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   WHAT good news--two and a half dozen stories by one of the story-art's modern masters! These tales move along, light, springy, ironic and inventive, skirting the borders of time and space inside and outside of man. Good news, yes; but what exactly is that news, what do these stories tell us and how and why? That itself is another story and, befitting these tales, an unusual one.
   First off, when he began to write these unusual stories, Howard Fast allowed them to be called "fantasy and science fiction." This "mistake"--I'm tempted to call it a deception--seems natural enough, since the earliest of this strange breed made their appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Fantastic Universe; then others were anthologized in collections called "Best Science Fiction" and the like. From the beginning, the stories read well enough as science fiction to take in buffs as well as beginners, even editors, reviewers, publishers, perhaps writers, too. But they are really of their own kind, unique, mutants.
   They are Zen stories. Even where they amply contain both fantasy and science, as in "The Hoop" and "The Trap," such story-materials are means to an end, friendly clues to an unsolvable puzzle. Or to change the figure slightly, all of the angels and the rockets, the giant ants and midget men, the space flights and time warps--all the lovely, ironic fun and devices--are part of the magician's equipment, the paraphernalia and sleight-of-hand to trick you into at last seeing, to delight you into wisdom. If that claim seems paradoxical, we are on the right track, for Zen is often paradoxical, contradictory, non-logical. It is also intuitive, indirect and playful, qualities we find in abundance here, as you shall see. Science fiction rarely possesses any of these qualities, but like applied science itself, relies on analysis, technology and organization to suggest how life might become. Science fiction is goal-centered and essentially political, either utopian or anti-utopian, almost never detached, accepting, tranquil, in the spirit of these stories. Science fiction builds or develops, while Zen strikes--or falls to; science fiction argues its case, while the Zen story hints that there may be no case, then smiles.
   Yet, Howard Fast was once the most famous politically-committed writer of fiction in America, possibly the most committed in our history. That a former Marxist and dialectical materialist should ultimately invent the American Zen Story implies a cautionary parable, like one of Zen Buddhism's round-about jokes.


   Howard Fast's first two novels appeared before his twentieth birthday. By his thirtieth birthday in November of 1944, he had published fifteen books, including such critical and popular successes as The Unvanquished, Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road, the latter alone reaching twenty-five million copies in print. Early in 1957, not much beyond his fortieth birthday, he startled the world by announcing that in the previous year he had quit the Communist Party, although he had for years been its best-known advocate. During that important decade of his life, he had gone to prison for defying the now-defunct House Committee on Un-American Activities; he had run for Congress and lost; and he had resorted to publishing his own work when blacklisted (this included Spartacus, the only self-published best-seller in recent history). And he had served as a war correspondent, raised a family, produced a newspaper column, delivered countless speeches, written dozens of short stories, many plays for radio and theatre, more novels and several filmscripts. He had also determinedly wrought a "one-man reformation" in the American historical novel: in The Last Frontier and Freedom Road, he had attacked racial injustice; in The American and Clarkton, the abuse of the poor and the suppression of labor organization; in My Glorious Brothers and his novels of the American revolution, he had exalted man's long fight to be free. Then his political world, the apparent base of his ideas, collapsed. As a writer, he would write his way out of chaos; he would thereby find or make order.

   Before his fiftieth birthday (at a time when many thought he was through), he reviewed every historical period he had written on before, returning fictionally to probe the soft spots of his own righteousness. In Agrippa's Daughter, he repudiated the concept of just wars in favor of pacifism; in The Winston Affair, he rejected political trials and persecution, even of murderous anti-Semites; in Power, he dramatized in the labor movement the corruption by power of a good man in a good cause. Not that all his movement was now in reverse. He wrote with renewed feelings of man's quest for peace and justice, with continued aversion to cruelty and violence, with strengthened distrust of rigid institutions. There were some happy new discoveries to move him forward. First, he turned to the wonderful world of women and, as E.V. Cunningham, an imaginary being, he produced the first women's liberation novels written by a man. Phyllis, Alice, Shirley, Penelope, each were novels about women who were sane and brave survivors in the lunatic world of men. The successful series grew to more than a dozen volumes wherein Fast added the elements of irony and laughter to his vivid narrative style. Second, he returned to the world of science fiction (his first published short story, at sixteen, had been "straight" science fiction), but, here too, irony and laughter predominated. Both the women's novels and the "science fiction" stories--and their evolving attitudes toward the world of man and the world beyond man--grew out of the most important discovery of all. Howard Fast had found Zen.


   Now Howard Fast is sixty, a youthful Zen student, the creator of these thirty-one stories. But life is no mere chronicle and summation; it has its interior rhythms and projects its own patterns. These stories were, in a sense, waiting for him his whole life; after so much work and suffering, is it any wonder they are so funny? After all, the alternative was despair. As a group, the stories tell us that the world is full of large disappointments and small, pleasant surprises; that we make the former and it provides the latter. The world itself, the stories say, has meaning apart from us and we must explore our own inner space in order to find our proper place and meaning in that world. As Arthur C. Clarke has observed of Unidentified Flying Objects: "They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe; but they do prove how rare it is on earth."
   One mental habit that keeps us from connecting with reality, from using our good sense, is the substitution of authority or custom for observation and independent thought. Thus "The Movie House" becomes the modern version of Plato's cave, where people watch shadows flickering on the wall; when young Kiley fashions a key to open the door to the outside, he is condemned as a heretic. Wisdom arrives at the door of those who remain simple, child-like; it is not a matter of "intelligence" and "learning." The authority figures--scientists, generals, businessmen of "The Hoop," "The Trap" and "The General Zapped an Angel"--have little to tell us despite their intelligence, except by the way of horrible example. They have lost all reverence for life, all flexibility or willingness to adapt to its purposes. Even the "normal" central character of "The Large Ant" smashes the strange beast without knowing why ("You killed it because you are a human being"). In "The Insects," the creatures finally rebel because humans "simply take it for granted that anything not human doesn't resent being killed."
   So it's a matter of perspective and relativity, of seeing the relatedness of all life, of removing the tragicomic blinders of ego. In "A Matter of Size," a woman swats a fly and finds it to be a tiny replica of man; shall all its kind, too small and troublesome for our regard, be sprayed with insecticide? Shall other small, troublesome humans (?) likewise be dispatched? "The Egg" offers a reverse perspective, wherein a single, hatching egg, in a future-world bereft of birds, becomes the glory and wonder of the world. In the apocalyptic stories, the world usually ends because something violent, that hides and stirs within us, finally breaks loose. The beast, the monster, the destroyer is never the creature from outer space; it is the general who zaps the angel and the angel who cannot figure out why.
   The major opposition is man's ego against nature's indifferent fulfillment. On the planet Cephes 5, the dumping ground of nature's misfits and murderers,

   Every person on the planet spends his life creating an ego structure which subjectively places him at the center of the universe. This ego structure is central to the disease, for given the sickness that creates the ego, each individual goes on to form in his mind an anthropomorphic superman whom he calls God and who supports his right to kill.
   Far better, is it not, to try to enter "the mind of God" as Hitler's would-be assassins attempt in one story. Instead, like the people in "The Interval" and "Not With A Bang," we must accept all, even the finality of death when the world's stage must be emptied, without a whimper. Along the way, we can be sustained by love, by patience and by forgiveness ("we are what we are"), along with the saving grace of humor.
   The author has not tried here to create the perfect political state ("The Trap" shows that we would disown it or destroy it), but merely to expand our state of being, to enrich our state of mind. He has combined the parable form of the ancients with the sharp images of the modern cinema. If, in a week, a month, a year from now, your mind flashes whimsical pictures of God's hand flicking off the sun-switch, of garbage pushing up through the cracks of the earth, of a professor surrounded by cloning cats, you will have read these stories right--beginning in delight, ending in surprise, lightly touched by infinity.

Frank Campenni, Ph.D
Department of English
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee