CLUBHOUSE: Review: “The Progressive Apparatus” by Hugh A.D. Spencer

Answering, or at least commenting on questions like: How should children resist being manipulated by adults? What is the role of fantasy in enabling a child to rise above the harmful influence of reality?

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

The Progressive Apparatus and more fantasticals – by Hugh A.D. Spencer

Publisher: Brain Lag Publishing, Milton, Ontario, Canada, 2021.

Cover Art  by Catherine Fitzsimmons.

Five Stories About Alan

Premise:

Literally a sequence of five short-shorts detailing the life of a child undergoing an unusual amount of psychological testing as he grows up.

Review:  

Spencer raises a number of interesting questions. How do young children best cope with their parent’s divorce? How should children resist being manipulated by adults? What is the role of fantasy in enabling a child to rise above the harmful influence of reality? Just how resilient is a child’s mind anyway? Wouldn’t we be better off, or at least happier, if we avoided becoming adults and retained our childhood viewpoint throughout our lives? At the very least, should we not make a second childhood our ultimate goal? Is not a child’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the bizarre and illogical a key survival trait worth hanging on to? Anybody know the answers?

Makes one think, this story does. I’ll just say I conclude Alan has the right approach and good for him. But then, I’ve already embraced my second childhood. Cuts down worries considerably. Make of that what you will.

The Progressive Apparatus

Premise:

Every writer needs an editor. Can a live-in robot do the job?

Review:  

All writers reading this story will cringe. From beginning writers, who tend to regard each and every word as inviolable and sacred icons of inspiration, to seasoned writers who think they know the market and what sells best, yet are burdened by imposter syndrome and perpetual doubts.

It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. Every writer needs the flaws in their work pointed out, but most writers fear it is really their own personal flaws that are being exhibited. “Tell me what’s wrong, but don’t tell me what’s wrong.” Or in the immortal words of the hairy robot in the movie Robot Monster, “I must, but I cannot!”

This is a clever and amusing story, all about receiving critiques from hell that reflect the author’s worst fears. Regardless of how many workshops or writers groups an author is involved with, or the number of comments received from editors hired to “improve” the manuscript or editors judging the author’s submission to their magazine or book publishing outfit, the real killer critiques come from the obsessive, self-flagellating worries writers endure on a daily basis. This story spells out that reality, common to all writers, in excruciating detail.

You think you want to be a writer? Read this story to ground your perspective , then think again. But don’t worry, the best defence is open to all writers, namely “Aah, what do they know? It’s just their ignorant opinion.” Cling to that. Most writers do.

…And the Retrograde Mentor

Premise:

Is it wise for a robot-editor to come out of retirement?

Review:  

I’m reminded of Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1952 novel The Space Merchants which postulates a future where art museums display only classic examples of early advertising. In this story public service announcements have become the new literature. Lest this seem improbable, in his introduction Spencer quotes some very intrusive PSA from Singapore that imply social manipulation is as yet an undeveloped art but one with great potential. So, yeah, plausible premise.

Interestingly, the story has a great deal to say about the evolution of human sex as dictated by the development of technology enabling our creative impulses to match our wildest imaginings. The transition from organism into orgasm you might say.

The robot-editor is the same character from the previous story. It is quite amusing. However, this story isn’t really about the future of A.I. capabilities and limitations. It is more about the question of whether or not humanity can remain human, not in the face of encroachment by A.I., but under threat of change brought about by our inherent self-indulgent nature when exposed to hitherto impossible opportunities. Fascinating concept.

I think the simplest way to test this hypothesis would be for someone to give me a billion dollars and see what happens. A crude approximation at best I admit, but one I’m willing to try. Any offers?

…Experience Denial Then Acceptance

Premise:

How do you cope with a dying world, a dying race, and a dying robot-editor? Kind of hard for a writer to remain optimistic.

Review:  

Far-flung futurism at it’s best. An apocalypse can be as good as a war when it comes to speeding up change. But does change represent progress? Particularly when your judgement reflects and depends on point-of-view which in turn is evolving as rapidly as your neighbours? Makes it difficult to rely on fundamentals. Can’t trust your own thoughts, and certainly not the critiques from a senile robot-editor as near death as you are.

Still, quaint, useless relic though a writer be, it’s nice to be tolerated by the modern generation as it struggles to survive. Suggests compassion will endure despite the rising popularity of needful cannibalism. Humanity has a decent future after all. Maybe.

The happy ending is quite a surprise. Difficult for the reader to wrap their brain around it. Requires a whole new definition of the word “happy.” That could be the point of the story. Necessary to adapt mentally as well as physically to the new norms of behaviour the future will make mandatory.

This goes against my theory that humanity will remain the same bunch of slap-happy jerks no matter what we do to ourselves for centuries to come, but Spencer makes a good case. Hmmm, could be…

A thought-provoking and entertaining story.

The Heritage Drug Project

Premise:

Drug addiction makes you valuable to inter-galactic civilization. Doesn’t improve your social life, though.

Review:

Now here’s an interesting character. Is addicted to codeine,  knows nothing about social tech let alone social media, earns a living translating works by old-time Soviet scientists who evidently lived in “a Marxist-Hegelian theme park,” and puts up with frequent visits by an a guy working for aliens who require all sorts of bodily-fluid samples to enhance their civilization. You’d think this would result in a healthy income but in fact he barely gets by. In a bit of a rut he is. What would it take to change?

At the very least this story explores the complexity of modern life and its profound victimization of the humans caught up in it. Not just a story about addiction to drugs but also about addiction to routine and the same old, same old. Yet, at the same time, implying there is something within us worth preserving and enhancing. Despite the teeth-on-edge descriptions of body fluid sampling, basically an optimistic and hopeful look at humanity.

“Teeth-on-edge?” I recall the Mercury project astronaut who, when asked if the medical tests they were receiving while training were bearable, replied “Well, when you consider how many orifices there are in the human body and how far you can go up any one of them…”

Not for the faint of heart, or for them as faint at the sight of a needle, but if you can get past that, essentially a “do not despair—there’s hope yet” kind of story. Uplifting. Depressing, but uplifting.

Sticky Wonder Stories

Premise:

First contact turned out to be more subtle than everyone envisioned, and more devastating.

Review:

Interpreting alien knowledge sure as shooting is going to be a profitable profession, like dentistry or lawyering. In this story one man specializes in operating alien-devised spacecraft simulation software, his brother in the potential of non-human senses. They have a jolly time communicating their discoveries to one another, till it turns out the information itself is more proactive than they are. Seems when they first signed their contracts the job descriptions they had been given were less than adequate.

A combination of vivid description and vivid extrapolation make this another of Spencer’s tales pushing futurism to a hilarious extreme. Really enjoyed this one.

The Meaning of Steel

Premise:

Bad enough truckers have to worry about RCMP tanks and private fighter-sportscars, but taking on a load of tons of irradiated steel?

Review:

This is pretty much Spencer’s standard technique, taking a premise and running with it like a runaway locomotive. Every conceivable worry of personal and professional concern to the two truckers is explored in detail, along with the environment they work in, the future of transportation, and those damn idle but influential thoughts of aliens who aren’t even aware of our existence. Even better, an over-the-top surprise ending which makes total sense given the legalistic absurdity of the times (both in the future and today, actually). Loads of fun. Wonderfully inventive.

Ammonite City

Premise:

That annoying research guy with his annoying questions may be more relevant to you than you think.

Review:

This is definitely a “what if?” story. What if the research guy is really an alien anthropologist on a mission? What if the world is doomed? What if there’s a way out? What if the aging tarot card-reader/hooker is attracted to you? Questions. Life is full of questions.

Another thoughtful story dependant on telling details. Less humour than most of the stories in this collection but as interesting and certainly worth musing over. Not to mention it has one of the best closing lines I’ve ever read in a science fiction short story. Very cool.

Cult Stories

Premise:

Plenty of wacky cults in the world. But what do you do if one of the more extreme ones is actually on to something?

Review:

It so happens that in his graduate school years Spencer did an anthropological study of modern religions which originated in science fiction. No surprise then, to read a perceptive short story about the Canadian intelligence service (there is such a thing) investigating a world-wide cult remarkably similar to a certain modern religion known for its hostile attitude to both critics and apostates. Throw in a jaded, formerly fanatic Star Trek fan and you’re in for a fascinating ride.

I suppose one thing nearly all religions and cults have in common is a sense of entitlement, in that the devout are longing for a reality better than the crummy world they live in, something glorious and wonderful, like heaven (the ultimate utopia), or a heightened state of consciousness, or a more advanced state of being, and everybody seeking these goals genuinely believe they deserve to achieve them.

One person’s religion is another person’s cult and vice versa. The possibilities for social manipulation and mind control are immense. And yet, and yet, what if one of modern self-proclaimed prophets is correct? Paradise or nightmare? What are the consequences? This story examines these questions. Not a barrel of laughs, but extremely interesting.

John, Paul, Xavier, Ironside and George (But Not Vincent)

Premise:

Just because you are unemployed, do you really want to be hired to look after a body-mutating scientist whose thoughts are probably beyond human comprehension while the world is being converted into dust by a nano-tech cloud of unknown origin?  Don’t you have better things to do?

Review:

In a world gone mad, is a madman the only sane person still capable of maintaining a calm and orderly approach to impending doom? Or is he just another delusional facet of a disintegrating world? When in doubt, play a game, even if the rules make no sense. Hard to find an anchor when you need one.

Spencer miraculously ties it all together with a logical ending, and throws in references to early sitcoms that are part of the solution. A complex but utterly absorbing story.

CONCLUSION:

Spencer is a wonderfully imaginative and entertaining writer. Even better, he’s not ashamed of being a science fiction writer and futurist. He dares to go over-the-top in his inventiveness and wild extrapolation, offering bizarrely original concepts that are great fun and intellectually stimulating. He is to science fiction what Hunter S. Thompson was to journalism. This makes for exciting reading.

Check it out: < The Progressive Apparatus >

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