Sunday, July 20, 2014

#152: Dark Benediction, #98: We

Dark Benediction:

"There is a difference between tragedy and blind brutal calamity. Tragedy has meaning, and there is dignity in it. Tragedy stands with its shoulders stiff and proud. But there is no meaning, no dignity, no fulfillment, in the death of a child."
" 'You're one of the machine-age's spoiled children,' he fumed. 'Technologists gave you everything you could possibly want. Push a button, and you get it. Instead of taking part in the machine age, you let it wait on you. You spoiled yourself. When the machine age cracks up, you crack up, too. Because you never made yourself its master; you just let yourself be mechanically pampered.' "
"It was true. When you hung onto a piece of the past, and just hung onto it quietly, you only hurt yourself. But when you tried to bludgeon a place for it in the present, you began knocking over the bystanders."
"I have taken certain vows, young man. Sometimes when I see a beautiful woman, I feel desire. When I see a man eating a thick steak on fast-day, I feel envy and hunger. When I see a doctor earning large fees, I chafe under the vow of poverty. But by denying desire's demands, one learns to make desire useful in other ways. Sublimation, some call it. A priest can use it and do more useful work thereby. I am a priest." 
The clearest unified feeling that I can draw after finishing this diverse collection of short stories is: Wow, I wish Walter M. Miller Jr. had lived longer/been able to produce more work in his life. The quality of these stories, in addition to Miller's superb novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz, have made me a rock-solid fan. His technical skill is impressive, considering the SF field, and his stories are creative, thought-provoking, and often blistering page-turners. I usually cherry-pick a few exemplary stories in each anthology I review, but the stories here were so well-done, --diverse, yet linked by several common themes that Miller loves to play with-- that I decided to do brief reviews for all of them!
The collection opens with You Triflin' Skunk!, a well-written, spooky, backwoods SF tale that reminded me of Clifford Simak's Way Station in the way it blended a rural setting with mysterious alien visitors. It was reasonably entertaining, and quite suspenseful for such a short piece. Miller, as usual, even throws a bit of humor in there. Next came The Will, probably my least favorite piece in this collection. It's a weirdly optimistic story dealing with time travel and cancer. It's similar to You Triflin' Skunk! in that SF elements only really come into play at the end. The story's conclusion was whimsical, yet somehow it left me dissatisfied...Maybe because things worked out perfectly, and hey, this is SF, that never happens! Anybody Else Like Me? is the next story --it reminded me a lot of Robert Silverberg's novel, Dying Inside. It begins eerily, then turns into a sharp, psychological thriller. This one is very well-done in all aspects, especially the excellent ratcheting-up of suspense at the end. You might even say it has a Nightmare on Elm Street quality to it. I found it far and away the best of the first three stories.
Miller gives us a sharp turn away from what I like to call the "normal-core" SF of the first three stories, taking us to Mars in Crucifixus Etiam. It's an emotional, religiously tinged tale of sacrificing in the present to ensure the success and prospering of future generations. Its conclusion is thought-provoking and powerful. All in all, it's one of the best Mars-centered stories that I have encountered. Next comes I, Dreamer, a short, intense piece narrated by a cyborg. We get some cyborg psychology, a nasty villain, and high drama within the span of several pages. Stories like this show Miller's mastery in one distinct field: old SF concepts executed in new ways. Extremely well-done, and probably top-three in the collection.
In Dumb Waiter, we get a fine action-adventure story and an interesting post-apocalyptic scenario somewhat reminiscent of Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains. There's not as much intellectual discourse here as you would find in some other Miller stories. Still, a warm, hopeful ending, and a warning that humanity must use and understand technology, rather than letting humanity be used by technology, lends depth to the piece. After this, Blood Bank continues the fast pace. It's an adventure-oriented space opera with a few Hard SF elements. I found it to be pretty fun reading overall, with a few dated, cartoony elements drawing back from the positives, including high drama and a great concept: Earthmen as villains! Next, in Big Joe and the Nth Generation, we get a decent, fast-paced piece that reminded me of Indiana Jones, as well as Miller's own A Canticle For Leibowitz. A backward society on Mars has secrets, and one outcast is out to discover them. Another fun one, but of average quality compared with the rest of the collection.
In The Big Hunger, Miller waxes poetic. We get a grand, Stapledonian story documenting Man's longing for the cosmos across the eons. Narrated by what I think is the Platonic ideal spaceship, this one is good, but draining in a way. There's very little dialogue, and a lot of big-picture talk. It's also not quite as well-done as Stapledon's phenomenal Star Maker, although few works of SF are. After this comes Conditionally Human, one of Miller's most well-known works. An excellent, stimulating premise gives rise once again to the age-old question: What does it mean to be human? This one could be shortened a bit in my view, but it's still very interesting. And the ending left me not quite knowing what to think.
Next, we come to The Darfsteller, a Hugo Award winner, and the best story in the collection by my estimation. It's highly emotional, immediately gripping, wise, and poignant. It's also one of the least science fiction-y stories in here. The plot concerns the art of the theatre in the near future, with one major SF element introduced to it, with many consequences. This one deals with losing one's job to technology in the most fascinating way, and also begs the question, Can robots ever be better artists than humans? One of the best short stories I've ever read, and highly recommended.
Dark Benediction, the titular story, is a close runner-up for best story in the collection. It's similar to Dumb Waiter in its post-apocalyptic setting --but richer, deeper, and more engaging. This one addresses some of the positive aspects of religion (very rare in SF), as well as a slew of other big ideas. Great SF concepts abound, including the plague which gives the story its name. The main character, Paul Oberlin, and his development throughout the story are also extremely well-done -- among the best character development in the collection. After these two greats, we come to The Lineman, a near-future lunar tale that has a lot of parallels with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This one is a bit dated, but there are some interesting concepts to be found (lust in space figures prominently!). The ending is like Crufixius Etiam's in that it looks toward the future with purpose --Miller's big on this in almost anything he writes, I've found. The Lineman was of average quality in the collection, feeling a bit lacking coming right after the previous two. Finally, Vengeance for Nikolai ends the collection with a bang. It's a short, dramatic one about a near-future USSR-USA war (akin to a more technologically-advanced World War II it seems). Here, a Russian woman attempts to avenge her infant's death on a ruthless American general. I found it to be enjoyable, if a little over the top.
So there you have it, an excellent collection of SF stories from one of the greats. I truly believe that there's at least something in this one for everyone --and for me, there was quite a lot!


"Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy."
"Knowledge, self-confident knowledge, which is sure that it is faultless, is faith."
"Desires are tortures, aren't they? It is clear, therefore, that happiness is when there are no longer any desires, not a single desire any more. What an error, what an absurd prejudice it was, that we used to mark happiness with the sign 'plus'! No, absolute happiness must be marked 'minus' --divine minus!" 
Many people, including Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, will tell you that Man's end or goal is happiness. In We, Yevgeny Zamyatin takes Man's quest for happiness and flips it on its head, forcing his readers to do a lot of thinking. Written at the dawn of that supposed socialist utopia, the Soviet Union, We is a short, dense novel that has a ton of real-world significance. It's primarily known today as the main influence for Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, but seems to be rarely read in comparison to those two greats. And I'd say it's about high time that people get to taking a look at this one as well.
The main question that this very philosophical novel asks is, "Is freedom incompatible with happiness?" Our protagonist, D-503 seems to think so. He lives in a strictly regulated society, the United State, along with his fellow Numbers. They're all humans, but at times they seem more like well-oiled machines than anything. The population of the United State lives in glass apartments, an ingenious idea from Zamyatin that made me cringe. From his apartment, D-503 can look up, down, and sideways, and see exactly what his neighbors are doing. There is no privacy, save for intimate encounters with the opposite sex, which must be filed and approved with the State beforehand. Everyone's life is regulated by Tables of Hours --at all times they must follow their schedule, whether it calls for work, rest, or education in official State values.
Things get shaken up when D-503, the head builder for the Integral, a ship that will spread the values of the United State to the cosmos, falls in love. Indeed, the entire system that grounds the United State starts to experience trauma as he finds his place in a greater conspiracy against the State, and the Well-Doer --a supremely powerful dictator who rules over it. He is alternately paranoid for fear of discovery by State spies --the Guardians-- and hopeful that his treasonous activity will be found out and corrected by the State, to whom he never seems to completely lose allegiance. The novel is written as if it were D-503's diary, and we get a great glimpse into his frazzled state of mind throughout.
The novel starts off slowly and disorients you at times, but once the mystery of I-330's role in the story starts to be fleshed out with masterful suspense, it turns into quite a page turner. It's possible that this is a problem with Zilboorg's translation (the one I read), but the prose can be flighty and hard to follow in certain sections that detail traumatic events for D-503. There are quite a lot of unfinished thoughts and ellipses. I'm fairly sure this is intentional on the author's (and translator's) part for the obvious reason of accentuating the trauma of each situation, but just be warned: there will be a few paragraphs here and there that you will have to read several times over to get the full picture. The counterpoint to this occasionally awkward, bustling, unfocused musing are moments of feeling, beauty, and wisdom that we get more and more as the story progresses. I won't spoil any, but even in translation, it's clear to me that Zamyatin is a talented and pithy writer.
At its conclusion, We gives us an excellent, short scene that may be the inspiration for one of my favorite scenes in all of SF: the Savage's conversation with Mustapha Mond in Brave New World. The Well-Doer speaks eloquently and angrily in defense of the State, and we are forced to listen to his perverse, yet somehow also sensible logic. The novel's conclusion is chilling and much too abrupt (although again, there is an obvious reason for this), but it stays in your mind in the same way as the conclusion of 1984 does (although I think Orwell's conclusion was more powerful).
We is a book that challenges preconceived notions of many kinds. And it hasn't aged much since its publication in the 1920s. I'd highly recommend this one for the more philosophical-minded SF fan, and especially those who've enjoyed 1984 and Brave New World. This dusty old semi-forgotten classic is in fact filled with life and very much worth reading.

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