Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: 'The Year 2000' by Harry Harrison

3/5 Stars

The Year 2000 (1970), edited by Harry Harrison, is a collection of SF stories set in time at the turn of the millennium. It’s an interesting, if uneven, look at the genre in the beginnings of what would eventually be called the ‘New Wave’ era.

By 1970 the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, which had embodied the more traditional, optimistic Futurism in US pop culture, was five years gone and starting to (literally and figuratively) go to seed. The Apollo moon landing, and films such as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, still presented technology as an exciting phenomenon. However, by 1970- the same year that Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ appeared - attitudes were rapidly changing, and technology (and its effects on society) was being regarded with considerably more ambivalence. Thus, the majority of the stories in this anthology have a downbeat, melancholy tenor, perhaps the reflecting the angst over the end of the 60’s and the dawning realization that the oncoming 70’s would be a much different decade in terms of Peace, Love, and Understanding.

Fritz Leiber’s ‘America the Beautiful’ sees a young British academic traveling to a United States that seems like something out of Tomorrowland; hypersonic shuttles from London to Dallas, automated cars and freeways, plenty of clean, cheap energy, social and racial harmony, etc., etc. But there’s an undercurrent of unease…something about The Commies (!?)…the story comes across as a limp effort at political commentary, and confirms my belief that Lieber was one of the more overrated authors of his day.

The next story, ‘Prometheus Rebound’, by Daniel F Galouye, was so poorly written that I thought at first it was a heavy-handed parody of the writing style of the pulp magazines of the 30’s. However, Galouye’s self-penned biographical sketch is written in the same style as his short story, leading me to believe he was indeed writing with a straight face….egad !.

Chad Oliver’s ‘Far From This Earth’ is a low-key but effective tale of a middle- aged Kenyan man confronting the advent of modernization in his country and with it, some Western-style spiritual anomie. Of course, given what’s actually going on in Kenya these past few years, such a scenario- steady employment, frame houses, flush toilets, a robust, tourist- fueled economy - cruelly seems ‘too good to be true’.

In Naomi Mitchison’s “After the Accident” an unspecified nuclear disaster has led to a world of mutants, chromosomal aberrations, and strict governance of reproduction. The nameless protagonist decides to advance space colonization via selective breeding. The story’s oblique writing style (and vague references to the issue of abortion) may have been very much ‘In Style’ in 1970, but upon reading it today, one can’t help but conclude that an interesting premise is wasted on a too-diffuse narrative.

Mack Reynolds’s ‘Utopian’ deals with an ardent revolutionary who wakes up from a session of suspended animation to find himself in 2000. The ideals he has fought for have all come true, but...in a world of universal brotherhood and abundance, what, exactly, is wrong ? A rather low-key, but engaging, take on the concept of whether a ‘perfect world’ is all it’s cracked up to be.

Brian Aldiss contributes ‘Orgy of the Living and the Dying’. Set in an impoverished region of India in the midst of severe drought and famine, the story serves as an apt bellwether for the Population Bomb / Eco-Catastrophe mood then a-rising in SF circles. The lead character is something of an Ugly European, offered a chance to be an unlikely hero. This is one of the more effective and well-paced entries in the anthology.

Bertram Chandler’s ‘Sea Change’ is really a nautical adventure with a thin coating of SF. If you’re like me and you aren’t all that thrilled by SF stories incorporating terms like ‘fo’c’sle’, ‘jib’, ‘tacking’, and ‘top’sil’, then you will find ‘Change’ to be a rather unremarkable entry.

‘Black is Beautiful’ by Robert Silverberg and ‘American Dead’ by editor Harrison are two stories dealing with race relations and the rise of Black Power. Back in 1970 it was considered very stylish for white intellectuals to sympathize with black revolutionaries – there was nothing more chic than mentioning at a cocktail party that you were ‘down’ with some Black Panthers. So both tales adopt an approving tone towards the Black Power scene. 

Silverberg’s story looks at New York city in 2000; it’s basically a majority-black metropolis, and one young brother isn’t too happy with the presence of the occasional white tourist. Harrison’s story posits a race war being carried out in the South, with the black protagonists akin to the Viet Cong insofar as waging a guerilla war against Whitey is concerned. Both stories are probably a bit too politically incorrect for the welfare of contemporary readers, but are interesting, effective portraits of racial ferment back in ’70.

‘Take It or Leave It ‘ by David Masson is essentially a mediocre pastiche of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’; the story is set in a dystopian England, and the first-person narrator relates his adventures in a Nadsat-style argot. The storyline is obtuse and clumsily constructed – future events are disclosed to the reader as italics passages interweaved into the narrative proper- and the story collapses under the weight of trying too hard to be Hip and Edgy, a failing that would prove to be too common in future New Wave entries from many different authors.

Things are quite wacky in J. J. Coupling’s ‘To Be A Man’; a hero returning from a southeast Asian war is actually a cyborg whose entire body (save for his brain) is of artificial construction. His efforts to regain his old life in America ca. 2000 are related with some male chauvinistic, Penthouse Forum –style humor. Needless to say, such a tale wouldn’t be likely to appear in any modern compilations, particularly with the advent of a large female audience for SF.

‘The Lawgiver’ by Keith Laumer is a competent, if not very original, drama about a politician who must choose between aiding a family member, or compromising his integrity as a public servant, in a future US in the grip of a population control campaign.

‘Judas Fish’, by Thomas Scortia, also adheres to a Population Bomb theme; the world is in anarchy as too many people struggle for too little food. The narrator is manning a deep-sea laboratory where he manipulates schools of fish to freely swim into massive nets for easy harvesting; it appears some other denizens of the deeps aren’t happy with this arrangement and have malevolent intentions for the future of humanity.

Overall, 'The Year 2000' has its share of readable stories and if you find it on the shelf of your used bookstore and you're a fan of new Wave SF, you'll want to get a copy.

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