austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple is equally understood

So back after a little interruption to my thoughts about Arthur Byron Cover's Autumn Angels, which I discover was a Nebula award nominee on its 1975 publication. (The Nebulas are the other, non-Hugo, set of prizes science fiction writers get; these are voted on by other science fiction writers, so that the politics of the nominations and wins will entertain us all.) The front cover promises ``A certifiably crazy novel of our Earth only 138,000,000.6 years from now (give or take a weekend), in which three improbable weirdos screw up paradise for godlike humanity!'', so potential readers are warned they intend to hold us down and pummel us with wackiness. It's also The Harlan Ellison Discovery Series book number two, so Ellison's introduction explains how Cover started out unreadable but became brilliant, and by the way, Richard Nixon and Jeb Magruder suck.

In this future humanity has indeed become so godlike that nobody has names or cares that they don't, so right away the book irritates me. I don't like having to reason out who is doing what except when ambiguity is absolutely essential to the plot. But the descriptions used in place of names are consistent, so it's not that bad, although the repeated references to ``the fat man's gunsel'' started to make me feel funny. Also in this far-future all humanity has become characters from other sources with the names filed off. Sometimes barely: one minor player is the hawkman, who ``wore no shirt, just yellow straps to hold on his wings. He wore red tights and green boots. His orange mask was designed to resemble the visage of a hawk'' and so on. He's responsible for the museum of antiquities, Carter Hall. Get it? GET IT?! BETTER SAY YES!

Anyway, the plot is that the Fat Man -- Cyrus Redblock from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ``The Big Goodbye'' -- and his demon and his lawyer (Doc Savage sidekick ``Ham'') try to solve the problem where everybody is vaguely tranquilly happy by destroying stuff, then going into space to bring back Sadko and clinical depression, and there you have it. There's some amusing pieces, particularly when the travelogue gets going and the protagonists do things like visit a world of little fuzzy creates who live in the dread fear that anything interesting will happen to them, as they value their deep boring-ness above all else.

Many, many characters from other sources show up, like a massive crossover fan fiction exploded: the Administrator for Africa, for example, is a duck ``half a meter tall, with huge, yellow, flat feet ... his eyes were large ovals; they appeared to have been drawn above his huge yellow, flat beak ... He wore spats and a blue jacket'' and he has a rivalry with the annoying big-eared mouse who wears red shorts, white gloves, and shoes all the time. GET IT? Other cameo appearances get made by Lois Lane, Mister Mxylptlk, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Fu Manchu, Captain Marvel, and the guy Clint Eastwood played in those spaghetti westerns where he didn't have a name.

Why all the non-original characters jammed in? Ellison's introduction tries to make some argument about how this is a story so wild, man, so mind-blowing that it dispenses with things like plot and character and symbolism and so on and the fun is figuring out what the original sources for all this material were. This would seem to create Family Guy: The Science Fiction Novel, but there is far too much plot for that. Oddly, I don't know that I would have liked the story better had it been original characters, although that may be partly because I don't quite get why these particular characters had to be the protagonists.

The impression I get is that Cover -- and Ellison -- were impressed with being able to slip in so many characters in ways their copyright or trademark owners couldn't specifically protest and that they got away with something cool. Probably I just live on the wrong side of the invention of fan fiction in 1995 by alt.startrek.creative, but I'm not impressed by how many references to other stuff they could jam in. Adding to this impression is the fact that while the characters may not much care about or love anything, they certainly are aware that they have genitals and will go on about them with the sort of length and detail that makes sexuality boring. So I'm left with the sense that this was probably a lot more fun thirty years ago, and I guess the Nebula Award nominators were swept up with the zaniness of it all. (It lost the award to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, for the record.)

Bonus question for the class: is it possible to create a parody of Harlan Ellison that is distinguishable from the actual Harlan Ellison?

Trivia: Vice-President Spiro T Agnew sat in at the firing control room viewing area for the launch of Apollo 9 on 3 March 1969. Source: Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, Courtney G Brooks, James M Grimwood, Loyd S Swenson. NASA SP-4205.

Currently Reading: The Day The Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts.


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