Summer in the Death Zone – Maxim Jakubowski

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“Summer in the Death Zone” (novelette) by Maxim Jakubowski

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (Un Été dans la Zone), 1973

Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976

Synopsis: MJ, a science fiction writer in front of his typewriter, struggles to pen a story even with the influence of Kafka and the ever notable Max Jakubowski. As he daydreams an erotic memory of his long-gone lover, the Erotic Brigade come to his door and ask to interrogate him about his thoughts on women. He mentions “phosphorus” in the interview because “blue phosphorus islands” had been on his mind recently, and it’s his password to another realm. 20 pages

Pre-analysis: When plunging the depths of science fiction, certain subjective results occur: there are some deep clear oceans of literature out there (Banks, Mann, etc.), there are some undersea caves of complexity and beauty (Kafka, Tsutsui, etc.), then there’s the muck as the floor that sticks to your feet even as you rise from the bottom (van Vogt, Silverberg, etc.). The ocean—of earth and of literature—is also full of oddities like the humor of Brunner, the shapelessness of Lem, the pecularity of Leiber or Sheckley, and the metafiction of Malzberg. These eccentricities aren’t without their own folly, however—Brunner has had his flops, some of Lem’s short stories are too silly for their own good, some Leiber and Sheckley, are way out there, and but Malzberg… ah, Malzberg, you do metafiction so damn right.

Brief Rant: If taken as the centerpiece of the entire collection—here, I suggest that the editor’s own story is meant to be BOTH the implied centerpiece as well as being in the exact middle of the collection (starting at page 145 of 288 pages)—the story symbolizes not French science fiction as an objective state of the art, but rather of the editor’s subjective concern (that being mainly erotica). Look to “Summer in the Death Zone” first to find characteristics that can then be found in many—but not all—of the other stories; the result? It seems that this collection of French science fiction isn’t a broad and objective selection of the genre, but a subjective fixation of Jakubowski’s; thus, his own story’s inclusion taints the rest of the collection. A kaleidoscope of fiction?… No, this is a fixation of conclusion. <<This reminds me of Ellison’s own inclusion in Dangerous Visions (1967), Silverberg’s Deep Space (1973), and Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades (1986)… all of which were among the worst in the collection. Hmm…>>

Aside: The fact that this editor’s inclusion into the collection is also a metafictional foray into the author’s own by-name fantasy must be a symptom of some type of egoism or exceptionalism. Consider: Jakubowski was—still is, actually—bilingual from birth, which implies that he could easily have written this story in English or in French, so the fact that it’s “translated fiction” really dies with its conception of being “translated fiction”.

Further Aside: “Translated fiction” should come from the heart of the cultural/lingual ethos of the nation rather than the simple language with which it was written. I could easily pen a story in English, have it professionally translated in Thai, give myself a Thai pseudonym or allow the translator to use their name, and call the story Thai in origin. That all defeats the purpose of it being “translated fiction”, doesn’t it?

Last Aside: “Summer in the Death Zone”, prior to its publication in Travelling Towards Epsilon, had never before—or ever since—been published anywhere else. This so-called French Science Fiction collection is the birthplace and graveyard of Jakubowski’s story.

Analysis: None needed.

It’s Only Pinball! – Philippe Curval

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“It’s Only Pinball!” (short story) by Philippe Curval

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (C’est du billard!), 1959

Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976

Synopsis: Himself a ball-bearing in French dystopian society, Yorge is one of many on a quest to become Gottlieb IV, the master of all pinball machines. Yorge considers himself nearly ready for the multidimensional and multi-temporal machine, which, is he wins, he becomes crowned the emperor over the whole pathetic dystopia. Paul, his friend, is a likely candidate for pinball wizard, but his recent failures highlight Yorge’s own strengths. With his senses clear after a tame game of pinball, the threat of Gottlieb looms near. 13 pages

Pre-analysis: Gottlieb was the pinball industry king through much of the twentieth century. They were always innovating and improving the game experience; they developed interactive flippers in the 40s, digital scoreboards in the 50s, and solid state machines in the 70s before being overcome by the same technology in the form of “1978’s Space Invaders, 1979’s Asteroids, 1980’s Pac-Man, and 1981’s Galaga” (Wiki). Though originally written in 1959, the English translation was first published in 1976 in this collection… right before the death of pinball. This story of a “pinball wizard” even predates The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” song (1969).

Analysis: Pinball swept the distracted minds of millions and the companies producing the machines kept finding ways to add more bells and whistles in order to attract the yet-to-be-occupied minds of the youth. The fervor of gameplay was probably unintelligible to many non-players because, after all, the game was just hitting and batting around a small ball-bearing. To play well and achieve status through this mindless activity would, to outsiders of the gameplay, seem trivial, pointless, indulgent, and wasteful. But when the machines become more complex, the stakes are also raised and soon society is governed by the whims of the most complex machine and its master. Surely, many scream, “It’s just a game!”

Toward the High Tower – Michel Jeury

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“Toward the High Tower” (short story) by Michel Jeury

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (Vers la haute tour), 1974

Translated by Beth Blish, 1976

Synopsis: Teri experiences a seperation from reality as he awakens on the shores of the mysterious Oraduk Ocean with a beautiful, cherubic woman professing her love above above him. Her reverence for Hi-Wang and the precepts for following immortality govern her actions and her care for Teri. As the High Tower calls to the cherubic Lorleim, she awaits the judgment of acceptance into immortality from the Tower’s daimons. Teri soon learns that he, too, may be accepted in to this mystery. 11 pages

Analysis: The mind is such a creature of habit that even while in dream-state, people will act as they usually would in real life. Rarely do dreams live up to their fantastic potential, and rarely do people live up to their potential in dreams—living their dreams in their dreams. Common everyday routine holds our minds back from exploring their ethereal potential in dream-state.

Back in humdrum reality, sometimes find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances—let’s call it a favorable circumstance where we’re swept up in a series of remarkable events—yet we tend to follow an all-too-common path of the passive observer, the watcher rather than the participator. Even in wonderfully unique experiences, the shackles of personal and social routine still bind our actions to the habit of our everyday routine.

Now, imagine a grand spectacle in the surrealism of a dream yet completely mindful of your every action without the impediment of routine or norms. Rather than be skeptical of your new environment or cast doubt upon your fortune, you embrace your new reality like a pragmatic child but through the experienced eyes of the adult you are. What impossibilities could you conceive? In which unthought-of pleasures could you indulge yourself? And.., would you want to return to your true reality?

Until Proof to the Contrary – Bernard Mathon

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“Until Proof to the Contrary” (short story) by Bernard Mathon

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (Jusqu’à preuve du contraire), 1975

Translated by Beth Blish, 1976

Synopsis: An exotically beautiful woman catches all the men’s eyes at the beach and that same woman catches a lonely man on the dance floor, from where they head back to his place—him in a drunken stupor and she shifting sexes like a magnet’s polarity. It seems that her Control Center short-circuited and she tells him of her alien mission on Earth, by which she dissolves and a small lizard appears, who speaks condescendingly to the man. The lizard’s pronunciation is terrible, so he uses it as a weapon against the lizard. 18 pages

Pre-analysis: Comic absurdity in science fiction is, largely, a hit-or-miss affair. Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley usually hit the mark but Cordwainer Smith almost always misses the boat with his bizarre stories, which, while they may attract the nostalgia of some, seem to me like a ragtag jumble of randomness and indulgent poetry. In Travelling to Epsilon, Bernard Mathon has a story that’s hugely entertaining throughout and serves up a good twist at the end.

Analysis: Just as the stoic philosophers once said that no one learns as a blank slate, relationships never start as a blank slate either. Both partners carry a history that affects their emotions regardless of the current events, actions are guided by past results, and paths are chosen that lead to higher chances of happiness. “Until Proof to the Contrary” is a absurd take on this notion, where the woman is question is definitely not who she seems to be. Through folly, wit and circumstance, the man peels the layers of truth from the woman; each peel as ridiculous as the last. This exfoliating of her layers comes by the sometimes active manipulation of the man and sometimes by passive carefree manner at the passing events.

The woman maintains her beautiful facade, but only with a coping mechanism of conformity (the robot), behind which lies her inner rage (the lizard), but lying unseen to many is her multiple personality disorder (the Jelly Nineteen), and so forth. The story psychologically deconstructs the mind, through absurdity, of a common woman going through a relationship with her own set of experiences… all in front of the man; initially only wanting to share sex, he receives so much more.

Jonah – Gerard Klein

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“Jonah” (short story) by Gerard Klein

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (Jonas), 1966

Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976

Synopsis: It weighs half a billion tons, it can travel faster than the speed of light, it’s composed entirely out of organic matter, it carries 25,000 people between the stars, it’s piloted by eleven mind-melded jockeys, and it—a ubionast (unit of biological navigation over starways)—has just killed and consumed everyone. Richard Mecca has been hired to help kill the beast or wrangle it. Being an odd sort of human himself, Mecca finds sympathy for the ubionast; rather than kill or tame, he attempts a humanistic approach. 25 pages

Analysis: Richard Mecca is unique—he’s a man made between the stars, a man with physiology meant for weightless orbit. He’s as much as a recluse as he is unique. He shies away from extended contact with earthmen who don’t understand him and his frail structure. Being self-exiled from mankind, he also has a particular/peculiar expertise. The massive organic spacefaring vessels are occasionally prone to kill all aboard (safety doesn’t seem like much of an issue, I guess). Richard, teamed with the landlubber humans, need to decide to tame or destroy the beast.

While assessing the murdering behemoth, the standard humans are quick to settle upon the direct assassination of the organic ship so that it doesn’t threaten the planet or the sun; Richard, however, doesn’t get along with these men nor does he agree with them their rash judgment. But the ubionast doesn’t behave like other massive yet dumb vessels—this one seems to be under its own volition. Glancing at the detached earthmen, Richard sees in himself an affinity for the hulk, another solitary and misunderstood being.

How’s Business? – Jacques Sternberg

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“How’s Business” (short story) by Jacques Sternberg

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (Comment vont les affaires?), 1957

Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976

Synopsis: A nameless interstellar salesman for an Earth-based soap company pens a journal following the dramatic rise in soap sales for the Company. His life is soap, his passion is soap, and so, when the Company takes an exciting new direction, he follows in suit eagerly. They buy a planet Draguere of grease with its dull, sluggish denizens so they can make soap directly from the planet’s natural resources. The soap is an instant success across the galaxy, but the hired hands of Draguere fumble and flounder. 13 pages

Pre-analysis: There’s some quaint notion to a story of bureaucracy which drives itself in to the heart of my readership. Ever since I read Jack Vance’s “Dodkin’s Job” (1959) in 2008, I’ve been struck by the wit of this type of story: white collar versus blue collar; the subjective absurdity of the work floor driven by the hand of the objective hand of detached administration; the brain not knowing what the hand does and the hand not know how the brain thinks. Perhaps this stems from my curiosity of affairs when my father was antagonistic with his company yet cooperative with his union. Even at the naive age of 11, I felt a intellectual conflict between the responsibilities of the employer and the employee.

Analysis: In “How’s Business”, the reader observes two ends of the anonymous spectrum from both sides of the employment divide:

A) The nameless company lackey bent on following through with company directive for the good of the company, for the company’s progress, for the company’s welfare. We can see his dedication to the soulless company by wavering care for his own family. When a dollar is to be had, he supports the efforts to earn that extra dollar for the same of the company.

B) Meanwhile, on the borderline-enslaved planet of Draguere, the mentally dull and physically sluggish denizens are forced to work against their nature—they must focus and toil when their nature suggests ambiguity and sloth. When they fail to progress to the human-standard of the concept of the production line, stringent measures are places and some are put to death in view of the others.

Considering both perspectives, in “How’s Business”, capitalism is a faceless, insensitive train of so-called progress which robs the souls from the bourgeoisie and the stamps the flames of nature from the lives of the proletarians.

Where the Astronauts Meet – Suzanna Malaval

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“Where the Astronauts Meet” (short story) by Suzanna Malaval

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (unknown), 1963

Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976

Synopsis: When the transient patrons of Dax’s file out in the late evening, only the lonely nostalgic astronauts from the early days of planet exploration remain on their stools and in their seats. Rather than bawdy jokes and drunken slurs, the have-been astronauts relive their glory in nostalgic speech, and one such astronaut pens his compilation of said stories spiced with his experiences in “Where the Astronauts Meet”. Dax’s tapers, patrons taper, nostalgia remains. 3 pages

Pre-analysis: “Where the Astronauts Meet” was written in 1963 when only Soviet Vostok missions and American Mercury flights had been launched in orbit around the earth, after which, incidentally, the Russians changed call-signs from Vostok to Voskhod and Soyuz while the Americans from Mercury to Gemini and Apollo. The population of earth orbital flight astronauts is limited to a very small population (533), but the number of people to have walked on the moon (1969-1972) is only twelve, eight of whom are still alive. Considering Malaval wrote “Where the Astronauts Meet” in 1963, the atmosphere of the story carries with it a reverent, nostalgic, and oddly prophetic air in regards to the limited success of space travel.

Analysis: Anywhere in the world, expatriates can be seen congregating among themselves: Americans with Americans, Brits with Brits, Myanmar with Myanmar. Even domestically, people tend to segregate themselves according to some held pride… just look at high school, look at clubs, organizations, etc. Nationality and pride are quite superficial, yet we choose who we associate with by these petty trends.

Think of a deep, symbolic facet of your life and think about how many people can share that idiosyncratic sensation with you. Let’s limit that experience to a mere dozen of people… something so unique that it penetrates your very being, that it has become who you are, that your name resonates with your accomplishment.

The Gunboat Dread – Daniel Walther

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“The Gunboat Dread” (novelette) by Daniel Walther

English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)

Original: French (La canonnière Epouvante), 1972

Translated by Beth Blish, 1976

Synopsis: Within the Confederation, being on assignment on Celaeno of Peroyne is one of the most being duties. The planet, with its Long River, is seemingly uninhabited of higher lifeforms, yet it’s still a dangerous jungle-ridden landscape. When one gunboat approaches near Outpost 3, they see a scorched derelict of the old outpost and, amid the ruins, one survivor is found—Moyra Farsan. Her naked body drives thoughts into all of the men, but there’s more than chemistry at work among their minds. 28 pages

Analysis: The dangerous planet Celaeno of Peroyne is reflective of many other science fiction stories which have untamed, destructive fauna. The planet and its peculiarities aren’t quite original, nor is the background of the human space colonization (The Confederation) or even the mystery of the destruction of the outpost. The main focus of tension within the story is the uncanny sexual attraction radiated by the senseless naked girl at the burned down outpost.

Celaeno of Peroyne represent a primeval earth with its wild expansive fauna and the danger of death by fauna around every corner. Without any sightings of humanoid life, over time, the fact that the planet is uninhabited becomes an ingrained fact. Yet, the massive blaze at the outposts suggests either human treachery or alien meddling. Given that there was no distress call, the only answer seems to be the most unlikely of answers.

Immediately upon viewing the prone body of the girl, waves of lust penetrate the men from the gunboat. Each consider it a passing whim as they have been secluded on the boat on duty for a while and the girl, though motionless, has a rather comely figure. Though aboard the gunboat in safe keeping under the doctor’s watch, the memory of her prone-in-many-ways body has seeped into the long-term memory of the men, each of whom beg to see her again. When she awakens, she’s catatonic yet still exudes some heightened sense of sexuality.

When one man finds the convenience of a rendezvous, his and her passions are unbridled in their furious attempts to copulate. This awakening of the primitive human sexual drive brings the entire gunboat, and the entire colonization of the planet, one step closer to everything primordial about the planet’s existence. The radiate lust of the woman still can’t be explained, but when the boat is attacked by a fearsome river creature, a humanoid pair are viewed on the riverside, which is an impossibility because of the absence of the fact. The doctor considers: Could their lusty fever be a result of isolation or could there actually be aliens attacking our outpost and our humanity?