, jealousy, ignorance, and fanaticism. The West, for instance, has wandering bands of New Ishmaelites, a group that renounces all possessions and who frequently and randomly rise up violently against the followers of the flesh (i.e., everyone who isn’t a New Ishmaelite) when called by God in a moment of religious ecstasy. And in the end, the boys must decide which is more frightening, the monster closely regarded in its cage or the monster pushed to the fringe of society and ignored. And just what is this monster anyway?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

#17: The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac Asimov

“He loved a complex of factors; her choice of clothes, her walk, her manner of speech, her tricks of expression. A quarter century of life and experience in a given Reality had gone into the manufacture of all that. She had not been his Noys in the previous Reality of a physioyear earlier. She would not be his Noys in the next Reality.”

The Eternity in the title doesn’t refer to time directly, but rather an organization that acts as the Platonic overseers of the course of human existence. This Eternity exists outside of the timestream and is a stratified, bureaucratic organization. At the top are “Computers,” the deciders as Bush would say. They use the other kind of computer (called a “Computaplex”) to plan changes in human existence (“Reality Changes”), and those changes are executed by Technicians, the bastardized workforce of Eternity. These changes are often slight--a jammed clutch here, a stolen notepad there. Ideally, Eternity uses the M.N.C. (“minimum necessary change”) that will cause the M.D.R. (“maximum desired response”) to human history. The end goal is a society without war, without crime, and without space travel.

Okay, a couple of things about Eternity. One, it’s a rather bland outfit. It’s essentially a boy’s club housed in a clean, grey, metal atmosphere--no women. Throw data in a computer, check a chart, get a response, ride the timewave, make the change, back home again. Two, the outfit was originally a wholly commercial enterprise. Eternity bought goods in surplus in one century and turned around and sold them to centuries of need. They got into the reality change game much later. Third, they ride through time in “kettles,” and the trips involve no perceived movement--like a carnival ride that never starts because the carny’s too wasted to pull the lever. And finally, I can’t stress enough, THERE’S NO WOMEN! One can only assume the sexual frustration going on in the workplace, and we all know how successful and efficient an organization run solely by men is.

The main character is a dedicated fellow named Technician Andrew Harlan. He’s the pet boy of one of the big wig Computers, a chap named Twissell. Harlan is obsessed with “Primitive History,” which is basically anything before the 27th century. Eternity didn’t exist before the 27th, and there’s no way of traveling back before the moment of Eternity’s creation. So Harlan satiates his Primitive appetite with an odd assortment of leftover goodies: a stack of newspapers from the early 20th century, a beaten copy of works by H.G. Wells, and some writings by the mysterious W. Shakespeare. Twissell sets Harlan up as the mentor to Brinsley Sheridan Cooper, who (**here be spoilers**) is going to go back and teach the creator of Eternity, the almighty Mallansohn, how to create Eternity. Did you catch that? Eternity is created by Eternity. But before that can happen, Harlan falls for a real woman, Lambent Noys, and the whole thing becomes jeopardized by lust. (**end spoilers**).

I will be the first to admit that I’m not a huge, huge fan of Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), and neither is David Pringle. Pringle says in his entry on End of Eternity that Asimov is the Agatha Christie of sf, but that he’d just rather read Christie if given the choice. He includes EOE in his 100 list because a) Asimov is too big of figure not to include and b) EOE is straight sf (not a mystery, and not a galactic retelling of Gibbon--Pringle’s idea, not mine--as The Foundation Trilogy). I’m glad to say that Pringle is a little harsh in this instance. Sure Asimov has some crazy prose (re: Noys’ appearance, “Isn’t she built like a force-field latrine?” huh???), and characters keep saying things like “Great Time!” But Asimov makes an interesting statement in this novel. Basically, he says that the bland--passivity legislated paternalistically by a bunch of guys who don’t have girlfriends and ride around time in kettles--will kill humanity. We need the danger of the unknown and the possibilities of an uncharted future to keep us alive.