Monday, October 28, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Blogtable (1968, Best Short Story)

The widest focus of The Hugo Initiative has been on the Best Novel category and examining the influence and importance of the various winners, but a goal for the project was to also engage with some of the other categories across the history of the Hugo Awards. With that in mind, we are looking at the three finalists for Best Short Story in 1968.
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison (If Mar 1967)
“Aye, and Gomorrah…,” Samuel R. Delany (Dangerous Visions)
“The Jigsaw Man,” Larry Niven (Dangerous Visions)
Adri: I can’t quite believe I’m reading Dangerous Visions / Harlan Ellison for you…

Joe: I’m not sure I fully processed that Harlan Ellison is at least partially (if not fully) responsible for everything on this ballot. Dangerous Visions really was a landmark anthology in 1967. I bought a copy years ago and until now, have never actually cracked the cover. So, I suppose, thank us all for that for picking this year’s category.

Paul: I picked up Dangerous Visions (and Again, Dangerous Visions) umpty years ago when I was in a very deep Harlan Ellison phase, as I read collection after collection of his work, including his non fiction stuff. But I had not read any Ellison in a number of years before we decided to set this up. So I guess I was overdue!

Adri: First on the list, and winner of this particular year, is “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, by Harlan Ellison - his second award in the short story category, after ““Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman” in 1966 (no, me neither). The story follows a small group who are apparently the last survivors of the human race, as they wander through a nightmarish underground hellscape run by AM, an all-powerful AI which has wiped out the rest of humanity and now tortures them in revenge for its own suffering. There’s some vague motivations in terms of plot movement but most of the story is just about detailing the various miseries that the humans have inflicted on them (and sometimes inflict on each other) and their diminishing hope of escape.

Joe: Even though I know I’ve never read Delany or Niven, I had always assumed that I’ve read a handful of Ellison’s short stories. I haven’t. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is my first (and to date only) Harlan Ellison story. I’ve been at least vaguely aware of it over the years. I knew there was a video game based on it and that the story was horrifying.

This is an ugly, ugly story and I don’t know if it is actually good despite it’s stature in genre history. The story is moderately compelling, but the grimness and torture seem to be the point. There’s a place for that, but I’m not really here for grim torture porn laced with misogyny and that’s what Ellison serves up.

Honestly, the best thing coming out of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is the title. It’s a great title and has become so ubiquitous within the genre that I’ve used it as a template for jokes. The jokes land reasonably well, but I’m not sure the story does anymore.

Adri: I have read two thirds of these authors before but Ellison is new!

I generally agree with Joe above. Everything in this story is pretty gratuitous, and the storytelling skill is put to the service of thinking up unpleasant circumstances in which to put the characters. There are also some decidedly clumsy moments, like the way in which information about their location is imparted through some casual “story time” in the middle of the endless torture.

The story’s treatment of Ellen, the only woman in the group of humans, is a particular low point. All of the characters are presented as caricatures, through the lens of an unreliable narrator - although to a modern reader he falls uncomfortably close to just reading like a standard old school white male protag - but Ellen is seen entirely through the lens of her sexuality, and effectively as a sexual outlet for the rest of the men. She’s also black, and the only character whose race is mentioned. The whole thing reads as misogynoir of the highest order, and coupled with some drive-by and frankly nonsensical homophobia which I don’t even want to touch, it makes this story pretty unpleasant.

Honestly, I also found the climax to the story a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it’s because of how well-used and evocative the title is, but I didn’t find the “now human is blob person” to be as much of a final twist as I am clearly expected to.

Paul: I remember jazzing on this story decades ago. “How grim, how dark, how twisted, the narrator is now immortal and going to live as a thing in the belly of the beast forever.” I saw it as a tragedy, and a deserved fate too, for the rather unpleasant narrator. That’s how I saw this story before this time.

This reading of the story was somewhat different. Some things were still the same. The clear and really evocative writing. A world, sketched in easily and effortlessly. A contrast of character and character types, a way to have a variety of archetypes to set in this horrible situation. It’s the dystopia of all dystopias, four people alive with a malevolent AI acting like an Old Testament Yahweh to torture them forever and ever. The setup and premise and basis are potent and powerful, then and now. I still think the ending is pretty dark and grim and potent.

It was the other things I saw this time, that I did not see on prior readings, that really jumped out at me. The casual misogyny of the story with how the story handles Ellen. The homophobia now was something that really jumped out at me. I will say, explicitly, Adri, what you didn’t: “He had been gay, and the machine had given him an organ fit for a horse.”. I mean, what the hell, Ellison? What the heck is that even supposed to mean? I get the whole “everyone gets tortured with what they fear and hate, especially our narrator who doesn’t even realize how messed up he is himself, but that does not even try and hit the mark in the case of Benny. I just couldn’t accept it anymore.

Our second story is “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel Delany. The story (which ended up winning the Nebula Award for Best SF story) gives us a world where astronauts, Spacers are neutered before puberty so that there isn't a mutation of their gametes. Our story follows Kelly, one of these Spacers, who finds that the only real company that will tolerate him besides other Spacers are Frelks. Frelks are fetishists who are aroused by the company of the neutered Spacers and will even pay them for that contact. There is conversation and debate and tension between Kelly and the Frelks he associates with, as the fundamental problem of Spacers, being unable to have sexual relations, and being shunned by most of society, are shunted into associating mainly with the Frelks, who can’t help their hopeless attraction to a group who cannot truly return their desire. More poignantly still, it is the Spacer inability to return that desire which heightens that desire among the Frelks.

Adri: I get that Ellison predates Delaney in the genre world by about a decade, but I’m not sure that makes it forgivable for the introduction to imply Delaney is a “new” or upcoming author when he had nine science fiction novels out by this stage.

This is a really interesting story because it’s so firmly about sexual transgression and queerness and kink, in ways which the current myths of genre would have us believe weren’t being written at this time. Clearly they were, and Ellison’s patronising introduction of Delaney aside, the fact that this rose to the top of Dangerous Visions for readers in 1968 makes it clear that the appetite for queer SF explorations - despite perhaps not being done in the most unproblematic way, from a modern angle - was clearly there.

That said, like the others, I’m not sure what to make of the story itself on an initial reading. I found the lack of opinion or perspective from the spacer themself to be kind of bizarre - we never get a sense of what spacers get out of their relationships with frelks, beyond getting paid. It feels like a line is being drawn between their lack of sexuality and their lack of opinion on human contact in general. Again, I’m not quite sure what I’d want to see here instead, in context, but I’m just left a bit confused and that’s definitely not been my response to Delaney works previously.

Joe: I probably spent far too long trying to figure out what exactly a “frelk” was, which was important but not as important as the amount of time I spent on it. The thing is, I’m still somewhat unclear because I’m working on the details more than the emotional arc of the story.

Spacers are neutered before puberty and feel no sexual desire because the neuter allows them to safely work in space with the radiation. Frelks are people who love and desire Spacers, knowing that they can’t really get what they want in return. But - somehow Spacers can still gigolo at frelks and pick them up and get paid. Those are details, but they’re not the story.

The story, I think, might be able to at least partially be tied up into this quote
“You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You’re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror, the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”
I may not grasp what I’ve read, but I really appreciate that sentiment.

Also, I wish I didn’t read Ellison’s introduction to the story which includes a crack about pitiful homosexuals living at home with their parents. There’s stuff to get into here given that it is in the intro to a Delany story (which is beside the point of its general offensiveness), but I’m not sure it’s really worth the time.

Paul: It’s been a long long time since I read this, and I had not remembered it at all. I read the DV and ADV anthologies and so I know I must have read it, but it didn’t press on me, then. Maybe it was a case of not grokking what I read, then.

Now, I understood it a lot better. At least I think I do, anyway. Fetishization, prostitution, the literal neutering of one’s desires and one’s sexuality, it’s clear that Delany was playing with very potent concepts, now, and especially then. What did the readers in the late 60’s make of this (answer they gave it a Nebula award). I can see why I blacked it out of my mind back at the time, because I probably didn’t understand it at all then. I read it twice here and now to try and grasp what I am reading. I think I do better with longer form Delany, so that I am in the text, in the space longer and more immersed so that I really get my mind around it. Shorter Delany doesn’t let me do that and re-reading it kind of puts me at the start, again and again. I think this story is ultimately about loneliness, and trying to transcend it, no matter what one’s nature is.

Joe: In Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man”, the advent of blood typing has led to people convicted of the most serious crimes being forced to “donate” their organs for the betterment of society and to provide restitution for said crimes. But, because the societal demand for those organs is so high, lawmakers have re-evaluated the degree of criminality required for the death penalty and organ donation.

Adri: Because my experience with Niven to date was with Ringworld, a novel that to my modern eyes calls forth images of the Halo video games before anything else, I really side-eyed the introduction to this which states that Niven is in the game of hard science fiction only, things that are provable with current facts and progress, no speculation here. This story then sets itself up as what effectively reads as an alternate history: though I think the setting is intended to be near-future relative to the time of writing, because it draws on the discovery of blood types in 1940 it bases its vision of the future on assumptions about the social and ethical significance of that discovery which, even at the time, were provably false.

It’s a shame, because I think I’d have been a lot more well-disposed to the story if I wasn’t applying such strong scrutiny to its plausibility. The idea of exploitation of people’s lives and bodies by rich and privileged groups is a theme that’s just as timely now as it apparently was at the time of writing (see, for more recent examples, Never Let Me Go and Jupiter Ascending, or any speculative future with corporate indenture in its worldbuilding). In some ways, the construction of the story to leave the protagonist’s very minor crimes as an eventual twist sort of undermines this, in that it hides the extent of injustice within the system until the final sentences.

As with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the elements that rely on horror were the least successful for me - during the actual scene dealing with the organ harvesting technology I had to wonder what it would look like if someone like Kameron Hurley had been writing 50 years earlier. Otherwise, while I certainly wouldn’t say The Jigsaw Man changed my life, and I wouldn’t say it lives up to its own promises when it comes to “just the facts” SF, I did quite enjoy the action here.

Paul: Like Ellison, I had a strong and long Niven phase, where I read all of his stories, read all of his novels,really thought that what SF and especially SF Space opera was, that is what Larry Niven was writing. Just like I tried to read all of Heinlein’s future stories, I tried to read everything in the Larry Niven timeline of Known Space.

The Jigsaw Man is a pretty old story and pretty early in the timeline. It turns on the implications of one premise and I admired, then and now, just how that it goes from the implications of that one premise: guaranteed no-rejection organ transplant technology. Given that premise,the entire world we see spins out, from Niven’s vision. The old and the rich will criminialize everything, with the death penalty, for the steady supply of organs that will keeo the rich alive as long as possible. And thus we have someone who violated some traffic laws being under a death sentence.

Today, I am much more cynical than I was back when I first read the story and I am more inclined to believe it would really go this way than I did back in the day. Wouldn’t the rich see the organs of others as a resource and thus make sure they could get them by any means necessary? I agree it is a VERY fearful story and fearful vision, but does that mean that Niven is *wrong*?

Joe: Larry Niven wrote “The Jigsaw Man” in the still early days of human kidney transplants and as liver, lung, and heart transplants were just beginning to be worked on, some more successfully than others. It’s a fascinating concept that Niven saw those medical advances, the possibility, and what he saw as a possible future was that the ability to save human organs in transplants could be enough to change the morality and the law in countries so that the death penalty would become rampant and in use for even minor crimes.

It’s easy to say looking back on a story written some fifty years ago that Niven is pushing a crazy fearful vision of the future. “The Jigsaw Man” feels like a stretch, even for science fiction. It’s not a story that I can see written today (at least not as a story written in a plausible future). I can see how it might have been plausible then, but I don’t see it as plausible now. At least not without a greater revolution - something that goes further in codifying the privilege of the wealthy into law. More than just having enough money to be somewhat above the law, but rather to have that status fully protected. I don’t see that future.

Adri: Paul, here’s a question that you are uniquely qualified among us to answer: Do you think that the Delaney and Niven stories are two of the strongest from the Dangerous Visions anthology? It clearly underscores how important it was at the time that ⅔ of the ballot is drawn from it, but I find myself wondering (without having the time to commit to the rest of this quite large volume, for now) what drew voters particularly to these two.

Paul: These are strong stories in a strong anthology, but Hugo and Nebula voters aside, I think there are equally strong stories in the volume.

“Faith of our Fathers” by Philip K Dick is maybe the one best distillation of PKD into a story that you can possibly get. Its for me THE PKD story and its a personal favorite.

“Gonna Roll the Bones” is a fantastic Fritz Leiber story that I also think is really strong.(It won the Hugo for best Novelette!)

Auto da Fe by Roger Zelazny is a very Zelazny story, but I don’t think it’s his best, but its a really good Zelazny. That IS a theme of the anthology for all of it being Dangerous Visions, it’s an anthology where time and again, the real distillation of an author is found in the story they wrote. Spinrad’s Carcinoma Angels is also in that tradition, and really potent and powerful, with a killer ending.

Granted, DV is not all great, and I think there are some real clunkers of stories--clunkers by authors I really otherwise like, too.

Joe: Here’s a question to close out this Hugo conversation. Now that we’ve read the 1968 Short Story ballot - how would you vote? Who would you give the award to?

Adri: This is a really hard question, because there’s so many factors involved with information I don’t have access to - this is such a tiny snapshot into a full year of story, and the genre has evolved so much since this was considered the top flight of material. What I can say definitively is that “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” would be at the bottom of my list - if I were thinking through my equivalent processes in recent Hugos, it would then be a toss-up between the story I liked more (Niven), or the story I think probably had more to say (Delany). I can’t begin to answer the question on where “No Award” would go, though - what constituted Hugo Worthy in 1968? The story I liked least, apparently, so where does that leave my analysis.

Paul: How would I have voted? That’s a good question and has multiple answers based on whether you’re asking how I’d have voted when I first read the stories, or NOW? Back in the day, I would have gone Ellison-Niven-Delany. Now? I think the misogyny and homophobia of the Ellison would knock it off of its perch but I feel conflicted between the Niven and the Delany, with maybe the Niven just edging it out. I would NOT No Award the Ellison, though. But ask me again in five years and my opinion on that could change.

Joe: I expected a wider range of opinions, but I agree with both of you on this. It’s a toss up between Niven and Delany. Niven’s story is a bit smoother and hits my storytelling buttons, but I think Delany’s is better written and has much more to say. There’s a more important point to “Aye, and Gomorroah”. Harlan Ellison would rank third. I wouldn’t consider No Award, but I seldom use No Award.

Anyway, this was fun. Thank you both.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.