Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review - Children of Infinity by Roger Elwood (editor)

Stories included:
Time Brother by Raymond F. Jones
Conversations at Lothar's by Barry N. Malzberg
Wingless on Avalon by Poul Anderson
Space-Born by Robert Bloch
All You Can Eat by Harvey L. Bilker and Audrey L. Bilker
Opening the Door by Philip José Farmer
Terrafied by Arthur Tofte
Half Life by Rachel Cosgrove Payes
The Tower by Thomas N. Scortia
Wake Up to Thunder by Dean R. Koontz

Full review: Children of Infinity wasn't the first collection of science fiction stories that I ever read. It is, however, the first collection of science fiction stories that I read that I still own. In fact, the copy that I own is the same one given to me by my parents when I was still in elementary school. In many ways, the stories found in this volume are the metrics that first defined for me what the words "science fiction" meant, and luckily for me, the diverse range and high quality of the stories that are presented in its pages provided a terrific set of examples of what the genre could be.

In Time Brother, Raymond F. Jones uses losing one's parents - one of the most common childhood fears - as the backdrop for his story. Seventeen year old Ben is at the funeral for his parents when the ceremony is disrupted by a scrawny young boy named David who claims that the deceased are in fact his parents, which seems ludicrous as Ben knows he is an only child. Ben takes a liking to the obviously underfed, possibly homeless, and presumed mentally ill boy, and takes him home to take care of him until his true family can be found. From there the story has a major twist that is mostly given away by the title as it turns out that David is Ben's brother, just displaced in time by a thousand years. There is the comforting message passed along to Ben that his parents' death has meaning and he has a destiny, and then the story comes to a close. This is not one of the stronger stories in the volume, but it is relatively straightforward, so one can see why the editor chose to open the book with it.

Wingless on Avalon by Poul Anderson is probably the most "standard" science fiction story in the volume. Set on the distant planet Avalon where humanity and the alien Yrthians have established what is intended to be a joint colony, the story focuses on Nat Falkayn, a twelve year old boy trying to fit in with the adolescent Ythrians around him. The Ythrians are an avian race, clumsy on the ground but at home and agile in the air, which makes Nat incredibly jealous to to his own earthbound state. He sets out on a sailing adventure with a pair of adolescent Ythrians, one of whom is almost openly contemptuous of Nat and his inability to fly. The trio sets out to test the Ythrians' new sailing boat, which seems like an odd hobby for creature who can fly to be enthusiastic about, but it gives Nat the opportunity to be a hero and earn some respect from his colleagues and an appreciation for the things humans can do that Ythrians cannot. I'm not sure if I entirely agree that the nature of the "compensation" Anderson posits really offsets the inability to fly, the implausibility of having flying creatures incapable of swimming be avid sailors makes the plot seem like little more than an artifice created for a teaching moment, and the opening of the story is nothing more than a naked information dump, but it is a fairly optimistic adventure story, which sets it apart from many of the other offerings in this collection.

The Tower by Thomas N. Scortia tells the story of an unnamed young mutant living on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Kept in isolation within his family's tower for his own protection from the other survivors who, we are told, kill mutants on sight. With his mother dead and his father ill and dying, the protagonist tries to seek out a doctor but is spotted by some children. Soon a mob forms, surrounding the tower in  manner reminiscent of the old black and white movie version of Frankenstein, and the protagonist must do something he has never done before to escape. The Tower is a relatively simple story that leads to a fairly open ended finish, but it captures the emotions of being a teenager - alienation, isolation, but also the sense of being unique and special, and this emotional content is what makes the story work. The Tower is probably the weakest story in the volume, and probably would have been much improved if the story had been lengthened, allowing for more character development.

Given Robert Bloch's reputation as a writer, one would expect him to contribute a creepy and disturbing story to this collection despite the fact that Children of Infinity is aimed at younger readers, and Space-Born does not disappoint in this regard. In the story, an expedition sent to find a stolen space craft locates the derelict on a distant planet but finds the thieving astronaut and his wife have both died from starvation. They do, however, find a baby that they dub "Keva" after her father, who they take back to Earth. As one might expect for a child found in a shadowy cave on an alien planet, Keva turns out to be a bright but somewhat odd child - and odd in a decidedly creepy way. Events turn both stranger and eerier as the story progresses until Keva's true nature is revealed, turning the story into a race to save humanity. The story ends on a fairly frightening note, almost reminiscent of an episode of the Twilight Zone, providing an interesting contrast to much of young adult fiction, including some of the more upbeat stories found in this collection such as Wingless in Avalon.

Even darker than Space Born, Opening the Door by Philip José Farmer presents the bleakest vision of all the stories in the collection. The story starts with the viewpoint character, a teenager named Clark, struggling to surface in a dark well that is not entirely metaphorical, only to discover when he reaches consciousness that he is all but dead and has only been preserved through the use of experimental medical procedures that have left him without a body and entirely dependent upon machines to communicate. From this starting point, the story only gets darker and more unsettling, which is a fairly impressive feat. Clark, we are told, has been drafted into an experiment seeking contact with parallel universes, and his near dead state has made him uniquely capable of reaching out to them. Using an essentially helpless protagonist might seem like an unusual choice, but by doing so, Farmer is able to capture the powerlessness felt by so many teenagers, as parents who are seemingly absent when he needs them most make all of the decisions for Clark without his input. And it is this helplessness that makes the ending, in which developments take a turn for the macabre, work so well. On the one hand, Clark is a victim - a horrified bystander who can only be a witness to the unfolding events, but on the other hand, Clark is the agent through which the horror works, in a sense the metaphorical expression of his adolescent rage. Farmer has captured both the fear and fury of being a teenager in a brilliantly crafted story.

In the early 1970s, environmentalism was moving to the forefront of the cultural discussion, and All You Can Eat by Harvey L. Bilker and Audrey L. Bilker uses a rather humorous tale to offer some modest commentary on the issue. In the story the unnamed protagonist selects a rather nice New York restaurant that offers an "all you can eat" special and then proceeds to eat everything on the menu and then some. As an aside, it is an indicator of the age of the story that the "all you can eat" option only costs $4.95 for a menu that is said to include (among other things) lobster, shrimp, escargot, frog's legs, escargot, and orange duck. As the story progresses the alien continues to eat prodigious amounts of food, to the dismay of the establishment's other customers and eventually the restaurant owner himself. Eventually the alien reveals that he hails from a distant planet that has been wrecked by pollution, and now its inhabitants have to send agents across the galaxy to consume and "kinergize" food back to their starving population. The alien then delivers the somewhat chilling message that consuming an entire planet's resources may be inevitable, and it is only a matter of time before Earth finds itself in the same situation. This harsh message is wrapped in such a humorous that it almost sneaks up on the reader, despite the bluntness with which it is delivered.

Another story that uses environmentalism as an underlying theme, Terrafied by Arthur Tofte also mixes in the issue of colonialism to create a story that is almost didactic but still manages to pack a solid punch. I believe that this may be the most famous story in the collection: I don't remember if I first encountered this story in this collection or in one of my elementary school textbooks, but I do remember seeing it as a reading selection in one of my school texts. No matter where I first read it, the story follows Dor, a teenage inhabitant of the planet Tyrox who is kidnapped by human explorers and brought back to Earth. Once there, Dor is exposed to Earth culture, allowing Tofte to illustrate all of the ugly elements of humanity - mostly focusing on our propensity for war and casual violence, but also touching on the rapacious and destructive nature humans display that leads to poverty and despair. Using an alien as the viewpoint character allows Tofte to make even a game of football or a drive along an abandoned highway seem frightening. The real thrust of the story is that the overburdened Earth is slowly dying under the weight of its massive human population with its ecology wrecked beyond repair, and in the tradition of Imperialist colonizers throughout history humanity proposes to settle hundreds of millions of humans onto Tyrox without even asking the inhabitants their opinion on the matter. Dor ends up making a bold choice in defense of her home, but the story ends before the consequences are shown. Although the story is fairly heavy-handed with its points, it is brutally effective.

Lest anyone think that dystopian fiction aimed at younger readers is a new trend, the first of the three dystopian stories in the book is Conversations at Lothar's by Barry N. Malzberg. The story is a relatively bare-bones affair, with the protagonist starting the story by having the titular conversation in which Lothar talks about the days before everyone lived in the gigantic, miles tall Domicile with details of their lives controlled by the Bureau. When she returns to her own quarters, the protagonist is confronted by Del, one of the others living in her assigned quarters, and who, we are told, she will be assigned to as a mate in a few years. During this conversation the protagonist realizes that she doesn't want to be Del's assigned mate, and truly begins to rebel in her mind. By the end, we see that the tiny spark provided by Lothar has turned into a modest flame. The beauty of this story is in how much is conveyed in so few words - there is only a brief description of the Domicile, but Malzberg gives a clear picture of its immense size and state of disrepair. Though the level of exacting control the Bureau has over the lives of the Domicile's denizens is not spelled out in full, enough is given that it is readily apparent to the reader. Conversations at Lothar's is almost a master lesson in how to tell the most story using the least number of words.

Another well-crafted dystopian tale, Half Life by Rachel Cosgrove Payes seems to draw inspiration directly from the 1967 novel Logan's Run, as it posits a society in which everyone lives to at most thirty years old before they "expire", with the exact dates kept track of via tattoos imprinted on the back of every citizen's hand. But in a cruel twist, instead of the government hunting down those who have lived past their termination date, all citizens must locate an expired before they turn fifteen, kill their target, and return the hand with the expired date upon it. If one fails to accomplish this, then one expires at the age of fifteen instead of thirty. Benji is nearing his fifteenth birthday, and is growing desperate to find an expired he can claim. Without parents, he has to locate an unclaimed expired adult to kill, and those are few and far between in the city. This fact - that finding an expired is especially difficult for Benji due to his lack of parents - is the sort of atmospheric world-building that sets this story well above the ordinary. While a culture in which teenagers must hunt down and kill those who have gotten too "old" to be allowed to live, the implication in this one line is that a child would normally murder one of their own parents to satisfy their obligation. This, more than anything else in Half-Life expresses the truly barbaric nature of the dystopian future Payes has imagined. Benji's quest takes him outside the city on a wild goose chase for the legendary "old man of the hills", and winds up taking him someplace he never expected to go, but for the reader is somewhat predictable. Like Conversations at Lothar's, this story ends on a note of rebellion, but the rebellion is more concrete, and it has a decidedly musical nature.

Of all the stories in this anthology, Wake Up to Thunder by Dean R. Koontz is the one that made the most impression upon me when I first read it as a child. The story is told from the perspective of one of the nameless children of "Thunder", the loving all-powerful mind that takes care of humanity as it sleeps and dreams in its tiny individual cells. The narrator has been awoken by Thunder to hunt down a renegade - a human who has awakened without permission and is doing damage to the vast complex that houses Thunder and all of the humans it loves. As the cadre of wakened hunters spreads throughout the complex, the narrator tells of his love for Thunder, and trust in the guardian and caretaker that manages his life, but becomes disturbed as he descends to the lowest levels of the complex and finds neglect and decay, and eventually, the renegade. And then the truth is revealed, and it turns out that Thunder is not what the protagonist thought it was. The terrifying part of the story is the love felt by the protagonist for Thunder, and the reader follows along, at first feeling vaguely unsettled by the slavish adoration, and then following the protagonist with growing unease, until the reader is finally forced to recoil in horror when they realize the awful truth. Wake Up to Thunder is a dystopian tale, probably more frightening than the others presented in this collection due to its plausibility, but it is a stealthy one, in which the actual nightmare of the dystopia sneaks up on the reader and isn't truly revealed until the very end. This is the most unsettling piece of fiction in Children of Infinity, and also the best.

With stories ranging from dark dystopian tales, to science fiction horror, to time travel, to cautionary admonishments against destroying the environment, to yarns of pure adventure and unexpected heroism, this is a strong collection that is sure to fascinate a young reader. Every story in this volume is strong, and several are outstanding. The stories have even managed to age well, and are not noticeably dated even though the anthology was originally published in 1973. In my life I have read numerous collections of science fiction aimed at young readers, but I have never encountered one that is as diverse or consistently as high a level of quality as this one.

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