Friday, September 9, 2011

FFB: Muriel Spark: THE PUBLIC IMAGE (1968); Mack Reynolds: COMPOUNDED INTERESTS (1983 collection of 1949-1983 work)

Troublemakers. (Even if, despite the covers, their perceptions of gray scales in human events was keen.)

A novel by Muriel Spark, who is sometimes thought of as a sentimentalist, I think, by those who haven't read her (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie being her most famous work, in prose and in its dramatic adaptations, and I think at times it's lumped in with, say, Goodbye, Mr. Chips...it happens to be the 111th anniversary of James Hilton's birth today), and a collection of mostly rarities, a slice through the short works of Dallas McCord "Mack" Reynolds, a man sometimes remembered as a writer of action stories... without taking into account the socio-economic themes and more that were among the most important matters for this son of a several-times national candidate for the very doctrinaire US Marxists, the Socialist Labor Party (the oldest US socialist party; founder Daniel De Leon denounced Karl Marx in the 1870s for Marx's own deviations, and Mack Reynolds was eventually purged from the party).

Both books are (happily, if somewhat marginally) in print.

The Public Image is a short novel, mostly told about, as much as from the point of view of, the youngish and rather canny, if not terribly thoughtful, actress Annabel Christopher; Spark is more interested in observing and analyzing her and the rest of the cast of characters than in getting deeply inside their heads, which is fine since no one in the novel gives much evidence of terribly deep thought about anything but their own agenda and the perceived slights they begrudge. Annabel has determined that as an ingenue making her way to all-out film-star status in the 1960s, maintenance of just the right image is crucial to all she holds dear (mostly the welfare of herself and the child she gives birth to in the course of the novel; to a lesser extent her sulkingly alienated husband and other friends). Frederick Christopher for his part plays along for the cameras as a doting husband, while resenting his wife's material success and being overshadowed by that, even though he's managed to establish a creditable career as a screenwriter; some of the hangers-on from the Christophers' young adulthood have not fared so well. Spark makes excellent use of her residence in Italy (she was one of those lifelong traveler-writers, as was Reynolds, in her case out of Scotland) as the setting for the bulk of the story, but she doesn't stint in her mockery of the hypocrisy, irresponsibility, self-importance and self-delusion of the other sorts of human, very much including Britons and Americans, who populate the book. I'm not sure there was again as thorough a damnation of the tabloid press, and its interrelation with the supposedly responsible press, till Donald Westlake's Trust Me on This two decades later, and this is just one of the running concerns. Spark, though old enough to serve in British intelligence during WW2, is essentially one of the Angry Young Humans, rather as was her fellow devout Catholic Graham Greene (she began publishing novels in the late '50s and her first, wonderful collection of short fiction, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories, came out in 1958 (she'd first published a short story in response to a contest in 1951); however, she was also one who took a very worldly humanist view of her characters' and their predicament, and never moreso than in this book; these folks' lives are no more empty than they want them to be, and the good simple folk are not always so very good in their desire to remain simple, or to force their simplicity onto others. The condescension the male characters, well-meaning and otherwise, bring to Annabel, less pathetic than any of them, is only one of Spark's points (and that's partly also a bit of an inside joke, it seems, as Frederick apparently somewhat echoes a competitive old flame of Spark's). This is a very funny book and a moving one, too even-handed and reasonable to be called savage, but pointed and accurate, a series of very well-thrown darts. As I didn't know, but everyone is quick to note, ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon named his next band Public Image, Ltd. in honor of this novel...by a Scottish Catholic Dame Commander of the British Empire, title bestowed by their mutual saved Queen.

The Reynolds collection, one of a series of small books produced by NESFA Press for the annual convention Boskone (to celebrate the guest of honor for the given year), like the others in the series doesn't try to be a representative collection, but rather to gather, as mentioned above, some rarities and "lost" items by the author, and mix them with some of the major work of the GOH. (NESFA also publishes large, retrospective collections of complete short fiction and novel omnibuses by various writers who haven't been given their due by other publishers, including Cyril Kornbluth, Hal Clement, Charles Harness, Philip Klass/"William Tenn," and Paul Linebarger/"Cordwainer Smith"). Oddly, though, this collection does rather represent Reynolds rather well, featuring as it does examples of his classic short fiction, most notably "Pacifist" and "Compounded Interest," along with weaker but still interesting work by a man who too often seemed, as Algis Budrys once noted, to be all engine and no steering wheel: he could produce brilliantly thought-out stories, with uncliched dialogue and characters, and he could produce stories with wooden figures usually having still relatively interesting discussions and arguments in a framework that was otherwise utter hack. And then there are the stories that fall between these poles, such as the early fantasy "Give the Devil His Due" and "Last Warning," his first sf story to sell, to Jerome Bixby at Planet Stories, that sat in inventory for five years (Bixby, probably the magazine's best editor, left Planet, to write "It's a Good Life" and other work, and to edit for other magazines, shortly after the 1949 acceptance). While there's nothing terribly startling about either of these early stories, they do demonstrate Reynolds's wit, in all senses; Fredric Brown took Reynolds under his wing when the young WW2 vet and his wife settled in Taos, New Mexico after a few good short crime-fiction sales, Reynolds's first to Esquire, and a lot of rejections. Brown and Reynolds would collaborate on at least a dozen or so short fictions over the next half-decade, and their joy in arch humor and a good thrown-away phrase was mutual. Reynolds later became the most, or at least one of the most, consistently popular contributors to John Campbell's Analog in the 1960s and the not altogether dissimilar Galaxy and If as edited by James Baen in the 1970s, not least for the kind of story represented here by "Psi Assassin": chatty, to say the least (the next step beyond the engineer's argument story that Hugo Gernsback loved to publish in his pop-science and -technology magazines, which led up to his founding the first all-sf non-dime novel magazine, Amazing Stories), not terribly concerned with verisimilitude if a certain naive cosmopolitanism can be suggested by the characters' concerns, even if they, for plot convenience's sake, don't bother to ask even the simplest useful questions of each other till the author decides to let them do so. Making for rather unbelievable professionals of the first rank, sometimes not so quietly sneering or railing against those fools who get in their way. Reynolds, as a committed leftist who had devoted more thought to the larger matters under discussion than most of the default-rightwing Analog crew from the late '50s onward (not all of them; Harry Harrison was and is of the left, as well), at least usually managed to have something interesting for his characters to say in those interchanges, and also kept the stories fast-moving, even when not convincing. And when he took his time, and let the stories gestate, as with "Pacifist" (can one use selective assassination to create peace?) or with "Compounded Interest" (simply one of the most ingenious of time-travel stories), the incisive satire and clear-eyed view of humanity that Reynolds was ready to offer were difficult to top. Even as trifling a partial re-write of "Pacifist" as the previously unpublished opening story, "Idealist" demonstrates the guiding intelligence at work, even if it gives little credit to his talent. And though he loved fantasticated fiction the most, he never completely gave up on crime fiction, as with his collaboration with August Derleth on the included Solar Pons Sherlockian pastiche (a real pity no Brown collaborations where included).

From the Contento Index:
Compounded Interests Mack Reynolds (NESFA Press 0-915368-20-X, May ’83, $13.00, 161pp, hc)

· Introduction · in
· Idealist · ss *
· Give the Devil His Due [as by Dallas Ross] · ss Fantastic Adventures Oct ’50
· Psi Assassin [Ronnie Bronston] · nv Section G: United Planets, Mack Reynolds, Ace, 1976; revised from Analog Dec ’67.
· Last Warning [“The Galactic Ghost”] · ss Planet Stories Mar ’54
· Depression or Bust [revised from Analog Aug ’67] · nv Depression or Bust, Mack Reynolds, Ace, 1974
· Compleated Angler · ss Startling Stories Fll ’55
· Pacifist · ss F&SF Jan ’64
· The Adventure of the Snitch in Time [Solar Pons] · Mack Reynolds & August Derleth · ss F&SF Jul ’53
· Doctor’s Orders [“Four-Legged Hotfoot”; Johnny Norsen] · ss Fantastic Story Magazine Win ’52
· Good Indian · ss Analog Sep ’62
· Compounded Interest · ss F&SF Aug ’56
· Three Unanswerable Questions · pm *

the Ballantine edition I read.

The books to get first: The Best of Mack Reynolds; All the Stories of Muriel Spark

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of this week's book selections...

13 comments:

George said...

I'm a huge fan of Mack Reynolds! I've read his work for decades. Other than Pohl & Kornbluth, Mack Reynolds is the other major SF writer to take on business, finance, and economics. Excellent review!

Richard R. said...

I have THE BEST OF MACK REYNOLDS and PLANETARY AGENT X. Like George, I'm a big Mack Reynolds fan, each time an issue of Analog came with a Reynolds story in it I read that story first (unless there was one by Christopher Anvil, in which case I had to flip a coin).

Todd Mason said...

One just wishes Reynolds could've taken the time to write everything as well as he could, but even in deflated Mexico in the '60s, one did have to pay to live.

And Reynolds was at heart an optimist, moreso than Pohl and of course therefore at odds altogether with Kornbluth. The sheer joyous audacity of rewriting Edward Bellamy's two utopian novels is tribute to that...and no one was dealing with African questions in sf ahead of Reynolds, I don't think...and he was enough of a liberationist, broad-spectrum, to be unshowily pro-feminist (even when it doesn't completely come off, as in "Psi Assassin") well before the trend (and less awkwardly than some later converts, particularly among the men).

K. A. Laity said...

A marvelously louche looking Spark there. I love her writing - so coolly precise and funny. Damn those irresistible Scots!

Todd Mason said...

Passion held in check, cool without being actually cold. Very funny. (Evelyn Waugh being her colleague she was most often compared to, and he was more irritable.)

Both writers puffing the nicotine. Don't try this at home, kids! (Or is it tobacco, in either case?)

John said...

Muriel Spark a sentimentalist? Really? MEMENTO MORI one of my favorite her her later books is scathing, rich with black humor, anything but sentimental.

I have a copy of THE CASE OF THE LITTLE GREEN MEN by Reynolds that I will tackle sometime later in the fall.

Todd Mason said...

I'll be interested in your take on the Reynolds, which I haven't read, but it does have a reputation for being disappointing.

Yes, I gather the sense of the misunderstanding of Spark comes from people who aren't really paying attention, who want all all stories about boarding schools to be at most dangerous CHARIOTS OF FIRE or more bland.

SteveHL said...

Reynolds drove me crazy because, as you say, he could be so good at times and so far from good at other times. I haven't read this collection but I do remember some of the stories in here - the brilliant "Compounded Interest" and one I recall as being really terrible, "Good Indian". At his best he was very fine.

Spark was a fantastic writer. I've read about half of her books - not, unfortunately, including The Public Image. Of those I've read, my favorites are The Girls of Slender Means and, especially, Momento Mori. I don't always remember what the first thing I read by a particular author was but I do with Spark - the short story "The Portobello Road" in one of Judith Merril's "Best of the Year" books.

Todd Mason said...

The Merril 7th Annual includes both "The Portobello Road" and Reynolds's "Freedom," along with an impressive array of other material...John Dos Passos to "Cordwainer Smith"...Edward Gorey to Anne McCaffrey...Fredric Brown to Conrad Aiken (a short trip, that one).

Richard R. said...

GREEN MEN is lightweight stuff, a bit of fun fluff, not much more, whether read as a mystery or SF.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks!

Richard Moore said...

Earlier this year I read over 50 Mack Reynolds stories from 1950 to the early 1960s and was impressed anew with his talent. I have not read this collection but have read many of the stories. "Give the Devil His Due" was an amusing deal with the devil story but I would have preferred "Isolationist" (Fantastic Adventures (April 1950)as it is an early example of MR dealing with issues. It is also a good example of him using a hardboiled style, which many of his non-humorous early stories featured.

He also did a short series for various mags featuring the crew of the space ship New Taos--"Chowhound" from Marvel Nov 1951 and "Stowaway" Universe June 1953--that were solid, straight SF stories.

GREEN MEN was his first novel written for a lending library publisher and is very slight. I prefer his second book that came out in 1958 HOW TO RETIRE WITHOUT MONEY! (as by Bob Belmont). He draws upon his years living in Tangiers, Spain, Mexico and visiting many other spots as Rogue Magazine's travel editor. It is a fascinating, funny look at a 1950s world long vanished.

I've been accumulating issues of Rogue for some years and always enjoy the Reynolds articles. He wrote an interesting novel ONCE DEPARTED where the viewpoint character is a columnist living in Spain but unlike Reynolds was widely syndicated in US newspapers and an influential figure.

I highly recommend Earl Kemp's special e-zine on Reynolds. I would have loved to have known him.

Todd Mason said...

In fact, the first hypertext link on Reynolds's name takes the reader to that eI issue (Spark's to her official website).

Thanks for all this...I have a copy of that issue of UNIVERSE, not a magazine that gets anthologized too often, once beyond Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" and even then...and will take a look at "Stowaway" finally. (And "Isolationist" certainly sounds like another of the good or at least interesting stories that would pop up FANTASTIC ADVENTURES, which would in its next issue feature nothing but slight, essentially-staff-written and a bit dull, adventure fiction...I note it's not included in the BEST OF MR). If ever another candidate for a fat NESFA volume was presenting himself, Reynolds is one...and one hopes that some selectivity in the fiction, and perhaps some of his travel writing, might be features of such an omnibus.

I should add the link I found the other week to some of MR's writing for and about Socialist Labor Party folks...