Nostalgia for a Time that Never Was – more of why I love sf/f
The third story in that anthology, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” by Michael G. Coney did not wow me on the first reading. Honestly, the thing that I found most interesting in the first paragraph was the revelation that it was apparently set in Western Washington state. The story is told by a first person narrator, who is taking a ferry to go to a port to meet a shipment of some sort of alien creature. We never learn much about them, other than that he raises them for their pelts, which he can sell for a profit. Though the way he describes his farm, he is mostly just getting by in this endeavor.
Most of the first two pages of the stories consists of the character describing his ferry trip in such a way that we learn that Earth is part of some kind of Galactic society, that only recently have they replaced rockets with antigrav for vessels that move from ground to orbit, and so on. The hook of the first paragraph is him noticing on his “newspocket” that all the old shuttles at the abandoned Pacific Northwest spaceport are to be scrapped, finally.
He arrives at his destination early, finding himself with five or six hours to kill, and decides to drive up to the old space port. During the drive he rambles some more, dropping hints about what his life was life before, and telling us more about how things have changed since then. It isn’t until halfway through the fifth page that he gets to what appears to be the meat of the story, as he flashes back to junior high school, when he and his best friend used to sneak onto the grounds of the spaceport to watch shuttles land and take off.
The narrator, as a young man, loved everything about the shuttles: the roar of the engines, the sleek shapes of the ships themselves, et cetera. His friends was obsessed with identifying and checking off the shuttles from a book he had of every registers craft that ever landed on Earth. There are a few anecdotes about the mild misadventures the narrator, his friend, and a few other people who liked to sneak onto the grounds of the space port had watching the shuttles land and take off.
Then everything is ruined when his friend gets a crush on a girl. Who just happens to be the same girl that the narrator once got into an altercation with in grade school and of course they hate each other. To say the friendship is strained is an understatement. Then there is a disaster involving the girl’s pet, with is a cat-like animal imported from across the galaxy, which happens to be telepathic, but only with members of its own species.
After the disaster, we flash back to the present, and then the narrator—who has lamented about five dozen times so far in the story how much he misses his old friend, and how astonished his middle-school-aged self would be to know that he doesn’t even know where the friend lives any longer—sees said old friend. The friend, it turns out, owns the wrecking company that is going to tear down the spaceport. But the narrator, of course, doesn’t say hello. He skulks away.
There are a lot of things not to like about this tale. The rambling expository lumps. The lack of characterization. The clichéd use of flashback to tell most of the story. The extremely dated boy vs girl dynamic of the tale. The ludicrous ways that chauvinism pops up and is even defended at one point.
Then in the category of merely cringeworthy, there is the fact that the only female characters who appear in the story all dress and act as if they are characters out of the 1950s. Remember, this was written in 1975—women’s lib had been a thing for many years by then! Even in 1978, when I read this story, that section seemed terribly dated!
I read the story one more time, when I found it in another anthology years later. I didn’t recognize the title, or I might not have read it. The second time I didn’t remember the story until fairly late into it, just about the time of the disaster near the end of the tale. I read it to the end, hoping to have a bit more insight, but still wasn’t impressed.
When I re-read it again last week, I was having the same reaction as before all the way until the end. And then I finally had an epiphany about what the author may have been trying to do. It had never occurred to me during my earlier readings that the narrator was unreliable. The section early on where he defends men’s only clubs and no girls allowed spaces as not being sexist at all should have tipped me off. It was too over the top. And there were several other hints throughout the story where our narrator is being very defensive in describing the events.
That’s when I realized that the ending, where he decides he doesn’t have anything in common with the old friend anymore is supposed to be tragic or ironic (depending). The narrator drives many hours out of his way and spends the entire tale wallowing in a nostalgic lament for the good old days. He goes into inordinate details on fairly minor stuff, is very defensive of himself and goes to pains to describe every other character in the narrative as betraying him or at least not treating him right. He had these great dreams and aspirations, which have all come to naught because the world is just not fair to nice guys like him.
Meanwhile his old friend is now a successful businessman, and is literally in the business of tearing down the obsolete relics of the past so that something new can be built.
Now, finally, the story makes sense when I think of it as a critique of nostalgia and clinging so hard to the past that you can’t move forward. And those expository ramblings sound an awful lot like an old bad way that some sci fi stories in the 30s, 40s, and 50s would do their world building: by having two characters say such unnatural things (while riding a subway or something), “Thank goodness for modern convenience! Can you believe that our ancestors used to have to connect their appliances to receptacles in ways with physical cables to draw power! What a primitive nightmare!”
As an indictment of nostalgia, “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” isn’t quite so bad. I’m not sure I agree with Wolheim that it was one of the best story published that year, but it did make me think, even before my epiphany. Struggling with a story is good mental exercise.
And I have to admit that the descriptions of the shuttles taking off and landing and the sense of wonder the narrator had as a child was pretty good.