EINSTEIN'S MONSTERS By Martin Amis Harmony Books. 149 pp. $12.95
SOME READERS might like to read the introductory essay last or later," says Martin Amis in an author's note at the beginning of this short, uneven and rather curious book. Writers are always pulling stuff like that. You wonder why, if that's the recommended reading order, he didn't arrange it that way in the first place. But, grudgingly, I admit that in this case, you might do well to follow his suggestion, for whatever else Einstein's Monsters is, it is a collection of short stories -- and were you to read front to back, you might lose sight of that. The essay just might overwhelm what follows.
The title "refers to nuclear weapons but also to ourselves. We are Einstein's monsters, not fully human, not for now." And yes, you can see the nuclear theme clearly in the last three (post-holocaust) stories, and now that he mentions it, in the first two as well.
How does this work out? Well, "Bujak and the Strong Force" is a fable urging nuclear disarmament, or at the very least, restraint. It is cast in the form of a tale of London street life, a tragedy that befalls a Polish refugee so strong he could quite literally and easily kill with his bare hands. But Bujak, for all his strength, has some wisdom, too, and he shows it when he is most sorely tempted to use his awful power in revenge.
The rather strange "Insight at Flame Lake," reminiscent of a Ray Bradbury story, "Baby," dramatizes the mental states -- neurosis, psychosis and monstrosity -- induced by nuclear jitters. And if, as Amis argues, it's the Bomb that makes everyone so crazy today, then in the post-holocaust world of "The Time Disease," the bombs have made everyone a whole lot crazier.
Martin Amis remarks that he had earlier managed only four short stories in 16 years and that this batch came to him in just two years. If they are published here in the order of composition, then we may conclude that somewhere toward the end of this fit of story-writing he began to get the hang of it. The last two are much superior to the first three (which, for different reasons, don't quite work).
In spite of its improbable title and fairy-story style, "The Little Puppy That Could" is the sort of first-rate science fiction that might well deserve consideration when they pass out the next Nebula awards. You say you don't like science fiction? You might like this. Fundamentally, it's one of those princess-and-the-dragon situations. And while Andromeda isn't exactly a princess, she is the fairest of the fair in that backward village of mutants and bare survivors of the big blast. So she is naturally the one chosen to be sacrificed to the dragon that comes ravening down upon them. So where does the science fiction come in? Well, the dragon isn't exactly a dragon either -- he's more of a genetic accident. (Amis does some interesting things with mutations here.) And the little puppy that could? He, believe it or not, turns out to be her knight in shining armor.
MARTIN AMIS cites sources for all these stories. But one he doesn't mention for "The Immortals" is Mel Brooks' "6,000-year-old man" routine. You think I'm kidding? Listen to this: "I once stayed awake seven years on end. Not even a nap. Boy, was I bushed." You catch the rhythm? You can practically hear the sound of his voice. Brother Mel is at it again -- this time on a sun-blasted beach in New Zealand where a small crowd of nuclear holocaust survivors have gathered, waiting for the end, yet convinced of their immortality. Only our man, the narrator with the Mel Brooks schtick, is absolutely sure he's been around forever, that he'll survive whatever comes. He tells you about it -- what the earth was like before man came along, and what man did to mess it up. "What was the matter?" he asks. "Was it too nice for you or something? Jesus Christ, you were only here for about ten minutes. And look what you did."
And now at last that introductory essay, "Thinkability." Usually a writer with a cool, commanding manner (utterly unflappable in the essays, reviews and articles he published recently in The Moronic Inferno) he comes unglued before us here, attributing his high excitement over the nuclear issue to his impending fatherhood and to a relatively late reading of Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth. Schell is important to this essay. For the most part he provides the content and Amis the passion.
When Martin Amis argues with his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, over these matters, he says he usually winds up saying something like, 'Well, we'll just have to wait until you old bastards die off one by one.' " There are rejoinders, of course, but the sessions end amicably, he assures us, then reflects that perhaps he, too, will have to die off before something radical can be done about this problem brooding over us all. His hopes lies with his son's generation: "I am merely going on about nuclear weapons; I don't know what to do about them."
That's clear. In short, the tone of the essay -- though certainly not the stories that follow it -- is slightly hysterical. And there are two things to be said about nuclear hysteria: (1) it is justified; but (2) it doesn't help. :: Bruce Cook is the author of "The Beat Generation," "Brecht in Exile" and other books.