Sunday, September 14, 2014

And time is the one thing we have plenty of.

I've been a little burnt-out on new sf the past month. Last week, I started pulling older anthologies off of the shelf and treating myself to older stories before bed. One of these anthologies is Aldiss's Galactic Empires Volume 1.

There's not much about Lafferty's "Been a Long, Long Time" on the surface that would mark it out as "galactic empire" material. Aldiss's choice is appropriate nonetheless as he uses the story at the beginning of his anthology to ease the reader into huge vistas and enormous unravelings of time.

From the first "sundering Dawn" and the accompanying war in heaven through the million billion cycles that follow, Lafferty's sly little short conveys the passing of time as something at once brief ("Quite a while after this" is used as a segue between the moment of creation and "one afternoon at a news-stand in Los Angeles") and mightily tremendous. 
( "Then it all collapsed.
  The stars went out, one by one, and billion by billion. Nightmares of falling! All the darkened orbs and oblates fell down into the void that was all bottom. There was nothing left but one tight pod in the void, and a few out of context things like Michael and his associates, and Boshel and his monkeys.
  Boshel had a moment of unease: he had become used to the appearance of the expanding universe. But he need not have been uneasy. It began all over again.
  A few billion centuries ticked by silently. Once more, the pod burst into a shower of sparks that traveled and grew. They acquired form and spin, and life appeared again on the spot specks thrown off from those sparks.
  This happened again and again."  )

The story is a dressed-up math joke, riffing on probabilities and monkeys typing with a little bit of angelology ribbing thrown in. It works perfectly and I could see it easily placing in a "probability" themed anthology (if someone hasn't done this, it should be done). If you'd asked me if it belonged in an anthology about "galactic empires," I'd've told you that you're nuts. But Aldiss is a genius anthologist for placing this as the first story in his anthology. "Been a Long, Long Time" relaxes readers into million billion cycles with a grin. Now, the grim lords of space and time can impose their wills on epochs and event horizons and we know not to take them all too seriously. Blasters and jet packs ready, I'm hankering to save a scantily clad galactic princess or two. Let the other monkeys worry about randomly reproducing high culture.

Well, it's a living, and living in Magic Baghdad is worth everything.

One of the best parts of Sindbad: The 13th Voyage is how the narrative of Essindibad Copperbottom is hijacked by John Thunderson, the time-traveling Chicagoan youth who attempts to make a better Sindbad of himself than the original Sindbad. During one of these Thunderson episodes, our young hero visits the ninth century electronics shop of one Cut-Rate Electronics Sam. I love the following exchange because Lafferty so perfectly captures the magic of Magic Baghdad. At the same time that I’m loving this printed story, I feel spurred on to get out in the streets and dance and argue.

“Do you think we could set up an electronic age here, Sam? Set up a real electronic age and get rich from it?”

“To be in Baghdad is to be rich already. And there’s no need for a canned, electronic life when there’s a real life to be had. Why should we can music when good live musicians and singers are to be had for almost nothing everywhere? Why should we can personal dramas when the very streets are loaded with personal dramas, comic, weird, goulouche, anything you want? Why print fiction or fact when there are professional story-tellers plying their craft on every corner, and when there are heralds howling out the news on the quarter-hour? Why should we can dancing when the gamins dance and run all the time, and the very stones dance to the flute music? Why should we can ‘talk shows’ when wherever one or more persons are gathered together in Baghdad there is a talk show superior to the canned ‘name persons’ variety? Why should we broadcast weather reports when the weather is always perfect? No, Thunderson, electronics here may sometimes serve for making better mousetraps and the analogs of them, but for little more. I can, for instance, make an electronic invisibility cloak that will be better than the locally-made traditional invisibility cloaks. In a city where every citizen has from three to thirty invisibility cloaks, there is always room for a better one. I can make good electronic voices like the one I made for your wife Blue Moon here. And in a place like this where the people like to be able to change their voices as often as they change their robes, there is business to be had in ‘voices’. I make good ‘aura modification kits’, and here every person from the Caliph on down likes to have a selection of magic auras to use. And I am pushing a line of ‘electronic practical-joke kits’. And then there are all the ‘charms’, to make one person hate another, for instance. Or to make a person look like a donkey without him knowing that there is any change in his appearance. And electronic charms are simply more efficacious than are non-electronic charms. Well, it’s a living, and living in Magic Baghdad is worth everything. I don’t know what effect the change in Caliphs will make.”