Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review - Time Untamed by Ivan Howard (editor)

Stories included:
Sally by Isaac Asimov
You'll Never Go Home Again by Clifford D. Simak
The Eye of Tandyla by L. Sprague de Camp
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Ray Bradbury
The Hungry Eye by Robert Bloch
The Dark Room by Theodore Sturgeon
The Eternal Eve by John Wyndham
I'm Looking for "Jeff" by Fritz Leiber

Full review; Time Untamed is a moderately obscure science fiction anthology featuring a grab bag of stories from a collection of fairly prominent science fiction authors of its day. The genesis of the collection appears to have been to reprint some popular stories that had appeared previously in Fantastic that had previously been culled from previous publications and reprinted in the magazine. Ivan Howard was apparently on the staff of the magazine at the time and was assigned the job of editing this anthology of third run stories, although he is uncredited in the book. Given that every story in this book was considered worth publishing at least three times, it is no surprise that they are all pretty good, although none of them stand out as more than that.

Sally by Isaac Asimov is another in a long line of Asimov stories featuring "positronic brains" and the position of robots in human society. The twist in Sally is that the robot brains are installed in cars, and only robotic cars are allowed on the roads, reducing automobile accidents and the resulting injuries and fatalities to almost zero. The protagonist Jake runs a retirement farm for old cars, including the title character, an old convertible named "Sally". Retired cares are rare because cars in the future are rare and have longer service lives. Jake regards his charges fondly, almost like cherished pets. He is visited by an unscrupulous entrepreneur who wants to take the retired cars, rip out their brains, and put them into new cars. This appalls Jake, and when the ensuing back and forth moves into criminal action, the cars take sides against the interloper. While this provides a victory for the "good guys" it makes Jake wonder what would happen if the cars ever stopped behaving like spoiled pets and took sides against humanity. Sally is a fairly simple robot story with a slightly unsettling implication, although Asimov's three laws of robotics are noticeably absent.

Several of the stories in the volume are frightening, but from my perspective none can match Clifford D. Simak's tale of deep space exploration You'll Never Go Home Again. A human survey ship sets down on an alien planet and begins to set about studying it in preparation of future colonization. Using robots to set everything up, and the latest technological devices to ensure their security, the survey team is not intimidated by the Stone Age technology of the natives. In the one encounter between the explorers and the natives, the intrepid humans are told they will never leave, a threat they scoff at. But it turns out not to be a threat, but a prediction, as things don't turn out exactly as either the characters or the reader would expect. The humans end up marooned and unequipped with anything more advanced than stone tools on an alien planet, which is what makes this story quite frightening.

L. Sprague de Camp gives a humorous take on pulp sword and sorcery with The Eye of Tandyla, in which a king compels Derezong Taash, his reluctant court magician, to steal a valuable and magical gem from a neighboring kingdom to mollify the king's new wife. Derezong and his trusty assistant manage to pull of the heist, but when everything seems to go a little too well they get suspicious and change their plans. This turns out to be a good idea, and they manage to unwittingly prevent an assassination of their king. The story is humorous, somewhat silly, and fairly entertaining.

The one time travel story in the volume is Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Ray Bradbury, a tale involving a down on his luck writer in Los Angeles and a mysterious typing machine that shows up in his apartment. He is contacted by a woman who claims to be from a dystopian future ruled by a brutal dictator. She encourages him to prevent her reality by killing the ancestor of the ruthless leader who has imprisoned her father. The hero resists, but finally gives in and kills a minor politician, which of course sparks a police hunt for him. The story ends ambiguously, with one wondering if the main character did the right thing – after all, he only has this stranger's say-so that killing this otherwise unremarkable man, and in the process ruining his own life, is necessary. Of all the stories in the volume, this one is probably the best of the bunch.

Two of the stories are more or less horror stories, and seem somewhat similar, although they take fairly different ways to get to their conclusion. The Hungry Eye by Robert Bloch centers on a mysterious stone which seems to drive those near it to murderous acts. The protagonist's brother is accused of killing another security guard at his place of work and stealing the stone. He then takes up with a woman he picks up in a bar, and is killed by her. The stone is then taken by the protagonist and as the tale ends, he is casually contemplating murdering his beloved wife. The story is framed as an alien invasion story, but the invader is a life form that no one suspects is a life form, and is unsettling as only a Robert Bloch story can be. The other horror story in the collection is The Dark Room by Theodore Sturgeon, which is almost a dark fairy tale. People who attend parties at a particular house do things that are unusual for them. In fact, people do things that are impossibly out of character for them. But then they are never invited to return. The protagonist's wife cheats on him at one of these parties, and is then driven by his brother-in-law to investigate. The trail leads inevitably back to the house where the parties happen, and the enchanted source of the mysterious behavior. The story is dark, twisted, and magical

The last two stories both focus on women, and only very slightly from different angles. In The Eternal Eve by John Wyndham a colony on Venus learns that the rest of humanity has destroyed itself in an orgy of violence, leaving only the handful of colonists as the last vestige of our race. Even more ominously, the colony was mostly male, leaving fewer women alive than one could count on one hand, including the protagonist who is apparently the last fertile female still breathing. She takes a stand, refusing to pick a man and start breeding a new generation of humans, which leads to her holing up in a cave with the primitive native Venusians she had been studying as a graduate student when the catastrophe took place. The story is somewhat conventional in that she eventually gives in to biology and takes a partner, become the "Eve" of the title. The story is predictable and has a moderately anti-feminist message, essentially asserting that a woman must be willing to breed for the good of the race, even if it does allow that she shouldn't be forced into it and should be permitted to breed with the man of her choice. I'm Looking for "Jeff" by Fritz Leiber, on the other hand, is a classic ghost story featuring a damsel in distress, a stalwart hero, and a crude villain. Only the damsel in distress is picking up men in a bar, the hero is a drunkard, and the crude villain, well the crude villain is in fact a crude villain. The story is well-written, and the characters are fun to follow, but the plot is very predictable, and the reader is likely to figure out the "twist" ending well before they reach the end.

Taken as a group, the stories in Time Untamed are an enjoyable but not particularly substantial lot. The best that can be said for most of them is that they are well-written stories that contain stock characters acting out stock plots in stock settings. The best story is Bradbury's time travel tale Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and even that is a fairly standard example of the genre, drawing upon some fairly well-worn time travel story tropes. All of the authors represented here are good writers, and as a result even their clichéd material makes for an enjoyable read.

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