Toby – a Halloween rhyme

They wondered why Toby was always so cold
He was only, they calculated, five years old
Yet his skin was the colour of moonlight on ice
And crystals of water had formed in his eyes
“I don’t feel cold,” he said, looking up
As they gathered around him and gave him a cup
Of cocoa as hot as they could possibly make it
And told him to drink it as fast as he could take it
“The problem,” one said, “is not the coldness of the skin,
“But the coldness of the child, as it were, within.”
They nodded, and asked, “Do you think cold thoughts?”
“I don’t know,” said Toby. “Do you think that I ought?”
They murmured, considered, and angled their heads
Then told him to lie on an unyielding bed
“Bend your knee” — “Cough hard” — “Open wide” — “Wag your ears”
They ordered, all at once, till he was in tears
But the tears didn’t fall, they just iced up his eyes
And a nurse had to come with a dropper and pliers
Then they gave him more cocoa, and conferred in a corner
On the best proven method to make Toby warmer
An operation, of course, was out of the question
A scalpel wouldn’t make the slightest incision
A pill might have worked, if they could be sure
That a pill could be found not to burn but to thaw
“And what of his brain?” one learned man asked
And ventured that he to this end might be tasked
For the psychotherapeutic, transcendental
Cure was his thing (though still experimental)
A second said that physiotherapy might
Given time make his joints less frozenly tight
A third disagreed. “A month of rest at least!”
While a fourth proposed a diet of malt extract and yeast
And Toby, in the corner, sipped his cocoa and wondered
Against which of the Commandments he had so blundered
To be stuck on a bed in a room with these men
And when he might be let out again
After hours of conferring, an elected man came
And smiled at young Toby, and addressed him by name
“We’ve decided at length,” this studious man said,
“That you cannot be helped, and must be declared dead.”
The man raised his eyebrows in question and waited
While Toby, mouth open, eyes wide, contemplated
Then asked, “Will I be allowed outside to play?”
“You’ll be expected to stay out all night and all day.”
“And will I be sent to some special school?”
“No school.” “Or a prison?” “That would simply be cruel.”
Then Toby, with a shrug, agreed to be dead
So they signed off his case, and then sawed off his head

(Previous Halloween ditties can be found here (2010) and here (2007).)

To Live Again by Robert Silverberg

The SF Gateway is open! And for a while, recently, I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read Robert Silverberg’s To Live Again, a book I first read in the rush of sci-fi enthusiasm that followed on from attending the 1987 Worldcon, Conspiracy (a rush that also led to me reading Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger!, two of my favourite SF novels). In fact, To Live Again, a book about a near future in which human personalities can be electronically downloaded into living human brains as additional personas, is quite an apt choice for a first purchase from a service that seeks to preserve, and offer for download in a variety of ebook formats, the entire back catalogues of as many SF authors as it can sign up.

To Live Again was first published in 1969, and manages to blend a cultural mix of the occult faddishness of the 60s (the persona-storing Scheffing process has led to a revival of interest in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as the building of techno-savvy lamaseries in the hills of Los Angeles) with the more hard-nosed, slick corporate high life of the 70s. Silverberg’s protagonists are all picked from the highest level of the business world of his future USA, including members of the mega-rich Kaufmann family, and their main rival, the upstart magnate John Roditis. The story starts after the death of super-businessman and family patriarch Paul Kaufmann, with the question of who will have the honour of receiving his persona as yet undecided. Only two people in the world are deemed of strong enough personality to withstand the presence of such a powerful man. The trouble is, Mark Kaufmann, new head of the Kaufmann empire, is barred from taking his uncle’s persona, and he will do anything he can to stop his main business rival, John Roditis (the only other viable candidate), from gaining the advantage of his uncle’s advice.

The main danger in the Scheffing process is that an implanted persona will “go dybbuk” — oust the host and take over as the controlling personality. One of the novel’s main characters, Charles Noyes, who works for Roditis, is in constant battle with a secondary persona that’s a little too strong for him to control; elsewhere in the novel we meet a rich man with far more money than sense, whose desire to impress everyone with the number of personas he’s had implanted has blinded him to the fact that he’s only partially in control of his own body. But in the story of Risa, daughter of Mark Kaufmann, who wheedles her father into allowing her to get her first persona implant, we see some of the advantages of the Scheffing process — having a slightly older secondary persona in her head gives her a new perspective on the world, enriches her life, and rids her of some of her immaturities.

As a novel, it’s a bit like a Jacobean drama, as we get to follow the stories of a bunch of scheming, wilful, powerful individuals who are likely to stop at nothing to achieve their ends. This is, despite the lip-service paid to Buddhistic ideas of reincarnation, an irreligious, amoral world “where reincarnation is a practical fact” (at least for those few who can afford it), and where the “sum of a human soul—hopes and strivings, rebuffs, triumphs, pains, pleasures—is nothing more than a series of magnetic impulses”. (Though perhaps it’s some lingering sense that the “sum of a human soul” is a little bit more than so many “magnetic impulses” that has led to the rule that only one instance of any single persona can be active in the world at any time. Though the novel itself proves that this isn’t an actual, practical limitation.) Some of Robert Silverberg’s novels of this era have an interest in the spiritual or moral awakening of their protagonists (Downward to the Earth, for instance), but here (except, perhaps, for the weak Charles Noyes), there’s none of that. To the Kaufmanns and Roditises of this world, the grafting of Buddhistic ideas onto the scientific wonders of the Scheffing process is so much populist nonsense:

“We’ve adapted all that Oriental foolishness to our own purposes. And our own purposes don’t include nirvana at all. To be swallowed up in the cosmic all? To be born no more? That’s not our object at all. To live again, that’s what we want. Again and again and again.”

It’s interesting how one idea (the grafting of one human mind or personality onto another’s) can be taken in so many directions. To Live Again is an SF version but there’s also of course horror (Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence, one of my favourite ghostly horror novels), and even comedy (All of Me, in which Steve Martin accidentally finds the soul of a millionairess thrust into his skull, with romantic-comedic results), to choose just a couple of examples. It may seem to be one of those science fictional concepts that will never be realised, but just think, how many fictional characters do you have, right now, living in the hidden corners of your brain? And are any of them likely to go dybbuk?

Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson

Subtitled “The Book of the People”, Pilgrimage is a fixup novel about a group of humanlike aliens stranded on our world (rural America in the 1950s — which is when the book was written) after their spacecraft, fleeing a destroyed homeworld, breaks up in Earth’s atmosphere. The People are enough like us to not only pass for human, but to successfully mate with us and produce children; the main difference is that they have ESP-like powers, including telekinesis, telepathy, and so on. (Though these powers are distributed — most can telekinese, but individuals also develop specific, specialised powers, which is an important point: the People are only fully realised when part of a community.) Quickly learning that, on Earth, “difference is death”, the People hide their powers, either living in isolated communities, or, separated from their kind, try to forget their powers and live as humans. There are even some second-generation People, and human-hybrid children, who have been brought up ignorant of their alien origins, and who, with the onset of adolescence, inevitably enter a troubled phase where they start to feel their difference from what they had assumed to be their fellow human beings all the more keenly.

Zenna Henderson was a contributor to the SF & fantasy magazines of the 50s and 60s, and her stories of the People are her most well known writing. She doesn’t seem to have produced anything of true novel length, so Pilgrimage is perhaps the closest we have. (Her main books are two collections of People stories, Pilgrimage and The People: No Different Flesh, and two more general collections, The Anything Box and Holding Wonder.) Pilgrimage glues together a number of People tales with the story of Lea, a suicidal young woman saved from killing herself by Karen, one of the People, who gently mocks Lea’s despair, turns her leap off a bridge into a gentle downwards float, then takes her to the People to listen to their stories, and thus be healed of her never fully explained angst.

The result is a series of often quite powerful fables of belonging and discovered identity. Zenna Henderson was a teacher, and many of her protagonists are teachers, too, often itinerant, which is an excellent way of getting them into odd rural communities, or of witnessing the troubled coming-into-power of “different” children. One episode, “Pottage”, is about a teacher who goes to an isolated, apparently highly Puritan community in which any natural expression of joy in the children is discouraged, to the extent of them being taught to drag their feet while walking, and certainly never to run or skip. This turns out to be an extreme form of the People in hiding — feet-dragging is meant to prevent these children from being tempted to “float” (use their telekinetic powers). (This episode was turned into a 1972 TV movie starring William Shatner.)

Still from The People TV movie

The style, and subject matter, of Pilgrimage often reminded me of one of my favourite early SF & fantasy authors, also active at the same time, Theodore Sturgeon. Both use SF & fantasy as a way of exploring the more intimate and emotional aspects of the human condition; in fact both used the possession of unusual powers, and the way this both isolates an individual and leads to a potentially greater fulfilment through community with similarly talented outsiders — think of Sturgeon’s gestalt of incomplete but ESP-powered people in More Than Human, for instance. Both write quite openly, sometimes floridly, but often almost casually, of the more intense human emotions, which might be misread by some as sentiment, but both also have too much a sense of the necessary difficulty of life to be truly sentimental. I was worried, though, while reading Pilgrimage, that Henderson’s having all her characters believe in a benevolent Presence or Power (the People often quote from the Bible) while never really questioning Its role in the trials and severe difficulties they are put through, would make the book unreadable for me. It didn’t happen, but was something I felt needed to be explored or explained more fully. (It was perhaps too much a part of Henderson’s own worldview for her to feel she should, though.)

Lea’s framing story didn’t achieve quite the point of resolution I was expecting, making me feel the book was perhaps missing an ending for her, but the final story, “Jordan”, was perhaps the best in terms of its exploration of the meaningfulness of the People’s tribulations. A spaceship arrives from a planet that another branch of the People have colonised. These are People who didn’t crash, and who have retained their technology and way of life, to the extent of moulding this new planet into a virtual facsimile of their lost Home. Although this is exactly what the Earthbound People have been hoping for, being presented with others of their kind who seem slightly divorced from the tough realities of life presents a quandary. Do the People really want to take this passage to a new “perfect” homeworld, or do they want to remain on Earth, and continue with the hard-fought life they’ve earned for themselves?

The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson. Cover art by Hector Garrido.

This is the second Henderson book I’ve read. The first was The Anything Box, a collection of non-People SF & fantasy stories, many of which covered similar themes. (I reviewed it a while ago on Amazon.) I have to say that, though I can see how the People series was the perfect setting for an exploration of those themes, my favourite Henderson writing is still to be found in The Anything Box — the title story, about a young girl who escapes from domestic troubles by gazing into an invisible box in which she can see whatever she most desires, is such a pure fable of escape and imagination, it makes for a perfect short fantasy story. (Plus, it has a wonderful cover.) Zenna Henderson’s writing is not for those who can only tolerate modern styles, I think, but for me she’s certainly one of the more interesting and meaningful writers from the pre-New Wave era of SF & fantasy.