I have not read a lot of Effinger's work before I found Live! from Planet Earth in my mail box a few days before leaving for Las Vegas, and so I didn't know quite what to expect. That each story had an introduction written by a science fiction notable, such as Michael Bishop, Mike Resnick, Howard Waldrop, Pamela Sargent, to name just a few, seemed promising. I had, after all, promised Phil I would read it on the plane going to and coming from Las Vegas, and this year's SFRA annual conference. I did begin to get an idea of what Effinger might be about when I read Michael Bishop's introduction to "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything." According to Bishop, Effinger wrote stories of "surreal intelligence and deadpan wit" (in Effinger, Live! 3) and that this first story was among his "downright funniest," with its "allusions to low-budget alien-invasion films from the 1950s and 1960s" and the echoes of such "influential Cold War satire" as that of Robert Sheckley and William Tenn (4-6). An individual alien in the story was a nup; the plural, nuhp. Or, in reverse: pun and phun — all of which Bishop found phunny.
Puns, phun, Sheckley, Tenn. Satire. And if I didn't get it from Bishop's intro, I surely did from George Zebrowski's afterword for the same story: "Effinger belongs to the great line of SF's satirical humorists, beginning with Aesop and Jonathan Swift and continuing with William Tenn . . . Robert Sheckley . . ." (23) There was my context, and an affirmation of what I kept thinking as I read "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything": this story reminds me of the stories I read in Dimensions of Sheckley: The Selected Works of Robert Sheckley (reviewed in SFRA Review 261). It is a tale about taste. The nuhp, who show up unexpectedly in true "take me to your leader style," at the White House, are blessed with true knowledge of what is the best of, well, everything. The best flowers? Hollyhocks. The best human musical composition? The score from the motion picture Ben Hur, by Miklos Rozsa. The greatest novelist: Alexander Dumas. And the nuhp are so damn cheerful and assertive about their unarguable opinions and insistent on sharing them that they drive everybody crazy. They came, offering us a way to end poverty and hunger and overpopulation — and their insufferable opinions. They give us their interstellar drive, and we use it to leave the Earth in droves, fleeing the nuhp's oh-so-helpful advice. Thus: room in the cities, more than enough food, and more than enough jobs.
This, I thought, is Effinger: science fiction satire, poking fun at human foibles, perhaps a bit "surreal," science fiction of the absurd, humor sometimes a bit black, but humor nonetheless. The collection's second tale, "All the Last Wars at Once," which I am pretty sure I read while cooling my heels in the Richmond airport, my flight delayed for an hour, reaffirmed my take on Effinger. A Final Solution is offered to racial tension: 30 days of open warfare between blacks and whites. Then, between men and women. Roman Catholics and Protestants. The young versus the old, the right-handed versus the left-handed. Definitely poking fun at human foibles and the humor is definitely black.
The third story, "Two Sadnesses," (read, most likely, at thirty thousand feet), made me reassess my take on Effinger and this collection and in what context to place it. According to Howard Waldrop, who introduces the story, several of what today are considered the classics of children's literature, such as The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) were written in the first half of the twentieth century, many before World War I. Waldrop argues that in one sense these stories reflect the "Great Change": "from rural to urban, from the handcrafted to the mass-produced." It is, Waldrop argues, as if writers like Grahame sensed "the Great Change coming in some form or shape. What it was, they didn't know, but they felt things would never be the same, and wanted to get it all down, before it was all gone: (41). For Milne, it is a reaction to the war's horrors and the changes that came with them. Effinger does what is difficult to do: he uses Grahame and Milne as models, capturing the tone and feel of their work, and producing what I would call a postscript to both writers, one last tale for Rat and Mole, and for Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore. This time, "What happens to them . . . is exactly like what would happen to them if their original authors had been afforded glimpses fifty or sixty years into the future . . ." (42): Vietnam, defoliation, Agent Orange, pollution, urban sprawl. The result: a heartbreaking and disturbing story, a parable, a cautionary tale.
So, SF satire is not Effinger's only generic context. Like all good writers, he does not have a single vision; he has more than one dream. In addition to the parable, which is often used in speculative fiction, he conducts his own thought-experiments, such as "One," which asks: What if we are alone in the universe? What then? Or "My Old Man," a "sad, funny" — two words which could sum up Effinger — tale of a man's coming-of-age, as he comes to terms with his feelings for an abusive father, and also a tale of what seems to be a haunted computer chess game. The narrator of "My Old Man" is also an example of another of Effinger's "recurring dream[s]": the image of the "lone man trying his best to perform an assigned task that is both impossible and meaningless" (86). Thomas Placide, the protagonist of "Everything but Honor" is yet another, as he seeks to rewrite history by traveling through time to murder a particular Confederate general, "an act he's certain will liberate American blacks from the racist hardships and injustices of the twentieth century" (125). Given Effinger's use of irony and the darkness of his humor, the even darker warnings of his parables, it is not surprising that Placide's "noble" efforts meet with disaster after disaster. There is one last context for Effinger: the writing teacher. The O. Niemand stories in this collection are evidence of that. Like "Two Sadnesses," Effinger again does what is difficult: these stories are written and written well in the style of O. Henry, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Lardner, Thackeray, Thurber, and O'Connor, and at the same time, they are successful science fiction tales. Gardner Dozois, in his introduction to these eight tales, argues these are both "stunts, of course, finger-exercises, muscle flexing" and examples of great writing skill; as they are lessons in control of language and tone and voice.
What might a scholar do with this collection? For the Effinger scholar, it would go on the same shelf as the other posthumous Golden Gryphon Press Effinger publication, the 2003 short story collection, Budayeen Nights. Although that universe, "the Muslim underworld of the Budayeen" doesn't appear in this collection, together these two books would give the scholar and the reader a sense of the range of Effinger's vision and talent and the diversity of his dreams. Any course that focuses at all on SF humor would have a place for Live! on the book list. And any course that examines the darker, dystopic and often parabolic visions of SF would also be suitable for this collection. If either course gives students the option of writing a story of their own, following Effinger's example of the use of literary models would not be a bad way to start.
Perhaps Live! from Planet Earth was an apt choice for a trip there and back again, from Fredericksburg to Las Vegas: the ordinary and mundane, the surreal (just remember standing in the middle of the Imperial Palace casino), and the darkly funny. As for the rest — the cautionary tales, the lessons in writing, the coming of age and the single man alone with an impossible task motifs — what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Or gets told as a story to the Galactic Overlords on Planet 10. They like good stories.
— Warren Rochelle, SFRA Review 273, July/August/September 2005