Classic Sci Fi 3: Avram Davidson Rork!

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Avram Davidson Rork! Penguin 1969

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  11 November 2015


Introduction

Avram Davidson Rork! Berkley Books,1965

I am hopelessly biased about Rork! by Avram Davidson. It is one of my favourite Classic Sci Fi books ever, particularly those of the short pulp variety, so far under discussion. Rork! is about 60,000 words. I am probably going to oversell it, be warned.

Others do not rate it so highly. I seem to be alone. A quick survey of the internet including Goodreads and Sci Fi aficionados seem to dismiss it! Avram Davidson was a prolific Sci Fi writer and others seem to rate his short fiction and series novels more highly. I didn’t read the series novels, but I did read some of his short stories and sadly can’t remember them (I’ll try to remedy this.)


The oversell

Avram Davidson Rork! Penguin 1969
Avram Davidson Rork! Penguin 1969

Rork! is in a strange way the equivalent of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm in pulp science fiction, with an amount of W. Somerset Maugham’s colonial stories of South East Asia and even a slight dusting of George Orwell’s Burmese Days thrown in.

Cold Comfort Farm is a very funny parody whereas Rork! is warm-hearted rather than funny and has only a hint of parody. Wikipedia says of Flora Post, the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm:

As is typical in a certain genre of romantic 19th-century and early 20th-century literature, each of the farm’s inhabitants has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred, or fear, and the farm is badly run. Flora, being a level-headed, urban woman, determines that she must apply modern common sense to their problems and help them adapt to the 20th century.

Similarly, Edran Lomar the hero of Rork! is a level-headed young man from Earth, who chose to go to Pia 2 (unheard of) and had dreamed of it from a young age. His task (grudgingly given at the last minute because there was no-one else) is to apply his training and common sense to the problems on Pia 2 and to increase the production of Redwing, which is the only purpose of the Guild Station there.

The officer and men of the Guild Station are an odd lot sent to Pia 2 because of some failing or mistake. I do not know whether Douglas Adams ever read Rork! but his ‘B’ Ark (sent ahead) in Restaurant at the End of the Universe could have been inspired by the staff on Pia 2.

For example:

Second Station Aide Aquilas Arlan, looking for Commercial Aide Reldon, found him finally, in the bar at the Shore Club. No one else would have expected to find him in his office, but a semi-total inability to distinguish the ideal from the actual was probably the reason for Arlan’s being on Pia 2.

The ‘Old Man’ the Station Officer who lives in the Residency is gay and rather charming. He is generous with his luxuries and though he’d like to ‘wrestle‘ with young Lomar is not at all insistent. He will remain charming as long as you don’t want anything difficult of him, or to talk in raised voices, again reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s Captain of the ‘B’ Ark.

The modern reader may perhaps find the sexism disturbing, but the book was written in 1965 and Lomar’s behaviour towards Lindel and Norna is typical of 1965. Disturbingly, similar attitudes seem to be reccurring, globalisation and the Internet are partly to blame but the issue is more complex, which means it needs to be discussed rather than buried.

The gay Station Officer is unusual for Sci Fi or anywhere in 1965. The Christopher Street riots, in New York, for example, happened only in 1969 and certainly Australia was very homophobic in the mid-60s.

Indeed, some elements of Rork! — the examination of racism for example and the satire on authority systems — presage the rebellions about to come in the late 1960s. The relevance to the nascent mainstreaming of the civil rights struggle is also worth mentioning. (Another topic that has still not lost its relevance today.) I believe that the racist depiction is well-done and quietly reveals how these ideas develop — Davidson’s Jewish intellectualism, may be relevant. However, I am overselling again these are only underlying sub-plots and not sold with a heavy hand.

Racism is a difficult subject. All my life I’ve found that a ‘politically correct‘ attitude to racism or what I call ‘inverse‘ racism is sometimes more dangerous than overt racism itself. It prohibits dissent or thought. At least overt racism is upfront and can be dealt with. And then, there is the uncomfortable thought that we are probably all racist under the skin. The issue is how we deal with it.


Avram Davidson biography

Perhaps sf’s most explicitly literary author.  John Clute

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was a rather unusual, quirky and sometimes difficult character, but well-known among his friends for his extreme generosity. He wrote prolifically in fantasy and science fiction, but also in the mystery genre. He was known within the Sci Fi genre for being, erudite, literary and for the stylish elegance of his prose. He won Edgar, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards for his fiction.

He was born in Yonkers, New York and served as a medic with the Marine Corps in the Pacific in WWII. He began his writing career as a Talmadic scholar in 1950, which Wikipedia says made his study of and conversion to Tenrikyo (a Japanese Shinto-derived new religion) in the 1970s surprising.

While editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1962 to 1965, Davidson lived in Mexico and later British Honduras (now renamed Belize), unusual for the time particularly in central America, which is now a retirement haven for many Americans. He then moved to the West coast of the USA and lived in various locations until his death at age 70. A son and an ex-wife Grania Davis survived him.


The story

We are introduced to Rango, the Tame Tock on page one. He is harvesting Redwing in the little valley between Blicky-Got-Caught and Last Ridge. We are immediately introduced to the second-class citizens. Rango is thinking that he’ll get together all the redwing stored beside his ‘housey‘ and take it to the Tocky Store at the Guild Station for chits. He plans to make tockyrot and have a long drunk, but he’s also saving up for an amulet to protect him from rorks. The next time we meet Rango he takes Edran Lomar to last ridge and we find that he’s a smarter Tame Tock than average.

The rorks are huge spider-like creatures, supposedly intelligent and very dangerous. The best redwing grows in rorkland.

Avram Davidson states wryly that it was the third generation after the Third War for the Galaxy and the human race was tired, civilisation didn’t collapse, but nobody rocks the boat. You did the job you had with the minimum of effort, and you stayed with it and were cautious and frugal and saving because your pension was meagre.

Edran Lomar the book’s central character is approaching Pia 2 on the Q ship. It was a long voyage and he is sick of the statement ‘You asked to go there?‘ which is wearing away his self-assurance. He’d dreamed of going to Pia 2 from when he was sixteen. He missed the ship, which was full, when he was newly qualified at twenty-one, and had to wait five long years for his chance.

The Q ship comes to Pia 2 only once every five years to deliver supplies and take away redwing. Redwing is a medical fixative, unglamorous but essential because no artificial alternative has been developed. Pia 2 is not an awful world, nor is it the most distant, but the transport is the problem.

Guildsmen didn’t go there they were sent. And not good Guildsmen either… The fog-heads and the fog-ups. The incompetent and the noncriminal incorrigible. Those who would have been discharged in an earlier, more active age.

The Tocks are the original human colonists of Pia 2. The first War lasted sixty years and the first ship to Pia 2 didn’t come for forty years, and it was a damn long time before the second came, and even a long time further before ships began to come regularly.

[The Tocks] were on their own. And they didn’t make it.

The Tocks consist of: the Tame Tocks thought of as lazy, shiftless, idle, immoral and stupid who provide all the labour on the Guild Station and reside around it in north Tockland; and the Wild Tocks who live on the south end of the large continent (the size of New Zealand). The Wild Tocks live in clans in primitive conditions and feud amongst themselves with matchlocks. They hate the idea of old Earth, which they think abandoned them and they hate the Guild Station too, but they are also forced to gather redwing (and they go deep into rorkland to do it, frequently fighting and killing rorks) because the Guild Station provides them with supplies that they can’t produce or live without, such as sulphur for gun powder.

In general orders people on the station are described as Officers, Men, and Autochthonous Persons:

A stupid phrase, typical officialise gobbledygook… Tocks. Tockies. An offensive term, particularly when used as distinct from Men — and yet they themselves accepted it. The old crone who cleaned his U for him for instance — ‘Thace two Tocks and a man to see you…’ (thinks Edran)

In his first few days, Edran Lomar meets the other station staff and begins to learn the ropes. His initial enthusiasm is stifled quickly because none of the other station staff are interested in increasing the supply of redwing. It is not their job. Even the alcoholic commercial Aide Reldon isn’t interested. His job is to keep records and he is only interested in drinking and occasionally ‘he touched his fly’ this!

Every time anyone has a drink, which is frequently, the toast is: ‘Dead Rorks!’ Edran is encouraged to start drinking and to go to Tockytown for a tumble.

Conders snickered. ‘You’ll be changing your luck with one of these Tocky girls, soon I guess,’ he said. ‘They’re hot stuff, all right. All the young men have them, yes. They’ll tumble for money, marbles, chalk, or just for fun.’

Instead Edran Lomar begins an affair with Lindel, Second Station Aide Arlan’s daughter. He finds her delightfully naive because she must have been a small child when she arrived on Pia 2 and knows nothing else. One gets the impression that Lindel would sleep with anyone and do anything for a chance to get off Pia 2, but her very neediness makes this unlikely.

By the second chapter Edran Lomar is depressed. The only thing that keeps him going is his affair with Lindel, but even that has its rocky moments. They don’t understand one another. She gets angry with him, when they’d been camping and then she exhorts him to get back to work. He loses his temper and says ‘What work?’ which is not playing the game.

He goes on a drunk with Reldon ‘…which left him with a hangover and a hot, confused memory of musky revels with a pubescent but artful Tocky girl.’

Two things happen during this period. Edran Lomar goes with the tame Tock Rango to Last Ridge where he views rorkland and sees rorks through his farseer for the first time. The other wildlife they’d seen were the chipmunk-sized leapers and a small savage predator called a rip.

One morning Ran emerges from research in the library to find the Station force fields up and the Station in uproar, which lasts for part of the month and preoccupies them for more. It is a rip plague. He goes with Station Officer Tan Carlo Harb on a skimmer to view the rip plague and finds the effete commander is a different man on an outing and a lethal shot to boot. This is the first glimpse of the steel and professionalism under his charming exterior. Tan Carlo compares the rips and the plague, which ends with wild mating and egg-laying on seashore beaches, to lemmings on Earth, but the rips are actually more akin to the Indian red dogs or dholes, described vividly in Rudyard Kipling’s Second Jungle Book.

Slightly more energised and not getting on with Lindel, Edran Lomar decides to venture to the South to meet the wild Tocks. He plans to stay under the protection of old Guns a guildsman who has gone native. This leads to a series of adventures where Lomar learns much, including about rorks.

From inauspicious beginnings Edran Lomar solves his problem in a rational way by learning about the planet and making sound judgements on what could be achieved. (I don’t want to spoil the book by going further.) There are tensions involved at the end of the book and the chance for dramatic actions. A couple of the cameo characters you’ve grown to like from the Guild Station have the chance to become heroes. At the end the story is resolved in a satisfying and dramatic way. There are a few elements that aren’t perfect, but there are few problems or inconsistencies.


Comment

You may recall in the last Classic Sci Fi article about Dark Universe by Daniel F Galouye, Kate Sherrod is critical of the telegraphic or summary method of world building and I make the point that in such short novels it is almost inevitable. In Rork! Davidson doesn’t have the brilliant idea of Galouye, but he is much cleverer in building his summary (as I hope the quotes above reveal).

The thing I like most about Rork! is its heart. The characters are cameos as they must be in such short fiction, but they are sketched in so carefully that a few lines are enough. Davidson is almost Dickensian in his characterisation — there is the bare minimum, but you supply the additional imagination and they appear to be real.

The portrayal of the gay Tan Carlo Harb is kind but also vivid. He might call you: ‘Cute’ but underneath is a steely intelligence and he is good at his job. We don’t learn much about Lindel but there is enough that makes her reminiscent of the desperate and sad colonial wives of Somerset Maugham’s Southeast Asian stories. Edran treats Norna badly too, but you know that she is the one he should end up with.

The racism depicted towards the Tocks is similar to that drawn so uniquely and masterfully by George Orwell in Burmese Days and also by Somerset Maugham. We can feel for the Tocks because we can see the larger picture and we don’t have to live with them. But Avram Davidson nevertheless intimates that treatment of the Tocks is very reminiscent of that of ‘blacks’ particularly in the South of the USA in his own time and also of the subject peoples of British colonialism. It also applies to our own indigenous Australians (who only gained the vote in Australia in 1965).

The cameo characterisations are as endearing as in Cold Comfort Farm. Some of the Misters (clan leaders) among the wild Tocks of the south are finely drawn too. There are no real villains in Rork! except one. And even The Mister Flinders of Flinder’s crag, whilst incorrigible, intransigent, brutal and unrepentant, is still true to his nature.

The wildlife of Pia 2, aptly named by the original colonists: leapers, rips and the nocturnal crybabies are ecologically plausible, though their lifecycles are not really covered. Nor is that of the rorks, though certain phases are alluded to. The rorks are somewhat equivocal, but that is the dilemma faced by all writers in their depiction of aliens.


Conclusion

Rork! by Avram Davidson is a cut above the pulp Sci Fi of its time. Anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy will find something familiar in the early part of the book. The sexism, racist and general bureaucratic malaise depicted are well-thought out and not out-dated. Indeed, I contend that we have come full-circle and they are as relevant now in 2015, as they were in 1965.

I’d highly recommend Rork! for you to discover and read.


Key words: Classic Sci Fi, Avram Davidson, Rork!, Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Burmese Days, bureaucracy, racism, sexism, pulp fiction, science fiction


Further Information

Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm Longmans, 1932

W Somerset Maugham biography Wikipedia

The ‘B’ Ark in Douglas Adams Restaurant at the End of the Universe Pan Books, 1980

Biography of Avram Davidson Wikipedia

The Avram Davidson Website whilst not immediately impressive contains useful information including further biographical notes and a booklist.

It also contains the following quotes from the biographical section

It may be that Avram Davidson never realized that he was too brilliant in too many ways to be popular: too wickedly satiric, too erudite, too speculative, too well written, too intimately familiar with about fifteen different cultures. … He was unclassifiable, and a genius. Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport is an American literary writer and intellectual

Perhaps sf’s most explicitly literary author.  [. . .]  It is hard to imagine the genre that could encompass him ; it is even more difficult to imagine fantasy or sf without him.  John Clute, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Other commentary

Washington Post Book Review

The first 90-pages of The Avram Davidson Treasury, a tribute collection Edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis (his ex-wife) Tor, 1998from Google books

Contains tribute comments and short stories.

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