Locus Magazine Review

Live! From Planet Earth, George Alec Effinger (Golden Gryphon Press, 1-930846-32-0, $25.95, hc) May 2005. Cover by John Picacio.

A Clarion alumnus more than 30 years ago, the late George Alec Effinger — known for a time to friends as "Piglet," which he grew to dislike — started with a bang, and produced a lot of very clever, enticing work alongside reams of routine stuff such as Planet of the Apes franchise novels and a dull collaboration with Gardner Dozois, Nightmare Blue. His 1984 satire "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything," perhaps his best-known tale after "Schrödinger's Kitten," opens this retrospective gathering of short fiction. It's followed by another well-known and ferocious deconstruction of human frailties, "All the Last Wars at Once" (from as early as 1971). Effinger didn't pull punches, and if his touch was light his jab was painful and exact. The Last Wars start with a national US declaration that, for a month, black and white will declare open season on each other. "You go out and get what you can," the TV announces. This swiftly escalates to man against woman, Christian against Jew, one denomination against another, right-handers against southpaws, until finally the only enemy remaining is . . . oneself. Hand me the rope.

Beyond whimsy in the service of brutal insight, Effinger was a technical whiz, perhaps the Kornbluth of late 20th-century SF. It is hard to imagine anyone else getting away, in 1972, with a witty postmodern sword & sorcery novel titled What Entropy Means to Me. Each of the 14 singleton stories, plus a suite of eight tales (the O. Niemand Stories), is introduced by a well-known craftsman or craftswoman of the genre (Michael Bishop, Howard Waldrop, Pamela Sargent, Barbara Hambly, Gardner Dozois, others). As well as the mandatory praise for a fallen colleague — born in 1947, Effinger died in 2002 — there's a repeated lament for the painful manner of his life, afflicted by various ulcerations and gastric disorders that required operation after operation and drugs to cope with the pain, leading to addiction, substance abuse sentencing, a hospital dunning him into bankruptcy, and early death from stomach hemorrhage. Despite his succès d'estime, it seems that Effinger suffered the frequent fate of SF writers of ambition and technical diversity. Even with the late Marîd Audran novels (noir procedurals in an Arabized New Orleans, never more timely), his fame and popularity were always restricted, it seems, to his writer friends and the cognoscenti. Certainly his colleagues speak up for him here, and on the evidence of most of the stories in this generally excellent collection, they speak justly.

The most impressive and quirkily ingenious is that suite of stories published under the alias O. Niemand, or Nobody. Each is a pastiche or homage to a different writer, written in that voice and special sensibility, but set in a more or less consistent shared background, a deep space domed asteroid colony with the brilliantly inappropriate name of Springfield. Since the tales were begun well before the advent of Homer Simpson and his hapless, lovable family, this late resonance is an unintended gift, but it's apt. Dozois unerringly pinpoints the finest of these — the Flannery O'Connor-like "Put Your Hands Together," the Steinbeckian "The Man Outside," and "Afternoon Under Glass" with its reek of Hemingway — although Dozois rather dismisses them as stunts and muscle-flexing. Perhaps: they're mighty impressive in any case, appealing to the reader's snobbery in catching the echoes, and simultaneously moving the heart while telling real SF stories. Still, I guess my favorite is "The Wisdom of Having Money," an extremely cheeky borrowing of the Mississippi pilot tales of Mark Twain, creating a richly vernacular and funny rite of passage in space and sexual politics that might easily have spawned a delightful novel.

Not every story is so successful. It was a mistake to include Effinger's attempt at a mainstream story, an artless and lurching piece about agoraphobia ("Housebound" front Phobias) that is entirely persuasive as a report on panic attacks and a disaster as a piece of fiction. "At the Bran Factory," which Jack Dann introduces with paroxysms about subversive cockeyed vision, wonderful, wacky ideas, giggling and making faces between the lines of the story, is actually a very ordinary jape where a visit to a steel smelting operation is morphed into a hellish traipse through the industrial heat and noise, and smarmy CEO's tour speech, of a factory turning ore into bran flakes and humans into raisins. Ho hum. The key to Dann's enthusiasm, I suspect, is his candid recollection that 30 years ago, when he and "Piglet" and Dozois and Joe Haldeman were workshopping their first stories, was their "salad days . . . the compressed, juicy days when everything was fast and pure, when writing was the most important thing in the world." Will the same stories make a later generation turn cartwheels? Maybe, the best of them, anyway. And there's nothing to scoff at in Dann's delirious recollection of joy. It's what drives the artist even when his guts are being eaten from the inside by acids and drugs, until, as with poor Effinger, the effort and the world's indifference kills him.

Effinger seemed in his fiction poised always between a pranksterish delight and a terrible despair. In the quietly hilarious and oddly poignant "Target: Berlin!'' WW II is deliberately postponed until the 1980s, but the oil crises of that time forbid the profligate air strikes of the 1940s, so the great strategic battles are conducted in modified cars. The atom bomb, developed under the urging of the narrator, George Effinger, friend of Presidents Roosevelt and Jennings, is delivered to Hiroshima by Cadillac Fleetwood B-29, navigating in the absence of good Japanese road-map markings.

In "One," a couple fly faster than light in search of inhabited worlds, but year after year find no trace of life. At last, in despair and alone, the man gazes into the desolate cosmos with resignation but then release: he is, after all, at home in the universe that bore us forth from its womb. Well, that's nice. In "Everything but Honor," a black time traveler tries again and again to intervene in his racist history, making everything worse until we end up here and now. Or is it worse? In "Solo in the Spotlight," the president's daughter and his astrologer join up on Air Force One to read a Barbie Tarot (the Three of Handbags, the Four of Shoes, the Ten of Hairbrushes, Low-Fat Diet cards), narrowly averting war. George/Piglet attains his final cool blend of sentiment and clear-eyed scrutiny in "Two Sadnesses," where the nursery characters of A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows find their idylls denuded and bombed by industrial waste and napalm. It's a barrage of increasingly nightmarish images you might expect from the equally cool J. G. Ballard. Perhaps it's no surprise that Effinger was not a popular bestselling rival to, say, Piers Anthony or 2005 SFWA Grand Master Anne McCaffrey. I suspect his legacy will endure longer.

— Damien Broderick, Locus, April 2005


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