Douglass St. Clair Smith
edited by Rev. Ivan Stang

Somebody up there must like the SubGeniuses. And that's ironic, because they sure haven't gone out of their way to appease God or any other deities -- not even their own, J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, toward whom they display a puzzling attitude combining extreme distrust, forced or at least reluctant worship, and sudden, unexpected spastic spurts of blind, unquestioning faith. That weird ambiguity has never been made more clearly vague than in their enigmatic third book, THREE FISTED TALES OF "BOB."

Whereas THE BOOK OF THE SUBGENIUS is their bible, and HIGH WEIRDNESS BY MAIL (a nonfiction exploration of kooks and crackpots) their encyclopedia, THREE FISTED TALES OF "BOB" is more like SubGenius pornography. Or children's bedtime stories, as the case may be. (There's actually nothing really sexy here, just a once-removed view of literary sex cliches.) It's an anthology of short stories by twenty authors, chronicling various crises in the life of "Bob" Dobbs, the legendary Saint of Sales and founder of the Church of the SubGenius.

For those entirely unfamiliar with the Church, it's... well, a long story and a tall tale, and in more ways than both. Its creators/adherents, who number in the low hundreds, call it an authentic religion, but one so far evolved beyond its competitors (even Crowley) that it resembles a complex satire to most intelligent people, and a Satanic New Age Cult to everyone else. To its thousands of fans, it's a rivetingly quirky collaboration of comedians, writers, artists, musicians and filmakers, a loose multimedia cluster that has been to the '80s what The Firesign Theater or the old underground comics were to the hippie era. (That is, obscure but cool.) To its detractors, it's a cynical scam cleverly leeching off the needs of nerds and geeks to feel pride in being 'different.' Perhaps it's all of the above.

Actually, like the freak shows that used to circulate among state fairs, you'd sort of have to see it (or hear it, for it comes in all media) to even believe it, much less understand it.

Nevertheless, this collection of yarns, parables, dreams, prophecies, pulp adventures and fables does not require previous understanding of convoluted Church dogma to be appreciated. There's a certain consistency of inconsistency among the stories which somehow forces the reader to soak up Church doctrine unconsciously. But here's what it's about: "Bob" is the avatar. He grants Slack. There is a conspiracy of normals (and a few rogue SubGenii) who want to steal away all Slack. That's really all you need to know. Oh, and you also have to have seen "Bob's" image. That's possibly the most important part.

SubGenius is not just a genre, but an active lifestyle or at least thoughtstyle propped up by the books, radio shows, tapes, fanzines, T-shirts. It's related to, yet opposite from, cyberpunk in that it's relentlessly critical yet often eagerly low-tech. It represents the people who could choose, but chose to remain primitive. SubGenius is less like new appliance weaponry and more like dirt, old broken up dead leaves and the bugs crawling around in the mulch. Something that won't go away, something you can fight but never defeat. It's more down-home, more good-ol'-boy, more Southern, and possibly wiser in its informality than most other forms of literature or media philosophy. For all that, it's still also mysterious and archetypal. It is a celebration of inexplicability, a rejoicing in what we still don't know.

It's also a celebration of imperfection. It clings in a very ornery way to the conviction that human beings are hilariously imperfect, that the very idea of striving for perfection (as taught in so many New Age schools) is pure foolishness. "Bob" Dobbs isn't smart, or even good; he's just lucky. Slack IS luck, and it's usually low-tech, though certainly not to the exclusion of playing with electronic toys. SubGenius is a sort of bedmate to cyberpunk -- the two genres share both audiences and creators -- but it tends to look back, way back, rather than forward. SubGenius is, in fact, incredibly retro at heart. Its unspoken philosophy places the primitive aborigine who sits in the mud arhythmically hooting away on some weird flute way above the hyper, wired rebel battling it out in cyberspace. It's a stone age religion, with far more in common with Neanderthal fertility cults than with science fiction... a round peg forcibly wedged into the square holes of the modern world. It doesn't deny technology; it simply doesn't require it. It's also non-political, or, rather, above politics. It's cultural, mythic. No way is "Bob" going to save the world; his function is rather to make it worth saving. He'd rather let others do the hard work.

But then there's the Conspiracy of Normals. The Church will fight it tooth and nail, but only while doing so is fun. Of course, by definition, their ideas of 'fun' or Slack are not only highly weird, but also are vastly different from each others'. There's no predicting the proclivities of Church adherents, which may be what has granted it such longevity, if not commercial success. Some of them might be dangerous.

Although the Church has too many deliberately built-in fail-safe strangenesses to ever be truly commercial, the Church elders have demonstrated some savvy in keeping their output just slick enough to stay in the marketplace. (This year they have produced two new books, one comic and an amazing video, none of them ready for prime time but all of them available from big-city stores, thus placing them exactly, if uncomfortably, between underground and mainstream.) For this book, they recruited many writers whose names should be very familiar to MONDO 2000 readers: Robert Anton Wilson, John Shirley, William S. Buroughs, Mark Mothersbaugh, Lewis Shiner, Paul Mavrides. The majority of the stories, however, are by the "core unknowns" of the Church.

It's this bunch of SubGenius old-timers who've pulled off a pretty cocky literary first -- they've written each other into the stories, as major characters alongside Dobbs. The authors are the characters. Such egoism would be grossly off-putting in almost any other 'shared worlds' context, but the SubGenius materials have traditionally blurred the distinctions between 'art' and 'reality' so thoroughly that here, for once, it doesn't seem at all inappropriate. After all, the Church is a real religion, with thousands of believers who don't just read SubGenius or listen to the radio shows and tapes -- they go out and live it. Indeed, it's hard to tell whether certain stories are autobiographical or pure invention. Lots of art movements proclaim themselves to be 'not art,' but they really are still art (if not plain old entertainment). The Church is... well, it's a church, plain and simple. It truly occupies the limbo between real and unreal, manipulating both.

The stories are arranged with the extreme choppiness that is a SubGenius trademark, bouncing from poetic to realistic to surreal to juvenile to lofty, yanking the reader from one paradigm to another without warning. They aren't even all "stories". Burroughs' piece is an essay. Mothersbaugh's are one-paragraph koans with sicko illustrations. The psychedelic ravings by surreal Arkansas savant Janor Hypercleats are a sort of twisted hick-mutant monolog/rant. Brooks Carruthers offers a one-act play, and several SubGenii present divine revelations and prophecies in scriptural form. Waves Forest's novella is engrossing, but is essentially a vehicle for textbook specifics about alternative energy and medicine, complete with a disguised bibliography at the end.

The normally "serious" cyberpunk writers like Shirley and Shiner are herein being funny for a change. But it's in the stories by the SubGenius Hierarchy "Inner Adepts" that the mordant, very black humor on which the Church is predicated comes bubbling over the brim of the cauldron. The excerpts from Paul Mavrides' World Without Slack novel-in-progress probably represent the pinnacle of Dobbsian morbid yuks. Mavrides is generally known for his graphics, but here he demonstrates so thick a talent for the sardonic that it couldn't be cut with a chainsaw. (His story opens with a sadistic Jesus preparing his flying saucer fleet to invade Earth... for revenge.) Hal Robins -- one of the geniuses behind the Church radio outreach -- gives us a Lovecraftian take-off that is more Lovecraftian than Lovecraft. Performance artist Michael Peppe creates very effective cognitive disonance with his philosophical discourse between God and "Bob." The only truly 'cyberpunk' story is told not by the cyberpunk contributors, but by Guy C. Deuel, a real-life mercenary.

The title of the collection, "THREE FISTED TALES", harkens back to EC comics, and apparently the original idea for this collection was that the stories be genre take-offs -- satires of romance novels, westerns, detective and spy stories, etc. As per the SubGenius ethic, most authors ignored that directive and went their own ways. The only exceptions are Robins' Lovecraft story, a delightful if 'inside' pirate yarn by David N. Meyer, and Ivan Stang's novella The Third Fist, by far the longest and stupidest of the stories. Stang, the empressario of the SubGenius talent pool, was the editor of the book, and one must assume that he was trying to prove something by making his story almost the diametric opposite of what we've been lead to expect from him. His action-adventure yarn, in which Dobbs travels through time to save the universe (battling Nazis, dinosaurs, UFOs, the U.S. Cavalry and other "bad guys" on the way), is more like a treatment for a George Lucas children's movie than a short story. Riddled with cliches, juvenile sex scenes, and junior-high-level violence, it's at once an effective parody of old pulp kids' adventures like Doc Savage, and the dumbest, most retrograde piece of literature imaginable. On the other hand, it's probably the only story that J. R. "Bob" Dobbs himself would like.

Stang, in fact, is himself a main character in half of the stories, including his own. But he's not exactly presented in a favorable light, not even by himself. He seems to represent -- both to the other authors and to himself -- the carrier of a virus of normality which keeps cheapening Dobbs' pure innocence by trying to organize it and profit from it. A necessary evil. He has evidently dragged himself and his cronies into the mythos in a very deliberate, calculated way, perhaps to further blur the distinction between the picture itself, the frame around the picture, and the wall on which the picture is hung. Or maybe he just wants to make sure a single live, accessible human name is identified with the SubGenius monster/product which, with its countless unauthorized fanzine progeny, is a trademark nightmare. Both self-effacing and egomaniacal at the same time, he has taken the bull by the horns and turned it back towards its own tail. If Stang gets rich and famous off this maneuver, his cynical theories about celebrityhood will have been proven. If he doesn't, he will at worst have made an asshole of himself in a noble but failed experiment on public perception of the artist vs. the artwork. It's almost as if he dares the SubGenius "experiment" to pull off the impossible: to define not only itself, but also its parameters for definition... to abolish relativity and defeat the puzzle of Schroedinger's cat. Or will it merely prove it cannot do so? Is it just a big loop that measures itself, using itself as a masturbatory measuring device? More importantly, is there even, ultimately, a difference?

In all of the tales, Dobbs is savior, dolt and devil simultaneously. HE IS AT ONCE MYTH AND REALITY, and the best stories are both horror and comedy. The SubGeniuses seem to specialize in subtlety through the illusion of blatant, cheap, money-grubbing crassness -- a thin line to tread. But they've been doing so, slowly but surely, in a workmanlike way for ten years now, and this anthology upholds the tradition admirably. Maybe it'll be another step in helping the "Subs" figure out just what the hell they're doing.