Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Best of L. Sprague de Camp

There's an odd thing about stereotypes: sometimes something fits them. And so I as I read short story collections of the old masters, it was only a matter of time until I found someone who didn't really write outside the stereotypical range that the mainstream has of the golden age of science fiction. And so it was with this collection of short stories by L. Sprague de Camp. This is not to say that the writing is bad per se, it just doesn't seem to stretch the ideas of what speculative fiction is capable, moving beyond starships, ray guns, and bug-eyed aliens.

In fact, the best single word I can think of to describe this collection is "slight." The writing is clean and the characters interesting, even while fairly flat, but there really is nothing going on thematically. The best example is the well-developed short story, "Nothing in the Rules" about a club swim meet in what appears to be New York City. Enraged that the opposing team has a ringer, a woman with slightly webbed hands which gives her an unfair advantage, Louis Connaught enlists a mermaid to swim for his team. There is a great deal of set-up as the opposing team makes appeal after appeal, and it becomes clear that de Camp apparently knows the rules for AAU swim meets backwards and forward, but nothing specifically denies mermaids from swimming. Funny set-pieces follow, including the unexpected effects of saltwater-based merpeople getting drunk in fresh water, and de Camp includes some development of the history and culture of the merpeople. But when the story ends, the reader doesn't need to waste thought on the repercussions of such shenanigans.

Similarly, "The Guided Man" seems more intent on focusing on the funny circumstances of an interesting technological idea than any exploration of its ramifications. The story introduces the idea of "telagogging," the procedure of letting someone else take over a person's body in order, ostensibly, to guide it through activities the original owner is unprepared for. In this case though, Ovid Ross hires experts to help him through job interviews and eventually a date with the woman of his dreams. Even though the telagogger, the rented pilot, is under contract to not let personal feelings get in the way of the request of the renter, Ross's pilot falls for his date as well and sets about sabotaging him. The story is funny and gently touches on a common theme of science fiction, the appropriation of amazing technology by those not so pure-minded as the inventor. But the story turns to farce as the date ends up in a romp through a nudist colony with enough sidestories of mistaken identity suitable for Shakespeare or an episode of "Three's Company."

I should have known it would be like that from the very first story in the collection, "Hyperpilosity." A viral plague sweeps through humanity causing changes in human appearance, changed anyone with an interest in etymology could guess from the title of the story. The story follows two paths, the narrator attempting and ultimately failing to cure the plague and also describing the social aspects of a disease that cause people to grow hair all over their bodies at ridiculous rates. Ultimately what drives the narrator is how to make money from his discoveries but he fails even at that. And while the social exploration is something along the lines of what the best science fiction does, it is brought to an abrupt stop by the silliness of the hairy plague and the author's inability to give it serious consideration.

The last two stories show a dramatic shift for de Camp to epic fantasy, which feels much more suited to his writing style than "hard" science fiction. "The Emperor's Fan" describes what happens when the emperor in the title loses the instruction manual for the ultimate weapon: humor and chaos in a medieval setting. And "Two Yards of Dragon" imposes modern economic theory on the traditional story of a squire striving for his knighthood. Again, both are funny, and made more so by the superposition of modern ethos on a Middle Age settings. The commentary on human foibles is wry and precise, but not really much deeper than "What fools these mortals be" which directly reflects the sort of attitude the science fiction stories have.

The collection also has three poems of dubious merit in them, more along the lines of bawdy ballads told at a convention than anything of deep value. Titles like "The Ameba" and "Little Green Men" only serves to strengthen the stereotype of speculative fiction writing rather than deflect it in any way.

So while the collection is fun, it's more an analog of the summertime popcorn movie than the Oscar nominee. And as I have established elsewhere, there's nothing wrong with that unless you are looking for something more. Given what I had found in others in the "Best of" collections by Ballantine in the early 70s, I was looking forward to something more substantive. There are chuckles galore to be found here, and indications of the breadth of speculative fiction in the golden age, so it's worthwhile, just not helping in my larger quest.

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