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The Power of Illusion by Christopher Anvil

Over on Locus, there’s a Roundtable piece by Karen Burnham called “New Wave Intensity”. She suggests that the style of writing known as New Wave can be disturbing to modern readers. Asking why this is the case, she offers the insight, “What really disturbed me was the raw emotional intensity of the writing. I think that’s shared by some other New Wave authors, and it might be the key.”


So in picking up The Power of Illusion by Christopher Anvil, pseudonym of Harry C. Crosby, (edited by Eric Flint), we have me breaking one of my house rules: you never look back — you’re almost certain to be disappointed. Memories are precious and, if they are good memories, it’s always better to let them stay that way. If you reread a book you enjoyed as a younger, less discriminating person, the odds are the older, wiser person will see the faults the younger eye glossed over. In this instance, I recall reading a review suggesting that Baen’s project to reprint the fiction of Christopher Anvil was unearthing some gems. I allowed myself to be seduced by this assertion even though I should know better. It’s nothing more than a promise that, although the content will be rubbish, it will be better rubbish than usually produced by the writers of the 1950s and 60s. I remember Anvil as a regular contributor to magazines and anthologies. The Day the Machines Stopped was a not unmemorable novel, unlike The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun which I bought when it first came out and, after reading it, immediately threw it into a storage box for sale.

Harry C Crosby — the face behind the name Christopher Anvil


So, with this collection, we are back in John Campbell mould and about as far away from New Wave as it’s possible to get without falling off the planet. In a comment I made to Karen Burnham, I suggested the key difference between Old Skool and New Wave was the authors’ use of “empathy”, i.e. the new writers wanted to encourage the readers to identify with the emotions of the protagonists. The editorial regime of John Campbell made the concept more important than the characters — like puppets, their only function was to act out the plot idea. According to Campbell, the “emotional” stuff just muddied the water and slowed down the action. What we now call New Wave was more directly interested in soft as opposed to scientific realities, reacting against the cod science of the pulps and refocussing interest on the social context in which the action was to occur. There was also an interest in improving literary standards.


For the record, the modern trend in SF and fantasy is to switch to a more vicarious point of view. Rather than writing in a personalised and experimental style, key characters are described. Should the author allow us interior monologues, our view is usually restricted to “safe” emotional insights. If characters are psychic, empaths or, even, telepaths, we are expected to be dispassionate observers of the emotions “shared” by the protagonists. In our culture, the sensibilities of the younger generations are challenged if they are expected to understand others at an emotional level, particularly if this involves judging them. So modern fiction objectifies emotions and simply presents them for our consideration. Overall, this is a shame because it tends to make the fiction more superficial and, ironically, steps back in the direction of Old Skool naïveté, albeit at far greater length.


The opening story in The Power of Illusion, “A Taste of Poison”, demonstrates everything tiresome about the Old Skool style. Our human hero is kidnapped by aliens who are deciding whether it’s safe to invade Earth. These aliens have “mind-reading” technology, but our hero is able to manipulate his thoughts, particularly what he visualises. With uncanny calmness, he deceives these brainless twerps into believing there’s a primary underground civilisation with overwhelming firepower. The surface is for morons like him to live out their worthless lives. Campbell always did like the idea that aliens could be outthought by the average American Joe. It sold endless issues of his magazines as the egos of the young were massaged into believing in their innate superiority (should any “foreigners” challenge them). “The Gold of Galileo” then reminds us what it’s like to read pages of cod science in a fatuous Cold War fantasy.


Now comes the moment when memories are tested with what was a stand-alone novel, The Day the Machines Stopped, being reprinted in full — it says a lot about the lengths to which modern publishers go to give their readers value for money. So this is time travel back to around 1966 when I first read it. In those days, J. G. Ballard and other British writers were producing natural catastrophe fiction in which a disaster overwhelmed Earth, or a goodly chunk of it, incidentally inspiring Irwin Allen to become the TV and film Master of Disaster. Anvil here produces the US equivalent of a scientific catastrophe — first the electricity stops working. . . So our brave band of scientists try relocating to a place of safety where they can solve the problem. It’s much as I remember it and, now I can see it more clearly, it’s terribly clichéd and superficial. The cross-country trek in diesel trucks ends in a hail of bullets, with armed fiefdoms emerging to impose order on the chaos. Naturally, it’s the scientists who prove indispensable in keeping the rump of civilisation functioning while, in the foreground, two young men dispute the right to court the attention of a pretty young lab assistant. In all this, the characterisation is distinctly of the cardboard variety. This is what we used to read and enjoy when times were simpler.


However, the collection then improves with the introduction of a series of stories involving Richard Verner, a heuristician or problem-solver. These are simple mystery stories, elegant, short and to the point, and better than the average story of this type that used to grace Ellery Queen’s and comparable magazines of the day. These are the real gems, unpretentious and relatively ingenious ideas. We are then pitched into a rag, tag and bobtail selection of remnants of every possible hue. The only remaining points of interest in the volume are an original story, one rather pleasing effort comprised entirely by news reports, and a final Interstellar Patrol story. Before his death in 2009, Anvil committed himself to paper one last time. “The Anomaly” is a particularly clever idea because of its simplicity. In effect, it proclaims that science often has to conceal the implications of an unexpected event so that it can be studied dispassionately and without any undue pressure of expectation. This is a kind of mirror image to “In the Light of Further Data” which demonstrates that the wholesale adoption of a scientific discovery before long-term testing has been undertaken, can produce a vast number of people needing remedial treatment. Indeed, such circumstances can completely undermine the public’s confidence in the reliability of the scientific method. Finally, “The Power of Illusion” is quite a pleasing story of the effect of untested technology in the “wrong” hands and the extent of the obligations created by this possession.


So the initial review that persuaded me to buy The Power of Illusion was right. There are some unexpected gems so long as you are judging them by yesterday’s standards. Karen Burnham can therefore be reassured that there’s nothing even remotely likely to be considered disturbing here.


Finally, a word about the jacket art by Bob Eggleton which has a pleasing period charm about it. If you’re going to reprint fiction from fifty years ago, the least you can do is produce art in the same style. The trick, as here, is to show some respect for the lack of sophistication common at that time and avoid mockery.


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