Category Archives: Books

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1973

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

You may have noticed something weird about this series. Apart from the two posts where Anne McCaffery showed up, the author lists have so far been entirely male. It’s not that no women have had Hugo and Nebula nominations, but only McCaffery ever managed to get a story on both lists in any given year. Yes, I’m tired of it, too.

So it’s a relief that this latest post includes three women. That’s out of 11 authors, only 27 per cent, and it should be noted that at this point the voters still thought James Tiptree, Jr. was a man. It will be decades before the shortlists are as likely to be all women as all men. But what the hell, 27 percent is better than zero. We’re finally evening out the Dude Ratio in:

1973

The novels that made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists in 1973 were Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, David Gerrold’s When HARLIE Was One, and The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. The Gods Themselves won both awards, due not so much to quality as to a general feeling that it was great this old guy was still writing. It was a bland year for novels.

On the other hand, it was a strong year for short fiction. The stories that made both shortlists, most of them great, were:

  • Poul Anderson, “Goat Song” (Won the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novelette): A singer descends into a high-tech underworld to plead for the resurrection of his true love, and is told she’ll follow him out, but he’s not supposed to look… have I read this one before?
  • Arthur C. Clarke, “A Meeting with Medusa” (Won the Nebula for Best Novella): Detailed in the last post.
  • Gardner Dozois, “A Kingdom by the Sea”: A slaughterhouse worker forges a connection with an alien intelligence in his dreams.
  • Harlan Ellison, “Basilisk”: A prisoner of war with a strange power returns to a hometown where he’s a scapegoat for his country’s loss.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Word for World Is Forest” (Won the Hugo for Best Novella): The peaceful Athsheans learn to fight their human colonizers.
  • Frederik Pohl, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”: A stagnant, collapsing America sends its eight smartest people into space to do some basic research without distractions. The plan goes horribly right.
  • William Rotsler, “Patron of the Arts”: There’s a new art form incorporating holograms and recorded sensations. The narrator commissions a portrait of his wife.
  • Joanna Russ, “When It Changed” (Won the Nebula for Best Short Story): A planet of only women makes their first contact with men in a few centuries, and they’re not enthused.
  • Robert Silverberg, “When We Went to See the End of the World”: A time travel agency offers trips to see the end of the world. It’s briefly fashionable, then people move on to other things.
  • James Tiptree, Jr., “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”: Humanity is obsessed with aliens, because they’re hot. Like, way too hot.
  • Gene Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”: A boy discovers disconcerting things about his origins.

The first recurring theme for 1973 is long titles. A lot of these titles are very long! I’m going to abbreviate them because I’m lazy.

Less trivially, the key word for 1973 is disillusionment. These are not bright futures. They’re stories of failure, collapse, or pyrrhic victory. They’re often angry; “The Word for World is Forest” is the bluntest thing Ursula K. Le Guin ever wrote, and “Basilisk” is by Harlan Ellison. Now that it’s over we’re finally starting to see stories engage directly with the Vietnam war, and these are our main examples for 1973. (Other stories show oblique influence: ubiquitous political protests are part of the background in “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and the far-future colony in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is culturally French.) They also exemplify a couple of major themes for 1973, which makes them great stories to start off the next couple of sections.

Live and Don’t Learn

In “Basilisk” Vernon Lestig comes home from his stint as a P.O.W. after breaking under torture and talking. His family has fled their home, his girlfriend married someone else, and a mob shows up to administer a beating. The army cleared Vernon, but he’s guilty of contradicting the stories people tell themselves about the war. American soldiers are heroes, and heroes don’t break. Vernon’s normal, unheroic, human breakdown is an awkward reminder of America’s fallibility.

Luckily for Vernon he’s merged with something alien, a basilisk that kills with a breath or a glance. He confronts the mob in the town square and gives them a brief lesson in pain and terror. Then a woman pulls out a gun and blows his head off while screaming “For Kennyyyy!” and everyone goes home thinking they sure showed him. This feels prescient; in the decades to come the U.S. would repeatedly pick fights—in Grenada, in Panama, in Iraq—to prove to itself it could so win a war, to overwrite Vietnam with the straightforwardly heroic and victorious popular memory of Word War II.

“Basilisk” is a story where nothing is learned, and it’s in good company. Our first major theme for 1973 is stasis. These stories put positive change in the same epistemic category as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Problems aren’t solvable. People can’t break out of patterns; they resist epiphanies.

“Goat Song” and “A Kingdom By the Sea”

Take “Goat Song.” I don’t have much to say about “Goat Song.” You know the story. The hero is Orpheus, a giant computer named SUM is Hades, a woman who serves as SUM’s avatar is Persephone. SUM has Eurydice saved on a hard drive. There are Maenads. Orpheus fails his one big test. As usual. That’s the problem with this overstuffed subgenre of myth and fairy tale retellings; I haven’t just heard this one, I’ve heard it a million times. Right where should be moved to pity I’m just thinking “For crying out loud, not again, Orpheus.” When he strolls off to his futile dismemberment I’m relieved to be rid of him.

Anderson said “Goat Song” was inspired by “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in that it takes place in a world masterminded by an AI (instead of AM, we have SUM). The comparison doesn’t help it. This is the weakest story in the batch—not bad, but not better than okay. If you’re into SFF you know this theme: Earth is a peaceful, pastoral Garden of Eden managed by SUM for the happiness of all, and it sucks. Struggle is good for you! When the world provides everything for everyone people lose touch with the Human Spirit! Orpheus is a great poet because he the only bastard miserable enough to stay in touch with Higher Things.

It’s interesting to compare Gardner Dozois’ “A Kingdom by the Sea.” The title references “Annabel Lee,” an Edgar Allan Poe poem about a man who is, as is standard for Poe heroes (technical term: “Poetagonists”), pining for his dead lover.

Mason works in a slaughterhouse. He’s the guy who hits cows on the head with a sledgehammer. He lives in a tiny apartment in a gray city, eating frozen pizza that tastes of spaghetti sauce and cardboard. Somehow, without noticing, he’s passed the better part of a decade like this: “He will never hit the road again, he is here to stay. His future has become his past without ever touching the present.”

Someone comes to Mason in his dreams. Like “Basilisk,” this is the story of a worn-down schlub whose life is momentarily improved by something alien. The presence is female, and Mason loves her but also seems to identify with her: “He found her, wrapped in the underbelly of himself like a pearl: a tiny exquisite irritant,” and she “blended [Mason] into herself” and “He merged with her forever.” Every night the presence gets closer, until one day Mason wakes feeling he’s finally going to meet her. He does. He recognizes her in the eyes of the day’s first doomed cow, just as it’s too late to stop himself from bringing down the hammer.

“Kingdom” is barely SFF—it’s a character study, and it’s debatable whether anything truly fantastic is happening here at all. Is Mason a telepath whose soul mate is a cow? Is he lost in his imagination? Your interpretation depends on which genre you expect when you read the story. Which makes it a surprising nominee. But Mason might have been an identification figure for fans, who often use SFF as an escape from an all too mundane reality. The presence is an obvious metaphor for Mason’s intuition that there must be more to life than this, a yearning for something undefined but numinous. This is a common wish-fulfillment fantasy in SFF—discovering magic in the world, or a science fictional phenomenon sparking the proverbial sense of wonder. But Mason’s dreams are brained by the hammer of poverty and routine. He can’t imagine a way out of his predicament.

For a fifty year old story, “Kingdom By the Sea” feels dreadfully contemporary. Right now, an entire economic category of Americans feel ground down in inadequately paid, inadequately respected service jobs. They’re carrying mounds of debt, paying for surgeries with GoFundMes, too tired, sometimes, to dream. “Kingdom” is arguing with “Goat Song:” in a world that cares for no one and provides nothing without a struggle, people lose touch with the Human Spirit. Anderson looks at the modern world from the right and thinks it’s too soft, Dozois examines it from the left—more accurately, I think—and sees a world that’s too hard. These are worlds to stagnate, not flourish, in.

“Patron of the Arts”

Orpheus sends Eurydice back to hell. Mason kills in reality the creature he loved in his dreams. In “And I Awoke,” which I’ll cover later, aliens take a heavy toll on their human lovers. Most of these dysfunctional relationships are specifically failed loves. That’s also the core of “Patron of the Arts.”

Of the stories we’re covering here “Patron” has aged least well. It’s not bad, but it’s very male-gazey, and it’s not surprising it’s the least remembered of the batch. William Rotsler is also the least remembered writer; in the SFF world his claim to fame is having drawn the cartoon that inspired Harlan Ellison to write “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” (Which also makes Rotsler responsible for “Goat Song.” Thanks, I guess?)

“Patron” is a character study of Michael Benton Cilento, an artist working in “Sensatrons,” from the POV of a patron who hired Cilento to make a Sensatron portrait of his wife. Sensatrons are an innovative new medium combining high-definition holographic video with “alpha and beta recorders, the EEG machines, the subtle heartbeat repeaters” modeling the subject’s inner life, and project the artist’s intangible, ineffable interpretation of that subject directly into the viewers’ minds. In practice, they’re used mostly for pictures of naked ladies. It’s worth noting that William Rotsler had a day job in the porn industry. That said, this is very well written. It doesn’t baldly describe a plot; it spends time on conversations with Cilento about how he works and his ideas on the nature of art. It’s this surplus-to-plot-requirements stuff that gives a story thematic depth, something too many SFF writers forget even today.

The narrator’s marriage is more of a business partnership than anything. They get along fine, but his wife is more important to him than he is to her and when Cilento comes along they fall for each other. Cilento has been experimenting with some sort of teleportation technology. The narrator discovers the lovers have disappeared together into a Sensatron depicting an alien landscape. Technically this is a happy ending, for the two lovers. But it’s an offstage happy ending. All we actually see is the narrator’s bemused loneliness.

“When We Went to See the End of the World”

Like “KIngdom by the Sea,” “When We Went to See the End of the World,” feels so much like life feels right now. I find Robert Silverberg’s work inconsistent. Sometimes I don’t understand why he used to be so popular. But sometimes one of his stories just hits me, and “When We Went” is one of those. It’s depressed and anxious and brilliant.

“Nick and Jane were glad that they had gone to see the end of the world,” it begins, “because it gave them something special to talk about at Mike and Ruby’s party.” Nick and Jane’s circle are well off, but probably not in what we’d call the one percent: Mike and Ruby’s house is grand, but sounds like the kind of overdone McMansion owned by people who aren’t as rich as they like to pretend.

Trips to the end of the world are the latest fad. You time travel forwards and watch the literal last moments of life on Earth. Nick and Jane declare how moving it all was. They don’t sound moved, just politely enthusiastic, like they saw a pretty good movie. Nick hopes one friend’s wife will find him interesting enough to agree to meet at a motel. He’s a bit put out to discover he’s not the only one who’s taken the trip. Everybody saw a different apocalypse—it seems these are all potential futures. Nobody’s more than mildly curious about this.

After Nick and Jane tell their story, the hosts’ son comes in to announce the east coast has been told to boil their water because of mutant brain-eating amoebas. His parents tell him to go to bed. Between one-upping each other with their apocalypses the partygoers briefly acknowledge other recent news. An earthquake just sent a big chunk of California into the ocean. Nuclear explosions are a regular occurrence. So many Presidents have been assassinated that the national days of mourning are starting to effect the economy. The story doesn’t make a big deal about any of this because Nick and his friends don’t make any big deal. It’s background noise. In the middle of a paragraph about who’s dancing with who, unremarked upon: “Far away there was the sound of an explosion.” These things are happening to other people, somewhere else.

But are they? As the story progresses we learn one of Nick’s friends has a broken leg from a routine mugging. Another is in financial trouble because terrorists blew up his business (are these people actually rich, or living on credit?). The amoebas have already spread to the Great Lakes. Everyone’s dancing past the graveyard, grasping at any distraction, because looking the apocalypse in the face is scary. But constant apocalypse is also boring. “No one was talking about time trips now. The party had moved beyond that point.”

These days a new disaster comes along every week. A coup attempt in Washington? Old news. Accelerating climate change? The new normal. A worldwide pandemic? Bored now. It’s startling how fast we forget. And I’m not just talking about the Nicks and Janes of the world, here; even the left gets briefly outraged by each crisis but never gets around to taking effective action. An apocalyptic collapse of civilization is both imminent and abstract, something very close which we can’t convince ourselves will ever affect us, because we’re distracting ourselves with—

Well, we’re science fiction fans, aren’t we? We distract ourselves with dystopias. City-levelling superhero fights. Zombie apocalypses. Colorful stories about the end of the world.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

Cover of The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Gene Wolfe’s trademark is the unreliable narrator. Wolfe’s narrators don’t understand the audience they’re writing for; or, at least, their audience isn’t the real people who are actually reading. Often they seem to write only for themselves. Wolfe’s narrator’s don’t know what we don’t know. They don’t know what they don’t know. You have to read for what they aren’t saying as much as what they are; what they don’t notice or don’t think needs explanation. Wolfe is dense. Every paragraph says more than it says on the surface. This is unusual in SFF, which has always favored text over subtext. It’s even more striking now, when more than ever genre fiction is anxious to explain everything, lest it be misunderstood.

The unnamed narrator of “Cerberus” writes to understand himself. At one point he recalls a dream. He’s on a ship captained by his father. It’s not moving. The narrator’s aunt is in the dream, too, and he asks her why. She says, “It doesn’t move because he has fastened it in place until he finds out why it doesn’t move.”

The narrator lives on the twin colony planets of Saint Anne and Saint Croix, which deliberately resemble an 18th or 19th century French colonial society. Like historical European colonies, this is land stolen from a native civilization, a race of shapeshifters who eventually died out. Maybe. Sort of. There are rumors that the natives rebelled against the human invaders and replaced them.

The narrator’s father is a distant man accompanied by an injured monkey. He runs a brothel to fund his scientific investigations. Every so often he calls the narrator to his lab to run odd psychological tests. Otherwise the narrator is raised by a robot named Monsieur Million whose head is a monitor screen with his father’s face.

The narrator starts having memory lapses. (At a certain point Wolfe starts using these like blank lines, as scene breaks.) After one gap the narrator encounters a monkey resembling his father’s pet. No, he’s told, this is one he recently adopted himself. He accepts this without protest.

Outside the narrator’s home is a three-headed statue of Cerberus. He imagines a Cerberus with five heads, representing his family: himself, his father, his brother, and M. Million. But it’s appropriate that the statue has three. The narrator, his father, and M. Million are, in a sense, the same person. It becomes clear, though the story is never so gauche as to infodump it, that the narrator is the latest in a series of clones of the scientist who once uploaded himself into the body of M. Million. All were raised as similarly as possible to ensure they become, as closely as possible, the same person. All eventually kill and replace their “fathers,” just as the native shapeshifters became and replaced their human conquerors. (Maybe the clone family are the only humans on the planet.) M. Million has colonized his own descendants, replicating himself exactly. He’s trying to reach some unfulfilled potential. Instead his descendants can’t break out of the pattern he created.

The heads of Cerberus don’t know how to change. The natives of Saint Anne and Saint Croix did, but they just changed into their colonizers.

How Can They Miss Us When We Won’t Go Away?

“Cerberus” is a good segue to our second major theme: colonialism. “Basilisk” was about the effects of colonialist war on the invaders; “The Word for World is Forest” is about its effects on the people invaded. As in way too many old space operas, what we have here is a mid-twentieth-century male chauvinist, militaristic, colonialist future—but this time done mindfully. Le Guin is reacting to Vietnam in metaphor.

Human colonists have enslaved the natives of Athshe, a forest planet. (Earth needs wood!) Le Guin filters half the story through Captain Davidson, who thinks of women as commodities; and of the Athsheans as lazy, degenerate “Creechies;” and whose favored solution to any problem is to kill a few Creechies pour encourager les autres. Davidson’s personality comes out in the prose. He’s careless, thinking in vague generalities (“trees and stuff”). He keeps thinking that one trait or another is “the way he was made” because for him everything is nature, nothing nurture.

Cover of The Word for World is Forest

This is all very blunt, uncharacteristically for Le Guin; in an introduction she wrote for the novella she ruefully admits “I succumbed, in part, to the lure of the pulpit.” But it’s still amazing writing. The chapters in the point of view of Selver, Davidson’s Athshean opponent, are distinct, calmer and more sensitive to the environment. There are casually brilliant images. Like: “Little paths ran under the branches, around the boles, over the roots; they did not go straight, but yielded to every obstacle, devious as nerves.” Which tells us the Athsheans see the forest is a living entity, with a nervous system; and that in their culture yielding to and routing around obstacles is wise behavior. And devious is an unexpected but perfect adjective for nerves, suggesting both twisting and winding, and intelligence.

For the Athsheans a god is a person who brings a new idea into their culture and “Forest” is the story of how Selver becomes a god. Up to now, the Athsheans were pacifists. They don’t kill people. Selver realizes this will need to change, learns violence from the humans, and goes scorched-earth on Davidson’s settlement. It’s a pyrrhic victory; the Athsheans win, but they win by becoming like their invaders.

Davidson becomes a god, too. Facing death, he instinctively assumes the posture he’s seen Athsheans use to defuse potential fights: he lies down and bares his neck. But he doesn’t really understand what he’s done; he hasn’t learned anything. Davidson, the representative of 1970s America, may be incapable of learning or changing. He can only be quarantined.

“The Gold at the Starbow’s End”

In the United States of “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” both social and technical progress have ground to a halt. The population is in a permanent state of protest. They have a lot to protest about. Humanity has pretty much lost the ability to run a civilization and society is breaking down. By the end of the story the President is a lunkheaded used-car-salesman type and Washington is permanently flooded by human-caused environmental disasters. Again, from a 2021 perspective this feels… weirdly applicable.

Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen figures the problem is that everybody’s stopped doing basic research. People look for tweaks and technological refinements that could lead to short-term profits, but nobody’s coming up with really new ideas, either scientifically or philosophically. So Dr. Knefhausen picks the brightest people on Earth and launches them into space where they’ll have nothing to do but think. His plan goes righter than he could have imagined, in the worst possible way. Messages from the starship get weirder and harder to understand. To Knefhausen’s consternation, the astronauts start experimenting with the I Ching and indecipherable mathematical languages. They’re developing something called Farsight and they’ve figured out how to regrow body parts and one of them is sort of dead but not really. As the story ends “bright, terrible” posthumans descend in golden ships to reenact the lyrics to “Oh, You Pretty Things.”

In the last essay I noted that Arthur C. Clarke’s “A Meeting With Medusa” sees evolution as teleological, and takes it for granted humanity must inevitably be replaced by their posthuman space cyborg descendants, “creatures of metal who must one day supersede them.” Here human society is stuck, static; to change, humanity has to create a powerful outside force to colonize itself. But the colonizers first destroy what’s left of civilization—they’re the ones who caused those environmental disasters. The posthumans will repair the Earth, but it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll recognize what’s left when they’re done.

“When it Changed” and “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side”

SFF appears to be questioning whether any two cultures can meet without one destroying the other. Joanna Russ’ “When it Changed” depicts the moment the planet Whileaway, with a population of entirely women, reestablishes contact with Earth. It’s a brief story with room to sketch Whileaway only in broad strokes, but it’s still vivid. It’s not a utopia, but it’s a good, workable society. But the narrator suspects Whileaway can’t survive contact with men; certainly, the men who’ve arrived on Whileaway are condescending and obtuse. Partly this is an expression of the separatist vein active in second-wave feminism in the seventies; partly it’s a metaphor for how men relate to women with the genders represented as planets. Patriarchal society hasn’t learned anything in hundreds of years. Earth will inevitably fail to see Whileaway as an equal, and Whileaway will be consumed.

Like a lot of James Tiptree’s stories “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side” is about what people do for love. It’s also about cultural capital—about what people do to get close to glamor, to power. Earth has joined the wider universe. Humanity is a backwater hick getting its first glimpse of Hollywood, and it’s fascinated by aliens. They’re attractive. They’re richer than us, more powerful and influential, and that makes them attractive. Humans want to get close to glamor even if it hurts, which it does because these guys have totally different reproductive systems and sleeping with them is like trying to interface an accordion with an eggbeater.

“We’re gutting Earth, to begin with,” says the disillusioned maintenance worker being interviewed by the narrator, a journalist on his first trip into space. “Swapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols. Tape decks, Coca-Cola, and Mickey Mouse watches.” The humans of “Awoke” are, like the shapeshifters and the Athsheans in “Cerberus” and “Forest,” letting a hegemonic alien culture displace their identities. Like the Americans in “Starbow,” the humans of “Awoke” can’t imagine their own future, instead borrowing the one offered by their golden, shining neighbors.

The maintenance worker tries to explain this to the journalist, but doesn’t get through; the story ends with the narrator chasing after his first real aliens. Again, we have a narrator who fails to learn anything.

It feels like SFF has given up.

On the evidence of the stories they nominated, how was the English-speaking SFF world feeling in 1973? Well, we’d screwed everything up. And the problems we’d created weren’t fixable, or at least we weren’t going to fix them, anyway. The people America kept invading might get somewhere, although more likely they’d just turn into more stupid assholes like us.

When the (mostly American) fans nominated these stories, the U.S. had just finished losing a war they shouldn’t have fought in the first place, and the Nixon administration was imploding amidst the Watergate scandal. They make interesting reading at a time when America is even more nonfunctional, largely due to societal flaws that were obvious by 1973 but that we never bothered to fix after Ronald Reagan came along to assure us everything was fine.

The stories of 1973 are great, but bleak. They’re futures where no one learns, where humanity is doomed to make the same mistakes forever. Where different people can’t come together, on the personal or societal level, without one hurting the other. Right-wing critics sometimes complain 21st century SFF is too downbeat but, people, it’s got nothing on 1973.

Sometimes SFF touches on ideas outside any real-world context, like post-singularity utopias, four-dimensional life forms, and minds so alien we have no frame of reference to understand them. This creates technical problems, because how do you describe the indescribable? A detailed post-singularity future is bound to come off as bathetic, like those old pulp stories where it’s 900 years in the future and a computer is still a warehouse full of vacuum tubes. Writers usually deal with these concepts like low-budget horror movies deal with their monsters—keeping them offstage, describing them as little as possible, letting the readers imagine what is beyond imagining. It’s interesting that the most obvious thing these stories keep offstage is their most traditionally happy ending, the one the lovers in “Patron of the Arts” get. An ordinary happy ending is as indescribable a possibility as utopia.

Giorgio De Maria, The Twenty Days of Turin

1.

There’s a style of nonfiction I cannot stand. It’s written by journalists straying into scholarly subjects—history, sociology, science. They write about these subjects by writing about themselves. Their “research” consists of traveling and interviewing experts. They spend half the book narrating the interviews, and giving physical descriptions and miniature biographies of the interviewees, and telling us about the places they travelled to and what they did there. Often the only insight offered by any of this is that a historical site related to the subject of the book still exists as a tourist destination (be sure to visit the gift shop). These books read less like serious attempts to explain their subjects than like high school “what I did on my summer vacation” essays. It’s a lousy format for nonfiction. But it works great for fictional nonfiction.

The Felicien Rops print described in part two

Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin was written in 1975 and is set sometime around the end of the 20th century. Ten years earlier, in Turin, an obscure series of events began with a mysterious Library and ended with insomniacs beaten to death in the streets. The nameless narrator is writing a book on the subject. He talks to the sister of the first victim, and a lawyer who recalls hearing inhuman cries in the night, and a scholar whose radio apparatus recorded voices arguing over the airwaves. It all leads up to a big reveal (which I’ll spoil in part two) that, described baldly, sounds like the premise for a Monty Python sketch. But in De Maria’s hands it’s unsettling.

The Library is housed in an old hospital, and run by clean cut young men in suits, and doesn’t house ordinary books. It accepts manuscripts from its members—memoirs, essays, personal ads, diaries, rants, whatever you’re compelled to pour out of your brain onto the page. You can read anyone else’s writing, and if you feel a connection the nice young men will, for a fee, give you the author’s name. It’s all about getting people to open up to each other. “The prospect of ‘being read’” is what the Library offers, and the writers’ outpourings are compulsively confessional.

Every review of The Twenty Days of Turin mentions how much this sounds like social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the handful of corporate sites that took the place of personal websites as our homes on the internet. People put their lives on display to strangers to for the promise of a connection. But the Library’s writers and readers rarely meet. Getting names is just a way of going deeper into voyeurism. Writers get paranoid; any stranger might know their secrets. The Library “helped to furnish the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent only on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation.” Having written, the Library’s patrons become insomniacs and spend their nights wandering the streets.

Facebook and Twitter encourage a constant churn of content, an anxious compulsion to keep performing for the algorithm, propping up the metrics that embody our virtual selves, lest our follower count dwindle: “Do you think human beings are really like bottomless wells? That we can drain ourselves endlessly without sooner or later finding our souls depleted?” People who’ve written for the Library feel dried out, drained. De Maria consistently uses water metaphors here: one man “felt that the bottom of his lake had suddenly been raised, as if someone, from below, had pushed it up… And that there was no real difference between the depth of the lake and anything else, not the city, not the asphalt, not this house…”

Social media feeds spray the whole world through a single firehose: news about climate change and the reaction to the latest Marvel movie and the most recent Supreme Court case and your friend’s cat photos all mix together and all get the same emphasis. Everything feels as important as everything else. The audience stares back through the same hose, leading to context collapse: different audiences cross into each others’ worlds, see each others’ conversations, and wildly misinterpret them. One person’s tossed off comment about a movie becomes someone else’s unforgivable aesthetic crime.

Sometime after the insomnia begins the lawyer hears the eerie howling, and the radio technician records strange conversations preceded by a sound “as if hundreds of mouths were dipping into a monstrous water hole determined to tap it dry, as if a thousand-year-old thirst had finally found a wellspring where it could drink its fill.”

But whose thirst?

2.

So, that premise. Turin’s monuments, its statues (“Those who are unmoving, those who are beyond suspicion—as far as they are inert and familiar—and yet soaked in blood from head to toe”), are slurping up all that soul-energy and coming to life to battle each other, grabbing insomniacs by the ankles and swinging them like Punch-and-Judy clubs to batter each other. Which sounds ridiculous. But it doesn’t feel ridiculous when you read the book. Partly that’s because De Maria’s great grasp of horror technique. He makes great use of ambiguity: is that mysterious pale nun also the statue from a few pages ago? What are those heavy footsteps behind the apartment door? But even the basic premise is not inevitably silly. I mean, imagine one night a howling Lincoln Memorial stomped into your neighborhood, grabbed you up, and smashed you over one of those Confederate monuments. It’s downright disturbing, and not just because you’d rather be smashed over a less crappy opponent. The image takes on a certain seriousness because it’s a potent metaphor.

(The covers of both the original edition and the English translation feature “Satan Sowing Tares,” a print by the Symbolist artist Félicien Rops. A gawky, emaciated giant strides through a city scattering human bodies over the streets. It’s both funny and not.)

De Maria wrote The Twenty Days of Turin during the Years of Lead. This was a period of terrorist violence—bombings, assassinations—that lasted from the late 1960s through the 1970s, perpetrated by both left-wing militants and neo-fascists. (Some of the latter may have had help from members of Italy’s Secret Service.) The narrator gets on a plane to get away from the statues. In an ending that recalls the airline hijackings common in the 1970s, it doesn’t work out. You can see how The Twenty Days of Turin captures the feeling that, any day, your life could randomly end in the explosive expression of a stranger’s fascism. (The Years of Lead were perpetrated by left as well as right, but the threat here feels specifically fascist: the monuments, representing purportedly great men from Italian history, recall fascism’s hero-worship and obsession with a mythic past.)

But the metaphor takes on alternate meanings looked at through the lens of social media. Recently on Twitter the editor of a small poetry magazine made the anodyne observation that not many people read contemporary poetry and it’s not politically powerful. Her magazine fired her the next day, because the poets of Twitter lost their collective mind. Poem Twitter reacted to the suggestion that maybe a poem read by twelve other people, also poets, wasn’t going to change the world with all the composure of Dracula when Peter Cushing waves a cross in his face. (“Let me guess—you don’t recycle either,” tweeted one person who was somehow not a fictional character in an Onion story.)

If you’ve spent any time at all on Twitter you’ll have noticed overreactions are a near-daily occurrence. Twitter makes people mad. Facebook makes people mad. Nextdoor makes people mad and also racist. That’s by design. Social media algorithms lean into pissing people off because anger is engaging. Engaging users, for the benefit of advertisers, is how social media companies make money. Outrage is profit. The more sour and combative we get, the more Mark Zuckerberg’s stock options are worth.

And it’s over the most trivial garbage you can imagine—major pile-ons are never over anything that matters. Nobody’s compiling receipts on right-wing politicians who vote for abortion bans or to end eviction moratoriums. Social media gets angry about directors who don’t like superhero movies, ambiguous short stories by unknown authors, and the dubious pontifications by people with no real power or influence. Outrage is profit, but it’s got to be outrage that doesn’t upset the status quo.

Why do these companies build these websites? Why is everyone else, from corporations to political groups, so anxious to spend their advertising dollars targeting such miserable people? What is this depressing Rube Goldberg machine for? Well, mostly to help people who already have more money than they’ll ever need collect even bigger piles of money. To us, the users, the goals of the People In Charge matter about as much as Martin Scorsese’s opinion of Ant Man.

What are De Maria’s monuments fighting over? Not a lot. They’re jealous of the views from each other’s pedestals—something that matters not at all to the people they’re killing. Turin’s insomniacs are weapons in someone else’s fight. Most wars are, down at their roots, cases of powerful people bashing much less powerful people against each other for causes that don’t make much difference in those people’s lives. If The Twenty Days of Turin reminds people of social media, maybe it’s because, in a less deadly sense, that’s also true of the people who spend most of their time on Facebook and Twitter getting angry.

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1972

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

For the past few years there’s been a big overlap between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists. Generally we’ve had half a dozen or more stories to cover. For whatever reason, in 1972 fans and writers couldn’t agree.[1] There are only three stories to cover this time—maybe two, or two and a half, depending on how you look at it. (I’ll explain in a moment.) We’re taking a well-deserved break in:

1972

In 1972, the novels nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula were Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. A Time of Changes won a Nebula. (The Hugo went to Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go.)

Only three shorter works were double-nominated this year:

Click through to the shortlists and you’ll notice “A Meeting With Medusa” doesn’t appear in the Nebula list. The eligibility windows for Hugo and Nebula nominations haven’t always overlapped perfectly. Sometimes a story’s Hugo nomination will come in one year, and the Nebula nomination in the next. So “A Meeting With Medusa” was nominated for a Hugo this year and a Nebula in 1973. (It won the Nebula.) This will come up again in other years.

My usual approach in this series is to look for shared themes between the stories, but the fewer stories you have the harder that gets. These three don’t have much in common. The good news is that although 1972’s stories aren’t as brilliant as 1971’s they continue to be not actually cringeworthy.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

Cover of a collection containing The Queen of Air and Darkness

Ever since Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes there’s been a bustling trade in knockoffs, the consulting detective equivalent of the merchandise sold on Amazon by manufacturers with names like MOOBEX and FLEZPIP. At first people got around copyright by creating bootleg Holmeses like Solar Pons and Sexton Blake. Or other detective followed the Holmes model without thinking about it: Agatha Christie saddled Poirot with a boring sidekick named Hastings until it finally dawned on her she didn’t need to. Now that he’s in the public domain Holmes has been everything from a cyborg to an angel to, more ridiculously, a high-functioning sociopath.

Poul Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness” stars a detective named Eric Sherrinford who lounges around his messy apartment smoking a pipe and claims “descent from one of the first private inquiry agents on record, back on Earth before spaceflight.” I did not find this encouraging. I like Sherlock Holmes. I like detectives who are not Sherlock Holmes. I have no interest whatsoever in Sort of Sherlock Holmes, But Not Really. These stories feel like shortcuts for writers running low on ideas. They invariably devolve into exercises in fannish reference-spotting. (“Okay (sigh), that’s from ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ And that’s ‘The Speckled Band.’ I get it, already.”)

This story won me over, though, because Holmes is serving a thematic, metafictional purpose. “The Queen of Air and Darkness” is about archetypes. Humans screwed up when they came to the planet Roland: they’re not supposed to colonize inhabited planets, but this one has natives. Not that anyone realizes that yet. The powerfully telepathic Dwellers have chosen to hide and use the humans’ deeply embedded archetypes against them. “Historical, fictional, and mythical, such figures crystallize basic aspects of the human psyche, and when we meet them in our real experience, our reaction goes deeper than consciousness,” as Sherrinford puts it. The Dwellers hover around the countryside, playing the part of fairies. The old, creepy kind of fairies. They’re creating telepathic illusions, scaring the folksy space rustics, and kidnapping the occasional human child as a changeling. The idea here is that the Dwellers will turn the colonists away from modern society, controlling them through superstitions—reverence and fear of the Old Folk.

Sherrinford is hired to find a kidnapped kid. Which he does because, heck, he’s Sherlock Holmes. And that’s kind of a double-edged sword. Is being Extremely Sherlock Holmes healthy? “We live with our archetypes,” he asks, “but can we live in them?” The Dwellers’ plan is as much a trap for them as for the colonists. They’ve jacked straight into the human subconscious by using an archetype, but in the process they trapped themselves inside that archetype. While they’re fairies, they’re not themselves.

There’s this concept called a “thought-terminating cliché.” It’s something you say to cut off a discussion or line of thought. Keep saying now is not the time to talk about gun control and you never have to talk about gun control. Archetypes can be powerful, but follow them too closely and they work like thought-terminating clichés. That’s what the Dwellers want: don’t think about who might be out in the woods, it’s the Old Folk.

Which brings us back to those store-brand Sherlock Holmes stories I’m so unenthusiastic about. The writer who writes a Solar Pons story taps straight into the audience’s Holmes archetype and their warm and fuzzy memories of the Conan Doyle stories. The writer coasts on the mental association with a fun story about a smart, interesting detective without having to do the work to write a fun story, or create a smart, interesting detective, of their own. (This is also the most common failure mode for fan fiction.) To the extent these stories color within the Holmes lines, they’ve stunted themselves.

A Meeting With Medusa

“A Meeting With Medusa” is nothing like anybody’s idea of a well-structured short story. That’s the best thing about it—it’s refreshingly shambolic. It doesn’t force events into a neatly plotted arc. Arthur C. Clarke is not my favorite writer but I enjoyed this more than I expected; sometimes I want a story that doesn’t feel overtly story-shaped.

Clarke tells the story in three stages, all doing different things. The first part sketches out a decadent post-scarcity future in which people have augmented monkey butlers but are still vulnerable to blimp accidents. The second and longest part concerns Howard Falcon, blimp expert and crash survivor, and his expedition to Jupiter in a space blimp.

(I just like saying “blimp.” It’s an inherently funny word. Blimp.)

This middle stretch is exposition connected by a tissue of events. The prose is journalistic, studded with precise numbers, comparisons, and historical references—it reads like a National Geographic article from the future. The attraction here isn’t suspense. Falcon runs across potential dangers, but nothing feels fraught. It’s only barely about character. The sole point is to imagine what Jupiter might be like if it had life. It’s excited about speculation and exploration in a stereotypically science fictional way; we’re in pure sense-of-wonder territory. This is the kind of thing people imagine when you ask them to imagine “hard science fiction,” but more readable than the description implies.

The epilogue returns to earth and floats off in another direction. We’ve been told that after the accident Falcon was rebuilt like the Six Million Dollar Man, but it’s only now we learn how much: he’s a robot with hydraulic muscles and a human brain, gliding around on wheels. Like other SF around this time (i.e. “Masks,” the novel Man Plus, the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet”) “A Meeting With Medusa” associates cybernetics with alienation, even suggesting enough artificial body parts make you a different form of life entirely. For Falcon humanity is “becoming more remote, the ties of kinship more tenuous.” Clarke takes this a step further. The future of human evolution is a recurring theme in his work, and for Clarke evolution is teleological. 2001 and Childhood’s End are the most obvious examples, but it’s here in “A Meeting With Medusa,” too. Falcon isn’t just different from the bulk of humanity, he’s better—an “ambassador” between “the creatures of carbon and the creatures of metal who must one day supersede them.” The story takes it for granted that humanity must inevitably be replaced by creatures who can fly space blimps.

Blimp!

A Special Kind of Morning

At this point we’re starting to see SFF directly influenced by the Vietnam war from the generation directly affected by it, which to some extent includes Gardner Dozois—as far as I can tell he was never in combat, but he spent a couple of years in the army as a journalist. Here he’s writing about an individualist guerilla war against a bigger and better-equipped collectivist enemy.

But “A Special Kind of Morning” isn’t a straight role-reversal cold war allegory. The individualism-vs.-collectivism conflict is complicated by the hierarchal Combine’s treatment of people as literal human resources. In the Combine your social caste determines even how conscious you get to be. The narrator grew up as barely-sentient living factory machinery—the perfect no-wage employee. Now he’s joined the Quaestors, the guerilla resistance, and he has to dehumanize the enemy in another sense to kill them. The Combine kill at a distance, impersonally, with the high-tech equivalent of bombs and drones. The Quaestors “killed people—not statistics and abstractions.” This is just the story of how the narrator realized he couldn’t do that anymore. Not a complicated plot, but told with a generous helping of symbols and metaphors (and notably better prose than the other stories, both plain and traditionally “transparent”).

Most of those metaphors are about time. The most devastating weapon of the war produces “discontinuities,” ripping the battlefield apart by sending bits forwards and backwards in time. The Quaestors look for old, forgotten ideas, like guerilla warfare, bullets, and personal combat, to fight the Combine. The story itself is a memory, a tale told by an old man about how he lost his leg. The planet where the story is set has an extreme day/night cycle, with different night plants and day plants going dormant and rising each dawn or dusk. A new morning literally changes the landscape.

Reduce it to the theme, and this story could be told about any war: it’s just a guy learning to stop dehumanizing people. Which is not a kind of story all SFF critics are on board with. Galaxy magazine used to run an ad juxtaposing bad western writing with a version search-and-replaced with science fiction jargon, sneering at the stories that were “merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet” and declaring “YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!” Good SFF, the theory goes, deals with ideas that could only come up in SFF. So it might be interesting to ask what rhetorical moves this story makes by being science fiction instead of a realist story about, for instance, Vietnam.

First, there’s the distancing effect. Reality is big. It comes with baggage. Anything real—a city, a person, an event—is going to call up a whole host of associations in the readers’ minds. If a writer wants to make a point about, say, the cold war, they may decide they can make that point more sharply if they don’t have to deal with the United States or the Soviet Union, which the readers will view through their own preconceptions.

More importantly, fantasy is a license to exaggerate. Americans saw the effects of real combat on the news every night; an apocalyptic sci-fi weapon is a tool to convey the emotional devastation of war to a desensitized audience. And metaphors can be made literal, and explored at length; the Combine isn’t just dehumanizing, its citizens are replaceable, interchangeable machine parts.

So I’m not bothered by “space westerns.” And, as kind as I was to “A Meeting With Medusa,” serious hard science fiction is not my thing. The point of SFF is that it’s an opportunity to go wild; when SFF tries to be “realistic” it leaves its most powerful tool out of the box.


  1. Some of the better-known short fiction with only one nomination included “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin from the Hugo list; the Nebula list included “Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg, “The Missing Man” by Katherine MacLean, and, interestingly, “Being There” by Jerzy Kosinski.  ↩

Molly Keane, Good Behaviour

I review a lot of New York Review Books Classics books on this site because I read a lot of them. They’re my favorite publisher; there’s this uncanny correspondence between their editorial policies and my personal taste. Even books I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up are often winners. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is one of those, inasmuch as it’s drawing room cringe comedy. I get vicariously embarrassed reading about embarrassment, and in places I had to put the book down for a while. I liked it anyway.

Cover of Good Behaviour

The narrator is Aroon St. Charles, who by the end of the first chapter will be the last surviving member of an aristocratic Irish family in reduced circumstances. The novel opens as Aroon serves her bedridden mother a rabbit mousse. Her mother hates rabbit even more than she hates Aroon and keels over dead from, I guess, just the mousse’s powerful bunny emanations. Aroon tells Rose, the housekeeper, to call the doctor and save the mousse for lunch. “I have lived for the people dearest to me,” Aroon tells us, “and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.” The rest of the novel jumps back to Aroon’s childhood and young adulthood in a country house called Temple Alice, as she unsuccessfully struggles to understand how she ended up sour, and unlikable, and alone.

You’ll have gathered Aroon isn’t the most sympathetic narrator. As the novel goes on you hate her less. By the end you have compassion for her. Aroon is at a loss to understand herself, but everything she’s oblivious to is clear enough to the reader. Her problem is “good behaviour.”

For Aroon’s upper-class family—her father, mother, and brother Hubert—good behavior isn’t about what you do, only what you say. Or don’t say. Good behavior is an aesthetic. Good behavior is refusing to express strong emotions, never talking about certain subjects. When someone dies, grief is kept under wraps. Mentioning money or sex is in the worst of taste. Problems and difficult subjects are hinted at, never addressed directly. If you’ve got a beef with someone you can bully them endlessly but overt anger is for the proles.

Aroon’s mother only had kids because big houses need heirs. She pawns them off on any old nursemaid, drunk or sober, and isn’t concerned when little Aroon thinks Hubert is dying. Keeping calm is Good Behavior. Aroon’s intermittently caring father sleeps around but as long as no one mentions it, her mother restricting herself to waspish comments, everything’s fine. Talking about money is unseemly—these tradesmen keep sending bills! Rude!—so the family can’t handle its finances. One of the few people who unreservedly cared for Aroon was her governess Mrs. Brock, but Mrs. Brock was emotional and prone to inadvisable crushes and drowned herself after a rejection, so as Aroon grows she’s persuaded to remember Mrs. Brock with scorn.

Aroon grows up among strategic silences. There are pieces of her life she just doesn’t get because no one’s ever actually come out and talked about them—even as she drops blatant clues, to which Aroon is entirely oblivious, on the reader. Aroon thinks alcohol has no effect on her because she doesn’t know how to tell when she’s drunk. She knows where babies come from but it’s unclear whether she fully understands the connection between love and sex. As an adult, she walks in on her father’s sickbed and doesn’t understand what Rose’s hand is doing under the covers. She doesn’t realize her father has lovers. She thinks Hubert’s friend Richard is her lover because he sat next to her on her bed once. She thinks Richard hangs around to be near her, and hasn’t noticed Richard and Hubert are gay. It’s not clear whether she ever even understands homosexuality is a thing. In that first chapter, at the age of 57, she still lists Richard among her loved ones as though any day he might return from Africa to announce their engagement.

The misunderstandings spread through the entire cast. Aroon’s father suspects Hubert is gay, but Aroon accidentally convinces him otherwise when she implies Richard is her lover; she thinks the reason he’s seemed worried is that he thought she might be pregnant. Discussing these things isn’t Good Behavior, so they try to talk about them without actually talking about them, if you get my drift. They don’t ask each other the right questions. The whole conversation is at cross-purposes.

Aroon is a classic unreliable narrator—not the kind who lies to the reader, but the kind who doesn’t understand the truth she’s telling. Which I’m a sucker for. First, I love fiction with puzzle elements. In a way Good Behaviour is kin to detective novels. We’re searching for clues to what Aroon doesn’t understand, and what she doesn’t realize others don’t understand.

More importantly, the extra space between the author and the narrator and the reader is space for ideas to resonate, for interesting thematic maneuvers. But I wonder sometimes whether this kind of narration is becoming opaque to most readers—less interpretively legible. These days when people react to books on the internet there’s been a trend towards literal readings. The space between author and narrator collapses to zero. Readers assume the narrator’s voice is the author’s, a direct expression of their inner self. In the absence of explicit disapproval, readers may assume the author approves of anything their characters do or say; in recent years a few writers even let themselves be badgered into deleting dialog that failed to display… well, good behavior.

But even a third person narrator isn’t the author. (See, for example, my comments on Lafferty’s “Continued on Next Rock” in this recent post.) The narrator who understands things one way while the author lays clues that the reader should understand them differently is a routine literary technique. It’s another way to avoid just literally infodumping a story’s themes onto the reader, which is, after all, the point of a novel; it’s the difference between adult fiction and Aesop’s fables. Fiction that caters to a literal audience flattens itself out to a single level; you get novels whose themes, philosophy, and point of view are surface aesthetics—all about how the text looks at first glance, with nothing in particular going on underneath—or with things going on underneath the author never intended.

The opposite of an unreliable narrator is an omniscient narrator; they know everything about the story and the inner life of its characters (while still not necessarily understanding everything about, like, everything). When the narrator isn’t omniscient, there’s still a sense in which the reader is omniscient, at least to a limited degree: unlike an unreliable narrator, we know there are lines to read between. Or we ought to, if we don’t want to wind up reading books the way Aroon reads her life.

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1971

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

Okay. At this point the sixties are over (although the “long 1960s” would drag on for a couple years yet). America is still in Vietnam, Nixon is in the White House, the left has not made a dent on these problems, and everyone’s tired. Stories are asking: what do we do with a broken world? Tear it down? Wait it out? Deep time and patience are recurring themes. SFF is taking the long view in:

1971

The novels that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations in 1971 were Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass, and Wilson Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun. Ringworld took both awards, although it’s a well-done but lightweight adventure novel rather than anything with ambition.

The stories nominated for both awards were:

  • Harlan Ellison, “The Region Between”: A dead man’s soul is transplanted into a series of alien bodies, and he is not having it.
  • R. A. Lafferty, “Continued on Next Rock”: A team of archaeologists don’t notice an ancient story repeating itself in their midst.
  • Keith Laumer, “In the Queue”: A guy stands in line. It’s a long line, people.
  • Fritz Leiber, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” (Won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella): A barbarian and a thief get drunk and attempt a half-assed infiltration of the local thieves’ guild. Meanwhile, a wizard fridges their girlfriends.
  • Clifford D. Simak, “The Thing in the Stone”: A man in rural Wisconsin discovers an alien mind trapped in the landscape.
  • Theodore Sturgeon, “Slow Sculpture” (Won the Nebula for Best Novelette and Hugo for Best Short Story): A woman with cancer meets a man with a cure.

First, I’d like to note that for the first year since 1966 none of the double-nominated stories involve racism or creepy sex. Yay, science fiction! I knew you could do it!

Second, this is a good year. The Ellison, Lafferty, Simak, and Sturgeon stories are legitimately great. The Laumer and Leiber stories are, at worst, average.

And, honestly, my disregard for “Ill Met in Lankhmar” may be a matter of taste. This story stars Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, sword and sorcery[1] heroes whose adventures spanned several volumes and decades. I like a lot of Leiber’s work so I’ve tried to get into this series before, but it bores me. Fafhrd and the Mouser aren’t interesting characters. They’re shallow; nothing they do or think is a surprise. There’s nothing to them beyond their adventuring skills and Vancian speech patterns. Leiber’s prose is as good here as anywhere else, but his subjects feel like a teenager’s Dungeons & Dragons characters.[2]

Leiber wrote “Ill Met in Lankhmar” after decades of stories about Fafhrd and the Mouser. To fans, it must have been an event: this is their origin story, their very first adventure together.[3] What’s interesting is that Leiber doesn’t make them look good. These guys are screwups. Fafhrd and the Mouser meet cute stealing already-stolen gems from fellow thieves. They haul the spoils to the Mouser’s place and introduce their girlfriends to each other. Fafhrd’s other half has a grudge against the Thieves’ Guild and convinces the pair to take action stronger than loot hijacking. They get drunk and attempt a half-assed infiltration of the Guild headquarters, where they watch slack-jawed as a wizard casts a spell. Returning home they discover it was a spell to recover the gems, which incidentally killed their girlfriends. They return to the Guild, kill some people, and run away again. The end.

This story is pointless. It’s not about anything. It’s just… well, a description of some things that happened to the characters, which are assumed to be exciting in themselves in the absence of subtext. Which is a problem if you aren’t interested in these characters and don’t care what happens to them.

I’m getting “Ill Met in Lankhmar” out of the way first because it’s an outlier. It doesn’t share many themes with other stories in this batch, mostly because it has no theme except “look at this gritty adventure.” Unless the theme is “roguish sword and sorcery antiheroes are doofuses, actually,” which is a message I can get behind.

Themes that recur in the other stories include repeating cycles, reincarnation, deep time, geology, and patience. And several stories ask the question: how do you respond to a bad society, and power misused?

There is No Alternative

The simplest is Keith Laumer’s “In the Queue.” People line up to get their documents processed at the world’s only document-processing window. They wait for years—sometimes their whole lives. There’s nothing beyond the line but a wasteland. Hestler is one of the lucky few to reach the window. His business concluded, he walks all the way to the end of the line… and gets in line again. That’s where everyone he knows lives; that’s his world. It’s a bad world, but it’s the world Hestler has; he can’t imagine an alternative.

Cover of Galaxy magazine for The Region Between

Laumer also contributed to Harlan Ellison’s “The Region Between,” which is a lot of fun and miles better than “A Boy and His Dog.” Ellison wrote “The Region Between” for an anthology called Five Fates. The gimmick was that Laumer wrote a prologue in which William Bailey receives a disappointingly impersonal injection at a Euthanasia Center. Laumer, Ellison, Poul “Sharing of Flesh” Anderson, Frank “Dune” Herbert, and Gordon “Call Him Lord” Dickson each wrote a novella starting from there. In this bunch Ellison sticks out like a neon orange thumb: he delivered a drunkenly typeset romp with text scattered sideways, upside down, backwards; spiraling paragraphs and dollops of concrete poetry; and a paragraph where the words of one sentence slip in between the words of another; all framed—in the story’s preferred form—by graphic layouts and illustrations by Jack Gaughan.

A lot of SF predicted something like “Euthanasia Centers” around 1970—see for example Soylent Green,loosely adapted from Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!. Harrison’s novel contains neither euthanasia centers nor cannibalism. That they were added to the movie just four years later may be down to the late sixties’ increasing anxiety about overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb popularized the idea (which had been floating around at least a couple decades) that population growth was a major environmental problem. The human population, argued Ehrlich, was on the verge of outstripping the Earth’s resources; he predicted mass starvation by the end of the seventies. Obviously this didn’t happen—Ehrlich didn’t account for the fact that an environment’s carrying capacity can change—but by the end of the sixties imagined futures were often overcrowded. SF writers didn’t have much faith that governments’ response would respect human life.

In “The Region Between,” the Euthanasia Centers were engineered by an alien entity called “the Succubus” to harvest souls, a hot commodity in the wider universe. Some unknown people steal them. The Succubus brokers replacements. Bailey is plugged into a succession of bodies—the story’s collaged layout reflects his fragmented, disjointed new existence. First he’s a soldier sent on a false flag mission designed to extend a war—both sides’ rulers feed off the death. Bailey manages to hold onto his true identity, and almost manages to stop it. In his next couple of bodies he’s more successful at sabotaging a mission of conquest and an alien cockfight. “Did you ever stop to think how many individuals and races like to play God?” asks Bailey. Everyone Bailey inhabits is critical to powerful people who prey on the less powerful, and every time he manages to screw up their plans.

(All the victims’ souls are stolen at exactly the most critical moment. Are the soul thieves revolutionaries?)

(Also: the word Succubus comes from succubare, “to lie beneath.” Does the Succubus underly the powers that be—i.e., is his work the foundation of their power?)

The universe was created by a God who left his fingerprints all over it: “Godness lies dormant yet remembered in every thing, every smallest thing, in every puniest creature.” “God is in everyone” is usually an inspirational bromide, but not here: the God part of us is the part that wants control, sees other people as resources. Bailey, though, has more God than average. When the Succubus takes a closer look at Bailey’s soul God himself emerges from it. And when he sees the world of predators and prey the universe has become, he ends it. Typically for Ellison, this is an angry story. Bailey’s alternative to a sick society is to blow it up, tear everything down. The inevitable result of a universe where everyone wants to play god is that eventually only one god is left. Bailey started out trying to destroy himself; now he’s reduced the universe to nothing but himself.

Time and Stones

“The world gets new rocks all the time. But it’s the same people who keep turning up, and the same minds.”

The theme “Continued on Next Rock” shares with “The Region Between” is repeated returns from death, although not of the same kind. R. A. Lafferty is writing about deep time, living myths, and eternal returns happening in the background of an archaeological trip to a chimney rock leaning on an ancient Native American mound. (A reference in the story compares it to the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma; Lafferty lived there and his stories are often deeply connected to the landscape.)

Where Ellison is angry Lafferty is strange. His most characteristic stories are celebrations of strangeness. The thing about Lafferty is that he’s… well, completely himself. SFF is mostly market-shaped, crafted to sell to a particular audience or editor. Lafferty tears inscrutable literary contraptions straight out of his heart and brain, and places them before you, and you can take them or leave them. He won’t show up much in this series; rarely is the same Lafferty story nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula.[4] Lafferty is among the greatest SFF writers of the 20th century, but also among the most esoteric; not everybody can tune in on his wavelength.

Lafferty’s prose has the rhythm of screwball comic patter—you can imagine a Lafferty audiobook read by Groucho Marx—but he can segue into higher registers when needed. He has a complex vocabulary but writes simple prose. Not transparent prose—his stories have narrators, with points of view. Lafferty is a teller of tall tales. A lot of his characters are exaggerated legendary heroes. Like Magdalen, the expedition’s grad student. Magdalen knows things she couldn’t possibly know, like all of what’s in the mound and the chimney. And she’s strong enough to carry a 190 pound deer back to camp on her shoulders. And though she’s the least senior person there, everybody instinctually does as she says: “Magdalen had no right to give orders to anyone, except her born right.”

(Lafferty also has a nice line in comically nasty rogues. But he writes most sympathetically about people on the margins—misfits, if not literally marginalized. Which has a lot to do with why, although Lafferty himself was conservative, his stories often feel progressive. Lafferty is on the side of the oddballs. His dearest wish is that everybody should cultivate their inner weirdness.)

A “rich old poor man” named Anteros Manypenny appears at dinner and offers to dig. He digs perfectly, and knows what he’ll dig up before it’s uncovered. Magdalen’s unimpressed. “He’ll just uncover some of his own things,” she says. Magdalen and Anteros know each other, not that the archaeologists pick up on this. The narrator doesn’t pick up on it, either. Magdalen and Anteros know more than the narrator does. One of Lafferty’s strategies here is to limit the narrator’s understanding of the story, and contrast it with what he wants the reader to understand. “Very often Magdalen said things that made no sense,” says this story, though it’s only her colleagues that Magdalen makes no sense to.

Each day Anteros digs into the chimney rock and uncovers a stone tablet carved with strange love poetry: “You are the freedom of wild pigs in the sour-grass, and the nobility of badgers. You are the brightness of serpents and the soaring of vultures.” The tablets are impossibly recent, written in several Native American languages centuries newer than the undisturbed sediment they’re found in. Gradually the tablets reveal a story about an earthbound being in love with someone repeatedly trying to reach the sky and falling back to earth:

It is the earth that calls you. I am the earth, woolier than wolves and rougher than rocks. I am the bog earth that sucks you in. You cannot give, you cannot like, you cannot love, you think there is something else, you think there is a sky-bridge you may loiter on without crashing down.

And then Magdalen falls from the top of the chimney, and Anteros vanishes, replaced by a statue. And everyone forgets they were ever there.

Magdalen and Anteros have been returning to repeat this story for centuries; possibly thousands of years. (And across multiple civilizations—while they’re in Oklahoma they’re tied to Native American culture, but Anteros is a Greek name and Magdalen is Biblical.) It doesn’t feel like Anteros is stalking her—Magdalen’s capable of dealing with attention she doesn’t want, and her insults to Anteros feel good-humored, like she’s acting out a role. This is a ritual. It’s somehow necessary that Magdalen and Anteros play out this drama of rebirth and sacrifice. Why isn’t clear, but neither are giving up on their work.

Clifford Simak begins “The Thing in the Stone” by contrasting two people. Wallace Daniels moves to rural Wisconsin to recover from a car accident. (Even more than Lafferty’s, Simak’s writing is powerfully tied to his home region and to the landscape, which has a major role in his stories.) “He walked the hills and knew what the hills had seen through geologic time,” says Simak, and the first paragraph continues in that poetic vein; Daniels is sensitive and curious and spends his days exploring his property and tending his chickens and cows. Then we’re told “his next-door neighbor, a most ill-favored man, drove to the county seat, thirty miles away, to tell the sheriff that this reader of the hills, this listener to the stars was a chicken thief.”

This doesn’t come to anything, because the sheriff isn’t stupid. But Ben Adams won’t give up his weird grudge; he thinks Daniels is Up To Something. Daniels wanders his land like he’s searching: for treasure, maybe? What he really sees is deep time. Daniels’ accident left him with powers. He sees through time, seeing the landscape as it was millions of years ago (and sometimes travelling back bodily). If he concentrates on the stars he hears messages sent between alien civilizations. And in one particular cave he hears an alien being trapped beneath the stone.

One cold night, with a dangerous snowstorm coming up, Adams pulls Daniels’ rope away, trapping him in the cave. Desperate, Daniels manages to contact another, incorporeal alien, some loyal follower who watches over the thing in the stone and wants to set it free. Then Daniels manages to shift back a few million years, allowing him to escape the cave (because the prehistoric landscape is different) and incidentally see the thing in the stone arrive. It’s a criminal, and Earth is its prison.

Simak’s prose is deceptively simple. Like Lafferty’s prose it feels like speech, though of a different kind; it’s plainspoken folk storytelling where Lafferty is a vaudeville comedian. It’s carefully crafted without seeming to be, so it’s worth looking at a couple of short paragraphs more closely:

And suddenly in this place of one-sound-only there came a throbbing, faint but clear and presently louder, pressing down against the water, beating at the little island—a sound out of the sky.

Daniels leaped to his feet and looked up and the ship was there, plummeting down toward him. But not a ship of solid form, it seemed—rather a distorted thing, as if many planes of light (if there could be such things as planes of light) had been slapped together in a haphazard sort of way.

Simak’s prose has a calm and measured rhythm. Sometimes he falls into iambs or trochees for a phrase or two before resuming a more naturally irregular stress pattern: “pressing down against the water, beating at the little island.” That’s also parallel phrasing, as is “this reader of the hills, this listener to the stars” from the introduction. Simak uses repetition of phrasing or repetition of words as a speaker might use them for rhythm or emphasis (see also “He walked the hills and knew what the hills had seen through geologic time”—not every writer would have repeated “the hills” there). “Daniels leaped to his feet and looked up and the ship was there” feels like the narrator is talking faster, with the way it stacks “and” conjunctions without commas. And the last phrase “haphazard sort of way” is a phrasing you might use in casual speech—“sort of” is a filler, and also suggests “haphazard” is a word chosen off the top of the narrator’s head, and might not be quite right.

When Daniels returns to the present and meets a search party, he lets Adams know he knows what Adams did. But he also chooses not to give Adams away to the sheriff. He’s giving Adams a chance to be better. (Earlier, of the fox stealing both Adams’ and his own chickens, Daniels said “I figure we are neighbors… Maybe that means I own a piece of him.”) He goes home with his new alien friend. He’s interested in seeing Daniels care for his animals, leading Daniels to a realization. The alien isn’t the thing’s follower, it’s a guardian and minder—as Daniels puts it, a “shepherd.” The aliens deal with evil by keeping it harmlessly contained, but never giving up on the possibility it might be redeemed, even if it takes a few million years.

Patience

“Slow Sculpture” is about a man and a woman whose names we never learn because they don’t ask them of each other until the story ends. The woman has a cancer diagnosis and goes for a walk to clear her head, where she meets the man making scientific observations on a tree. He offers to help; she has nothing to lose, so follows him to his lab. The treatment involves electricity (the man was also measuring electrical current around the tree) and surprisingly seems to work—definite proof will come with time, but she has her own reasons for believing he’s pulled off a miracle. She asks why, if he has this cure, he hasn’t told anyone.

It turns out the man has lived out the urban legend of the inventor whose super-efficient carburetor gets bought and buried by a car company. This is a repeated pattern in his life. He has great ideas, they get shot down because people just aren’t ready for him. He’s too real, man. He knows how it’s going to go if he tries to tell people about his cancer cure: all anyone will see is that he’s not a doctor, and he’ll be branded a quack. His lab is full of inventions that could change the world, and never will. Getting people to listen is hard. He’s stopped trying.

The man likes trees. The centerpiece of his home is a very old bonsai. He’s learned how to care for it, how to make the endless small adjustments that guide it to grow into something beautiful:

A man sees the tree and in his mind makes certain extensions and extrapolations of what he sees, and sets about making them happen. The tree in turn will do only what a tree can do, will resist to the death any attempt to do what it cannot do, or to do it in less time than it needs. The shaping of a bonsai is therefore always a compromise and always a cooperation… It is the slowest sculpture in the world, and there is, at times, doubt as to which is being sculpted, man or tree.

(Sturgeon’s prose is precise but casual, colloquial in a way that might not be clear from this excerpt. This story is dialogue-driven; there’s far more conversation than action or description. It’s a philosophical dialogue.)

Like Ellison’s William Bailey, Sturgeon’s nameless engineer despairs for humanity. Where “The Region Between” is angry (not a complaint—it’s good at being angry), “Slow Sculpture” argues for patience: if you can’t get the world to listen you don’t give up on it, you try a new strategy. As the woman says, “I mean… you already know how to get what you want with the tree, don’t you?”

There’s this ongoing debate in leftist circles over the value of incremental change, or reform, versus revolutionary change. This debate makes no sense to me inasmuch as there’s no reason for reform and revolution to be versus each other. Still, there’s a certain part of the left who, when they can’t get everything they want in one giant leap, give up and go home—think of the voters who sat out the 2010 midterms after getting a public option turned out to be harder than they thought, or the small faction who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden after Bernie Sanders couldn’t convince enough people he was a reliable candidate.

The problem with revolution, though, is that you rarely get the chance to pull one off. The right conditions don’t come along very often. In the meantime you can do nothing, or you can try reform: change what you can. An incremental change is still a change. If it doesn’t help everybody, it may help someone. And enough incremental changes can create the conditions for the big, revolutionary change that’s currently out of reach, like a thousand tiny adjustments shape a bonsai.

“Slow Sculpture” argues that it’s better to think of people as stubborn than stupid. Trees and human society are slow to change, and need constant tending if they’re going to change in the right way; you can’t afford to get frustrated when it proves impossible to force it. It’s not a good world, but it’s better to keep pushing whatever levers you have access to than to give up.


  1. A term reportedly coined by Leiber himself.  ↩

  2. The Fafhrd/Mouser stories were a big influence on Dungeons & Dragons, to the point TSR licensed them for a supplement.  ↩

  3. Another prequel featuring only Fafhrd, “The Snow Women,” also got a Nebula nomination.  ↩

  4. The one time he won a Hugo was for “Eurema’s Dam,” which even Lafferty didn’t think was his best work: in an interview available online, he says “Winning the Hugo Award for ‘Eurema’s Dam’ puzzled me completely, and I’m still puzzled by it.”  ↩

Teffi, Other Worlds

The first line of Teffi’s story “Witch,” the title story from a 1936 collection reprinted in Other Worlds, asks: “Sometimes, when you think back, you can’t help wondering: Were people really like that? Was life really like that?” “Teffi” was the pen name of a Russian writer and journalist who left the country for good after the revolution. Afterwards most of her readers were émigrés and these stories have an undercurrent of nostalgia.

Cover of Other Worlds

Other Worlds is subtitled Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints. Those are all running themes here. Other Worlds samples stories from several collections, in chronological order. Pilgrims and saints appear more in the early stories. Spirits come in later. Another theme carried all the way through the book is memory, particularly childhood memories. A lot of these stories recreate the way the world felt to Teffi as a child, when the line between reality and fantasy was blurrier.

And then they carry that feeling forward, into adulthood. The pilgrim stories involve childhood attempts to understand religion, including the drily funny tale of a child who decides to become a saint. But there are also adult pilgrims who have sudden numinous experiences. One narrator takes an unexpectedly wild and eerie carriage ride through the woods. Even in adulthood the world gets unexpectedly larger.

The tales of spirits, most from Witch, feel like the heart of the collection. (Although this may be my love of weird fiction talking.) The translators included all but one of the stories from this collection. (Robert Chandler, who wrote the explanatory material, doesn’t explain what that last story was or why they left it out.) These stories center around spirits from Russian folklore—witches, shapeshifters, Leshies, Rusalkas. Often the main vectors for these beliefs are peasants—but, no matter what they tell themselves, the upper classes are just as suceptible. In “Witch,” the ostensibly rational narrator and her husband wind up fleeing their apartment in fear that their housekeeper has cursed the place. “You may laugh all you please,” says Teffi, “but the truth is that things didn’t work out sensibly and reasonably, as educated people like ourselves always want them to.”

In the Witch stories Teffi’s prose is conversational. It feels improvisational, extemporaneous. (But it’s precise—Chandler tells us Teffi is difficult to translate.) Her narrator is reminiscing, taking you into your confidence. She’s talking to a “you,” or relaying a story told to her: “Do you remember that tragic death? The death of that artful Edvers?” Memory keeps coming up—sometimes she’ll say “I remember” or “As far as I can remember.” The stories are structured with anecdotes, asides, and associational transitions—for instance, she’ll give a quick biography of a baroness before telling the anecdote she’s involved in that’s the actual point of the story. A lot of these stories start as essays on Russian folklore—domovoys, bathhouse devils—before easing into a narrative.

These stories have a constant edge of astonishment. Can this really be happening? Is life really like this? Narrators and characters keep asking bemused questions: “Was that really Panas?” “What kind of accursed forest was this, full of murderous trees?” A lot of writers take pains to avoid exclamation points. Teffi throws them in fearlessly.

One thing you get in Teffi that more fantasy writers need to learn is a sense of mystery, complexity, and ambiguity. Take “Leshachikha.” The narrator remembers a childhood incident when her family’s neighbor, a count, brings his daughter Jadzia[1] to their house. She behaves wildly and tears her dress. Later the kids are being driven through the woods and hear a wild howling; their coachman says Jadzia, the “Leshachika,” drives the game to her father when he hunts. Then the count brings home Eleonora, another daughter, who is beautiful but slightly hunchbacked. Jadzia is jealous. One day Eleonora wanders into the forest and is crushed by a falling tree. Then the count plans to marry. In the forest his valet just barely saves him from another falling tree. Jadzia is nowhere near either time, but everyone obscurely feels she’s responsible. The count breaks off the engagement and takes Jadzia away, abandoning his home. The narrator stops to look at his pond. “I kept looking for the swan,” she says. Leshachikhas are as normal as birds; a swan is as interesting as a spirit.

This story doesn’t have a single, definite, legible interpretation. A lot of SFF stories take pains to communicate a clear, well-defined meaning. The story has a careful moral or is built around a metaphor with an unmistakable meaning. The results are often stories you’ll only read once; you’ve gotten everything out of them you’re ever going to. This is why I value messiness in fiction. “Leshachikha” is productively obscure. It could mean many things to many people. There’s more scope for rereading, reinterpretation.

One move Other Worlds often makes is to blur the border between people and spirits. Jadzia may be a forest spirit, or may consort with forest spirits, or may just be like a forest spirit. In “Wonder Worker” a peasant seems to reincarnate as a chicken. In “Water Spirit” a transgender housemaid is accused of being “from the river.” In “The Dog” the spirit of the narrator’s childhood friend who called himself her “dog” returns to protect her in the form of that animal. In a late essay Teffi identifies herself with Baba Yaga. Ordinary people are as strange and numinous as spirits.

That means sometimes it’s ambiguous whether anything supernatural is going on. Sometimes nothing supernatural is going on: the comedy in “Bathhouse Devil” comes from the narrator’s pretending to believe in spirits while leaving a more mundane story in plain sight. This might worry some weird fiction fans. Stories that go for metaphysical ambiguity are often afraid of their own weirdness; including a non-supernatural get out clause feels more respectable. But here the ambiguity has the opposite effect. Other Worlds feels weirder than a lot of outright weird fiction. Instead of taming weirdness, Teffi uses ambiguity to make the everyday weird.


  1. Deep Space Nine fans might be interested to know “Jadzia” is Russian, and actually supposed to be pronounced “Yadya.”  ↩

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1970, Part Two

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.

Because this one was running long, I decided to split it into two parts. Before reading this you’ll want to check out the first half, which among other things includes the story list.)

Possession

Robert Silverberg’s “Passengers” isn’t as excruciatingly uncomfortable as “A Boy and His Dog” but isn’t great. In the story’s world incorporeal “Passengers” take people’s bodies on joyrides. (These sound more like drivers than passengers, but never mind.) Victims are conscious during the possession but normally remember nothing afterwards. Charles wakes up after a Passenger used his body for sex with a Passenger in the body of a woman named Helen. He remembers his possession and recognizes Helen on the street. She has no memory of Charles. Charles decides he and Helen are meant to be together and chats her up. When he admits they were possessed together she’s repulsed, but immediately gets over it. Just as it looks like Charles will get lucky another Passenger possesses him and makes him walk off with a man.

Some SFF stories are metaphors, but also literal in a way absurdist or surrealist stories aren’t. Neither level needs to work perfectly (and the literal level doesn’t always entirely need to make sense), but it helps if neither goes entirely off the rails. “Passengers” has problems on both levels. Literally, Charles is trying to pick Helen up knowing important information about her while Helen knows nothing whatsoever about him. In other words, he’s a stalker. And when Charles runs into Helen after his possession it’s hard to believe he’s attracted to her and not newly traumatized. And after Helen learns what’s happening she goes from horrified to okay like the author flipped a switch. “Passengers” does not deal honestly with the emotional implications of its premise.

Metaphorically, Charles and Helen had an impulsive one night stand and now Charles wants a relationship. “Passengers” is concerned with free will: “It is the old problem, free will versus determinism, translated into the foulest of forms. Determinism is no longer a philosopher’s abstraction; it is cold alien tendrils sliding between the cranial sutures.” Charles ponders whether he can tell the difference between his own choices and choices a Passenger made for him. “Did we ever have more than that: the illusion of freedom?”

But as a metaphor for the forces that actually constrain people’s choices—economic, social, psychological—the Passengers don’t work. Real determinism is “I have to keep the job that expects me to work sixty hour weeks because I can’t afford to lose my health insurance,” or “I can’t take on another project because with my Attention Deficit Disorder I can only handle so much.” Passengers just make people act randomly: “I slept with that woman because I couldn’t help myself.” That’s not a constraint, that’s a whim. “Passengers” feels less like a serious meditation on free will than an evasion of responsibility. Literally it’s a tragedy; metaphorically, it’s a fantasy of blamelessness.

“Dramatic Mission” is the third and last time Anne McCaffrey turns up in this series. I’d like to insightfully sum up her stories but, honestly, I’m just bored. Like the two Pern novellas, “Dramatic Mission” is awkwardly written and glacially paced. The characters are so shallow I had trouble recalling who everyone was, or even how many characters there were. And all three stories bury weird unexamined assumptions in their worldbuilding. Here, Helva is a human born with significant (I assume potentially fatal) physical disabilities who was given a spaceship for a body… and told she had to work off the cost. She literally needs to “buy herself back from Central Worlds.” A few paragraphs later the story says “According to Central Worlds’ charter, no sentient entity could be placed in a condition suggesting peonage,” but what did you just get done telling us, Anne?

Helva’s latest job is to ferry a troupe of actors to an alien planet to introduce them to Shakespeare.[1] Following an interminable exploration of the cast’s ironically undramatic interpersonal problems, they upload themselves into alien bodies to perform the play.

As with the Pern novellas I assume “Dramatic Mission” was doing something sixties SFF fans weren’t getting anywhere else. It’s preoccupied with bodies, and exchanging bodies. Helva’s exchanged hers for a spaceship. The actors project their minds into specially-created alien bodies, and three decide to keep their new forms. SFF has traditionally been a geek interest—far more so fifty years ago than it is now—and sometimes geeks have complicated relationships with their bodies. Modifying and exchanging bodies are common themes in SFF, and common fantasies. (Heck, part of the reason Doctor Who always appealed to me is probably the main character’s ability to be different people.) Maybe a certain part of McCaffrey’s audience would have loved to be a spaceship, just as others wanted to ride a dragon.

The Disenchantment of the World

“Not Long Before the End” is secondary world fantasy. “Secondary world” is a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien for a fantastic invented world, like Middle Earth or the setting for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. This series has covered Twilight Zone-style contemporary fantasy, and science fiction worlds with a fantasy aesthetic, but this is our first story that’s what most fans have in mind when they say “fantasy.”

Tolkien isn’t yet a big influence. This is sword and sorcery, influenced by Robert E. Howard’s Conan. There’s not much to it beyond the reveal of its central gag, but there are a couple of interesting things about that gag. Magic is a non-renewable resource: cast too many spells in the same place and it’s gone. This is, first, the kind of nerdy plot-hole patching story I mentioned way up in the section on “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” The conceit of the Conan stories was that they were set in real history at some unspecified time. Niven is explaining why magic worked then but not now.

Second, like “A Boy and His Dog” this is a world that’s decaying. Niven’s world is being literally disenchanted—losing its magic literally and figuratively. It’s losing the specific quality that defines its genre.

That’s also true of “Deeper Than the Darkness,” a space-opera story that ends with humanity retreating from space: “The men who climbed to the stars now cower in caves, driven by the horrors they inherited from the first amphibians.” It’s one of the most blatant Cold War stories we’ve covered. “Deeper Than the Darkness” pits individualism against collectivism, but in a way that’s weirder, more oblique, and less straightforwardly conservative than you’d think. (Gregory Benford would later expand the story into a novel, then write a revised version called The Stars in Shroud.)

Earth has gone in for collectivism, not because the communists won the Cold War but because capitalism defeated itself. Almost all the Americans died in the “Riot War.” (Again, the late 1960s saw a lot of protests end in violence.) Our protagonist, starship captain Sanjen, is one of the survivors’ last descendants. Sanjen keeps his crew unified by leading them in Sabal, a complicated game with elements of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the game theory scenario in which two people have to cooperate without knowing the other’s decision. Humanity has blundered into conflict with the Quarm, a species so individualist they can’t even stand themselves. As the story opens Sanjen is rushing to a colony planet to rescue the survivors of a Quarm attack.

What he discovers is weirder than anyone expected. The colonists have filled their complex with dirt and are hiding, and dying, in cramped tunnels. This whole sequence is genuinely claustrophobic and unsettling. Worse, after Sanjen brings the survivors on board his crew become afraid to leave their cabins. The Quarm weapon reawakens ancient prey instincts, making humans fear light and open space. And humans are so interdependent and group-oriented their psychology is infectious, like a mental computer virus. Sanjen can’t get anyone to understand what’s happening until it’s too late: “the ideals my ancestors held were called a temporary abnormality, a passing alternative to the communal, the group-centered culture… But we had met something new out here, and I knew they wouldn’t understand it. Perhaps the Americans would have, or the Europeans.”

But this isn’t straightforward anti-communist propaganda. The Quarm virus also turns people away from community, making them self-absorbed and withdrawn. They stop communicating. The first sign of trouble is when the Sabal games fall apart. Sanjen”˜s warnings fail after he’s undercut by his first officer; a new individualism is manifesting as ambition.

In a way, this is possession again. People’s entire psychologies are being rewritten from outside. This time possession stands in for paranoia over cultural change. The Quarm win not by fighting but by injecting alien values into Sanjen’s culture, mutating it beyond recognition. This is what conservatives saw as the left embraced anticapitalism, but it’s also how the left felt watching Nixon (and, much later, Trump) take office. It’s a complex metaphor. That’s the best kind.

In “Ship of Shadows” Earth is, again, dying—although we don’t learn that for a while. Spar, a drug addict, believes the spaceship where he lives is all the world there is. In a way that’s true, because this story is about what’s going on inside Spar and his world is a metaphor for his self. A spar, after all, is part of a ship.

The Windrush is a zero-gravity plastic maze of shrouds and towlines and translucent sails. It’s almost abstract, like a set for a minimalist play. The abstraction is heightened by Spar’s nearsightedness. Until he gets glasses the environment is described in blobs and blurs. Getting dentures and a good pair of glasses is Spar’s main motivation; this is a mood story, not a plot story.

“Shroud” also suggests burial shrouds. The Windrush is unexpectedly gothic. As the story opens Spar picks up a familiar, a talking black cat. The crew is amnesiac; hardly anyone remembers there’s an outside world. (At one point Spar sees a picture of a woman and wonders what’s pulling her hair and clothes towards her feet. He’s forgotten gravity.) Everyone’s afraid of witches and vampires. In the latter case, they’re right to worry. The local crime boss, Crown, is pulling a Peter Thiel. He and his vampire brides survive on other people’s blood. (Charmingly, they stick drinking straws into their victims’ necks.)

Once Spar walks in on Crown’s drinking session the denouement is perfunctory. Crown is defeated, and in a few rushed paragraphs everyone tells Spar who he really is and that he needs to take charge of Windrush: “Doc said, ”˜So, Spar, you’re the only one who remembers without cynicism. You’ll have to take over. It’s all yours, Spar.’” Exactly how he’s meant to take over is unclear, but also beside the point. Gaining control of the Windrush is a symbol of how Spar has kicked his addiction, regained his self-respect and self-control. (Fritz Leiber himself struggled with alcoholism at points in his life.) This is a psychodrama, and if the literal level is a little handwavy on the details it doesn’t derail the story as in “Passengers.”

Spar learns Windrush is a lifeboat.[2] Earth is dying. Which is interesting, because it’s gratuitous—the story would work if Spar were on the Windrush for any reason at all. The end of the world is just assumed.

Things Falling Apart

So, to recap, we’ve seen:

  • A generic post-nuclear wasteland in “A Boy and His Dog.”
  • The fall of America and humanity’s retreat into agoraphobia and solipsism in “Deeper Than the Darkness.”
  • The literal disenchantment of the world in “Not Long Before the End.”
  • The loss of free will to unstoppable, incorporeal aliens in “Passengers.”
  • The destruction of Earth and near-universal amnesia in “Ship of Shadows.”

And in “To Jorslem” Earth, in decline after a worldwide environmental disaster, finally falls to alien conquest. These worlds aren’t just falling apart, they’re unfixable. The stories that resonated with SFF fans at the end of the sixties did not offer easy hope for the future.

Fifty years on, pop culture remembers a cartoon version of the Sixties. Bright colors, psychedelia, Sergeant Pepper and Yellow Submarine, peace signs, Mr. Spock jamming with nonthreatening hippies. But the United States in the late sixties would have been an alarming time and place to live in—a cycle of war casualties, violent protests, assassinations, and Richard Nixon repeatedly refusing to go away. As I say this, bear in mind I wasn’t born yet in 1970. I’m looking at it through five decades of hindsight. But I wonder whether these stories resonated because their readers feared their world was broken beyond repair.

(We’re in a fraught time now, and it’s interesting to compare this year’s Hugo and Nebula awards. The short story ballots are dominated by gentle, consolatory stories, often written in a style I associate with children’s stories. Even one of the more pessimistic stories, a zombie apocalypse, is more about showing off the protagonist’s badassery than about horror.)

There’s one story left, and it’s one of the falling-apart stories. But it also offers some optimism.

Cover of Nightwings

“To Jorslem” is a sequel to last year’s “Nightwings.” In fact, it’s the second sequel. Having written the first novella Robert Silverberg wrote two more and published them as a novel, also titled Nightwings.[3] In “To Jorslem” we rejoin the Watcher, now calling himself Tomis, as he travels to Jerusalem (Jorslem) as a pilgrim on an occupied Earth.

We’ve skipped the middle novella, where Silverberg put the exposition; Tomis spends most of it researching Earth’s history. In the Second Cycle humanity kidnapped less advanced species and put them in zoos. Meanwhile they started a massive geoengineering project to control the weather. This was a bad idea; it ruined the climate and destroyed North and South America. (Again we have a story where the United States, specifically, is gone.) One of the species whose people were abducted bailed humanity out on the condition that Earth belonged to them whenever they were ready to collect. The invaders’ claim to Earth is legitimate.

I said last time Nightwings feels like a Jack Vance story where not everyone is an asshole. It’s full of weird, impressionistic details. It’s good at creating the impression that these characters don’t share a frame of reference with us while keeping them relatable and human. There’s an incongruous mix of magical technologies and atavistic social structures and a weight of history and science learned and forgotten again.

Jorslem is still a holy city, but these days people believe in “The Will.” “The Will” is a generic force of the type that, if you’re in the mood to be unkind, could be recast as “The Plot.” What it feels like is the force of history. As one character puts it, “The Will does not shape every event great or small; it provides the raw material of events, and allows us to follow such patterns as we desire.” The Will is the choices of others in the past that limit the choices of people in the present, the social context that narrows people’s options—what Silverberg’s Passengers were meant to be, but aren’t.

Ancient technology in Jorslem can restore a pilgrim’s youth, if they’re worthy. Tomis passes the test. His renewal is a full-on psychedelic trip with hallucinated guest appearances from everyone he’s ever met. Speaking of which, in the real world he reconnects with the Flier Alvuela, who tells him she has a new guild he can join, the Redeemers. This is weird; there’s no logical reason for her to be in Jorslem. After declaring her love for Gormon in “Nightwings,” which ended with her symbolically taking off into the sky with him, we’re told they immediately broke up. It’s like once Silverberg decided to expand the original novella he thought Alvuela needed to end up with Tomis for purely structural reasons. Her characterization feels disjointed. But part of the point of the original story was that Tomis didn’t totally understand her in the first place, so maybe that’s not a problem?

The arc of the novel moves towards understanding: from Tomis’ early obliviousness in “Nightwings” to the middle section’s deep dive into human history to the total understanding practiced by the Redeemers. The Redeemers have found a way to enter a telepathic gestalt in which they can feel others’ thoughts and sensations; at the end of “To Jorslem” Tomis mentally flies with Alvuela as Gormon did physically at the end of “Nightwings.” This is another kind of possession, but again it represents a different idea. This is benign, consensual possession—no one in the link loses their identity or individuality, they’re in direct mind-to-mind communication. Basically, radical empathy. The Redeemers are going to “solve” the invasion by accepting that the invaders are here because of the choices of humans who came before, and eventually accepting them into the human gestalt.

In most of these stories, Earth in general and America in particular is hopelessly dead or dying. “To Jorslem” is the one story to suggest building back up from the rubble. Our options may be limited by choices made by people who came before us, but we have enough free will to choose the best of the ones remaining to us.


I’m going to be continuing this series and I’ve started working on 1971, but there might be one or more unrelated posts in between, as I’m currently weary of overwhelmingly male-dominated shortlists. The next installment will probably come within the next month.


  1. As in Star Trek, the people of the Central Worlds just happen to enjoy drama in the public domain as of the mid–20th century. Funny how that works out!  ↩

  2. It’s not clear whether this is a reference, but a ship called the Empire Windrush was one of the first ships to bring Carribean immigrants to the United Kingdom; people who came to the U.K. from those countries after World War II are often called the “Windrush Generation.”  ↩

  3. In the novel this story is called “The Road to Jorslem.” The editor changed it because it sounded like a Bob Hope movie.  ↩

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1970, Part One

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.

Because this one was running long, I decided to split it into two parts.)

As the sixties grind to a halt, I’ve noticed SFF take a pessimistic turn. That’s not changing in this installment. The question I try to ask about each batch of stories is what recurring themes do I see? This year I’m noticing two: the first is possession. People are changing bodies or losing their free will. The second is decay. Teenage barbarians roam a nuclear wasteland. A galactic empire collapses as aliens attack the human mind. People on a spaceship forget the outside universe. A fantasy world loses its magic. Earth, long past its prime, succumbs to an alien invasion. In at least two stories, America is just gone. Everything’s falling apart in:

1970

The novels nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 1970 were Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line. The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and the Nebula, deservedly; it’s a classic, as is Slaughterhouse-Five. I haven’t read the other two.

The stories nominated for both awards were:

  • Gregory Benford, “Deeper Than the Darkness”: A space crew rescuing the survivors of an alien attack discovers the aliens might have a more subtle weapon than they’d assumed.
  • Samuel R. Delany, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (Won the Nebula for Best Novelette and the Hugo for Best Short Story): A thief visits Earth to sell some stolen goods.
  • Harlan Ellison, “A Boy and His Dog” (Won the Nebula for Best Novella): A feral teenager and his smarter dog scrape by in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
  • Fritz Leiber, “Ship of Shadows” (Won the Hugo for Best Novella): A nearsighted man living on a spaceship meets a talking cat, acquires a pair of glasses, and runs afoul of vampires.
  • Anne McCaffrey, “Dramatic Mission”: A sentient spaceship ferries a troupe of actors to an alien planet.
  • Larry Niven, “Not Long Before the End”: A warlock confronts the sex pest barbarian who’s been hassling his wife and reveals an appalling secret.
  • Robert Silverberg, “Passengers” (Won the Nebula for Best Short Story): The challenges of dating in a world where people are routinely possessed by incorporeal alien pranksters.
  • Robert Silverberg, “To Jorslem”: The guy from 1969’s “Nightwings” travels to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, hoping to recover his youth.

Which is the best story in this batch? Take a wild guess.

Yep, it’s Samuel R. Delany again, with “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” It’s not the only good story here—I also recommend “Deeper Than the Darkness,” “Ship of Shadows,” and “To Jorslem.” But as usual Delany is working at another level of density and complexity. It’s also a thematic outlier. Most of these stories are preoccupied with a couple of themes. Most absorbed a downbeat flavor from the violent, volatile years when they were written; if civilization hasn’t fallen apart, it’s having a hard time holding itself together. “Time Considered” is less pessimistic, more philosophical, and feels less of its time. It could be published as new today.

The narrator is a professional thief and master of disguise. He changes identities like clothes, keeping only the initials H.C.E. (In other stories from 1970 we’ll see people change bodies, or find their minds changed for them.) H.C.E. begins by telling us his age, but not straightforwardly: “Lay ordinate and abscissa on the century. Now cut me a quadrant. Third quadrant if you please. I was born in ’fifty. Here it’s ’seventy-five.” He’s describing his life as a segment of his century, connecting himself to his context.

H.C.E. returns to Earth to unload his loot. He’s warned off by Maud, who knows an underworld password: the name of a semiprecious stone that can mean different things depending on how and when it’s spoken. She’s a surprisingly friendly envoy from “Special Services,” who predict the movements of criminals. She explains Special Services practices “hologramic information storage,” analogous to the way any fragment of a hologram contains the entire image. Special Services estimates where H.C.E. will be by taking every piece of information they have about him and relating it to his entire life and circumstances. Maud is letting him know because “Information is only meaningful when shared.”

Later, at a party, H.C.E. hears “if everything, everything were known, statistical estimates would be unnecessary. The science of probability gives mathematical expression to our ignorance, not to our wisdom.” The speaker is a Singer. Singers closely observe the world and describe it in extemporaneous poetry and song. It’s illegal to reproduce the Singers’ words; you experience a Singer’s work once, in person.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan argued a medium’s content was less important than the properties of the medium itself: how people relate to different media, what kinds of thought they encourage. In “Time Considered” the Singer tradition developed because “While Tri-D and radio and newstapes disperse information all over the worlds, they also spread a sense of alienation from first-hand experience.” The Singers counterbalance mass media; the point is their immediacy. They relate information back to the world, turning raw data into meaning.

One common fan mode of reading, especially among fans of big franchises like Star Wars and Marvel, is data collection. Fans amass wikiloads of trivia describing every corner of a fictional universe, hunt down backstories for every extra who crosses the screen. They look for continuity errors and “plot holes” and write stories to “fix” them. They want to know everything but don’t think about what it means. What “Time Considered” is doing—

Well, one thing it’s doing, because like all good fiction “Time Considered” is complex and not reducible to a single theme, and I’m not trying to know everything, just looking at one piece of the hologram—

“Time Considered” is arguing for a different kind of reading where lists of facts aren’t ends in themselves but part of a pattern of meaning. By the end of the story H.C.E. can predict how his relationship with a criminal rival will develop, seeing not only the immediate conflict but past it into a future partnership. He’s learning to read information holographically.

“Time Considered” is an outlier among 1970’s nominees because, like the other Delany stories I’ve covered, it shows affection for people. Every character is allowed dignity and a point of view; Delany seems to genuinely like each one. His work feels benevolent. In a Delany story things don’t go right for everyone—that’s the nature of stories—but the worlds he creates aren’t hopeless.

This won’t be true for most of the other stories.

Another Story it’s Not True For

Cover of the issue of New Worlds containing A Boy and His Dog

To maximize the whiplash, let’s consider “A Boy and His Dog.” If you’ve read other posts in this series you’ll have gathered that I find Harlan Ellison ridiculous—he’s the kind of guy a teenager thinks is cool but an adult recognizes as a buffoon—but still love his writing… usually. I’m not a fan of “A Boy and His Dog.” This is the first time I’ve ever made it all the way through this story (though I did know the twist ending).

The reason I hate “A Boy and His Dog” may not be the reason you’d assume. Many SFF fans have strict moral standards for protagonists. The idea is that the main character is there for the reader to identify with, an example to aspire to. If a protagonist does a thing the author must think it’s a good thing to do. This is, of course, completely wrong. A protagonist is not necessarily there for the reader to project themselves onto. A fictional character is a rhetorical device, part of the argument or exploration of ideas that is the story. Sometimes what that argument needs is an asshole. A protagonist doesn’t have to be good, only interesting.

So I don’t have a problem with awful protagonists, which is good because Vic is awful. Blood, his dog, is also awful. All the other characters we meet are awful as well. They live in a post-apocalyptic America that is, you guessed it, awful, except for the underground bunker Vic encounters which is awful in a different way. The problem is that none of this awfulness adds up to anything interesting, or original, or even coherent.

It’s a well-known story that’s had comic book and movie adaptations so you may know the plot. Teenage Vic wanders the wastelands of post-war America with his dog Blood. Blood is intelligent and telepathic, bred by the military; at one point Vic watches a film in which dogs napalm a village. Blood raised Vic and taught him to read. This arrangement seems common. Other boys have other dogs and, like Vic, they were raised to be the kind of people who would napalm a village.

So Vic comes across a young woman, Quilla June. This is the point where I bailed on the story way back when I first tried to read it, because Vic plans to rape her. Because, yes, 1970 has two more stories featuring horrible sex. (At least this batch of stories doesn’t have any incest, which is not a sentence I thought I would need to write before I started this project, but here we are.) Quilla June whacks Vic over the head and leaves, but not before dropping enough clues to let him follow her into her underground bunker. The bunker is set up like a Mayberryesque small town. All the men are sterile and Quilla June lured Vic down to be a sperm donor. On further reflection she’s bored with the whole deal, so she shoots some people and the pair make their way back up. Blood, who stayed on the surface, is injured and needs something to eat, like, right now. A boy loves his dog, so…

“A Boy and His Dog” is comprehensive in its disgust for humanity. The young people on the surface are barbarians, the old people underground are fascists. This story argues civilization is a paper-thin veneer; every American is one disaster away from unleashing the monster just under their skin. Which, fair enough, might have seemed plausible under Richard Nixon, but it’s too much. In the last years of his life, Ellison said in an interview:

“I used history as my model for the condition of the country in ‘A Boy And His Dog,’ where, after a decimating war, like the Wars Of The Roses, for instance, the things that become most valuable are weapons, food, and women. Women were traded and treated like chattel. I tried to make it clear in the stories and the novel that I found this distasteful, but it’s the reality of what humanity’s like when it’s gone through this kind of apocalyptic inconvenience, if you will.”

The Wars of the Roses were also the model for A Game of Thrones, prototype of modern grimdark fantasy. “A Boy and His Dog” has a similar appeal. If you expect the worst from other people that must mean you’re not as bad, right? And it makes you feel smart: you’re seeing the world as it really is, man.

Is it, though? Most apocalyptic fiction assumes after the bomb drops we’ll have to fight off gangs of punk-style barbarians (these days they’re usually zombies). But in real-world disasters people are as likely to pull together as take potshots at their neighbors. Why did this world go for the latter option over the former? “A Boy and His Dog” doesn’t seem to realize the question needs an answer. It’s just assumed that the world after the bomb drops is a world without compassion.

Quilla June is the only important character in the story after Vic and Blood. Even granted that we’re seeing her through Vic’s eyes, he doesn’t understand her, and she spends much of the story manipulating him, she’s weirdly erratic. One moment she vomits because Vic bopped her father on the head, the next she’s gleefully mowing down her neighbors with a rifle. She spends the first half of the story playing Vic like a penny whistle, but at the end suddenly has no idea how to handle him. That the story’s third most important character is a randomly bouncing plot device gives you some idea of how much thought Ellison put into working out anybody’s psychology here. Ellison is angry, and at his best his anger can be incisive, cutting. In “A Boy and His Dog,” it’s just mindless.

(To be continued in Part 2, with more decay and stories of possession.)

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1969

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

I’m noticing a pattern. I loved the stories I read for 1966. I thought the stories of 1967 were lousy. I had criticisms of 1968, but at least half the stories were good. So is it time for a swing back in the other direction? Alas, yes. Get ready to feel weird and uncomfortable reading the science fiction of:

1969

(…or 1968, depending on how you look at it. As always, stories nominated in 1969 were published the year before.)

The novels that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations in 1969 were Rite of Passage by Alexi Panshin (the Nebula winner), Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (the Hugo winner), and Past Master by R. A. Lafferty. I’ve never read Rite of Passage but Stand on Zanzibar is a classic and Past Master is a gloriously weird, underrated novel reprinted in the Library of America’s recent sixties SF set. That set also includes Samuel R. Delany’s Nova, which got a Hugo nomination, and Joanna Russ’ Picnic on Paradise, a Nebula nominee. 1968 was a good year for novels.

It was not such a good year for short fiction, at least judging from the double nominated stories:

  • Brian W. Aldiss, “Total Environment”: Harebrained United Nations scientists build a giant tower block in India and lock hundreds of people inside for 25 years because, as everyone knows, people locked in a crowded building for multiple generations will inevitably evolve ESP.
  • Poul Anderson, “The Sharing of Flesh” (Won the Hugo for Best Novelette): Space anthropologists visit a lost human colony. Their security officer seeks revenge when a native kills and eats her husband.
  • Terry Carr, “The Dance of the Changer and the Three”: A negotiator back from a world of incomprehensible aliens translates one of their folk tales.
  • Samuel R. Delany, “Lines of Power” (a.k.a. “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line”): A utility crew tries to deliver electricity to one of the last unpowered places in North America. The locals aren’t enthused.
  • Damon Knight, “Masks”: A man whose brain was installed in an artificial body finds it’s having a bigger effect on his psychology than anticipated.
  • Anne McCaffrey, “Dragonrider” (Won the Nebula for Best Novella): The dragon riding people from last year’s “Weyr Search” are back. They fly around and argue a lot. Also, I guess they can time travel now?
  • Dean McLaughlin, “Hawk Among the Sparrows”: An American pilot in a modern fighter jet time travels back to World War I, without even using a dragon.
  • Robert Silverberg, “Nightwings” (Won the Hugo for Best Novella): In the far, far future, a man who’s spent his life watching for a long-prophesied alien invasion visits Rome.
  • Richard Wilson, “Mother to the World” (Won the Nebula for Best Novelette): Everyone dies except one man and one woman, and everything just gets creepy and weird.

This is not as bad a slate as we had for 1967. There are high points. (I recommend “Lines of Power,” “Nightwings,” and “The Dance of the Changer and the Three.”) But brace yourselves, because the lows get super low.

Hawks

We may as well start anywhere, so we may as well start with “Hawk Among the Sparrows.” This is the lackluster tale of an American Air Force pilot who accidentally flies back to the First World War in his modern fighter jet. He’s weirdly blasé; it’s like he’s wandered into a Subway when he meant to go to Burger King. The pilot works out clever ways to leverage his jet against the Germans without modern fuel or weapons. As the story ends he expects the war will be over in a month. The prose is perfunctory, the plot predictable, the story as a whole as boring as it could possibly be, but I think I know why it appealed to a certain audience.

Analog published “Hawk Among the Sparrows” in 1968. By this point if not everyone accepted the Vietnam War was unwinnable they at least knew it wasn’t ending anytime soon. North Vietnam was fighting the greatest military in the world to a stalemate, and that was not how it was supposed to work, dammit. “Hawk Among the Sparrows” is a hawk’s fantasy of how the war should have happened, with an under-equipped enemy falling in record time. America would spend the next few decades looking for an easy war to soothe its bruised ego.

I said last time the nominated stories didn’t engage with the war, but by this point SFF feels less comfortable with colonialist violence. “Nightwings” shows an invasion from the invaded people’s perspective. In “Total Environment” high-handed scientists experiment on nonwhite people. In “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” “Lines of Power,” and “The Sharing of Flesh” well-meaning people go into other cultures to trade with or “help” them and get in trouble when they won’t (or can’t) meet the locals on their own terms.

“The Sharing of Flesh” is an interesting case. Poul Anderson is a right-winger—you’ll recall he organized the pro-war petition in 1968. He believes in the Spaceman’s Burden: his crew has the ability and responsibility to help the benighted natives of Lokon. But even here there’s an unintentional ambivalence.

One strain of SFF is about contriving justifications for inhumanity. You must perform some cruelty, not because you’re evil but because, sadly, arbitrary and extremely unlikely circumstances have left you no choice. Like, normally smashing baby ducks with a crowbar is terrible, but what if these baby ducks were werewolves? Makes you think! The classic example is “The Cold Equations,” which invents an elaborately ludicrous rationale for its hero to throw a young woman out an airlock. The most popular modern version is the zombie apocalypse story, invariably an excuse to show its hero blowing the heads off an unreasoning mob with a shotgun.

“The Sharing of Flesh” is how this story looks from the wrong end. Evalyth is on an anthropological/humanitarian mission to the planet Lokon, where a guy named Moru kills her husband and makes off with his giblets. Investigating, she discovers a fact the expedition somehow managed to overlook: everyone on Lokon eats human organs as part of their coming-of-age ritual. (You know, one of those minor details.) Investigating further, she discovers the Lokonese have mutated and need hormones from those organs to mature. Moru fed Evalyth’s husband to his kids not because he’s an asshole but because, sadly, evolution has left him no choice. She gives up on revenge. It’s all very Dangerous Visions, except that book’s cannibal story (Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird”) was actually good.

Anderson has, probably without realizing it, written his heroes as overconfident and clueless. If they failed to notice the ritual cannibalism practiced everywhere on Lokon—and I’d note they’re so incurious about the local practice of slavery they haven’t noticed the slaves are being eaten—how seriously are they taking the people they claim to want to help?

Power

Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction containing Lines of Power

The best story in this year’s batch is, again, by Samuel R. Delany: “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” which The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published as “Lines of Power” because they were cowards. This is a story about power, and power—electrical power and political power. The first image is the memory of an accidental electrocution. You have to be careful with power. You lose control, you get zapped.

What’s fascinating and baffling about SFF awards is the gap—heck, the yawning chasm—in quality between stories on the same shortlists. Many are the work of writers who think a story is just a description of things happening, with a pat moral or simple metaphor to add spice. And then you have the real writers, like Delany, whose fiction has depth. “Lines of Power” explores a thematic space and creates resonance by iterating through different definitions of power and evolving its imagery throughout the story.

In the future, the entire world has been hooked up to a high-tech electric grid providing too-cheap-to-meter power. The narrator, who goes by the nickname “Blacky,”[1] works on a mobile cable-laying machine the size of an office building. He’s just been promoted to “section-devil”—the line workers are “devils” and “demons”—and is learning the ropes from his fellow section-devil and former boss, Mabel.

The law says anywhere people are living has to be hooked up to the grid. The Global Power Commission found people living in a place that isn’t. This is High Haven, an estate on the Canadian border. The residents aren’t interested in going online. This is not (as would be most writers’ first thought) because they’re a low-tech community like the Amish. The Havenites are a biker gang descended from the Hell’s Angels. For the Angels to accept this devilish temptation would mean admitting the GPC has power over them.

Blacky negotiates with Roger, the head of the community. The last boss was a violent bully and Roger got the position by beating him up and driving him away. Roger can’t let Blacky win the argument because he can’t show weakness. To back down is to abdicate. Power based on strength is brittle. And, wielded without care or subtlety, it’s liable to turn on the user the way Roger turned it back on his predecessor. When Blacky tells us Mabel doesn’t like to waste power, it could mean more than one thing.

As for the rights and wrongs of unilaterally barging in to hook up High Haven, the story doesn’t come to any conclusions. Blacky wants to leave the Angels alone. Mabel is determined to install the lines because that’s what the law requires. When the Angels flee she stands down: with no one living at High Haven, it legally doesn’t have to be on the grid. Power needs conduits, constraints. Mabel keeps her power in check by sticking to the rulebook.

Getting or Not Getting It

Richard Nixon wouldn’t use the phrase “silent majority” until late in 1969, but as Rick Perlstein documents in his book Nixonland he had for some time sold his political career on dividing ordinary Americans from an imagined un-American liberal elite. Perlstein argues the late sixties were the origin of the United States’ current irreconcilable political cultures, incompatible not only in values but in epistemologies. The Vietnam war dragged on; the now-regular protests made no difference, and neither the doves or the hawks were changing anyone’s minds. Politics were getting violent. During the summer of 1967 a wave of antiracist protests across the United States escalated into riots when the police showed up, and in 1968 there were more riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Meanwhile in the Hugos and Nebulas, our other big themes for 1969 are failures of understanding and irreconcilable differences. It feels like SFF is losing faith in people’s ability to understand each other.

Poul Anderson’s anthropologists miss basic facts about the Lokonese. The hero of “Total Environment” fears the people in the tower block and everyone outside are growing mutually incomprehensible. This is where “The Dance of the Changer and the Three” comes in. It’s good, and feels like Stanislaw Lem’s work. It is, first, a science-fictional folktale, a form Lem worked with in Mortal Engines and The Cyberiad. It also features really alien aliens. Like the planet Solaris and the aliens in Lem’s Eden and Fiasco, these are aliens we not only don’t, but can’t, understand.

The Loarra are energy beings. Every so often they “die” and re-coalesce as a new person. They’ve let a human expedition settle in to mine rare elements. (The Loarra are incorporeal, so I guess they’re not using them.) The narrator is the expedition’s public relations guy. He tells one of the Loarra’s oldest folktales, about three Loarra who create a new life form only to absorb it again. Then he tells us about the day the Loarra killed the miners, and afterward were as friendly as though nothing had happened, and couldn’t explain why. The reason was untranslatable.

Although there’s something just as alien closer to home. The survivors return to Earth and describe the situation to “Unicentral,” their computerized corporate overlord. They ask whether they should go back to Loarr. Unicentral can’t make up its mind. On the one hand there’s the risk to human lives. On the other, there’s money to be made. Like, a lot of money. The value of one is evenly balanced against the other. It’s possible the Loarra don’t understand what it means for humans to die. Unicentral doesn’t care.

Damon Knight’s “Masks” is about irreconcilable differences between human and machine. Jim is the first person to have his brain installed in an artificial body. His doctors worry he’s not adjusting—is he dreaming all right? Does he want a more expressive face? No, Jim’s problem is that, separated from his body, he’s lost every emotion but one. He’s grossed out. Organic life is leaky and squishy, and he can’t coexist with it. Knight’s writing is great, the ending has the force of a punch,[2] but “Masks” is thematically slight. There’s not much to it beyond Jim’s dissociation from humanity. It’s a familiar theme—not far off what Doctor Who had already done with the Cybermen. If you want more detail, Knight gives a close reading of his own story in the third edition of his book In Search of Wonder.

I said last time I wasn’t a fan of Robert Silverberg; I normally find his work fine but forgettable. But “Nightwings” is great—It feels colorful, like a Jack Vance story where not everyone is an asshole, and has real complexity. It’s about the gap between perception and reality, how we misunderstand what we see when we see it through our preconceptions. It’s thousands of years in the future and the narrator is a Watcher, a member of a guild watching the heavens for a long-anticipated alien invasion. He’s come to Rome (or “Roum”) for no particular reason. He suspects the invasion will never happen, that he’s wasted his life. The first time he sees the ships he dismisses them. They have to be his imagination.

The Watcher’s companions aren’t what they seem. He thinks the odd-looking Gormon is a human mutant, guildless and low-status in the eyes of society, though the Watcher respects him. But Gormon is something else entirely, and someone more powerful. Avluela is a Flier, a slight, winged human, and the Watcher thinks of her as a daughter. He describes her like she’s one of those old-fashioned science fictional ingénues who spend the whole story getting infantilized. But look past the Watcher’s narration and she’s making more of her own decisions than he realizes. (For one thing, he’s completely missed that she and Gormon are sleeping together.)

Avluela’s often the first person to ask important questions. When Gormon rattles off ancient Roman history she’s the one to ask “How are these things known?” Earth has forgotten its history. The guild of Rememberers have reconstructed parts, but there are still artifacts and ruins people see without understanding. When the aliens arrive the Watcher’s guild dissolves; their task is complete and there’s nothing left to Watch for. The Watcher leaves Rome intending to join the Rememberers. Depending on how you want to read the story, this could mean Earth no longer has a future to watch for. Or it may mean the Watcher can still learn to understand.

What the Hell, SFF?

I said 1968 was not a good year for short fiction. Here’s where I explain why. Only three stories are worse than “Hawk Among the Sparrows,” but they really bring the average down.

Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” is the sequel to last year’s “Weyr Search.” It picks up some time after the last story. I get the impression the events between might be included in the novel version. From what I gather F’Lar and Lessa’s dragons mated, and sort of mind-controlled F’Lar and Lessa into also mating, and now they’re dragon-shotgun-married and sleeping together even though they hate each other? F’Lar is constantly shaking Lessa, like Homer Simpson is always strangling Bart. Incredibly, this is not the creepiest sexual relationship we’ll see in this batch of stories.

Anyway, F’Lar and Lessa spend “Dragonrider” bickering and solving problems the dragon riders really should have figured out ages ago, like how to hold a dragon-bonding ceremony without the newly hatched dragons inadvertently eviscerating half the candidates. Lessa accidentally discovers dragons can time travel, which I guess the dragons had forgotten to mention. This is lucky, because the dragon riders are understaffed and now they can get more dragons from the good old days when dragon riding was cool. Like “Hawk Among the Sparrows,” this story thinks life would be better if we could go backwards. Also, McCaffrey’s prose has not gotten less clunky. Somehow this won a Nebula over the Delany, and I have questions.

Before starting this reading project the only Brian Aldiss I’d read was Billion Year Spree, his history of science fiction. Two stories in, I look upon his work with weary dread. “Total Environment” is a story about India written by a white British guy in the sixties. I’ll say this for it: it’s not as racist as “The Eskimo Invasion.” This is not the same thing as not racist.

25 years ago United Nations scientists sealed 1,500 Indians into a giant tower block called the Total Environment. (All volunteers; there was a famine at the time and the UN shovels in enough food for everyone.) In that time four generations have been born and the population has ballooned to 75,000. This is meant to encourage psychic powers. “High-density populations with reasonable nutritional standards develop particular nervous instabilities which may be akin to ESP spectra,” explains an alleged scientist.

As the Total Environment got more crowded it went all Lord of the Flies. Life spans dropped; people are middle aged at 20. Criminal bosses run each floor and fight wars with each other. People are kidnapped into slavery. There’s a lot of talk about rape and mentions of incest. No one tries to escape and no one even thinks about the outside world. “Hinduism had been put to the test here and had shown its terrifying strengths and weaknesses,” we’re told. “In these mazes, people had not broken under deadly conditions—nor had they thought to break away from their destiny. Dharma—duty—had been stronger than humanity.” It’s because they’re foreign, don’t ya know.

Aldiss’ hero, Thomas Dixit, is Anglo-Indian. The story defines his character by the Anglo part. He’s afraid four generations of separation are turning the Environment’s inhabitants alien. On the surface, “Total Environment” implies anybody dumped into the Total Environment would evolve into psychic weirdos. Everyone instinctively looks for new horizons. If they’re prevented from looking outward they’ll look inward, into the very small and into their own minds. But the details are racially coded and their powers are depicted with a hefty dose of orientalism. The power we get to see is the ability to kill remotely, and the story tells us “It had long been known that African witch doctors possessed similar talents, to lay a spell on a man and kill him at a distance; but how they did it had never been established; nor, indeed, had the fact ever been properly assimilated by the west, eager though the west was for new methods of killing.”

When Dixit visits the Total Environment, the inhabitants plead to be left alone like they’re pleading with a colonizer: “Tell them to go away and leave us and let us make our own world. Forget us! That is my message! Take it! Deliver it with all the strength you have! This is our world—not yours!” Dixit argues for ending the project, whatever they think. And he may be right—the Total Environment is not indefinitely sustainable. But like Rudyard Kipling, who uses the phrase “Half devil and half child” in “The White Man’s Burden,” Dixit doesn’t think of these people as adults. Speaking of a local boss who sees advantages in allying with the outside world, Dixit says “He exhibited facets of his culture to me to ascertain my reactions—testing for approval or disapproval, I’d guess, like a child.” Like “The Sharing of Flesh,” “Total Environment” has twinges of unease but comes down in favor of paternalism—as long as it’s of the right sort.

Finally we come to the story that won the Nebula for Best Novelette, Richard Wilson’s “Mother to the World.”

Oh dear.

Some stories are unjustly forgotten. “Mother to the World” is forgotten because everyone is politely not talking about it. I don’t often use the primarily moral approach to criticism, where you decide a book’s value by tallying up how it is or is not problematic. It’s usually not the most interesting or enlightening lens through which to view a story. But sometimes a story’s values are the only reasonable place to begin, and here’s one of those cases. “Mother to the World” is deranged.

It’s an Adam and Eve story. The entire human race has died and one man and one woman are left. See, what happened was China released a biological weapon that reduces human beings to powder, and… uh, the wind blew it back in their faces. (Really.) Anyway, there are no corpses to deal with. Martin Rolfe, an editor, and Siss, a housekeeper, survived because they were staying at a NASA scientist’s house. The only unused rooms were environmentally sealed rooms with their own air supplies. And… the people dissolver spread all over the world in a few hours, then went inert, I guess? None of this bears thinking about, but at least it doesn’t bear thinking about because it’s silly and not because it’s offensive. This can’t be said for the rest of the story.

Remember the Cold Equations stories? The ones that contrive farfetched situations forcing the protagonist to do something awful that is somehow not their fault? Adam and Eve stories are almost always Cold Equations stories. It’s generally a dude asking “What if a woman was, like, morally obligated to sleep with me?” “Mother to the World” is one of these. Richard Wilson’s unique twist is that Siss is mentally handicapped and has “the mentality of an eight-year-old.”

At this point you’re probably asking “does he really go there?” The answer is yes. Yes, he does. Which raises all kinds of questions about consent and relative power, which the story doesn’t attempt to answer because it didn’t notice it raised them.

When I read fiction my standard policy is to assume the writer means well. If I try very hard I can sort of guess what Wilson was going for here. Early in the story Rolfe tells himself he’s more valuable than Siss because “he was smarter than she was and therefore more worth saving.” And I think Wilson’s intent was that Rolfe learns Siss’ value as a human being does not depend on her IQ, and Siss teaches Rolfe the meaning of love. (The story ends with their son asking “Is this what love is?”) If so, it doesn’t work.

This story can’t get past the fact that its central relationship is wildly, creepily imbalanced. To be fair, Siss often comes off less like a person with literally “the mentality of an eight-year-old” and more like a naïve and poorly educated but still functional adult. But she has a go-along-to-get-along personality and at no point is she an equal partner in this relationship, which slips creepily from guardian-and-ward to marriage. The story contrives to give Rolfe a relationship in which he’s completely dominant and gets to make all the decisions.

On the prose level “Mother to the World” is actually well written. There are vivid images and observations: “Several times he found a car which had been run up upon from behind by another. It was as if, knowing they would never again be manufactured, they were trying copulation.” The story has its own voice distinct from its characters; it’s able to switch registers when it quotes Rolfe’s journals. In places the prose rises to the lyrical, and the story manages to feel intermittently mythic without being at all overblown.

But this story’s values are alien. It kept tripping me up with its weird assumptions. Like, at one point Rolfe is planning how to keep his proposed family clothed (which doesn’t seem like a problem given the vast stocks of clothing that won’t be wearing out anytime soon). He jumps to the conclusion that “Nudity might be more practical, as well as healthier.” Um, okay, dude, you do you. And there’s the moment Rolfe tells his son if he ever has to choose between saving his father or his mother he should save his mother, because…

At this point you are probably again asking “does he really go there?” And, people, I have learned two things about Richard Wilson:

  1. In his day job, he was director of the news bureau for Syracuse University.
  2. “There” is a place he was always willing to go.

“Mother to the World” is rarely reprinted, for reasons I hope are obvious. [3] I’ve rarely read a story so oblivious to how uncomfortably weird it is. It feels like Richard Wilson thought he’d written an uplifting parable about love and valuing other human beings, and was blissfully unaware it was a total creepfest.

The danger of writing characters who fail to comprehend each other is that their writers may fail to comprehend them themselves. Brian Aldiss thinks of the Indian inhabitants of the Total Environment as alien, like the Loarra. He writes according to his surface preconceptions about how an “Indian” society should look, with holy men and universal fatalism (nobody is interested in the outside?) instead of rendering them in their full complexity. Richard Wilson wants to understand Siss but fails, so fails to realize her relationship raises thorny questions of power and consent. Aldiss and Wilson haven’t thought through these characters or gotten into their heads. They’re not supporting characters, they’re props.

At least it didn’t take many votes to put “Mother to the World” in first place. I was looking for references to the story on Google Books and found an excerpt from The Business of Science Fiction by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg. Malzberg was nominated for “Final War” (as K. M. O’Donnell) that year. He explains the Science Fiction Writers of America was a small organization in the 1960s and the Nebulas used a first-past-the-post voting system, so it took very few votes to win. “Mother to the World” took the trophy with 19 votes. So only 19 people thought the creepy Adam and Eve story was the best Novelette of the year.

But, honestly, that’s 19 too many. And it was nominated for both awards, as was “Total Environment.” And I wonder: are SFF shortlists any better now, or is 21st century SFF just strange in ways that aren’t obvious to us? Which of today’s Hugo and Nebula nominees will make tomorrow’s readers feel weird and uncomfortable?


  1. The line workers get along great. The one odd note is that they keep reminding Blacky he’s Black, even giving him, y’know, that nickname. Maybe Delany thought the readers wouldn’t notice Blacky was Black unless he really hit them over the heads with it.  ↩

  2. If you need to know whether the dog dies, this is not the story for you.  ↩

  3. To get hold of it I bought a used copy of Nebula Award Stories 4, which includes a few other rarely-reprinted stories so wasn’t a bad deal.  ↩

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1968

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

Last time, in 1967, we saw the SFF world give awards to aesthetically and politically conservative stories. But the New Wave hadn’t gone anywhere. In his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” Samuel R. Delany recalls at the following year’s Nebula awards an “eminent member of SFWA” gave a speech fulminating against “pretentious literary nonsense.” (The proximate cause of the speech was apparently Delany’s Nebula-nominated The Einstein Intersection, which the speaker had heard described but had not read; when he did he was taken aback to discover he liked it.) There’s still a tug-of-war between SFF’s pulp roots and its avant garde, and we’re about to see the rope pulled back in the other direction in the awards of:

1968

In 1968, four novels scored nominations for both the Hugos and the Nebulas: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Piers Anthony’s Chthon, and Robert Silverberg’s Thorns. The Delany won the Nebula and the Zelazny won the Hugo. Those two novels are still remembered and read; the other two not so much.

These are the short stories, novellas, and novelettes nominated for both awards:

  • Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah” (Won the Nebula for Best Short Story): An astronaut between trips doesn’t quite connect with a woman.
  • Harlan Ellison, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”: A gambler encounters a slot machine possessed by a woman who died playing it, who promises him jackpots.
  • Philip José Farmer, “Riders of the Purple Wage” (Tied for the Hugo for Best Novella): An artist prepares for his latest exhibition in an age of universal basic income. Puns ensue.
  • Fritz Leiber, “Gonna Roll the Bones” (Won both the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novelette): A gambler gets into a high stakes craps game, bites off more than he can chew, and barely escapes with his skin.
  • Anne McCaffrey, “Weyr Search” (Tied for the Hugo for Best Novella): On a medieval planet, dragon riders visit a castle looking for more people to ride dragons.
  • Robert Silverberg, “Hawksbill Station”: A few days in the life of political prisoners marooned in the Cambrian era by a time-traveling government.

The big theme for 1968 is Dangerous Visions. This was a massive anthology edited by Harlan Ellison (the author of “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman”). “Aye, and Gomorrah,” “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and “Gonna Roll the Bones” were first published there. All three won at least one award. “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” was published elsewhere but written by Ellison, the anthology’s editor and chief creative influence, so it shares a sensibility. Three more stories from Dangerous Visions received either Hugo or Nebula nominations. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” and Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” turned up on the Hugo ballot, and a Nebula nomination (bizarrely) went to Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Before I get into Dangerous Visions, though, let’s deal with the two stories about which I have the least to say: “Weyr Search” and “Hawksbill Station.”

Safe Visions

It says nothing good about the SFF world in the sixties that, three posts in, Anne McCaffrey is only the first woman we’ve covered. One of her stories will fall into our Venn diagram for three years straight; then she drops out of the story. Why everyone was briefly excited over McCaffrey isn’t clear. “Weyr Search” is a pulp adventure story indistinguishable in quality or style from any number of others now forgotten. The prose is bland and sometimes descends into clumsiness. (“This, then, is a tale of legends disbelieved and their restoration. Yet—how goes a legend? When is myth?” When is myth what?) Characters have names like F’Lar, F’Nor, and Fax. I assume “Weyr Search” stood out because in the sixties there weren’t many stories for dragon lovers—as discussed last time, this is another epic fantasy under a science fiction veneer. It’s technically also a story with a female protagonist—again, rare in 1968—but in practice most of the story is told from the POV of F’Lar (or was it F’Nor?).

We’re going to be seeing a lot of Robert Silverberg for a while. At any given time a few writers show up on SFF awards lists over and over for several years, after which they drop off for new favorites.[1] We’re already seeing Harlan Ellison come up a lot; future favorites will include George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Connie Willis, and Mike Resnick. Here I’ll admit my biases: Ellison’s fine, but these are usually writers I’m not into. It feels like they please crowds not because their stories are great, but because there’s nothing in them to put anyone off. They’re not bad, just beige. Their work feels like a rainy Sunday morning when someone is watching a fishing program on TV in the next room. Silverberg is one of those.

“Hawksbill Station” is a perfectly good story. It’s a solid character piece with no real flaws. Silverberg writes good prose. It just feels a bit thin. The first thing we read is “Barrett was the uncrowned King of Hawksbill Station.” When he learns he could return to the future but chooses to stay, nothing about his decision is a surprise. Silverberg later expanded “Hawksbill Station” into a novel and it may have made Barrett’s motives more complex, but in the novella it just feels like he wants to be a big trilobite in a small pond.

Cover of Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions

So, Dangerous Visions. Like I said, this was a big deal. Partly this is because non-reprint anthologies were unusual at the time (although by this point Damon Knight’s series Orbit had started up), and this was a big one full of major writers. But Ellison had bigger ambitions: He kicks off the book by proclaiming “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution.” Ellison was prone to hyperbole the way fish are prone to swimming, but he really was taking this seriously: he sunk $2700 of his own money into the project (according the online inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over $20,000 today) and borrowed another $750 from Larry Niven.

So what was revolutionary about Dangerous Visions? Ellison had a couple of goals. One was to publish strong and even experimental writing styles in a genre that too often defaulted to “transparent prose.” The other was there in the title: Ellison wanted “dangerous,” taboo-breaking stories. In his introduction Ellison argues a SFF writer’s work is “precensored even before he writes it” because most editors started as fans, and deep down in their subconscious what they really wanted was stuff like the stories they grew up with. So they wouldn’t buy literary styles, or stories with sex or (certain kinds of) politics. Ellison wanted radical stories. Stories that tore walls down and busted doors open. Stories no one else would buy because they were too mind-blowing.

How this worked out in practice…

Secretions

One way to asses the strengths and weaknesses of Dangerous Visions might be to look at “Riders of the Purple Wage.” Of all the stories in Dangerous Visions, “Riders” is both the longest and the most… well, the most.

At one point in “Riders” an art critic declares “every artist, great or not, produces art that is, first, secretion, unique to himself, then excretion. Excretion in the original sense of ”˜sifting out.’ … The valor comes from the courage of the artist in showing his inner products to the public.” And man is Philip Jose Farmer not afraid to show us his inner products. He’s one of those SFF writers who feel like outsider artists. I’ve read the Riverworld series and the first of his World of Tiers books. In the former he excitedly plays with historical figures like a kid smashing his action figures together; the latter feels like he brain-dumped his weirdest daydreams onto the page. Whatever else I think of Farmer’s writing, I have to admit he writes what he damn well pleases.

“Riders” follows Chib Winnegan as he prepares his latest painting for an exhibition. It’s 2166 and most people live on a universal basic income, the “purple wage.” Meanwhile, Chib’s Heinleinesque great-grandfather watches the world through a periscope and editorializes. As an exercise in style, it’s amazing. It’s a delirious slapstick picaresque, fast-paced and as packed with baroque detail as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It’s in love with wordplay: there’s a pun every few lines. For several pages a psychiatrist analyzes Chib and his artists’ group, the Young Radishes, through etymological free-association. Farmer is no James Joyce but he’s under Joyce’s influence here, as acknowledged in the story’s climactic pun. Focus on the prose, grab hold of form and let content go, and parts of “Riders” are enormous fun.

That content, though. Farmer opens with an off-putting sex dream in which Chib imagines himself as a giant phallus. If you make it through this first chapter you’ll find it sets the tone. Chib’s mother is enormously fat and it’s a cue to read her as a grotesque. One of her friends urinates in her living room because the “sprayers” will clean it up. White dropouts change their names and live in the forests as pretend Native Americans. 22nd century Earth has legalized incest. One allegedly “funny” scene involves a sexual assault and the discharge of an entire can of spermicidal foam in someone’s living room. This was the first time I’d read “Riders”—I read a lot of Dangerous Visions years ago, but not every story—and I cringed on every page. This isn’t just values dissonance between a fifty year old story and my 21st century sensibilities. Farmer is out to shock.

Here’s something else that happened in early 1968, around the time SFF fans and writers were deciding what stories from 1967 were most award-worthy: The first issue of Zap Comix came out.

Zap kicked off the underground comics movement. It wasn’t the first underground comic (that was probably Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus, although some online histories cite Jack Jackson’s God Nose). But Zap was the most famous and most of what was to come was either modeled on or reacting against it. If you’re not familiar with underground comics, first recall that in the sixties comics were aimed at children and their content was governed by the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a Hays Code for comics, private self-censorship guidelines instituted by comics publishers hoping to dodge government censorship after Congress freaked out over E.C.’s gory horror comics. The undergrounds were small-press satirical comics aimed at adults and not bound by the CCA. They tended towards the surreal and often threw rapid-fire random crap together like Farmer in “Riders of the Purple Wage.” In the pages of Zap, cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, and S. Clay Wilson could express themselves freely and explore any themes they chose.

The results… well, Jeff Goldblum has a line in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” If you can focus on style and ignore the content, a lot of Zap is amazing to look at. I love Moscoso’s style and Crumb’s draftsmanship skills are genuinely great. But you can’t ignore the content. The underground cartoonists were so drunk with the opportunity to draw anything they plunged right into drawing the most taboo-breaking things they could come up with. And breaking taboos, it turns out, is not inherently courageous. Mostly the underground cartoonists drew images they should never have let out of their heads: racist caricatures, creepy sex, huge genitals, sadistic violence, and misogyny. So much misogyny. If you have any taste at all, Zap is unreadable.

Dangerous Visions is science fiction’s underground comics. Not that it’s unreadable. Some of these stories are good. Some are real classics, including “Faith of Our Fathers” and “Aye, and Gomorrah.” But where Dangerous Visions fails, it fails like Zap. We’ve already discussed Farmer’s story. Ellison’s own story described killings by Jack the Ripper in too much detail. Robert Silverberg wrote about an astronaut torturing his old girlfriends. Miriam Allen deFord’s “The Malley System” is little more than an excuse to describe brutal murders from the murderers’ perspectives. Henry Slesar’s “Ersatz” is a joke with a transphobic punchline. The prize for most inadvisable story has to go to Theodore Sturgeon, who must have taken Ellison’s invitation as a challenge to come up with the worst thing he could think of. This was the incest-promoting “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister,” a story utterly inexplicable except maybe as the most tasteless possible parody of Robert Heinlein in lecture mode.[2]

Invited to write “dangerously,” writers defaulted to “edgy”—Unpleasant sex! Gore! Cannibalism! Misogyny! Also, maybe religion is bad! Am I blowing your tiny minds? There weren’t many actual taboos in SFF by the late sixties. Most of the ones Dangerous Visions could find were taboos for good reason—say, the taboo against starting a story with a giant slithering penis, which was just saving writers from themselves. The taboos that need busting aren’t the ones that make people say “eww, yuck” when you break them. They’re the thoughts you don’t notice you’re not thinking. For instance, let’s return to the Samuel R. Delany essay I linked at the top of the post and look at something else that happened to Delany in 1968:

"Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.

[…]

It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket. (In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it… .) Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry… . "

Among the things you didn’t see much of in sixties SF—even the progressive kind—were stories that didn’t treat whiteness as the default state of humanity, and stories about worlds without misogyny.[3] But it didn’t occur to anyone that these were taboos, or that they could break them. Dangerous Visions wasn’t dangerous in any way that mattered.

And Yet: Style!

On the other hand, that goal of publishing stories with style? Complete success. The best stories in Dangerous Visions (and they’re generally the least taboo-breaking stories) are just fun to read. Take “Gonna Roll the Bones,” which begins like it’s exploding:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

There’s a rhythm running all the way through the story, spiced with long sentences patched together with commas and conjunctions that seem to tumble to a stop like rolling dice: “Then he threw back his shoulders and grinned his lips sneeringly and pushed through the swinging doors as if giving a foe the straight-armed heel of his palm.” “As Joe lowered his gaze all the way and looked directly down, his eyes barely over the table, he got the crazy notion that it went down all the way through the world, so that the diamonds were the stars on the other side, visible despite the sunlight there, just as Joe was always able to see the stars by day up the shaft of the mine he worked in, and so that if a cleaned-out gambler, dizzy with defeat, toppled forward into it, he’d fall forever, toward the bottommost bottom, be it Hell or some black galaxy.” It’s propulsive, like the story is pushing you forwards, and hard not to keep reading. Fritz Leiber modeled “Gonna Roll the Bones” on tall tales and the narration sounds like a storyteller, a rough one who rambles a bit and can’t get the words out fast enough when he’s excited.

Interestingly, “Gonna Roll the Bones” looks almost exactly like the American south in the early 20th century but casually mentions spaceships as just a normal thing. Like “Weyr Search” or last year’s “The Last Castle,” this is another future that looks like the past—but it feels odder, because it’s not emulating a Tolkien-style fantasy world. It’s like Lieber wasn’t sure a Twilight Zone-style story would fit Dangerous Visions without a science fiction veneer.

You’ll excuse me if I bring “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” in here. Again, this is not a Dangerous Visions story, but it’s an Ellison story and feels of a piece with his editing work. And, like “Gonna Roll the Bones,” this is another story about a gambler in over his head, which after Dangerous Visions itself is the most obvious thematic link between any of these six stories. It’s written in multiple styles, straight third person for present-day scenes, fast-moving, impressionistic italics when it flashes back to Maggie’s biography. As this strand closes in on Maggie’s death it dips into her stream of consciousness, putting us directly in her head. For a page the story turns into concrete poetry: a short funnel of text, then sentence fragments broken by black bars like pinball bumpers, falling into to a cramped text box as the machine traps her soul.

In “Bones” gambling is risk-taking; in “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” it’s addiction, obsession. Our protagonist, Kostner, watches a fellow gambler mechanically feed coin after coin into the slots, “almost automated.” She animates only to glare at a winner; she’s gambling to fill some hole—maybe chasing the freedom money brings—and resents the winner having something she can’t. Mediocre SFF often doesn’t try to set up patterns of imagery. “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” is one model of how to do it. Kostner gets more numb the more he wins. The pit boss’s grin is “conditioned reflexes,” the floor manager’s eyes “held nothing of light,” the casino owner’s smile seems “stamped on him.” Maggie is “An operable woman, a working mechanism,” she’s objectified in that men treat her as their object, in the sense of an objective. A goal, a prize. Las Vegas is part of a system that reduces everyone it touches to things, machines for wanting.

In the section on underground comics I mentioned there’s an undercurrent of misogyny running under some of these stories and it’s detectible in “Gonna Roll the Bones” and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” But in each story it’s of a different kind. In “Gonna Roll the Bones,” the misogyny is Joe’s; the narrative just doesn’t judge it because it’s in his head. This is a point contemporary readers might stumble over. These days SFF fans expect protagonists to be heroes, characters to identify with. Outside of SFF, that’s not always how it works. Joe’s an abusive lout; we don’t identify with him, we’re just interested in him. Specifically, we’re interested in seeing him humbled. Which he is—Joe’s in a good mood as the story ends but he’s not in the mood to go home, which from his wife’s perspective has got to be a win.

The problem is “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” has a touch of misogyny running not through a character but through the story itself. I think it’s unintentional. The story flashes back to Maggie’s life and into her head because it wants us to know she doesn’t act out of malice, just self-defense. Men have not been her allies. But it also relays Maggie’s life with more than a hint of condescension (“operable,” a “mechanism”), and in the end, with Kostner taking Maggie’s place in the machine, this is the story of a hapless schlub stabbed in the back by a seductive femme fatale. This story has empathy for Maggie, but parts of it push back against the work it does to humanize her.

Don’t Mention the War

In June of 1968 a pair of ads appeared on facing pages of Galaxy magazine. One read “We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country,” followed by a list of names that included Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and John W. Campbell. The other read “We oppose the participation of the United States in the War in Vietnam,” followed by a list including Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Kate Wilhelm and Judith Merril organized the anti-war petition; Poul Anderson put the pro-war petition together in response.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First, the anti-war side has an infinitely better pool of writers. It includes not only almost all our award nominees (Anne McCaffrey didn’t sign either statement) but other great writers both famous (Ray Bradbury, Peter Beagle) and underrated (Margaret St. Clair, Sonya Dorman.) The only serious talent on the other side is R. A. Lafferty.[4]

More relevantly, the Vietnam war was by this point arguably the most all-consuming political issue in the United States, and SFF writers were as engaged with it as anyone else. So it’s interesting the double-nominated stories that year… well, aren’t. Maybe the two sides cancelled each other out in voting?

“Hawksbill Station” feels political but the politics are background scenery in a story about something else. Here we have communists imprisoned by a right-wing government, but you could tell the same story with the roles reversed. Being heavily into feudalism is about as far as the politics of “Weyr Search” go. “Aye, and Gomorrah” wants to broaden SFF fans’ outlook on gender and sexuality, and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” touches on capitalism and inequality.

The most topical story is “Riders of the Purple Wage,” though the current event Farmer is riffing off of has been forgotten. In 1964 a group of activists and academics calling themselves “The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” wrote a memo called “The Triple Revolution,” which they sent to President Lyndon Johnson. The committee was concerned with nuclear proliferation and civil rights, but the main thrust of the memo was about what they called the “Cybernation Revolution.” They believed increased automation would lead to increased unemployment or underemployment, and serious economic inequality (and, honestly, I can’t say they were wrong). The committee had immediate suggestions for dealing with this but their long-term hope was that the U.S. would institute what we now call a universal basic income.

It’s not clear whether Johnson ever got the memo, but it impressed Philip Jose Farmer. In his Dangerous Visions afterward Farmer enthuses, “this document may be a dating point for historians, a convenient pinpointing to indicate when the new era of ‘planned societies’ began. It may take a place alongside such important documents as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Communist Manifesto, etc.” In his guest of honor speech at the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention, Farmer even called on fans to form a nonprofit organization, to be called REAP, to promote the aims of the Triple Revolution committee, pointing out that earlier that year fans had organized to keep Star Trek on the air.[5] He was disappointed when no one took him up on the offer.

But the story’s politics are muddled. Farmer agrees a basic income would be a good idea. At the same time, “Riders of the Purple Wage” argues most people don’t have great unrealized talents: “They believed that all men have equal potentialities in developing artistic tendencies, that all could busy themselves with arts, crafts, and hobbies or education for education’s sake. They wouldn’t face the ”˜undemocratic’ reality that only about ten per cent of the population—if that—are inherently capable of producing anything worth while, or even mildly interesting, in the arts.” Most people in Farmer’s story sit around watching TV. Farmer can’t quite imagine a science fiction story without someone to sneer at.

“Aye, and Gomorrah”

The one story we haven’t touched on is “Aye, and Gomorrah.” I first came across it in David G. Hartwell’s World Treasury of Science Fiction.[6] I was 12. I don’t recall my reaction to “Aye, and Gomorrah” but I’m sure I didn’t understand a word of it.

Its first words are “And came down in Paris,” and anytime the first word of a story is “And” you know you’re starting in the middle of something that’s been going on a while. Scenes are punctuated by regular repetitions of “And went up” and “And came down,” and the story ends in an “And went up” to match the initial descent. This is a regular pattern in the narrator’s life, and it feels circular.

We’re dropped in without context. A common worldbuilding technique in SFF is to avoid directly explaining the world, instead writing from an in-world perspective and letting the reader piece it together from the clues. “Aye, and Gomorrah” uses this tactic but doesn’t give us enough information to orient ourselves until mid-story—we’re off balance, out of our element, just as the narrator is out of their element on Earth. They’re a Spacer, an astronaut, and Spacers are something apart: people dismiss them with an oddly ritualistic “Don’t you… people think you should leave,” pausing like they need to search for the word people.

The narrator meets a gay man in France, and he thinks they might once have been a man. They meet a prostitute in Mexico, and she thinks they might once have been a woman. They are apparently neither. They ask both man and woman whether they’re a “frelk.” Spacers have frelks on the brain. Is this person a frelk? How about those guys? Where are the frelks? In Istanbul the narrator meets a frelk and their conversation gives us the context we were missing. In space radiation does a number on your gonads, so Spacers are neutered; this leaves them asexual and they’re considered non-gendered. “Frelk” is slang for people attracted to Spacers. They’re attracted to people who won’t be attracted back in the same way. Most Frelks pick up Spacers surreptitiously and pay for their favors.

Samuel R. Delany is a gay man in the late sixties writing about people whose affections and gender identities aren’t recognized as legitimate. He’s communicating the feel of this by translating it into a situation less threatening to an audience immersed in casual homophobia. Something that’s worth noting here—and I’m not at all the first person to notice this, see for example this post at the British Science Fiction Association’s blog Vector—is how the frelk decorates her apartment: “Marsscapes! Moonscapes! On her easel was a six-foot canvas showing the sunrise flaring on a crater’s rim! There were copies of the original Observer pictures of the moon pinned to the wall, and pictures of every smooth-faced general in the International Spacer Corps.” If science fiction readers responded to “Aye, and Gomorrah,” maybe it’s partly because it treats SF fandom as a sexuality.

More broadly, this is also a story about two people failing to connect. The frelk wants to make a real emotional bond with the Spacer but she’s also exoticizing them (“You spin in the sky, the world spins under you, and you step from land to land”). She can’t make a real connection to a romanticized version of the person she’s trying to connect with. And the Spacer refuses to believe the frelk might not see this relationship as transactional. And it’s all depicted with empathy for both sides.

That’s what makes “Aye, and Gomorrah” a classic. It’s a story of miscommunication and awkwardness, but written with compassion and genuine affection for humanity. Delany actually seems to like people. “Aye, and Gomorrah” is the last story in Dangerous Visions and coming after a volume of cynical, often edgy stories this is especially striking. Heck, it’s striking compared to most SFF. Science fiction and fantasy writers like adventure stories, and adventures need villains; it’s a rare SFF story that doesn’t include a character it wants the reader to look down on. It’s great to end this essay on a story that just feels kind.


  1. This is particularly true for the Hugos, which at any given time have a couple of writers who show up every year regardless of whether they’re doing their best work.  ↩

  2. This story’s Nebula nomination is as inexcusable as “The Eskimo Invasion.” It’s not even a skillfully written offensive story—it’s a long, boring monologue that eventually collapses into a lecture. What was going on at the Science Fiction Writers of America in the sixties?  ↩

  3. What our taboos are today is debatable but I’d suggest that modern readers don’t deal well with ambiguity, and as publishers consolidate into corporate entertainment empires they’re less and less likely to publish work that isn’t cinematic and can’t easily be sold as a Netflix series.  ↩

  4. Lafferty was apparently rather conservative, although this rarely comes out in his stories.  ↩

  5. With some searching I found an old fanzine online with the full text of the speech.  ↩

  6. This was a pretty amazing anthology that shaped my taste in science fiction. It had the usual 1980s problem where the editor failed to seek out stories by women, but on the plus side he did publish stories from outside typical genre SF including many translated stories. This was the book that introduced me to Borges.  ↩