Anthologies of foreign Science Fiction are intrinsically interesting, I think because the writers come from a different culture than your own. Not all that different if they’re French or German but quite a bit if they were in the Eastern bloc under communism. All the stories in this book date from before 1973 when it was first issued, so before The Wall came down. Growing up in the Cold War, one had a vague notion that the unfortunates in the east were all wearing grey coveralls and scything down wheat by hand on collective farms while singing the praises of Joe Stalin. In fact, there was clearly enough freedom of thought to allow for some pretty good speculative fiction and, although they missed out on such cultural gems as ‘I Love Lucy’, that did allow a bit more time for literature.
The big name here is Polish, Stanislaw Lem, described by the editor as a misogynist and a misanthrope of a type similar to HP Lovecraft. Well, maybe so, but he had a sense of humour. ’In Hot Pursuit Of Happiness’ set in a far distant future, Constructor Trurl calls on Klapaucious with a new thought. In their long and illustrious careers, he says, they have accomplished nothing of real value. They have travelled from planet to planet making peace, defeating tyrants and so on but done nothing for the Common Good and never produced Absolute Happiness. Klapaucious says that isn’t possible but Trurl wants to make just one happy world or maybe create a new sort of being who is happy and for 40 highly amusing pages he tries to do it. I liked Hedons as units of happiness. One Hedon or Hed for short is: ‘the quantity of bliss one would experience after walking exactly four miles with a nail in one’s boot and then having the nail removed.’ One Kilohed was ‘what the elders felt when they saw Susanna at her bath.’ The story is not illustrated but I guess Susanna was a bit of a looker. Anyway, she gave good Hed. Trurl can ‘move galaxies about as if they were furniture’ but really struggles with happiness. A terrific, entertaining story.
The quality is undiminished with the next tale ‘The Valley Of Echoes’ by Frenchman Gerard Klein. Three men set off in a tractor across the dull plains of Mars to regions unexplored, at least on foot. Despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, they all nurse the faint hope of finding some ruins, some bones, some faint trace of an ancient civilisation to prove that man is not alone in the universe. Klein’s prose, in translation at least, has a wonderful almost musical cadence to it that makes it a pleasure to read. He has been compared to Ray Bradbury and it’s obvious why. Probably my favourite in the book and that‘s up against some pretty stiff competition.
Staying with France, ‘Observation Of Quadragnes’ by J.P. Andrevon first appeared in 1971. It’s a grim story about very strange aliens observing the mating of captive human beings. ’Playboy And The Slime God’ by Isaac Asimov appeared in the March 1961 issue of ‘Amazing’ and I put it to you, m’lud, that they are based on the same notion. In fact, Asimov’s story was a satire of a story titled ’Girls For The Slime God’ which appeared in ‘Playboy Magazine’. Asimov’s story is highly amusing whereas Andrevon’s is a miserable vision of rape, sadism and the worst aspects of humanity. The times they were a-changing in the 70s. I suppose Andrevon’s is more realistic.
From Denmark comes ‘The Good Ring’ by Svend Age Madsen, in which a peasant named Stig finds a ring that transports him to other worlds. Surreal and imaginative but I can’t say I enjoyed it
From Germany, ‘Slum’ by Herbert W. Franke, a scary tale about a polluted future. No one takes any notice of these which is quite right. We don’t want a lot of red tape and environmental protection laws hindering the work of wealth creators and entrepreneurs. Watching the news recently, I discovered that we British own a Pacific island with the world’s greatest collection of plastic rubbish, bought to it by ocean currents. Hurray!
If you read ‘The Land Of Osiris’ without knowing the author you would swear to God, swear to Mao or swear to anyone you like that it was by Robert Silverberg but it’s actually by Wolfgang Jeshke of Germany. In a post-nuclear world, a white man turns up in Kotoko on Lake Chad on a quest northwards because he and other scientists have seen signs of space flight activity in that direction. He gets a lot of help from the local king and is given a young guide named Beschir. The narration switches between first person by Beschir and short extracts from the journal of Jack Freyman, the scientist, known as Master Jack to the locals. The exotic locations, the lush descriptions, the clever narrative technique, the huge, Science Fictional conclusion, even the length of the piece, a novelette, shout Silverberg in flaming letters ten feet high to anyone who knows his work. Obviously it’s good. Jeshke studied German and English literature, say the author notes, and was probably the foremost editor of Science Fiction in his homeland.
The gloomy grandeur of ‘The Land Of Osiris’ is followed by the cheerful tale of ‘Captain Nemo’s Last Adventure’ by Josef Nesvadba of the Czech Republic. The hero’s actual surname is Feather but the media began to call him Captain Nemo for his heroic exploits, especially after he took the new Nautilus rocket to explore Neptune. Unfortunately, the Solar system is getting safer and Captain Nemo may have to stay home with his wife. Horror! He’s saved by a last desperate mission which will take him into interstellar space. This is another entertaining satire from Eastern Europe.
Outrageous coincidence is the theme explored by Adrian Rogoz of Romania in ‘The Altar Of The Random Gods’. Homer has a traffic accident which is followed by a series of unlikely events. Nowadays, that sounds like a plot for ‘The Simpsons’ but, back in 1970, the name Homer didn’t conjure up the same image.
‘Goodnight Sophie’ by Italy’s Lino Aldani is set in one of those futures where virtual reality is so much more enjoyable than life that people spend most of their life in it. The heroine, Sophie Barlowe, is the most desirable star in the world of Oneirofilm and millions of men enjoy her every night. The consumer age is finished as eight billion people live in beehives, nourished by vitamins and soybeans with no desire for real goods or people in their lives. Well, we’re getting there. For 1963, this was pretty good future speculation. Constructor Trurl missed out on this way of making everyone happy.
The last three stories are all by Russians. ‘The Proving Ground’ is an anti-war and anti-military story published in Moscow in 1969. I’m starting to suspect that them there Ruskies weren’t nearly as controlling as we were led to believe by the ‘Daily Mail’. The inventor has created a tank that responds to thought and the army is testing it on a remote island. The characters don’t have names. Instead, the cool, omniscient narrator refers to them by title: The corporal, the captain, the colonel and the general. Despite or perhaps because of the unemotional description of events, this packs quite a punch.
‘Sisyphus, The Son Of Aeolus’ by Vsevolod Ivanov is set in ancient Greece. Polyander is on his way back to Corinth after serving loyally with both Alexander the Great and his cruel successor, King Cassander. He takes a short-cut through the hills and meets a hairy giant pushing a huge black boulder along a well-worn track. It was fantasy rather than Science Fiction and I thought the end was a bit weak.
Top marks, though, for ’A Modest Genius’ by Vadim Shefner. It’s about the life of Sergei, a modest inventor who courts two girls and marries one who turns into something of a shrew. Among his inventions are skates which allow you to glide across water; a camera that can photograph three years into the future and a Quarrel Measurer and Ender which brings peace to the community kitchen where he lives. For humorous contrast, the girl he didn’t marry ended up with a great inventor whose designs are completely impractical but always sponsored and built by the state. The author notes say that Shefner writes ‘naïve urban fairy tales’ and this is one, I guess.
This is an excellent collection and recommended to any Science Fiction fan.
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/