William F. Nolan, |
Selected Science Fiction Stories
(Golden Gryphon, 2005)
The first three stories in Wild Galaxy: Selected Science Fiction Stories take up only 21 pages, but within that brief span in William F. Nolan's new book 10 people are murdered. As well, another character is killed in an auto accident, and about a dozen "synthos" -- humanoid artificial intelligences -- are terminated. Quite the body count! But then again, when one of those stories begins, "Andrew blew his mother's head off. It rolled across the room, bumped the far wall," you know you're in for an extreme thrill-ride of a tale.
Then comes Nolan's earliest published story, "The Joy of Living," which debuted in the August 1954 edition of If: Worlds of SF. "The Joy of Living" is the story of widower Ted Rice and his attempts to deal with the fact that his 9-year-old son feels a greater love for the mechanical woman Rice purchased to replace his dead wife, than he feels for Rice himself. Rice vows to stop being an absentee father -- a consequence of his sales job -- and to get rid of Margaret. "The Joy of Living" is a superbly told story with an emotional depth that is all the more impressive given the tale's brevity.
In the introduction to Wild Galaxy, Nolan describes his fiction as falling into two categories, "serious and far out." But there's another way of bisecting this collection: stories that have something to say, and shallow entertainments in which Nolan seemingly makes up the rules as he goes along. In the first group I would include "The Joy of Living," "The Small World of Lewis Stillman," "Jenny Among the Zeebs," "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep," "Starblood" and a few others.
The second group of stories is typified by sequences like the one in "Freak" in which the character Zandra exclaims, "There's no time for talk. We have to escape." That statement is followed by a full page of dialogue. It's sloppy writing, writing that doesn't show much respect for the intelligence of the reader. And what's frustrating is that Nolan is obviously capable of so much more.
An example of Nolan's skill: "The bullet-car flowed soundlessly over the highway, blurring the trees, rushing the houses past, but to Rice the speed was illusion, stage trickery. His impatient mind, reaching for the moment when he would be alone with Margaret and able to tell her what he must tell her, changed minutes to hours. Head back against the seat, eyes closed, he imagined the car in lazy slow motion, wheels barely turning, each blade of roadside grass available and separate to the eye if one chose to look" (from "The Joy of Living").
One of the idiosyncrasies of Nolan's writing style that works tremendously well in his "far out" stories like "Jenny Among the Zeebs" and "Toe to Tip, Tip to Toe, Pip-Pop as You Go," but seems stilted in his more straightforward fictions, is his invention of future slang. Both of the aforementioned tales are set within cultures that envelop themselves in slang even in our own time. "Jenny Among the Zeebs" is a future rock 'n' roll story while "Toe to Tip..." deals with drugs: "You're a Popper Five now, with lots of responsibility. I don't need to tell you that Deepfizz wants its Poppers unfrettled."
Nolan obviously enjoys the textures and rhythms his manipulation of the English language creates. But whereas Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), George Orwell (1984) and others have devoted considerable time and energy to crafting their linguistic extrapolations, Nolan's use of invented slang comes off as arbitrary and rather dated when he uses the technique without his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
The timing of Wild Galaxy's release, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of William F. Nolan's science-fiction career, couldn't be better. Nolan is an author whose star is very likely on the rise with the impending production of a second big-screen adaptation of Logan's Run, the novel he co-wrote with George Clayton Johnson. Despite the inclusion of some fairly weak material, there's enough quality short fiction here to make this book worth checking out. And, as Golden Gryphon Press has printed only 3,000 copies of Wild Galaxy, you may want to jump on the Nolan bandwagon before the film's release makes copies scarce.